Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1956, Robert Crais moved to Hollywood at the age of 23 to write television drama, including scripts for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, Quincy, MIami Vice, and L.A. Law. His first novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, was published in 1987, won Anthony and Macavity awards, and featured the still-popular duo of private investigator Elvis Cole and his ex-cop, ex-marine sidekick Joe Pike.
In addition to the Elvis Cole/Joe Pike stories, Mr. Crais has written four stand alone novels, Demolition Angel, The Two-Minute Rule, Hostage, which was made into a feature film starring Bruce Willis, and the new Suspect featuring a canine hero.
Mr. Crais’s work is sometimes criticized for the gritty violence and his shoot’em up endings, but his legion of fans appreciates both. Moreover, at the heart of this series is the relationship between Elvis and Joe — a caring, emotional, and fascinating bond that evolves with each book. All of Mr. Crais’s novels center on crime, of course, but the underlying theme I find again and again is mankind’s need and search for love. Over the internet two years ago, RC and The Famous Author talked about this relationship, what Mr. Crais would like to ask Ernest Hemingway, and why his popular crime series is unlikely to ever reach a movie screen. This Q & A originally ran in Spinetingler Magazine. I like to drag it out once in a while because TFA's a big fan of Crais. He'll read it, work a little harder on my stories.
Jack Getze: To me, the Elvis/Joe series just gets better and better, but I wonder if you still find the series fun and challenging to write? Are you doing what you want to do? Alternating between the series and stand-alones?
Robert Crais: The challenge is part of the fun. I enjoy these guys, and enjoy writing about them, but the current books are much more challenging than the earlier books. That’s a good thing. Am I alternating? Maybe, but I don’t see it that way. The real problem is finding the time to write everything I want to write. So I have all these ideas for Elvis Cole novels, but I also have ideas for Joe Pike novels, and novels about other characters, and standalones. I’d love to write about Max Holman again, the ex-bank bandit from The Two Minute Rule, but I can’t find the time.
JG: Do you have a writing routine? Certain time, special place, or can you write anywhere anytime? What’s on the desk with you when you write?
RC: I have a routine, but it’s changed over time. I tend to start early, but that’s changed a bit the past couple of years. Now, I’m getting more done toward the end of the day, which used to be a ‘death zone’ for me. I have an office at home, which is where I usually work, but I can write anywhere, and do. Airplanes, Starbucks, whatever. All I need is my laptop, and my note cards.
JG: Who are your writing heroes?
RC: Hemingway and Chandler. Hammett and Salinger. Ross Macdonald, Robert Heinlein. I have diverse literary interests. Stan Lee and Elmore Leonard. I could go on.
JG: What’s one question you would like to ask a dead one?
RC: For real? If Hemingway was alive, I’d love to find out he’s read my books. Then, knowing he’s read them, I’d hook up with him in a bar down in Key West or up in Idaho, or maybe we’d be out fishing on his boat, the Pilar, just the two of us, and I’d ask this: I’d say, “Papa, what am I doing wrong? How can I make my work better?” Imagine that. Imagine getting that kind of insight from Ernest Hemingway. Wow.
JG: Where and how did you begin to learn your craft?
RC: Writers are readers first, and I was a voracious reader as a kid. Reading, watching movies and TV. That’s when I began absorbing the elements of story-telling. Had to be. Then, later in junior high when I first started writing, I began by mimicking the writers I admired. I must have written my own version of Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” a dozen times, maybe two dozen! I went through a Ray Bradbury period, where everything sounded like Bradbury. A Harlan Ellison period. Writing short stories, being rejected—all of those experiences were the learning curve, and that curve led to now.
JG: Do you start with an idea, an outline, a single idea? What’s your process?
RC: I always start with some sort of emotional sense of a character. For The Watchman, this was Larkin Conner Barkley driving a hundred miles an hour through LA with her eyes closed, crying. Her pain hooked me immediately. For The Two Minute Rule, it was Max Holman’s moment of confused loss when he learns his son was murdered on the very day Holman was being released from prison. These are the moments that hook me, after which I develop an outline.
JG: I’ve read you won’t sell the film rights to the Elvis novels? Why would you ignore such a huge promotion for the books. Could the right producer/director change your mind?
RC: Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I’ve been saying no for twenty years, so I still own the rights to Elvis and Joe, and owning those rights makes me happy. You ask why I would ignore such a “huge” promotion as if some kind of Dennis Lehane-like promotion was automatic—it isn’t, and the odds against it approach certainty. Ask Larry Block how much Burglerpromoted his books, or if Blood Work sold the ass off Mike’s back list, or, hey, ask that guy who wrote Hostage if the film sold a ton of his books. It didn’t. Listen, maybe one day I’ll change my mind—none of us know what the future will bring—but I’ve had plenty of ‘real world’ experiences with Hollywood, and none of them have left me anxious for more.
JG: How do you decide which story to tell next? Gut, fans, the publisher — which has the most influence?
RC: Gut. I go with my instincts. Like I said earlier, I have more ideas than time to write them, so I have to go with what’s most important and moving to me. Always have.
JG: What’s your biggest fear as a writer?
RC: Hm, probably that I’ll grow tired of it. Writing is a war fought by inches. On an emotional level, writing is a tough, ugly way to make a living. You have to man-up every day. The day I get tired of it, I’ll probably quit, then what would I do?
JG: What gives you the most satisfaction about being a writer?
RC: The small things. When I’m writing, and I’m in the zone, and I write something that moves me so deeply my eyes fill and I start to cry. That’s why I write. That’s why I do this every day. For moments like that.
JG: Where did Elvis Cole come from? You’ve said he expresses your world view, but he’s more than just you, right? Is the rest imagination, or did you pull things from a real private eye?
RC: A ‘private eye’ is a job, not a person. No meaningful percentage of my audience reads these things because of Elvis Cole, the PI. They read them because of Elvis Cole, the person. I would say the same about Myron Bolitar and Easy Rawlins and Kinsey Milhone and the rest of super-popular characters. Who these characters are as people is why readers embrace them. Having said that, Elvis is WAY better and more lovable than me! Ha. He started with my basic world views, sure, but then I fictionalized him. I made him the man I would find interesting, and moving, and would most want to be if I could. If Elvis Cole were real, I’d love to hang out with him, watch the Dodgers, cook out on his deck and have a couple of beers. Most of my readers probably feel the same way.
JG: My wife says that the Elvis/Pike series is really a love story between the two men — platonic, of course, but a love story. How much they care about each other is an important part of each story. What would you say to her, or can you comment on this “love story” idea?
RC: I guess I would agree with her to a point. Part of the appeal here is the portrait of their friendship, and how they depend upon each other. I don’t think this is the end-all-and-be-all of the series, but I do think it’s part of the draw. I’m a big believer in the ‘buddy concept.’ Butch & Sundance, Thelma & Louise, Batman & Robin, Crockett & Tubbs—we could name the buddy pairings for days. Point is, something in us as human beings responds to this. We are group animals. We want to have friends. We want to have someone at our back when the sun goes down, and the brush starts to rustle. The relationship between Elvis and Joe speaks to these things. Affirms them.
JG: Your stories deal with social issues, but do you think a good novel HAS to? Can’t a character’s internal choices speak volumes about our society, about men and women in general?
RC: For me, a good novel means a novel I enjoy. A good novel has to have subtext of some kind, though that subtext doesn’t necessarily have to be about hit-you-over-the-head social issues—it can be something as simple and universal as, say, friendship, since you used that example. I just enjoy novels where the characters and the writing have a certain depth—to me, that’s good writing. Sometimes, the very best novels, and the very best writing, occur when that stuff is invisible. It might be there. It might be in the writer’s heart, and in the building blocks of the characters, but it’s invisible. Like the best film editing. You never notice–and you shouldn’t notice–the very best film editing, yet editing can make or break a film. If a story isn’t about something, then all you have is episode nine of a crappy TV series. Jesus, who wants to read that? No one.