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Interview: Brendan DuBois

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I have some pages ripped out of an old Playboy magazine. They’re a little brittle from age and from all the moving around I’ve done since this 1997 issue hit the newstand. Looking at those pages now, the ads and cartoons are amusing, and amazing at how much has changed in just 8 years. Ads for videocasettes at $19.98, a cartoon with a wealthy man bragging about his “cellular phone,” and an interview with Liam Neeson all share pages with the piece that I’ve hoarded all these years. I haven’t been saving photos of some lithe girl-of-whatever-conference and I haven’t kept centerfolds of buxom blondes. No, in this case, these fragile pages I’ve saved contain one of my favorite short stories, The Dark Snow by Brendan DuBois. Digging through the folder, I have more pages ripped from Mr. Hefner’s publication. In these cases, DuBois’ stories Netmail, The Shadow Trees and Old Soldiers are saved for posterity.

Author of eleven published novels and more than 80 short stories, DuBois is a mystery writer with a light hand and a subtle touch. He was kind enough to speak with us about his background as a reporter, his lengthy relationship with Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and that fantastic short story, The Dark Snow.

Slushpile: Please tell us a little about your background. I know you worked as a newspaper reporter, but what about your history before that? Where did you grow up? Where did you attend college?

DuBois: All right, a quick and dirty history of my background: one of six boys that grew up in Dover, N.H., a former mill town near the New Hampshire seacoast. Attended Catholic grammar school and Catholic high school, where I gathered a grounding in grammar and writing, a love of books and history, and a distaste for regimentation. From schooling in Dover, N.H., went down the road and attended the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Received a B.A. in English and worked on the student newspaper, where I eventually became editor and probably lost a half-point on my G.P.A. because of the hours spent at the newspaper, and not studying. Upon graduation, worked at two area newspapers for just over three years, when boredom set in, and the drive to write fiction was rekindled. Quit newspaper work, became a tech writer and then a corporate communications writer for a local utility, and started publishing short fiction in 1986. First published novel took a while longer: 1994.

Slushpile: What were your earliest literary experiences? Did you always love books?

DuBois: I was fortunate to grow up in a household where my mom and dad read to us as we grew up, and insisted that we read as well once we learned how. We all got library cards and my mom would take us to the library every week to take out books… and I still remember being thrilled when I got my first adult library card, and was allowed to go “upstairs,” away from the children’s room. And from the start, I was a huge, huge fan of science fiction.

Slushpile: How did you decide that you wanted to be a writer? Was there some specific event that triggered that thought or was it a more gradual realization?

DuBois: I always loved books, always read lots of books — sometimes to my mother’s dismay, who often said, “put that book down and go outside, it’s a beautiful day!” Somewhere around the time I was twelve or thereabouts, I just had the feeling that I wanted to be a writer: I wanted to write stories and have them published as books and put in the library. Hard to explain; it somehow just happened.

Slushpile: What’s the weirdest or craziest story you covered as a newspaper reporter?

DuBois: Hmmm… I’ve had my share of oddball stories, including one that involved a prostitution ring working out of the beach resort community that is the basis for Tyler Beach in my Lewis Cole novels. I also remember writing a story about a small town resident in Maine who had invented a better fly trap or something, and having the little niggling feeling in the back of my head that perhaps my writing skills could be applied to something a bit more noble and permanent.

Slushpile: Some authors find having a job that forces them to write, whether as a reporter or even as an advertising copy writer helps build the writing muscle, helps them learn discipline, and helps them learn how to make the words flow even when there might not be any inspiration. Other authors believe the opposite is more true for them; they would rather paint houses or work construction or do anything so that when they sit down to write, they are fresh. Which opinion do you hold? Did your time as a newspaper reporter help your fiction or hinder it?

DuBois: I strongly believe that my time as a newspaper reporter helped me become
a better fiction writer, for several reasons: it made me realize how to write crisply and cleanly; how to “hook” readers with an interesting opening paragraph; it made me respect deadlines (all right, maybe not respect, but at least recognize them…); and it also gave me the important experience of having my copy get edited.

Slushpile: I believe your first short story was published in 1986 in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Tell us how you felt when you got that first acceptance letter, as opposed to the rejection letters you had been receiving.

DuBois: It was an amazing experience. At the time, trying to break into short fiction, I got into the routine that many other writers had experienced: struggling and writing the very best short story you could, sending it out in the mail, and haunting the mailbox for the next several weeks until the very familiar 9 by 12 manila envelope came back with your handwriting on the outside, indicating yet another rejected story. This went on for several years… a routine that wasn’t particularly comfortable, but which was known.

Then, one day, an envelope appeared with the Ellery Queen logo and return address… and everything changed. For the better. I just remember opening it with trembling hands, and actually tears came to my eyes. It was a very nice letter from Eleanor Sullivan, the editor of EQMM, who said she liked my story, and asked for a re-write for one scene. Re-write was performed, sent out, and contract came a week or so later.

Slushpile: Since that first publication in Ellery Queen, you’ve had a number of stories appear in that magazine. In fact, in a couple of periods in the mid to late 80’s, you got a hot hand and published a story in the magazine almost every other month. What’s it like to work with a magazine and editor
you know well? What are the challenges to impressing the same editor over and over again? In what ways might it be easier for you as opposed to person trying to get their first story in the magazine?

DuBois: After selling a number of stories to EQMM, I went to New York City for the annual Edgar Allan Poe Awards and had a chance to have lunch with Eleanor Sullivan. (My very first editor/author lunch… held at Sardi’s, and I believe I had scallops… some things you never forget…) and during the conversation, I asked her, what kind of stories was she looking for? And I remember her answer: just good stories. Period. So the lesson there was, don’t try to write to what you think the editor wants. Just know the type of stories the magazine publishes, and write the very best story that you can. So the challenge is to keep it fresh, and to keep it good. Even with all the stories I’ve had published with EQMM and AHMM, I still get stories rejected. And you know what? It still hurts (but just a little). About the only difference is now that the rejections come in a brief little note, instead of a pre-printed rejection slip.

Slushpile: You went from a hot streak in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine to hitting a homerun when Playboy published The Dark Snow in 1997. The two former magazines are certainly well-known and respected and you clearly were on a roll with them. But Playboy‘s in a different class entirely. Tell us the story behind The Dark Snow. What were your initial ideas with the piece? What was your inspiration? What was your experience writing it?

DuBois: The Dark Snow — about a retired government operative trying to live in a small New Hampshire town, when the locals start bothering him — actually had a long gestation period before it was written and published. I had the idea of a guy living by himself on the shores of a frozen lake, and being harassed by the locals. The first draft or two of the story had the main character being a retired college professor, and it didn’t click. Just didn’t work. So I put the story away and went on to other things.

A couple of years later, I looked at it again, and thought, no, not a college professor. A guy who looks ordinary, looks like a guy who could be harassed by his neighbors with no consequences, but no, this guy will be a stone-cold killer… and that’s when the story came to life. A killer who’s tired of his life, who just wants to be left alone, and he has certain neighbors who won’t leave him alone. So he has a choice of what to do. And the story just screamed off my fingers — it just went so fast and fine.

When I finished the story — and it sounds cliched and all that — but I knew it was the best story I’ve ever written. And years later, I still have that opinion.

Slushpile: From a mechanical perspective, how did you get the story in Playboy? Did you just submit it through general submissions like all the thousands of other stories or did your agent make the connections for you?

DuBois: My first submissions to Playboy were done through my agent.

Slushpile: During this time of writing short stories and novels, at what point did you obtain agent representation? Tell us about that process.

DuBois: After I had sold a number of short stories, I began work on a novel and also became active in the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. During one of their monthly meetings, Jeremiah Healy — God love ‘em– asked me if I had an agent. I said I hadn’t. He suggested I contact his agent, Jed Mattes, who at the time was working at ICM. I sent along some examples of my published short fiction, and Jed said he’d be interested in looking at my first novel, when and if it got completed. When I finished it, he read it, loved it, and then agreed to represent me.

Slushpile: Who is your agent now?

DuBois: My agent now is Liza Dawson, of Liza Dawson Associates, who is a joy to work with.

Slushpile: The Dark Snow features a protagonist that is, in many ways, a more-articulate, less-disturbed John Rambo. He’s a war-weary military killer that just wants to be left alone and to live out his days in peace and quiet. How did you create a character like this that is interesting, fully-developed, and different? In describing this character, it would be easy for me to say that he’s just another jaded trained-killer anti-hero. But you managed to create a character that is much, much more than the stereotype. How?

DuBois: Hmmm. Quick answer… beats the hell out of me! And I know that’s not a very satisfying answer, but what worked in creating this character was to stay away from cliches of the tough but tender killer, yet make him believable, vulnerable, and attractive enough so that even when he is planning to kill people over what the law would call relatively minor events, that the reader is rooting for him. Sometimes writers, for lack of a better phrase, “luck out” when creating a character. When I wrote The Dark Snow, I lucked out big time.

Slushpile: That story was published in one of the most difficult story markets in the country and it was later included in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century as well as other anthologies. It was also nominated for several awards. I used the home run analogy earlier, but tell us when you knew this one was that good. There’s an instant where a batter finishes the follow-through of his swing and he knows that ball is going to leave the park. At what point did you know this would be a career-defining story?

DuBois: At the time I was trying to break into Playboy, for it’s a very attractive market, not only for its exposure (hah-hah) but because of its prominence in publishing what’s considered high-quality fiction. Plus — if I may be mercenary for a moment — the pay is terrific. I wrote a short story called The Necessary Brother that was my first submission to Playboy, and which got a very nice rejection letter from the fiction editor, Alice Turner [editor’s note: the current literary editor of Playboy is Amy Grace Lloyd]. That, in turn, made me want to re-double my efforts to write a story that would meet Playboy’s standards. The result was The Dark Snow. And hard to explain, I just knew when I finished that story, it was going to make it. I just knew.

Slushpile: That same character reappears again the stories Netmail and Old Soldiers, both published in Playboy. You’ve also written five novels focusing on Lewis Cole. What are the benefits to featuring a reoccurring character? What are the disadvantages to featuring a reoccurring character?

DuBois: The advantages of using a reoccurring character is the fun in developing the character in future stories, without having to waste time or effort in coming up with a new character. The disadvantages, of course, is finding nothing new to write about in a certain character; the character becomes stale or worse, cliched.

Slushpile: There seems to be a very tight-knit fraternity of mystery writers? Is that an accurate representation? How do new writers establish themselves in this community?

DuBois: Well, I don’t know how tight knit it really is. For the most part, mystery writers belong to the lead mystery writers group, Mystery Writers of America, or other groups such as Private Eye Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, so forth and so on. As far as establishing one’s self in this community, it’s pretty simple: start writing and getting published, and that’s about it. I was a newcomer when I first joined MWA and started attending conventions, and I was warmly welcomed from the very start.

Slushpile: You’ve had stories in Ellery Queen as recent as this past spring. That’s more than a decade you’ve been publishing in this magazine. Tell us what you think makes this magazine such an important component to the mystery community?

DuBois: Well, hard to believe, it’s been almost twenty years. Pretty wild, eh? My very first published short story was called Dark Corridor, and it appeared in the February 1986 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. EQMM is the oldest continuous published mystery magazine in the world, having first been published in 1941. Its importance to the mystery community is that it — and joined by its sister magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine–is the standard in the field for mystery short stories.

Slushpile: You’re in a unique position to give a thumbnail of what Ellery Queen is looking for in short stories. What kind of story does an aspiring author need to write to be published in that magazine?

DuBois: First of all, read the magazine. See what kind of stories are being published, and you’ll see the EQMM pretty much runs the gamut, though they stay away from blood, gore, really rough language and the supernatural. Then again, rules are made to be broken, right? So read the magazine. Make sure your story — whatever kind of story you prepare — would be a good fit.

Slushpile: Which magazines do you think are most receptive to the work of new writers?

DuBois: I sold my first short stories to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine on my own, with no literary agent and no track record at all. So I’m partial to listing these two as still being open to short stories in the mystery field. Trust me, they’re looking for good stories; I’ve heard from people and read stuff about people believing you’ve got to know somebody to break in; that’s utter nonsense.

Slushpile: Most people seem to only think of two financial extremes for fiction writers. They either think of the starving artist or the multi-millionaire like Dan Brown. Yet, you have sold nearly 80 short stories and published 8 novels. I’m not rude enough to ask how much money you make, but in very, very general terms, can you give us an idea of what it’s like to be a prolific author who is not exactly a household name? What’s the lifestyle of a working author like?

DuBois: First of all, having a supportive wife is key. Without that… well, it would have been several magnitudes harder. Now, having said that, I’m very fortunate that Resurrection Day, published a number of years ago, gave me enough of a financial push to make the jump to full time writing.

The lifestyle of a working author… well, this is a typical day. Up about 5:45 a.m. and go out for a walk just after 6 a.m. with the missus and our English Springer Spaniel, Tucker. Home and breakfast and my wife goes off to work, and I start writing. Write most of the morning and then the rest of the day is devoted to household tasks, running errands, doing research, answering e-mail, trying to update my website on a more regular basis, and that’s about it.

Then, about once a year, a new novel comes out… which means a blur of book signings, library appearances, and some media interviews… and then when that buzz is over, it’s back to the usual routine.

Slushpile: Pacing seems to bedevil many aspiring authors in the mystery genre. How do you handle pacing and suspense in your work? Or is it something that one simply learns through experience?

DuBois: I think it’s a combination of both. While writing, one tries to be conscious of seeing your word’s through a reader’s eyes. So you try to make everything work, try to make the reader excited about what’s happening, and what might happen next. This, in turn, is something you learn from experience, so that you almost unconsciously decide as you’re writing, “okay, things are flagging just a bit, time to turn up the heat.”

Slushpile: There was a time when a writer sitting down to write an espionage novel had a pretty easy cast of characters. We were the good guys and the Soviet Union were the bad guys. But with the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the rise of militant terrorism, how does that change in our real world affect the mystery world?

DuBois: That’s an excellent question. What I always found challenging is to come up with bad guys that aren’t cliched, which, unfortunately, is often the case. It’s either right-wing gun nuts or evil businessmen or now, of course, terrorists. I think sometimes it’s the easy way out… of course, there’s always the Nazis, but they’ve been used and re-used so many times.

Slushpile: Years ago, there never seemed to be any concern for the portrayal of Soviet villains. A writer could get away with just making them be cold, aloof, and robotic. Throw in some vodka and there’s a Soviet bad guy. But now, many writers are timid or nervous in their portrayal of militant terrorists. I know a writer who abandoned a novel entirely rather than risk the wrath of political-correct critics complaining about his representation of a militant Islamic terrorist. He said that if the PC police didn’t complain about him stereotyping his villain, than ultra-conservatives would complain that he was too “nice” to his villain. What words of advice would you offer to a writer in this situation?

DuBois: Write what makes sense to you and to hell with the critics. How’s that? Of course, it’s always fun to see how an author can make a villain from an unexpected source. I remember some time ago, reading a science fiction novel called Earth by David Brin. One set of villains in that book were the Swiss! Sounds crazy but Brin did a masterful job making it work. Make your villain whatever and whoever makes sense, but do it well, and avoid cliches! Nazis and KGB-types and Islamic-terrorists all make wonderful villains, but make them three-dimensional. Even bad guys get hungry, enjoy some sort of innocent past time, and have a few good attributes in their make-up. Remember, most bad guys don’t look upon themselves as bad guys… I’m sure Stalin and Pol Pot and Hitler didn’t lay awake nights, worrying about their self esteem.

Slushpile: I think I’m going to scream if I see another mystery that involves cops or detectives either on the bookstore shelves or on TV. While I realize those people are closest to mystery, murder, and intrigue, what are your suggestions for creating a mystery that doesn’t involve these same old characters and jobs recycled over and over again? Without resorting to the ìmeddling kidsî on Scooby-Doo and to Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote, how can someone create a mystery using mundane jobs and settings?

DuBois: My main character in my mystery series is one Lewis Cole, a magazine columnist that investigates things mysterious in and around the New Hampshire seacoast. Like you, when I started planning out the Lewis Cole novels years ago, I knew he wouldn’t be the same old private eye or lawyer or other type of amateur. Being a former journalist, and knowing how they can spend an entire day asking lots of questions, I knew that Lewis would be connected in that type of field. However, having said that, I knew that something was missing from his background: that something was a drive, or a passion, to investigate criminal matters. Most of us, if we find a dead body on our doorstep, will let the professionals handle it. That makes for a very short novel. So in Lewis –who has a mysterious past involving his time as a research analyst with the Department of Defense — is possessed with a thirst and a need for justice. That’s what drives him. So any type of amateur detective will work, but there was to be something inside of him or her, that makes him or her take chances, to follow leads, to ask the tough questions.

Slushpile: You have a couple of unpublished novels ready. Can you tell us anything about them?

DuBois: They’re my first two novels which are gathering dust somewhere in drawers in my home. The first one, Loon Kill, was written on an ancient device called a typewriter back in 1987 or thereabouts, and this novel garnered me an agent and came close to being published on a few occasions. The second one was written a couple of years after Loon Kill, and was called Right to Remain. Both are stand-alone suspense thrillers, and though I love them as my very first attempts, I doubt either will ever get published.

Slushpile: What’s so crazy about your cat, Oreo?

DuBois: Oreo’s more neurotic than crazy, though perhaps that’s just a feline trait. He believes he rules the house — which is pretty true in a way — and just last year, we got an English Springer Spaniel named Tucker. There were concerns that Tucker would intimidate Oreo; the opposite happened, for the first time they met, Oreo bopped Tucker in the nose with his paw, to show him who was boss. Tucker hasn’t bothered Oreo since.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?

DuBois: Persistence, persistence, persistence. Talent is wonderful, and talent will get you places, but without persistence — without continuing to write despite rejections, despite personal turmoil and hardship — you will not succeed.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors trying to break into print?

DuBois: See above. The hard truth is that no one cares whether or not you become a writer. Only you can care. And it’s in your hands… and persistence is the best tool to have.

Be sure to check out DuBois’ website for more information about his work.