Readers of the fun and funny Chet and Bernie mystery series know that author Spencer Quinn is one of the most clever and interesting writers out there. But they may not know that Quinn is the pen name for Peter Abrahams, the bestselling author of thrillers like The Fan, The Tutor, Oblivion and the Edgar Award-winning Reality Check for young adults. The man Stephen King has called “my favorite American suspense novelist” sat down with me recently to talk about Chet and Bernie, baseball, his latest book and the joy of moving around between genres.
Open Mic: I made a note to myself that I would get the fanboy stuff out of the way here early and tell you how much I absolutely love the Chet and Bernie series. It’s one of my favorites.
Abrahams: Oh, thank you.
Open Mic: You very clearly love dogs. You’ve said the idea for the series came from your wife. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Abrahams: First of all, writing novels is a very strange business and one of the strange things that happens is that sometimes six months worth of work can happen in 30 seconds. One night at dinner she said, ‘you should do something with dogs.’ I had dogs in other books I’d written but you never saw anything from their point of view. So I probably knew within 30 seconds the three pillars that hold the Chet and Bernie series up. First, that I wanted to write something that was narrated by the dog. Second, that I was going to do a traditional private eye story where the stories are told by the sidekick in the first person like Dr. Watson tells Sherlock Holmes stories. And third, and this is the most important part I think, that this dog narrator would not be a talking dog. He would not be a human wrapped in a dog suit. He wouldn’t know about Mozart. He would be as canine as I could make him. So that was the process, and the foundation for it came in about 30 seconds. So I left the house and walked over to my office, like a 15 foot commute, and I wrote what became the first page of “Dog On It,” practically in the time you and I have been talking now. I just wanted to see if it worked, and then I went back to the house and showed it to my wife. We voted two to zero that it worked and that’s how it began.
Open Mic: You didn’t want him to be a talking dog, but at the same time as the narrator Chet passes along so much information to the reader. It seems like such a fine line between making him too human-like and still keeping his canine qualities. Was that a struggle for you? How did you manage that kind of character development with Chet?
Abrahams: That’s a really interesting question because you’re right, it’s a very, very fine line if you have the dog narrating. Which in many ways could be a huge disadvantage because you would think doing it that way is going to close a lot of doors. One of those doors is the one toward a real, serious mystery that’s truly about something. You’re not going to be able to do that if you’re going to have a dog narrator. But here’s the answer to the question – if it were a struggle for me, if every time I started a paragraph I was in a minefield where I was trying to avoid this or that, I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I think I know the character so well that it just flows. There’s a lot of reported dialogue, but Chet doesn’t necessarily understand it at all. And he misses a lot of what’s going on in human terms. The flip side is that he understands a lot of the things the humans don’t get because the senses are very important in detection. With humans the visual sense is our numero uno by far and the others are really piddly in comparison. But for a dog, the sense of vision is number three. Hearing and smell are way more important. So these are detective stories that are filtered through senses that other detective stories are not. When Chet arrives, he’s thinking in different patterns because he’s absorbing the world in very different ways. So sometimes he’s actually way way ahead of Bernie. And sometimes he’s totally behind. Because the world of logic and all that is not his world. And incidentally, this isn’t your question but that’s kind of what makes this very interesting for a writer. I’ve done enough crime fiction to know the plotting of a mystery novel bears a very close relationship to the solving of a real crime, which is a very fortunate thing for mystery writers. You gather up all these facts and you try to put them in a logical chain. Well, you know, Chet can’t do that. And even if he could, right when some important fact is about to be revealed he might sniff out a Cheeto under a cushion and he misses it completely. He actually turns out to be an unreliable narrator. And when you marry the unreliable narrator to this very fixed and strict form that is the traditional mystery, all of a sudden you’ve tilted everything off balance, which for the writer makes it very interesting.
Open Mic: You said you wanted it to be a traditional mystery. But with everything tilted off balance, as you say, how did you keep yourself there?
Abrahams: Maybe I have blinders on that prevent me from getting distracted and going off the track. I don’t do a whole lot of outlining or anything like that. One of the things I do is like that old Bob Dylan line – “Know your song well before you start singing.” I don’t know every plot twist and character, and I often don’t really know the central crime, but what I do know is the engine that makes the story go. A lot of novels actually don’t have an engine that makes the story go. They don’t have the beating heart; they don’t have a spirit. Well, the Chet and Bernie books do have a beating heart, they do have an engine. And my method for never getting stuck is to step back and to think about what that engine is. In the case of this series, the engine that drives the story is the love between Chet and Bernie. That dictates the path these stories take. There is certainly darkness, and I wanted that. These are not from the English traditional puzzle school of mystery, you know. Which even in the very best, like P.D. James, there’s still something not one hundred percent realistic to me. I’m obviously from the American school, the hard-boiled school, and I wanted to be able to have that darkness in them. But one of the things about Chet, he suffers and bad things happen to him, but he quickly goes back to his reset position, which is one of joy in life. He can experience very dark things, but he snaps back very quickly to this engaged, joyous, way of life. And incidentally, I think that’s what a lot of readers actually end up responding to. It is why they like him so much.
Open Mic: I love the relationship between Chet and Bernie. Is Chet modeled after any dogs that you’ve had? I mean clearly you’re not out there solving crimes, but do you feel you’ve had that kind of intense buddy relationship with a dog of your own?
Abrahams: No, not any specific dog. We’ve had lots of dogs and right now we have two, Audrey and Pearl. I could never have written these books without having had lots of dogs, but Chet isn’t modeled on any one. I pick out lots of things. For example, Bernie talks to Chet and reveals his innermost thoughts because why would you lie to a dog, right? I talk to my dogs and a lot. I know that lots of people do. So Bernie does and it’s a very good little tool for the writer because Bernie generally does not open up to anybody human. So even though you’re not ever really in his mind, it’s a way for the reader to see what Bernie is all about because you’ve heard his honest talk to Chet and then you can watch him in a scene and it gives complexity to the character. So yes I’ve taken things about my relationships with dogs, but I never take something specifically from real life and just transplant it into the book. In fact, I think that’s a weak thing to do because your imagination isn’t part of it. In my opinion, anything your imagination isn’t part of when you’re writing novels is not going to be alive on the page. And that’s one of the reasons why people always say “You live on Cape Cod but these stories take place mostly in the Southwestern desert. Why is that?” I’ve spent a lot of time in the desert and I love it, but if I’m there when I’m writing about it my description would tend to be journalistic. They wouldn’t have that quiver, that little glow that comes when the imagination is happening. But because here I am on Cape Cod, I’m forced to reimagine all those landscapes, and that extra little effort from the brain is reflected on the page.
Open Mic: You’ve had a tremendous amount of success across multiple genres, from classic suspense to mystery and now kids and young adult. I’m fascinated by that because I think when people have success they often tend to be nervous about going outside of that genre. But you’ve moved around between these various genres and had great success. How has that transitioning back and forth been for you? What sparked it for you?
Abrahams: Well, it’s a two edged thing. I’m restless, I don’t like to repeat myself so for a long time I stayed away from doing a series. I wanted to reinvent the whole thing every time, and I think even with Chet and Bernie I found different ways of doing things in all the books. At the same time, having a comfort zone of recurring themes is a lot of fun. You can also take characters that appear in one book and suddenly they show growth in unexpected ways in another. But I got into children’s writing by accident. I wrote a book called “The Tutor” and in it were some scenes of third person close that were the point of view of a 10-year-old girl. An editor at Harper Children’s read that book and asked if I’d be interested in writing for kids. The same thing happened with the “Bowser and Birdie” Scholastic Middle Grade series, which is also dog narrated. Someone at Scholastic was a fan of Chet and Bernie and asked if I could write a dog-narrated book for kids, which I love to do. So I like doing different things.
Open Mic: Is there a new Chet and Bernie story in the works?
Abrahams: Not at the moment. The latest Chet and Bernie (Scents and Sensibilities) came out last year, and I don’t have a new one coming any time soon because I had this idea to write something quite different. It’s actually something I’ve never done before, a straight novel. It’s called “The Right Side” and it’s about a terribly wounded female vet who comes home from Afghanistan. There’s a dog in it who appears at about two thirds of the way through the book, but there’s no point of view from the dog, it’s a third person close all from this women’s point of view. So that’s coming out next July.
Open Mic: How did that come about?
Abrahams: For me, I get an idea and then I actually try to ignore it. Ideas are just crucial in this business. If you don’t have good ideas for the book – in other words, if you’re forcing the idea – you’re going to be in trouble. I think the famous editor, Phyllis Grann was first who had this idea that writers should be producing a book a year, which has put enormous pressure on writers because that means you have to have a good idea every year. And that may sound like nothing, one good idea every year, but you know really good ideas don’t necessarily come along every day. So I never search for the idea for a book. I never do any active thinking for that. I wait for an idea for a book to come to me, and then I do lots of active thinking after that. Thinking things like ‘where should this take place?’ or ‘what should the point of view be?’ But passive thinking is all I do in terms of the really big parts, like the idea of the book. I wait to get one, and then when I do, I ignore it. I don’t even write it down. I wait for it to show size and insistence. Because if you’re going to live with this and really make it grow; I want it to almost be like a little whining child grabbing at my sleeve and insisting that it be done. That’s what I built “The Right Side” on. I had this idea that really grabbed me. I ignored it, but it came back and started to build on its own. I realized I was going to start it in Walter Reed Hospital, not in Afghanistan, and that she’s got terrible PTSD and so therefore her memory is going to be flawed and all this stuff. I called my editor and told him the idea, and when he said yes I started writing. So I am not concerned that the idea fits into my comfort zone with all my previous work, I’m just concerned that the idea grabs me and that it’s going to be big enough to build a whole novel on and will be unlike what other people have done.
Open Mic: Regardless of the genre or the audience that you’re working with at the time, which do you enjoy writing more: your good guys or your bad guys?
Abrahams: I know everybody says bad guys, but what I enjoy writing are funny guys. Whether they’re bad or good. Sometimes they’re intentionally funny, sometimes they’re unintentionally funny and sometimes they’re just slightly witty, but that’s what I enjoy. I think that’s because I really like writing dialogue. Dialogue is one of the great tools for building and differentiating characters and I just love doing it.
Open Mic: So many things go into writing a book. Is there one that is more important in the process for you than others?
Abrahams: No. Characterization, plotting, tone, mood, dialogue…to me these things are all wound together like strands of DNA, and I actually want them to be that way. Take a mystery. There’s a whole lot of explanatory material that’s going to have to be included somehow for readers to understand the story. And so often in a book you come to a clunky blob of explanatory material that stops the story dead. So I like to have as little explanatory stuff as possible, because the reader is actually pretty smart. I fold all those little bits in so that they’re almost like little truffles in a cream sauce. You kind of enjoy them but you don’t even realize you’re being fed the facts. Sometimes we do that with dialogue. But dialogue often bogs down when two people are talking and, even though the conversation is full of facts that you need to know to understand the book, no two people would ever talk like that. You know what I’m saying? You see that a lot. But there isn’t one single thing that in my mind is more important than the others. And the story makes its own demands on what’s going to be required at any given moment. And you have to listen to what the story is wanting from you.
Open Mic: You’ve said you learned a lot of this from your mother. Was she a teacher?
Abrahams: No, she was a writer. She wrote for TV, and she got the idea that I could be a writer when I was very little. Her method was very Socratic, and I think the most important thing she taught me was to bend every note, to never just do boiler plate. She taught me to make every sentence do the work of two or three things, to always use the right word and the fewest amount of words possible. And then to put them in orders that are unexpected, that kind of thing. It was really nuts and bolts. I was very lucky that way. It’s like a tennis player who starts taking lessons when they’re three years old, so young they can’t even remember when they first held a racquet. That’s a huge, huge advantage. Anything you learn when you’re still growing seems almost like it’s in your bones.
Open Mic: I want to ask you about the whole book to movie experience. Your book “The Fan” was made into a movie with Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes. That’s something most writers dream about. But a lot of books are optioned into movies and then they never get made, or they get made and author is not happy with it. What was your experience of having your book made into a movie?
Abrahams: Well, you’re right about the option thing. No exaggeration, I must have had at least a dozen options. Chet and Bernie is under option right now and has been from various producers from before “Dog On It” even came out. And in fact I just signed an extension of the latest option this morning. But so the only one that got made was “The Fan,” though some others have come very close. Paul Giamatti wanted to be the detective in “Oblivion,” and he would have been great. I really thought that was an inspired choice. It’s one of my favorite books and my only other private eye novel besides the Chet and Bernie books. But it didn’t happen. With “The Fan,” my agent said “okay, so you’ve sold the book and now you know you have to divorce yourself from whatever happens.” I’ve never been divorced, but I think it’s like a human divorce – it’s easy to do it intellectually but not so easy emotionally. And so, you have to in your mind firmly say ‘if I am selling this to these people, then they own it. I’m responsible for what happens between the two covers of the book. But this is a completely separate entity where I’m nobody and that’s what they paid for.’ However, you can naturally be very bothered by decisions that were made, and there were some that really bothered me. But also you have to be a big boy about it, and if it ever happens again I’ll be a bigger boy. And it’s funny too, because from time to time you get to talk to the Hollywood people, and they are often very nice and they’re very polite and they really respect writers, but they’re coming from a completely different worldview and so it leads to some funny conversations. I enjoy those.
Open Mic: Do you know who you would like see play Bernie?
Abrahams: I don’t do too much of that cause I’m not an expert. I’m really open to creative ideas, even if they change or switch things around in ways. I think the movie people are wise to do that, to re-imagine things a little bit. But you know, when I heard the casting for The Fan, I thought it sounded really good except they had Wesley Snipes playing the ball player. In the book, of course, the ballplayer is white and the obsessed fan is this middle aged white guy. I just had a lot of trouble believing this blue collar middle-aged white fan would ever get that obsessed with a black baseball player. It kind of undermined the credibility of the story.
Open Mic: Speaking of The Fan – your book, not the movie – I started out as a sportswriter. I’ve been in more than a few big league clubhouses so I’m very aware when I see any kind of sport thing that doesn’t ring true with me. That’s actually one of the reasons I loved The Fan so much. The baseball portions were really spot on.
Abrahams: Oh, thank you. It’s interesting, going back to dialogue. I listen to sports talk radio sometimes when I’m in the car and one day it hit me that it’s almost like a Greek chorus, these voices. Its pure dialogue of course and so I used that sports talk chorus almost as a Greek chorus in the book. After the book came out I got a letter from Buzzy Bavasi, the longtime general manager of the Dodgers, and he said “thanks for getting the baseball right.” And that meant a lot. Similarly, I was out in L.A. to see family, but they happened to be shooting the movie that day and my West Coast agent said “do you want to go out and watch them shoot it at Anaheim stadium?” So I did and Cal Ripken Jr. was there because he was the technical advisor to the movie. I was introduced to him and he looked down at me and he said “how far did you go in baseball?” Which was like Babe Ruth Baseball, you know, high school-level baseball. He said, the reason he asked was because the baseball so correct it was uncanny. He brought up the scene where the player is in this terrible slump and goes to his own private eye doctor because he wants the team not to know. Ripken said “something almost exactly like that happened in my career and even some of what was talked about between the doctor and me was like what you wrote.” When that happens you realize you probably ended up in the right business.
Open Mic: I like to ask everybody this question because I’m always fascinated by the answers. What is your writing environment like? What do you absolutely need to have when you’re working? Coffee? Music? Do you need to have the dog with you?
Abrahams: I do start the day with coffee, and I do have a dog here, sometimes two. I do have music at times. Now it is mostly country, but I’ve been through different music in my career. There was even opera for a few years. When you have a long career you can explore almost any kind of music. But I think the key is just this space of my own. And you know there are two parts to this, right? There’s imagination and then there’s the tool box of techniques. Well obviously, I have the toolbox. I mean I told you about my mother and all that. But secondly, I’ve written over thirty novels. I don’t want this to sound braggadocio, but I really do have a lot of technique and so that element is there every day. But there are times when the minutes are going by and you’re not writing, and I finally figured out that that’s just a time period where I’m waiting for my imagination to turn on. Because the two things have to be together and it’s almost like a physical feeling. So I just need a little quiet space, and a little time, and then I settle in. And of course I have a lot of tricks. I have a quota system – I try to write a thousand words a day. I hardly ever do, but I set a quota that I hardly can ever match as though I was some sort of 19th century factory owner. But often when I come to the end of a working day and I know what’s coming next, I’ll often stop in the middle of a sentence. Because what could be easier when the next day you come in and you’re finishing a sentence, right?
Open Mic: One last thing. The industry has changed so much over just the last couple of decades, so much consolidation, E-books, the evolution of self-publishing, etc. Do you think things are better now for writers, particularly for new writers? Or are they worse?
Abrahams: Well, I try not to think about this because it’s putting static in the way of what I do and that’s never good. I need to just do what I do and I can’t control any of that. I’ve had many editors call up the day they were fired, sometimes a month before my next book is coming out and now I’m assigned an editor who sounds like he just got out of high school. But I like doing what I do. I can’t believe that this wonderful form of communication – which, by the way, written language is a code that we all learn to decode and it connects directly to things going on in your mind – will go away. The great thing about the novel is it comes from an imaginative source, but because it’s in this code and there’s no music and there are no pictures, you’re forced to do a little imaginative work yourself. The writer does 90 percent and you do 10, but it turns on the reader’s imagination in a way that going to the movies just doesn’t because there they do it all for you. With books you and the author meet at this 90/10 point and that’s a gripping experience, especially if it’s done well. I can’t believe that there won’t always be a lot of people who want that. I think the demand will always be there for this form.
Peter Abrahams’ new book “The Right Side” will be released in July, 2017.