Interview: Chicago crime writer Kevin Guilfoile
1. What have you learned from writing your novel CAST OF SHADOWS?
Hmmm. Well you write your first novel in complete despair that anyone will ever read it, convinced that you’re wasting your time, along with precious parts of every day for maybe years of your life. On the other hand you write it with no pressure. No outside influence at all. If you’re fortunate enough to get it published, however, you write your second novel without the despair, but with significantly larger amounts of pressure and expectations. And so writing your second book is nothing like writing your first. The third book is easier. You start to get a handle on what you’re doing and it’s only then that you kind of take what you’ve learned and put it to some use. You’re still making it up to some degree. No matter how many times you’ve done it, if you’re not improvising a little bit you’re probably writing a crappy novel.
The most important thing you learn from writing your first novel, whether it gets published or not, is that you’re capable of finishing one.
2. Your novel, COS deals with cloning, and related subjects. Do you believe in doppelgangers?
No. Although when I lived in Texas, every time I went to the bank the tellers would call me “Mr. Dixon.” And then they’d look at my license and appear very confused.
3. Would you say there is a big difference between crime, noir, neo-noir and thriller these days?
I saw a thing the other day where a bunch of mystery writers were describing the kind of books they write and it was like, “I write medium-boiled, amateur sleuth, post-noir, domestic, techno-cozies...” or something. I’m not even sure what neo-noir is, unless it’s a book written after 1980 where the protagonist drinks a lot. I can tell you that a mystery is generally about finding out “what happened?” and a thriller is generally about finding out “what happens next?” After that genre distinctions seem like bullshit to me...
4. It seems that genre writing is getting more and more support these days, is becoming more acceptable. Any thoughts on the future of genre writing?
...at least as far as the actual writing is concerned. Just about anything can be pigeonholed into a genre. I could subdivide the general fiction section of the bookstore into a hundred literary genres and subgenres if I wanted, each with its own cliches (the struggling young New York writer trying to suffer through his first novel while he/she looks for love; the private school novel; the rural American family novel), but literary novelists pretend they don’t exist until a critic starts throwing words like “bildungsroman” around. The only thing different about “genre” writers is that they have embraced those labels in an effort to find an audience. And it actually works a little bit because genre labels are fairly helpful to readers in a marketplace with literally hundreds of thousands of choices. If you like this sort of thing, here are a bunch of books kind of like it. I’m okay with that as long as the writer doesn’t think about it too much while he’s writing. Cast of Shadows has been called thriller, techno-thriller, medical thriller, mystery, clone-lit, sci-fi, crime, literary fiction, philosophical thriller (Phi-thri? Did I just make that one up?). It’s all good. After the book is done you can call it whatever you like, as far as I’m concerned. I just don’t like it when novelists start writing to some imagined formula.
5. So how did you find an agent? Any good stories there? If I remember from The Hideout it was rather fast and painless.
In 2001 I co-wrote (with John Warner) a cartoon book about George W. Bush. But the publisher basically came to us, so even after I had published a book, I didn’t know anything about selling one. I finished my novel in 2003 and basically knew the name of one agent in the world because he was a friend of an acquaintance. I sent him a query and didn’t hear back right away and so instead of doing the sensible thing and sending it to somebody else, I queried this agent again, because I’m really that lazy, and this time he agreed to read my manuscript. About three weeks later he called to say he wanted to represent me and about six weeks after that we had an offer from Knopf. I just got very fortunate and that’s really not a blueprint anyone should follow. I wouldn’t suggest anyone should cocoon themselves in ignorance the way I had.
6. Any suggestions on how to get published these days, as far as short stories and novels? Agent or small press?
The first thing you need to do is finish your novel. I think a lot of writers never finish their manuscripts because they’re thinking too much about how they’re going to sell it when they finish. When you’re writing, don’t even read trade magazines or web sites that talk about how the publishing sausage is made. It will just depress you and it’s not even relevant because every book is going to take its own path. Every book makes its own odds.
Once you have the end in your sights, I think it’s okay to start thinking about the other stuff--which agents or publishers you’re going to submit to and how you’ll craft your pitch and so forth. As for agent vs. small press, there’s no blanket answer for that. You need to ask what kind of person is going to read your book, and try to figure out what other books that ideal reader has been reading. Those are the examples you want to follow.
7. Do you think attending events like AWP is becoming more and more mandatory for serious writers?
I don’t think anything is mandatory. If you asked TC Boyle how to get published he’d probably tell you to go to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you asked Emily Dickinson or John Kennedy Toole they might tell you to live a life of writerly despair and then kill yourself. Both answers are correct! Before I wrote my novel I hung out with musicians more than writers, and I didn’t really know any novelists at all. That probably wasn’t the best thing for my book. The community of writers is an invaluable thing, and it’s important to be plugged in to other people who do what you do.
8. If you were trying to get your first novel published right now, and didn’t have an agent or publisher, how would you go about trying to get noticed?
I’m not sure getting “noticed” is really the goal, unless you want to be an author the way Rod Blagojevich is. There’s a lot of cynicism around publishing, but the people that I know in publishing, from the small houses to the big ones, from the publicists to the agents, are all sincere about trying to get work they love to a broader audience. Actually it’s the writers who are all cynical. The editors and publishers are frequently the uncompromised ones.
Getting published is pretty simple on paper. Write a good book and get it into the hands of someone who likes that sort of thing. It’s more complicated to put that plan into practice. If I were doing it over again I would think about writers who weren’t necessarily like me, but who write books who would appeal to the same readers as my book. Then I would go to the acknowledgments of those books and find who their agents are. Those are the first people I would query. If those authors are published at indie presses, I would approach those publishers.
I don’t want to sound like a shill for the literary agent trade association, but there are other things an agent does for you besides try to get you published. If you have an agent you really trust, he or she can be a first reader, a second editor, a guide, an advisor, a friend. Perhaps most importantly he can have all the business discussions with your publisher so that your interaction with them is never about anything but the work. All agents are probably not created equal, but mine is a bargain. Which is a horrible thing to say about your friend.
9. Tell us a bit about your process: when do you write, how much a day, where?
I have a five year old and a two year old, so I write when they let me. Most days I have a babysitter in the mornings, which means I write mostly in the mornings. But I carry a notebook with me all the time and try to write whenever the ideas come. When it’s working right, the time I have in front of my computer is really about typing as fast as I can. Hopefully I’ve already done a lot of the writing.
I have an office in my house. It has a lot of good books on shelves and some movie posters--an Italian poster for The Godfather, the original needlepoint poster for Fargo, and an amazingly creepy Czech poster for The Birds. I also have a beautifully typeset copy of Poe’s The Conqueror Worm in a frame, as well as a painting by a woman in New York who puts random quotes from Home Alone over abstract images of bookshelves and sells them on the internet. Mine says “The Salt Turns The Bodies Into Mummies,” my wife gave it to me for Valentines Day, and it’s awesome.
10. Are you an outline or write by the seat of your pants kind of writer?
I try to have a pretty good outline when I start, but the story rarely ends up where I think it will. I think you owe it to the reader to at least think you know where the story is going when you start to tell it. But at the outline stage, your characters are still paper thin. You don’t really get to know them until you start writing and once you get to know them you often find out that these characters wouldn’t do the things you had planned for them to do. So you have to ask yourself, “If this character chose to do B instead of A, how does that affect everything that comes after.” For me the outline is sort of like the picture on the cover of the puzzle box. It helps guide you and gives you the overall shape of what you’re trying to accomplish. But the novel is the actual puzzle where you can see every edge and how each piece fits perfectly with every other piece.
11. As a fellow Chicago writer, how can I get more involved with the local scene? What can you tell us about the Outfit?
Sadly, I’m the last person who could tell you how to get involved with any kind of scene. I became involved with The Outfit when its founder, the terrific mystery writer Libby Fischer Hellman, generously asked me to join.
12. Who are your greatest influences? Most recent influences? And what are you most excited to read in 2009? If you haven’t read Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger yet, they both have new novels coming out this year, and I’m very excited about both of them.
If I had to pick only three, my all-time favorite writers are probably Walker Percy, T.C. Boyle, and Martin Amis (up through THE INFORMATION). I m just finishing up a marathon eight weeks where I attempted to read all 16 novels (including a couple of backbreakers) in this year’s Powell’s/Morning News Tournament of Books, for which I am both Commissioner and co-commentator. I’m going to make it through 15-and-a-half by tourney time it looks like. I’ve got a good backlog already waiting, including the new Boyle, and upcoming novels from a couple of my favorite crime writers Stephen White and CJ Box. My good friend Dave Reidy, another Chicago guy, has his first story collection coming out. It’s called CAPTIVE AUDIENCE and I’ve already read it but I’m excited that other people are going to get a chance to. I am generally terrible about scanning the horizon, though. When a book I know is published, I rarely know it was even on the way unless somebody more plugged in to the business gives me a heads up about it.
13. Your next book is coming out soon, if I remember correctly. What can you tell us about it, and where else can we follow your writing? The Morning News? Any short stuff coming out soon?
I don’t have a pub date yet, but the next book is called THE THOUSAND and it’s about a Chicago defense attorney who murders his own client; a former professional poker player who is asked by a wealthy art collector to find out if a prominent outsider artist is a fraud; and a casino security guard who’s convinced that someone is trying to murder the woman he’s secretly in love with. It should be out the end of this year or the beginning of 2010.
Thanks so much. It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope we can work together real soon. I’m not that far away, in the neo-noir neighborhood, so I’d be glad to buy you a coffee or beer, any time. And let me know what I can do to help more readers discover your work.
Likewise, Richard, and thanks for the opportunity.
Hope you enjoyed it.