Monday, April 25, 2011

The Story Behind the Story: “Borrowed Trouble,” by J.B. Kohl and Eric Beetner

(Editor’s note: To write the 20th installment in our “Story Behind the Story” series, we welcome Eric Beetner of Los Angeles and J.B. Kohl of Virginia, who have so far co-authored a pair of underworld thrillers--One Too Many Blows to the Head [2009] and Borrowed Trouble [2011], both set in the early 20th century--without once meeting each other. Their two novels feature detective Dean Fokoli and boxing promoter Ray Ward, and have enjoyed a good deal of critical attention. Megan Abbott [Bury Me Deep] said the first Fokoli-Ward outing offered “a delicious mix of classic hard-boiled grit and the heart-heavy world of film noir,” while Hilary Davidson [The Damage Done] praised Borrowed Trouble for its “sharp writing, head-spinning twists, and pair of protagonists haunted by memory and loss.”)

Eric Beetner: Oh, what a story we have to tell, and we’re going to tell it the way we write our books--by e-mail. But it always seems like I start these things. We write in alternating chapters and in both of our books I have written chapter 1 then 3, 5, etc. So to buck tradition I will let Jennifer start by telling how we began this crazy way of writing.

J.B. Kohl: Aw, thanks my friend! I’m so happy to go first this time.

I guess we met (virtually) in 2008. I contacted Eric through the Film Noir Foundation’s Web site, asking to put a link up on my own site (one which I neglect terribly these days). Eric [who was a staff writer for the Noir City Sentinel, the foundation’s regular newsletter] was the guy who answered. As I recall, he said, “Sure, you can put up a link. We love links.” So I put up a link.

At some point after that Eric sent me a note saying he had read my [2008] book, The Deputy’s Widow, and that he liked it. I found out he was a writer too. He sent me a short story which I loved. Here’s the thing about that story: it sounded a little like me. I don’t mean that I could have written it ... because they were Eric’s words and Eric’s thoughts and I don’t pretend for an instant to know what goes on in that chess-club-sized brain of his. But I think it’s something more along the lines of looking at a picture of a family: They all look different, but you can tell just by looking that they’re related.

I remember thinking--actually knowing--that we could write something together and that whatever we wrote would be good, because our styles were similar. My husband was a little worried when I told him my idea. “Are you sure? It’s really hard to write stuff with other people.”

OK, maybe it would be hard. But I figured that Eric and I lived on opposite coasts, so if it didn’t work out it would be OK. No harm done.

So I sent him a note asking him if he’d consider writing something together.

His immediate response? Nothing. Nada. Radio silence. Dead air. Well, I thought, so much for that. Luckily, it didn’t end there ... or we wouldn’t be telling you this story here and now.

EB: I honestly don’t remember not responding. Sorry about that. I hate being left to hang on an e-mail reply. I’m so glad I did [reply], though. When the idea for the first book, One Too Many Blows to the Head, came about I loved it, because I knew it was a book I would read.

A desperate man seeking revenge, a cop with more on his plate than just the case he’s working on. I would have loved that book even I didn’t write half of it.

What I knew from reading The Deputy’s Widow is that you can take a stock character--in our case the jaded homicide detective--and make him interesting once more. I love [Kansas City cop] Dean Fokoli’s back-story and the depths of his character flaws. Both of the characters in the books--Fokoli and Ray Ward--are deeply damaged; yet, I think you root for them. In One Too Many Blows to the Head, I love that you kind of root for each of them, even though their goals are at odds.

Bringing them together for our new book, Borrowed Trouble, worked out better than I expected. I’ll tell you, though, I knew our partnership had a future when we already had a plot for the sequel by the time we were done with the first book.

JBK: Seriously, you didn’t leave me hanging long. We talked about [working together] again after a couple of months ... tentatively at first. And then, bam! You sent this great idea and it just sort of rolled right out from there. Seamless and easy. I really liked writing Fokoli, because he was so troubled and flawed. I think that those characteristics make for a character that readers can identify with. Take Ray Ward, for example. You had the opportunity [in Too Many Blows] to make him do some really nasty things, but it was all done in a way that made the audience cheer. When you can make a character like that, it’s a sign of talent. And the fact that Fokoli and Ward were after different things made it challenging to write my chapters. I always reviewed the chapters you sent me as a reader first ... and was very sympathetic toward Ray. Sometimes it was hard to make Fokoli go after him with determination, to stay true to his character as a writer, when the reader in me wanted to see Ray succeed. Wow, that sounds really schizophrenic!

EB: Either way, it helps that we each like our own characters and each other’s.

I know for Borrowed Trouble we spent some time outlining, but then quickly deviated from that while writing. Not radical differences, I guess; more like taking different roads on the same map. It is a good example of not being too inflexible with an outline--which reminds me, I am so glad we decided to cut the planned epilogue from One Too Many Blows to the Head, [which had] set up Borrowed Trouble. I think just the pressure of knowing that we were already locked into an idea, even though the core of the plot didn’t change; but being tied down to that I think would have stifled our creativity in coming up with the rest of the book. Y’know, the other 90 percent.

JBK: Yeah, epilogues are tough. I’ve read series before that have been out for quite a while. The epilogue in one book is supposed to be the first chapter of the next book, but when the actual “next” book came out the chapter had changed. Someone who read the first book early on and had been waiting for the next installment might not have noticed, but to have both copies in front of me, to finish one and pick up the next and see the change, was frustrating. I can only imagine the writer felt locked into the direction they were going and felt they had to change a thing or two right away when they actually got down to the business of writing the book.

The longer I work as a writer, until there’s an outline that shows a beginning and an end, I can’t really get my characters to move forward. I liked your description earlier: that sometimes we take different paths to get to our destination ... but the destination is known, and that’s really key for me.

EB: Amen, sister. We’re both outliners, another thing that contributes to the success of our partnership. And since we work so similarly in so many ways, the added weirdness of passing ideas over e-mail doesn’t throw a wrench in the works the way you’d think it would.

More often than not the people who tell me they could never write with someone else are talking about being in the same room, and trying to hash out ideas with one person on the keys and one person presumably up pacing and chain-smoking. With us, we still get to write alone in quiet rooms with no one to bother us. It’s ideal. I couldn’t do it the other way either, and I know you couldn’t.

Somehow we’ve lucked into this perfect set-up and are making it work.

It’s funny, but the longer we go, the more superstitious I get about us ever meeting--and the harder it seems to avoid it. One day we’ll end up at the same conference or, fingers crossed, we’ll start to do well enough that people will want us to appear together. At this point I want to protect our anonymity from each other as much as a game as anything else. How long can we sustain it?

JBK: I agree about the perfect writing set-up. We’ll have to hire our own Secret Service if we’re ever at the same conference. They can radio ahead to one another--my guy can call ahead to your guy to have you clear the room. We can sector off the city ahead of time, so we’re sure to avoid the same restaurants and shops. Like you said, a game. Could be fun.

In reality, I’m not sure if never meeting will always be an option for us. It depends on the work we’re doing and the success we have as writers. I think we both take our work seriously enough that we would do whatever was best for whatever book we’re working on.

For now, I like my isolation. I do some writing with my sisters on a blog, and I can tell you that if we all wrote in the same room, we’d never get anything done. As it is, we all live in different states, so it works out just fine. When I write, I need the quiet of my own space where my thoughts can ramble around without suggestions from others, no matter how well-intentioned.

EB: I’m sure we will meet someday, maybe at our kids’ weddings or some event like that. Until then, I hope people get a chance to read what we’ve created over the digital miles.

* * *

ENTER TO WIN A BOOK! As a way of introducing more people to their fiction, authors Beetner and Kohl have generously offered to send one free copy each of Too Many Blows to the Head (set in the seedy underworld of crooked boxing) and Borrowed Trouble (set in the seedy underworld of the movies) to Rap Sheet readers. Here’s how to enter this contest: (1) e-mail your name and snail-mail address to; (2) along with that information, please tell us the title of your favorite novel or film set in America’s criminal underworld, and include any comments you’d like to make about that book or movie. We’ll post a selection of your submissions in The Rap Sheet.

Oh, and be sure to write “Underworld Contest” in the subject line of your e-mail note. Contest entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Monday, May 2. Winners will be selected at random and their names announced on this page the next day.

Sorry, but this competition is restricted to U.S. residents.

READ MORE:One Too Many Blows to the Head/Borrowed Trouble,” by Bruce Grossman (Bookgasm).


Who Is Afraid of Alfred Hitchcock? said...

Hi! Eric Beetner and J.B. Kohl...
This interview is very interesting, funny, and very informative.
I like your [long-distance]collaboration(s) together.

I also enjoyed reading your first book together "One Too Many Blows To The Head" and I'am quite sure your current book "Borrowed Trouble" will be no different.

Thanks, for sharing!
[Postscript: Another great trailer for the book too!]
DeeDee ;-D

Paul D. Brazill said...

Great piece and a fantastic couple of books