Bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker has 18 novels in print, including his latest, The Border Lords. My personal favorite is LA Outlaws, which I’ve read a dozen times and keep on my nightstand. A three-time Edgar Award winner, Mr. Parker delivered the keynote address at the California Crime Writers Conference, hosted by Sisters in Crime Los Angeles, and held at the Hilton Hotel in Pasadena, California. The following is a transcript of his remarks on June 11, 2011. —Elaine Ash
After the jump check out the full speech…
Thank you all for being here. It’s really nice to be in a room of writers and readers. My comfort level is high now that I’m amongst friends and I can be candid and you guys will know what I’m talking about.
I wanted to tell you a little bit about how I became a mystery writer which came about, oddly enough, by accident. I’m always intrigued the way our lives focus sometimes and point us in certain directions. So here’s my story:
I was born in LA, grew up in Orange County, English major at UCI, literature, literature, literature was what I was really into. Graduated with my English degree and I knew I wanted to be a writer. So I just sat down and wrote a novel. It was a 250-page manuscript typed on a little, cheap typewriter. I was living with my Dad at the time, freeloading off of him. I sent it to an editor in New York, Morgan Hendricken [name spelling unverified at press time], who now runs a prestigious publishing house. But at the time, Morgan was a buddy of mine, I’d met him at a party, and we shared a lot of literature, and he went on to become an editor, and I went on to try and become a writer. Morgan was at Delacorte at the time, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Ya know, we can’t publish this book, and I don’t think anybody else in New York will either. It’s about a surfer growing up in Newport Beach and nobody in the country cares about that.” I said, “Okay.” And then he said, “But the good news is that you have a little bit of talent, probably, and you have a lot of stubbornness because you proved you can sit down and write a book on your own, with no help from anybody. My advice is to look at the bestseller lists, talk to your friends, and see what they’re reading and then write something that’s more appealing and universally compelling than a young surfer growing up in Newport Beach and having problems with his dad. I said, “Okay I’ll do that.” He said, “Write something more commercial.”
So I did what he said and I noticed that a great many of my college friends were reading the same books like Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald, Joseph Wambaugh, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I started to get the feeling that they were reading mystery writers and I wondered if I’d like this kind of writing. So I read a bunch of them and fell in love with the genre immediately. The tightness of the story and the plots, the terse and economical language. Wonderful dialogue, the kind of heads-up social observation and criticism that those writers have…the real now-ness, the hipness of it, I thought was wonderful. I fell in love with the genre deeply and quickly by reading those guys. So I read for a while and then I sat down and decided I was going to write a mystery and set it in Laguna Beach, and it was going to be a father/son story [audience laughter] I know, I moved geographically from Newport ten miles. I had just moved to Laguna and I was filled with inspiration for that town it was so beautiful. As I became familiar with Laguna’s history and characters, I started writing this book. So this was around 1979, 1980. I spent a year writing the book. The manuscript was 500 pages long and when I read it, I realized that what I had in my hands was 500 pages of really bad Raymond Chandler. It was punishing to do, but I had to throw that manuscript away. I knew I could do better than that, so I spent a year writing it again.
The second year I read it through again and realized that I had 500 pages of really, really bad Jim Harrison. At the end of year three it was really bad Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was trying to channel my heroes. At the end of year four it was bad [name unintelligible]. At the end of year five it was bad John D. MacDonald and then I just sat myself down, realized 5 years had gone by, it was 2500 pages. Don’t forget it was on a typewriter, too. As my old novelist buddy Don Stanwood said to me, “Think about it, Parker…how much time have we spent watching Wite-Out dry?” Five years of watching Wite-Out dry.
I sat down and tried to give myself a real stern talking to. I decided to try one more version and try to make it my own, and every time I had the opportunity to cache a word of a phrase from one of my heroes, I had to strike it. So I sat there half a day on the first sentence. I wanted to make it my sentence and something that I would be proud of to introduce the book satisfactorily, that wasn’t like anybody else that I had been reading. I thought and thought, I was crossing things out and ripping paper up, and finally I came up with something, and I said, “You know, that’s pretty good. It’s a big, broad sentence, it touches on things that happen in the book and I’m going with it.“
The next year, my job was to cultivate that sentence into a paragraph and then a chapter and then the whole book. At the end of a year I knew I had maybe not necessarily a good book, but a book that was mine. My buddy Don Stanwood who commented on watching Wite-Out dry introduced me to his agent at the time in Chicago, Jane Brown. She agreed to read my manuscript and I sent it off and two weeks later Jane called me. Jane is a no-nonsense Midwestern lady, a very cool lady, and she said, “I’ve read the manuscript. Is this as good as it’s going to get?”
I said, “Yes, this is as good as it’s going to get. I can’t do any better, I’m done.” She said, “Okay. The mystery market right now is terrible, but I’m going to do a multiple submission on your behalf. Good news by phone, bad news by mail, I get 20% of anything you make.” I said, “Fine, you got a deal.” She sent it out to four US publishers at the same time.
A month later I get a letter in the mail, through her, from Simon and Schuster. “Mr. Parker, we read the manuscript. Loved it. We can’t publish it. Terrible plot, great characters.”
A week later I get another letter, Random House. “Dear Mr. Parker, we read the manuscript. Loved it. Can’t publish it. Great plot and terrible characters.”
The next week. Crown Publishers. “Dear Mr. Parker. Read the manuscript. Loved it. Can’t publish it. For a mystery, it was so simple, we had it all figured out on page 8.” That broke my heart because I worked so hard to make the book inscrutable.
Another week later. Another letter, and I’m running out of gas at this point. “Dear Mr. Parker. Read the manuscript. Loved it. Can’t publish it. This was by far the most complex mystery we’ve ever gotten. We still can’t figure out what happened!”
That was my MFA in writing, my crash course. A week later Jane called and she said, “Good news, Jerry at St. Martin’s Press was up until 4 in the morning and he called me three hours ago and they’re going to make you an offer.” So that was pretty cool.
I had worked so hard on the book, I had written it five times, and I did a rewrite for Jerry—a pretty light rewrite because it was in good shape— and the book was due to come out in the summer of 1985. I had an idea for another book in the back of my mind, and publication was about 2 months away. I needed another book idea because I had been laid off from my job and I was going broke, and I really didn’t want to have to go out and get another job. I wanted to make money from this. I decided to go back and see the publisher just before Laguna Heat was coming out, pay my own way, get a meeting with the guy, and meet my editor for the classic writer-editor dinner or bar run, at which time I’ll pitch to him the idea for my new book.
It was my first time in New York and I didn’t have any money so I booked a place down in the red light district with porn theatres and hookers watching back and forth. I go down to St. Martin’s, and me and my editor, Jared, go to some restaurant-bar for dinner and drinks. Finally the moment comes, he says, “So tell me about your next book.” I whip out my pen and I get a bar napkin and I said, “The first character’s name is Chuck.” And I wrote, CHUCK on the napkin, and I circled it. “The other main character’s name is his older brother Bennett, who is a wounded, handicapped war vet.” And I wrote BENNETT on the napkin and I circled it. “Then the other character in this book is Lee, a beautiful, young, charismatic Vietnamese cabaret singer married to Bennett who is kidnapped at gunpoint, offstage in the opening chapter.” And I circle LEE and put arrows pointing back and forth to all the names. My editor says, “Then what happens?” I had nothing. I hadn’t gotten any farther than that. So he said, “Well, that’s interesting, can I have the napkin?” I gave him the napkin and I flew back to California the next morning with my tail between my legs, even though I was still happy to be having a book coming out. Jane calls four of five days later and she says, “I don’t know what you said to Jared, but we sold the napkin!” I sold a napkin with three names on it and three circles and three self-important arrows. I don’t know what that tells you but, a writer’s life, as many of you know, can be pushed along and advanced or retarded completely separate from things of your own doing.
I think that’s what happens to a lot of us, especially when we’re young; we get pushed along by circumstance in a certain direction and once you go down the path you tend to continue. So the synopsis is that I became a mystery writer by default. I wrote that first novel and it’s still in the drawer where it belongs, and I experimented and cobbled together an idea. Once it was good, I continued, and I just finished my 19th book. I get the copyedit next week. It’s 99% finished and I’ll start number 20 here soon. If it wasn’t for a nudge from Morgan and a couple of friends who were reading John D. MacDonald at the time, that was enough to send me on my way. I love thrillers, I like to read them and I’m happy to be part of a long literary tradition that goes back to Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. And all the writers here today are carrying on that tradition, and it’s a nice place to be. Most of you are writers, some published, some not, If I were to offer any help at all, what I would pass along is it’s important to remember that writing should often be a pleasure. It’s easy to lose track of that when you turn pro. If you haven’t been published, then take advantage of your freedom and the pressurelessness of that environment and enjoy the work. Enjoy what you do. That’s not to say that you should look on it as a pleasure to get up and bang your head against the brick wall of a manuscript that’s not moving—we all have those days—but there is a level of pleasure involved. Even in my darkest moments of writing, when I’ve written a good sentence, I’m happy.
What you read is also really important. Reading is as important to a writer as diet is to a boxer. What goes in will come out. You must read things that edify you and make you happy inside. We’re lucky to live in this world because we have centuries of good literature behind us if you’re looking for something to read. Read widely. It edifies the spirit.
Other than that it’s matter of getting up and doing it. Even if you can only write one hour a day. I was always working full time those five years I was writing. Take the phone off the hook and lock the doors against the people around you, if you’re lucky enough to have people around you. One page a day will give you 365 pages in a year and that’s a book. You have to be guerilla minded. Shoot fast. It’ll add up. That’s my two cents.