Interview: Wallace Stroby

Wallace Stroby is the author of The Barbed-Wire Kiss, The Heartbreak Lounge, and Gone ’til November. His new novel, Cold Shot to the Heart, was released this week. The reviews are quite good.

Wallace was kind enough to answer some questions via e-mail about Cold Shot and other stuff. Enjoy.

Trent: Your previous novel, Gone ’til November, was as much a character study as it was a crime novel. Your new novel, Cold Shot to the Heart, is much more action-oriented. Why the change in approach?

Wallace Stroby: I’d always wanted to write something in that stripped-down, fast-moving style, where the challenge would be to handle the character development and backstory as deftly as possible, in quick strokes. Too much, and the book stops in its tracks. Too little, and no one cares about the people involved. So, on one level it was an exercise, and on another, it was a lot of fun. I love writing action, and I usually have to pull back a little on those scenes, so Cold Shot gave me a chance to indulge that. I wanted to write something that was lean and mean, but still had some real emotional content to it.

My first draft of The Barbed-Wire Kiss was much in that same vein, ultra terse and laconic. My agent at the time, the legendary Knox Burger, convinced me to rein that in, fill in the backstory on the characters, make them more accessible, easier to relate to. And for the purposes of that book, he was absolutely right.

So Cold Shot is a different voice for me, but not the only one.

Trent: One way in which you amped up the action was by creating a different style of antagonist. In Gone ’til November, Morgan is sympathetic, even though for the purposes of the novel he’s the bad guy. The reader wants everything to work out for him, so long as that doesn’t hurt the good guys. Cold Shot‘s Eddie the Saint, on the other hand, is almost a force of nature (if nature were pure evil). He reminded me a lot of Parker’s nemesis George Uhl.

Can you give us a little insight on writing those two different types? Was one more difficult than the other? Why?

Wallace Stroby: Well, they’re two different characters with two different functions. You could rewrite Gone ’til November as Morgan’s story alone, and it would still work. He’s a guy who’s had a tough life, and made some hard choices, but he still tries to conduct himself with a little dignity and honor. Eddie, on the other hand, exists mainly as a foil for Crissa. He’s everything she’s not – a killer, a spoiler, a destroyer rather than a builder. Unlike Morgan, Eddie’s only interest in other people is how he can use them to get what he wants. He has some affection for his younger partner, Terry, but most of his human qualities have been burnt out of him by prison, the life he’s chosen, and his own pathology.

Eddie has much less page time in Cold Shot than Morgan did in November, one of the reasons being that it wasn’t much fun to be inside his head, and write from his point of view. You try to find something sympathetic about every character, but with Eddie it was difficult.

Trent: Crissa Stone, the main character in Cold Shot to the Heart, is a professional thief whose ideal MO is to make a big score, and then live the high life until the money starts running low. There are other references to the Parker books in the novel. You don’t have to give the whole game away, but would you care to throw us a bone or two? And what are some of the other authors or works that influenced or are referenced in the novel?

Wallace Stroby: I think it’s less that Crissa wants to live the high life – she has a pretty modest apartment by New York standards – and more that she just wants to live some semblance of a normal life, despite her profession. She has the illusion she can organize her life the way she helps put together a robbery. She wants her dream house in Connecticut, to be reunited with her young daughter – whom she’s given up – and her lover and mentor, who’s in prison. But on one level, she knows all those things are unlikely, because of the choices she’s made. So I wasn’t thinking Parker so much as the Ali MacGraw character in Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway – played by someone other than Ali MacGraw.

That said, I’ve read and love all the Westlake/Stark books – they’re seminal American crime fiction – and they loomed large during my most formative years, as did books by Lawrence Block, Brian Garfield and others.  But I was hearing other voices as well. One was Jean-Patrick Manchette, who wrote two great existential French crime thrillers, The Prone Gunman and Three to Kill. Another was the British writer Ted Lewis, whose novel Jack’s Return Home became the Michael Caine film Get Carter. And there’s an American author named James Salter who wrote a Korean War novel called The Hunters that perfectly captured that terse-but-emotional style I was trying for.

As far as references, there is one major Stark homage in Cold Shot, specifically an exchange of dialogue. So far, no one’s spotted it, so I’m not going to give it away. I went back and forth on whether to include it, then decided if I was ever going to do it, that was the place, because it fit perfectly. So that was my tribute – or theft. Depends how you look at it, I guess.

Trent: You’ve already launched a two-book (so far) series with your first two novels, The Barbed-Wire Kiss and The Heartbreak Lounge, featuring ex-state trooper Harry Rane. Gone ’til November has a couple of characters who I could easily see appearing again, and certainly Crissa Stone in Cold Shot has a series feel to her. At some point are you going to have more series than you actually have books?

In all seriousness, do you know who we are likely to see again, and when?

Wallace Stroby: I’d originally planned to write a sequel – or maybe even a prequel – to Gone ’til November, but St. Martin’s was enthusiastic about a follow-up to Cold Shot, which was fine with me. So, that’s what I’m working on now. Harry will be back at some point, I’m sure, though at the moment I think he’s on a red wine and Percocet bender somewhere.

Trent: One thing we have in common beyond a love of crime fiction is a love of music. Plug one book and one album that you think are underappreciated.

Wallace Stroby: Picking one book is tough – there’s any number I could name. I really liked a Brooklyn-set crime novel that came out in 2003 called Martin Quinn, by a guy named Anthony Lee.  I wrote about it a couple years back. The book seemed to vanish without a trace, as did Lee. However, I recently heard through his agent that he now has a second book in the pipeline, which is good news, because I thought Martin Quinn was terrific.

Album’s easier: May Day (A&M, 1997) by Matthew Ryan. He’s had some excellent albums since, but this was his debut. Great songs and arrangements, and one of the unique voices in pop music. It’s also the only album I ever bought based solely on the cover art. I’ve bought everything of his since.

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Many thanks to Mr. Stroby for taking the time to do this interview. Check back later this week for a giveaway of Cold Shot to the Heart and a related contest.

Coincidentally, I’m also quite fond of May Day. As I mentioned to Wallace in our green room conversation, I’ve occasionally thought about launching a “Songs of Noir” series when I desperately needed filler. “The Dead Girl” from that album will be on the short list if that ever happens.

Got no clue on the books he mentioned, though. That stack on my nightstand just keeps getting taller and taller and taller…

Matthew Ryan – “Guilty”

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