Steve Ulfelder’s mechanic sleuth, Conway Sax, makes his sophomore appearance in The Whole Lie.
How has your experience as a journalist at Computerworld and other magazines been helpful in writing fiction?
Because of the deadlines, journalism is good preparation when it comes to writing for money. You’re not writing the best piece you can produce, but the best piece you can produce in a given amount of time. Where novels are concerned, the deadlines are longer, but the principle remains. I’m proud that I write the best book I’m capable of in a year, and then I move on to the next one. Journalism also preps writers to work with a strong editor. You quickly learn that all writing can be improved and/or trimmed.
Where did the idea for the select group of recovering alcoholics you named the Barnburners come from?
They were inspired by an actual AA group near my home. When I hit this meeting, the first thing I noticed was that the group’s leaders and old-timers sat jury-style, eyeballing both the podium and the rest of the crowd, to make sure folks were paying attention and not sneaking out for a smoke. That’s what got me thinking about a mystery series with AA as a backdrop. I find Conway’s booze-related scenes very powerful and emotional. When I’m writing those scenes, I’m tapping into something from my own life—something I don’t think about much in the day to day.
Has Sax changed from your original conception?
As originally planned, Conway kept such a tight lid on his emotions that he wouldn’t even share them with readers in the form of inner monologue. This has changed. A series is, as they say about television, a “cool medium.” Readers must want to rejoin this protagonist every year. In the name of making Conway more accessible and interesting, I find myself making him a little smarter, a little funnier, a bit more empathetic, as the series rolls on.
You’ve referred to your admiration for Robert B. Parker. What about his work did you want to emulate?
He was upfront about the fact that he was writing books he wanted to read. That’s how I feel about the Conway novels. The scale, scope, characters, the level of sex and violence, the rhythm—it’s all exactly what I myself want to read. The fact that others seem to like it too is gratifying. But one difference, and I’m proud of this, is that Conway is not a big wise-cracker à la Spenser. Conway is not dumb, but he’s seldom the smartest guy in the room, and his education ended in high school. This trait forced me to surround Conway with a smart, with-it cast, who tend to get the best lines.