The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

April 16, 2010

Saving the Best for Last: Earl Emerson

Today is our final entry in the Detectives Around the World Week, brainchild of Jen's Book Thoughts. This week we've looked at two books in the Thomas Black mystery series, The Million-Dollar Tattoo and Cape Disappointment, and we've taken a virtual tour of Thomas Black's home town, Seattle. As much fun as I've had reading the books, writing columns, creating puzzles and all, I really believe I have saved the best for last.

I'm delighted today to be able to introduce readers to the creator of the Thomas Black mystery series, Earl Emerson. Besides Thomas Black, Earl also created the mystery series featuring small-town fire chief and smooth dancer Mac Fontana. He has also written half a dozen excellent thrillers, including Into the Inferno, Pyro, and Firetrap.

But being a full-time novelist with 23 published titles to his credit isn't enough for Earl. He is also full-time firefighter with the Seattle Fire Department. And he's the epitome of perseverance when it comes to getting published. He wrote his first novel at age 19. While enduring 43 rejections for that book, he wrote a second book which garnered him even more rejections. And the cycle was repeated for 15 years before the first Thomas Black mystery, the Shamus-nominated The Rainy City, was finally sold. Being either a novelist or a firefighter would command my respect and admiration. A person who is both would leave me a little awestruck, if he wasn't such a great guy. Friends, please meet Earl Emerson:

Your books take place primarily in Washington state. The Thomas Black books and your standalone thrillers mostly are set in and around Seattle, while the Mac Fontana series occurs in the fictional town of Staircase, in King County, Washington. How important to your work is the familiarity of setting, and what role does setting play in your books? Any desire to ever drop Thomas and Kathy down in, oh, say Acapulco and see what happens?
It has occurred to me more than once that setting and background function much like another character in the story. They can be detailed and complex or glib and facile, just as any other character in the story can be those things. For me, setting plays a different role in a series, at least it does in my series. People expect a "Seattle" mystery to move about the city and perhaps show them something new or interesting or familiar about the city and because people expect that, I'm compelled to keep these attributes in the Black series. I'm writing a book now which takes place in a fictionalized version of America, and while politics and atmosphere take up a lot of space, setting takes up almost none. I wouldn't think this was possible with a Thomas Black, which relies upon Seattle for its backdrop. Also, I've always been amazed at how little it takes to frame a setting in the reader's mind. Re-reading Raymond Chandler, who is noted for his strong settings, I'm struck by how little description his novels really carry.
Many of your fans were happy to see that after several years of writing standalone thrillers, you brought PI Thomas Black back out of mothballs. What made you return to this character? How difficult was it to pick up the threads of his life again, or to find that voice that is so distinctively Thomas's voice?
I don't know that I did find Thomas's voice in Cape Disappointment. I sure tried to and I thought I did, but I'm still not sure. The narrative structure is unlike any other Black and was heavily influenced by my thrillers. I brought Black back simply because so many people had asked for him. After I finish the project I'm working on now, I'm thinking about writing four or five Blacks in a row, really get back into it.
Elmer 'Snake' Slezak is one of those off-beat characters made for the screen. To find, in Cape Disappointment, that he has a twin who is even more eccentric and also has a dark side, was an absolute delight. Have you ever considered giving Snake and/or his brother their own stories? Have any of your minor characters ever threatened to hijack a novel for themselves?
Oddly enough Snake was the main character in a novel I couldn't sell back in the beginning of my career. I liked him enough to bring him back and put him in a Black novel. He's based on a world champion bull rider I met for about thirty seconds when I was eighteen. I guess he made an impression on me. So far, none of my books have been successfully hijacked by a minor character. At least, I don't think they have. Generally, if a minor character is running away with the story, there's something wrong with the main character.
Throughout your books, almost from the beginning, it's been easy to see you stretching yourself as a writer: Changing voices and multiple POVs, playing with the time structure, and so on. Do you consciously set these tasks for yourself, or do you see them arising naturally from the demands of the story? Which book presented the greatest challenge to you as a writer?
It took me a long time to get published. I started writing in late 1968 and made the sale of The Rainy City in late 1983. It took so long that I got into the habit of asking myself serious questions after each effort. The biggest question of all was how could this book be better? So I'm always trying to improve. The more techniques one has in the tool box, the greater variety of stories one can spin. Another reason for stretching myself as a writer is that I get bored easily. The biggest challenge is always the book I'm working on right now, though if I had to go through my list of published books, the switch from pure mysteries was hard, so Vertical Burn, my first thriller, would be right up there with the toughies. In some ways, though, it was almost as hard to go back and write a Black after so long. I was quite nervous about that.
What's up next for Thomas, now that he's reemerged? And can readers expect to see a similar reappearance by Mac Fontana? (This is my not-so-subtle way of asking, what's the next book about and when can readers expect it?)
It's going to be a while before the next Black. I'm not sure what it will be about, but Black has always been concerned with class differences and those are really coming to the fore with the new economy of the last thirty years. I'm sure he'll be brushing up against moneyed interests and those who are injured by moneyed interests. I'm between publishers right now and working on a futuristic novel. I'm not sure I'll ever get back to Mac Fontana. The best incentive for that would be if I got the Fontanas back in print or if there were interest from Hollywood, either of which would spur me on.
You said you're "between publishers." Please tell me this is simply a negotiation process and that there is a new publisher there for you. And if not, are you willing to go the route of publishing your own e-books, as JA Konrath has done?
I can't say if this is a negotiation process. My last publisher, Ballantine, has first-refusal rights to my next book, but I haven't finished my next book and thus, they haven't seen it. When I do, we'll send it to Ballantine and see what they say.
Chapter titles are something of a lost art in novels today. Your Thomas Black series has no chapter titles, the Mac Fontana series contains some extraordinary chapter titles (two examples: It Might Be Numb, Honey, But Let's Just See if It Still Works and You Count the Odds, You Might Figure Out You Owe the Universe a Tragedy), while the thrillers are mixed: some have them, some don't. How do you decide which books get those titles and which do not?
I had fun with chapter titles in the Fontana series, which for some reason seemed to lend itself to them naturally. For reasons I cannot explain, not all of my thrillers call out to me for chapter titles. If the writing of the book puts me in the mood for them I include them; otherwise I don't bother.
You've never been shy in your fiction about writing some negative things regarding fire department administration and how politics affects firefighters. Even some readers have come right out and accused the Mac Fontana character of that dastardly crime - gasp! - political incorrectness. What kind of blowback have you had from city and fire department administrators and the public for your sometimes less-than-flattering depictions of characters in positions of power?
There's been all kinds of blowback. There was a fire station in Seattle that didn't have an electric typewriter because a chief I'd crossed thought I might write books on it. Ten years after I transferred to another station, they were still using a manual typewriter. One chief in particular took offense and sent my crew and me repeatedly into a ship fire while other crews had yet to take a single turn inside. People who do that sort of thing are usually bat-shit crazy, so I don't worry too much about them. In Pyro, I depicted a chief who'd done some rather outrageous things and gotten away with them. I've had a lot of readers complain that I'd gone over the top, when the truth was, I had to tone down the facts, because the character was based on a real chief and the offenses in real life had been a lot worse than in the story. The problem with fiction is it has to be believable. What this chief had done and gotten away with, was not.
Seattle, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole, is teeming with successful crime writers. Besides yourself, there are Aaron Elkins, Ridley Pearson, GM Ford, JA Jance, Gabriella Heckert, Carl Brookins, and many more. What's in the water up there? What about the area lends itself to crime writing, and why so many good ones as opposed to say, Columbus, Ohio?
I can't speak for the other writers. I was born in Tacoma, Washington and have lived in the state most of my life. I like it here. Whenever I travel and come back, I marvel at the beauty and variety of the area. Of course, for six months of the year we get a steady diet of rain and crappy weather, too, which could turn anyone to crime.
Even more than cops and military personnel, it's been my experience that firefighters have the best stories to share about their work. The pig falling from the plane in The Smoke Room would be one example. Anything wild and crazy happen to you recently? No more arsonist-fans stalking you, I trust?
Two shifts ago we responded to a guy who jumped off a freeway overpass and landed in the middle of Interstate 90. He fell about thirty-five feet and miraculously was not hit by any traffic, broke only his hip and femur, and badly compressed his L-5. He also knocked out two teeth from the jolt when he landed, but he didn't lose consciousness. The strange part was we have a new GPS system in our apparatus and when we had to drive east to Mercer Island in order to turn around on the one-way freeway, everything from the middle of the lake and beyond was blanked out on the GPS. I guess the city honchos were afraid we would run away with their fire trucks if we had a map that extended beyond the city limits. As a consequence, a medic unit with this patient in the back got lost on Mercer Island while the patient lay in agony. The stories in the fire department come with maddening frequency.
As part of Detectives Around the World Week, Jen Forbus is conducting a bracket tourney to determine the World's Favorite Detective. (These are fictional cops and licensed PIs, no amateurs or non-law enforcement characters.) Naturally, your first vote would go to Thomas Black. But what fictional PI or cop would get your second vote? As a novelist, who has been your greatest influence?
I love anything written by Charles Willeford. Actually, his Hoke Moseley books, which are his most famous, are probably his weakest. They're good, but the early stuff was magnificent. He's written two memoirs that rival anything from Steinbeck. Talk about an artist who never got his due. Early on I was a huge fan of Hemingway, Chandler, Hammett, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, and John D. MacDonald.
I heard that you used to participate in a race in which firefighters, in full gear, ran up the steps of a 20+ story skyscraper. Are you still a masochist? What's your current role in the fire dept? Any thoughts about chucking in the day job and living off the 401K?
I'm still a lieutenant on Ladder 3. I can't tell you how much I love the job. Well, maybe I can. I retired from it this past December, actually filled out the paperwork, mailed it in, and called the state to make sure I had done it all properly and was on their books. They said I was slated for my first retirement check in February. I then went to the station to work my last three shifts. By ten o'clock of the first shift, I'd phoned the state to beg for my job back. So, I'm still working. It will be interesting, when I finally do retire, to find out what it's like to write full time, to sleep in my own bed every night of the year, and to never, ever, be writing while in the throes of exhaustion.
Blogging and social media have become a very visible means of marketing books. I understand you're working full time and writing books, so that leaves little time for surfing the 'Net, but once you retire from the SFD, can readers expect more online activity from you? Can fans east of the Mississippi ever hope to meet you on tour again?
I will definitely be more available when I'm writing full time. As far as touring east of the Mississippi again . . . the days of publishers sending mid-list writers around the country are gone. I'm not ruling it out, I'm just not sure it will happen.
The recent fracas between and MacMillan probably caught your attention, although Mac is not your publisher. Any thoughts on what went down there, and about the new "agency" model? Or on the publishing business model in general?
The publishing business has been raped and pillaged by big business. Ballantine, the company I published with for over twenty years, is only a shell of the great company it once was. Most of the personnel who made it great were long ago riffed out the door or encouraged to retire. Mainstream publishers have been incredibly slow to embrace new technologies and I believe it's because they realize those technologies make them expendable. One can now publish a book on the Internet and get it into the Amazon cannon, along with every other major online bookseller, and you can do it all without going through New York. We have electronic books and on-demand printing which makes it cost-effective to print one book at a time as it is ordered. All of this scares the hell out of the big publishers. Who needs them? In the past they were good for getting review attention, but that has all but dried up after newspapers around the globe cut costs by eliminating their book sections. I don't know what form published fiction will take in the future, how the business will evolve, but it isn't going to be anything like the past. It's a revolution that will be talked about a hundred years from now.

I'm grinning ear to clich├ęd ear. I really did save the best for last. Thank you, Earl Emerson, for your time and your candid answers. And thank you most of all for making fans happy with your wonderful books.

Readers who would like to know more about Earl's writing: his methodology, motivation, schedule, and yes, where he gets his ideas, will find all of that and more in a solid interview Earl just did with I recommend it in particular for aspiring writers. And you can find his books at any of the fine indie bookstores, including:
Aunt Agatha's New & Used  Mysteries, Detection & True Crime Books
Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Warwick's Books
The Poisoned Pen
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
And folks, you still have one last chance today to get your name in the drawing for a copy of Earl Emerson's outstanding mystery/thriller Cape Disappointment, as well as a $35 gift certificate from courtesy of Aunt Agatha's New & Used Mysteries, Detection and True Crime Books, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aunt Agatha's just happens to also be the Indie Store of the Month. Whenever you're in or near Ann Arbor, Michigan, be sure to visit.

I bet you're all wondering about today's puzzle. Well, I thought about copping out and just saying everyone who comments today (except for spammers) would get an entry. But I had to do pretty much do that for the last puzzle, plus somehow that seems unfair to the people who scratched their heads all week long over the real puzzles -- especially yesterday's -- in order to get their names in the drawing. On the other hand, today is Friday and it's been a long hard week for some folks. They are tired of puzzles where they have to scour the Web, tired of trickery and semantics. Okey-doke. Today's puzzle is one where all you have to know is the alphabet and all you need are rudimentary spelling skills:
Make 15 words or more using only these letters: S-E-A-T-T-L-E.  Shouldn't be hard, I came up with 30 with no struggle. There are probably even more, but 15 is all you need to get your name in the drawing. I'll announce the winner of the drawing tomorrow. Good luck to all of you!

What? Oh. Yeah, yesterday's puzzle. Picture my face red. How many lighthouses guard the shores of the USA? I thought this would be easy, so easy I didn't even look it up myself until people started guessing.Who knew that no one keeps count of these things, or that they count them in ways that overlap, like lumping historic museums with working lighthouses with lightvessels and beacons? Wikipedia identifies about 1000, but their list contains many duplicates, museums, beacons, and even "future" lighthouses. According to Fodors in 2007, there were 700. According to the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, which promotes the Cape Disappointment lighthouses, there are 750.The US Coast Guard only claims 400. I could not find a definitive number. My local reference librarian could not find a definitive number. According to Rich, a pleasant gentleman at the US Lighthouse Society, whom I called directly, there are roughly 600. He agreed that it all depends on how one defines a lighthouse.  SOooo,. everyone who was brave enough to even venture a guess gets entered into the drawing! (And God bless reader/blogger Jeff Pierce, who really does his research and forces me to do mine!)


  1. Great interview, Naomi. Since I've yet to read my first Earl Emerson, this really has me hyped to get on with it. Thanks very much for this, Naomi.

  2. S-E-A-T-T-L-E:
    Sea, Sat, Steel,
    Seat, Let, Lee,
    At, Tea, Late,
    Ate, Set, Last.
    See, Lease,
    Tale, Tease,
    Eat, Steal,
    Thanks for all the fun this week!
    darbyscloset at yahoo dot com

  3. lp13, Thanks for all your support during this hectic week and always.

  4. 1. sea
    2. eat
    3. tea
    4. lease
    5. seat
    6. settle
    7. tease
    8. let
    9. salt
    10. sat
    11. late
    12. tale
    13. tales
    14. teal
    15. seal
    16. latte
    17. eats
    18. least
    19. set

    1. steal
    2. stale
    3. sleet
    4. slate
    5. slat
    6. tales
    7. seal
    8. seat
    9. last
    10. least
    11. test
    12. lest
    13. salt
    14. sale
    15. settle

  6. I know exactly what you're talking about with that grin, Naomi! Dontcha love it?

    I loved the irony that for fiction he had to tone down his facts to make it "believable." Art really does imitate life, huh?

    This was fantastic, ma'am! Your whole week was amazing! Thank you for all the hard work and thought you put into making this week a success. You are fabulous!!

  7. OK, here's my 15:

    sat, sea, tea, tat, let, set, eat, seat, seal, teal, ate, state, stale, tale, eel

    This was great fun this week, Naomi. The puzzles were challenging, but very interesting and I have a new author to explore. Thanks so much!

  8. Jen, I had the unforgettable - and rare, on this side of the Rockies - pleasure of attending Earl's booksigning for VERTICAL BURN. The story he told that day about a guy on angel dust who jumped out of a window onto a lower roof and then onto a car was unforgettable. There was a local firefighter in attendance who had his own amazing story about falling through a warehouse roof while fighting a fire. The men and women who do this stuff for a living - incredible people!

  9. I enjoyed the interview and I'm looking forward to reading these books!

    1. sea
    2. see
    3. eat
    4. tea
    5. seat
    6. tale
    7. ale
    8. at
    9. late
    10. ate
    11. sat
    12. tease
    13. ease
    14. test
    15. lease

  10. Thanks for such a great week! :-)

    1. Seat
    2. Eat
    3. Tea
    4. Teal
    5. Seal
    6. Sea
    7. Tease
    8. Eel
    9. Lease
    10. Least
    11. Tale
    12. Ease
    13. East
    14. Last
    15. Ale

  11. More people have found 15 words in S-E-A-T-T-L-E:
    Carol M and Elizabeth.

    Just a quick thank you to everyone who participated in these puzzles. Like Jen, I worried about the sound of crickets, but you all saved me. And you've all earned the prize; unfortunately only one of you will be fortunate enough win it. I wish I could reward all of you, but my gratitude is all I can offer to most of you.

  12. I've never had the pleasure of reading Mr. Emerson's books but I'm liking the man and will add his work to my TBR list. A straight shooting firefighter AND author? He makes me feel so inadequate, I can't stand myself.

    OK, for my words (I can play Boggle for hours so I love this puzzle!):

    1. Sea
    2. Seat
    3. Ate
    4. Eat
    5. Eats
    6. Sate
    7. Taste
    8. Tale
    9. Tales
    10. Tea
    11. State
    12. Latte
    13. Lattes
    14. Tease
    15. Late
    16. Test
    17. Last
    18. Slat
    19. Lease
    20. Lets
    21. Lats
    22. Lest
    23. East
    24. Ease
    25. Seal

    Yes, my nose is now dark brown, since I'm trying to get extra credit.

  13. To clarify the instructions for this puzzle, you can form words using 1, 2, 3, etc, or all letters in SEATTLE. But you can only use the letter in a given word as often as it appears in SEATTLE. Examples:
    BUT NOT "sees"

    Pop Culture Nerd, Queen of the Boggle board, has snapped off a list of words as easy as snapping her fingers.

  14. How does PCN, do that?!? My wife can do the same thing--it's why I refuse to play Scramble with her.

  15. OK, here goes:


  16. It's part of being a nerd, lp13. I can't do magic eye, though. Remember those? No matter how hard I looked, I could never see anything except a big blurry blob.

  17. I can't do magic eye either, PCN. I have almost no depth perception though. How's yours? (Parallel parking is a nightmare for me. I avoid it at all costs.)

  18. Depth perception is a joke (don't ride with me when I'm driving at night). Been told it's because of my astigmatism.

    I'm okay at parallel parking since my brother taught me a trick. When you're backing up, as soon as you can see both headlights of the parked car behind you, start straightening your steering wheel and you should slide in straight. Works for me.

  19. Thanks, PCN, I'll give that a try next time I'm forced to parallel park. I thank heaven that it's not often. I hear you about night driving. Only thing worse is driving on a rainy night, right?

    My problem is astigmatism, too, on top of an assortment of other optical woes.

  20. Oh, gosh, if it's a rainy night, I'd just stay home. I'd be a menace on the road. I can't believe you drive on rainy nights to out-of-state Crais signings. That's dedication.

  21. There's a reason we were dubbed Craisies.