Edward Wright grew up in Arkansas and went to school in Tennessee and Illinois. He has been an officer in the U.S. Navy and an editor at the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. His noir-flavored mysteries featuring John Ray Horn, set in Los Angeles during the 1940s, have won the Shamus Award in the U.S. and the Debut Dagger and Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award in the U.K. His first non-series book, “Damnation Falls,” a contemporary mystery-thriller set in small-town Tennessee, won the Barry Award. His latest is “From Blood,” due soon from Orion Books. He and his wife, Cathy, live in the Los Angeles area.
Tell us about your latest book, "From Blood."
Due out from Orion Books in November, it's about a troubled young woman whose parents are murdered and who then learns that she was not their daughter. Her birth parents, she discovers, are two of America's most wanted fugitives, former anti-war radicals from the 1960s who went deep underground after a fatal bombing and never resurfaced. She must find them and warn them that they are being pursued by the killer of her foster parents, someone much more dangerous than the FBI.
Also, my first two novels, "Clea's Moon" and "While I Disappear," have been published in ebook format from Untreed Reads. Both are part of the John Ray Horn series, set in Los Angeles during the 1940s.
Why do you write?
It's a little complicated, but the quick answer is "because now I can." I was a newspaperman for quite a while, starting as a reporter and working through a string of editing jobs, and I thought of myself as a journalist dealing with facts in the real world. Then one day I saw a chance to quit daily newspapering and try something else. I latched onto fiction writing because it was so different from what I had been doing. Instead of facts and the real world, I now was able to shift from left brain to right brain, dig into my imagination and see what was there. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I find, but it's been a pretty satisfying second career.
What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?
The writers I admire the most are those who simply keep at it, who show up every day to do the work, who remind themselves that it doesn't always start with brilliant writing but that it must start with getting words down. (And since I don't always follow my own rules to the letter, I'm tempted to add, "Do as I say, not as I do.")
What is your working method?
To begin with, one cup of strong coffee, which will last me all morning. I go over the work I did the previous day and try to improve on it. I always find something, because the first draft for me is just a starting point. Then, once yesterday's work begins looking better, I'll move into new material. If I can turn out 1,000 reasonably readable words a day, I'm happy.
What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?
The belief that every word needs to be perfect every day. When I started out, I was horrified to see that my sentences didn't sing the way I imagined them (and the way they do in all the best fiction). I didn't realize that in order to do good work, a writer is first going to produce some very mediocre material. Writing's a process. I once heard a writer say that he has a sign over his computer with the words "I Give Myself Permission to Write Crap Today." Now I do too.
How did you come to write your first novel?
My very first novel was written while I was a member of a Los Angeles writing group, a gathering of friends who wrote and critiqued and helped each other. It's a fine way for a beginner to explore the world of fiction writing in company with kindred souls. The book, a valiant effort, was never published, but it was good practice. The idea for my first published novel came one morning when I said to my wife, "What would you think of the idea of a former B-movie cowboy actor who lives in L.A. in the late 1940s and keeps getting into trouble?" She said, "Great," and that was the beginning of "Clea's Moon" and the John Ray Horn books.
If you have a favourite character in your novel, why that particular one?
I like a lot of my characters -- otherwise, why dream them up? But I think the one I like the most is Joseph Mad Crow, a Lakota Indian who played John Ray's sidekick in countless B-movie westerns in the 1930s and '40s. Now a successful gambler, he has hired John Ray to collect debts for him. The sidekick is now the boss, an irony I enjoy. Joseph is big, loud, colorful, and profane, with a strong sense of honor, the kind of person one would want as a friend and ally. Most of my characters take shape only after a lot of reflection on my part, but Joseph just walked onto the page full-blown.
How can people buy your books?
At their neighborhood mystery bookstore or through any number of online sources. My ebooks are available in the U.S. through Untreed Reads and in the U.K. through Orion Books.
To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?
I'm biased. As a onetime "rim rat" -- copy editor -- I'd say they're vital. Rely all you want on computer software for correcting your spelling and on editors for cleaning up your grammar. But if you love the language -- and every writer should start from that premise -- I'd think you'd want to go to the trouble to learn how to use it.
How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?
A lot. So much, in fact, that I sometimes find it hard to turn loose of it. No manuscript is perfect, so the more time one spends with it, the better it will be. Finally, though, I usually reach a point where I feel I've done all I reasonably can, and that's when I know it's time to hit "Send."
Where and when are your novels set and why did you make these specific choices?
My first three books, the John Ray Horn series, are set in postwar Los Angeles. I've long been fascinated with that time and place -- because of the fiction from that period and also because I enjoy film noir -- and I wanted to take a crack at bringing it back to life. My fourth, "Damnation Falls," is set in the American South, because that's where I grew up, and the book was my way of revisiting my roots. My latest, "From Blood," is set all over the western U.S,, from Southern California to Seattle and from San Francisco to Chicago. Since this is a story that reaches back to the 1960s for its origins, I wanted it to feel big geographically as well.
How do you know where to begin any given story?
I ask myself what the book needs to get it going. "Clea's Moon"
"While I Disappear" had what I think of as "small" openings -- a man warily approaching an apartment building not knowing what he'll find inside; three people sitting in a car on a busy Los Angeles street as rain washes down the windshield.
But my third book, "Red Sky Lament," deals with the politics of postwar America, particularly the Hollywood Red Scare of the late 1940s, and I thought it needed a bigger opening, so I began with a barbecue on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley, music playing and many of the book's characters on the scene, ready to introduce themselves.
What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?
Let's see. . . Paying bills. Checking email. Playing with the dog. And best of all, surfing the Internet
under the guise of researching the book, which is an important part of the work but which also is a convenient way of wasting time.
Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?
My wife, who is my first editor, provides wonderful support. I mentioned once belonging to a writing group. I don't anymore, but I recommend that anyone starting out in fiction writing consider joining one. There are many kinds out there, from the casual and self-directed to the very formal kind led by a writing teacher who charges a fee. Ask around, sample a few, and there's a good chance you can find the group that's right for you.
What are your inspirations?
I'm often inspired by what I read, and I lean toward any writer who can take me into another world, make me believe and make me care. Even though I now live in California, my early reading was influenced by the South, where I grew up. I discovered Mark Twain when I was about 10 years old and still consider "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" one of those books that belongs in everyone's library. And Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" is probably my favorite novel, a giant story about politics and honor, guilt and redemption.
Have you had a high point in your writing career?
Several, which makes me glad to be doing what I'm doing. One that stands out came in 2006, when Cathy and I went to London for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award, which goes to the best historical mystery of the year. The ceremony, attended by a crowd of writers, editors, and publishers, was held in a former courtroom -- where the Oscar Wilde trial was held, if you can believe it -- and the award was presented by a knight of the realm. When he called my name, I stumbled up to the podium, said a few instantly forgettable words, and spent the rest of the evening in a daze, asking my wife, "Are they sure they got the right guy?"
Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?
Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?
A tree house in the Amazon rain forest, with a refrigerator, a comfortable couch, and a 360-degree view (which would probably guarantee that I'd never get any work done).