October 17, 2014

Crude Awakening: an interview with Rex Burns, author of "Crude Carrier"

Rex Burns (b. 1935) is the author of numerous thrillers set in and around Denver, Colorado. His Edgar Award–winning first novel, The Alvarez Journal (1975), introduced Gabe Wager, a Denver police detective working in an organized crime unit. (http://www.openroadmedia.com/rex-burns)

About Crude Carrier: When a sailor dies under unusual circumstances, Raiford goes undercover on the high seas

The Rossi family received only a handful of letters after their son shipped out on the supertanker Aurora Victorious. The first dispatches were from Harold himself, describing the blend of tedium and excitement that defined life onboard the ship. The last communication came from the ship’s owners: four brief sentences informing them that their son had died and been buried at sea. Desperate to know more, the Rossis turn to James and Julie Raiford, the father-daughter detective team behind the Touchstone Agency. As the Raifords soon learn, work on the open sea is dangerous—and asking questions can be deadly.

When the shipping company stonewalls the investigation, James joins the Aurora Victorious as an electronics officer, and Julie digs into the proprietors’ shadowy background. International oil shipping is a ruthless business, and its secrets run as deep as the ocean itself.


Gef: In Body Slam, the first in this series, a childhood fascination of yours was included in the story, that being professional wrestling. With Crude Carrier, I assume it's your familiarity with working on ships that you draw upon? 

Rex: The only real work I did aboard ship was as a mess officer on the troopship Daniel I. Sultan (San Diego to Naha, Okinawa), and as the embarkation officer for a group of Landing Ship Tanks (LST's) ferrying a Marine tank battalion (Naha to Numazu, Japan, and return). Those chores did, indeed, give me a sense of the operational aspects and personnel relationships of shipboard life. In addition, as a child ("navy junior") I did have voyages short and long on both military and civilian ships. Before WWII, it was San Francisco to Manila aboard a Presidential Line ship (I don't remember the return voyage). Following WWII, the Navy was generous about allowing dependents aboard ships to enhance morale and, basically, to show off the vessels that had conquered the Japanese navy (at great cost). Latterly, there have been a couple vacation cruise tours. But the early "cruises" were far more helpful for Crude Carrier's setting than was the occasional holiday tour. The passage of time—like wind blowing sand from around rocks—has eroded all but the most indelible memories of the feel of a living ship, the brine smell and color of deep water, the ocean sky, the sense of being in a contained vessel on a vacant horizon.

Gef: Crude Carrier and the Touchstone Agency series isn't exactly your first rodeo. When you go into a new series, is there an aspect to that is daunting, giving up what you might consider a tried-and-true series to forge new ground with new characters? 

Rex: There is some challenge, of course, but the sense of novelty in sketching new characters and the opportunities of new settings offers plenty of compensation for the additional effort. The "Gabe Wager" series was restricted to Colorado in general and Denver in particular. This was very good for developing local color, and it allowed me to document the life and times of the city over the span of a dozen titles, which was one of my principal aims. But more and more, I wanted to move beyond the jurisdiction of my policeman. The result was a private eye series whose protagonists were based in Denver but free to go anywhere the story led. This "Devlin Kirk" series was brief—the sales didn't encourage a publisher to bring out more than three titles, and it's hard to maintain enthusiasm for work that may never be published. Plus, the vicissitudes of my personal life overwhelmed my publishing career at the same time. But writers write, and I've been fortunate that Mysterious Press/Open Road have enabled the publication of the "Touchstone Associates" series which offers the world to for the characters to explore. 

Gef: Was the research for this novel particularly intensive? Also, where in the process of writing does the research come into play for you? Are you getting the story down first or pouring over material beforehand and shaping the story around that? 

Rex: I don't know that the research for "Crude Carrier" was more intensive than that for my other tales—one of the satisfactions of the kind of writing I do is to place a protagonist in a setting or occupation that I would like to know more about (e.g., small-town rodeo: "Ground Money", or professional wrestling: "Body Slam"). It's fun to dig into the occupations that focus the lives of people, and to learn a little about the challenges and rewards of various endeavors. The juggling act for the writer is to present a believable—and reasonably accurate—portrayal of each occupation without slowing the story and boring the reader.

As for the process of research, it's more a continuum than a block of time. The idea of a story has to be tested against any innate interest an occupation or setting might have to see if there's enough to be curious about. If there's not and I find myself being bored with the setting or occupation, the odds are the reader will be bored too. But if, as usually happens, there's something there that catches one's curiosity, then the research keeps pace with the story. Fortunately, the computer has made it so much easier to look something up when the story needs it. And I find myself, like so many other browsers, spending a lot of time discovering little known facts about nothing that have no bearing on the story at hand—but which might lead to something later.

Gef: Being out on a ship for any great length, I imagine the thing works as its own little ecosystem floating atop the high seas. Is there a particular misconception among the public as it relates to that line of work, whether it be long haul or something more military in nature? 

Rex: Living in Colorado as I do, I should be surrounded by misconceptions about shipboard life—but being so far from any ocean, ships and sailors don't often become topics of conversation. Perhaps the salient misconception I've found in reading about seamanship is the idea that seafaring is a lonely life. However, my limited knowledge of those who go down to the sea in ships is that many, if not most, sailors prefer being aboard and away to being stuck on shore. The ocean looks different each day, though those differences are usually subtle; and there's always the next port to look forward to. You're constantly moving toward something, and the noon chit tells the crew what they accomplished in the last 24 hours. It does not surprise me that so many Navy sailors come from smaller towns in the middle of the country. 

Gef: You strike me as the type of writer that likes to keep things lean and firing on all cylinders when it comes to your novels. When you're writing is story length a big consideration for you or do you tend to let the water find its own level, so to speak? 

Rex: For me, the length of the work is decided at the beginning since the opening lines have a different feel for a short story than do those of a novel. There's more "space" when starting a long form, and the characters and conflicts don't have to develop quite as fast (or be pushed aside) as in a short form. In the "Constable Leonard Smith" short stories, for example, the reader gets a little of the protagonist's history in each story—often none, if the plot doesn't require it. There's just very little room in 3000-5000 words to fill out such a history. A novella, however, is a bit different, and, for me, much harder to write because of its additional length. One has to combine the quick movement and tight focus of the short story, with the wider canvas and complexity of character(s) of a novel. 

Gef: What would be the one piece of writing advice you are sick and tired of hearing get passed around? 

Rex: The one piece of writing advice that I'm sick and tired of hearing is "write what you know." I would advise "write what you're interested in knowing." 

Gef: When it comes to guilty pleasures, are there any books you've enjoyed that would fit the bill? 

Rex: I really can't think of any book that I've read with pleasure that has also generated a sense of guilt. If it's fun to read, hey! Enjoy! Usually, if I find no pleasure in the reading, I find no interest in the book and don't read it. The pleasures of reading a story—thematic, stylistic, subject, or any other appeal—are enough to justify guiltless reading. There are also those novels that one dislikes on first try, but grows up enough to read later in life. Any "guilt" generated by that experience comes from not having found pleasure in the first reading (Proust, for me). I have struggled with some books that I've had to read for classes or because someone wanted an evaluation. But even that kind of effort, while without either guilt or pleasure, can give insight into why something in the story-telling isn't working—i.e., they offer the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others rather than from one's own mistakes. 

Gef: What can readers expect next from you? 

Rex: I do like swash-buckling pirate yarns (no guilt, just pleasure) and historical novels, and would like to publish in those genres. We'll see ...

1 comment:

  1. Rex is not only a fine writer, but he is one of the GREAT guys in our genre.