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Richard Aleas (Charles Ardai)

Thursday, September 20, 2007


Charles Ardai (writing as Richard Aleas)
Gerald So

Gerald So: When did you have the idea of bringing John Blake back?

Charles Ardai: You know, his story just didn't seem finished to me. I mean, there was a resolution at the end of the first book, LITTLE GIRL LOST, but it was very open-ended. I kept asking myself, What would it really do to someone -- especially someone sensitive, as John is -- to go through the events of that book? And the answer was pretty clear (to me, anyway): It would be crushing. It would be terrible.

Charles Ardai: So I had the seed of my story: John would run as far as he could from the life he'd led before. But he'd discover he hadn't run far enough.

Gerald So: I remember you mentioning during our chat about LITTLE GIRL that Susan might be back as a PI. Did you see yourself bringing John back at that point, too?

Charles Ardai: I think my original notion was that Susan might be the star of the second book and that John would just show up as a cameo. But in the end that struck me as a less interesting idea. Also, I find I can write in the voice of a depressive young man more easily and convincingly than that of a competent young woman.

Gerald So: I see.

Charles Ardai: But yeah, the original sketch I made of SONGS OF INNOCENCE had the plot about Susan tracking down Dorrie's various clients one by one as the 'A' plot. Sort of like a Cornell Woolrich novel -- very episodic, like THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that that was a very conventional story and just not nearly as interesting as the disintegration of a soul.

Gerald So: right.

Charles Ardai: One question I had was whether readers would be comfortable following me down the very dark path I wanted to take them.

Gerald So: I found the disintegration very well paced. It seemed in the end that suicide was the best/most noble thing John could do, which is weird, but it works.

Charles Ardai: Thanks. I'm a big believer in suicide - That's an odd line out of context. Without spoiling all my life's work, I can mention that the story of mine that won the Edgar and the one that was nominated for the Shamus both end in suicide. If you're reading a book I wrote, there's a very good chance a character in it will kill himself before the day's out. Of course now I'll have to change that up, just to avoid being predictable.

Gerald So: I've read "The Home Front", yes.

Charles Ardai: The other one was "A Bar Called Charley's".

Gerald So: A pattern is less obvious if everything else is plausible. Where does "A Bar Called Charley's" appear?

Charles Ardai: You know, I am not an advocate for suicide in real life - though I'm not against it, either; but in drama it has an important place.

Gerald So: Sure, you just have to earn the moment.

Charles Ardai: A BAR CALLED CHARLEY'S originally ran in AHMM back in - I think - 1990, and then appeared in THE YEAR'S BEST HORROR STORIES and BEST MYSTERY STORIES OF THE YEAR.

Gerald So: Thanks.

Charles Ardai: It's hard to find those old issues and old collections, but maybe someone will turn it up somehow. One of these days, I'd like to collect up all my short stories in a single-author collection -- but those are awfully hard to sell...

Gerald So: Do you still plan to bring Susan back in the future?

Charles Ardai: I don't think I'll bring Susan back. Never say never, as Sean Connery taught us, but I don't think it's likely. I've been thinking about how to write a sequel to SONGS OF INNOCENCE, since Booklist said they wanted to see such a book, but I wonder whether Susan would be interesting on her own. In the first two books we only saw her through John's eyes; I'm not even sure people would recognize her as the same character if suddenly they were inside her head. Of course, I could set SONGS OF EXPERIENCE entirely during the few seconds between the end of SONGS OF INNOCENCE and when the train arrives...make it a long flashback...but it would be a bit gimmicky.

Gerald So: Yes. I'm not a fan of long flashbacks.

Charles Ardai: I'm not, either -- but I did one in this book, and it worked. The whole first half of the book is a flashback that eventually deposits you back in the opening scene. That turned out to be pain in the ass to write.

Gerald So: Oh, right. It was good as prologue. Almost not noticeable.

Charles Ardai: Since you spend 100 pages working your way back to an event you've already described, you don't have the freedom to take the character off in a strange new direction. But it was structurally interesting, so I went with it.

Gerald So: I think it helped to build sympathy for Dorrie.

Charles Ardai: That's one of the things I was hoping it would do. Since she's alread dead when the book opens, a flashback was the only way we could see her alive. The other thing I was hoping was that people would enjoy seeing various bits of the opening scene explained as we went on. For instance, we're told that John recently broke a rib. But how did he break it? We eventually see it happen, in the flashback. And when it comes, I want it to feel like a puzzle piece clicking neatly into place. Whether it does or not, I can't say. But it was fun to play with that sort of thing.

Gerald So: I think that thoroughness pays off.

Charles Ardai: Thanks. It was in some ways an exhausting book to write, but I also enjoyed it a great deal.

Gerald So: not everyone will be on the same wavelength, but for those who are, it's added fun.

Charles Ardai: Right. And so far the response I've had from readers has been gratifyingly positive. A few people have pointed out, grouchily, that the plot of the two books is very similar, which is true: I tried to put a batch of things in the book that come from various parts of my life. I went to school at Columbia, so all the Columbia scenes contain references to real people and places - though I changed the geography of the tunnels under the campus to suit the plot.

Gerald So: I wondered about that. How much was real and how much was imagined for the story.

Charles Ardai: The Hungarian named Ardo Fekete is named after the town at the foot of the Carpathian mountains after which my father's family was named - "Ardai" means "a person from Ardo". And at one point Susan suggests to John that they use a e-mail address. But there's plenty that was made up out of whole cloth as well.

Gerald So: was Khachdurian also Hungarian? I remember the Juno reference.

Charles Ardai: No, 'Khachadurian' is - I believe - an Armenian name. My wife had a high school friend named Khachadurian. And I have a friend named Murco. Put the two together, and presto -- you've named your villain.

Gerald So: Yes, I knew it was one of the two.

Charles Ardai: I love coming up with interesting names. A friend of mine in elementary school had a list of names his mother had compiled. Real people with weird names. One of them was "Rudolf von Eggcream." You can't make this up.

Gerald So: Was that a real name?

Charles Ardai: Apparently. I can't vouch for it myself.

Gerald So: Any idea what sort of book you'll write next?

Charles Ardai: The next book I've committed to write is the fiftieth book in the Hard Case Crime series, which will be published at the end of 2008. Unlike the last two, this one will be a romp -- not an out-and-out comedy, but pure fun. It'll be set in 1958 and will tell the story of the founding of Hard Case Crime - that way, 2008 will be our 50th anniversary, you see.

Gerald So: Aha.

Charles Ardai: I plan to have cameos from various writers who were alive back then. The main plot will involve a gorgeous young woman who comes to New York City to be a dancer and finds herself embroiled in much mischief. Glen Orbik - who also did the cover for SONGS - will be painting the cover. And if we can afford it, we plan to include an insert section that will feature miniature images of all 50 of our covers.

Gerald So: Oh, neat. How many of the covers has Orbik done so far?

Charles Ardai: I think he's done 6 or 7 -- I'm not sure. He's currently working on the cover for THE MAX, the third book in Ken Bruen and Jason Starr's series that began with BUST and is about to continue with SLIDE.

Gerald So: I'll be picking all of those up.

Charles Ardai: I hope you like them! BUST was very popular, and I think SLIDE is even stronger. Tighter, leaner, meaner, funnier.

Gerald So: wow.

Charles Ardai: And BUST was no slouch -- so you can imagine how strong SLIDE is.

Gerald So: as I say, wow.

Charles Ardai: Supposedly it'll be reviewed in tomorrow's ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. We'll see. As for THE MAX, I haven't read any of it yet, but Jason tells me he thinks it's the best of the three. I do know it takes our favorite miscreants to a new environment: jail.

Gerald So: Ah. What's your writing process like? Does it differ between stories and novels?

Charles Ardai: Novels take longer. Other than that, not really. Actually, that's not true. I sometimes don't know when I start a short story how it will end. I just go with the flow, see where it takes me. With both of the novels, I knew exactly what the ending would be before I started writing. That helped a lot. I can't imagine how frustrating it would be to write 200+ pages only to discover you've written yourself into a hole and didn't have a good ending.

But I often know the ending before I start a story, too. For instance, I'm about to write a story called THE CASE OF THE DEAD MAN'S BLUES, and I know the last line. I don't know everything that happens on the way to that last line, but I know the line.

Gerald So: It strikes me as easier to know the ending and write one's way up to it like a flashback. Just a gut feeling, though

Charles Ardai: It's easier and harder. Easier because you have a destination in mind and can aim for it. Harder because you actually have to hit what you're aiming at. If you paint a target, there's a bullseye for you to miss.

Gerald So: right, but in general I think it's better to have a target that not to have one.

Charles Ardai: I agree.

Gerald So: Many a book has ended flatly.

Charles Ardai: I always wonder why that happens -- does the author start out with a flat ending he thinks, incorrectly, is great, or does he not know how to end the book and eventually just give up on writing something great? Or does he choose a flat ending deliberately, to make some sort of point?

Speaking from my own experience, when my stories have ended flatly, it's because I didn't have an ending in mind when I started and couldn't come up with a good one and finally just said, "The hell with it. I've given this story as much of my time as I can. I have to tie it up somehow and move on."

Gerald So: Yes, it's possible to overthink an ending, too, which is where I think the "making-a-point" endings come from.

Charles Ardai: Probably. On the other hand, some people really want to make a point, and set out to do so. It's didactic, but I can't say it's not a legitimate choice. Look at all those episodes of the original STAR TREK series that made a point about racism or politics or what-have-you. Or the old TWILIGHT ZONEs. That sort of thing can be fun, too. If it's not too preachy.

So what have you been reading lately that really knocked you for a loop?

Gerald o: Hmm. I just read NIGHT WORK by Steve Hamilton. Good to see him try a new protag.

Charles Ardai: Absolutely. I'm curious to read it. The last book I read was actually only obliquely related to our genre -- it's a nominal biography of Raymond Chandler called THE LONG EMBRACE, focusing on Chandler's 30-year marriage to his wife, Cissy, who was almost as old as his mother and whom he married just two weeks after his mother died. An interesting topic, to be sure -- but unfortunately there's just not that much information, and the author fills the pages with much speculation pulled out of (to be polite about it) her hat.

Gerald So: Ah, one of those filled-in histories.

Charles Ardai: She tries her best; I think she's sincere. But there's not much to work with. The Chandlers lived in more than 30 residences over 30 years, which is peculiar in itself; so she goes to visit all 30...but of course after half a century, they're mostly gone or locked up or otherwise inaccessible. So what do we learn? What some old buildings looked like.

Gerald So: Is it marketed as fiction?

Charles Ardai: No, it's marketed as non-fiction, though the author is a novelist. I found it disappointing, but maybe that's because I love Chandler so much and she's so much worse a writer. Every time she quotes a passage from Chandler, I want to say, "That's it! More of that! Less of your drab writing, please; more from that Chandler guy."

But what can you do? We're none of us as good as Chandler.

Gerald So: As a fan of Chandler, what did you think of Robert Parker "finishing" POODLE SPRINGS?

Charles Ardai: I liked the idea of it; I can't say I loved the book. I liked it -- but it wasn't as good as Chandler. Same with Parker's sequel to THE BIG SLEEP (which I think was called PERCHANCE TO DREAM) Some very nice writing (at his best, Parker's great), but nice ain't the league Chandler was working in.

Gerald So: Yes, somewhere along the line, I couldn't suspend disbelief with anyone finishing another author's work. I feel the same way about the new James Bond authors.

Charles Ardai: That said, Max Allan Collins finished Mickey Spillane's final crime novel, DEAD STREET, for us, and I defy any reader to detect the seam between them.

Gerald So: Interesting.

Charles Ardai: Of course, Mickey and Max talked a lot about the book before Mickey died, and Mickey left extensive notes behind; but Max had a big writing challenge, channeling the voice of an Old Master, and he came through beautifully.

Gerald So: No one knows Mickey better than Max, I would think.

Charles Ardai: Right now, Max is finishing Mickey's unfinished Mike Hammer novels - though not for us. They'll be published by Harcourt.

Gerald So: I see.

Charles Ardai: I'm very curious to read them myself. Mickey also left behind one finished novel called THE LAST STAND, but it's more a men's adventure novel than a crime novel, so it remains to be seen who publishes that one.

Gerald So: I'm ambivalent. On one hand, I want the finishing author to pull it off, and on the other I don't want him to be as good.

Charles Ardai: Right! It's a conundrum. As it happens, the finishing author is almost never as good. I've heard good things about Mark Winegardner's work on the GODFATHER sequels, but that's an exception.

Gerald So: But also you can't expect anyone to completely mimic someone else.

Charles Ardai: True. The best you can hope for is what you get in good fanfiction -- a person who really loves the characters and the universe and is able to reproduce their voices credibly. You don't get the original author's particular genius for invention. But you get something, and for a fan of the author's work, that sort of tribute can be enjoyable.

Gerald So: You may get to hear the characters again, right.

Charles Ardai: I remember an episode of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION where they find Scotty, the chief engineer from the original series, trapped in a transporter signal and they bring him back, and he feels out of place in the new period. So he goes to the holodeck and asks to see a recreation of the original Enterprise deck. And when he steps onto that recreated deck - it's a magical moment for anyone who loved the original STAR TREK, who grew up watching it. It's just a moment, maybe a minute or two at most -- but it's a step back into something you thought you'd never see again.

That's what you can get with a continuation of an author's work after his death. In the best case.

Gerald So: They did something similar on DS9.

Charles Ardai: Right, the tribbles episode. You can tell I'm a trekkie.

Gerald So: I'm curious and a bit afraid of the JJ Abrams movie.

Charles Ardai: Me, too. But more curious than afraid. Tenty years ago, I'd have been more afraid. I'd have been writing petitions opposing it. But now...I'm curious to see new actors try the roles on for size. Why not? I liked Daniel Craig as Bond. I may like Matt Damon, or whoever, as Kirk.

Gerald So: It's strange how the franchise seemed to run out of ideas with Enterprise.

Charles Ardai: I would guess there will be another STAR TREK tv series at some point. They just need to get some really great writers. That's the main thing I found was missing from the later series.

Gerald So: The better the writing, the easier a role is to play.

Charles Ardai: Of course, what else would you expect a couple of writers to say...

Gerald So: Very true.

Charles Ardai: Now, JJ Abrams is a good writer, or at least knows how to hire good writers. I've enjoyed LOST very much, even though it's gotten very convoluted. The writing is consistently strong and sometimes outstanding. And the acting is excellent. So I have high hopes.

The other one I have high hopes for is the new Indiana Jones movie. No one who loves pulp fiction can fail to feel a slight flutter of the old ticker at the prospect of seeing Harrison Ford in the hat again.

Gerald So: I was glad to see Terry O'Quinn get an Emmy.

Charles Ardai: Yeah, I was glad about that too. He's tremendous actor.

Gerald So: The new Indy movie has Marion in it. I'm sold.

Charles Ardai: Yep. As long as she drinks some buffalo-sized Tibetan gentleman under the table again, I'll have gotten my $11 worth.

Gerald So: None of the other love interests was as alive as Marion, it seemed.

Charles Ardai: I couldn't even tell you who the love interest in the third one was. In the second, I liked Willie as long as she was singing "Anything Goes" in Mandarin, but after that it was all downhill. Unfortunately, "Anything Goes" ends about 2 minutes into the movie.

Gerald So: Your opinion is surprisingly harsher than mine. :)

Charles Ardai: I wrote a piece of fanfiction last year that I'm very proud of that imagines what Indy's life might be like after WWII ends. Very grim, a bit depressing. Just what you'd expect from the author of SONGS OF INNOCENCE. But no suicide at the end. That far I wouldn't go. That's the epitome of a character who can take everything life throws at him and keep coming back for more.

Gerald So: I'm curious. How did your story end?

Charles Ardai: Ah...the only way to answer that would give away too much about the story. If you're curious to read it, it's at

Gerald So: Oh, okay. I will read it sometime.

Charles Ardai: I'm certainly delighted to have the chance to chat with you about all this good stuff -- everything from my book to other people's books to STAR TREK and INDIANA JONES. Not a bad way at all to spend an hour.

Gerald So: As am I. Thanks, Charles.

Charles Ardai: Glad to do it! Have a good night.


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