John Wisniewski interviews Dan Flanigan

Questions:

When did you begin writing, Dan? Do you have any favourite crime/suspense authors? Could you tell us about writing “The Big Tilt”? What inspired this book? You also wrote “Mink Eyes”. Could you tell us about writing this? “Tenebrae” is a poem. Why did you decide to write this? What makes a good crime/suspense novel? Are you working on a new book? Do you have any favourite film noir movies? Please tell us about “Dew Drops”. This is a collection of short stories.

Answers:

I have wanted to “be a writer” since around my sophomore year in high school. I wrote my first story then and, for a while, a number of other things. But being a writer means “writing,” and I didn’t seem to quite understand that. Instead, I let myself be distracted by a number of things–depression, alcoholism, fear–and also, as I wrongly thought for a long time, “selling out” to semi-bourgeois married life and working as a college professor, then a civil rights lawyer, then a lawyer in private practice–but the first three things were the real reasons I didn’t write.  Once I sobered up in earnest (one day at a time now for 37 years), I started writing in earnest. At that same time I took a break from the law practice and about everything else, and my wife and I founded the now very well known drug and alcohol treatment center Sierra Tucson. I had the right vision and even the right plan and execution for it but not enough capital so had to sell it to keep it alive. But thousands have been through there ( a couple of weeks ago there were 120 or so patients and over 400 staff), and it has surely wonderfully transformed many lives.  It was probably the best thing I ever did though I couldn’t keep hold of it, which seems fitting somehow.

I did not set out to be a crime/suspense writer.  I always wanted to write “literary” fiction, but I wanted to make it interesting, so I put my story Mink Eyes in that format.  However, I am now persuaded that writing serious fiction in the mystery/detective/crime/suspense genre is a great idea if I can pull it off.  My notion is to use the O”Keefe saga to tell the history of our times from the 1980s to as close to the present day as I can get before I run out of ideas or can’t mentally or physically write any longer.

As to favorite writers in this genre, no surprise, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. While I would not call him a “favorite,” I greatly admire the skill of Elmore Leonard.  Not sure it is technically this genre (it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1974), but I am a huge fan of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers. I am sure I would enjoy many others, but I just don’t read much in the genre, one of the cardinal sins of an aspiring writer in a genre, I know, but that’s the way it is.  I don’t want to be influenced or imitative. Nevertheless, I am basking in delight (WARNING! SELF-PROMOTION ITEM COMING!) that a recent reviewer of The Big Tilt wrote: “Flanigan manages to conjure deft, hard-boiled, but literary prose that’s reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s best work.” Ouch!

I wrote the original version of Mink Eyes in the late 1980s in a burst of creative activity in my early sobriety.

This burst started with plays—first, one that has never been performed or even read by anyone “important” and needs more work, but is a project I have a lot of love for—is called Secrets, about the life and death of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, who was in her own right a major figure (Socialist agitator, actress, author, translator of  Madam Bovary) in late Victorian England. 

I have also written a play that many have liked called Moondog’s Progress whose main character is much like Alan Freed, the disc jockey who “discovered” rock n’ roll.

The next play was Dewdrops, a tragedy set in a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. This play very quickly received a staged reading at the Theatre of the Open Eye in NYC, which went well, but what was there to do with it next? I didn’t know.

I also wrote a couple of short stories. 

And Mink Eyes. I got an agent and even a publisher.  The publisher promptly went bankrupt and the next publisher wanted changes in the book without promising to publish it. That whole experience–the staged reading, the agent, the publisher–was like catching fire only to be quickly and rudely doused with a bucket of ice water. 

I gave it up and did not return to it for about 15 years when I pulled Mink Eyes out of the box, said “damn it, this is pretty good, it has promise,” and very substantially revised and expanded it. 

I then moved on tothe book Dewdrops.  Dewdrops includes three pieces. The centerpiece is Dewdrops itself, which I adapted from a play into a very dialogue-heavy novella. The novella is bracketed by two longish short stories not in the mystery/detective genre–“Some Cold War Blues” about a boy named Jack growing up in the 1950s who gets into quite a snowball fight and “On The Last Frontier” about Katie who is old and broke in Juneau with winter coming on. 

My wife Candy died in 2011.  We had been married for 41 years and together for 45.  We indulged in much sturm and drang, many adventures and transformations, loved a lot and fought a lot, and managed to stay together somehow.  I wanted to write about her last illness and death, and that required dealing with the whole relationship. I started by trying to embody it in a traditional prose narrative, but it didn’t work.  It needed to be expressed in fiercely concentrated emotion, and, after flopping around some, I saw that poetry was the only way to do that.  The Tenebrae “story” (it is a “narrative” poem) proper is a group of 15 poems (some of which are “prose” poems but poems all the same).  The book includes a few other poems on other subjects. 

I published the three books more or less all at once in the spring of 2019 (though, obviously, I had been working on all of them except Tenebrae, on and off, mostly off, for decades.

Now to The Big Tilt.  I wrote that in two sessions of several months each, the first session in the summer of 2019, but I discovered to my dismay that I had written myself into a couple of plot cul de sacs that I didn’t know how to escape from (the problem with choosing to write in the detective/mystery genre is that one must father forth not just interesting characters, sharp dialogue, good writing, but interesting, even suspenseful, even exciting plotting—all (separately and together) very hard to pull off, especially hard when the author wants the action to be realistic, something that could really happen in the real world. But in March 2020 the Virus took hold and somehow, not sure exactly how, it helped me focus, and I completed the book in October 2020.

Each of my books is available in both eBook and paperback format. Each is available from the various digital publishers and can be ordered from your favorite bookstore or from my website, DanFlaniganBooks.com

I really don’t know what makes a good crime/suspense novel.  I don’t read enough of them to know.  I do know that many of the very popular ones do not appeal to me because they are so far from real life and even from not only Newtonian but even Quantum physics.  I have no interest in writing in this genre for those who want pure escapism.  I do want to write for those who want a good story, with serious themes that grapple with the human condition, about interesting characters who are sometimes exasperating but appealing all the same, certainly not main characters who are “breaking bad,” though maybe they have already broken bad and are now trying to figure out how to “break good.”

I am working on a new book of shorter pieces that have been tapping on my shoulder for a long time, a book something like Dewdrops, i.e. of shorter fiction not in the mystery/detective genre. At the same time I am constantly alert to what my O’Keefe characters are up to.  Things are happening, but I have to let the characters work things along before I am ready to join them in the adventure. 

I am not sure what “noir” really is. I thought I did until I experienced many people calling Mink Eyes noir or “noirish,” which surprised me somewhat.  I think of noir as basically about “bad” people. While I have my villains, I regard most of my characters as not-bad, actually often basically good, but who, nevertheless, often make some terrible mistakes and end up in tragic situations. 

The noir movies that stand out in my mind as I answer this question are, no surprise here, Double Indemnity, the touchstone and archetype. Also the Robert Altman/Eliot Gould version of The Long Goodbye and the film version of Dog Soldiers with Nick Nolte and Tuesday Weld (foolishly renamed Who’ll Stop The Rain after the Credence Clearwater Revival song!). While I hesitate to admit it, something about Against All Odds with Rachel Ward and Jeff Bridges really grabbed me the first time I saw it (it was probably Rachel). And one must, of course, say Chinatown. But one “must say” that is definitely not on my list is Vertigo, in my view maybe the most overrated movie of all time.

Each of my books is available in both eBook and print formats. Each is available from the various digital retailers and can be ordered from your favourite bookstore or from my website, DanFlaniganBooks.com