Thursday, April 14, 2011

Happy 50th 9mm interview: Robert Crais

Welcome to a very special edition of Crime Watch's exclusive 9mm author interview series - the 50TH instalment overall. Not bad for a series that started on a whim - we've averaged nearly one terrific author interview a week since the series began in March 2010, and it's grown far beyond anything I could have imagined when we began.

The list of authors who've participated reads like a veritable 'who's who' of the global crime landscape - from legendary international stars like PD James, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Faye Kellerman, and many more, to up-and-coming talent, and some terrific local crime writers from New Zealand and Australia that deserve wider attention, here and abroad.

It's been a real privilege to interview all these authors, and a lot of fun too. I hope you've been enjoying the series as much as I and the authors have been. You can check out some of the previous author interviews by clicking on an author's name on the sidebar to the right, on '9mm' on the header bar above, or you can see a clickable list of the first 44 instaments here.

I fully intend to continue the series, and march towards the 100 interview mark over the coming year. There are plenty more crime writers out there who would be great to include in the 9mm 'family' - but at the same time we've got a pretty amazing line-up already. Feel free to go back over some of the old interviews, and perhaps add comments etc, if you like. Suggestions are also always welcome for future interviewees too. So speak up, and let me know what you want to see.

But for now it is time to once again polish off the gun and point it towards a creator of tales mysterious and thrilling. For those new to this rodeo, 9mm consists of the same 9 Murder Mystery questions put to a variety of New Zealand and international crime, thriller, and mystery authors.

Today I am very pleased to share with you all my recent 9mm interview with Robert Crais, creator of the award-winning Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, and some great standalones. I recently interviewed Crais by telephone for a feature article in the New Zealand Herald (read here), and also asked him the 9mm questions. He was a very personable, interesting, cool guy to talk to. As some of you will know, prior to turning to novels, Crais was also a TV screenwriter on some great shows like Cagney & Lacey, Miami Vice, and Hill Street Blues.


Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
James Bond. Just I find him eminently entertaining. He represents to me a part of life that I’m completely unfamiliar with but fantasise endlessly - the suave and debonair but at the same time gritty and tough-as-nails super spy. I don’t write that stuff of course, but maybe that’s one of the appeals to me. For me it’s a completely different reality. I wish I were James Bond

What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
Probably, and it’s certainly a watershed event for me, Raymond Chandler’s novel THE LITTLE SISTER. I often point back to that book as the book that gave me the rest of my career. I was a teenager at the time, about 15 I guess, and found a paperback copy of it in a second-hand bookstore - and honestly the only reason I picked it up is that the cover painting was of this really hot chick - and I just fell in love with Chandler’s Los Angeles, and the whole thing. I’d never read a private eye novel, and that was my gateway to everything that followed.

Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I started as a short story writer actually, and along with crime fiction I was writing a lot of science fiction and fantasy - the very first few stories I sold weren’t crime stories, they were fantasies. Then TV screenwriting for a number of shows.

Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Anything outside. I’m a workout nut. I hike every morning, get up insanely early. I’m a runner. I fly aeroplanes; I love to fly - anything that gets me outside. I have a Cessna 310 twin engine aeroplane. I also fly single engine aeroplanes. I just love the whole notion of getting out in the sky alone - it requires concentration, and that’s a way to free myself from the work I do.

What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Well, everyone who comes to Los Angeles should go up Mulholland Drive at night. The city comes alive in the darkness, I think, because when you’re up on the crest of the mountain, the lights of the city itself spread out to infinity. They go all the way to the horizon, because Los Angeles is such a big place. It looks like the stars have fallen from the sky. That’s one of the things I fell in love with when I first came here.

If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
I have never, ever been asked that. Oh, wow... um, Tom Hanks. I’m a huge fan. Listen, you ask me that question and I’m tempted to say some heroic figure like Russell Crowe or somebody who plays gladiators, but Hanks, he seems like a funny guy, a genuine guy, that would be a hoot. There’s a [love for life] and also earnestness to him. He’s the whole palette. Great question, man.

Of your writings, which is your favourite, and why?
You know this is going to sound hokey and put up, but I have to say THE SENTRY. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because I’m really exploring Joe Pike’s character in the last few books, I’m getting into what for me was a mystery, an enigmatic character, and I think I took something on with him that was very, very difficult to pull off, for me as the writer and character. And I like to think that I hit pretty close to the target. I’m extremely proud of that, so right now THE SENTRY is my absolute favourite book.

What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
Oh, well, I probably broke out a six pack. With THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, I had written a couple of manuscripts before that did not sell, in fact they were so bad that I never submitted them, I’m the only person that has ever read them, they were that awful. They were both crime novels - one was a private eye novel and the other was a crime novel but not a PI novel. And they were both just failures, they simply didn’t work as books, as stories.

So when I started out writing THE MONKEY’S RAINCOAT, my goal was just to write a story that made sense, still something that I was proud of, but after two failures in a row I was like ‘please, just let me have a beginning, middle and an end of a story that makes sense’. It did not sell right away. When I finished it I felt that it was a successful story, but when we began to submit it to publishers in New York it did not sell right away, it was rejected many times. I think on ninth or tenth time it finally sold and sold as a paperback original. But then I was ecstatic at that point. It’s been a long time ago now, but I probably broke out a six pack and had a party.

--- And seeing it on a bookshelf in a store must have felt good?
The best... having it in your hand. In fact I still have three or four copies - when I would go around town and see it in a bookstore for the first time, I would buy the copy, and then write in the book the date and where I bought it, where I saw it for that first time. And I still have some of those, it meant that much to me.

What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I was doing a signing outside of Philadelphia, and there was this long line of people, and a woman in this line holding up a two-year-old boy, and she's waiting, and waiting, and waiting. And she gets closer and closer and closer, and finally she reaches the table and pops the child on the table in front of me and says 'here's your Daddy!'.

It was a joke, a complete joke, but it was one of those things where the whole room fell absolutely quiet... and then she burst out laughing, and then about 100 people in the room all burst out laughing - you could feel the relief, especially from me. It was a very funny moment, a very funny moment.

Thank you Robert Crais. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with Crime Watch.


Have you read THE SENTRY? Any of the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike novels, or Crais's acclaimed standalones like DEMOLITION ANGEL? Have you watched Cagney and Lacey, Hill Street Blues or Miami Vice? What is your favourite Robert Crais book? Comments welcome.


  1. Craig - Congratulations on your 50th instalment of this terrific series! I really have been enjoying it immensely.

    And thanks for this particular instalment. I liked that Raymond Chandler novel, too. Oh, and Crais is right about Mulholland Drive :-). I don't live in L.A. but I've visited, and..well, he's right.

  2. Second those congratulations. Crais is a great interview, and a great writer, and one of the nicest men I've ever met at a signing. I like L.A. too, and The Sentry really fills out Joe Pike a little more.

  3. Yeah Lil, Crais came across as a really down-to-earth and cool, fun guy. I'll have to check out the Mulholland view next time I'm in LA - haven't been there for a few years now.

  4. Congrats on 50 9mm! And congratulations on your blog in general. You've managed to achieve so much in a short period of time, and you've raised the profile of NZ crime fiction authors immensely, for which we are eternally grateful!

    Keep it up!