A Conversation with David Skibbins
Q: Warren Ritter, your protagonist, is a guy about your age who lived in Berkeley, a town you seem to have a real familiarity with. How much of you is in Warren?
A: I've got to admit I have 'Warren envy.' He started out a lot like me, but took all the detours that I never dared to take. I was a draft counselor and conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, but I stopped short of bomb-throwing. He got on his motorcycle and drove off into the sunset, and I got married, settled down and became a psychotherapist. But we both share a love of Berkeley, the only city in the United States with its own foreign policy.
Q: So, you were a draft counselor and Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War. Is that what inspired Warren's radicalism?
A: Not really just that. I decided to write a mystery, so I started reading them. It began to piss me off. If I had to slog through one more burnt-out-ex-cop-private-eye- who-is-discovering-AA- but-having-a-hard-time-with-it I was going to scream. I loved a lot of the women heroes. They were emotionally complex, caring, and caught between two worlds. I wanted to know them better. The men protagonists I just wanted to slap.
And the male cops and PI's were so establishment! I swear most of those guys would vote Republican if they could get over their misery and despair long enough to vote at all. I wanted to create someone off the grid. I wanted to find out how Left, weird, counterculture, and eccentric could I get? So I created a manic-depressive, ex-60's-bomb-throwing radical, living underground as a Tarot card reader on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Then I had him fall in love with a paraplegic hacker. How's that for different?
Q: Yes, that is definitely not your typical scenario. Warren seems like he's on a life- long road trip. He's sort of the prototypical seeker. Julia Spencer-Ross called this book "Easy Rider meets The Fugitive." In this book he seems to end the outward journey and begin an inward journey of the heart. Are there insights that writing this book gave you about your own experience?
A: I am much more like his eccentric psychotherapist, Rose. I always made 'Who I am with' more important than 'What I am doing.' Warren made the opposite choice. He enters his fifties with a lot of survival skills. But he doesn't know squat about how to create an intimate relationship. Warren is my shadow.
Q: Despite all the violence that happens around Warren, kidnapping, murder, attempted arson, attempted assassination, this is not a graphically brutal book. Is there a reason behind the restraint in which you depict aggression?
A: I am so not interested in detailed descriptions of the maggots crawling out of the viscera of the victim. I don't own a TV because I don't enjoy seeing dozens of people murdered in front of me every week. I don't want to get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from reading a book.
Q: Warren admits that his profession, tarot card reading, is more a process of observation than psychic intuition. Do you think this is also true for a writer?
A: For me, good writing involves four personality attributes:
One: an incredibly fertile imagination, in which completely fictional characters can come alive, take over the story you thought you were creating, and shock you with their antics.
Two: love of language and a facility for crafting language so that it paints pictures in other people's minds.
Three: devotion to excellence that pushes you to rewrite dozens of times until the pages sing to you.
Four: humility and a willingness to learn from editors and readers and to let go of pieces of writing that you may cherish, but which don't work for others.
Q: What led you to write in this genre?
A: I wrote a great novel about psychotherapy. My agent couldn't find anyone to touch it. She fired me as her client. I decided to write a novel that might sell. I rejected literary fiction; I'd already failed there. I started studying the market. Genre sells. Science fiction was flat, horror was dying and I couldn't bring myself to write romance. So mystery was it.
Q: Since this is the first of a series, how much does Warren Ritter and his imaginary affairs intrude into your reality?
A: Well, Dinner conversations at my house are interesting.
David: I figured out a new way to kill someone today.
Marla, my wife: Oh, really, honey. How?
David: There is an addictive nut from Mexico that leaves them gagging and helpless in less than an hour. They're dead in two. Now, I've just got to figure out how to dispose of the body.
Marla: That's nice, dear. Want some more rice?
Q: Stephen King says that he never outlines a plot. He just thinks up a terrifying situation and drops his characters into the middle of it, and watches what happens. Tell me something about how you write. Are you an inveterate outliner or do you just jump in?
A: My outline is a time line. I have a date and a time of day for every scene. That way when I change my mind about something I don't create messy time paradoxes. But I am not really in control of the plot. I was well into the writing of my third novel in the Warren Ritter series when I discovered, much to my amazement, that the person I thought did the murders was really innocent.
Q: Your writing career sounds a little like a Cinderella story. Your first novel won the Minotaur/ St. Martin's Press Best Traditional Mystery award in 2004, guaranteeing publication by the biggest mystery-oriented publishing house in the world.
A: Let me tell you, Cinderella had to clean a lot of hearths before she ran into her fairy godmother. I know the feeling. I wrote the book in three months and sent it into the contest. Then came six months of rejection letters. I feared to go to the post box. I received my forty-third rejection letter on a Monday. I said to myself, aSelf, I think the handwriting is on the wall. It was a good dream while it lasted. But if nothing happens by the end of this week it is time to tuck that manuscript under the bed and start looking for Dream Number Two.
Tuesday morning I picked up the phone expecting to talk to a client. But it was some lady from St. Martin's Press named Ruth who had a ridiculous tale about me winning the Malice Domestic Contest. It was the only time in my life that I fell into a chair, almost fainting.
I was waiting to find out it was all a cruel hoax. But when I got her e-mail inviting me out to the conference to receive my award, I had to believe it was true. It still feels like a dream. But it's a damn good dream!
Q: Who's going to buy this book?
A: There was a book a couple of years ago about Cultural Creatives. These are the folks that seemed to fit in, but keep their real values under wraps, because those values were so out of kilter with the values of the materialistic, consumer-driven American Middle Class.
Cultural Creatives believe in some sort of spiritual underpinnings to Creation, but usually are not traditional in those beliefs. They care about the Earth and her creatures. They're liberal, and concerned about how to hand this world over to their children in better shape than when they got it. They're going to love this book. It not preachy, yet Warren is in the same kind of soul-searching quest that they're on. He's just a little more whacky on his journey.