The White Album
Dave White's debut novel, WHEN ONE MAN DIES, was published Sept. 25th and he's already received far more attention than most debut novelists, and who am I to resist a bandwagon? Dave is so precocious, he even has his own pseudo stalker. A middle school English teacher in his native New Jersey -- a fact that does not keep him from making a terrible "To His Coy Mistress Joke" during this interview -- he is widely celebrated for his ability to balance a beer bottle on his head at social gatherings.
We spoke via IM just before his publication date. He was drinking Orange Gatorade and I was having a Fuze Slenderize Tangerine Grapefruit. Or, to paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane! -- I picked a bad afternoon to give up beer.
Laura: We're 48 hours -- well, 44 hours according to the countdown clock on your website -- away from the official publication of WHEN ONE MAN DIES. But when did it feel real to you? Or is it real to you yet?
Dave: It doesn't feel completely real yet. It has in spots, getting the books in the mail, seeing it in the Black Orchid window, but that feeling keeps fading. I think when I see it in the Borders where I do my writing is when it's going to feel completely real.
Laura: When did you first articulate to yourself the goal of writing a novel? Or just being a writer, of any kind?
Dave: The first time the goal of being a writer was a possibility was when I was applying to colleges. We were visiting my grandparents in Florida and talking about what I wanted to do with my life and my dad told me it didn't matter what I wanted to do right then, that for all he knew I might grow up to write novels for a living.
Laura: Did your father ever mention why that was?
Dave: I don't really know why he said it. Or at least I don't remember. I know I was taking a creative writing class in high school and really enjoying writing the short stories. Most of them were crime fiction. I was talking about it a lot. So that could have been it.
Laura: Does your dad read a lot of crime fiction? I've always had the sense that he was extremely supportive of your writing, and very proud.
Dave: Both of my parents read a ton of crime fiction. My mom and dad love Robert B. Parker and always pushed him on me. I think the first one I read was CHANCE, right after my mom read it. They both told me I would love it. And since both my parents were teachers, they both were aware of the importance of writing and supported it.
Laura: Parker writes about Spenser. Linda Barnes has said that Carlotta CARLYLE was a sly homage to Spenser, a kind of inside joke. And now you come along with Jackson DONNE. Coincidence?
Dave: Not at all. Looking at the PIs I liked, when I first started writing about Donne, there was Marlowe and Spenser... those names really stuck out. Especially since I was an English major and reading the poets. So it was intentional. I think I went through every poet name I could find until I found one that sounded right.
Laura: How about Dryden? Or Marvell? But I digress. Why crime fiction? Why PI fiction?
Dave: I actually tried every first name I could come up with so I could use Marvell as a last name. Didn't work.
Laura: Do you love "To His Coy Mistress," too?
Dave: Anything with a coy mistress is fun to read. As for crime fiction, it's just always been what I read. Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Spenser... so it was kind of ingrained in me. As for a PI... less police research. Or so I thought.
Laura: There was a time -- and not that long ago -- when it was really rare to see twenty-somethings writing PI fiction. There was Dennis Lehane and... no one else. Now there's you. And Michael Koryta. And Ray Banks, to name just three of my favorites. Got a theory on that?
Dave: I think Lehane really struck a chord. He started publishing when we young writers were in or just out of college. And when he wrote, he pulled us in with a great voice, great characters, and an over-the-topness that us comic book fans love. He showed us that PI fiction didn't have to be about interviewing and questioning witnesses with an action scene at the end. I think he made the books more thriller-ish and connected it with our sensibilities. Or at least he did with mine.
Laura: What was the first Lehane novel you read? A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR?
Dave: A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR, yeah. I read them in order.
Laura: I think that's essential with Lehane, but then -- if I've read a series in order, I always think it's essential, and if I haven't, I think it's not. At any rate, Lehane was writing about someone close to his own age, but Jackson Donne is considerably older than you, right?
Dave: Actually, he's 28, which I will be in just over a month. I think he plays off as older though.
Laura: Forgive my famously bad memory, but I thought he was closer to 40. But then -- he has been through a lot. When did the Donne character first come to you, if you will? What was the first thing you knew about him? Were you actively trying to create a PI, or were you caught unawares by this character saying, Hey, write about me?
[Ed's note: I was 38 when I published my first book. HATE these young'uns.]
Dave: Yeah, he's been through a lot. I kind of go through his timeline in my mind and I laugh. I don't know anyone who's had that shitty a life. The first thing I knew about the character was his dead fiancée, because I had just broken up with a girlfriend at the time. So I had this really miserable character. It must have been freshman year of college, when I started playing around with him.
Dave: He was 28 then too, which in my mind was considerably older.
Laura: So you were thinking about your own character before you started reading Lehane?
Dave: Yeah, actually. I was thinking about him, jotting things down... He even had a terrible name back then: Steven Cameron, ugh. I was always writing, chapters of novels, monologues, but nothing hard. My first short story, when that was published I wrote because I had just read A Drink Before the War.
Laura: Steven Cameron sounds like what you get when you're trying to find your soap opera name (Middle name plus street of current residence.) How important is setting to you? Because New Jersey has two pretty formidable crime-writing practitioners in Coben and Evanovich.
Dave: I have the best soap opera/porn star name: Paul Luddington.
Laura: No, porn name is family pet, childhood street. I am Dreamy Valleystream. Or Chewmoon Valleystream, depending on the dog. (We owned a Scottie and a beagle.)
Dave: I never had a pet, so I can't have a porn name then. Setting is very important. You know me, Laura,, I'm the typical Jersey guy. It's all I know, and it had to be all Jackson knew too. I didn't discover Evanovich or Coben until well after Donne was born. When I started writing them, I thought NO ONE was writing Jersey. Man, was I wrong. . . . Chewmoon Valleystream... that is FANTASTIC.
Laura: You never had a pet? I have to digress here for a moment and ask why? Not even a turtle? Or one of those goldfish you win with a ping-pong ball toss at a school carnival? That is serious deprivation.
Dave: My brother had fish. I wasn't an animal guy. My brother was, he wanted a dog really bad for a long time. So, if we go by my brother, who named his fish, I'd be "Uncle Jimmy Luddington" because he thought one of his fish resembled an uncle I have.
Laura: Uncle Jimmy Luddington is a great, if disturbing, porn name. Okay, back to Jersey -- when you did find out that others were covering the territory, didn't it feel kind of liberating? I can speak only for myself, but once I realized that every PI "quirk" had been done, I felt much freer.
Dave: I think once I found out other people were doing Jersey, I did find it liberating. You know how people outside of New Jersey look at our state (don't say it...), so when you see other people are doing it and portraying it well, it let's you say, okay, that's not going to be a detriment to my story. I don't have to worry so much about getting it right and in the right light, but just doing it . . . I sound like a Nike ad for writers.
Laura: No, I know what you mean. You didn't have the whole burden of Jersey on your shoulders, you weren't going to be responsible for how it was seen. When did you start writing WHEN ONE MAN DIES in earnest and when did you finish it?
Dave: I started writing it in graduate school in my spare time, as sort of a release from all the "Teaching Theory" papers I had to write. I finished it just after I got my first job, so April of '05. Or at least I thought I finished it...I really only finished the third draft. I officially finished it in late June of '06.
Laura: I knew you by then and I remember you were turned down by at least one agent before you decided to go with Al Guthrie. You may not have languished out there long enough for me to ask this question and I admit it's fairly loaded, but -- can you imagine going the self-pub route?
Dave: Nope, I can't imagine it. Maybe it's just me, but I love writing and I can write for myself and don't need to have stories out there. I can go back to teaching if this doesn't work out, no matter how much I want it to. So I wouldn't self-publish, but I would probably try every other possible route of getting published short of that -- small publishers, internet short stories...
Laura: Your first story was published online, no? And one of your online stories was cited in a best-of collection from Ed Gorman, right?
Dave: Yep, both were published by Kevin Burton Smith at Thrilling Detective (with help by Victoria Esposito Shea on the first one and Gerald So on the second).
Laura: You were a teenager when the Internet went mainstream, so it's been around for most of your life. You have a blog and you've networked through the Internet as well. Any regrets, anything you'd do differently?
Dave: Regarding the Internet? I regret thinking half my life "it's just the Internet, it doesn't matter what I say" only have someone quote back to me what stupid thing I just said three days later in the real world. Stupid Google -- see, now I'm going to get quoted on that.
Laura: Well, I think everyone has at least one thought they'd like to pull back. You also have this online nemesis, Plot Baby Plot, who seems to think you've got mad networking skills, but I've never thought of you that way. And I wonder -- how consciously did you reach out to other writers and people such as Sarah Weinman? Or was it more a matter of you finding likeminded people such as Bryon Quertermous and Duane Swierczynski? (Also, do you have any friends with normal surnames?)
Dave: Gotta love Plot... the guy/gal doesn't give up. As far as networking, it was strange. I always felt kind of odd approaching writers on the Internet, when I first started writing (I think I apologized profusely for bothering you when I first emailed you) but people came to me after reading my short stories. After that, you kind of find your niche... Sarah, Duane, Ray, Bryon, we all kind of clicked together. That's when I felt comfortable emailing writers
Laura: As I recall, all you did was write a really nice e-mail to me about EVERY SECRET THING. But there must have been something unusual about it because I don't befriend everyone who writes me. So you really have no clue who Plot, Baby, Plot is? I think it's pretty nifty to have a dedicated nemesis so early in one's career.
Dave: I think it's cool too, and honestly, I have no idea who he/she is. In fact, up until this morning I thought it was definitely a guy. Now I have a suspicion it might be a woman. I'm trying to track him or her down, but it's hard because every time I ask anyone about him/her the person I'm asking always says, "Are you serious? I just thought it was you!" Which it's not.
Laura: That would have been extremely meta, sort of like ADAPATION. Okay, now I'm going to play stern nanny: What's your five-year plan? What do you want to do with your writing career?
Dave: My five year plan? To have at least five books out there. They don't all have to be Jackson Donne books, but each one should try something new and show that I'm getting better as a writer. Other than that? To make sure Duane Swierczynski has as many fans as possible, because he is a phenomenal writer.
Laura: We're coming up on the 3,000-word mark and experience tells me not to take these interviews much longer. And we are now 43 hours from your official debut. (43 hours, 2584 minutes to be precise.) So quick, from the gut -- what's the single best thing about publishing your first novel, the best moment so far?
Dave: Sitting in the wooden author chair to sign at the Black Orchid and then seeing it in the window.
Alas, Dave White was one of the last writers to sit in that chair. But a week to the day after we spoke, I saw his novel on the "new titles" table at the bookstore in the Anchorage airport. Not too shabby for a debut author in his first week on sale.
Polls are closing
Yes, I said Anchorage. I was in Alaska for Bouchercon, the annual mystery writers conference. The attendees awarded the Anthony for Best Novel to NO GOOD DEEDS, and I was so caught off-guard that I forgot to thank anyone at my publishing house or my agent. So, thanks to Lisa Gallagher, Carrie Feron and everyone else at Morrow and its parent company, HarperCollins, and thanks to my agent Vicky Bijur. Given that these are people I can never thank enough, it's embarrassing to miss a single opportunity to do just that.
Meanwhile, you have until Oct. 10th to vote for the Quills "Best Book of the Year." I'm not saying you should vote for me, just that you should vote.