Nightbird Publishers interviews Heywood Gould about his new book SERIAL KILLER’S DAUGHTER and about his life as a writer
What actors do you envision playing the leads, Peter Vogel and Hannah Seeley, in the movie version, should there be one?
I’d like Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed, but don’t think they’re available.
Do you write every day? What does a typical writing day look like for you?
I try to write five days during the week and a half day on Sunday if there are no good football games.
Of your overall writing time, what percentage is new writing and what percentage is rewriting and editing?
I start the day by rereading what I wrote the day before. Sometimes I hate the stuff. It’s either incoherent or glib, clumsy or cheaply facile. A repeated word or a grammatical mistake can throw me into a panic. A flaw in logic or a key omission makes me Google “Symptoms of Dementia,” all of which I discover I’ve had since childhood. Then I begin to rewrite—what choice do I have? That can sometimes take a whole day and can affect the new stuff I had planned so I go back even further to clip off any loose ends. A different story begins to emerge. The story that was meant to be.
As all other Gods have failed I’ve gotten mystical about the writing process. I no longer see myself as a creator, bringing something new into the world, but as an explorer on a voyage of discovery. Rewriting is a course correction to get to my El Dorado. It’s out there fully formed shimmering in the sun, —the perfect noir best seller with a huge movie sale.
The face of publishing appears to be changing. Where do you see it going over the next 5-10 years?
E-books obviously. But I think younger readers will discover the joy of the printed book; I see more people reading on the NYC subway than ever. The big houses will follow the big movie studios and aim for the mass audience. Small publishers who can operate on low overhead will become more influential. I think you’ll see most of the NBA, Pulitzer, Edgar, Hugo, etc. winners coming from the independent publishers.
How do you build strong characters in a novel, and which is your favorite character that you created? Any characters of your creation that upset you and made them difficult to keep writing about?
The fun of writing is when you start to “read” your characters. When they acquire a life of their own and you become a stenographer taking down their stories. I’ve found most of my characters—even the bad guys—interesting and fun to write. But I was appalled by Arnold Seeley, the murderer in Serial Killer’s Daughter. He’s the first totally evil character I’ve ever written and I wondered in what depths of my brain he had been lurking. His scenes were the most difficult I’ve ever written. I felt like Dr. Frankenstein: why was I dredging this monster up? But, in the same book I found two innocent young lovers who create an Eden in the back seat of a Volkswagen Bug traveling up and down the 101 Freeway. I finished the book with a darker view of humanity. But, paradoxically, with a greater appreciation of the redemptive power of love.
What do you like to read?
I read to become a better writer. To quote Norman Mailer: “To see how the other guys pull their jobs.” I read the Bible every day before writing as a constant lesson in how to tell a vivid story in simple language. Also, the Bible is uncanny in the way a name mentioned in Genesis, pops up in later books; how a story in one book lays the groundwork for an event in another. Some people would say that God, the author, used divine logic. I’d rather think that some human redactor (with God-given talent, of course) went through all the writings, paying off characters, resolving stories and tying up loose ends. I try to read writers who are better than me; you can easily pick up bad habits from the hacks. The great novelists can teach you how to tell a story. The great noir writers—Chandler, Simenon, Hammett and a few lesser known masters like Kenneth Fearing, Jonathan Latimer, Steve Fisher and many others to teach how to create atmosphere and suspense. History and biography show how lives seem to meander, but are really driven by the logic of events. To make the coincidental and the unlikely seem inevitable is the great challenge of fiction writing.
Many of your novels are noir and depict the seedy underbelly of society. How did you decide to write this genre?
I grew up a few blocks away from the mother of famed bank robber and perpetual prison escapee Willie Sutton. She was a trembly old lady prowling the streets with a market basket, but she walked in an aura all her own. People pointed her out, told stories about her, but left her alone. I was eleven and consumed with curiosity. One day in the butcher store I asked her: “Are you Willy Sutton’s mother?” She smiled. “That’s me.” She seemed to want to talk, but when I got outside the butcher came after me in his blood spattered white coat and gave me a hard shove with his cold, beefy hand. “You bother that lady again, you’ll get a smack.” That was my first inkling that there was a secret world in my neighborhood that the butcher and Willy Sutton’s mom were part of and I was not. From then on I’ve been fascinated with life in the alternate universe of crime.
What new projects are you currently working on?
I’m working on a thriller about a poetry-writing, pot-smoking detective in Santa Monica. Also, a musical version of a movie I wrote called “Cocktail.”
What do you like the best about writing, and what do you like the least?
I hate writing. Oh yeah and I guess I love it, too. I love finishing something, but I hate reading it over and seeing how far it has strayed from the original conception. I love getting paid for what I’ve written, even if it’s only a few dollars. But I hate the nagging feeling that the publishers and producers are ripping me off. I love the elation when I get off a good line, but hate the deflation at a cliché that has somehow gotten into print. I was once haggling with a producer about a screenplay fee. “I’m doin’ you a favor payin’ you at all, “he said. “You’d do this thing for nothing and you know it…” That about sums it up.
Do you have a personal favorite of the books you have written? How about a favorite Heywood Gould screenplay/movie?
There’s good and band in all of them. The good stuff seems like it was written by someone else. As if I went into a trance and it was dictated to me. The bad stuff is all too recognizable as mine and mine alone.
What kind of research do you do for your crime novels? FORT APACHE, THE BRONX is especially gritty and real. Have you participated in ride-alongs with cops on their beats to get that sense of reality?
I covered police for the NY Post in the ‘60’s. With the anti-war demos, the drug busts, the Mob hits and the street crime there was enough action in one night for a hundred scripts. Ride-alongs were inconceivable. The cops didn’t want any reporter to see how they really did their jobs. Anyway, there’s something voyeuristic about Ride-alongs—like watching the animals from a Land Rover. And they’re unproductive. You get the official version, but people in the street won’t give you the straight story with two cops standing behind you. If you want to write about a neighborhood you shouldn’t be afraid to venture into it alone. Go to the scene, nose around. People are brimming with the great unarticulated drama of their lives. You’ll find somebody who wants to talk.
The Fort Apache characters were loosely based on two Bronx cops, who had a wealth of great stories and great humor about the job. They made writers undergo an initiation, taking them on a tour of the Bronx bars and if they were still conscious, dropping them in “hooker central” outside the Bronx Zoo. Two guys had washed out before me. But I was working as a bartender, drinking a quart of Martell a night. I was in training. We went shot for shot for hours. When the cops started to fade I saw my chance. I bypassed my mouth and threw the last four rounds over my shoulder. They were too drunk to notice. When we pulled up outside the zoo and the hookers rushed the car, I asked: “Is this on you guys?” Cops are famously cheap. They sped away. I got the job.
Tell us about your early days as a writer. Was it difficult for you to get published? Do you have a few “trunk” or “apprenticeship” novels that never saw print?
I have scores of short stories and half-finished novels that were rejected. Several plays and at least twenty screenplays that will never be produced. It’s like being a baseball player: a .300 batting average is pretty good. My first published books were non-fiction and were like longer, more detailed versions of the stories I had done as a reporter. Fiction was harder to write. There was no template. Every story demanded its own kind of telling. A dull reporter can write a competent story if the subject is interesting. A dull novelist will write a dull novel because in the end subject of every novelist is him/herself.
Your memoir, CORPORATION FREAK, about your experiences workig as a consultant for IBM, is hilarious and insightful. The corporate mindset is a frightening thing, right? Tell our readers about those days at Big Blue…the highs and the lows.
Random thoughts of an office worker staring out of the window of a suburban industrial park on a spring day. Economic life in the so-called “developed world” is based on the production of useless artifacts. All we really need to do is eat, sleep, stay warm and have sex, but a race of aliens have enslaved us to their vanity–the bosses. We have no share in the wealth we produce for them. They use faith, patriotism and fear to keep us in line. What if we tore everything down and gave everyone a plot of land? We could raise our own food, sing songs and stay out of the rain. Life would be simple. We would be happier. But the bosses wouldn’t. Those crummy bastards. This whole capitalist/corporate/consumer culture has been created to serve their urge to dominate their fellow human beings. You can see it in the parking lot. The gleaming SUV’s of the bosses, the modest, crumpled sedans of the drones. The big houses, the manicured lawns of the bosses, the crumbling bungalows and brown patches of the workers. What is jewelry? Why do I have to languish in a thankless job so some power-mad pervert can buy his wife a diamond necklace? I’m like a stoker, sweaty and grimy, shoveling madly to fuel the furnace of their greed. How come their kids are so sleek and talky when mine are sulky and always have running noses? Let’s rise up. Overthrow the whole rotten system. Burn their cars, rip the diamonds off their wives’ necks, give their snotty kids a timeout. Let’s put ‘em against the wall, the dirty sonsabitches. Nobody’ll miss ‘em—not even their own families. …Oh, look at the time…It’s almost lunch…They day’s half over…And tomorrow’s casual Friday…
To Be Continued…Part 2 HOLLYWOOD