Article published on July 5, 2018.
Cold Desert Sky, the third crime novel featuring reporter Charlie Yates, is published this month. Rod Reynolds writes in the hard-boiled tradition and his stories are set in the USA just after WWII. Reynolds loves to weave real history into his fiction and his novels have received praise for their authentic feel and strong plotting. But Rod Reynolds was born in London and had a career in advertising before completing an MA in writing at City University and becoming a full-time writer.
Paul Burke: You have an MA in writing, so I guess you could apply that to any style/genre (I know you had already begun writing before the course). Did you chose crime writing or did it choose you (was it a conscious or natural decision)?
Rod Reynolds: Thanks very much for having me on the site. It was very much a conscious decision, in that I’d always been a big reader and, although I read other genres, and a lot of non-fiction, it was always crime & thrillers that I would gravitate to. So when I came to take my first stab at writing a novel (which went unpublished) it felt natural that it was going to be in the crime genre.
Choosing the MA actually helped crystalise things, though, in that when I applied, City Uni had just started up a creative writing course that specialised in crime fiction – the first of its kind in the country, at the time. Having the chance to specialise like that only cemented my commitment to the genre.
PB: Your love of American crime fiction is evident in the Charlie Yates novels. Can you tell us a little bit about that interest and how it has influenced your writing? Your stories have that hard-boiled feel to them.
RR: I’ve been fascinated with America from a young age. I studied American history at school and at university, and I’ve been to America more than twenty times. I think it started with the American TV boom when I was a kid growing up in the 80s. Watch the intro to something like EastEnders or Coronation Street, then put that next to the intro to the A-team or Knight Rider – guns, sunshine, fast cars, palm trees – everything just seemed so much bigger and more glamorous.
I first became interested in writing when I discovered James Ellroy’s books. They blew my mind, but also opened the door to that hard-boiled, noir tradition for me. I went back and read his influences: Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, and then his contemporaries – writers like James Lee Burke and Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell. I’ve never consciously tried to write in a certain style, but my writing is naturally quite spare, and there are certain themes that are timeless; I’m always a sucker for a world-weary knight errant who lives by his own code, but ends up doing the right thing, whatever the cost.
PB: More specifically, it’s clear that you are fascinated by the post-war period in the US and your novels have taken Charlie Yates across America. What was it that attracted you to writing about that time and the places you choose? Your writing encompasses some of the most iconic/quintessential people and events from the period.
RR: It’s a mix of personal interest and serendipity. My first book, The Dark Inside, was based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a real life case from 1946. I learnt about it by chance and just became fascinated by it – and I knew very early on I wanted to write a novel about it.
When I travelled to Texarkana to research the book, I stumbled across a nearby town called Hot Springs – it was literally just somewhere that sounded nice to stop for lunch. But it turned out it was a real-life mob town in the 40s, run by an Englishman. So that became the basis for my second book, Black Night Falling. And again, in researching the period, I learned that the LA mob boss, Bugsy Siegel, was a regular visitor to Hot Springs, and that it became the template for his plans for Las Vegas, where he was building the infamous Flamingo Hotel. I’ve been travelling to Vegas for twenty years and had wanted to write a book set there, and so that confluence of historical figures and events and timing, formed the basis for Cold Desert Sky.
PB: When you write about an historical period, something outside your own experience, research is crucial. You are working in territory that goes right to the heart of the American self-image. Do you enjoy researching the background to your novels?
RR: Absolutely. I’ve always loved history, and I studied it for my first degree, so it’s no hardship having to pickup non-fiction books that are about things I find interesting. And you’re right, it was such a pivotal era for America; whatever your opinion of the US (particularly at the moment), you can’t ignore it – so it’s intriguing to get under the skin of those formative years, when it really took on the mantle of global leadership.
And then added to that, research gives me an excuse to travel to interesting places. The internet makes the process much easier than in the past, but I’ve found travelling to the places I’m writing about really helps me to bring them to life on the page. So that aspect of research is fun for me too.
PB: Does writing about real events/people constrain your writing, in the sense that certain things did happen in a certain way? Or is it liberating in some ways (distance/technology)? Do you have to respect the history when melding fact and fiction?
RR: I try to respect the history as much as I can, without letting it become a constraint. I think readers will give you a certain amount of latitude, if you don’t take liberties with the big, well-known facts. So, for example, if I was writing about JFK, he has to die in Dallas on November 22nd 1963 – you couldn’t mess around with any of that. But you could certainly fictionalise where he was the week before, or who he ate lunch with the day before, or even what he might’ve said five minutes before he was shot. So that does present challenges, in terms of ensuring your plot fits those immovable facts – but it leaves the writer with a lot of leeway too.
If I find I can’t work within those constraints, I’ll end up creating a fictional character, closely based on the original. But I prefer to use the original if possible – I think it’s more intriguing for the reader.
PB: I’m curious how a Charlie Yates novel comes together. You already have the main characters and, to some extent, the period, before you put pen to paper. How does it go from there? How does a story develop?
RR: It’s different with each book. The Dark Inside was based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, so as I talked about above, there was a framework there that I wanted to wrap my story around (the murders occurring at regular intervals, the different police agencies investigating, etc.) With Black Night Falling, I wanted to tell the story of the aftermath – what happened to all the people who made it out of Texarkana alive – the ones who knew the truth. And I wanted a sense that Charlie’s nightmare had never really ended, as much as he wanted to believe it had. With Cold Desert Sky, it was very much about this conflict between Charlie and Bugsy Siegel – Charlie’s been moving ever closer to his orbit over the course of the books (largely unbeknownst to him), and now they finally collide.
But in every book I write, character comes first. So my first thought when I start planning is, ‘What does Charlie want now? What about Lizzie?’ Charlie starts out looking for redemption, and he’s never really found it – in fact, his guilt has got worse – so that informs his actions, and how the plot unfolds comes from there. The same with Lizzie – and, of course, the various antagonists. That’s how conflict should arise, to my mind – from the clashing motivations or aims of the different players.
PB: Why did you make Charles Yates a reporter rather than a detective? Do you think there’s anything of you in Charlie’s character?
RR: In truth, I didn’t want a police character because I’m not that interested in police procedure, and I didn’t want my character to be constrained by the police rulebook, or the norms expected of them. I thought about making him a PI, but I settled on reporter because it meant Charlie was overmatched from the start. He’s seen bad things covering crime in NYC and elsewhere, but he’s not a tough guy – so when he comes up against the various thugs and hard men, he’s immediately at a disadvantage. That makes his peril that much greater from the off.
There are some parts of me in Charlie, but only in the sense that I sometimes think, ‘What would I do in this situation?’ and then have him do the opposite. I’m a pretty sensible person (I think) and not reckless like Charlie, so it’s fun to be able to make him the opposite. He’s a composite of all sorts of people, in truth – people I know, characters in films and books, a dash of me. We’re all the sum of our influences, to an extent.
PB: Can you tell us a little about Cold Desert Sky?
RR: Cold Desert Sky picks up immediately after Black Night Falling. Charlie and Lizzie are back in LA and trying to lay low, knowing Bugsy Siegel wants them dead. But Charlie’s become obsessed by the disappearance of two Hollywood starlets, driven by the guilt he feels about all the young women he couldn’t save. In trying to find them, he gets dragged into a murderous blackmail scam, targeting movie stars, and eventually his investigation leads him to a burgeoning Las Vegas, where Siegel is building his Flamingo Hotel. Caught between Siegel and a rogue FBI agent, Charlie’s only care is staying alive long enough to find out what happened to the two girls…
PB: Cold Desert Sky is the third Charlie Yates mystery and we are still in 1946 when the events in The Dark Inside also took place. That tight timeline in a series of novels is unusual. It creates the impression of one story falling into another, they are very connected. Is it almost like chapters in the same story for you?
RR: Yes, absolutely. In my mind I always wanted the first three books to be a loose trilogy, and to create a sense of an ongoing universe. It’s a technique my writing hero, James Ellroy, uses to incredible effect, so I wanted to try and do something similar.
PB: It seems to me that one effect of the stories running so closely together and overlapping is the impact on Yates emotionally (his motivation). For Charlie, it’s raw. Do you see that as the driver of the stories? Stories have to be about a lot more than plot.
RR: Definitely. As I mentioned above, all my stories start with character, and all through the writing process, I’m constantly thinking, ‘What does x want now? What lengths will they go to to get it?’ I always like to create the sense that when characters are off the page, they’re still manoeuvring, trying to get what they want. I hate it when it seems like the villain is just biding his time until the hero can overcome whatever his challenge is.
And for Charlie specifically, he started out as a broken-down individual, and in many ways the intensity of his experience through these books has pushed him even closer to the edge. But it’s also given him a new sense of resolve – that bottom of the barrel feeling, where he’s barely clinging on, but drawing strength from doing so.
PB: Along the same lines, Charlie feels guilt about the past; he blames himself for Alice’s death, among others. Is Charlie trying to atone in his relentless search for the missing young women in Cold Desert Sky?
RR: That’s very much his motivation. And I wanted Lizzie to be the counterpoint to that; she can see what Charlie’s doing and that he’s being unreasonable, and in many ways, her sense of loss should be greater as it was her sister who was killed. So throughout the book, the two of them are walking this fine line of Lizzie wanted to be supportive and to get him through it, while at the same time not letting him go overboard. That sets up a nice dynamic between the two of them.
Meanwhile, this time out there’s another character who can see what drives Charlie, and tries to take advantage of that…
PB: Charlie is a bit cynical, a bit washed out. Lizzie gives him pause for thought, and it impacts on the way he behaves, she reins in his recklessness. Is she Charlie’s saviour?
RR: In many ways, yes – although she would never think of it in those terms. She’s a very practical woman, the counterpoint to Charlie in many ways. She can see he’s worth saving, but is smart enough to know he has to come around to that realisation himself.
PB: Do you write with an audience in mind or do you write for yourself? Is there a difference between an American and a British audience for hard-boiled/noir fiction?
RR: It sounds selfish, but I write for myself. If I’m going to spend 6-9 months working on a 100,000 word book, it has to entertain me and keep me interested throughout that process. Of course I keep in mind readers’ expectations – both in terms of what has gone before in the series, and preconceptions of the period/characters/setting, but first and foremost I will write the book I want to write. Part of that is being true to the series characters too – they have to exist within the framework you’ve created.
I’m not currently published in America, so I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about the differences between US and UK audiences. I do try very hard to make sure the language, the dialogue, the settings, are authentically American, though – I live in fear of someone in the US picking me up on something I’ve got wrong.
PB: Crime wiring now outsells contemporary and all other types of fiction in Britain. Why do you think crime has become so popular? What’s the chord it strikes with readers?
RR: It’s difficult to say. It’s a very broad genre, so I think that helps give it wide appeal. But I think the bottom line is that a good mystery is hard to resist, and that’s what crime books offer.
PB: What are you reading at the moment? Is there an author you would recommend to readers?
RR: I’ve just finished It All Falls Down by Sheena Kamal – it’s a great read featuring a really fresh and original heroine and a compelling storyline. I could list authors all day long that I’d recommend to readers, but if I could pick one book to look out for, it would be Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson. It’s not published until January 2019 but it’s historical fiction at its absolute best. Easily one of the best debuts I’ve ever read.
PB: Can we assume your next novel will be another Charlie Yates thriller? Do you intend to keep the series going long term?
RR: I’ve definitely got more Charlie stories to tell, and there is a plan for a fourth book. But that decision is largely in the hands of my publisher – so watch this space. I’ve also just written something completely new, which was a lot of fun. But it’s early days on that too, so time will tell if it sees the light of day…
Cold Desert Sky by Rod Reynolds is published by Faber & Faber in July (£12.99)
Our thanks to both Rod and Paul for this excellent Q&A.
Cold Desert Sky by Rod Reynolds
Faber & Faber 9780571334711 pbk Jul 2018