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Interview with Ed Duncan

Q.1 Tell us a little about yourself.
A. I'm originally from Gary, Indiana. After high school, I went to Oberlin College in Ohio and graduated with a major in Romance Languages with a concentration in Spanish. I then went to law school at Northwestern in Chicago. After graduation, I returned to Ohio where I joined a national law firm headquartered in Cleveland. My area of practice was litigation, but I eventually specialized in Insurance Coverage. Before I retired, I wrote a legal treatise entitled Ohio Insurance Coverage. I had always wanted to write fiction but never found the time. In the mid-'90s while attending a legal seminar in Honolulu, an idea for a crime novel popped into my head. That idea ultimately resulted in my first novel, Pigeon-Blood Red, which was first published in 2016.

Q.2 Do you have any upcoming books?
A. Pigeon-Blood Red was the first in a trilogy. The second was The Last Straw published in 2017. I'm working on the third, Rico Stays. I hope to have it completed in early 2020 and published shortly thereafter.

Q.3 What motivated you to write the Pigeon-Blood Red series?
A. I've always been an avid reader, and my favorite genre is crime fiction. As I mentioned earlier, the idea for the first novel came to me while I was attending a legal seminar in Honolulu. I was taking a stroll one evening when I saw in my mind's eye a woman traveling alone and carrying something valuable that bad people -- dangerous people -- were trying to get their hands-on, and I saw a lawyer coming to her rescue. Over the months and years that followed I filled in details, many of which changed as a result of many drafts and redrafts. The "something" the woman was carrying became a priceless pigeon-blood red ruby necklace. The phrase "pigeon-blood red" was coined centuries ago by Indian gem dealers. It describes the color of the rarest and most valuable rubies in the world, the same color as the first two drops of blood that trickle from the nostrils of a freshly killed pigeon.

Q.4  How do you come up with the title of your books?
A. Actually, I find it more difficult to settle on a title than to actually write the books. Pigeon-Blood Red was a natural for the first novel, since a ruby necklace that color precipitates all the action, and but for the necklace, there would be no story. Also, it is an exotic phrase that should grab the attention of potential readers.  I truly struggled to search for the title The Last Straw. I checked famous quotations and even well-known verses from the Bible, but nothing seemed to fit. Eventually, the title just came to me. It's not original or unique, but I think it fits. Finally, I took Rico Stays from a line in an old Barbara Stanwyck movie called Baby Face.  At one point in the movie, a lover of the main character, played by Stanwyck, strongly suggests that she get rid of her maid/friend, who was named "Chico." Stanwyck's defiant reply is "Chico stays!" I just changed Chico to Rico.

Q.5 Among the protagonists of your books, which one is your favorite and why?
A. Rico, a killer with a conscience, is my favorite because he is the most exciting, and the most layered and complicated. The lawyer Paul Elliott was always meant to be the main character (after all, he is a highly idealized version of me!). However, the more I developed Rico's character, the more he fought to become the central focus of the narrative. The more I tried to rein him in, the more he resisted. I like to think we fought to a draw. In retrospect, Rico is an amalgam of three of my favorite movie heroes. All of the movies are named for their main character. Two of the characters appeared in westerns that were based on novels of the same name: In chronological order, the movies are Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Hombre, starring Paul Newman. The third is Bullitt, a crime movie starring Steve McQueen. What the main characters have in common is that all are essentially loners, and all have codes of their own. Unlike Rico, though, all three are on the right side of the law.

Q.6 What about the supporting characters?  Who do you think is dearest to you?
A. Paul Elliott and Jean, Rico's prostitute girlfriend, is probably dearest among the supporting characters. I like Paul, again, because he is a very idealized version of me, and because he was meant to be the main character. I like Jean because she's had a hard life, but she's tough and smart and independent. Her weakness is her soft spot for Rico, who cares deeply for her, but is incapable of expressing his love.

Q.7 What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? 
A. This will sound arrogant (it's not meant to be), but I don't think I find it particularly difficult to write women. I think in part that's because I write crime fiction. I think my female characters are multi-layered, and I hope believable, but I might find it more difficult to write to them if, for instance, I was writing literary fiction.

Q.8 Have any of your characters been chalked out based on someone you know?
A. That's easy. Only Paul, my alter ego.

Q.9 How do you select the names of your characters?
A. Paul Elliott is derived from the first name of my best friend in elementary and high school, and the last name of a biology teacher at my high school. I just liked the sound of Elliott: when combined with Paul. Evelyn, Paul's girlfriend, comes from the character played by Faye Dunaway in Chinatownone of my favorite movies. Rico just came to me and seemed to fit. The last name of the mob boss in the first novel is Litvak, which I changed from Rybak, the name of a colorful man I worked with during a summer job in a steel mill, and I like the sound of it. I use the phone book (although with the coming of the Internet, they aren't printed anymore), and my old high school yearbook to come off with other names.

Q.10 Do you read your book reviews?  How do you deal with bad or good ones?
A. Yes, I read them. I have a publicist who solicits most of them.  Fortunately, reviewers who respond to her inquiries will have the courtesy to tell her in advance that, for whatever reason, they can't write a favorable review, in which case they don't write anything.  I've been lucky that only a few reviewers fit that category, but bad reviews are inevitable, and I've received a few on Amazon, for instance. I try not to let them bother me because, as I said, they are inevitable. Luckily, I can only recall one really mean-spirited review where the reviewer appeared to be intentionally cruel.  Regarding good reviews, I keep all of them, and occasionally I excerpt catchy descriptions from particularly good ones, which I tweet on Twitter.

Q.11 Does your family support your career as a writer?
A. I'm divorced and have three adult children who are all very supportive. I dedicated my first novel to them.

Q.12 Do you believe in writer's block?  If so, how do you deal with it?
A. Yes, I believe in writer's block. I don't think all writers have it.  For instance, I doubt that prolific writers like Stephen King or writers who produce a novel every year like clockwork, e.g., Lee Child or John Grisham, have that problem. Since I'm retired and have no deadlines, I can afford to write only when the muse arrives, i.e., when I am inspired to write. Still, I do get stuck sometimes.  When I do, I continue to think about different solutions to move the story along until one feels right. That may take days or weeks, but eventually, I've always hit upon a solution.

Q.13 What is your writing process?
A. First of all, unlike some writers, I don't believe it's necessary to write something every day or to write a set number of words per day or a set number of hours per day. If I were writing full time, perhaps, I would see things differently. I usually start with a general idea of where the story will end up, and so I have at least a rough outline that I write out on a legal pad. I then write the entire first draft in longhand. I write subsequent drafts on the computer. Finally, I'm an insomniac so I usually work better late at night into the early morning, especially in the summer, although I sometimes write during the day if the ideas are really flowing.

Q.14 Do you have any unique and quirky writing habits?
A. Other than what I've mentioned earlier, I really can't think of any.

Q.15 What do you consider to be your best accomplishment?
A. I think my best accomplishment was writing Ohio Insurance Coverage, and writing annual supplements for five years. The subject matter was technical and complex and had to be completely accurate since the book discusses and analyzes legal cases, and was relied upon by judges and other lawyers.

Q.16 What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
A. I'm not sure I'm qualified to answer that question. I have only worked with small independent publishers, and I imagine that such matters come up more frequently with the major publishers. I also have never worked with an agent, and I suspect that the tri-partite relationship between writers, agents, and publishers gives rise to certain ethical issues that don't arise with smaller independent publishers.

Q.17 What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
A. This is neither original nor profound, but I think the best advice about the writing process I can give is that a writer should always write multiple drafts. Most established writers will admit that their first drafts are universally bad and that the writing improves with every subsequent draft (up to a point, of course). I would also urge aspiring writers to disregard the old maxim that you should "write what you know". Instead, write about what interests you, and then thoroughly research what you don't know about the subject, something which is easier today than in past years because of the Internet.  I write crime fiction but I've never committed a crime or met a crime boss, for instance.

Q.18 Which famous person, living or dead, would you like to meet and why?
A. Ex-President Barack Obama. This is not intended to be a partisan answer, and I hope it doesn't offend any reader who did not support him. Whether you agreed with his policies or not, though, before he became President, African American, and other minority children found it hard to imagine that they might become President someday. Now they know that is a dream that can come true.

Q.19 What is your favorite book by other authors and why?
A. It is hard to narrow it down to one novel, but if I must, I would say it's An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Unlike Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Dreiser is not a master of style, and his sentence structure can be clunky, but the pathos and sweep of this novel are extraordinary. I think it's truly an example of a great American novel.

Q.20 Share the experience of your journey so far.
A. As I mentioned, I've wanted to write fiction for many years. So the feeling I had when I finished my first novel and saw it in print was simply exhilarating. Now I've finished a follow-up and am hard at work on the third, and the satisfaction of seeing my characters come alive on the page has not diminished. I've also written a screenplay for each novel (I wrote the script for Rico Stays before I finished the novel), and I am trying to get them produced. The odds are long, but the chances of success are greater today days than just a few years ago. So I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Seeing my words in the mouths of characters on the screen would be the icing on the cake.

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