Ed Duncan

 The Last Straw

Ed Duncan

I am always fascinated by how Authors come up with ideas/storylines for their books. How do your book ideas come to you?

The idea for Pigeon-Blood Red came to me quite literally out of the blue. I was attending a legal seminar in Honolulu years ago when the barest outline of the novel began to take shape in my mind. I was taking a walk around the hotel grounds one evening when in my mind’s eye I saw a beautiful, mysterious woman in danger and on the run and a stranger (a lawyer, of course) coming to her rescue. That is all I really knew about the plot or the characters. In the final version, of course, Evelyn, the woman, and Paul. the lawyer, are not strangers but, instead, are long lost friends who haven’t seen each other since college. I didn’t know why Evelyn was in danger until I hit upon the idea that she would be carrying valuable jewelry of some kind. Researching various gems, I stumbled upon pigeon-blood red rubies, which have an exotic history and the phrase has an exotic ring to the ear. The rest of the characters and the plot came to me gradually over the following weeks and months as I thought about how I could make the novel as interesting, yet realistic, as possible.

Regarding The Last Straw, I simply sat down, over numerous sessions, and thought of a circumstance that could bring Rico and Paul into contact again. Once I hit upon the idea for the carjacking, the remainder of the plot and new characters came to me gradually and after much thinking.

The character of Rico, in both books, comes off as a likeable bad guy. Was this your intention?

Yes, it was exactly my intention to make Rico as deadly and efficient a killer as possible while, at the same time, imbuing his character with qualities that would endear him to readers; hence, the description of him as a killer with a conscience. In truth, Paul, a lawyer like me and having a background similar to mine, was always meant to be the main character and Evelyn was meant to be a close second. Both have interesting back stories, but the more I developed Rico’s character, the more he fought to become the central focus of the narrative. The more I tried to rein him in, the more he resisted. I like to think we fought to a draw, by which I mean that Paul and Evelyn are on par, or at least almost on par, with Rico as the driving forces in the novel. If the novel were made into a movie, the three characters could share top billing, although Rico’s name would appear first.

In retrospect, Rico is in many ways, an amalgam of three of my favorite movie heroes. Two appeared in westerns that were based on eponymous novels. In chronological order they are Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Hombre, starring Paul Newman. (Incidentally, Hombre was written by Elmore Leonard, a highly regarded crime novelist.) The third is Bullitt, starring Steve McQueen. What they have in common is that all are essentially loners and all have codes of their own. While, unlike Rico, all three are on the right side of the law, they nevertheless have much in common with Rico.

Who are your influences as a writer? Do you have a favorite author?

The author who has influenced me the most is Dashiell Hammett, and a very close second is Lee Child. Hammett’s dialogue in The Maltese Falcon still inspires me. There were two earlier movie versions of the novel before the third and best version starring Humphrey Bogart. One of the reasons the movie is so iconic is that most of the dialogue was lifted directly from the novel. Lee Child writes wonderful, taut novels that I admire greatly and, of course, his hero Jack Reacher has a lot in common with Rico and, I suppose, Shane, Hombre, and Bullitt.

In addition to Hammett and Child, some of my favorite authors are Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Somerset Maugham, Richard Wright, Ken Follett, Theodore Dreiser, Scott Turow, Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, and Frederick Forsythe.

When you are not writing, what do you like to do in your free time?

I like to travel, watch movies, and read both fiction and nonfiction. I visited China, Hong Kong, and Japan last fall and South Africa a year earlier, and I hope to go to Italy this fall. When I was in college, I majored in Spanish, so I’ve been to a number of Spanish speaking countries to brush up on my language skills. One of my favorite film genres is film noir, which serves as inspiration for my crime novels. I’m a big fan of Turner Classic Movies and its new weekly program, Noir Alley.

I see that you are working on the next book in the series. Can you give us a hint about that book’s storyline?

The title will be Rico Stays. In it Paul and Rico will lock horns with a crew of killers seeking revenge against Rico, and this time a wounded Rico will reluctantly accept help from Paul.

Did you always want to be an author despite your legal career?

I’ve wanted to write at least since high school, where an English teacher I respected a great deal wrote on my eleventh grade term paper that my writing was seldom, if ever, equaled among her students. That was high praise indeed. But writing would have to wait because instinctively I knew I could never earn a living writing fiction. I went to law school with the expectation that someday I would write “the great American novel” in my spare time. I really never could find the time to write until I retired, and along the way, as I mentioned, I found Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon, and they inspired me to write crime novels, which I love. That said, who knows; someday I may still try my hand at writing that great American novel.

I’ve noticed that a lot of lawyers become authors. Why do you think that is?

Someone — I’ve forgotten who — once said that “inside every lawyer is a writer trying to get out.” Your observation proves the truth of that statement. One reason surely is that there is an unusually large number of lawyers who, like I was, are frustrated writers and for whatever reason are drawn to the practice of law. Another reason may be that many lawyers have to write extensively as part of their practice, e.g., preparing legal briefs, memoranda, and even correspondence (I, for instance, wrote a legal treatise called Ohio Insurance Coverage and updated it annually for five years toward the end of my legal career), and not a few of these lawyers probably think that, as a result, they can write about as well as professional writers.

In your daily routine what inspires you to write?

Well, one thing that helps is good reviews! Another is just the satisfaction of reading a well-constructed phrase, sentence, paragraph, or chapter in a book I’m working on. And, of course, it is reading exquisite writing by others and wanting to do the same.

What is the hardest scene you have had to write?

I think it was the scene in Pigeon-Blood Red that describes the physical layout of the grounds of the luau. It’s not a particularly long scene. Still, reasonably long passages of descriptive language are the most difficult for me to write. By contrast, dialogue and narrative action are much easier for me write. I don’t know why this is so. I just know that it is.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I’m afraid I’ll have to fudge here. When I’m on a roll and the words are flowing freely from my mind to the page, that is exhilarating and it does energize me so that I want to continue until I have nothing left to say. Those are the instances when the muse arrives. But there are other times when the muse desserts me and the words simply refuse to flow. That can be exhausting.

How do you select the names of your characters?

With a few exceptions, I have used the old fashioned way: the phone book. This, however, may already be obsolete since the phone company only delivers the business pages to my house nowadays due to the popularity of smart phones. A supplemental source is names from my high school yearbook, and I suppose I could also use my college yearbooks if necessary.

Here are a few exceptions. For the villain in Pigeon-Blood Red, I used a derivation of the last name of a man I worked with in the steel mill one summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college. His name was Rybak but for some reason Litvak sounded better to me, and that, of course, is what I used. I had no contact with Mr. Rybak after that summer but for some reason his name stuck in my mind and resurfaced when I was searching for a name for Litvak’s character. I also chose Evelyn for the name of Paul’s (eventual) girlfriend as an homage to the character played by Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, one of my favorite movies. Rico’s name just popped into my mind and it seemed to fit him like a glove. Finally, I chose Paul’s name because it’s the name of a childhood friend.

Have you experienced writers block?

Since I’m retired and on my own schedule, for the most part, I have the luxury of being able to delay my writing until the muse arrives. So when the muse desserts me, I can usually wait until she returns. Of course, occasionally I can’t wait. That’s when I can empathize with the writer (and can’t recall his/her name) who said, “Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper and open a vein.”