For more than 30 years, Jim Nesbitt roved the American Outback as a correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, ranchers, miners, loggers, farmers, migrant field hands, doctors, neo-Nazis and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey and a well-told story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama where he writes hard-boiled detective thrillers set in Texas.
Book description: The Right Wrong Number is a hard-boiled tale of revenge and redemption set in Texas and northern Mexico. It’s more of a thriller than a whodunit and features Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered Dallas homicide detective eking out a living as a private eye. He’s an ex-jock gone to seed, a guy who’s been smacked around by life and has the bad knees, wounded liver and empty bank account to prove it.
In this story, Burch has been hired to protect an old flame threatened by the partners ripped off by her husband, a high-flying Houston financial consultant who has disappeared. These partners include some mobsters from New Orleans who send a pair of hitmen to get back their money, drugs and jewels and kill anybody involved in the score. Ed Earl finds himself locked in a deadly contest where nobody can be trusted and he’s tempted to forget his own rules by the money and sex offered up by the old flame, who has a lethal knack for larceny and betrayal. When his best friend is killed in Dallas by hired muscle, Ed Earl blames himself and sets out for revenge that winds up being a bloody form of redemption.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your writing background?
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. For most of those years, I was a roving correspondent for newspapers across the South and in Texas and a national wire service based in Washington, D.C. 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. My heroes are Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway. 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.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Well, I’ve told you what The Right Wrong Number is about, why don’t I tell you a little bit more about my main character, Ed Earl Burch— he’s the inspiration for writing this book and my first hard-boiled thriller, The Last Second Chance. I wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel because I’ve always considered that a particularly American art form. I also wanted to write about the sense of loss and betrayal and guilt I had experienced in my own life and how that makes a man shorten his stride and pull into a protective shell—at least one he thinks will protect him.
Ed Earl’s a bit of an Everyman who’s been smacked around by life. As a result, he’s placed himself in a box of his own making — one he thinks will keep him from getting smacked again. When readers first meet him in The Last Second Chance, he’s a cashiered Dallas homicide detective, eking out a living as a PI who chases the financial fugitives of the oil and real estate bust and savings-and-loan collapse that scarred Texas in the mid-to-late 80s. He’s got his life narrowed down to the shabby essentials — a ratty apartment, a hole-in-the-wall office and bourbon in his favorite bar, which happens to be my all-time favorite bar, Louie’s in Dallas. Play it smart and cautious. Keep the lines straight. Don’t take a risk. Don’t give a damn. It’s the creed of the terminal burnout and he’s living it a day at a time, drink by drink.
He’s dead wrong about all this keeping him safe from more pain. He’s also his own worst enemy — a cynical smartass who can’t help taking a whack at folks he doesn’t like even when he knows they’ll whack him back. When you catch up with him in The Right Wrong Number, he’s seven years older, but not necessarily any wiser, particularly when it comes to women. He’s fatally attracted to the kind that is ready, willing and able to drive a stake through his heart.
I didn’t want him to be a Spade or a Marlowe — I wanted him to be more angst-ridden and tortured than those guys. Ed Earl’s a little slow on the uptake, but not dumb. He’s dogged rather than brilliant. And he sure isn’t supercool like 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.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
By the time I started writing novels, I had been a professional writer for a very long time. When I was younger, I used to do detailed outlines, but as I got older, I quit making them so detailed because I found they really got in the way of the writing. I think I’m more of a jazz musician sort of writer — I can read a score, but fly to higher heights when improvising. For both The Right Wrong Number and The Last Second Chance, I sketched out some notes about the places the story would go. And I had a few rules of the road for Ed Earl—he doesn’t get the girl, he doesn’t necessarily beat the bad guys so much as outlast them, he winds up with more pain than he started with and the action of the story forces him to return to the code he learned as the cop he can no longer be.
Did your book require a lot of research?
I learned the hard way that facts are a writer’s friend—the more you have, the firmer the foundation for your writing. It gives your writing a power and authenticity it otherwise wouldn’t have. You rely less on clever turns of phrase to dance around things you don’t know. So, yes, I may start out with what I know, but I do a ton of research to add more muscle.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
I was a journalist for a long time, as was Hemingway, who is one of my writing heroes. So it shouldn’t be surprising that I’m a writer who has to experience something before writing and uses those experiences to tell his story. I don’t see the creative process as daydreaming or fantasizing, even though I’m writing fiction. My characters and stories are the products of my imagination, but they’re based on people I’ve met and are shot through with the places I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had. So, when you read a scene set in the world’s sixth-largest bat cave near Mason, Texas, you can bet I’ve slogged through the guano in that cave or a scene behind the chutes at a rodeo in Houston, you can bet I’ve been leaning on the pipe railing of a stock pen, close enough to an ornery bull to spit on him.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
My muse is a merciless mistress and I have little choice but obey her. Placate isn’t in her vocabulary.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
Nobody writes non-stop. I tend to write until I finish a chapter or passage then read it back and give it a light edit before moving on to the next chapter. When I’m done, I start a heavy edit, taking a lot of notes along the way about changes I need to make. If the fix for a glitch leaps to mind, I’ll stop the edit and do a re-write then before I forget the fix.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
First I cuss and kick a trash can across the room and fume and cuss some more while stomping around the house. Then I go do something else to cool down—probably a drive in the country in my ’72 Cutlass ragtop. With the top down, of course. Once I’ve cooled down, I suck it up and look at the review with a cold eye to see if there are nuggets of truth in there I need to learn to make me a better writer. Then I drink and brood and plot bloody payback.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I’ve been writing for a very long time and have learned how to keep my butt in the chair to get the job done. That’s part of the discipline it takes to be a good writer. You also have to be willing to kill your children. By that I mean you have to be willing to murder anything that doesn’t serve your story, no matter how brilliant the writing seems.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
I’m a night owl not an early bird. Don’t speak to me early in the morning unless you’ve seen me drink several cups of coffee and fire up a cigar. I do my best work in the hours on either side of midnight when it’s just me and the words in my head and another cigar.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
I can tell you there’s no truth to the rumor that I write in the nude with a Tennessee orange feathered boa around my neck. That would frighten the children and cause the neighborhood dogs to howl. About the quirkiest thing I do is cup my hand over my ear like one of those old-timey radio announcers and read what I just wrote out loud to see if it ‘talks’ as good as it ‘reads.’
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Many times. I get up and take a walk, hit the gym, go catch a movie, take a drive in the ragtop, pour myself a deep whiskey and fire up a cigar—anything that tears me away from the stone wall I’ve hit in writing. Anything that gives my subconscious some room to breathe and get untracked enough so the next scene can rise up from the depths and I can write again. Sometimes that doesn’t work, though, and you’ve got to get mean, get your butt back in that chair and just blast your way through, knowing you’re going to write a lot of crap you’ll throw away until you finally hit paydirt again.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
I’ve started the research for my next Ed Earl Burch novel, The Best Lousy Choice. It will be more of a hard-boiled whodunit set in Texas and the border country with Mexico.