There are certain words I can never remember how to spell. Hors d'oeuvre. Conscientious. Liaison. Floccinaucinihilipilification. Quertermous. Bryon.
A certain writer I know has the misfortune of having not one but two of those tricky words in his name. Tough break for you, Conscientious Liaison! Maybe that's why you've never sold a book. Time to try a pen name, methinks.
And then there's good old Bryon Quertermous, who hasn't let a spell check-befuddling name stand in his way. He's been active on the crime fiction scene for years, first as a short story writer and fanboy/gadfly, later as an editor, and most recently as an author. His first novel, Murder Boy, tells the story of Dominick Prince, a wannabe writer who takes extreme measures (kidnapping is extreme, right?) when a teacher flunks him because his crime fiction isn't literary enough. Hilarity ensues. And murder. A recently published followup, Riot Load, found Prince stumbling into a wild, hyper-violent sperm heist.
And for this alone, Bryon Quertermous, I shall love you forever: You made it possible for me to type the words "a wild, hyper-violent sperm heist."
The perpetually bumbling, flummoxed, neurotic Prince is one of the most interesting and unique crime fiction protagonists I've run across in a long, long time. Not just because he's so obviously a reflection of the author. Because he's a warts-and-all, fun house mirror reflection -- warped, distorted and portrayed with what feels like a relentless self-loathing. Which is what led me to my first question when I got the chance to engage Byron...dammit! Engage Bryon in an email Q&A.
Me: Having just finished reading Riot Load, I've got to ask...how ya feelin', buddy?
Bryon: I'm feeling great, now. But back in my late twenties I was awful. I was awful inside and awful outside. I was broke and wandering and confused as a writer and as a person. I'd made a lot of questionable life choices and botched some really great opportunities folks had given me. I'd tried writing a couple of novels glamorizing this time in my life but they failed miserably. It wasn't until I had the perspective that only comes with age that I was able to look back and really lay into that version of me. I was very, very lucky to survive that time in my life relatively unscathed and have a great life now. Dominic got the raw end of that life and his bad choices have awful consequences for himself and for everyone he comes into contact with.
Me: Dominic definitely takes a beating -- both literally and metaphorically -- in Riot Load. It makes for a really interesting mix of wackiness and tragedy. Is that what you were aiming for? Or do you not think about your intent so much when you get started? There's an almost stream-of-consciousness vibe to the book that gives me the feeling you're a "pantser" who writes straight from the gut. Or maybe you're just good at faking it.
Bryon: I think using the word intentional for anything involving this book is trouble. It's the unintentional second book in a series I had no idea I was writing when I started the first book. But once I had really gone all in with the stream-of-consciousness, anything-can-happen vibe in the first book, I wanted to push that even further with the second book. I ran into trouble about halfway through when I kept trying to force it to be a caper novel and it really had no interest in being a caper novel. I was chatting with a friend at the same time I was working my way through some of Elmore Leonard's early books I had missed. We were talking about 52 Pick-Up and she mentioned that she liked how mean it was. And it is mean. And that's what was missing from Riot Load early on. While I would never call it anything close to realistic, I could see this character developing on his own away from the very obvious avatar he had been for me in the first book and I was seeing some effects of the awful things that had happened to him. He was still an idiot and still made bad decisions, but he was also getting meaner and once I decided to go along with that, the book rolled and I had a riot with it.
As far as the mix of wackiness and tragedy, that's just how I operate. I can't commit to any one emotional state for too long or I start to roll my eyes. Stuff that is too tragic seems melodramatic to me and stuff that is too wacky seems ridiculous to me. While the actions and storyline may be absurd, the emotions in this book are real and these are some very confused and unhappy people, so there was going to be tragedy.
Me: Is it safe to assume a third book in the series is on its way? It doesn't feel like Dominick's done changing...or f-ing up.
Bryon: Yes. I'm writing the final book in the trilogy right now. It's called Trigger Switch, and I've been pitching it as Dominick's transition from Dortmunder to Parker. I had originally planned on being done with the character after the second book, but by the time I wrote the ending of Riot Load I knew I needed one more book to complete his transformation.
Me: It's interesting that a character who started out being a variation on you has strayed so far from the original model. Is that just storytelling at work? You went where the muses took you, and Dominick had to be altered by the journey? Or is the shift a reflection of a change in your own self image and how you see yourself as a writer?
Bryon: I think, at his core, Dominick still has a lot of me in him, but as the books have progressed and my storytelling sense has progressed and my life has progressed he's gone from being a reflection of me at certain points in my life to being an outlet for the parts of me I'm less enamored of, like my anger and my temper. One of the key moments in my life happened during the writing of this book and that was losing a job I saw as my dream job. I was an editor for the new crime fiction imprint of a respected publisher and had a lot of freedom to pursue my passions in publishing and travel and have a voice in the industry, all while working from home. It was amazing and then it was ripped away from me. That bred a lot of anger and bitterness in me about the publishing industry, about art, about writing, and about my life. Meanwhile my obsession with social media was feeding into this anger by loading me up with nothing but bad news and national horrors. So I was in a foul mood while I wrote a lot of this book and instead of pushing that away, I embraced it and used it. Obviously I can't imagine doing that for a long-running series without burning out and losing the magic of what makes this weird mess work and I'm already itching to work on something that I can paint with more subtle tones and a little more slow burning.
Me: Do you have specific ideas you want to move on to next? If so, do they all fall within the crime genre? I'm tormented (in a First World Problems, writer way) by all the different ideas and creative impulses I have and how they're constantly shifting. If I had a theme song, it would be "My Ever Changing Moods."
Bryon: I have one very specific project I want to work on next, the ever popular Big Commercial Novel that I think I'm finally ready to write, but I do have other ideas I want to explore in the urban fantasy and cyberpunk realms that have elements of crime fiction but also cool stuff like robots and monsters.
Me: What would be your goal for the BCN? Do you feel like you should write it because that's what crime writers do at some point, and the time might be right for you soon? Or is it more organic than that -- you had an idea you liked, you realized "This feels like a BCN," et voila? I accepted a long time ago that I don't have a BCN in me. Which is sort of a bummer but liberating, too.
Bryon: I always wanted to write a Big Commercial Novel, but my first few attempts turned out as Big Pretentious Messes instead. I kept getting too caught up in the idea of the crime novel as social novel and spending time dawdling with the book's mission to the world without remembering to work on things like characters and plotting. Also, it turns out that I'm not all that socially inclined in my writing, at least not that way. I love satire and making huge grandiose gestures of humor and sarcasm to address what I see as the problems of the world. But after this trilogy I think I've had my satirical say for the time being and I want to focus more on big emotion. Ever since I've been a parent, the idea of parental grief and surviving the loss of a child has been an obsession of mine. I think too much about it and think society as a whole thinks too much about it and our kids are suffering because instead of dealing with imaginary grief head on, parents try to protect their kids to a ridiculous degree in, I think, a selfish attempt to never have to really deal with parental grief. But I'm lucky. I have a creative outlet to address this with. So that's what I want to do with my BCN: tap into this massive shared imaginary grief of parents, or really anyone who is afraid of losing someone.
Me: Yowza -- sounds like you've got all the Big Ideas you need for a BCN. Or a BN, anyway. "Commercial" can be a tricky thing to get a bead on, especially when it comes to literature. But let's say the BCN is a BGDBS (Big God Damn Best-Seller). What would you do next? Or, to put the question another (more cliched) way: What do you hope you're doing with your writing in five, 10, 20 years?
Bryon: I think Big Novel is a great way to describe it. Bigger canvas, bigger palate, bigger expectations. And yes, commercial can be so very tricky and my interests and style have never run particularly close to the commercial center, but I want to keep trying. As far as long-term hopes go, I still hold out hopes for an old fashioned-style book-a-year career. If the next book hit it big, I have another idea in mind to immediately capitalize on that success that is the ever elusive "same but different" that readers crave. I used to think I wanted to write a long-running series, but after three books I'm already sick of these characters and ready to do something else. So I see doing more stand-alone books or trilogies in the future. I'd also really like to do movie work. I know television is the in thing now and that's where everyone is clamoring, but I adore the movies and want to write adaptations of my own stuff and adaptations of other people's stuff and even original work. I have this weird desire to take something strange, like a board game, and figure out a way to make it into something awesome. I think the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie and The Lego Movie are great examples of really good writers taking incredibly stupid ideas and making something awesome out of them. Maybe I'll be the guy who writes the first movie to win an Oscar based on a breakfast cereal.