Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pro-File: Charles Ardai

Charles Ardai has distinguished himself as a writer and as the editor of the extremely hot Hard Case line.  Here’s a particularly fine interview.  Thanks, Charles.  Ed

1.  Tell us about your current novel.

After publishing Little Girl Lost (under my “Richard Aleas” nom-de-pulp), I went on a spate of short story writing, and the results are just showing up in bookstores now.  There’s “The Good Samaritan” in Lawrence Block’s Manhattan Noir; “Fathers and Sons” in Duane Swierczynski’s Damn near Dead; “The Home Front” in Harlan Coben’s Death Do Us Part; and “The Quant” in Peter Spiegelman’s Wall Street Noir, plus some others in books I’m not supposed to talk about yet.  I started my career writing short stories for Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock and if I go too long without writing a short story, I don’t feel good, sort of like if I go too long without exercising.

2.  Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on now?

The long-delayed sequel to Little Girl Lost, which will be called Songs of Innocence.  I’ve had it plotted out for the better part of a year, but finding the time to sit down and write it has been hard while putting out a book a month for Hard Case Crime.  John Blake is back, though he’s no longer formally working as detective; he’s gone back to school and tried to put the unpleasantness of Little Girl Lost behind him.  And that works for a while, until another woman in his life turns up dead, an apparent suicide, and investigating what happened to her takes him to a very dark place.

3.  What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

Creating something out of nothing – you take the stuff of your dreams and fantasies and nightmares and speculations and put it on paper and suddenly something exists in the world that didn’t exist before and wouldn’t exist without you and that, if it’s any good, has the potential to influence or entertain or baffle or mesmerize thousands of other people.  It’s the opposite of working as a cog in a corporate wheel, where you know that if it weren’t you in your job the company you work for could find a hundred other people to do exactly the same work more or less as well.  As a writer, you create something intensely personal – it may be good or bad or in-between, but by god it’s yours, and no one else could’ve done it quite the same.  It’s like a little stab back at the void, a little way of leaving something behind that says “I was here.”

4.  The greatest DIS-pleasure?

You work really hard, you sweat and agonize, and maybe, if you’re very lucky, you produce a sentence you know is good – you just know it, it sounds just right to your inner ear, and you’re filled with elation.  And then you have to do it again.  And you can’t.

5.  If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Stop aspiring to be big business.  You’re not Wall Street and never will be, and shouldn’t want to be.  If you want to make a lot of money, there are many easier ways to do so and not too many harder ones.  Given that that’s the case, no one should become a publisher, and no publisher should exist, primarily for the money.  The reason to publish books is because you love books.  Period.  Because your heart races when you read a well-told story, because you appreciate that telling stories and reading them is one the fullest expressions of what makes us human.  Publish books you can’t stop reading.  Publish books that break your heart.  Publish books you think might offend someone but, damn it, you love.  Stop looking at Bookscan.  Stop buying crap you think will sell and turning down fine work by authors whose last book didn’t.

Is this naive, quixotic advice?  Yes.  Does publishing, regrettably, have to be run as business if it is to survive?  Yes. I understand that.  But I don’t have to like it.  And if you imagine a spectrum, on one end of which sits Warren Buffett and on the other end of which sits Don Quixote, I think publishing would be better off in every respect if it shifted even just a little bit in the direction of the old man of La Mancha and away from the Oracle of Omaha.

6.  Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you’d like to see in print again?

Because of Hard Case Crime, I’m in a very fortunate position: If there’s a forgotten mystery writer I’d like to see in print again, I have the opportunity to bring him or her back.  In the last year we’ve revived Day Keene and Wade Miller and David Dodge; over the coming year we’ll be bringing back Richard S. Prather and John Lange and Gil Brewer.  But there are still a few authors I’d love to bring back and can’t, simply because I’ve been unable – despite a ton of old-fashioned detective work – to locate their heirs or estates.  At the top of the list is Steve Fisher, author of I Wake up Screaming.  Next is Ed Lacy, born “Leonard Zinberg.”  If any of your readers know how to find these authors’ estates, I’d be very grateful to hear from them!

7.  Tell us about selling your first novel.  Most writers never forget that moment.

It’s funny: I’d written Little Girl Lost specifically for Hard Case Crime, but the day I finished it I was on the phone with John Helfers, who works on the mystery imprint for Five Star, and John said something like, “We’re looking for some more books, do you know anyone who has a good crime novel we could look at?”  And I said, “Actually, I just finished one about an hour ago.”  As it happened, they only needed hardcover, trade paperback, and large-print rights, while Hard Case Crime only needed mass-market paperback rights, so the two dovetailed perfectly.  I sent him a copy and he bought it; they brought out a hardcover edition in January and we brought out the paperback in October.  Of course, I think the hardcover edition sold something like 500 copies, as opposed to the paperback, which sold orders of magnitude more; the result being that the hardcover first edition could one day be a rare collector’s item, worth oodles on eBay.  (I should be so lucky.)

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