Interview: Stuart Woods, Author
Stuart Woods is the bestselling author of 30 novels and the most recent release Two Dollar Bill. Originally from a small town in Georgia, Woods now divides his time between Key West, Maine, and New York City. His string of bestsellers is impressive indeed and the man is very experienced with the writing craft.
Slushpile: The bio and interview materials on your website say that you “became a voracious reader as a child, and by the time I was nine or ten, I wanted to write.” What were your other interests as a child and young man, besides literature?
Woods: All the usual ones: sports (at which I was uniformly bad), the drums and jazz, girls.
Slushpile: You are from Manchester, GA, which according to some reports has a population as small as 4,000 people. Did you ever feel the need to fit into the stereotype of the Southern writer who writes about small towns, peach cobblers cooling in the window, dirt roads, screen doors slamming shut, and crazy aunts hidden in the attic? That folksy, Lewis Grizzard-Harper Lee-run-amok image; did you feel like you had to fit into that? Or did your publishers ever try to get that out of you?
Woods: Nope, though my first novel, Chiefs, established my southern credentials, I think.
Slushpile: Your first publications were for non-fiction books and then W.W. Norton bought the rights to one of those texts as well as your first novel. Were you working with an agent at that time or did you represent yourself?
Woods: I sold my first book, the memoir, to a British publisher, who sold the U.S. rights to Norton, then I got an agent.
Slushpile: Do you currently work with an agent now? If so, who is your representation?
Woods: Morton Janklow and Anne Sibbald, his principal associate, have been my agents for 25 years.
Slushpile: You mention on your website that you recently signed a four-book deal Putnam. Is this the usual term for your contracts? Or do you prefer longer or shorter deals?
Woods: I think it’s the second four-book deal, but I’m not sure. I’ve often done two and three-book deals.
Slushpile: That first novel, Chiefs, was published in 1981. Since then you have published 31 novels. This is a big question, but what changes have you seen in the publishing industry since Chiefs was published?
Woods: I make it thirty, but, although all the houses have been bought by conglomerates, I don’t think much has changed from the author’s perspective. It’s still a seat-of-the-pants industry; opinion of people in publishing counts a great deal more than any sort of modern marketing.
Slushpile: What is your overall opinion of the material being produced by the publishing industry today?
Woods: I think the more literary stuff is probably as good as it ever was, but not necessarily better, but I think the thriller/mystery genre is better-written than it every was.
Slushpile: If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would you change?
Woods: The size of the promotion and advertising budgets.
Slushpile: Some writers immerse themselves in the writing industry and scene, going to all the parties, writing blurbs for all the books, hanging out with all the right folks. But your life seems full of travel, flying, boating, and generally enjoying life when you’re not working. Is it fair to say that you focus on other aspects of your life and let your writing stand for itself, instead of trying to make the scene?
Woods: I make the scene at Elaine’s on a regular basis, when I’m in town, but for my pleasure, not business; I go to a couple of industry cocktail parties every year and always to the Author’s Guild dinner; I go to the Edgar Awards, if I’m not on book tour, as I am now.
Slushpile: Most people would consider you a genre writer as opposed to a “literary” writer. I personally think that the literary world needs to take a page from the mystery crowd and write stories with more urgency, more thrills, and higher stakes. I want to read tales in the old sense of the world. But if you could reverse that suggestion, and take some technique or characteristic from the literary fiction category, what would you like to incorporate into your own writing?
Woods: I think every good novel has to have a mystery at its core; people read, not just for the beauty of the prose, but to find out what happens. I think writers like myself have to be careful what we learn from the “literary” novelists. The navel contemplation tends to slow things down.
Slushpile: What do you think is your biggest strength as a writer?
Woods: Dialogue; and the ability to keep the reader interested from chapter to chapter.
Slushpile: What is your biggest weakness as a writer?
Woods: I have a weakness? Oh, please.
Slushpile: The settings for your books range from Los Angeles to New York to Washington, DC to Palm Beach to Key West to South America and more. And you include characters with professions from homicide detectives to the president of the United States. How much research do you do for your books? Some writers are obsessive in their research while others just try to get the general feel. Which method do you prefer?
Woods: On some books, like White Cargo and Deep Lie, I did a great deal of research, but mostly I write from my own fund of personal knowledge, with occasional injections of expertise from lawyer, doctor or other friends.
Slushpile: You have a few recurring characters. There are differences in their professions and geographic locations, but still, do you ever come up with an idea for a novel and then struggle to decide which character will be utilized?
Woods: No, if it’s to be a continuing-character novel, it’s usually obvious which one fits the idea.
Slushpile: What is the one thing that you know, that you always pass along to your characters?
Woods: That there is no such thing as easy money, and that women will leave you.
Slushpile: What is the one thing that you own, that you always have your characters own?
Woods: Good cars.
Slushpile: The amount of movies, TV shows, and books that feature police as main characters never seems to drop. Each year, more and more fictional cops enter our culture. How do you take these professions and archetypes, which have been written about so much, and make them new and interesting?
Woods: Make them individuals who work against the stereotype.
Slushpile: What do you try to do with your characters or your novels to differentiate them from all the rest?
Woods: I try to make each novel as different from all my other novels as I possibly can. If I can succeed at that, then they’ll be different from other novels at large.
Slushpile: Fans can sometimes go to extremes to try and meet their favorite author, or get a book signed, or just shake hands. What’s the craziest fan experience you’ve ever had?
Woods: Last week, at a signing in Palm Springs, a very attractive woman, accompanied by her husband, asked if she could kiss me, then planted a big one on me, tongue and everything!
Slushpile: How many people come up to you and say “I’ve got a great idea for a book. I’ll tell it to you, you can write it, and we’ll split the money”?
Woods: I used to get a lot of that until I told people on my website not to do it. Once in a while they try, but I delete the email immediately.
Slushpile: Your website lists some of your favorite authors (Leonard, Shames, McBain, LeCarre) as well as points out that you read a wide variety of subjects. Who are some of your favorite young authors? Is there a new writer that you feel is someone to watch?
Woods: I don’t read writers by age category, and I don’t particularly read novels by young writers. I think that, for the vast majority of writers, age and experience are irreplaceable assets. Only the very brilliant can write good fiction young.
Slushpile: I happen to collect watches that are influenced by pilots as well as diving watches and nautical themed items and you are both a pilot and an experienced boater. Clive Cussler is famous for his orange-faced Doxa… what is your favorite watch?
Woods: A Rolex Fiftieth-Anniversary Submariner.
Slushpile: When you leave for a long sailing trip, what books do you bring along? What are the other items you always want on your boat when you leave?
Woods: I always bring along a very large, very heavy biography or history, like Conrad Black’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, because that’s what I’m usually reading.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, can’t-live-without writing tip that you would offer to aspiring authors?
Woods: Write something. Aspiring writers too often seem to forget that part. Also, if you’re starting out, get a job that requires you to write every day, whether you feel like it or not. After the good use of language, that ability is the most important skill.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Woods: Finish your novel before you try to sell it, and get the best agent you can find. Getting published is a lot easier than writing something worth publishing.