In memoriam, I am reposting an interview Bob granted this blog shortly after his initial diagnosis of glioblastoma in the summer of 2011.
Hatchets, Fish & Detonics: An Interview With Robert E. Bailey
It's been my pleasure to correspond casually, off and on, over the last few years with Bob. I also had the great pleasure of meeting him in 2007 at the annual Ann Arbor Book Festival. Not only was he charming and funny, like his books, but he took the time to tour the festival with me, answering candidly every question I asked.
In August, 2011, Bob was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of malignant brain cancer. He underwent surgery in late August and is on his third round of chemotherapy. He has some mild aphasia but continues to work on a new novel. And if you know what aphasia is, you know what a struggle that must be for anyone, but especially for a writer. Still, you might never guess it from his responses to some questions I recently put to him.
Q: Your first book (PRIVATE HEAT) reads like a seasoned writer at the top of his game. Great pacing, characterization, and story arc. Is it true you had to be shot in order to get you to write this book? And did you consciously emulate any other writer? If not, what crime writers (if any) would you claim as your influences and/or favorites?
Bob: I was injured working on an undercover job in so stupid a manner that I am embarrassed to tell you! I had to move my van, and running down the sidewalk, I broke my knee and ankle stumbling over a wheelchair ramp. I wish there was a better story! (I survived the better stories.) I was in a wheelchair before I could get back on my feet, and that took about a year. Hence, the first novel.
Thank you for the wonderful compliments. For the first novel, I was writing an homage to all the old writers that I enjoyed, specifically, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler. I think Robert Parker deserves his own mention. My story was meant to thank them for all their great stories. Interestingly enough, PRIVATE HEAT was rejected twenty-three times by publishing houses, who said they had read it all before and we didn’t need another one.
Q: I've just finished rereading PRIVATE HEAT. There's a lot of humor and a good bit of action, yet there are many details that seem very authentic. Is it all fiction or did you draw on some real-life events? I'm thinking especially of the hatchet attack on PI Art Hardin by the woman he's been hired to protect. Anybody ever take a hatchet to you?
Bob: No one ever took a hatchet to me. I can remember certain folks armed with baseball bats, various lengths of pipe, and wooden beams, boards, and sign poles. Usually I didn’t allow angry people to get that close to me. Some mob types did shoot up my vehicle while I was in it.
Q: Say what?
Bob: I was pulling into a drive and a fellow put one 9mm in my windshield, one into my radiator, and one in my oil filter. Lucky for me a first bullet ricocheted off the window as I was driving upwards from the street. The next two bullets were good but stayed in the engine. Instead of stopping, I nailed the gas and the shooter departed in a pickup truck. I chased him but I couldn't figure out why my car kept going slower and slower. While this happened thirty-five years ago, many of the men involved are still in the Detroit "business." We have made a peace of sorts.
Q: You have had an interesting, not to say exciting, career in government and private security. Would you care to fill in the details, and tell me which job was your favorite and why?
Bob: I liked undercover work, being close and working as one of the bad guys. (Maybe I liked that too much!) I usually got arrested with the criminals that I pretended to be. In court, they were usually surprised to find that I was a detective. I did surveillance in the Army and as a private detective. I worked as the director of security operations at Great Lakes Sugar and Warehousing. While I was there I also worked with World Investigations and Security Engineers, filling in on a part-time basis. When they tore down the Sugar Shack, I took a full time position for WISE as the supervisor of their western Michigan office in Grand Rapids. After I left WISE, I opened my own agency, and did film surveillance around the state for the government as a contractor as well as working for hire by private businesses. I really liked everything I did.
Q: Karen Smith, the young woman Art Hardin is hired to protect in PRIVATE HEAT, is a great character. She's a wonderfully funny mix: kind of street smart, kind of dumb, kind of cynical, kind of naive. A lot of heart to her. I was delighted when she reappeared in DEAD BANG (the third Art Hardin book). Where'd she come from?
Bob: Karen’s character reminded me of young ladies that I met in college and business. She is parts of many people that I knew. They could be very, very smart, but sometimes use their hearts instead of their heads.My next novel is close to being finished. It’s called Déjà Noir. It’s not about Art Hardin. It does involve a PI, together with cops and crooks. Each chapter is told in first person, from the point of view of a different character. Misty’s chapter will warm the hearts of Karen’s fans. This time you get to talk with the character personally.
Bob: The Detonics Combat Master is small, and easier to conceal. And it’s still a .45. It’s a wonderful weapon for a pistolero, but not so good for the inexperienced shooter. I had one of the first Detonics they made. I always said it took two men and a small boy to lock and load.
Q: The last Art Hardin book, DEAD BANG, was published in December, 2006, so you've been out of the publishing world for several years now. Whatcha been up to? Your books are set in Michigan but I know that you moved south some time ago.
Bob: DEAD BANG ended up hidden in a drawer at the publisher, and my writing profession was stuck in there with it. They wouldn’t print DEAD BANG and would not take any more Art Hardin stories. The fact that I used Middle Eastern terrorists after 9-11 upset some people, who were afraid to print what I said in that book. My agent suggested that I write something else, but my wife, Linda, had died. I launched myself into rebuilding my house outside Grand Rapids — and sold Art’s house.
In 2006, my publisher was sold to Rowman & Littlefield, and DEAD BANG was taken out of the drawer. It was a little harder for me to get started writing again. I moved to Richmond [Virginia], and back among my writing friends, and started writing, but slowly. I worked for an armored car company, which took a lot of time. I married my second wife, Linda, too, in a bookstore! Linda and I have written a screenplay about an armored car robbery. Would love to see that one on the screen!
[Besides working on the new novel, Déjà Noir] I do have a new Art Hardin short story out, The Small Matter of Ten Large. It is available on Nook and Kindle, for 99 cents. I also found the first Art Hardin story that I ever wrote, which I wrote sitting on a surveillance in 1979! I would love to see that in print. If I get a chance I will go back to the fourth Art Hardin novel, which I had started and been unable to finish when my wife died. It’s called A Tisket, A Casket.
Q: I know that recently your health has been in jeopardy. Is that something you care to talk about?
Bob: While I was working on Déjà Noir, my words began to disappear. Within ten days, they were gone. Linda took me to her doctor — I didn’t have one — and her doctor sent me to the emergency room. I had a malignant tumor right in the speech and language area of my brain. I had a five-and-a-half-hour craniotomy on August 17, 2011. To many peoples’ surprise, I woke up and could walk and talk.
Q: I, and I know your other fans, too, wish you all the best. I am amazed and heartened by your spirit. How has your writing been affected by all of that? And is it hard to recapture Art's voice after so much time has passed since we last saw him in print?
Bob: Writing was a little harder. I had to learn to read and write words that everyone else understood. For instance, you need to use a “cup” to order coffee. I spent half an hour writing “cup” over and over, trying to fix that word back in my brain. Some of the harder words took longer. Most interesting is that all of those words are in my head, but just don’t want to come out. Sometimes the wrong word comes out, like, these days, “fish” for any type of meat. And I don’t even like fish! Right after radiation I couldn’t read or write at all, and had trouble speaking for about two months. My spelling is still not what it once was. A page and a half takes me about four hours to write now. That’s a page and a half of work, but ten pages of rewriting! The book I’m working on is not about Art, but I think it would be easier to recover Art’s voice than to do the characters I am now writing.
Q: Your wife is also a writer. Do you give each other advice and criticism? And do either of you take it?
Bob: Linda and I are the first persons to read each other's work. This is not always a happy discussion. Sometimes I may disagree tonight, and the next morning change my mind. Linda says that she is always happy about my critique. Sometimes this is not the truth; sometimes we bang heads. (I can only bang on one side now.) There is no point of discussion if we didn’t have sincere disagreement. Only that moves the work forward.
Q: The industry has changed significantly since your last book. Will you shop Déjà Noir to a publisher or will you take it straight to ebook yourself?
Bob: Linda and I have discussed what was best to do. I don't know that I will have two years to march the novel to publisher — and it's a year to get it printed. It seems that the best plan would be to go direct to ebook. We are thinking about it — first thing I have to do is get it done.
Thank you, Bob. If humor is a sign of grace, you have it in abundance. For those interested in reading more about Bob and his work, his blog is The Trials of an Aphasic Writer. For those who want to read his Art Hardin series, PRIVATE HEAT, DYING EMBERS, DEAD BANG, and The Small Matter of Ten Large are all available in Kindle format at amazon and in Nook format at Barnes & Noble.