Author Bill Pronzini and his alter-ego, Nameless, the hard-boiled private detective at the center of his popular series, have a lot in common.
They’re both of Italian descent. They both have a large collection of detective magazines, they eschew technology and each has enjoyed a long run in his chosen career.
Pronzini’s 35th Namless book, “Camouflage,” was released in June and reviewed in our Aug. 12 edition.
Although his work doesn’t hit the bestsellers’ list, Pronzini continues to publish great stories, well told, and has a lot to say about his craft.
The prolific writer agreed to answer some questions about the series, the authors who influenced him and how Nameless has found happiness in both at work and at home.
News-Telegram: You're a big fan of classic detective fiction. I understand you have a large collection of detective magazines. Is that why you decided to write this series?
Bill Pronzini: I do have a large collection of pulp magazines, around 3,000 or so.
I also collect vintage books of all types, primarily mystery/detective. As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a writer.
In fact, I wrote a kid’s mystery novel, long-hand on ruled binder paper, when I was 12 (never published, of course; it’s pretty awful).
I started reading adult mysteries in my mid teens. I particularly enjoyed private eye fiction and shortly after I began selling short stories to mystery magazines in 1966 that I decided to create a detective of my own.
I didn’t want him to be another Chandler/ Hammett/ Spillane clone, but rather a kind of Everyman PI – an average guy who operates in a unflashy, nonviolent fashion.
The challenge in that, of course, was to make him interesting and complex and likable enough to keep readers coming back for more, which I felt was best accomplished by emphasizing his personal life along with the cases he solves. He and I have been in business for forty-four years now (he first appeared in a short story in 1967), so I’m pretty sure I made the right decision.
N-T: What writers/fictional detectives were some of your early influences?
BP: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, of course. Ross Macdonald. Thomas B. Dewey, whose humanist detective character, Mac, was a role model for Nameless. Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, from whose works I learned how to write realistic dialogue.
N-T: “The Snatch” was released in 1971. Tell us about that first book and how you got it published.
BP: “The Snatch” was my second novel, after a nonseries thriller, “The Stalker,” published earlier the same year. After having written a handful of a short stories about Nameless, I decided it was time to try my hand at a novel. My editor at Random House liked “The Snatch,” made some excellent suggestions for improvement, and bought it and three subsequent Nameless novels.
N-T: Was it your intention for your main character have no name?
BP: No. He didn’t start out to be Nameless. It’s just that I could never think of a name that suited him. Neither could the Random House editor; she’s the one who dubbed him “The Nameless Detective.”
N-T: Does Nameless let you know when you get something wrong? How?
BP: He’s developed into such a mirror image of me in so many ways – same likes, dislikes, attitudes, pet peeves – that I rarely have him say or do something out of character. And on the few occasions that it happens, I almost always realize and correct it immediately. I wish I’d known him (and myself) as well in the early stages of his and my career; then the above-mentioned glitch wouldn’t have happened.
N-T: Procedure seems to be important to Nameless. He's pretty methodical when he takes a case. Why is order important to him?
BP: He’s a professional detective, a man who respects law and order and abhors violence, and so primarily he uses legwork and brainwork to solve cases. More than one reviewer has referred to the Nameless books as “private eye procedurals,” which I think sums it up pretty well.
N-T: Nameless has seen a lot of changes in technology. When he hung out his shingle, there were no cell phones, computers, or accessible data bases. How have these changes affected the way Nameless does business?
BP: They’ve made the books much more difficult to plot and write. Some stories that worked well 10-20-30 years ago wouldn’t be believable or even possible today. Nameless being something of a technophobe (as I am, to a lesser degree), he allows computer whiz Tamara to handle all technology-related matters.
N-T: Through the years, Nameless has taken on partners, but he seemed to prefer working alone. However, the current chemistry between Nameless, Jake Runyon and Tamara seems to be working out very well. Why do these three work so well together?
BP: I like to think it’s because they’re completely different from one another in age, temperament, background – Nameless an Italian in his sixties, old-fashioned and set in his ways; Tamara a brash but forward-looking black woman in her late twenties; and Runyon a genuine loner in his forties whose personal life has been beset by tragedy – and yet because their professional goals are the same, they share a mutual understanding, affection, and respect. Also, all three are dedicated workaholics to one degree or another.
N-T: Nameless seems to have found true happiness in his personal life. Talk about his wife Kerry and adopted daughter Emily.
BP: He and Kerry, the daughter of a pulp writer, met in “Hoodwink” (1981) and were married in “Hardcase” (1995). Emily was introduced in “Crazybone” (2000) during the course of an insurance investigation in which Nameless discovers that her father, who was killed in an accident, and her mother had a dark and dangerous past. The mother’s death by violence left her orphaned, and so ever-compassionate Kerry and Nameless ended up adopting her. Emily is fourteen now, extremely bright (she helped Nameless solve one of the mysteries in “Schemers”), and in hot pursuit of a singing career. Marriage and fatherhood have not only made Nameless more settled and content, but also more cautious in his professional dealings and more sympathetic to the family problems of others.
N-T: You may well be one of the hardest working writers in today's publishing world and you are a master at your craft, yet your books don't hit the bestsellers lists. Do you have any theories why?
BP: Hardworking, yes; master of my craft...well, I hope I'm heading in that direction. I don’t make the bestseller lists because I don't write bestseller-type fiction. My stories are about ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, usually only mildly violent, devoid of glitz and bombast, and deal with issues in an individualized, small-scope way.
N-T: What advice do you have for writers starting out?
BP: Write and keep on writing; that’s the only way to learn the craft of fiction. An average manuscript page contains about 250 words; anybody who is serious about becoming a writer can find time, no matter how busy his or her schedule, to produce a minimum of 250 words a day. And 250 words per day translates to a 91,000-word, 365-page completed novel in only one year.
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