Bill Loehfelm is the author of a critically-acclaimed and very-fun-to-read series of police procedurals featuring Maureen Coughlin, a rookie New Orleans police officer. He has also authored two stand-alone novels Bloodroot and Fresh Kills. His latest book, The Devil’s Muse, the fifth in the Coughlin series, was published in 2017 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. I had the pleasure of being on a panel with Bill at the 2017 Louisiana Book Festival, where I learned a lot about writing a successful series . I was especially interested in interviewing Bill because we both write police procedurals with female lead characters.
MB: Tell us a bit about how you came to novel-writing, and what you were doing when you decided to pursue writing? What made you train your focus on crime fiction?
BILL: I always thought I would write a novel. I can’t ever remember not wanting to do it. Even as a little kid. I sent something I wrote to Random House when I was 11. Of course, I was naive about what it took to write a book, never mind get it published for a long, long time, but I always believed I could do it. I didn’t get serious about writing until the very end of my twenties. I was teaching high school at the time, and took a summer off to finish a “novel” I’d started in college and messed around with for years. All I did that summer was write, and I finished my first complete manuscript by the time school started again. It ate me alive. I taught that year then quit, went to work doing odd jobs at an antique store then started waiting tables. I rearranged my whole life to put writing at the center of it. I never published that manuscript, my first published novel was my fourth, but that summer made me a writer.
I focused on crime fiction because it gave me a structure. I really had no idea how to concoct a plot. A couple of years before I moved to New Orleans I’d started reading James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. I studied those, John D. MacDonald’s Travis Magee series, and Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro series. It was Burke who taught me there was no limit to what you could do with a crime novel. And then Lehane put out Mystic River and the bell went off for me; that was the book I wanted to write.
MB: I recently read The Devil’s Muse, the latest in your Maureen Coughlin series, about a newbie police officer in New Orleans. She’s a terrific character. Where did she come from?
BILL: Maureen started as a piece of flash fiction I wrote years ago about a woman standing at a bus stop. From then on, she was just always around, popping up in different iterations in short stories and as a secondary character in that first novel. She finally grew big enough for her own novel, THE DEVIL SHE KNOWS, and that novel, which was supposed to be a stand-alone, ended up launching this series. Can’t keep a good woman down, I guess. She’s irrepressible. And she’s just been the perfect vehicle for what I’d wanted to say and explore the past few years.
MB: Your dust-jacket bio says that, in addition to writing mysteries, you’re a drummer in a rock-and-roll band. Style-wise, rock-and-roll is a big universe. What part of the rock universe does your band operate in? What’s the name of your group? Do you also sing?
BILL: We’re a classic rock cover band. We haven’t played a lot of gigs, but we’ve played some cool places. A lot of the same people have drifted in and out of the band over time but it’s really been me and my buddy Vince and whomever we can rope into playing with us for over fifteen years now. I guess the name that’s been around the longest is the Van Gones (as in, Vince and…). And I do not sing. Not ever, at least not when other people can hear me. I’m a pretty decent drummer, but I’m no kind of singer. I was made to be a drummer. I love being onstage, but in the back.
MB: I know you grew up in New York, and that you now live in New Orleans. You seem to have a penchant for “New” cities, especially ones with cool nicknames, so tell us about how you found your way from the Big Apple to the Crescent City. If your answer would require you break faith with the Witness Protection Program, or something like that, please feel free to skip this question.
BILL: This is a terrible thing for a native New Yorker to admit, but I kind of always wanted out. Well, maybe a guy who grew up on Staten Island saying that isn’t quite so blasphemous. But I wanted off the island, and Manhattan just seemed so inaccessible as a place to live and work. The first few years after college, I made a couple of trips to New Orleans for Mardi Gras with a bunch of buddies. Every time we came, I saw more of the city, liked it more. It felt like my kind of place, even outside of Mardi Gras. It seemed like a great place to live. It was the first place I ever felt like I fit in. Living in New York you needed money; you needed to chase that dollar. I like to sit still. New Orleans felt like, if you had the right attitude, you could get by. In ’97, I got a chance to move here, and I took it.
MB: Can you tell us what’s coming next for Maureen Coughlin, and when we might expect to see her again?
BILL: Maureen’s catching her breath right now, but we’ll see her again before too long. Maybe toting that detective shield she’s been after. Right now, of all places, my writing has taken me back to New York, to Brooklyn, as a matter of fact. Where I was born.
MB: What sort of books do you read for pleasure? And, who are some of your favorite authors outside the crime fiction genre?
BILL: I still read crime fiction for pleasure, that’s most of what I read, though I’m trying to expand. I’ve been reading more non-fiction. I read FORWARD, Abby Wambach’s memoir (I’m a huge fan of the US women’s national soccer team), Springsteen’s autobiography, and a great biography of Joni Mitchell called RECKLESS DAUGHTER. Musician bios fascinate me. I really like the Irish novelists Roddy Doyle, Paul Murray and Anne Enright. I think Barbara Kingsolver is maybe the best living American novelist. I read everything Kate Atkinson writes. She’s a god in our house. I read a great horror novel this summer called IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN, by Andy Davidson.
MB: New Orleans is a very atmospheric place. My family used to live there and I spent a lot of time there, so I can say with some authority, that when it comes to putting the city on the page, you nailed it. What advice would you give to neophyte writers about how to bring their settings to life?
BILL: It’s kind of counter-intuitive, but less can be more with the details. Who notices everything when they walk in a room? Or out the front door? Stick with what grabs your character’s attention. Don’t limit yourself to visuals. I find when I have the most trouble getting immersed in a story when I can’t feel it. Don’t forget that your characters have bodies. Smell, taste, temperature, sound. People ask me what I remember about the first days after Katrina and the first thing that comes to mind is that empty quiet. I think that’s a real telling detail. Says a lot.
Bill’s books are available wherever books are sold. His latest, The Devil’s Muse, takes place in the highly-charged atmosphere of Mardi Gras. Please visit him at http://billloehfelm.tumblr.com/.
Bill was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns.