S.G. Browne

Beyond the Keyboard: Lucky Bastard

Lucky Bastard - trade paperbackSome novels develop over a short period of time, like embryonic ideas that are nurtured and gradually grow into fully-formed creations.

Other novels are more like Frankenstein’s monster, with ideas harvested from seemingly unrelated moments of inspiration until it all comes alive with a jolt of creativity.

Next up in my Beyond the Keyboard series, my homage to the hard-boiled detective novel that was harvested from various inspirations: Lucky Bastard.

The Short Story, Part I

Sometime in 2001-2002, I started an untitled short story about two brothers and their grandfather who live together in Central California. I wrote about five pages and liked the characters and what was happening but I didn’t know where the story was going or what it was about. All I knew for sure was that I was sold on the opening line: “Grandpa only had one finger left and it was pointing at the door.”

The Amsterdam Connection

In October 2002 I took a trip to Amsterdam, where I found myself in a coffee shop called Softland, so called because it had a bunch of soft, comfy pillows for patrons to sit on while they enjoyed their coffee. I believe the coffee I consumed was a mellow blend called White Widow. I brought a souvenir from Softland back with me that would sit in my desk drawer for six months or so before I took it out.

Softland1

The Short Story, Part II

I was still trying to figure out what to do with my short story I’d started more than a year earlier, which had a working title that I can’t recall. But when I took out the lighter from Softland, something clicked and I decided to adopt the Amsterdam coffee shop name as the title for my story. Now all I needed was a reason for the story to exist.

The Spanish Connection

intactoAround this time, I saw a Spanish film titled Intacto, which came out in 2001 and dealt with the concept of luck as a commodity. In the film, the main premise centers around underground games of chance in which the losers surrender their amassed good luck to the winners, usually resulting in their death. One of the characters, the hero of the film, has the ability to steal luck from others.

The film didn’t spend much time on this unique ability or how it might have come to exist, but I was intrigued with the concept and decided it would be fun to create my own mythology about luck poachers.

And just like that, “Softland” had it’s premise: a family of luck poachers. A year later, in 2004, I finished what at the time was the final draft. Eight years later, “Softland” would appear for the first time in print in my eBook short story collection Shooting Monkeys in a Barrel.

The Journal Entry

Lucky Bastard1In July 2006, during a free-flowing writing exercise for my weekly writing group, I came up with the opening line: “It’s my understanding that naked women don’t generally tend to carry knives.”

From there I wrote a scene about a man confronted by an angry naked woman with a knife while on the roof of The Windsor Hotel. At the time I didn’t think it would go any further than that, but something about the scene tugged at me until eventually I decided to do something more with it.

When Ideas Collide

I always felt that “Softland” aspired to be more than just a short story but I didn’t know where to go with the two brothers and their grandfather. And while it took me a while to figure it out, I realized I didn’t have to continue their story. I could instead expand on the mythology of luck poaching. And my journal entry proved to be the jumping off point for that exploration.

But the plot, characters, and storyline for what would eventually become Lucky Bastard didn’t take shape until three years later when I was compelled to write a synopsis for my unwritten third novel.

The Synopsis

In April 2009, while negotiating the sale of Fated to Penguin/NAL, my agent asked me if I had an idea for another novel that we might be able to pitch for a possible two book deal. At the time I didn’t have much more than a dozen pages written and I wasn’t sure how to make the story work. And since I don’t plot out my novels, I’d never written a synopsis for a book I hadn’t written yet. The synopsis always came later.

So I sat down and wrote a two-page synopsis about this private detective who stole luck, had an affinity for Lucky Charms and mochas and corporate coffee-house baristas, and who got caught up in a big luck fiasco with the feds and a Chinatown mob boss. I also had him meeting a kid with the purest luck he’d ever encountered.

I didn’t know if any of that was going to stick. It was just what stuck when I threw a bunch of ideas on a blank piece of paper. As it turned out, I ended up using almost everything in the synopsis. Go figure.

The Chandler Connection

Big_SleepWhile preparing to write Lucky Bastard, I picked up The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler to get some ideas about writing a detective novel. I’d never read Chandler and fell in love with his writing immediately.

In addition to Chandler, I also read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay (about a narcoleptic detective in Boston), and Marlowe and the Spacewoman by Ian M. Dudley (a futuristic detective novel that was work-shopped in my writer’s group).

So after all of those detective novels, it was unavoidable that my main protagonist in Lucky Bastard would be a private eye. The only problem was, I needed the right name.

The Screenplay

Back in 1991, while living and working in Hollywood, I wrote a screenplay titled A Fish Out of Water about a private detective in Chicago trying to track down a rare Asiatic myna bird that had been bird-napped. The script was inspired by the Airplane! and Naked Gun films with lots of goofy gags and clever/silly wordplay.

My protagonist was a semi-competent private detective named Nick Monday, while his leggy and sexy client was named Tuesday Knight. The script never got bought but I loved the names and wanted to find a way to use them. Since I’d decided my main character in Lucky Bastard would be a private detective, I borrowed the name from my screenplay and brought Tuesday Knight along for the ride as a femme fatale.

And that’s how Nick Monday got his name.

The Final Jolt of Creativity

Even with all of the pieces in place, the novel didn’t come to life until I brought everything together and sat down to write it. And although I’d written a synopsis that included a lot of plot elements, many of the other supporting characters showed up in the first draft unexpectedly, including Bow Wow, Scooter Girl, and the proprietor of The Starlight Room.

For those of you who have read Lucky Bastard, when Nick first meets the woman at the bar in the nightclub atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, I was probably just as surprised as you to find out who she was.

And setting the story in San Francisco was a lot of fun, since I live here. Researching all of the locations and sitting in Huntington Park or at O’Reilly’s Irish Pub and writing several scenes made the story come alive that much more for me.

If you’re interested in taking a virtual tour of some of the San Francisco locations that appear in Lucky Bastard, I did a series of blog posts under the category Lucky Bastard San Francisco Blog Tour.

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Fiction Friday: The Little Sleep

Welcome back to Fiction Friday, where I’m spotlighting the novels that influenced and inspired the writing of Lucky Bastard.

Last week I brought you Raymond Chandler’s classic mystery/noir novel The Big Sleep. This week, in Paul Tremblay’s The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland, Mark Genevich is a South Boston private detective who suffers from narcolepsy and hallucinations. If that’s not bad enough, he has an overbearing mother for a landlord.

I stumbled across The Little Sleep at my local Books Inc. in early 2010. After finishing it in just a couple of sittings, I immediately picked up the sequel to find out what else was in store for Mark Genevich. I recently asked the author a few questions about his novels and his unique protagonist.

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What gave you the idea to write a novel about a narcoleptic detective?

I don’t remember where or when, exactly, but I got this image stuck in my head of a stereotypical PI scene where a beautiful woman walks into a detective’s big city office. Only her case is a truly bizarre one: her fingers on one hand were stolen and then replaced with someone else’s fingers. I quickly wrote that scene as the first chapter for some unknown, unformed book. Originally, I was going to play the missing fingers straight and try to write a PK Dick/horror/noir mash-up, but I didn’t have any story ideas to go along with it. So I put that chapter away for about a year.

Then one night I was researching medical afflictions (not a pastime; I was doing research for another story), and I stumbled across narcolepsy. When I read about the symptoms, particularly hypnagogic hallucinations, I remembered that missing-fingers chapter and knew instantly that her fingers were no longer really missing, and that my detective was dreaming. The title, THE LITTLE SLEEP, occurred to me immediately thereafter, and I went to work on research and building a plot for poor Mark Genevich.

Tell us about your hero, Mark Genevich. What’s he like?

Mark is really kind of an anti-detective. Because of his narcolepsy, he’s not really cut out for the surveillance, cloak and dagger lifestyle. He’s more than a little surly and sarcastic. He’s a glass-half-empty kind of guy to be sure, but can you blame him? His lives and works in a building owned by his well meaning but overbearing mother who constantly checks up on him. A terrible van accident left him scarred physically and mentally, as well as emotionally.

Mark isn’t going to outwit every suspect he stumbles upon, but he isn’t stupid. He’s not going to win very many brawls, but he isn’t weak. Single-minded will and determination is what sets Mark apart from most. Despite everything going against him (including himself, more often than not), he won’t ever give up.

Do you have narcolepsy? What kind of research did you do to bring your main character to life?

I do not have narcolepsy. However, in the mid-to-late 90s, I did suffer from a sleep disorder: sleep apnea. So, I do have some personal experience with crushing daytime fatigue. That said, based on my research and collected first-hand accounts from those who suffer with narcolepsy, my sleep apnea was nothing compared to what narcoleptics have to deal with. Most of my research was online, though I did read a self-published first hand account of a woman who lives with narcolepsy, and found it to be quite informative.

Mark Genevich, lives in Boston. You live in Massachusetts. No one ever sees the two of you at the same party. Coincidence? Is Mark your alter ego? Or are you just good friends?

Shh. Don’t tell…

I lived in South Boston for three years with my wife before moving out of the city. Lisa’s mother’s side of the family were born and raised in South Boston, so I had a wealth of homegrown experience and information at my disposal.

I’m as grumpy and surly as Mark when I go too long between meals. Or when I’m low on sleep. Otherwise, Mark is his own guy.

The title of your debut is a play on The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, and your opening paragraph is a wonderful nod to his novel. It’s obvious Chandler had an influence on you. Who and what are some of your other literary influences?

As a reader, I first fell in love with horror and speculative fiction. While I’d read some crime/noir fiction, I certainly wasn’t an expert. For The Little Sleep, I did as much research on crime and noir fiction as I did for narcolepsy. I read and re-read Chandler (including his personal letters), Hammet, Ross McDonald. I also re-read noir mash-ups from PK Dick, Jonathan Lethem, and Will Christopher Baer. Baer’s Phineas Poe informed Mark Genevich as much as Chandler’s Marlowe. Though as you noticed, The Little Sleep’s first paragraph is a big nod to The Big Sleep.

My other literary influences include Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oates, and many more. I try to steal from everyone!

Your novel No Sleep Till Wonderland is a terrific follow-up to The Little Sleep. Did you always plan to write a sequel? And will Mark Genevich come out to play a third time?

I didn’t actually plan to write a sequel. In fact, when I finished The Little Sleep, I told my agent that this book was it and that there’d be no sequels. As a reader, I’m not all that interested in series, to be honest. I much prefer stand-alones. And besides, I’d written Mark Genevich’s story and that was it. Well, Henry Holt came in with an enthusiastic offer for two books, and it was hard to say no. There are worse problems in life to have than writing a sequel, right?

That said, I had a hard time coming up with a plot line for the second book. I know part of the issue was me subconsciously (or consciously) rebelling against the idea of writing a sequel. But when I thought about the first book and how it was a novel about memory, the past, and how it shapes our identity, I found my way into the second novel. If The Little Sleep was about Mark’s past and who he was, then the second novel would build on that, and be more concerned with Mark’s present. Who he was would still be a mystery, but so would who he is now.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I hate coffee and pickles. Pickle flavored coffee would be the worst thing in the world, and a sure sign of the apocalypse.

Also, keep an eye out for my dystopian novel (doesn’t everyone have one?) SWALLOWING A DONKEY’S EYE, coming in August!

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Get your copy of The Little Sleep:

You can read more about Paul Tremblay on his Website and follow him on The Little Sleep’s Blog

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Fiction Friday: The Best Books You’ve Never Read

Following up on my blog post for The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, below is my list of The Best Books You’ve Never Read. Admittedly, you might have read one of them. Maybe even two. But I’m guessing no one else has read all five of them. Or even three. Prove me wrong. And feel free to share your own gems.

Kockroach, Tyler Knox
Taking Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and flipping it upside down, this story about a cockroach who wakes up one morning to discover he’s a man in 1950s New York has everything you want in a noir novel – organized crime, a love triangle, and an inhuman antihero with a relentless survival instinct. Good fun.

The Little Sleep, Paul Tremblay
Another noir novel, this one takes its title from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and features a South Boston P.I. who nods off at the wrong times and suffers from hallucinations. Blackmail, corrupt politicians, and a narcoleptic detective. What more do you want? (If you like this one, check out the sequel, No Sleep Till Wonderland.)

Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
The not-so-heartwarming story of a family of carnival freaks. Art and Lily Binewski, the owners of a traveling carnival, decide to breed their own freak show by using experimental drugs to create genetically altered children. Dark, twisted, beautiful, and bizarre, this novel about a singularly dysfunctional family will stay with you long after you’ve finished.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach
The most likely book of the bunch to have been read, and the only New York Times bestseller on the list, STIFF is a wonderfully informative and delightfully humorous look into what happens to the human body when nature and medical science take over. Roach knows how to make non-fiction entertaining. (This book was an invaluable inspiration in the writing of my novel Breathers.)

Vamped, David Sosnowski
Martin, a suicidal vampire, living off blood derived from stem cells since humans are nearly extinct, finds salvation in the form of a six-year-old human girl who escaped from a preserve. Initially intending to snack on her, Martin instead finds himself growing fond of her company and becomes an unlikely guardian. An original vampire tale written with warmth and humor.

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What I Read On My Winter Vacation

With a couple of airplane flights and several hours waiting in the airport and time spent relaxing in a hammock beneath palm trees or on the beach or at the hotel pool, I had plenty of time to read over the past couple of weeks. Of course, I also spent some of that time doing nothing but existing in a Zen like tranquility, but I did manage to get through most of three books, all of them markedly different. Although I’m still working on Book #3, I thought I’d share what I’ve read and a few thoughts.

Pressure by Jeff Strand

I picked up this book last June at the HWA Stoker Award’s weekend in Los Angeles during a mass book signing, having met Jeff previously at the World Horror Convention in Salt Lake City. Admittedly, I was dubious about whether or not I would enjoy it, as it wasn’t what I was in the mood for, but I soon found myself caught up in the tension and frustration of a prep school friendship that turns terrifyingly bad and haunts the main character into college and beyond. Jeff manages to create an empathy for the main character and a growing frustration and terror at his helplessness as the story spans across several time frames. A good, pressure-packed thriller that doesn’t hold anything back.

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

I wanted to read this novel because it was one of the other three nominees for this year’s HWA Bram Stoker Awards for Best First Novel. I was further intrigued when I came across his second novel, No Sleep Till Wonderland, and read the back cover copy. It’s a darkly comic detective novel in the spirit of Raymond Chandler about a narcoleptic detective who struggles with sleep, hallucinations, and his relationship with his landlord mother. Although I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the main character as I would like to have been, I found the writing style and the humor engaging and entertaining. I had a hard time putting it down and looked forward to picking it back up.

City of Thieves by Paul Benioff

This novel by the author of The 25th Hour (I saw the film starring Edward Norton but never read the book) was recommended to me by Bill, one of the staff at my local Books Inc. I intend on going back to the store and thanking Bill for the recommendation, as this was one of my favorite reads of the past year. I finished it on the flight back to San Francisco and couldn’t put it down. It’s one of those books that makes you appreciate the joy of the written word and how much of a pleasure it is when you come across an author who can string together words to create a memorable, affecting story.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is just my opinion, so if you pick up one of these books and don’t enjoy it, don’t blame me. But if you do pick up one of these, let me know what you think.

Until next time…

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