Suspense Magazine Q & A with Jim Nesbitt, author of The Right Wrong Number
Q: Where did you get the idea for your most recent book?
A. When you write, you start with what you know. And I knew a little something about the border, Texas and Mexico from my journalism days. Knew some cops and redneck outlaws, too. Did some research and reading to gain more knowledge to build a firmer foundation—facts are a writer’s friend. I also knew I wanted to write a noirish detective novel. So I started with all that and went from there. Nothing magical—just a lot of long hours with my butt in a chair, writing. Out popped Ed Earl Burch, Carla Sue Cantrell and The Last Second Chance. Then more long hours to conjure up the next Ed Earl tale of revenge and redemption, The Right Wrong Number.
Q: You’re an ex-journalist. Why did you write a detective novel?
A: I’ve always thought hard-boiled detective novels an American art form. At their best, they’re more than whodunits or thrillers: they’re vehicles for a writer’s observations about culture, politics, philosophy, music, history and a time or a place. Or life, its ownself. When you read James Ellroy, Dashiell Hammett James Crumley or James Lee Burke, their stories are always about far more than good guys chasing bad guys. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write. Still do.
Q: Who is Ed Earl Burch?
A: Ed Earl is strong, flawed, reckless, cagey, cynical and utterly human, a guy who has a code he sometimes forgets to live by but returns to under pressure. He’s not Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe—he’s much more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys. He’s a bit of an Everyman, smacked around by life, a little slow on the uptake but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t the supercool Frank Bullitt—he’s the polar opposite of that. He’s Columbo without the caricature—people he goes up against underestimate him and he makes them pay for that mistake.
Q: Your books feature very strong, smart women with an edge to them whether they’re good or bad — what were you trying to say with your female characters?
A: Nothing very profound or deep. I just think a strong story demands strong characters of both genders. I’ve always been attracted to strong, smart, sharp-tongued women who know they’re smarter and tougher than men and aren’t shy about showing it. I find them endlessly fascinating, maddening, alluring and sometimes dangerous. They’re a force of nature to be reckoned with and I’m usually four or five steps behind them on the uptake. So is Ed Earl. Good women seem to like and love him anyway — for reasons I don’t fully understand. However, Ed Earl is fatally attracted to women who use and abuse him and leave him like a wrecked car on the shoulder of the highway. He loves the bad girls and in The Right Wrong Number, it’s a toss-up whether this will get him killed.
Q: You’ve set both your novels in Texas and the scenes you describe of cities like Dallas and Houston as well as the landscape of the Hill Country and the Big Bend are so strong, the state seems like a major character. Was this deliberate?
A: Not in a calculated sort of way. Texas just seemed like a natural setting for very primal and violent stories of revenge and redemption, which is the chord that runs through both of my novels. I spent a lot of time knocking around Texas in my journalism days, including a stint at the old Dallas Times Herald and as a roving correspondent for other news organizations. I used to live in Dallas and know Houston fairly well. I love the deceptive landscape of the Hill Country — green at a distance, dry and craggy up close. And I love the harsh starkness of the Big Bend and northern Mexico — how the mountains collide and look like the bones of the earth ripped open. Used to wander up and down the border doing stories on maquiladoras, colonias, birth defects caused by pollution, illegal immigration, drug wars. But what stole my heart was that wide-open, sun-blasted and evocative landscape of West Texas. It spoke to me then — still does now.
Q: The sex and violence in your books are fairly explicit — were you trying to shock your readers?
A: I doubt anybody is truly shocked by anything they read in my books. Both novels are bawdy and bloody, but the sex and violence isn’t gratuitous or served up just for shock value. I’m writing a violent tale and want to be frank about both the sex and the violence in service of that story. I don’t want to shield the reader’s delicate sensibilities with euphemisms and sanitized scenes. That’s an insult to the reader. The same goes for the language my characters use — they’re not nice people, even the good guys, so their language is rough and profane. Might be a different story if I was writing a chicken-fried cozy, but I’m afraid hell will freeze over before I write one of those.
Q: Why do you write?
A: You might as well ask me why I breathe. The short answer is — I really don’t have a choice. I’ve been a storyteller and writer for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a successful professional writer for more years than I care to count, with three decades of journalism practiced at a fairly high level. I cut my teeth on long-format, narrative stories that used the devices common to fiction writing to tell my stories in an authoritative, fact-based and evocative way. And I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers and grew up listening to my parents, aunts, uncles and older cousins telling stories about growing up during the Great Depression or serving overseas during World War II, tales that gave me a keen awareness of time, place and family. So, telling a tale well is in my DNA, whether it’s a story about grazing rights on public land out West, a caretaker who murdered her elderly charges by feeding them arsenic or a hard-boiled tale of revenge and redemption that features a grizzled private eye from Dallas.
Q: How do you get inspired to write?
A: By reading good writers like James Crumley or James Ellroy. It doesn’t always inspire me. Sometimes, the writing is so good I get depressed that I’ll never reach those heights. Then I get prideful and ticked and take up the challenge to up my game.
Q: Who is your favorite author?
A: Can’t just pick one. Growing up, it was Ernest Hemingway and Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. These days, I’ll read anything by James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard and Joe R. Lansdale. I love Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther books for the main character’s unsinkable and cynical survival instincts and bitter humor. I’ve always thought the late James Crumley an underappreciated talent – his Dancing Bear and The Last Good Kiss are must-reads. You can’t go wrong re-reading the old masters – Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. Lately, I’ve read Don Winslow’s Mexican cartel novels – The Power of The Dog and The Cartel. Great books. And I’ve latched on to some Texas writers who are rapidly becoming new favorites — Ben Rehder and the late Milton T. Burton, fine authors with a keen sense of time, place and people and how the land shapes the folks who live on it. I also like Lie Catchers, a novel by former LAPD detective Paul Bishop. It’s a psychological who-dun-it that reminds me of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, with a distinctly American edge.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: Research for the next Ed Earl Burch novel, The Best Lousy Choice. This will be more of a whodunit, with Burch called in by an old friend to investigate the death of his grandfather, an heir to one of the big West Texas ranches whose passing has been ruled an accident by local law. Burch winds up in another treacherous game where everybody has a motive to kill the old man—his warring descendants, a crooked county sheriff who preaches law-and-order while in the hip pocket of narcotrafficantes and the corporate owners of a rival ranch who want to gobble up the dead man’s land. Doesn’t take long for them to start gunning for Burch, too.