T. Jefferson Parker On Knowing When To Leave A Character Behind

Mindy:             Today's guest is T. Jefferson Parker, the bestselling author of 13 standalone noir crime novels as well as three separate series featuring the characters Merci Rayborn, Charlie Hood, and his latest Roland Ford. He joined me today to talk about knowing when it's time to create a new character as well as the bittersweetness of leaving an old one behind.

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Mindy:             We're here to talk about The Last Good Guy, which is your third book in the Roland Ford series. So you've created quite a few series that focus on an individual investigator. So when do you know that it's time to create a new one?

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Parker:             Good question. Yeah, yeah. I have, I have written I guess three series now about different eh, heroines and heroes. I feel like sometimes that the character has, has reached her or his maximum level of entertainment value and want their job to be done. They have, you know, reached a point in the series of books where the reader will feel satisfied that they know that character well enough and it's time to, you know, move on to another one. I think essentially as long as I'm deeply interested in the character, then I always feel like there's going to be another book in there and at some point it's going to be time to say, that's enough. I'm going to end this. And I'm going to go onto the next character.

Mindy:             Do you ever miss the ones that you've walked away from?

Parker:             Yeah, I do. Sometimes ones that I walk away from or characters who die at the end of the book, you know, I miss them and I go, Gosh, I wish she was still here. I wish he was still here. In terms of the characters, the series leaders, Roland or like Charlie Hood or MercI Rayborn. I do miss them when they're gone. And when people go to book signings and do tours and stuff and they ask about, are you going to write about Silent Joe again? I know I'm not. And yet I always say, well, you know, probably not, but I'd kinda like to. And that's, and that's true.

Mindy:             Yeah, absolutely. I have, uh, characters in some of my own books that have open endings and people will say, are you going to write another one? I want to know what happens. I mean, more than likely, no, I'm probably not going to return to that series because that particular genre is no longer a viable genre. Um, but that's a horrible answer to a reader.

Parker:             It is. That's the writer's answer.

Mindy:             Exactly. Exactly. That's an industry answer. Whereas they're asking me about a character that they care about as a human being and I'm just like, well, you know, the money just isn't there.

Parker:             Yeah. And you want to be with that character. You want your readers to ask about those characters that go, well, what about Merci? Or what about Joe or whatever. You got them where you want them and it's just so nice to have characters that people care about and then you can't do what they want, which is to bring them back again cause you're doing something else. I mean, I literally stopped writing Merci Rayborn books. I wrote three of them in all, it was only three, but still it's a lot of writing about one character. I literally stopped that series, brought that series to a halt so that I could write Silent Joe, which was a story that just sort of presented itself to me. And I saw this character. I had to write this book and I had to say goodbye to Merci in order to write that book and then that book led to another book. There's too many good characters to get to.

Mindy:             And you do have to follow inspiration once you have it. Ignoring it is folly.

Parker:             You can't because, no. As you know, I mean that's what gets you through the year of work that it takes you to write one of these books. It takes a long time and you need lots of inspiration to keep you at work

Mindy:             Coming up, the importance of setting in fiction and how to create a place readers want to return to.

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Mindy:             I want to talk about setting a little bit. You are a California native and all of your books reflect that. So you have just deep California roots in all of the books. And the setting is really imperative often to everything that's going on. I mean, not only as a backdrop, but also as a character itself in many ways. So if you could talk about that for a little bit. I've always found literature of place very highly compelling.

Parker:             Yeah, me too. Me too. As a reader, you know, my first demand is, is I want to know where I am, what day it is, what time it is, what's going on, where I am geographically, you know, I don't care where, I just want to have a really firmly rooted grasp of, of where I'm at. And, uh, and as a writer, I've found over my many years of doing this that I really love, writing about where I am. So my first few books take place in, in Laguna Beach, California where I was living at the time that I wrote them. And then a couple about Newport Beach, California, and then Tustin, California. These are all places I've lived. And then a little bit in LA. And then when I moved down here to San Diego County, to Fallbrook, almost 20 years ago, my books followed south, you know, down into San Diego County and down into Fallbrook where I live now.

Parker:             I love being able to go out into my little town. I live in Fallbrook now and look at the streets and the people and talk with people and do my errands. And do my stuff and see the marines from Pendleton, which is right next door coming and going to our wars and stuff and talking to them. I love being able to, to make this little town real, you know, and it, it really informs the books. The setting is so important and, and as you said, it's not just window dressing, it's, it's the fabric of the life that you're living here and, uh, reflecting the world around you. In a small town like this, you get to write about the world around you, through the small hometown eyes, if you will, and I treasure that. I think it's something that readers like. I think I like this place, even if they've never been here.

Mindy:             I'm from the Midwest, I'm from Ohio. It's interesting to me how often I see country life, especially the Midwest and also Appalachia represented completely inaccurately. Would you say California, and at least as a Midwesterner, you automatically have an idea and it might be wrong. So do you see California or especially small town California represented accurately in books, movies, television?

Parker:             Yeah. Good question. You know, California is really a whole bunch of little tiny microcosms, all the same place at the same time. My California if you will, Fallbrook. Okay. It's San Diego County, 37,000 people. We call ourselves the avocado capital of the world, proudly. And we have lots of citrus and Avocados and commercial nurseries. Fragrant, floral, little place. Woodsy. Homes are kind of tucked away. And it's very much a mom and pop town. It's not a bunch of franchises. Joe's hardware. Bicycle shop that specializes in bicycles and vacuum cleaners.

Parker:             Quirky, quirky little world that I live in, you know, which is completely unrelated to Los Angeles even though Los Angeles is only an hour and a half drive from here. So, so to answer your question, I think a lot of the writers I know are neighbors. I know Don Winslow and I know Mike Connolly and I know Robert Crais and those guys write about their little pockets of California, I think really brilliantly. So I don't often read a novel. Did I go, Oh God, that's, that's nothing like it really is. I think for the most part, people writing about California are getting their little portion of it, right.

Mindy:             Ohio is usually wrong. And I say that as like from a really small town like population 2000, when I see it represented and I'm a farmer's daughter, grew up farming. Farming is never right ever in movies. I have a huge problem with the way cornfields are represented. They love the way it looks, but they're never doing it right. The cinematic shots of the green corn is beautiful and everyone loves it, but they're never interacting with it appropriately. Like ever.

Parker:             That's a crackup. Do you know my mother was a farmer's daughter only child. She grew up in Kenton, Ohio. Grandma, Grandpa May, Elmer and May were corn farmers. So I know exactly what you're talking about.

Mindy:             There isn't really anything quite like a corn field when you're out in it. Basically, you know, they have the animal wranglers and gun wranglers for movies they need to bring a farmer in.

Parker:             They should, they should.


Mindy:             We're here to talk about The Last Good Guy. The book features white supremacy. So it's timely, but unfortunately it's also evergreen. Did the news cycle inspire you at all with this or was this a, an idea that had been cooking?

Parker:             You know, it's an idea that had been cooking forever in my little brain pan and I've written about it before I kind of hatched this book around the time the Charlottesville protest turned deadly. I've always been interested in hate and you know, white supremacy and any version of that kind of thinking. Growing up in southern California, you know, weirdly enough southern California is correctly known as the liberal bastion, but, but back to the idea of little microcosms living together, you know, there's all, there's a long and sort of infamous, uh, a string of white supremacists who have lived and operated and agitated from southern California, from San Diego County where I live from Fallbrook, where I live. I mean there's a notorious one. Yeah, I've always been interested in those people and what they do, they make great, bad guys and what they're doing. Is it timely? Unfortunately it is evergreen now. I mean, they're up to it again. Just open the news and check it out. And there they are.

Mindy:             I'm curious about your research. So when you're researching something that is obviously difficult, I have a duty as a writer to get into the mind frame of even your villains. So you know, how, how does that research work when you're dealing with something that is, you know, uncomfortable?

Parker:             I don't feel uncomfortable when I brush up against those kinds of people and those kind of ideas. Some people scare me. I've been to supermax prisons and talked to people in those prisons and they scare the living daylights out of me. And there's bars between us. These kinds of organized, you know, haters, political extremists and stuff. I can tolerate that. I don't finish the book feeling like I blighted myself, you know, I mean, I've written about some really dark people back mid career. I wrote some really scary books. A couple of them. I literally felt like, you know, taking a hot shower at the end of the day after I'd spent eight hours creating these characters and telling these stories and it the left, uh, you know, a bristling sort of bad feeling on my skin. I don't feel that way anymore. Maybe just because I'm older and feel a little tougher.

Parker:             And so much of the research I do now is, is online and is videos and people are so eager now, you know, to reveal themselves and to tell you what they're doing. I mean, you can go online and see anybody doing anything at any time practically, you know, I mean, you can watch cartel torture if you want to. There's that distance too. I think I'm seeing these people and listening to these people, these, these haters kind of BS philosophy that they spout on about, I feel like I can take it now. I don't feel quite so, so tainted by it all.

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Mindy:             And it's interesting too. You mentioned doing the research online. You have a fourth wall, you know, there's a screen. You know that it's real, but at the same time you're watching a screen. And so even though it is very different from sitting across from someone and talking to them about their activities or their past, I think it's interesting talking about dark topics and diving into the research. My most recent book is about the opioid crisis. So I'm like, Hey, you know, we've got the Internet and boy, you're right. You really can find anyone doing anything. I did so much research and was simultaneously highly alarmed at how easy it was for me as a novice to learn so much about how to do like step by step youtube videos about how to tie off and find a vein. And I'm so grateful for those as a writer and yet disturbed as a human. Yeah,

Parker:             I totally hear you, Mindy. I, I've been there too. Yeah.

Mindy:             And people, you know, asked me similar questions. Uh, how do you write such dark topics? You know, the truth is it doesn't bother me either. So when I answer the question that way, sometimes I'm like, oh, did that, do I sound a little off now?

Parker:             It doesn't bother me at all. Yeah, you can't really say that then and it's not quite true, but I, I know what you mean. You're a reporter in, in a lot of ways. I think while all of us are novelists, I mean we're creating stories, at heart we're kind of journalists and we kind of have a cold eye for the facts.

Mindy:             Yeah, very true. I feel very much more like a funnel than anything. Things pass through it. They don't stay inside.

Mindy:             Lastly, what has changed in publishing over time and how to stay invigorated as a writer?

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Mindy:             So you have been publishing for quite a while since the mid eighties is that right?

Parker:             Yeah. 85 exactly. 31 years worth,

Mindy:             You have been in writing and publishing for a really long time. Um, what has changed for you? Like in the industry,

Parker:             The industry? This is writer to writer now.

Mindy:             Yeah.

Parker:             The Internet has revolutionized the world really. And certainly our jobs, you know, the research that we do changed immensely. I guess more specifically though, um, I'm proud to have seen novels especially, but books in general have survived the digital age. We're still writing and we're still reading and, and kindles did not take over the world. And even that's still reading, you know, in spite of the mountains and mountains of entertainment that you can get, gaming and TVs and in movie theaters. In spite of all of that, much of which is really quite good, our little books hang in there and they survive and they move people in ways only books can. I'm proud to be a part of a genre that I write in, you know, the noir and the crime writing that goes back, uh, you know, maybe all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe if you believe the scholars. I think books have weathered the great storm and books will be with us forever.

Mindy:             I agree. I mean, we started with oral storytelling, passing it down and, you know, we're still here. From the creative end. Do you ever get tired or are you ever worn out?

Parker:             Yeah, I get tired. I get tired. Um, but I gotta admit Mindy, I really kinda like what I do. I always tell students this, young people, you know, writing, if you want to be a writer, don't forget that writing should be fun. And I don't mean fun all the time. I don't mean fun all day. I don't mean every day. But I mean there, there has to be a point where you write a sentence and you sit back and look at it and go, that is a good sentence and I take satisfaction in doing that. You know, and a good sentence becomes a good page and a good page becomes a good chapter. And the draw of creativity, you know, that funny state you get in as a writer where you're funneling just like you said, you know, you're funneling things from the outside, mashing it through your brain and then your fingers and then onto the screen and then onto the page is really kind of magical.

Parker:             I like that a lot. Um, it's exhausting too, for me, get to the point where I can begin writing a book. The hardest part of writing for me is not writing. You know what? I'm sitting around trying to hatch a story idea, make a story work, you know, in my brain and, and okay, I know I got Roland and he lives here in Fallbrook and he's going to get another case and you know, what's it going to be? What am I going to do? You know? And I'll spend weeks and months in that weird state. You probably do too. You're waiting for the story to coagulate just enough so that you can begin writing it. And then once I begin writing, then I'm pretty happy.

Mindy:             Yeah, it's true. I get tired of being behind my screen so much, almost in a meditative state when you are writing and it's um, you know, it cuts you off from the outside world when you're good writing happens, but it also cuts you off from other people. Can make me a little bit unhappy if I am stuck inside in my own mind in front of a laptop. But when I'm not writing, I'm also very grumpy and unhappy.

Parker:             Oh, there you go. Can't win either way.

Mindy:             No, you have to get it out or else, uh, you know, it's, it'll explode. So that's, it's just a process thing for me. And it sounds like it's similar for you, so I'm going to let you go because I know you've got another interview lined up.

Parker:             Okay. Well, it's been really good talking to you, Mindy. Congrats on your success, your Edgar, and just very cool.

Mindy:             Yes. Thank you so much and congrats to you and this, uh, new series. I'll be diving into those,

Parker:             This new one, as a writer. I think it will grab you on page one when you read it. Anyway, have fun. Awesome. Thank you so much.