So today I'd like to welcome a friend of mine who has just released his debut mystery/ Bret is part of the network of friends I connected to through ABNA originally.
Tart: There are some things about Nasty that are definitely hard-boiled—things that remind me of Raymond Chandler—Nate has confronted some violence, carries some demons, and abuses himself just like those, but he is a considerably more enlightened man (not to mention more three-dimensional than any Chandler characters). Did you use any specific authors or books as guides at all?
Bret: Chandler was in the back of my mind a little when I created Nate’s character, as was Dashiell Hammett. I wanted to capture that noir feel, without going full-on Thin Man. The voices of those early masters carried their books. Combined with really tight writing styles, those guys just popped off the page.
Tart: And how conscious were departures from classic hard-boiled protags?
Bret: The departures from the classic hard-boiled detectives were purposeful. We live in a different world now, with problems that Hammett’s and Chandler’s world didn’t acknowledge or know much about. One of the limiting factors in hard-boiled, from my perspective, is two dimensionality. The protagonists don’t show us much of themselves, and they arguably don’t change a whole lot. When I set out to write Nasty, I was very aware of some of the limitations and expectations of the genre, but I wanted people to be willing to step outside those expectations to experience someone new. I also wanted to appeal to those who maybe weren’t as familiar with the genre with an offering that was fast-paced, covered the basics of hard-boiled, and then stepped beyond those into someone with a conscience. I made the decision to give Nate full agency in most areas of his life. He makes a big deal of Fate and the like, but he’s got a bit of a Zen thing going in the way he approaches his life. Like all real people, he has baggage that drives his responses to the world around him, and his story arc is one of small, hard-won personal growth. I wanted a character who was hard-boiled plus, in other words. He had to have the voice, the attitude, and the no bullshit aggressiveness of a classic noir detective, but he also had to be a man of this century, living in this version of urban America.
Tart: “Llama doing sign language to the clown head who doesn't understand.” HA! Have you HAD this dream, or are you more broadly a fan of llamas? Do clowns haunt your nightmares?
Bret: I’m so excited! You’re the first person to ask about this. The problem is, I don’t want to give the thing away too much. I don’t have any fear of clowns. I’ve known a lot of them in my time . . . and llamas, while cute and fuzzy, aren’t really a thing for me, either. (Although who can resist a baby llama, I mean, really?!) The llamas and clowns are surreal connections Nate has to his childhood and the ways he’s processing some of his personal baggage through his subconscious. The imagery changes as his story arc progresses. They are also weird and not-so-apparent nods to two of my favorite writers, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Robbins.
Tart: “Take a bad guy to hell with you.” You know... I've always thought of people as falling into two categories: 1) those who want vengeance/justice so badly that they sort of stop seeing people as people vs. 2) those who couldn't kill with very few exceptions (true self defense or saving their children, for instance) but this phrase implies a situational decision. I know you—not in real life, but pretty well through the old social network—and I know you are nearly the bleeding heart I am... but I also know you are former military and I am curious how you see this? Are these traits or states? (willingness to kill)
Bret: In some ways, it’s a trait, but only by way of his ability to compartmentalize his situation. Warriors of any sort tend to separate “real life” from the life they have to lead inside the bubble of conflict. Emotion really has no business in this bubble. In fact, it’s a hindrance. This line is meant to show the business end of a man who stands at the threshold between these two worlds. In “real life,” he’s this Zen-ish seeker trying to make a living and figure out what the universe is all about. He’s not quite Big Lebowski laid back, but he’s on his way. It’s not that Nate is cold-hearted or soft-hearted, he has simply divided his life; he separates the two, a practice that he developed as a SEAL. To him, it’s perfectly logical to operate this way. He has a line across which a smart person won’t cross. Compartmentalization is what allows soldiers, doctors, and emergency responders the ability to switch from their “real” lives to being “on” in a heartbeat. It’s also what helps a psychotic killer rationalize the horrible things he or she does to people. There is a dissonance that takes place within Nate on this, however, and so he’s kind of on a search for his answers in the grey area in between.
Tart: Having known you for a few years now, I see some similarities between you and Nate Jepson, but I also see some notable differences—most notably your ability to have good healthy relationships as husband and father (something I can see Nate doing so well at). Do you feel like you had intentional samenesses or differences from Nate or was the process less intentional than that? Could you talk a little about character development?
Bret: I don’t think I’d ever write a character that was me in disguise. Although I draw on some experiences and knowledge from my military career, and I do use him as a part of a larger social narrative, he is most definitely not me. On the other hand, as writers we always hear that we should “write what you know,” right? So, true story, I wrote Nate to prove to my wife that I couldn’t write a detective story. She wanted me to write something that wasn’t sci-fi, which wasn’t her thing. Ha! Guess what? Can you say Niven and Asimov? I’d read my fair share of old pulp fiction, both hard-boiled and sci-fi, by gum! A robot detective novel, is a detective novel . . . but with robots, haha! So, I wrote Nate. I started with what I knew about the genre, the standard conventions. Then I decided to break a few of the rules of hard-boiled by giving him an internal dialog that showed him to be a little vulnerable, and quite human. He’s also not the suave, charming guy that a lot of the genre demands. He thinks he is, but he really isn’t. There are other differences, as well. He needed to have lots of room to grow as a character. What I wound up with was a character who would drive me up a wall if he was a real person, but who would also be one of the best kinds of friends to have. He’s the kind of friend who would help you bury a body. He’s the psycho side kick who happens to be a loner . . . and he has issues.
Developing a character like that is a lot of fun, especially when it’s done with tongue firmly in cheek. I’d say the key to writing a good, strong character is making the character act like a person, not a character. I “interview” Nate on a regular basis, working on world-views, dialog, opinions, and his core beliefs. Not a lot of that makes it into the stories, but I feel it adds a depth to him that is hard to reproduce if you’re writing your character off the cuff.
Tart: “Herd of goats munching on your mother's dainties.” Okay, that's about the best synonym I've ever heard for “It all goes to hell” [told you guys Nasty was enlightened]. So have you HEARD this before 9and where)? Or are you just making up phrases? Because if so, I'd like to put you in charge of the next generation of American slang.
Bret: . . . in charge of American slang . . . yes, please! Nate has his own way of expressing himself, and if a situation requires goats and dainties, then so be it. There’s always room for goats.
Tart: I loved the humor you infused, and admire how you managed to ALSO maintain the tension. Is humor part of your natural voice? Or do you feel like you need to work it in? Or do you think this is character-specific? I have just observed that it is one of the harder aspects of writing to fake.
Bret: I’ve always been pretty good with the zingers, it tends to make it into my writing. I’ve never been “Mr. Jokebook,” though. I tend to be more of a situational predator in that respect. If you ask me to tell a joke, I draw a complete blank, but when there’s conversation and opportunity, I wade in with the one-liners. It’s part of my voice, and when I realized this, life as a writer got much easier. It was really hard to maintain that tension, and I had to go in several times and hack things out that were hilarious, but didn’t really serve the story. The original was a lot more tongue-in-cheek, but I like the way it turned out. I hope I struck the right balance.
And now for some broader questions:
Tart: Where do you start? Character, plot, setting?
Bret: I very rarely start with setting. The setting, to me, is simply the stage that the actors use to play out their drama. It’s mine to manipulate. Which is weird, because I’m told that the setting in Nasty (which takes place in the Pacific Northwest) is almost as much a character as some of the actual characters in the book. I like that a lot, as I put a lot of work in folding reality into fiction in the setting, but it’s not where I started. Honestly? I usually start with a really great line of dialog that I think of, and then flesh out a character who would say it. That’s not always the case, but usually that’s the way it goes. I’ll be walking the dog, or drifting off to sleep, or even in the middle of teaching, and a line of dialog will hit me, or an affectation, or a spin on a cliché, and I’ll have to write it down. I’m a little A.D.D. in that respect. Sometimes the plot is what drives me, though. In those cases, I’ll sit down and draw out a rough a rough story arc, and start filling it in with details. I have several notebooks full of those things. If I ever write them all, I’ll have quite the body of work.
Tart: How long have you been at this and which book is this for you? (first published, yes? But how many are warming your file drawers?)
Bret: Oh, geez . . . I’ve been writing since I was in kindergarten I think. I remember my first mystery, actually. I lived half a block away from my school, and when I got home around noon, the house was empty. I knew Dad would be back, but, being an only child, I set out to entertain myself. I laid out some “clues,” like a ransom note, and made a recording of a scuffle on a toy tape recorder that had about a minute of tape on it that was looped, and some spilled ashes on the floor near the wood stove. After setting the scene, I went next door to the neighbor’s and told the teenagers there that my Dad had been kidnapped! They ran over to the house and I presented them with the crime scene. It was great fun, and I’m glad the kids next door humored me.
As far as writing for publication, I’ve been at it for a couple of decades. My first poem was published locally when I was 12, and I’ve had short stories picked up, a Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul non-fiction piece, several large stacks of magazine and newspaper freelance stuff . . . without trying to sound cliché, I really have been writing my whole life. As for novel length works, I’ve got a couple cooling it in the closet, and one on a hard-drive somewhere. Nasty is the first one to go to press.
Tart: And finally, What next? Are you working on something?
Bret: Nasty is a three book contract, so I’m working on numbers two and three now. They’re on an 18 month turn around, which is a faster pace than I initially thought, but I’m keeping up so far. I’m also working on a YA that my kids at work are very excited about (I teach middle school, and I’ve got a lot of beta readers on that one, haha!) So I’ve been work-shopping that when I can, while I write the sequels. I’m hoping Nasty has a run that lasts more than the three, and I’m setting it up as such, but we’ll see.
Tart's Nasty Review [Buy Link: Kindle only 99 cents at the moment]
First the blurb: Adultery pays. Murder doesn't. That is P.I. Nate 'Nasty' Jepson's motto, and he normally makes his living snapping pictures of cheating spouses. When a stranger is brutally shot in the passenger seat of his car, he finds himself in the middle of a gang war between battling triads, as well as a suspect in the murder. Nate must step far outside his comfort zone to clear himself and live to catch another cheater.
Nate Jessup is a PI in the Pacific Northwest and as the story begins, Nate is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is held up by a desperate man who really just wants help getting away from the beach where they encounter each other, or more specifically, the MEN on the beach who are trying to kill him. Nate ends up with his car exploded and some people after him who think he has something that he doesn't.
The tone of this has a lot in common with the hard boiled detective stories of old, but I felt like it had a lot more heart. Nate isn't a caricature—he has some demons, sure, but he is also balanced—a good person who has just been through some stuff. I also loved the Pacific Northwest setting, though that may be because I have roots there myself.
Overall I loved the tension, story and the nice sprinkling of humor to keep this balanced. And excellent debut.
BRET R. WRIGHT SPLITS HIS TIME BETWEEN SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO, AND SOUTHERN COLORADO. A NATIVE OF THE ROCKIES, HE LOVES THE MOUNTAINS, AND COULD NOT WAIT TO RETURN TO THEM AFTER HE RETIRED AS A CHIEF PETTY OFFICER IN THE UNITED STATES NAVY. HE’S A TEACHER, FREELANCE WRITER, AUTHOR, AND CHAMPION FOR UNDERDOGS, EVERYWHERE. THOUGH HE PRETTY MUCH STINKS AT IT, THE MAN INSISTS ON PLAYING BASS IN PUBLIC, MUCH TO THE ENTERTAINMENT AND CONSTERNATION OF HIS WIFE, YOUNGEST SON, AND A VERY PATIENT GOLDEN LAB.