Marc Whelchel talks with Book Glow about the writing of The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief. The murder mystery is available from Open Books Direct.
Describe The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief in one sentence.
A big, sad, funny, weird misunderstanding. Which is actually a fragment, and one with far too many adjectives, but whatever.
What led you to write it?
I started writing it the evening of my uncle’s funeral 14 years ago. Earlier that week, right after he died, my mom was cleaning out his bedroom and found a briefcase filled with his writings—letters, journals, poems written and rewritten in pencil on faded loose-leaf, that sort of thing. She gave it to me and asked if I could make sense of it. Anyway, there was a newspaper in there, the Lawton Constitution from 1948, and the headline read Jesse James – Alive in Lawton!
My uncle, who was a real character, was fascinated by Jesse James. I got an idea to pen a National Treasure-style adventure story with the newspaper as the main clue. But then I realized I don’t know shit about National Treasure-style adventure stories, and don’t like them anyway, so I started writing what I knew about—being a lonely binge drinker watching the rain fall after a loved one’s funeral. I remember writing the entire first chapter—this was before I was consciously writing a murder mystery—and then reading it and thinking, “Jesus, this shit is sad. Not even cathartic, just fucking sad. Who would want to read this?”
That night, I got buzzed and shared some laughs with friends and family, and it was such an uplifting experience. I really wanted to capture that feeling in the book—equal parts funereal, funny, and blurry-eyed. I went home and fictionalized it, added some colorful characters, and turned it into a murder mystery. It ended up way different than I first envisioned it, but I did still manage to work that newspaper into the plot.
How long did it take to write?
It took six or seven months the first time. It was called My Favorite Dead Kennedy back then. I pitched it to some agents and publishers, didn’t have any luck, and forgot about it.
In January 2016, I revisited it, figured I’d give it another go. I planned to give it a quick once-over, change a few lines maybe, and start pitching it again. Problem was, I suddenly hated every word. I liked the general plot, but the characters, the dialogue, the snide cynicism that the narrator hadn’t really earned, I hated that stuff. So I kept the basic plot but added some twists, along with some new characters, dialogue, and a different setting. The transformation from My Favorite Dead Kennedy to The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief took about a year.
DDAT has a very intricate plot, but it’s the characters that really jump out. How do you bring your characters to life?
Most are tapestries of people I’ve met in my life. For many years, I led a strictly nocturnal existence. When you hop out of bed at 6 pm and really hit your stride at midnight, you meet some interesting people when you leave your house. When I’m creating a new character, I usually take the most colorful personality trait of someone I know and magnify it, then mix it up with some other people’s traits, real or imaginary. The challenge is making sure they aren’t so outrageous that you wind up with a collection of unrealistic cartoon characters.
What’s so appealing about the literary mystery genre?
Isn’t there a famous quote that says something like every book, no matter the genre, is about love, death, sex, or money? Or something like that. Mystery works for me because I struggle with developing plotlines that readers—or myself, for that matter—care about. And everybody cares about death, especially a colorful one.
What book most influenced you as a writer?
I read To Kill a Mockingbird in the fourth grade and decided I wanted to write a book. I read The Great Gatsby a dozen times in my twenties, and I’ve still never read a cleverer book than Catch-22.
But I’d have to pick Spanking Watson by Kinky Friedman. It’s an odd choice, I know, because it’s not even his best mystery. But it’s the first Kinky book that I read—I pulled it off a friend’s book shelf randomly—and it showed me the mystery genre in a different light. I’d never read a comical mystery featuring a protagonist who knows zilch about police procedures and detective work but somehow solves crimes while spending half his time waxing faux poetic with a cat and drinking with his friends. I was like, ‘Hey, this is something I can do. I just need to find my own niche.’
Where do you write?
All over the place. Sometimes I jump out of the shower or out of bed and text myself a line or an idea that just popped in my head. I’m like a hobbit. If I don’t write it down quickly, I forget. Having a full-time job, a family, and at least a semblance of a social life means my writing time is limited, so I try to squeeze in a paragraph or two wherever I can. Sometimes, I’m pecking away at the keyboard while my daughter is hanging on my neck begging me to take her to the pool or go play Wii Bowling with her.
Is there any one thing that especially frustrates you about the writing process?
Writing is hard. I always hear novelists say that their book ‘wrote itself.’ Those are some lucky fuckers if they’re telling the truth. Writing is a fight for me. I love the way words connect on paper, but they don’t cooperate easily. If nothing else, my book is an easy read, I’m proud to say. But it wasn’t such an easy write. Part of the problem is that I’m a sucker for wordplay, and if I think there’s an opportunity for it, I don’t let go until I’ve found it. And it definitely slows me down.
Any advice for novice writers?
Embrace the suck. Your first draft isn’t going to be brilliant, unless you’re James Baldwin. Stop looking at a blank page and just write something down. You can improve it later.
Also, find a good editor who really cares about your work. I lucked out, because my brother, Eric, is a very talented editor with professional experience. Normally, you shouldn’t hold much stock in what your friends and family think of your writing—of course your Aunt Peggy thinks you’re the next J.K. Rowling—but my brother is a hawk. He challenges every sentence, every word, that isn’t as good as it should be. Find an editor who cares and has a legit interest in your success. Cheerleaders and mere grammar checkers are great, but they don’t make good editors.
Another V.C. Almond mystery. I just need to figure out the plot, characters, dialogue, setting, and a couple overarching themes. Just the finishing touches, really.