I first became aware of Anthony Award-nominated author Eric Beetner via social media, and since then, his name pops up in my newsfeed constantly, whether he’s being tagged in a post about yet another anthology which he’s edited or contributed to, or he’s being interviewed or interviewing another author, or he’s announcing a new title of his own.
I’ve read a couple of his books and his style is quite cinematic, both in terms visceral impact and narrative structure. I’ve yet to meet him in person, but since he’s the organizer of Noir at the Bar Los Angeles, and I host the Seattle equivalent, I’m sure out paths will cross eventually. It’s a tightly knit if crowded community.
Eric, who also works as a TV editor and producer, was cool enough to take a break from his busy schedule to answer a few simple questions, but with typically comprehensive answers:
Your crime fiction is authentically hardboiled in the classic tradition, yet it resonates strongly with contemporary culture, giving it ageless appeal and making it accessible to a modern audience. How do you strike this balance, and still come off wholly original rather than deceptively derivative?
To me, one of the big appeals of a classic noir story is that it is timeless, in a way. Greed is timeless. Lust is timeless. Trouble big and small has always been with us and will always. I try hard to ground my stories in real people where the stakes are never the end of the world, but anyone who's been through any sort of trouble knows that when it's your own world about to come crashing in, the stakes are the same. Small scale worries are what drives most of the real crimes and desperate acts in the world.
I think nowadays, after all the great noir and crime fiction that has come before, the pickings are ripe to be able to set up and then subvert expectations. I tried to do that in my novella, Nine Toes In The Grave, to get readers to think they might be getting a familiar story and then veer off in another direction. An author who has been doing that expertly of late is John Rector. His novels, The Ridge and Ruthless take really sharp turns away from what are setup to be conventional noir stories. Jake Hinkson too, I think renders pitch perfect noir tales that feel like they could have been written in the 50s, but somehow keeps them from being derivative. It's a skill.
But as long as I keep trying to get characters with universal appeal, the messes they get into that make up the plots will feel fresh enough if you're following with someone you want to read about and in a story that has a bit of a "what would I do" play-along factor. That's big in what I read is that sense of putting myself in the story and wondering how I would react. It's the quality that deepens my involvement with a book and it's what I aim for in my own writing.
As a respected expert in the field, what do you think distinguishes the various subcategories of crime fiction, including hardboiled, noir, mysteries, espionage, etc, from both a creative and marketing perspective?
Unfortunately I don't think Noir is a very marketable label to slap on a book these days. I find that a casual reader thinks of noir as old fashioned, possibly because of the association with black and white movies. Traditionally noir hasn't been all that great to its female characters either so I think that scares off some people, which can be unfortunate because most contemporary noir writers are much less mysogynistic.
Hardboiled is a style, whereas Noir is more plot and character driven. I've long contended that Chandler is not noir. He invented Hardboiled but a series PI character can't be noir because he's going to make it out in the end. Most people conflate the two together and again I think that's unfortunate.
For myself, while I have written noir for sure, I don't always like being tagged a noir writer because I think most of my books are not noir, as I see it. My Lars and Shaine books are thrillers and even my McGraw novels (Rumrunners and Leadfoot) are thrillers, I think.
But thriller is the one that is most malleable, I find. You can have a hardboiled thriller, a mystery thriller, a noir thriller. To me Thriller just defines a certain amount of action. If someone finds a dead body in chapter one and then figures out whodunit in the end but with no other violence in between you've got a traditional mystery, but if that person causes some mayhem along the way, gets deeper into something larger, has to fight their way out, etc. then you've got a mystery with thriller elements.
All this to say that labels are understandably necessary to the industry, but needlessly limiting to readers who avoid certain types of books and then end up missing out on something they might really like.
Crime (and horror) fiction is like the literary equivalent of garage rock in some ways. Networking and camaraderie aside, do you ever feel overwhelmed or even discouraged by the sheer number of writers competing in this genre?
Oh hell yes. Kudos to anyone who writes a book, but there are more than any of us can ever read in a lifetime. Every writer fights with frustrations every day, but you simply can't let it get to you. I've had discussions lately about how it can be infuriating to get the compliment that you're poised to "break through" or your day is coming soon. What's not to love about that, right? But when you've been hearing that for a long time and it still hasn't happened, it can get frustrating and discouraging in a weird way. Writers - you can't win!
All I keep telling myself is that no matter how frustrating it can get, there is someone behind you who has never been published, or who hasn't been able to finish a novel. There are people who look up to where I am in my career and feel envious. Seems crazy to me, but it's all relative.
Above all I need to know I'm proud of the work. If I don't think the next book and the next one after that is on par with the best work I've published thus far, then that's when I've failed. I need to know if someone reads and likes one book of mine, I have no qualms about sending them to any other book and knowing they will be equally entertained.
In the end I probably get more frustrated as a reader with the amount of books out there since it's so hard to keep up!
What are some of your influences, literary and otherwise?
I've probably been influenced by movies as much, if not more, than books when it comes to storytelling. I didn't read all that much for years and years. My storytelling sense is very geared to a film style of tight plots, little fat on the bones, and character being action as much as dialogue or internal thoughts. I think you learn much more about a character by what they do than what they think or say, and that comes from film where you can't show internal monologues very well.
I find myself really drawn to books with parallel stories or taking a 360 degree view of a story or crime. Books like Cold Quiet Country by Clayton Lindenmuth, Lightwood by Steph Post, The Terror Of Living by Urban Waite, Angel Baby by Richard Lange, Mixed Blood by Roger Smith (and probably a thousand more) tell stories about a single event but from all angles. I love that when done well.
I try hard not to emulate anyone or any style, although I've probably fallen victim to it. But you react to novels as far as what is working about it for you and that can mean nothing more than it is the type of story you respond best to. If you then go off and write a book with multiple POVs or some other structure it's not copying or stealing at all unless you really ape a very specific story structure.
What’s next for you?
I have several finished manuscripts that will be making their way out there slowly. First up is the release of the complete trilogy of my Lars and Shaine books. It's been such a long and torturous journey to getting these three books out. Two publishers have gone belly up while publishing this series, but now Down and Out has stepped in and the third book will finally come out, along with reissues of the first two, in Feb of next year.
There will be a third in the List series I cowrote with Frank Zafiro out mid next year and third in the western series, The Lawyer, out next year as well.
Back to that "poised to break through" thing - my newest novel is about to go out to publishers and we shall see what happens with that. I should have news about some other projects by the end of summer, hopefully. Publishing moves slowly and it takes time for some projects to gestate.
Until then, I'll keep typing, keep making up stories.
Thanks for having me, Will!
“Writers Types” Podcast (with S.W. Lauden): https://soundcloud.com/user-910265603
Official website: https://www.ericbeetner.com/
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Eric-Beetner/e/B002UCBDCU
PHOTO: ERIC BEETNER