Jon Wisniewski interviews Dwight Holing

Punk Noir Magazine
  1.  When did you begin writing, Dwight?

I wrote my first story in third grade. It was called “Bloody Murder” and I used red ink for the title. My teacher gave me an F, but I got a kick out of the fact she wrote it in red ink too. My grandfather and namesake was a storyteller, penning Jazz Age romances for Saturday Evening Post and other weekly magazines back when short stories and serials were as eagerly awaited as a binge-worthy TV series being streamed today. Eventually, Hollywood called him. My mom raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a dad — true life tales of being chased by bill collectors from one town to the next and waking up in their rented California bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with my grandfather and a pack of Paramount screenwriters that included Billy Wilder. All this was intoxicating stuff for a kid, and I was hooked.

  • Any favorite authors?

Raymond Chandler, of course, not only because he was a pal of my grandfather, but for his sheer genius at crafting suspense, wit, memorable characters, mood, setting, and insights into the human condition in a genre-breaking way that changed detective fiction forever — hardboiled, yes, but poetic, you bet. My parents gave me my first John D. MacDonald for my eleventh birthday. It had just been published: “The Deep Blue Good-by.” He couldn’t write the Travis McGee series fast enough for me. Throw together Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker, Walter Mosely, Michael Connelly, and the usual suspects in classic detective fiction, and I could endure another year of pandemic isolation. The works of B. Traven, Edward Abbey, James Sallis, Jim Harrison, and James Crumley occupy my bookshelf. No dust gatherers, these. I turn to them over and over again, always finding new treasures in their oft-turned pages.

  • Could you tell us about writing your debut novel “A Boatload (A Jack McCoul Caper)”? 

While I spent the bulk of my writing career as a freelance journalist writing for magazines and books, fiction is baked into my DNA. About ten years ago I started writing short stories in earnest and getting them published in literary journals. Some won awards, including a collection, “California Works,” that was published by Snake Nation Press as the first prize. Needing a break from serious subject matter, I harkened back to my childhood love of witty but hardboiled crime fiction, and wrote a short story starring a recovering con artist who couldn’t quite leave his old life behind. It ran in Spinetingler Magazine. The story’s editor, the terrific noir writer Jack Getze, encouraged me to give the main character, Jack McCoul, a series. I took him up on it. I wrote “A Boatload” to introduce Jack and his gang, and then “grew” them in subsequent installments: “Bad Karma,” “Baby Blue,” and “Shake City.”

  • How did you create the Jack McCoul character?

I’ve lived most of my adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. I wanted to spotlight The City (please don’t call it ’Frisco) and all of its cultural riches, from its distinct neighborhoods to its vibrant music and food scene to the diversity of people who call it home. To do that, I needed a main character who could serve as a tour guide and used his con games to catch killers as the vehicle. Since the Irish have a long history in San Francisco, I settled on a character who flexes a shamrock tattoo to the Irish folk hero, Finn McCool. Jack is also quick with a riposte, fast with his fists, and unflinchingly loyal to family, friends, and underdogs alike. His best friend drives a ’65 Chevy Impala lowrider and helps bring the Mission District to life, while other characters do their part for other neighborhoods. The San Francisco Giants play a supporting role too since I wrote the novels while watching the G’s on their thrilling multiple World Series tear.

  • How did you create the character of Nick Drake?

In some respects, Nick Drake and Jack McCoul are yin and yang, seemingly opposites but actually complementary. I came of age in the late ’60s/early ’70s, and those turbulent times were poured into the crucible that forged my life. Setting a series in that time starring a flawed but heroic character — a Vietnam War combat vet struggling with what is now called PTSD and finding redemption as a wildlife ranger in the high lonesome of southeastern Oregon — is my way of coming to terms with what we as a nation went through. (It also provides a means for showcasing one of the richest eras of musical creation the world has ever experienced!) The physical setting is more than a hat-tip to my own experiences. My folks had a place in Oregon where I spent memorable times exploring the outdoors. While attending the University of Oregon where I earned a degree in journalism, I hiked, camped, and skied throughout the state. I met my wife there, a whitewater rafter, and our experiences running rivers and adventuring together were added ingredients to the crucible that set me on a career writing about nature and the environment, subjects that now serve as essential elements in my Nick Drake murder mysteries.

  • What makes a good crime suspense novel?

I’m of the school that “whydunnits” can be as entertaining and elucidating as whodunnits. While action is important, characters drive a story. Revealing a character’s behaviors, traits, loves, and hates over the course of a story builds suspense. It can also satisfy a reader’s natural inclination to try and guess the outcome; in the case of a whydunnit, figuring out motivation before the final revelation. In a series like the two I write, it’s especially important that the reoccurring characters keep growing from book to book. Their development is a way for readers to learn new things, not only about the character and setting, but about themselves and the world around them.

  • Could you tell us about writing “The Sorrow Hand (A Nick Drake Novel)”?

When I finished writing the fourth in the Jack McCoul Caper series in the summer of 2017, I headed to Oregon for an annual fly fishing trip with my brother who lives on a beautiful stretch of river. It’s a special place since we also fished there with our father, and it’s a place where connecting to the natural world helps recharge my creative juices. While wading in the river and casting flies to rising trout, I started seeing a new character and a new mystery story, this one set in Oregon. When I got home, I scribbled down the character’s name, his bio, and some notes. I realized I had material for several stories and jotted down a half dozen titles with a common thread to them. I arced the first one, “The Sorrow Hand,” and began pounding the keyboard. The characters developed as I went, and if one started taking on a larger role than I originally envisioned, I let it happen. A key element in “The Sorrow Hand” became the presence of the local Native American people, the Northern Paiute, or Numu in their language. The title, as well as the subsequent titles in the series, respectfully honors their culture and beliefs. I was lucky to find a band of willing beta readers and sent the manuscript to them for feedback, not knowing how the new novel would be received. It turned out to speak to them as loudly as it did to me and I was off and running. That led to “The Pity Heart,” “The Shaming Eyes,” “The Whisper Soul,” and “The Nowhere Bones,” which was released in early December 2020. It’s been a helluva creatively rewarding three years.

  • What will your next novel be?

I already have the title and rough arc laid out for Nick Drake number six. I’ll plunge right in after coming up for air over the holidays. Like the previous novels in the series, it’ll feature a crime and/or crimes, primary and secondary plot lines, a little romance, and the characters readers tell me in reviews, direct messages, and emails they feel a connection to. As always, the high lonesome setting and the grace, beauty, and power of the natural world, along with Native American spiritual beliefs, will prove to be more than a background to the criminal drama that unfolds.

  • You also write nonfiction, Dwight. Could you tell us about this?

Interviewing activists, policymakers, and scientists along with travelling to natural areas around the world for articles and books was my life for many years, but I have to say writing fiction keeps me busier than ever — so busy, in fact, that I don’t take on nonfiction assignments any longer. That’s not to say I don’t write the occasional essay or travelogue, like one on looking for tigers in pre-pandemic Ranthambore, India. When I do, I post them on my website (dwightholing.com), the latest being a reflection on place as a source for hope that I wrote while my wife and I awaited evacuation from a lightning-strike wildfire that bore down on us in the coastal river valley we call home.