Interview with Robert Crais
In a career spanning a quarter of a century, Robert Crais has never compromised his talents for the sake of commercial success. Although thrillers are very often relegated to the category of escapist fiction, Crais has consistently written riveting, fast-paced thrillers that stand on their own as works of literary merit, earning him both commercial and critical success, and a worldwide following of millions of fans.
Crais’s interest in the private eye genre was first sparked when, at the age of fifteen, he picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister (1949). After several years as a television script writer for prime-time police dramas such as Hill Street Blues and Cagney & Lacey, he tried his hand at writing a novel, and the result was the critically acclaimed The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987). Fittingly, the novel earned comparisons to the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald for its tight prose, complex characters, and gritty setting in the City of Angels.
The Monkey’s Raincoat marked the first appearance of Crais’s signature characters: wisecracking, upbeat Elvis Cole and his sidekick, tattooed roughneck and former Marine, Joe Pike. Since 1987, the duo have appeared in fourteen bestselling novels which have explored controversial issues such as corruption in law enforcement, immigration, gang violence, and racial tensions. In Free Fall (1993), Cole and Pike’s investigation leads them into the dark underworld of South Central gangs, where they find themselves accused of murder. In The Watchman (2007), while protecting a girl who enters the witness protection program, Cole and Pike become involved in a cat-and-mouse game between corrupt cops and ruthless mobsters. And in The Sentry (2011), after Joe Pike rescues a sandwich shop owner from a brutal beating, the pair must square off against the Mexican Mafia and Bolivian drug lords. One of Crais’s most intriguing novels is the highly ambitious L.A. Requiem (1999), in which Joe Pike is arrested for killing the man accused of murdering his ex-lover, and Cole must try to clear his partner’s name in order to make sure he avoids the death penalty. Crais tackles several complex themes in this masterpiece, such as the causes of violence, how our pasts can condemn our future, and the psychology behind vengeance. Despite the thought-provoking themes and issues at the center of the Cole and Pike series, and the stylistic parallels to the works of Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald, Crais’s novels do not share the same bleak worldview as those of his predecessors. In Crais’s words: “Thematically, again and again, my books are about people who are trying to be better than they have been.”
Throughout his career, Crais has consistently sought out new challenges in his writing. Instead of staying within the relative comfort of the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series, he’s chosen to try his hand at several stand-alone thrillers, which have been lauded by critics and fans alike for their tension-filled plots, complex twists and turns, and meticulous research into everything from hostage negotiation and the disarming of explosive devices, to the intricacies of bank robberies and the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. His first stand-alone, Demolition Angel (2000), follows a psychologically traumatized bomb squad veteran as she investigates a rash of bombings that have been designed to kill bomb technicians. In Hostage (2001), a former hostage negotiator, haunted by a mistake from his past, is in a race against time to rescue his kidnapped wife and daughter from a group of mobsters. And The Two-Minute Rule (2006) follows the trail of an ex-con, recently released after serving a stint for a bank robbery, as he investigates the police cover-up of his son’s cold-blooded murder.
Crais has received numerous nominations and awards, including the Ross Macdonald Literary Award in 2006, the Anthony Award in 1988 for The Monkey’s Raincoat, and three Edgar Award nominations for The Monkey’s Raincoat, Free Fall, and L.A. Requiem.
Robert Crais currently lives in California with his wife.
AFG: So, Bob when’s the next book coming out?
RC: There’s no hard date at this time. It’s going to be sometime in 2014. Right now we’re thinking about late summer, July or August. But like I said, that’s kind of totally open.
AFG: Is it an Elvis Cole book?
RC: It’s actually Elvis Cole, Joe Pike, and Maggie, and Scott James together.
AFG: Can you give us a bit of a teaser?
RC: Maggie was, prior to being an LAPD K-9 patrol dog, a dual-purpose dog. She was trained not only as a patrol dog but also as an explosive-detection dog. And Scott and Maggie get into this new book due to her prior training as an explosive-detection dog. They cross paths with Elvis and Joe because Elvis has been hired to find a missing woman who appears to be, just an ordinary, homemaker-type wife, but turns out to have connections with the Defense Department and its contractor industry, and she’s being blackmailed to supply explosive elements to a certain party. As Elvis uncovers that, he crosses paths with Maggie and Scott. Hopefully the whole thing becomes a great broad canvas for me to bring these characters together and have a good time doing it.
AFG: That sounds like a hell of a plot.
RC: It can be if I pull it off, Andrew!
AFG: You will. You’ve done it plenty of times, right?
RC: I’ve done it nineteen times so far, each one by the skin of my teeth, man.
AFG: You know, that’s how it feels. I’ve been managing editor at this magazine for thirteen years, and I was talking to somebody the other day, and I said, “You know, there’s always this self-doubt.” It’s like you’re directing a little film because all the material is finely balanced—you can’t have too many hardboiled stories, or too many cozies. But there have been times where it’s as if all I’m getting from writers are hardboiled or depressing stories which are guaranteed to drive a few of our subscribers to suicide, and I can’t have that happen. [laughs]
RC: You know, you’re right, when you use the words uncertainty and self-doubt. And I assume that there are magazine publishers and there are novelists who—and I don’t know why I assume this but I do—feel such a sense of self-assurance that they have no doubt. You know, they feel completely in command. I wish I were one of them. But I think that the only difference between me as a writer and human being today versus me nineteen books ago is that I know I can weather the storm. I know the storm is coming. I know each particular book that I write is going to be fraught with inner drama for me. But I’ve grown to tell myself that that’s actually a valuable thing, because I go into it with such a hypersensitive drive to make it work and to make it be everything it can be. Maybe that’s the part of the whole mechanism that keeps me writing these things to the best of my ability each and every time out of the gate—I don’t just toss stuff off.
AFG: No you don’t. You never write by numbers, which sadly a lot of crime and thriller writers end up doing. It’s not easy to write two books a year for anybody.
RC: It’s not easy to write one book a year.
AFG: No, no, it’s just very difficult. But would you say that after L.A. Requiem, the pressure for you to deliver increased?
RC: In many ways, yes, of course. But that’s almost by choice. When I changed the way I do my books and how I view my books, which did come about with L.A. Requiem, it was me raising the bar for myself. The canvas is bigger. I gave myself more toys to play with, meaning more techniques and a broader way of looking at things. So since that time, I want to use those toys, I want to paint that bigger picture, and it becomes more complicated, and it becomes richer, and as a result of that, you have to dig deeper, you have to look harder, you have to focus more finely. But that’s all good, because that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me entertained and keeps me wanting to do this. That’s my motivation.
AFG: Did you feel when you were writing L.A. Requiem that this was going to be something really special?
RC: No, no. When I tell you this, you kind of won’t believe … everyone kind of looks at me like I’m kidding when I say this, but it’s God’s honest truth that when I was writing L.A. Requiem, I was convinced it was a total failure. Remember it was my eighth book. With the last couple of books before L.A. Requiem-—Sunset Express and Indigo Slam—I had sort of micro-experimented in changing my particular form because those books were both prefaced with third-person prologues. And it seems like nothing now, but all the earlier books were written in that classic American hardboiled private eye form, the first person point of view. You know, Raymond Chandler, Robert Parker, et cetera. So back in that day, I mean, for me to say, “Hey you know what, I’m going to throw in a prologue that isn’t Elvis Cole’s first person, that’s something completely different.” It was me taking a big chance. [laughs] At least it felt that way at the time. Then when I got to L.A. Requiem, and I decided to just go for it, meaning it wasn’t going to be just a pure American private eye novel anymore, first person, et cetera. It was going to be part detective novel, part thriller, part procedural. It was going to have flashbacks. It was going to have time shifts. It was certainly a lot of fun and interesting to dive into, but I remember feeling that it was going to be a head-shot to my career. And in fact, when I finally finished the manuscript, and gave it to my agent, Aaron Priest, I was so uncertain because I had a multi-book deal at the time to, I guess it was Hyperion, I told Aaron, “When you give it to them, if they really hate it, I feel so bad, you know, we can give them their money back.” And then it turned out that a lot of people liked the book. But at the time I couldn’t see it. I was too close to it and had zero confidence that the book had come together and worked as a larger dramatic piece.
AFG: Did screenplay writing help you with writing novels? Did that sort of give you a structure?
RC: Yeah. You know, prior to writing books, I was a writer in Hollywood, TV and things, script-writing. And I think of that as my school for writing. I was really lucky. I wrote for some great shows that had spectacularly talented staffs, and I firmly believe to this day that the good things that I learned working with those people, and for those shows, absolutely influenced my prose work. I am a naturally visual writer anyway. I see these things in my head, and I write them down, and it all cuts together like a film in my head as I’m writing it. And then after the first draft is written, I edit it the same way. I edit visually and auditorily as if I’m working in post-production editing the thing. But when it comes to the tightness of scenes, when it comes to the way I do dialogue, the way I do conflict and scene structure, the way I do pacing, I learned all that from the years I was writing scripts. Absolutely.
AFG: But you don’t want to sell film rights for Elvis Cole, right?
RC: No, not at this time. You know, I also write stand-alone books and I’m more than happy to let Hollywood take a run at the stand-alones. I feel differently about Elvis and Joe for a variety of reasons. One is because the way my career grew in books with Elvis and Joe starting at the absolute bottom—paperback original—and then working up to what’s become a surprisingly [laughs] popular and successful endeavor. That’s due to readers, it’s due to independent mystery booksellers hand-selling those early books before there was publicity, before there was marketing, before there were tours, before there was anything. And it has a little bit to do with the nature of the book as collaborative art between writer and reader. A book is just this thing that sits on a shelf. It’s inanimate. It’s a dead tree. Until a person reads it, and then the reader and the writer collaborate to make whatever occurs in the reader’s head. So I love that collaboration; I love the idea of it. I love that however many hundreds of thousands of people read Elvis and Joe, or read Suspect, they all have their own Maggie, and she’s a little bit different than all the other Maggies that exist out there. And that singular collaboration has occurred between me and that one reader. Then we get to Elvis and Joe and Hollywood. And when you give your book over to Hollywood, and there’s certainly been a lot of great stories. By story I don’t mean the story in the film. I mean the story where novelists turn their books over, and a lot of good things happen because of it. You know, you look at what’s happened with Dennis Lehane. Some wonderful films have been made from his books, just really wonderful films. I mean, even, Lee Child caught a lot of flak for Tom Cruise. I remember when I heard he was playing Jack Reacher, I thought it was a smart thing to do because despite all the sniping and stuff—and yeah, Tom’s not six-foot-whatever—Tom Cruise is The Man, and when he brings it, he can really bring it. I mean, there’s a reason those Mission Impossible films are so successful. And in fact, despite all the complaining and whining that Tom’s not as big as Jack Reacher, the movie was hugely successful, and the movie was responsible for Lee selling tons of more books. And God bless him for it. He took a chance, and it paid off, and it won for him. In my case, that chance is not really something I’m comfortable with, with regards to Elvis and Joe and Hollywood, because when you do give them your book, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Once you sign the paper, once they give you the money, they get to do pretty much whatever they want. And that could be a good thing; that could be a bad thing. You know, if I gave over L.A. Requiem or The Monkey’s Raincoat, Elvis and Joe period, to a film company, it could end up being one of the finest films ever made. And I’m still not sure I would be pleased with the result, only because part of me kind of wonders how that might affect the way my readers view the characters and maybe even how I view the characters. There’s that old cliché saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s nothing really broke with the whole Elvis Cole thing right now, as far as I’m concerned.
AFG: And they’re doing very well now, they’re on the bestsellers list.
RC: Yeah, I’m kind of happy to keep him where he is, meaning on the page and as a creation that occurs just between me and my readers. I mean, look, you know the other old saying “Never say never …” Well, I’ve been saying no for over twenty years for the Elvis Cole books. And I won’t tell you “never.” I guess there could come a time for whatever reason, where I decide to take a shot, or somebody convinces me to. Some talented people have come to me and tried to get the film rights. But I just don’t see that on the near-term at all.