Reed Farrel Coleman: The WHERE IT HURTS Interview
A STORY OF FIRSTS
An Interview with Reed Farrel Coleman
I attended my first Bouchercon in Cleveland in the fall of 2012, in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The first author I met, thanks to my friend Jen Forbus (Jen’s Book Thoughts), was Reed Farrel Coleman.
I saw Reed again the next year in Wisconsin, at my first Murder & Mayhem. Another first for me came at Murder & Mayhem 2015, when I filled in at the last minute as the moderator of a panel, “On The Kill”. On the panel was, you guessed it, Reed.
At Murder & Mayhem, I picked up a copy of Reed’s newest book, WHERE IT HURTS (Putnam, January 2016) to review for Crimespree Magazine. I thought it would only be appropriate to continue my series of firsts with Reed, and decided to try my first author interview. And to make it even clearer that this was the way to go, WHERE IT HURTS is the first in a series featuring Gus Murphy, a retired Suffolk County Police Officer.
George Lichman: Your Moe Prager series was set in New York City. WHERE IT HURTS is set on Long Island, which is much less well known than the NYC. I enjoyed the Long Island setting and felt I got an idea about that area. Is there any reason you changed the setting from NYC to Long Island?
Reed Farrel Coleman: There are a few reasons. For one, I’ve now actually lived on Long Island longer than I lived in Brooklyn. Hence I’m more familiar with the pulse of Long Island, specifically Suffolk County, than with the city’s. Second, it’s territory that’s pretty fresh compared to novels set in NYC. Putnam, my publisher, really liked that angle. It’s of NY but not of the city and the contrast between the two is always interesting.
GL: Did you want to bring attention to Long Island/Suffolk County, to show there is more to it than the Hamptons and Gold Coast?
RFC: Absolutely. Everyone who’s read a book, seen a movie, or has a TV only knows the “fancy” parts of Long Island, but the Hamptons, the Gold Coast, are the exceptions not the norm. Most Long Islanders struggle with the same things everyone else does, but with some eccentricities peculiar to Long Island.
GL: What different approach or research did you have to get the differences in policing and crime right between NYC and Long Island?
RFC: Well, policing is a different animal out here in Suffolk County. I have many friends who are on the job in Suffolk, some of whom worked on the NYPD first. So, of course, I listen to them and take in what they have to say about the differences. Second, the SCPD is one of the, if not the, highest paid police force in the United States. This creates all sorts of friction with the citizenry, other uniformed services, and, oddly enough, the teachers union. But the best research I ever did was during my many years driving a home heating oil delivery truck. That’s right, I had a CDL class B, hazardous materials driver’s license. How many Edgar nominees can make that claim? Seriously, while driving, I saw the ugly parts of Suffolk County, the dangerous parts, the poor parts: poor white, poor Hispanic, poor African-American. These are the areas you never know exist unless you’re a cop or do the kind of work I did. These are the places where some people had to choose between heat and food in the winter. Places that couldn’t get their streets plowed. I loved writing this book because I got to explore those issues.
GL: Wow…highest paid police in the country…maybe I should consider relocating!
Character development has got to be one of the most difficult tasks in fiction, particularly in dark crime fiction; readers often expect it to move quickly. Your development of protagonist Gus Murphy, both in his depression and rebirth, was very good.
What special efforts, if any, do you take in character development?
RFC: I build my characters from the inside out and am completely unafraid to plumb the darkest depths of my own emotional experiences to supply my characters with real emotion. Writing takes a toll on me because I try to feel what my characters are feeling as they experience what they experience. I also see them as real people, not convenient constructs. Gus Murphy is as alive to me when I’m writing him as my wife or my kids. He lives in me. But that is no less true than for the other characters in the book. I hear their voices. I feel what they feel. I speak what they would say. And there are no such things as minor characters for me. For the second she is “on screen”, the waitress delivering coffee to Gus and Bill is as real and has as much of an internal life as either Gus or Bill.
GL: What, if anything, do you do to balance the development of your protagonist with keeping the plot entertaining and quickly moving forward?
RFC: I used to scoff at plot and think it was all about character. I learned that was wrong after my first two novels and have made a concerted effort since to make the plots engaging and twisty to keep the reader turning the pages. I have come to believe that my first job is entertainment and storytelling. But interesting, engaging characters are as important to that as plot. So I am always conscious of keeping the balance and moving the story along.
GL: Did you intend for this to be a character driven story from the beginning? Or did you intend to write a crime fiction thriller and in the process created a very dynamic character?
RFC: It isn’t either or for me. I start with a character because even the best action packed plot without a great central character is nowhere. So I had Gus figured out first, but then the plot bloomed once I had Gus in mind.
GL: It is my understanding that WHERE IT HURTS will be the beginning of a series featuring Gus Murphy. What’s in store for Gus in the future?
RFC: The next in line for Gus is WHAT YOU BREAK (January 2017, Putnam). In it, Gus is hired to look into the brutal homicide of a young Vietnamese/American woman. The cops have the killer, but the family wants to know why she’s been murdered. All this when Gus’s pal and coworker Slava comes under grave threat. It seems the past Slava has been running from has caught up to him and puts Gus and everyone around him in serious danger. Gus’s beliefs about right and wrong, love and friendship, are challenged as they have never been challenged before.
GL: Have you considered a prequel, showing readers a glimpse of Gus Murphy before his life fell apart?
RFC: I may get there someday, but first I think I need Putnam to give me another contract.
GL: By my count, WHERE IT HURTS is your 22nd novel and the beginning of a sixth series for you. Is there anything different you would like to do with this series/character than anything you’ve done in the past?
RFC: Yes, but I can’t give it away.
RFC: There’s no such thing as wasted writing. Every word I have written up to now has made me a better writer. I have also learned a lot about process over the last 25 years of doing this crazy writing thing. I think I have mostly learned that my energies should almost be completely dedicated to the writing itself because everything else is out of my control. I am so involved in the book and the writing process itself that I have no distance or perspective. I can never really tell when I’ve hit it out of the park. I always just try to write the best book I’m capable of writing at the time. Some what I consider the best work I’ve done has sold the least. I’ll leave it to fans and friends and critics to decide what a masterpiece is or is not.
Thanks, Reed, for the great interview. And best of luck with WHERE IT HURTS.
Readers can see my review of WHERE IT HURTS in this edition of Crimespree Magazine.