Interview with Brian Pinkerton by David Niall Wilson for Macabre Ink
David Niall Wilson is an award-winning novelist and short story author. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association. This interview is from 2008.
DNW: I grew up in southern Illinois, and I’ve spent some time up near Evanston and Chicago. Having said that, it is only recently that I’ve returned to small-town Midwestern settings. How does setting play into your work, and, do you write “what you know” or research your way into other places … How do you determine what your stories / novels will take from their setting…what places inspire you, and…do you have a preferred milieu?
BP: I have lived in the Chicago area for most of my life and many of my books take place here. It’s a combination of writing what I know and choosing a setting I enjoy. Chicago has great heart and soul. For a writer, there’s everything you need here to serve your storytelling: great sets, a diverse stock of characters, random weather, and a rich history. The area provides a broad palette of colors to choose from.
But sticking too closely to one setting can be limiting and claustrophobic. Sometimes the plot requires a location that serves a distinct role, like Washington or Hollywood. I might use multiple settings to accommodate a more sprawling storyline.
When I write about other locations, there’s some research to keep me honest, but it’s not painstaking. I don’t want it to overwhelm the plotting. I’m not going to spend pages and pages on architecture or climate or culture. I gotta keep the story moving.
As for time periods, I like to write in the here and now. I use contemporary settings to create a sense of immediacy and relatable situations. I want it to feel like it’s happening the very day that you’re reading it.
It’s an interesting coincidence that you mentioned Evanston – my book Vengeance is set there.
DNW: You are a rarity in younger novelists…you have a degree in journalism. In a gene world where the Internet, POD and Vanity publishing have made everyone a potential author, how do you feel your education has influenced your work – the speed with which you’ve accomplished publication – do you have pet peeves about writing? This is where, I guess, I’d like to know the background of how you came from going to school…graduating…and deciding to write for publication…
BP: Well, I can’t slam POD, because I self-produced my first book, but I am reminded of the William Goldman quote, “Everyone who knows the alphabet thinks they’re a writer.”
But that’s the beauty of writing – it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how much money you have, what degrees you own. Anyone can express themselves. Anyone can tell stories.
I think my background in journalism and business communications has helped bring some discipline to my writing. I can write quickly and clearly. However, I’m pretty certain my degrees were irrelevant to getting my novels published. You live or die by the quality of the submission.
At the University of Iowa, I took undergraduate classes of the Iowa Writers Workshop. One of my teachers was the fiction editor of Esquire magazine. I remember he liked my literary attempts but rolled his eyes when I wrote a mystery story. He said, “Well, I guess that sort of thing is okay if you aspire to write for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.” I saw nothing wrong with wanting to write for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I also took American Literature classes from David Morrell, who wrote First Blood and created Rambo.
After Iowa, I attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and got a master’s degree. It helped me stretch my writing skills so I could make a living. At the same time, it allowed my fiction writing to be more fun and stress-free. It actually opens me up creatively to have that balance in my life.
If I have any pet peeves about writing, it’s overwriting. More words do not create better sentences. If something is a chore to read, I will put it down. Life is too short. I have the same MTV-video games-160 beats per minute attention span as everyone else from my generation.
DNW: Your last name begs the question…you are a crime writer with the name Pinkerton. It’s almost the kind of thing that if someone wrote it, no one would believe…are you related? Even if not, was there ever a fascination with the old Pinkerton men, the intrigues, the cases…what made you choose crime thrillers for your home, and do you see yourself branching out from that in the future, or is this where you plan to stake your claim?
BP: People ask me all the time if Pinkerton is a pen name because of the link to Allan Pinkerton, the first private eye, who invented the detective agency. But it’s my real name. It’s a happy coincidence. I believe we’re related through common ancestry.
I don’t feel that it influences the type of books I write. In fact, aside from Killing the Boss, my books don’t focus much on the detective or investigation. My themes are more Alfred Hitchcock-like… innocent people who become entangled in crimes.
My books have been labeled variously as mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. I also like to play the tension for humor and hope to do more of that.
DNW: All authors have a process, even if it’s a totally disorganized mess of a process. Tell me what a typical writing day is like. Tell me how you go from idea, to outline (if you use one) to final draft…do you listen to music? Who and what influences your work…where do you find your inspiration? In other words…to be more succinct…can you describe YOUR process?
BP: My writing routine is very planned out and structured. I know some writer friends who are appalled by my calculated approach. What I lose in spontaneity, I gain in efficiency. I don’t write into corners or suffer writer’s block. I know exactly where the plot is going and set up the twists and turns in advance, so they are both surprising and logical.
The creation of the last few books have followed a pattern. First, I’ll compile some book ideas, with a leaning toward high-concept, standalone thrillers. Then I’ll share those ideas with a small group of people for feedback. I’ll assemble their favorites, determine my favorites, and make a decision.
After I choose the story, I create a chapter-by-chapter outline. It could be 60 or 70 pages long. It maps out all the beats in the story, written in a fast, breezy style. It’s a narrative, like a film script treatment, with bits of dialogue thrown in.
Then I use that outline to write the chapters. I sit in the basement with one large cup and one small cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts, and one chocolate-frosted donut. I block out all distractions. There’s no computer, no phone, no people. Just me, the furnace, and a small stereo playing music. But the music can’t have lyrics.
I write one or two chapters at a time in six-hour writing stretches on designated mornings. It’s the first draft. It’s handwritten on lined white paper. It is extremely messy, probably indecipherable to others.
During evenings, I handwrite a second, neater draft. I make pencil edits on the second draft and rewrite problematic pages. I give that draft to my wife and somehow convince her to type it up for me, because I am a terrible typist.
After it’s typed and printed out, I tackle that next version with more handwritten edits. I read the whole thing a couple million times and enter the final changes into the computer myself. I print out a clean copy to give to a few people for feedback. The feedback can take any shape or form, ranging from a list of typos to guffaws over plot holes.
I keep working with the manuscript until I never want to see it again, and then it’s done. The whole process takes approximately nine months to produce a medium-sized novel. About as long as it takes to bring a baby into the world.
On my Web site, I have a free PDF e-booklet that describes the making of my novel Abducted. It includes the original pitch letter to the publisher and pages from the outline and various drafts.
For my new one, Killer’s Diary, I sent the original handwritten drafts to Paul Little, the publisher. He’s going to use the pages as a promo giveaway. My handwriting is so demented that it truly looks like a killer’s diary.
DNW: Patented last question. You have one day to come up with the inspiration for a new story or novel. You can spend it in a library with access to all the books of the world, in a studio with access to all the music of the world, or you can be transported to anyplace in the world for the day…which do you choose, and why? If you choose the last option, where, and why?
BP: It would have to be music.
Good music fires up my imagination. It becomes a soundtrack for characters and stories that need to be written. If I’m traveling to an exotic location or going through the world’s books, I think I would be too caught up in the experience of those things to create something new. But music somehow supplements my writing and creativity.
I hate silence when I’m writing. It’s intimidating. It prolongs the pauses. So I play a lot of CDs and it’s a wide mix of music. An average writing stretch could be covered by In The Nursery, Philip Glass, Mahler, Dead Can Dance, Miles Davis, Tangerine Dream, Controlled Bleeding, Moby and Brahms. In particular, I play a lot of weirdo experimental music.
When the writing is going real well, I don’t notice when the CDs end. The music has continued in my head without missing a beat.