I first encountered E.R. Brown at the landmark Noir in the Bar event that took place in downtown Vancouver in early June 2014. E.R. Brown is the author of Edgar-nominated debut novel Almost Criminal.
E.R. and I arranged to meet at his favourite coffee house, Kafka’s on Main St. It was a Monday afternoon and the sun was turning up the heat but I had side-stepped the worst of it by keeping very much within the ever-narrowing strip of shade that blessed one side of the road all the way from Broadway-Cityhall. I felt like a lizard darting from under shaded rock to cactus shadow just to keep a semblance of cool but you have to do what you have to do. I arrived at Kafka’s and met with E.R. and below is the interview that ensued:
You have written short stories many of which have been published and some even dramatized by CBC. Tell us about the story behind the dramatisation?
For a time, the CBC ran a fantastic online multimedia magazine of art and culture. They called it Radio 3. Budget cutbacks killed it a few years ago, and now it’s just a pop music channel. When it was still an art and culture weekly magazine, I emailed them a story idea. I hadn’t published anything – not creative writing a least – at the time. It was just a cold-call type email. They asked to see the story and they accepted it. What was astounding to me was how quickly the process proceeded – compared to the glacial pace of the publishing industry. The time from the initial email to the acceptance was perhaps three days. Two days later I received a late night phone call from the recording studio. They were recording it with actors and had a request for slight changes. At the end of the week it was online! It’s still there if you go hunting for it. The instructions are on my website.
Are short stories good grounding for novelists and what strengths do you think they add to a writer’s skillset? I wrote short stories for about two years. I used them as a vehicle for exploring various forms and trying out what works for me. Short stories are perfect way to dig into character, atmosphere and description without having plot take over. And, frankly, you can experiment more freely, with a lot less investment in time. More than half of my short stories were unpublished and rightly so. But without the validation of having short stories published, I wouldn’t have had the courage and self-confidence to embark on writing a novel.
‘Almost Criminal’ is your debut novel and its set within the marijuana industry in BC. Why this concept in particular and did your research unearth many crazy facts and what misconceptions, if any, were dispelled for you?
I like stories to be “about” something. I like there to be social relevance that speaks to a time and place. What attracted me to the marijuana industry in BC is that it’s everywhere, in every town, every city block, every rural area, and yet no one talks about it. When I began, the only marijuana stories were Cheech and Chong type stuff. Stoner humour. Weeds and Breaking Bad weren’t on the air. I didn’t know of another book about it. I became fascinated with prohibition stories and gangster novels from the prohibition era. I saw instant parallels between the growth of organized crime — the American mafia – which was directly created by alcohol prohibition and the growth of Hells Angels from the 60s and 70s to today, fuelled by marijuana prohibition.
Was researching this industry, which still remains the shadows of legality, pose any logistical problems for you?
Well, of course, few people in the industry want to speak to someone who looks like a narc. Especially a couple of years ago, when even medical growing was illegal. But that was overcome. The truth is, there’s grow op on every block, and it doesn’t take very much work to get hold of people who know people. I even had a number of back-and-forth emails with Marc Emery, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pot, from his jail cell in Yazoo City, Michigan. Research books like Bud Inc, and books on the Hells Angels, like Angels of Death, were really helpful.
How did you get in touch with someone like Marc Emery?
People who know people who know Marc Emery. He was very helpful in providing technical guidence and suggesting corrections where my technical descriptions and passages didn’t pass muster.
What kind of hurdles did you experience during writing your novel?
A first novel is a giant hurdle. You may think you can write one, but you’ve never done it before. No one wants you to write it, and no publisher will consider it before it’s complete. It’s a leap of faith and a multi-year exercise, and your initial self-confidence may prove to be self-delusion. Yeah, there were hurdles.
Do you have an agent and if so how did that relationship come about? If not, can you talk about the journey between completing the novel and its publication?
I have a terrific agency and agent, Chris Bucci at the McDermid agency. I was introduced to the agency by a writer friend, a mentor at the Banff Centre. But there were years and several drafts of the novel between my first introduction to the agency and the point where I was finally accepted for representation. In today’s world, agents tend to act as gatekeepers for the industry. I think lots of writers will tell you that getting an agent is harder than getting a publisher.
I think most writers would recognise that paradigm. It’s funny how the role of gatekeeper, be it the agent in literature and the A&R man in music, seems to be the modus operandi within music and literature. I think these constructs are the vestiges, throwbacks to a more heirarchical time where people knew their place and gatekeepers played a role in ensuring the purity of those deemed fit to enter higher echelons. Is there a case for writers to regard their work as a product for sale in the marketplace and the sale of their work as a business, in other words, being self employed in all respects as any other self employed person in any other business sphere would be?
There is some truth in that and its something writers would need to think about.
Marketing is a skill and a professional in itself, perhaps writers should take a cue from the world of small business and copy what they do when it works
It is the way many writers, especially conventionally unpublished writers, are going.
Why crime-fiction and does crime fiction play a role in exposing unhidden truths about society?
I didn’t plan on writing crime fiction. The story turned in that direction on its own. It began as a family drama and coming-of-age story. The coming-of-age story is still there, of course, but once the bikers showed up it was hard to deny that what I had was a crime story. That said, I couldn’t be happier being considered a crime writer. Crime readers are the best. And the attention I have received, with the award nominations and the reviews that I’ve received… the industry has been very kind to me. So let me be clear: my next novel is a crime novel. And unlike Almost Criminal, it’s conceived from the outset as a crime novel and I’m having a lot of fun with it.
Your debut novel ‘Almost Criminal’ has been compared to the concept behind the hit TV series, Breaking Bad and even Weeds. I understand that marijuana accounts for an estimated $7-9 billion of untaxed revenues in BC and according to studies, 1/100 homes in BC have at one point in time, been used as grow houses. Is this industry common across Canada or peculiar to BC and if the latter, why do you think this is?
The industry is everywhere, right across Canada. It began in BC, certainly. And BC Bud is a pretty well known brand. I’m told it began with a group of American war resisters—draft dodgers, we used to call them— who came up from California and then settled on Lasqueti Island. The history of the character Randle Kennedy, in my novel, follows that trajectory. The coffee shop owners and Randle have a shared background in resisting the Vietnam war and coming up to BC, and then one way or another becoming involved in BC Bud.
Surely draft dodger seeking refuge in Canada caused rancour between the US and Canadian governments, did it not? I mean, did they not have to claim political asylum?
Not really, those were more relaxed times. It’s not like today where the border is heavily regulated and monitored. British Columbia and its west coast vibe was a popular choice of destination and The Gulf Islands provided much needed privacy and isolation, for growing a product like weed.
Note to readers : US President Jimmy Carter, on his first day in office, Jan 21st 1977, fufilled a campaign pledge to issue a complete and unconditional pardon to all Vietnam conscientious objectors who escaped the draft.
Are biker gangs common in BC and how are they regarded by the authorities and did you contact any during your research and if so, what impression did you glean from them?
Bike gangs are a big deal. The authorities know, it everyone knows it. And don’t assume that all of them actually ride bikes anymore. When it came to those guys, I stuck to book research. Some of my marijuana contacts verified what I had to say about the industry and how the bike gangs play into it, but direct contact with bikers, no.
If the Biker Gangs present such a problem, why are they allowed to freely and openly operate?
These gangs are run as big business with an unofficial multi-layered membership scheme. At the bottom of the rung, you still have the bearded, leather-cut wearing hygienically challenged biker who by and large, lives up to the stereotype biker we have in mind. The bottom layer just like to ride around, making a lot of noise, just being bikers. However, higher up the food chain, that’s where the real control lies. Those at the top rarely if ever ride bikes. They drive BMW cars and wear Armani. They know how to not get caught, just like most organized crime syndicates.
So bikers are a big deal in BC?
Some towns literally depend on them. It’s said the economy of the town of Nelson is 70% derived from the gangs. Grand Forks is another town with an unhealthy economic dependency.
Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do write and plot as you proceed?
I wrote so many outlines! I found I’m a terrible at outlining. But the process of doing the outlines—which I didn’t really follow as the writing proceeded— gave me signposts, landmarks, that were very useful to me in getting the story done. I think that outlining is essential in writing crime stories, and I’ve been working on my outlining skills. Crime readers expect a certain level of plot complexity that is very difficult to do without a pretty solid outline.
What authors do you admire the most and why?
I probably read more literary writers than crime writers, although I read a lot of both. The writers whose books I’ll buy as soon as they appear on the shelf are Barbara Kingsolver, Dennis Lehane, Russell Banks, TC Boyle, Martin Cruz Smith — those are the names that come to mind first. I love writers who cross the genre divide, like Graham Greene did. These days there’s Benjamin Black/John Banville.
Many writers also have full time jobs which can be demanding. What advice would you give such writers to help them find the necessary mental energy to write?
Until recently I was a full time writer of marketing and advertising. It’s very tough to finish a draining day of writing and then stare at an empty page, or empty screen, and hope that inspiration will come. But ultimately the only way to get writing done is to write.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Junot Diaz, ‘This is How You Lose Her’, and Harry Karlinky’s ‘The Stonehenge Letters’, and Owen Laukkanen’s ‘The Professionals’. Diaz’s voice grabs you from the first word. Karlinsky is all dry, intellectual wit. The footnotes in that book bring tears to my eyes. And Owen, who I just met a couple of weeks ago, is so smart. His plotting is really clever.
Are you a full time writer now?
I’ve been a full time writer for over 20 years, but I’m now a full time fiction writer. On my LinkedIn page I called myself a recovering copywriter. Until I unplugged from LinkedIn.
Have you a set writing schedule for each day?
I’m a working writer. I write all day long! But in the morning, I tend to business: dealing with emails and whatever. My creative brain works best later in the day.
Is a writer ever truly happy with his/her work even after the zillionth revision? When do you know to let it go into the world?
When the editor says it’s ready, and there’s no more time to meet the deadline.
What topics have your short stories covered and do you still write them?
My most successful short stories were, I think, those dealing with coming-of-age type of issues. My first published short story is about teens in garage-rock bands. There’s another historical story, a novella set in the Depression, which is a first person story about a young man in the north of Quebec. They all informed, in one way or another, the character of Tate in Almost Criminal. I haven’t written a shory story in a while. I’m happier with the long form.
What differences have you experienced between writing short stories and your novel? I feel really comfortable in the plot driven novel form. I’ve found I’m more of a traditional storyteller than a literary stylist. Style is so much of what makes a great short story.
When you completed the final draft of a novel, do you immediately start work on the next novel or some other project?
With only one published novel, I don’t have a lot of experience with this! But so far, each time I’m getting near the end of one novel, I find myself casting about for ideas for the next. Not to say that I’m writing yet, but I’m looking at potential subjects and starting to do research.
Should unpublished novelists seek or rely on the advice of friends or social media contacts to beta read their work? Who in your opinion should a writer rely on for sound advice?
I’m a big fan of the reading circle. I’m a member of two reading circles, each one includes unpublished writers and published writers, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.
How important is factual research to you? Can the truth be bent in favour of a better story without breaking the bounds of credibility?
It’s important to me that the sense of place feels true, the surroundings feel authentic. Also that the details of both the criminal activity and the plot trajectory feel accurate and plausible. That does take a lot of research. But, at the same time, I don’t write textbooks. The story goes in unexpected places, and reality gets bent. You just hope that the reader trusts you, and enjoys going along for the ride.
How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximise its effectiveness?
It’s connected me with readers who are far beyond my physical reach — in places where I can’t do readings or signings. As someone with a smaller publisher that’s been fantastic. But something’s happening in the world of social media. So many people, especially the young influencers, have bailed out of Facebook, don’t blog anymore, and so on. I wonder what’s going to happen to take its place.
Do you believe in writer’s block or should a writer just write something until the muse returns?
The only cure for writer’s block is putting your butt in the chair and writing.
Have you a muse?
No, I don’t have a muse.
Finally, any general advice you’d like to give writers reading this interview?
One of my most trusted contacts is a filmmaker and scriptwriter who does a lot of script doctoring. The constraints of time and budget seem to lend script writing a strict discipline that we in the prose world could learn from. A few points (or at least my interpretation of them): Don’t be too subtle in your writing – we tend to rework aparagraph a hundred times and obsess over hiding details and dropping vague hints. The reader rushes past that paragraph once. You have to make sure they will get what you are writing about. Try to tell the story in chronological order, with few flashbacks. Flashbacks can disrupt the tempo and crescendo of tension. If, for example, you build up to a moment of high tension and then send the reader back into a flashback, you reset the tension to zero.
Many thanks to E.R. Brown for his time and for a sparkling afternoon of conversation You can find out more about E.R. Brown from his website http://www.erbrown.com His novel Almost Criminal is available in all good bookstores and in usual e-book outlets.