The Writer in the Mirror: 10 Questions With Author Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman

By Daniel Ford

Reed Farrel Coleman, a three-time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories, is a prolific author with multiple series titles under his belt. However, that didn’t stop him from starting yet another with an aptly named protagonist.  

His new book, Where it Hurts, debuts Jan. 26, 2016 and opens a new series starring retired Long Island cop Gus Murphy. The “gritty, atmospheric” novel has already garnered high praise from the likes of author Lee Child, who called Coleman “one of the greatest voices in contemporary crime fiction.”

Coleman recently answered my questions about his writing career, continuing Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and the inspiration behind Where it Hurts.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Reed Farrel Coleman: The short answer is age 14. I grew up in an angry household where we communicated by shouting at each other. But of course when everyone is shouting no one hears a thing. I discovered poetry as a way to be heard and found that I could lose myself in it. After that it was a matter of stripping away my own resistance to the idea of being a writer. Finally, when I was in my early thirties, I succumbed to the call.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

RFC: I need absolute silence to write. The only thing I ever want to hear when I’m at work are my own thoughts and my characters voices. I don’t even like it when other people are home when I work. I never outline. Other writers will tell you I am the king of pantzers. It’s not that I object to outlining per se. I don’t and know it is how others work. But for me, outlining removes the joy and excitement from the process. Why write something again once you’ve already written it?  

DF: What is it about the mystery genre that appeals to you as a writer and a reader?

RFC: Someone much wiser than me once said that life during extremely stressful times is most interesting. For example, life during wartime. Well, short of war, life during or in the immediate wake of a serious or violent crime is like that. Everything is heightened. The stakes are high and the consequences serious. And my particular subgenres—hard-boiled and noir—allow for exploration of the human condition, moral choices, and the contrast between thought and action. All of this appeals to me as both reader and writer.  

DF: What inspired your new series, which starts with Where It Hurts?

RFC: Several things. I enjoy exposing the unseen side of things and places. I drove a home heating oil delivery truck for seven years and saw parts of Long Island that had nothing to do with Gatsby, the Gold Coast or the Hamptons. Places where people had sometimes to choose between food and heat in the winter. This combined with the idea for a character whose life is full and predictable one day and whose world is empty and chaotic the next was what led to the writing of Where It Hurts.

DF: How much of yourself ended up in Gus Murphy? How do you develop your characters in general?

RFC: I believe the best place to find characters is in the mirror. So while I can create a character’s appearance or preferences for food, women, dress, etc., through an external process, I have to look inside myself for emotional resonance or it comes off as inauthentic. I have always plumbed my own “kishkas” (guts in Yiddish) in order to bring my characters alive. Even characters my readers see as minor have full emotional lives to me.  

DF: Do you have to work at avoiding clichés when depicting New York City and Long Island, especially in a thriller/mystery setting, or do you feel comfortable in your knowledge of it that you don’t really think about it?

RFC: Sometimes, if you know what you’re doing, clichés are useful. You can set readers up with their expectations of a place or of a character and then surprise them by turning the cliché on its head. But generally, I don’t think much about clichés. I feel very comfortable with my local knowledge and, hopefully, use it to good effect in entertaining the reader. And I’m fortunate in that both places—New York City and Long Island—are not actually single entities, but thousands. In my Moe Prager series, for instance, I focused on Brooklyn, specifically Coney Island. Coney Island is its own world and I believe people who’ve read my books see it differently than they had previously conceived of it. Now, with my Gus Murphy books, I hope my readers will come to see Long Island in a new way. Not as a uniform or monolithic suburb, but as a diverse world.   

DF: You were tasked with continuing Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series and have published two novels under his name so far. Was there any intimidation at first about taking on a beloved character, and has the experience changed your writing process at all?

RFC: Strangely enough, I tried never to think about the task I was taking on. I realized from the first day that I could paralyze myself if I focused on Bob Parker’s legacy instead of writing the best book I could write. My writing philosophy has always been to remove as many roadblocks and potholes from the process. It’s difficult enough without adding to your own burden.  

DF: NPR’s Maureen Corrigan has called you a “hard-boiled poet,” and Where It Hurts has already landed rave reviews from the likes of Lee Child and Michael Connelly. When you first started out did you imagine you’d land such praise and develop such a loyal following?

RFC: I knew I had a good idea and fertile soil in which to grow it. I knew I was excited by the project, but no, I had no clue. I think when you make art—and yes, I consider writing art—you do the best you can do and leave the judgements about its success to others. When I was done with Where It Hurts, I had no distance from it. I thought it was good, but how good is for others to say.   

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

RFC: Three things: 1. Fall in love with writing, not with what you’ve written. 2. Write a lot. There’s no such thing as wasted writing. 3. Marry up.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

RFC: I learned how to write backstory by watching soap operas. 

To learn more about Reed Farrel Coleman, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @ReedFColeman.