Books by G.M. Ford
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Who'd have predicted that a guy whose name sounds like a hostile takeover between car companies, and whose main fictional protagonist employs the homeless as investigative legmen, would create one of the most intriguing detective series set in Seattle?
At 53 years of age, with two divorces, five novels, and many years of teaching behind him, G.M. ("Jerry") Ford has fulfilled his middle-aged dream of becoming a full-time detective novelist. And he didn't even have to endure the agony of rejected manuscripts or involuntary penury to achieve that position. He sold the first book he ever wrote within a year, and Last Ditch -- the latest in his series about an underachieving but persistent Seattle private eye named Leo Waterman -- recently hit bookstore shelves. Although he insists that he pays scant attention to critics, they have generally applauded his literary labors. The Washington Post Book World called Waterman "the most likable private eye to make the scene since Travis McGee." Publishers Weekly said, "Ford demonstrates real skill," and The New York Times Book Review has added, "His cityscapes of Seattle are worth the trip." Ford isn't short of recognition from his peers, either. His 1995 debut novel Who In Hell is Wanda Fuca? picked up nominations for both the Shamus and Anthony awards.
A native New Yorker, but a Seattle resident for the last 18 years, Ford has a quick (often self-effacing) wit and an even quicker laugh. As he prepared to embark on his latest round of book signings and other publicity gigs, I had the chance to talk with him about his long-standing interest in mystery fiction, his secrets of character development, and why Leo Waterman may be doomed to a loner's life.
J. Kingston Pierce: Weren't you a creative-writing teacher before you launched the Leo Waterman series?
G.M. Ford: I taught English, Language Arts -- whatever it was being called that week -- in high school through university levels, for 20-some-odd years.
Did teaching creative writing help you somehow to refine your own interests and talents as a fiction writer?
It taught me that what I didn't want to write were art novels: 300 pages of well-crafted prose in which absolutely nothing happens to people we don't care about, anyway.
I understand that Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? was the first novel you ever wrote -- and the first one you published. That's bound to give other would-be writers hope. How many years did you work on Wanda Fuca?
Oh, one and a half -- something like that. I feel like I ought to have some stories to tell, maybe about how I wrote 37 earlier novels, how I persevered in a Paris garret -- but I don't. Not like Earl Emerson.
That's right. Emerson, who also lives in Seattle, wrote a bunch of science-fiction novels before he saw his first Thomas Black private eye novel, The Rainy City (1985), in print.
Yeah, he wrote 14 novels before he got published. I don't have anything like that strength of character.
So when did you first become interested in crime fiction?
I was 10 years old. I was reading the Hardy Boys. I read all of those, and then I read all the Nancy Drew books, which I thought weren't as interesting.... Finally, when I was about 12, I read my first Rex Stout -- and I was hooked. [Stout] is funny, because his books weren't hard-boiled, they weren't cozy -- they weren't like the rest of the genre. But he just got me in love with detective novels. Then I read more and more every year, till I had read everything.
And one day you decided, if all these other people can write crime fiction, then I can, too?
Sort of. I was having my mid-life crisis, in my mid 40s, and I decided to start in on my Things To Do Before I Die list, and writing a detective novel was number one on that list. I'd always known I wanted to write, but I was distracted by the usual things -- wife, kiddies, et cetera. But the first time I had the chance, I sat down and began writing. I just told myself, (a) You're an English teacher, so you have some sort of mastery of the form, and (b) You've read thousands of these things, you friggin' fool; if you don't know how to write one by now, you are a sl-o-o-ow study.
I'm not convinced that everybody who has read so many of these books can follow in your footsteps.
I'll tell you the truth: I teach a class at the [University of Washington] on mystery writing, and the first thing I tell my students is that, for the most part, writers succeed by conquering self-doubt. It isn't so much about talent or any of that other shit, it's about the temerity to start [a book] and the tenacity to follow it through.
Then, once you've started, the self-doubt really begins to flow. And then you get about halfway through, and you're picturing the castle scene in Frankenstein, where they come for you with rakes and torture instruments. [He laughs.] I go through this every time I write a book. About a month after I finish it, I sit there and I think, God, you've written the worst book ever in the history of mankind. And then I turn it in, and people love it, and I'm convinced again that there's no literary taste in America.
Do you find crime fiction at all limiting as a genre?
I find the way people look at it to be limiting, as if there's some sort of formula into which one simply plugs characters and settings, and then turns the switch. Anything you can write about in an art novel can be written about in this genre.
Which writers would you say most influenced you to pen your own detective novels?
Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, and James Crumley. Crumley's The Last Good Kiss is a wonderful book. The opening scene, where [detective C.W. Sughrue] finds [Abraham] Trahearne sitting on a barstool with an alcoholic bulldog -- that is one of the finest scenes I have seen in any novel. The book seems a bit dated now, with its few too many 60s references -- about 400 too many "mans." But [Crumley] is still one of my real heroes.
Before you wrote your first novel, how familiar were you with the work of private detectives? How important do you think it is for a writer to have a working knowledge of the demands and nuances of life for a real P.I. before he or she sits down to write about a fictional one?
I write fiction. I feel no need to match reality. I have no idea what a real gumshoe does, and quite frankly I don't care. Books have no obligation to be accurate. What they can't be is noticeably inaccurate. As long as they don't puke on their own shoes, everything's fine and dandy. In some subgenres, like historicals or police procedurals, the needs for accuracy are quite different. In a standard P.I. story, all you need to do is tell a good story.
You also need a good protagonist. Tell me how you see your series detective, Leo Waterman.
Leo's one part Travis McGee, one part Fletch, and one part Spenser. He is a perpetual adolescent; his behavior is often dictated by the fact that he knows he's coming into serious amounts of money on his 45th birthday. Leo is only dangerous if you threaten him or his, at which point, he can get violent in a hurry. He speaks with my voice and shares my general attitudes. In general, however, Leo's a much nicer character than I am.
How so? You seem nice enough.
He's much more tolerant than I am. I wouldn't put up with those drunks he works with. The only people who want to be around drunks are other drunks.
And yet, those homeless drunks -- "the Boys," as you call them in the books -- have a large part in your series.
Yeah, they do. They were what got me out of my day job. They're the Baker Street Irregulars, 50 years later and shitfaced. They let me say and do things [in the books] that I wouldn't want my protagonist to do. They provide comic counterpoint. Leo puts up with them. He's a more concerned person that I am, I think. He takes a lot of shit that I wouldn't, especially from Rebecca Duvall. That's about to come to an end, though.
What do you mean? That you're planning to write Leo's lover out of the series?
At the end of the book I just finished writing, called The Deader, the Better, there's an essential change in their relationship. And that doesn't mean they're getting married.
I take it you don't approve of marrying off fictional detectives.
I've never liked it, because by marrying, the detective loses his status as the lone hero. I mean, the modern detective is just the western hero, 100 years later. And he should kiss the horse and ride off with the horse, no more.
So removing Rebecca from the picture will give Leo back his essential lone hero status.
Exactly. And I'm just ready to go on to something else, you know? I've never really felt that I wrote [Rebecca] very well. I put her into the series in the first place to give Leo some love interest and somebody to talk to.
One of the things that you have to ask yourself when you write a detective series is, who is your detective going to talk to about his cases? Most guys have a sidekick who they talk to, or a cop friend. So I gave Leo Rebecca. But I've never been satisfied with her. She's a little flat to me. Although I'm 53 years old, and I've been married a couple of times, and I can tell you exactly what women will do next, I've never been real clear on why. One of the real secrets of writing characters is that you have to know why people do what they do. And women have always been a bit of a mystery to me.
There are now several detective series based in Seattle, including those by Emerson, Richard Hoyt, J.A. Jance, and K.K. Beck. Do you think that the city is diverse enough to support so many series -- and maybe more to come?
We may have reached the saturation point. Not only do we have a bunch of Seattle writers, but we have a whole set of pseudo-Seattle writers. Believe me, whatever I write next will be set someplace else.
You mentioned in another publication that The Deader, the Better will "primarily take place out on one of [Washington's Puget Sound] islands. As I intend to slander an entire county in the process of the novel, I'm going to make up a mythical town in a mythical Peninsula County and go from there."
That's right. And in the one after that, I'm probably going to have Leo leaving town to do whatever he needs to do.
Because you're tired of seeing all of these other people poaching on your Seattle territory?
Yeah, and I'm also tired of having to go back over the Boys every time. I want to make sure that the Boys don't overrun Leo. Leo's the detective. In [The Deader, the Better], they're in there as sort of a gratuity, rather than as an integral part of the story.
Not integral the way they were in, say, The Bum's Rush, which was really about them. And I seem to remember that the Boys had a large role in Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca?
That was because one of the bums got killed. Oh, I got so many letters about that. Readers said, Don't you dare kill any more bums. I wasn't being P.C. enough. [He chuckles.] It just gives me the urge to off several next time. I thought of writing a novel all about someone killing the homeless. And maybe we could off some of my bums in the process. I made up one batch, I can make up another batch.
So how many books do you plan ahead?
And are any of your next three books non-Leo ones?
I am writing one of those right now. It's a thriller, with a cross-country chase. It doesn't have anything to do with Seattle. As a matter of fact, it doesn't have anything to do with anyplace real. I sort of wrote it like Ross Macdonald used to write things: as long as it's got sand in front of it, it must be California. My book isn't place-oriented; it's sort of Lethal Weapon with a female protagonist.
One of the most interesting things about Last Ditch is that Leo finally comes to terms with the secrets held by his famous father, politician Wild Bill Waterman. Had you always foreseen this reassessment as part of Leo's character development?
I think all of us, at some point or another, have to get past our parents. Either that, or you sit in little therapy groups while strangers admit to screwing the family pet. To quote Don Henley, "Get Over It!"
It just took Leo a long time to "get over it."
Well, I've learned that the more money your parents give you, the less you feel the need to break with them. I have a couple of friends whose parents are fabulously wealthy. These are both talented, pretty good guys, and yet neither one of them has ever accomplished a goddamned thing. They've had jobs doing this, doing that -- one of them's a PGA golf pro. But the truth of the matter is, they've spent their entire lives waiting for their parents to die, so they would get the money.
That's rather like what Leo has done. He knows he's set to inherit his parents' money when he turns 45, so he's not working terribly hard now.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of your books?
The strengths are the characters and the dialogue. But I could plot better. I'm working on that.
Do you want your plots to be more complicated, or just more believable?
I don't know. I made Leo out to be a guy who solves cases by dogged determination and by doing the same things that you or I would do if we were faced with finding out that kind of information. He doesn't go through a lot of fancy detective techniques. And that's a problem, because I can't get too serpentine in the plot, or Leo isn't going to figure out who did it. He's an Everyman Detective. He doesn't get psychic notions, the way that Martha Lawrence's detective does. He's no Sherlock Holmes. And he doesn't beat things out of people, they way Spenser can.
So what have you learned about plotting that you didn't know when you started writing novels?
One thing I've learned is that, if you bother to give every single character you create an identity, you have something that you can plot with later. Whereas, if you just write flat, stock characters, there's nothing you can do with them. For example, in my next book, I created a guy who owned a motel, and I wanted to do something with him, so I made him one of these Area 57 [UFO] freaks. And then later on in the story, I had a need for a plot device, and he was just waiting there for me to use.
This is something I learned from Ross Macdonald. He never wasted a character. I remember re-reading his book The Far Side of the Dollar. It opens with [private eye Lew Archer] showing up at this boy's school, and there's a guard in a kiosk at the gate, and this guy comes out and he's limping, so Archer asks him about his leg, and the guy starts talking about his duty in the war, and within half a page, Macdonald has made a character who he can use somewhere down the road. Later on, maybe Archer will get fired -- as detectives often do in these books -- and he'll need somehow to get back into that school... and the guard is there just waiting to be used. Macdonald was a real artist at doing things like that.
You said earlier that you read a lot of crime fiction before you began writing it. Do you still keep up with the genre?
I have my favorites: Harlan Coben, Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, George Pelacanos, Michael Connelly. Except when I'm writing, I read everything I can get my hands on. You have to. I go to conventions, and I'm on panels with people, and I always feel like I should have read one of their books, at least, so I'll have something intelligent to say.
This year, I'm also on the [Private Eye Writers of America] Shamus Award committee, judging first novels. So I'm having to read a lot of that crap.
How many books do you have to choose between?
Twelve or 15. And some of what people submit -- you wouldn't believe it, it's terrible. It actually makes me feel better. I can read Connelly and think about how bad I am at this. Then I'll go and read one of these Shamus submissions, and it's the opposite -- I'll be thinking about how good a writer I have become. | March 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.