Thursday, March 09, 2006

Down the Rabbit's Hole with Robert Crais

Robert Crais looks every inch the best-selling author. Lean, of medium height, he’s a darkly handsome man. Hair cropped short with a few days growth of beard on his chin. He’s dressed the part . . . jeans, soft-sided, soft-soled shoes, blue and black striped socks, a dressy black T beneath a wool sports coat.

He’s alternately funny and serious. A published author since 1987 and hugely successful since L.A. Requiem in 1999, he’s right at home at books events like this one March 8 at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

A native of Baton Rouge, Crais comes from four generations of police, although he was never a cop himself. He saw the job from the family’s perspective. “I saw who cops are when they come home.” It’s that understanding he brings to his novels, which include the highly successful Elvis Cole series.

Crais’ new book, The Two Minute Rule, is a one-off, featuring an entirely new cast of characters. It began as an Elvis Cole novel, but en route a new character—Max Holman—began to assert himself. Holman is a former bank robber, just released from prison and trying to go straight. He’s an appealing character. So much so that Crais vows he will re-appear in future books, perhaps alongside Elvis.

The FBI’s Los Angeles bank squad aided Crais in his research for the new book. They also provided him with its title. Two minutes is all the time a bank robber has to get in and to get out if he’s to avoid capture.

Authenticity is important to Crais. “If it’s inaccurate I’ll get 862 emails.” Consequently, he also believes in research. “It leads me to ideas that are better than anything I could make up.”

Crais, who novels grow out of a character not plot, always researches a book before he writes it. Before writing, he also spends about a third of his time outlining the new book. “I develop an over-riding structure. I often have a clear idea of the ending before I start writing.”

He’s works closely with his editor during this preliminary phase. This practice eliminates pitfalls that might arise if the editor doesn’t see the book until it’s written.

Crais’ first exposure to the American detective novel came at age 15. He picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, attracted by the “hot chick on the cover.” Reading Chandler, he said, “was like tumbling down the rabbit hole.”

Crais honed his writing skills as a screen writer in L.A. It was exciting, fun and an education, but not an experience he cares to repeat soon. Crais did write the original screenplay for his 2001 novel Hostage. By the time the movie, which starred Bruce Willis, was made the screenplay had gone through so many changes Crais didn’t receive a writing credit.

“The check cleared,” he said of the experience. “It taught me the lesson of non-involvement.”

Elvis Cole and sidekick, Joe Pike, won’t ever appear on film. “The Elvis Cole books are special to me. They’re my life work.” Plus, Crais views his readers as collaborators. Each reader has a different vision of Elvis Cole. “I don’t want that to be lost.”

Crais avoids trends in the mystery genre, perhaps because he had trouble selling his first book, The Monkey’s Raincoat. The market was flooded with detective novels in the late 1980s. Most publishing houses already had an author turning out P.I. novels and weren’t interest in someone new. Crais persisted, The Monkey’s Raincoat was published as a paperback original by Bantam and today he’s consistently on the best-seller list.

“I tell aspiring writers to ignore trends. Write what you love to read.”

Crais describes his approach to writing as “dogged.” He writes six to seven days a week for hours at a time. “I don’t believe in the muse. I don’t wait for inspiration. I don’t believe in writer’s block.”

Mysteries remain a popular and enduring genre, Crais believes, because they are entertaining and because of their “car-wreck quality.” Mysteries are also popular, he said, “because our own lives are so fraught with every day mysteries,” such as how to pay for a child’s braces or a college education.

People are attracted to mysteries because the protagonist “divines order from chaos, ferrets out the truth from lies.”

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