Hard-Boiled Poet
The Reed Farrel Coleman Interview
Conducted by Jack Bludis


Reed Farrel Coleman (left).

Reed Farrel Coleman has won the Shamus Award three times for Best Private-Eye Novel. He has also won the Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards and has been nominated twice for the Edgar. Lee Child says of Reed Coleman and Reed's most important protagonist, "The biggest mysteries in our genre are why Reed Coleman isn't already huge, and why his private eye protagonist Moe Prager isn't already an icon."

* * * * *

JACK BLUDIS: How do you feel about being as good as you are (and take my word for it, you are good) and the world at large, not even those who read mysteries, not knowing much about you and your writing?

REED FARREL COLEMAN: Jack, I'll tell you, I'm of two minds. I've got my peers' respect, great reviews, and loads of awards and nominations for validation. I would be lying to you and your readers, though, if I said I was satisfied with that alone. Of course, I feel I should be more widely read and my bank account should be fuller.

It's completely frustrating at times, but never so frustrating that I let it stand in the way of my writing. Things are what they are and throwing tantrums and stomping my feet won't change anything. I'll just keep on writing and hope someone will eventually take notice.

On the other hand, a lot of writers would give their right arms to have my career and I am careful to remember that. One thing I want to make very clear is that I don't resent other authors' successes. No one is happier for my colleagues' triumphs than me.

Jack: How much is Moe Prager, the character, like Reed Coleman, the man?

Reed: I often say Moe is a better looking, not-quite-as-intelligent version of me, but that's a bit of a joke. Of course, Moe and I share some stuff. We're from the same place, went to the same schools, etc., but that was for ease and familiarity more than anything else. Moe is much more courageous than me and less corruptible. He can be guilt-ridden at times and I think guilt is too often a waste of time and emotion.

I do think that the thing Moe and I share is our tendency for introspection and curiosity about the world.

Jack: The Huffington Post called you the "noir poet laureate," and some have described your writing "as smooth as fiction gets." How do you assess your writing in terms of poetry and the fluidity of your prose?

Reed: I always take such comments as the highest praise. I began writing as a poet, received my only formal writing training in poetry, and I've published poetry on and off for many years. In fact, I am now a co-editor of The Lineup, a journal that features poems related to crime. But my gift wasn't for writing poetry. It was for poetic language and there's a difference. One of the reasons I write, maybe the most important reason, is that I absolutely love the sound of words. Don't misunderstand, I don't sit there constructing pretty sentences. On the contrary, I write what comes to me to write. There are other writers in the genre that share this knack. Ken Bruen, of course, Peter Spiegelman, Megan Abbott too. The most talented prose poet is Daniel Woodrell.

Jack: With the five Moe Prager novels from Walking the Perfect Square to Empty Ever After seemed to complete what many call a "character arc." To many of your readers, it seemed to end the saga of Moe Prager. Yet you started Moe anew a few years later in Innocent Monster. Tell us how that choice to continue came about and long and how far will it continue?

Reed: Empty Ever After is an example of where art and commerce intersect. I wanted to keep writing Moe, but I didn't have a contract for more Moe books. Fact is, I can't afford to write books that may not get published. Hence, I had to write a Moe book (EEA) that would tie up the loose ends of the previous four books so I wouldn't leave my fans and readers just hanging. Also, the story arc -- Moe's secret, its reveal, and its fallout -- had gotten a bit tired for me. I found that I had to tell so much back-story that it got in the way of the current story. So I decided to end that arc and introduce some new characters in case the series was to move ahead. Luckily, I got a new contract and the series lives on.

Jack: Maureen Corrigan of NPR said, "If life were fair, Coleman would be as celebrated as Pelecanos and Connelly; then, again, if life were fair a hard-boiled poet like Coleman would have nothing to write about," How do you feel about your popularity and about the assessment that you are a hard-boiled poet? (There is that "poet" line again.)

Reed: Simply put, it's the greatest compliment I have ever received. I can't worry about my popularity. I put my energies into the words on the page.

Jack: And how do you feel about the conclusion that if life were fair you would have "nothing to write about?"

Reed: Maureen is a shrewd observer of life. She is correct. The very basis of the hard-boiled tradition is, I believe, the reckoning of inequities. It is about the small victories in a world that sometimes seems set up to thwart people at every turn. But if there is a god and he's listening, tell him I get it and I understand unfairness well enough. Tell him he can give me a break now and I could stand a little popularity and a nice payday!

Jack: Who are your writing models? If not models, whose work did you look up to when you first decided to write crime fiction?

Reed: Larry Block's Scudder was essential to me. Chandler and Hammett, of course. I also have to credit T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. But I continue to learn and to be influenced by what I read. I hope that never stops. I've learned a lot from Philip Kerr, Peter Spiegelman, Don Winslow and others.

Jack: At the MWAU seminar in Bethesda, Maryland, you described how you start a book. Can you give us a thumbnail of that? And tell us why you start a book that way?

Reed: I take it you mean my insane editing. I work very very hard on the first fifty pages of a book. As I don't outline, I need a strong foundation on which to rest the remainder of the book. I'll write for several hours in the morning and then I work the rest of the day refining what I've written. The next day I begin by reading all of what I've written the previous day to get a kind of momentum. Until I get to page fifty, I reread all the pages I've done to start my writing day. So by the time I get to page 51, I've read the beginning of the book at least 25 to 30 times. And each time I tweak it just a little bit.

Jack: Many people who read Tower were brought to tears at the conclusion and denouement of this book. How was it writing with Ken Bruen, another author who has been assessed as a poet?

Reed: I like to say -- only half-jokingly -- that it's a good thing Ken and I live an ocean apart and neither one of us owns a handgun. My part of Tower was the hardest writing and maybe the best writing I've ever done. And it was Ken who pushed me to accomplish that. But he did it in a very un-Ken-like and very Zen manner. He sent me his half of the book with no instruction on how to proceed. I had to figure it all out and Ken resisted any effort by me to get him to help. I had to be the other half of the one hand clapping metaphor. Ken established the plot, the characters, the timeline, etc. It was my task to use those things in an original way and to make them work. It was murder, but I did it. I am very proud of that.

Jack: Did your time as vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America take time from your the actual writing your novels? Did this stint hurt or help your career?

Reed: It cost me about half a book's worth of writing, but I wouldn't have traded that experience in for anything. I got to know some fantastic people that I probably wouldn't have met. I traveled a lot, probably too much, and I got to change the course of the organization for the better. In the end, in spite of the hard work and interference with my writing, it was good for me and for my career, such as it is.

Jack: Is there anything that I didn't cover that you would like to tell us about?

Reed: One thing. I owe all my awards to you, Jack. At Madison Bouchercon, I was nominated for the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards for The James Deans. The first morning I had breakfast with Jack Bludis. I had French toast and crispy bacon, and won all three awards. Now Jack and I have that breakfast together at least once at every Bouchercon. Thanks, Jack. The check's in the mail.

Jack: Yeah, right. Agreeing to this interview is check enough. Like most ball players, many of us are superstitious. So, if I am again nominated for something, breakfast is on me.

Reed: You got it, pal.

......

.........

The Moe Prager Novels

Also of Interest

Interview respectfully submitted by Jack Bludis, January 2011. Jack, by the way, is a Hunt Valley, Maryland writer who has sold over 450 short stories and thirty novels under a slew of pen names. He writes about forties Baltimore eye Ken Sligo, forties LA gumshoe Rick Page and fifties Hollywood dick Brian Kane. His works include the Shamus-nominated Shadow of the Dahlia, as well as the upcoming The Last Sellout and Munchies and Other Tales.

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