Want To Be a Great Writer? Take Notes on Robert Ray
A while back I asked Robert J. Ray, author of the Murdock Mystery series (and others) and inspiring writing instructor to answer a few questions (via e-mail) for my writer-readers. I wasn’t expecting mind altering answers. But mind altering they are. What a gift. Bob’s one smart guy who doesn’t mind sharing how he got that way so the rest of we wannabe authors can follow his bread crumbs of golden knowledge.
His answers read like his books, smart, fast, intensely inspired, self deprecating, educational and with hard earned genius. If you haven’t read any of his books, do. Murdock Crack’s Ice opens like a scene from Breaking Bad, and just keeps getting better. His book The Weekend Novelist will teach you how to write. But for now, take out a pen and paper and absorb some of these lessons…
Q: What inspired Murdock Cracks Ice?
A: I was into Book Five, not sure where the series should go. My wife, Margot and I had just moved to Seattle, I still had one foot in California, so Murdock trekked back and forth—he found a new woman, Hana the artist, who would lure him north. Meth labs were hot back then, cookeries in the sticks, blowing up, and the victim walked onstage, a chemistry student at the UW, making money selling meth, and his killing set Murdock on the trail of the killer.
Q: What inspired the Murdock series?
A: The simple answer: Murdock was inspired by John D.MacDonald, who created a hero named Travis McGee, a wise-cracking, very smart tough guy who ran what he called “a salvage business”—which meant he would hunt down any lost thing—treasure, loot from a crime, stolen boats, persons gone missing—and take fifty per cent of what he “salvaged.” The McGee novels—there are eighteen, all with a color in the title (A Deadly Shade of Gold)—were narrated in the First Person, standard for Private Eye novels since Raymond Chandler—that’s where Murdock’s voice came from.
McGee lived on a houseboat in Florida. Murdock lived above a surf shop in Newport Beach, California. My writer-friend, T. Jefferson Parker, gave me high praise with a cover blurb that said: “Murdock is a West Coast Travis McGee.”
Q: What can you tell us about the new Murdock?
A: The title is Murdock Tackles Taos—the action takes place in New Mexico—and Murdock has a new female sidekick—Helene Steinbeck, writer, ex-marshal, a woman of steel and sympathy. Page One opens with Helene dodging arrows, stepping on a corpse, and getting tackled by Murdock. She’s a strong character, has her own Point-of-View, she’s relentless, Murdock falls in love.
Q: What else is different about the new Murdock?
A: Strong characters need more ink—so you give it to them, see what they do. Helene Steinbeck is smart, she’s been a cop, her dad is a retired cop, she attracts good guys and bad guys. In the middle of the book, Murdock realizes he’s not alone, no more lone wolf, lonely hunter, or wandering knight-errant. He’s thinking marriage, she’s thinking wait, see what happens.
Q: Where did Helene Steinbeck come from?
A: Jack Remick and I were working on The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery and we created a model novel as an example. The protagonist was Helene Steinbeck, the village marshal of an island off the Carolina coast. The novel was called Murder on Drake Island. She was a great character, so I introduced her to Murdock.
Q: Is there a character in any of the Murdock books that is like you? Or if not like you, is there a character that you relate to more than any other?
A: Tricky question here: I try to get inside the skin of every character—male or female, vapid teen or senior citizen. The bad guys (and gals) are the hardest—you have to dig deep for an evil that’s believable. Getting under the skin is harder in First Person, because the impressions get filtered through Murdock’s brain, get tinged by his wants and needs—and so you build a trail of objects, like bread crumbs in the forest, a path for the reader.
However: When you leave First Person and go to Third, you latch onto the movie-watching experience, where the POV shifts between characters. With Helene Steinbeck onstage, seeing from her angle, giving us her emotions, her fears and needs and wants, the First Person Murdock no longer has total control, and here come the other characters—uncaged at last, and they clamor for their own POV.
Q: So when you write in Third Person, are the objects less important?
A: Objects tell the story. If you delete the slippers from Cinderella, you will be unable to tell the story that has inspired thousands of Cinderella tales around the world. When Jack and I were teaching, we’d list objects from Cinderella—party dress, carriage, clock, carriage, horses—and when we said glass slippers, the whole room knew it was the story of Cinderella. If you’re a writer, that’s the kind of archetypal thing you want in your reader’s brain.
Q: Who are your favorite authors—what is it about their work that grabs you?
A: I cut my writing teeth on authors I taught over and over in college classrooms, back in the day, when I was a full-time, ladder-climbing college prof: Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, Pale Fire); Robert PennWarren (All the King’s Men); Herman Melville (Moby Dick); Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms); William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!); and T.S. Eliot (The Waste Land, Four Quartets). I tried to ape their styles. That didn’t work. So I stole whatever I could steal—rhythm, pace, nuance—all the elusive ineffables—but that was before I met Jack Remick, before we locked down cause-and-effect about story, structure and style.
For teaching writers in a room, I use Jane Eyre, which I did not read until my later years. A nice simple structure, not cluttered by flashbacks. A great sexual triad with Jane-Rochester-Bertha—the Man of Property felled by a fire started by Bertha gets rescued by the Virgin’s sturdy ethics. Bronte’s dialogue is Hemingway-esque decades before Hemingway. If you don’t understand the staying power of Jane Eyre, her absolute literary fertility, then google the title and count the film adaptations, not only feature films, but movies made for TV.
For crafting my own stuff, I study mysteries: The cop-writer who does everything super-well is John Sandford. This is one smart man. As a newspaper guy, he won a Pulitzer. He connected early with a first-class agent. He started his Prey series with a Minnesota cop named Lucas Davenport. As Davenport aged, Sandford brought on Virgil Flowers, also a Minnesota cop. When he’s not working these two guys, he brings on a heist man. From studying Sandford, I try to learn how to shift the POV for maximum suspense. He’s smooth; I’m clumsy.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: Don DeLillo—prompted by a student from my Beloit College teaching days. inquired what I thought, and since I didn’t know I started reading and found this old Paris Review interview (they did in-depth Q&A’s with writers)—you can see it here: INTERVIEW—it’s 17 pages long and crammed with insights, not only about novels and the writer in America, but also about how DeLillo writes a sentence, watches where it goes, what sentence it leads to on the page—as if, while writing, he’s watching his hand write. Formidable. And so intense. No way can I do that. The printed interview sits on my desk. I consult it while I’m reading his books. I read Falling Man twice, listened to the audio book 3 times. I’m reading Mao II now. Cosmopolis is next—Cronenberg just made it into a movie starring that vampire hottie, Robert Pattinson.
I’m also reading books by the historian DavidMcCullough—I started with 1776 (the turning point for America vs. the Brits) , moved on to The Greater Journey (about Americans in Paris in the 19th century, studying art, studying medicine—and what giant ripples they made in the world). Got his Truman waiting on the shelf.
Q: What (if anything) in your writing do you find challenging?
A: Beginnings, Middles, Ends, First Drafts, Rewrites—everything in writing is hard to do well. If you write a good book, the next one could be a stinker. If you write a stinker, ouch. You need luck. You need energy. You need help from other writers. You need to know where you are in a book, but you can’t know until you finish a couple of drafts, so how do you keep moving, what do you write today after writing crap yesterday? Writing practice keeps me afloat, writing with other writers, packing the pages of your notebook, reading out loud, listening around the table. Writing at Louisa’s here in Seattle has kept me going for two decades. Working pages with Jack Remick and Joel Chafetz sends me back into the words, always.
Q: Speaking of Louisa’s (a café-bakery on Eastlake in Seattle where writers write twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays at 2), what got you into timed writing?
A: Natalie Goldberg—I worked with her in Taos for three summers running and then Jack worked with her and we started the group up on Capitol Hill but there was too much ambient smoke so we moved to Louisa’s. That was 20 years ago and now we have a FaceBook page and lots of writers.
Footnote for writers with laptops: Even after filling a hundred notebooks, I still get a better draft when I write with other writers at a table—it’s the energy, the commitment, noise, focus, discipline. I’m working on Murdock 7 now, getting two scenes a week, pushing ahead on story.
Q: What are your favorite books to give—or to receive?
A: I’m enjoying giving away copies of the re-released Murdock. The covers are wonderful. Some people are surprised that I can write a book—that’s always cool—and there’s some tiny PR-man lurking inside the writer-me. Some little guy with a funny hat and a sandwich board hawking Murdocks on the street, crying, Get ‘em while they’re hot!
The only gift books I liked was the Hardy Boys when I was an asthmatic kid growing up in Texas. Those lucky dudes drove around in a roadster—man, I wanted one of those.
Q: Do you have a one sentence morsel of advice for novel writers?
A: Find a group. Do writing practice. Read your stuff aloud. Honor your words. If you’re a novelist, do all that stuff while you peruse The Weekend Novelist. If you yearn to finish a novel, teach yourself about subplots.
THANK YOU BOB for generously answering my questions and giving us all a lesson (or 2 or 20) on what it means to be a writer.