I recently reviewed Robert K. Lewis’s debut novel, Untold Damage, here on my blog. Mr. Lewis took the time this week to answer some questions for me about his novel, his writing, and the future of his protagonist.
What drew you to writing crime drama? Have you dabbled in other genres? Tell us about your screenplay experience as well please.
I think I started writing crime drama because I finally started to follow the saying all writers have heard: write what you know. I’ve been reading a LOT of old noir stuff for a very long time, and just love it. Frank Kane. Henry Kane. Don Westlake and his alter ego Richard Stark. Guys like that. Also, I’m a huge fan of 1970’s crime films such as Serpico, The Seven Ups, The French Connection, etc. I have dabbled in other genres, Urban Fantasy for one, however it was mostly me just trying to find my way. I also wrote screenplays for many years before switching to writing novels. Screenwriting gave me a great education in how to tell stories… what constitutes a good story, well told. I spent those years mainly writing action and horror movies. I’ve had a couple options, a few managers, and one small sale. Again, it was a great education.
So you live in San Francisco where Untold Damage takes place. You seem to have a wonderful feel for the city and a close relationship with it that comes across well in your writing. I particularly loved the house boat stuff at the end because that would be one of the ways I’d choose to live if I had such a choice. But tell us how you came to know the world of the San Francisco police department and the underworld of narcotics as portrayed in your story.
Well, I actually don’t live in the city anymore. I did, however, live in the Tenderloin for many years. A lot of what I learned about the SFPD was by simply calling them up and asking questions. They’re very cool about answering questions if you tell them you’re a writer who wants to be accurate. I once called up the coroner’s office to see if I could get a tour of the morgue and the guy on the phone said they didn’t give tours but if I wanted to know what it really looked like just go and watch Bullitt with Steve McQueen. They use the real S.F. coroner’s morgue for that movie and he told me at the time it hadn’t changed at all. As for the underworld of narcotics? Well… just by observing people and dynamics that exist in that neighborhood, but also a healthy dose of movies and reading. And no, I’ve never shot up.
How much is your protagonist, Mark Mallen, like you?
I’d like to think we share the same moral compass, the same sense that the line between right and wrong is for the most part smudged and blurred most of the time. He’s certainly like me in one very definite way: he loves Scotch.
Your characters come across in both action and dialogue as real people. I especially liked how you portrayed the relationship, past and present, with his wife, Chris. As I am currently living in a similar situation/relationship, that aspect spoke to me and came across as very genuine. Can you give us a hint on whether or not Mark and Chris will get back together in your follow-up novel, Critical Damage?
Nope, can’t say a word. My agent would have certain sensitive parts of me in a sling if I even alluded to what happens there. However, I do think I CAN say this: Chris is in the second book.
Since I was born and raised in the midwest, I have to ask you to expound upon one sentence in particular in Untold Damage that made me laugh: “She was pretty, in a midwestern way.” When I read that, I thought, “Hmmm, that’s an interesting way to put it. But what exactly does that mean to someone from San Francisco?” Or maybe I don’t want to know.
Hahaha… well, it’s a compliment, actually. I think I better leave it at that and back away slowly. However, as I said, it IS meant as a compliment. Waiter? Another round here, please, and quickly!
Give us a brief glimpse (no spoilers, though!) about Critical Damage and what your readers have to look forward to. Do you have a third book in the works for this series or are you going off in a different direction?
Again, I can’t really say anything as my agent could snip off very important parts of me and toss them in the grinder. I guess, if I could say anything, it would be that I’m hoping to write Mallen for a very long time, and that I’m working very hard to make that happen.
I can easily see Mark Mallen having his own television series. No doubt you would love that. But which would you prefer: television or the big screen, especially considering your background as a screenwriter?
From you lips to God’s ears! I would love to see him dramatized, period. In Mallen, I believe there’s a wonderful opportunity for an actor to play a very fun, dynamic, and layered character. I can only hope that this opportunity becomes a reality.
Who are your favorite authors? Do you read mainly within your genre?
Yes, I read mainly in my genre, however, I feel it’s VERY important to read OUTSIDE your genre, too. I feel very strongly that to be the best writer you can be you not only have to write all the time, but also read how other writers in other genres tell their stories. I have favorite authors from all over the place. Sure, I’m a fan of Chandler, Frank and Henry Kane, Ed McBain, etc… but I’m also a HUGE fan of David Mitchell, Kem Nunn, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, and most definitely William Gibson and Alfred Bester. I know… that’s all over the map, right? But what ALL these guys share is the ability to not only tell a story on a level way above the rest of the pack, but to also populate those stories with characters we care for on a genuine level, and thrill at reading.
Tell us a bit about your road to publication. Also what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Oh man… my road to publication took well over eight years, easy. I’d written about three books before I really got a handle on what it is to write a novel that hangs together as a cohesive story with character arcs, character development, rising stakes, etc. That first real novel was my Urban Fantasy one. But yeah… it was over eight years of writing six days a week, about eleven months out of the year that got me here. And I did this all without readers. Mr. Self Taught, that’s me. Remember though: this was MY road. Your mileage will vary. As for advice? Just write, write, and then write some more. Don’t get hung up on the whole “being a writer” thing. Your job is to tell stories well. Dynamically. It’s like what Natalie Goldberg (author of Writing Down the Bones and The True Secret of Writing) said at a recent signing I attended: Shut up and write.
You can follow Mr. Lewis on his blog: http://needlecity.wordpress.com/
Untold Damage is available in e-book and paperback formats.