By Daniel Ford
Author Michael Compton's debut novel Gumshoe hits all our favorite beats: hardboiled private eyes, a fast-paced plot, and a 1940s Hollywood setting.
Compton talked to me recently about how science fiction ignited his passion for reading, his screenwriting career, and the inspiration behind Gumshoe.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?
Michael Compton: As a kid, I was mostly interested in outdoor stuff—sports, camping, fishing, etc. I actually got a big lecture once from my fifth grade teacher because I told her I didn’t like to read. But in high school I read my first science fiction novel (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End) and I was hooked. As soon as I got into reading, I started thinking about writing my own stories.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
MC: In science fiction, it was Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and especially Larry Niven. Later on, I broadened my interests to “literary” writers like Kafka, Camus, and Dostoevsky, and I got into the hardboiled detective genre with writers like Hammett and Chandler.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
MC: When I was young and single I had a very set routine of writing every evening while listening to music, but my home and teaching schedules are so variable now that I write more in bursts or when I can. I do outline a lot, especially when it comes to writing screenplays, because I do a lot of collaborative writing, and in collaboration everyone involved needs to know where the story is going.
DF: Does your writing style change when you are writing a screenplay like the one for “Carjacked?” Do you focus more on dialogue when writing a screenplay?
MC: In writing a screenplay, you’re trying to use as few words as possible and convey everything in visual terms. There can’t be any long descriptive passages, and you can’t describe what is going on in the characters’ heads. Plus, there are aspects of style and format that are industry standard, and unless you are Quentin Tarantino, you need to stick to them. I do focus a lot on dialogue, because that’s where you get to have a little fun and maybe show off your wit.
DF: Do you have any screenplays currently in development?
MC: I have several, but my big project right now is a novelization called Inferno 2033 that I am writing in collaboration with my wife Sherry and my friend Allan Walsh. We already have a script, a website, a live-action trailer, and a lot of graphic art. Our target date for publication is July 2016, and we plan to use the novel as a launch pad for a film or TV series, graphic novels, maybe even video games.
DF: What inspired your debut novel Gumshoe?
MC: I’ve been a fan of crime movies, and especially film noir, for years. I’ve also read everything by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. So Gumshoe is kind of a tribute to the whole hardboiled genre, but with my own spin. I think I’ve written the novel so that anyone can enjoy it, but readers with a knowledge of classic movies and detective fiction will relate to the material on a whole other level.
DF: What draws you to crime fiction? Is it the mystery, the characters, the problem solving?
MC: Whether it’s a book, a movie, or a television series, there is nothing that draws me into a story like mystery and suspense. It’s that sense of wonder, and the desire to find out what happens next, that drives me forward. A story is always a kind of puzzle, I think, and the best fiction bears re-reading, so that you can go back and pick up on all the little details that had greater significance than you realized the first time through. As far as crime fiction, I am drawn to the worldview it represents, in which there is this dark, alternative reality that lurks beneath the surface of everyday life.
DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?
MC: All I can say is that I play with the genre, that the “built-in tropes” are very much part of the story. To say more would be to give too much away.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the book? How do you develop your characters in general?
MC: I tend to create a lot of smart-alecky characters, and that is certainly a reflection on me and the kind of people I hang around with. But the most gifted writers are the ones who can create characters outside of themselves—different sex, age, race, belief system, etc. I can’t write anything unless I find a voice in which to tell it, and that’s how I approach character. If I can find a character’s voice it gives me at least a starting point from which I can render a fleshed-out person on the page—hopefully one that can surprise me.
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
MC: If I’m not convinced it’s good before I finish the first draft, I will put it aside and move on to something else. If inspiration strikes, I’ll come back to it, but if not I’ll let it go. There are too many stories to write to get bogged down on something that isn’t working. But feedback is important. What I think is brilliant almost always needs more work, and what I am most unsure of is sometimes the work that most resonates with readers.
DF: Now that you have your first book under your belt, what’s next?
MC: Gumshoe was originally a film script, and so was Inferno, and I have several other scripts that I think will work as novels, so that is where I am right now. Several of my scripts—as well as a couple of other novel ideas—focus on teenagers, so I’m thinking of jumping into the Young Adult market. I feel like I need to do more reading in that genre, though, before I’ll be truly comfortable with it.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
MC: Lose the ego, or at least learn how to suppress it. If you can’t take criticism, and you aren’t always looking to improve, you should do the world a favor and stop writing.
DF: What is one random fact about yourself?
MC: My dogs and cats are all strays my wife and I have taken in. A portion of all our book sales goes to animal rescue and spay/neuter programs.