We are pleased to welcome Eric Beetner to the blog, this week. Eric is an incredibly busy, incredibly creative man. He is the very prolific author of some of the best noir novels out there, he’s a television editor, he runs the Noir at the Bar reading series for crime fiction writers in L.A. (which is where I met him), and he edits major award-nominated crime fiction anthologies . . . among other things. His writing has the perceptiveness and impact of John D. MacDonald’s books, along with a modern sensibility that keeps things fresh.
MB: You’ve got two very fast-moving, action-packed series to your credit – the Lars and Shaine books, and the McGraw Crime novels. I suppose, in polite company, one could say that these series are about people who work in pest control, and folks who operate a pickup-and-delivery service, respectively. But I may be understating things just a touch. Give us the real story, and tell us about where the inspiration for these series came from.
ERIC: Lars is a hit man at the end of his career and we find him out in the southwest desert on a job and he is realizing he doesn’t have the taste for it anymore. But in order to get out of the life he has to save someone else with him. Mayhem ensues. I was reluctant to write a hitman story, but I liked the idea of this guy who is trying to make a change after so many years of bad decisions. I saw it as a challenge to humanize him.
The McGraws are a family of criminal drivers who do anything that needs doing behind the wheel. It’s a multi-generational story that involves four generations of this family in some trying situations. I like the guys on the fringes, not the kingpins. I’ll never write the world’s greatest assassin or the best safe cracker. They aren’t as interesting to me as the worker bees of the criminal life. People with flaws, with real world problems that would be the same whether they wield a gun or a plumber’s wrench.
In the end, I want to write characters who are real enough to be relatable and yet live this life on the wrong side of the law which gives them an element of the unreal.
MB: In order to make a series work, I think the author has to give readers some characters to like and root for. In both the Lars and Shaine books and in the McGraw books, your main characters have staked out lives for themselves on the wrong side of the law. How do you do that magic trick of creating a rooting interest in characters who are, in some sense, the bad guys?
ERIC: You’re absolutely right, I think empathy is the key to making crime novels work. If you write about cops or lawyers you’re automatically on the right side of the law so that’s always there like a little engine working in your favor. When you write about criminals, you have to dig down to their humanity and give the reader something to latch on to that makes them relatable even though they’re engaged in activities that one would hope the reader is not.
Criminal characters, for me, can stay grounded by adhering to the basic tenants of right and wrong, even if it is from a skewed perspective. In the case of Lars, he’s a hit man. But he functions with utmost professionalism. He takes pride in his work. Those are empathetic traits. And when it comes to his work, he does have lines he won’t cross. So even if he is crossing some lines most of us wouldn’t, when we see him make a moral stand, we can get behind him and root for him to succeed, and maybe even change his ways which is another big theme in that trilogy.
For the McGraw family in Rumrunners and Leadfoot, they have a pride in what they do as deep rooted and profound as any family who has worked for generations in an oil field or a coal mine, or even as a cop. They know what they do – driving cars for criminal organizations – and they do it the best they can. Pride in their work. And again, they have to make moral decisions that the reader can go along with.
It can be a balancing act, but I’ve gotten praise for that side of my writing as much as anything, which feels really great because I take a lot of time crafting characters you can go along on this ride with while they take you to the far side of the law.
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?
ERIC: I was a screenwriter for a number of years. I wrote some crime stuff, but I was very eclectic. Hollywood does not like eclectic. They like to know what they’re getting and they want to keep you in that box. I ended up selling stuff but nothing ever got made, so I backed off.I wrote my first novel without telling anyone I was doing it and when I finished I had proven my point to myself and knew I could pull it off. That novel is stuffed away in a drawer and I set to work on the next and the next and the next.
I chose to stay in one lane this time and not try to write all over the map. Book readers want that too, to know what they’re gonna get. If Nicholas Sparks fans suddenly got a hardboiled crime novel from him, they’d be disappointed. I understood that since I am primarily a crime reader. Don’t know why, but they’re the stories that most interest me.
So when I decided to try to be a part of that world, I knew exactly what was expected of me and I think it’s helped focus my writing.
MB: What do you think accounts for the mystery reading public’s enduring fascination with noir fiction?
ERIC: The best noir fiction puts the reader in the what-would-I-do position. I think people like to get a glimpse of someone’s life that gets torn down to the studs and we can vicariously feel better about our own lives. It’s also satisfying to see someone get his due when he succumbs to greed or lust or allows himself to get dragged down into the criminal world.
My wife loves stories of average people who have their lives destroyed by outsiders or chance occurrences. A lot of people like that for some reason. Human nature? We all have a bit of a sadistic streak in us, deep down.
Sometimes I think all the stories in the back of my mind are what keeps me from a life of crime. As writers we sometimes come up with crimes that make us think, “I could really get away with this.” Then I think back over some of the books I’ve read where a character thought exactly that and how seldom it works out for them and I come to my senses.
MB: In your Blogger profile, it says you’re a former musician. What kind of music? What instrument(s) did you play? Do you sing?
ERIC: I’ve been in several bands starting in high school with a hardcore punk outfit, to an acoustic duet in college and then my more serious bands after college which played what you’d call ‘Alternative’ in the 1990s and then the bands I had the most creative satisfaction with were sort of post-punk, a little weird, very loud and prone to making wild stylistic left turns within a single song. People didn’t care for it much, although the people who did really appreciated what we were doing.
I play guitar and while I was lead vocalist in my last two bands that were signed with indie labels, I wouldn’t always call what I did singing. I shouted a lot. Now and then I’d hit a nice melody and I recorded a bunch of slower, acoustic songs after that last loud band broke up, but they just weren’t as fun to get out and play. I like making a big, unruly noise much better.
MB: What sort of books do you read for pleasure? And, who are some of your favorite crime fiction authors? Who are some of your favorites outside the crime fiction genre?
ERIC: I read mostly crime fiction, leaning toward the hardboiled and thrillers. I’m not a big detective guy, or police procedural. I like dark stories that propel forward. I like pitch black noir and lightning fast plots. Some of my favorites are Joe Lansdale, Max Allan Collins, Charles Williams, William P. McGivern, Lionel White, Steve Brewer, Barry Gifford, Allan Guthrie, Duane Swierczynski, Christa Faust, Richard Lange, Jason Starr, Dietrich Kalteis, Jake Hinkson.
Outside the genre I like a good nonfiction book. I like entertainment biographies like Martin Short’s book and Tina Fey’s. Essays like Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris.
MB: Los Angeles is a very atmospheric place and it’s the setting for a great deal of noir fiction, which is a bit ironic because it’s so relentlessly sunny there. What advice would you give to writers just starting out about how to bring their settings to life?
ERIC: I think a few well -placed details go a long, long way. I think most readers aren’t interested in getting bogged down by a lot of street by street descriptions or references so specific that only locals would know them. Often the things that make a place unique are small quirks that you can only notice by being there.
Beyond that, I fully endorse making things up. If you need something for a story, then put it in. There are limits, like you can’t have the Empire State building in Kansas, but if you need to bend the reality of a place a tiny bit to serve your story, I think the risk of those one or two snippy emails are worth it for the majority of readers who won’t notice it at all.
A friend of mine is a songwriter and he summed up L.A. once in a song he wrote as he was moving away from here.
“I’m allergic to Los Angeles, it’s stretching me thin. They vaporize desperation and we’re breathing it in.”
In one couplet he kind of gives you the whole vibe of his experience. I look to moments like that for scene setting. Get in and out quick and be sharp.
MB: What’s coming next from the pen of Eric Beetner?
ERIC: February of next year will see the completion of my Lars and Shaine trilogy with the final book, The Devil At Your Door. It’s been a very long and crooked road to get these books out. This is the third publisher for this series, the two others closed up shop and left them orphans. As sad as I am to see these characters go, I’m glad to have the whole series out there after a lot of bumps in the road.
Later next year will also see the third book I cowrote with Frank Zafiro in our List trilogy called The Getaway List. The final series in the Lawyer western novellas that I had the pleasure to write will be out and that’s my third in that series which has been written by a few others as well.
My second volume of the Unloaded anthology which I created and edited will be out too. Those are crime stories all written without any guns in them and all proceeds go to an anti-gun violence non-profit. Vol. 1 was nominated for an Anthony Award last year.
I have two novels out on submission right now, a third in the can waiting its turn in line and I’m writing episodes for a TV show I’m pitching.
And there are several stories in anthologies that will be out next year. I’ve honestly lost track of all of them. I’m sure I’m behind in writing a few of them.
MB: Eric, many thanks for taking the time to join us on Murder books. We’ll look forward to your new novels.