Toronto author Rob Brunet joins me on Moving Target today. Rob’s short crime fiction appears and is forthcoming in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Noir Nation and numerous anthologies. Before writing noir, Rob produced award-winning presence on the Web for film and TV, including LOST, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and the cult series Alias.
Rob’s 2014 debut novel, Stinking Rich, asks “What could possibly go wrong when bikers hire a high school dropout to tend a barn full of high-grade marijuana?”
Rob, what inspired you to write Stinking Rich?
I’ve always loved dark humour, twisted characters, and back country. The idea for the story came to me on a car ride between Montreal and Toronto. I stared out the window at endless bush along one of those stretches of Highway 401 where you just know there’s interesting stuff going on in out-of-the-way places.
It had been a while since I’d been writing, and my early drafts of Stinking Rich were an opportunity to explore story-telling in a purely self-satisfying way. I wrote the kind of tale I’d like to read. By setting the novel in a rural landscape, I got to spend time there in my mind every time I sat down to write.
If it hadn’t been for that combination of style and setting, I seriously doubt I would have found the resolve to complete my first manuscript, never mind its umpteen rewrites.
Stinking Rich is a comic caper. Do you consider yourself a writer of comedy or will you move in other directions in future works?
Some of my short stories are dark, and there are a couple of longer projects I’m mulling over which aren’t comic at all. But there’s something deeply rewarding about hearing people say I made them laugh out loud. I know that feeling when I’m reading a book and it’s one I love sharing with others. So, yeah, there’ll be more comedy coming from me.
Danny Grant is your protagonist—although perhaps anti-hero would be more appropriate. Is Danny at all like you?
Other than loving his mother and fearing he’ll fail to impress her, I don’t think Danny Grant has a lot of me in him. I will, however, confess that some of the stupidest things he (and other characters) do are straight out my life. Not the illegal bits. Just some of the bone-headed actions that result in minor disasters.
In Stinking Rich, there’s a dune buggy scene which, apart from its ending, is straight out of an experience I had in Florida while the state was enjoying its peak serial-killing years. If you ever want to meet a raft of whacky people, try hitchhiking in a place where no sane person would. Thankfully, my youthful oblivion was matched by good luck. And, yeah, you can expect a couple of the other characters I met hitchhiking to show up in later novels.
What were the most difficult scenes to write and why?
There’s a scene in the middle of the book where Danny meets his “love interest.” I think it took five serious revisions before I had an acceptable draft, never mind anything final. Luckily, at the time, I was workshopping with three women writers. They were unanimous about two things. First, there was no way in hell any woman—sane or not—would take up with a man that presented the way Danny did in my early attempts. Second, they convinced me that Judy Jackman was, in fact, a love interest.
The learning for me was to dig deeper to write female characters, even when I was gunning for a stereotype.
But I got something far better out of it. My next novel features several women who play pivotal roles. And this makes my universe better.
I’m even tackling a female protagonist in a novella I’m working on. She’s whacked, but hopefully convincing nonetheless.
Are there any other books on the market like Stinking Rich? If so, will they help or hinder the success of your book?
Thematically, I guess drugs, motorcycle gangs, and rural antics are prevalent these days, or maybe I’m just noticing them more. That said, Stinking Rich takes aim at gonzo crime with a darker edge. I won’t get into comparables here so as not to mislead. But I do think there is a readership for crime-laced humour. How to tap into that vein is the magic question, isn’t it?
Tell us about your writing schedule.
Crap, I was hoping you’d tell me!
I’ve just spent five months booking and touring the North American launch of Stinking Rich. Before I committed to that process, I was writing almost every day, usually four to five hours starting around 10 a.m. (I’m an unremitting night owl.) When I’m organized, I can add a few hours of editing or other work after that.
I also do writing binges where I’m alone in the country and write, read and watch DVDs for days at time. I’d like to try that for a longer stretch. The “go-into-my-hole-and-write” thing that people like Margaret Atwood talk about. With any luck, I’ll get a chance to do that before long.
Do you have a plot nailed down before you start writing?
Stinking Rich started from a bad decision Danny Grant made under pressure. The rest of the story wove itself around that kernel. I had one-paragraph sketches of several other characters in my original notes. Similarly, I had ideas for interesting scenes that weren’t attached to any particular character. As the manuscript evolved, I learned about the relationships between the characters and their motivations. It was pretty organic.
But it’s a complex, multi-threaded story, so I had to pull back and re-jig things a few times—work on timelines, locations, even the order in which the story was told. The first “completed” draft actually started around page 100. It didn’t work. Too much had to be told in flashback—a technique I try to avoid.
It wasn’t a particularly efficient way to write a novel, I’ll admit. But I was learning the craft and was committed to turning out something polished for my debut. With the second novel, I gushed out a 26,000-word story that ultimately served as a rough outline. It has allowed me to focus on the right characters and get to the rewriting phase much more quickly.
What is the best writing advice you’ve received?
Give yourself permission to let the first draft stink. Because it will. Then rewrite relentlessly, until you can’t stand one more pass.
What do you hope readers will take away from Stinking Rich?
A good laugh with some interesting characters.
I seek to entertain. My favourite feedback is when people tell me they stayed up reading until 3:00 because they needed to know what happens next. Or their spouse kept giving them weird looks because they were laughing out loud.
I also love hearing how people enjoyed this or that scene or latched onto a secondary character in ways I didn’t expect. It makes me want to write that much better next time.
Will there be a sequel?
Absolutely. Same setting and some character carry-over. The premise is pretty simple: a Bible camp gone bad. I think people who’ve read Stinking Rich can imagine what flavour that might take.
Follow Rob Brunet on his website.