Thursday, April 16, 2009
Interview with Bo Parker -- a writer's journey by Rob Walker
Bo Parker, the subject of my interview today at ACME was born, RFD 3, Corryton, Tennesse and "quickly" earned his BS in journalism, UT-Knoxville.
Bo's working career? First thirteen years in and out of the newspaper business while going to college, then five years in the shipbuilding business, followed by serving as an appointed public official in Hampton for twenty-three years until retirement.
Writing career: newspapers (news and sports reporting). Non-fiction was local history stuff, including "A Year of Excellence," a pivotal 12 months, during 1938-39 in Hampton's history; "The Storm of 1933," the benchmark for hurricanes in this area; "When Horizons Stood on End," an account of the local connections with the round-the-world flight by Army aviators in 1924; "William H. Kimberly," a life sketch of a local merchant and an eye witness to the Monitor-Merrimack Battle. Bo's last biggie, which took three and a half years to do the research and then write was "The Seventeen," a biographical history of the seventeen men who founded the first Rotary Club in the city.
There were also more newsletters, pamphlets, tracts, etc. than you can shake a stick at.or that Bo cares to remember. You can find Bo Parker now at http://www.cobbledstones.com
The Old Word Cobbler Speaks on First Dive Into Fiction Writing
I found myself in a familiar location, an Irish pub but this was no ordinary Irish Pub, this was Sarah’s Irish Pub, on the corner of Hope and Mellen Streets, in the village of Phoebus, a bustling part of part of Hampton, Virginia.
I had traveled here in a condemned Jeep Cherokee that had failed to pass muster—rejected by a grease monkey in a hole-in-the wall garage in West Virginia—unable to pass a simple inspection, and told the vehicle was so dangerous that I took my life in my own hands any time I got behind the wheel.
But I wasn’t about to let a small thing like that and a sticker stamped REJECTED on my windshield keep me from my rendezvous with veteran nonfiction author Bo Parker who at age sixty-nine is a “newbie” at fiction writing and finding it was a damn tough but satisfying row to hoe.
It had been easy to find Sarah’s Irish Pub. All I had to do was follow Interstate 64 East—from West Virginia, it’s mostly downhill—until seeing lots of water, navy ships, and an Interstate exit marked Phoebus. From there it was a matter of following the crowd to a building with green, white, and orange awnings.
I was welcomed to the pub by a lovely lady with strawberry blonde hair, rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes, and lively charm. She introduced herself as Trish Profer, the owner of the pub. “I bet you’re Rob Walker, the noted novelist and college professor who’s driven down to interview Bo. He told us all about you, showed us your picture.”
If there was ever a lady born to be the owner of an Irish pub, she is it. I started having visions of doing an interview with her, but Bo was already there, fighting off the crowd to save me a seat, and didn’t look too happy about being ignored. I rushed over, shook his beefy hand, and slapped down my tape recorder, pen, and pad and ordered a pint of the good stuff—Guiness.
Then we got down to it and I asked Bo why in the bloody hell he wanted to write fiction after all these years of being sane? His response was and remains instructive indeed:
“I will admit that when I started writing a mystery novel some five years ago after spending a half century writing non-fiction, I did so with an excess of ego, a great deal of naiveté, and a massive amount of ignorance—so if that be insanity, bring it on…so be it.”
“But what kind of obstacles you must have faced! I’ve had nonfiction writers in my creative writing courses, and they sweat more and cry more than do my other students who don’t have to stop thinking like an article and “book” or newspaper writer and start thinking like Raymond ‘freakin’ Chandler.”
Parker held me with a glint in his eye and took a moment to down half his own pint before replied with his thoughtful attempt at explaining why he wanted to torture himself in this way. It was a mystery I meant to solve for my readers.
He said, “Obstacles? Yeah! The first one I discovered immediately. It’s the difference between historical non-fiction and creative writing.”
I checked the tape recorder, and listened intently. This sounded like it was going to be good material for a creative writing course lecture.
He continued, saying, “With historical non-fiction, it had been a matter of first selecting an incident or period of time. Then came researching the facts, and from that point, it was deciding on an approach, and connecting the dots.
I quickly realized that while the idea for a creative story might be found in an archive, the facts of the story have to be quarried from the gray quartz between one’s own ears. The word creative took on an entirely new meaning.”
“I can safely say I’ve never heard the brain described quite so ahhh solidly before.”
Bo grimaced. I wrote a note to myself: “Work on your puns.”
“When I finally finished my first mystery,” continued Parker, “I wanted to know how well I’d done. I discovered the answer was not too well!”
“Ha! Join the club. It ain’t no cake-walk.”
Bo nodded his agreement. “After an exchange of a few E-mails, William Tapply agreed to review the manuscript. His initial response was an eleven-page, single spaced letter. A page and a half or so covered the things I had done correctly. The rest of the letter spelled out the things I needed to learn about the craft of writing a mystery novel.”
“Tapply’s a crafty guy, a great teacher, and I agree with 229 percent of what he has to say,” I informed Parker. “You went to a good mentor, grasshopper. A real master.”
“That he is. It’s too damned bad the so-called experts hung that ‘writer of regional mysteries’ label around his neck. Look at Robert B. Parker. How many of his Spenser books have a setting out outside of Boston? No one has called Parker a “writer of regional mysteries.”
A lesser man would not have asked the question. But I had a reputation to uphold. “Parker? Any family connection?”
Bo seemed to look askance, averting his eyes, making me wonder. Then he quickly covered with, “The list of things to learn was so daunting that if anyone but Bill Tapply had written that letter,
I would probably have gone back to writing about carpetbaggers who came south and took over the town after the Civil War. But Bill Tapply has a bedside manner that would be the envy of any medical doctor. In addition to explaining the craft of a mystery novel, he explained what must be done to perfect that craft develop the day-to-day discipline it takes to be a creative writer, a task far different from doing research and writing about Yankees who came to town.”
I jotted notes and checked the recorder again. This was good stuff. Maybe two lectures worth.
“After discussions about my first attempt, Bill and I both agreed that mystery story number one should be set aside.”
“Stunk that bad, eh?”
Bo raised a glass to that, laughed, and continued. “A second novel was written. The proof that I was learning came from the fact that Bill’s letter in response to this second effort stated it was ‘worth keeping’, and the suggestions for improvement covered only five pages!”
With my drink in one hand, my pen in another, I jotted down mere five pages.
“At some point, it was suggested that I become a part of the DorothyL world. That exposed me to readers of mysteries, and I must admit, a group about whom I had not given a great deal of thought.
These folks are a tough bunch. They know what they want, and have no compunction about letting the world know when they don’t get it. I found I was reading about things I’ve never thought about—books being thrown against a wall across the room, readers being jerked out of the story, or even the book being read no further, because of something found implausible.”
“You found all my critics you say?”
Again Bo’s infectious laughter filled Sarah’s Irish Pub. “But hold on, Rob,” he cautioned me, “I learned that such action is understandable. I knew that in general fiction, anything can and often does happen. But I’ve learned that is not so in a mystery. I learned there are rules to be followed, not unlike some that exist for certain types of poetry. And mystery readers expect adherence. The body of a murdered person shall be discovered on page 4, page 14, or by page 40 depending on which expert wrote the “How to write Mysteries” book that one reads. And there will be a sleuth whose task it is to find the murderer. It does not matter if the sleuth is a country preacher, school teacher, PI, mother of five, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker.”
“Or newspaperman or professor or out of work actor,” I added.
“What does matter is that the sleuth must be honest with the reader. Don’t try to sell river catfish as red herrings. The sleuth, if male, must have an appeal, be it brains or sex or brawn. Pick one. If the sleuth is female, the appeal factor does not seem to be as high as the requirement that she not be a bumbling idiot. Either way, the sleuth must be sufficiently engaging to keep the reader turning pages. The sleuth must never do anything so stupid as to cause book abuse, that thrown-against-the-wall-across-the-room thing.”
“Book abuse…is that anything like animal cruelty?”
Bo remained focused, not allowing me to get him off topic. “Now, the next step in the process, one that no one had told me about, was the query letter, that pithy little paragraph that’s the first step toward publication. For this task, I did a great deal of reading. What I discovered is that people who write about how to compose a query letter suffer from what I have come to call the Ten-Commandants syndromecoming up with list after list of “Thou shalt nots….” Fortunately, at a recent writer’s conference, I had the pleasure of spending some two hours in the company of Katharine Sands, an agent with the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. By listening to her and reading her book, MAKING THE PERFECT PITCH, I learned more about how to do a query letter than from all the reading I had done over the past year.”
“The pitch and query letter is the most important short-short story you will ever write, agreed—and—an—a—”
Bo smiled in agreement. “So, at this point in the process, most if not all of the ignorance—my ignorance, Rob, has been erased! The naiveté has been turned into reality. And all of the excess has been squeezed out of the ego. What remains is confident persistence.”
“A lovely turn of phrase, which I call the PQ.”
“PQ?” Parker’s eyebrows went up like white doves.
He nodded and tapped at the table, mulling it over. “Anyhow… with the odds of getting a book published equaling those of being struck by lightening, and in consideration of my age, it may not be a book cover that carries my name. It may be a tombstone, but below the name, there damned well better be inscribed, “He died trying.”
“I’m impressed with you, Bo, and every time you post on DL you make damn good sense of things, so I have a strong feeling—given your PQ and your IQ that you’ll see your name on a book long before any of us see it in stone. Besides, as they say, it’s what you do with the DASH between the dates that counts, and it appears—aside from hanging out at Sarah’s here—you are using your time wisely, you know how to do damn good research, and you’ve got the mystery genre figured out.”
Trish’s charm was making it very hard to turn down another round of brew. But it had grown late and both Bo and I had projects hanging fire back at our respective digs, and I had a long trip ahead of me—fraught with danger—not to mention being uphill. Should I make a single mistake and be pulled over, my condemned vehicle would be impounded, and me set afoot in a strange place, and fined up the ying-yang—any stimulus funds gone down the tubes. Besides, I had to file this interview for ACME AUTHORS, so here it is…I mean here it is! With my sincerest thanks to a good ol’ newbie whose will to succeed and dedication and hard work and persistence one day must see him published. I predict a great future for Mr. Bo Parker and to jump-start it, to inform the public of his greatest secret, that he is after all the illegitimate son of Robert B. Parker (unconfirmed by Parker—either Parker—at this time but there have been stories).
For More Bo Parker, check out http://www.cobbledstones.com
Ta-da for now, Rob Walker
http://www.robertwalkerbooks.com/ -- Cover Art for Dead On, which is coming at you in July, so be afraid…be very afraid…