TROUBLE CITY

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: SEAN CHERCOVER

EditorialCameron HughesComment

Sean Chercover

Sean Chercover's first novel, Big City, Bad Blood, was a surprising debut. Just when I thought the Private Investigator sub-genre was on life support, along came this gritty, realistic story. Sean Chercover used his real experiences as a PI to make his writing better and I got a kick out of it. He knows and loves the genre well and had some interesting things to say about cliches, character development, and more.

CHUD: You were a private investigator in two very different cities. How did you get into that business?

Sean Chercover: I was a student at Columbia College Chicago, and was getting close to graduation and had no idea what I was going to do next. I wanted to write crime fiction, but felt that I needed more real-world experience. And of course I needed a job. At the time, I knew a couple of private investigators, and they both said that if I got the state-mandated training, they would give me work. So that's what I did. Took all the courses and tests and earned my Illinois "blue card," which allowed me to work as a private eye.

CHUD: What was your weirdest case?

SC: Working as a P.I., weirdness comes with the territory. And when you do it in New Orleans . . .well, as Doctor Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." So I've had a lot of weird cases.

But I'll tell you about a case I didn't take. . . I had a security firm client that gave me executive protection gigs. This time they called me to a meeting and introduced me to a bunch of steroid cases in suits, who offered me a long-term gig on David Duke's security detail. Don't know if you remember Duke; he was (and is) a racist scumbag plastic surgery disaster grand poo-bah of the Klan, who was later a state legislator in Louisiana, and then ran for governor. He also ran for the presidential nomination of both parties. Anyway, this was during his run for governor. He was running against Edwin Edwards, the former governor who'd gone to prison for being bent as a paperclip. Edwards had served his time and was running for governor again. Only in Louisiana, man. A convicted felon running against a Klansman. Jesus. I actually had a bumper sticker on my car that read - VOTE FOR THE CROOK: IT'S IMPORTANT.

So I'm sitting in this meeting in Slidell, being offered a job as one of Duke's bodyguards. And I'm thinking, "I'd be perfectly happy for someone to put a bullet in Duke's ass, and I sure as hell am not going to stand in the way." I do actually think he has the right to spew his venomous crap, and I know that a bodyguard is supposed to take a bullet for the client, regardless of his personal feelings, but this was just asking too much. There was no way I'd be able to do a good job for this asswipe, so I turned the job down. But sitting in that meeting with a bunch of mouth-breathing white supremacist meatheds, the weirdness quotient was ridiculously high.

CHUD: Why work in cities so far apart?

SC: Chicago is my favorite city, but I wanted to move away for personal reasons, and I chose New Orleans. I mean, can you think of a more romantic place to be a P.I.? Me neither. And the one and only thing I hate about Chicago is the winters, so the warmer climate was a big draw as well.

CHUD: Are you still doing investigative work?

SC: I'm no longer working as a P.I. After a couple of years in New Orleans, I moved to Toronto and worked as a writer and video editor in the television industry for a while, and then eventually moved back to Chicago.

CHUD: Your bio lists some other very unusual vocations, from Scuba diver to nightclub magician. You've lead quite a unique life. Intentional or just a case of needing to?

SC: Well it's been a long, strange trip. And I'd be lying if I said there was some method to my madness, some grand plan that brought me here. Truth is, I needed to bounce around and try different things, before I settled into who I am today.

CHUD: Have you always wanted to write?

SC: I've known since I was a child that I wanted to write fiction, but it took me a long while to embrace that desire.

CHUD: What was the process of getting Big City, Bad Blood published like?

SC: I've been extremely fortunate. I sent out a bunch of query letters to agents in New York, and a few showed interest and asked for partials right away. Denise Marcil was the first to ask for the entire manuscript. And she then wanted to represent me. After talking with her, I knew that we were a good fit. And then she gave me some notes and I revised the manuscript. The notes were great, and improved the book, but I must admit I was relieved that they were relatively small fixes. No plot structure issues or major character issues. Then she took it to market, and within a very short time, we had a two-book offer from William Morrow. And my editor, Lyssa Keusch, gave me her notes and I did a second round of revisions. Again, nothing major, but her notes were really insightful, and again it improved the book. As I said, I've been extremely fortunate.

CHUD: You were part of a group called Killer Year, comprised of authors with debut novels in 2007, how did that come about?

SC: My friend Marcus Sakey (author of The Blade Itself) called me and said that there was this new group of debut authors, and they were going to share tips and experiences and make a website and hang out together at conferences, and he suggested I join.

CHUD: How much of you is in your protagonist Ray Dudgeon?

SC: Ray and I don't share all the same values, opinions or tastes. But on one level, we're both failed idealists. Ray has some serious issues regarding trust, and he's got a lot of anger. I wouldn't want to be Ray, but he's trying to become a better man, and I like him for the effort, and I'm rooting for him. There are parts of me in him, and parts of who I used to be, but we're definitely not the same guy.

CHUD: He seems to be a man of contradiction. He wants peace and is a nice guy, but he chooses a profession to help people that will almost always end in violence. His girlfriend, a nurse, is a healer, while sometimes he has to hurt people. He has friends in both his old journalism career and in the Chicago outfit. What's interesting is that he seems to notice how much the things in his life contrast and play against each other.

SC: That was my aim - to make Ray a real person (complete with contradictions), and to make him self-aware. He's a man who needs to know himself, but he's also desperately afraid of introspection - another contradiction in his character, but one that make him interesting for me to explore. In Big City, Bad Blood I peel the outermost layers of the onion that is Ray Dudgeon. But there are many more layers left to peel, and that gives me a lot more to do with him as I move forward in future books.

CHUD: Why a journalist? Most fictional P.I.'s, like the real ones, were cops.

SC: When I worked as a P.I., I didn't have the advantages that come with being a former cop. If you've never been a cop, you really don't get a ton of cooperation from the police, and it can be difficult to earn the trust of a few cops. Even then, you never get quite the level of information sharing and assistance that cops only afford to ex-cops. Since the fictional P.I. is ultimately an outsider, I saw this as an opportunity to reinforce the point. Why make it easy for him by making him a former cop who can call on all his buddies on the force?

Also, I wanted to explore the notion of a character that quit journalism because of the ethical compromises involved, and simply hung his shingle as a P.I. He doesn't have the leverage to change the world as much as a journalist does, but neither does he have anyone messing with the way he does his job.

CHUD: You've avoided old standards like giving Dudgeon an unusual hobby or a sociopath violent best friend to watch his back. Is this for the sake of realism?

SC: I didn't want to give Ray a sociopath for a best friend, because I wanted to force him to do his own moral heavy-lifting. Ray has to get himself out of trouble, and if morally questionable things have to be done in order to achieve that, then I don't want Ray to be able to deflect any of the responsibility.

CHUD: Obviously Chicago is famous for the Mafia, but ever since the RICO Act, is it still a noticeable presence there, or is it just amped up in the book to give it more color?

SC: Organized crime is alive and well and still extremely powerful in Chicago. Extremely. The Chicago Outfit was (and is) the smartest mob in the country. First, they're the only mob that stayed true to the "no narcotics" rule. Second, they divested themselves of street-level prostitution over the last 20 years or so. And third, they've made huge investments in legitimate "upperworld" industries.

Staying out of narcotics and getting out of street-level prostitution (they still run the high-end sex trade, mind you) has had two major consequences. First, it takes the heat off, because drug dealers and prostitutes on the streets are the things that the civilians get riled up about. Second, it has made the black and latino street gangs very, very powerful, because they run the narcotics and street prostitution. Consequently, the cops focus mostly on the street gangs, because that's what the civilians are upset about.

Anyway, the mob in Chicago showed a great deal of discipline by not getting into narcotics and by getting out of street prostitution, and it has allowed them to stay clear of a lot of police attention that would otherwise be directed at them. The other thing - investing heavily in legitimate businesses - has given them the stature to buy their way into positions of political power. They own way more than you might suspect, and they use the legitimacy as a front, to funnel money where it can buy influence. Unions, politics, and so on.

Anyone who thinks that the Outfit is ancient history should read the books by investigative reporter Gus Russo. Start with The Outfit (Buy it here from Amazon.com) Great overview. And everyone with an interest in current organized crime and how it corrupts the political process should visit the website The Illionois Polics and Sheriff's News (http://www.ipsn.org/). An incredible resource. I ho there regularly.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

CHUD: Where did the title come from?

SC: It's actually the titles of two songs, by two of my favorite Chicago bluesmen. "Big City" is a song by Luther Allison, and "Bad Blood" is a song by Son Seals. Put together, they made a title that I thought had a nice, noirish ring to it.

CHUD: As a former professional and a lover of the genre you write in, don't you often cringe at the things people get wrong?

SC: Often. Of course the needs of the narrative are the writer's priority, and should be. Sometimes you've got to divert from reality in order to serve those needs.

But there are lots of things that drive me nuts. I get a little picky about the laws of physics, for example. People do not fly backwards through the air when shot. They just don't. Action, reaction, equal. And it bugs me to read a scene where the hero is in a knock-down, drag-out brawl, and then after a hot shower and a slug of bourbon, he's jumping into the sack to romp with his girlfriend. In real life, violence hurts, and it hurts for a long time. Even if you win the fight, you are hurting for a long while after.

CHUD: Do any of the popular cliches actually come from reality?

SC: Yeah. You do actually feel a little better after a hot shower and a slug of bourbon. But only a little.

Most cliches come from reality; that's how they got to be cliches. A lot of private eyes and cops drink too much and have relationship problems. Some people who work in organized crime are Italian. Some white guys bite their lower lips while dancing. And so on. The key is to write real characters, rather than writing types. If you do that, you don't really have to worry so much about getting tripped up by a cliche.

CHUD: Ray Dudgeon made his office as retro as possible to sell the image, is this something you did?

SC: When I worked as a private detective in Chicago, I didn't have an office. I worked for other P.I.s, who would subcontract work to me. In New Orleans, I had an office in my house, with a separate entrance. And yes, I did furnish it retro. Had a rolltop desk and oak chairs, that sort of thing. But selling the image really is an important part of the job. There is some showmanship involved.

CHUD: Interesting that you're rooting for Dudgeon. Is there an ending to his story? The way you say it, it seems like its flexible in how it ends, anything from a horrible death to marrying the girl.

SC: It is flexible. I have notes for future books, with both redemptive and tragic endings for Ray's story. Don't know which will prevail yet. I hope to get the chance to write the series for a while, so we can find out how he evolves.

CHUD: There are very few quips in the book. Most of the humor comes from the narration in Dudgeon's head. Most people think of their comebacks after the fact or don't have the balls to say anything. Planned or just a stylistic choice?

SC: I'm so glad you picked up on that! We were talking about cliches earlier, and about things that are not realistic. This was an important choice for me. Drives me nuts when I read some PI character mouthing off to every cop and gangster he comes across. A guy like that would soon end up in the hospital . . . or the morgue. I'll make an exception for Mike Hammer, 'cause he just is that tough. But I didn't want Ray to be like that. I purposely made him an average sized guy (5'9", 168lbs) so he can't just go around intimidating people with his size. And he understands the way life works. You need information from the cops, so you don't go out of your way to piss them off with a bunch of smart-ass comments. He says things to himself, and readers get to see his sense of humor, but he doesn't usually say them out loud. And on the odd occasion when he does say them out loud, it costs him.

CHUD: What's the scoop on your next book?

SC: The next book is also a Ray Dudgeon story, and it'll hit bookstores in late spring of '08. And Ray will be appearing in a short story this October, in an anthology called Chicago Blues. It's all hard-boiled and noir crime fiction, set in Chicago, and it is being published by Bleak House Books.

CHUD: Did you have input on the cover? It's striking, bright and glitzy, but nicely dark.

SC: I was asked for some ideas for the cover of Big City, Bad Blood. I said that I liked the Chicago River (which is on the cover). And I said I liked the color red (the title is in red). And I said I didn't want a "tourist brochure" skyline with the Sears tower (which they didn't do). So I'm very pleased. While I'm pleased that they liked my suggestions, I must say, the cover they came up with is way better than what I would've done. You're right; it is bright and glitzy (which to me suggests the powerful people involved and hints at the Hollywood angle) but it is a bit disturbing, and suggests a dark story. So it does a great job reflecting what is between the covers.

CHUD: Top 5 influences?

SC: Oh, hell, I have no idea how to answer this question. Sorry. You mean writers? Faulkner, Algren, Spillane, Chandler, Vonnegut. That's an honest answer, but ask me again and I'll probably give you five different names. I'm really not good at ranking things. I seem to lack the gene that makes people rank everything in their lives. Favorite movies? Top ten albums? I'm no good at it. I give different answers every time.

CHUD: Do you have a schedule in your writing?

SC: I am, by nature, a nocturnal writer. I've been trying to transform myself into a morning writer, with mixed results. But (when I'm not on the road promoting the book) I write 5 or 6 days a week, and I sit my ass down in the chair until I have 1,000 words. If it's flowing, I'll binge and go much longer, but that's the minimum.

CHUD: What author do you think needs more attention?

Great question! Ken Bruen should have a wider readership. He's an outstanding writer, and well-loved in the crime fiction community, but everyone should read him he transcends genre. Start with The Guards. Gary Phillips should also get more attention. And more people should be reading Nelson Algren, who was huge during his lifetime, but is strangely not widely read today.

CHUD: Anything else besides Ray Dudgeon books planned?

SC: I've got notebooks full of ideas that I hope to explore. I'd like to continue with Ray Dudgeon, while also exploring some of these unrelated ideas and characters. And I've got a couple of half-written screenplays I'd like to finish, when I get the time. Right now, my focus is on the second Ray Dudgeon book. We'll see what happens after that.