I first encountered Dietrich at last week’s Noir in the Bar crime fiction event in downtown Vancouver, BC which I reviewed in this blog. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to speak with Dietrich at the time but I and the room were entertained and gripped in equal measure by his reading of the opening pages from his first novel, Ride the Lightning (ECW Press), a blistering piece of neo noir, neo pulp crime fiction generously sprinkled with shavings off sharp black humour that’s his trademark.
In the days that followed, Dietrich and I hooked up on Facebook and he kindly invited me to meet for an interview at the back of the Irish Heather bar in Gastown, Vancouver.
Ride the Lightning starts out when Seattle bounty hunter Karl Morgan goes after a wanted drug dealer named Miro Knotts on a skipped bond. When Karl catches up with Miro, he ends up beating him badly enough to get his license revoked, with Miro getting off with just a suspended sentence. So, finished in Seattle, Karl takes the only job he can find as a process server up in Vancouver. Meantime, Miro ducks a drug sweep, and because of the suspended sentence looming over him, he sneaks across the Canadian border and goes looking to even the score with Karl, something only one of them will walk away from.
Dietrich lives with his wife in West Vancouver (or West Van as locals would put it) and has worked as a commercial designer and in the past decade has had no fewer than 45 short stories published in a myriad of publications. He also has been a finalist in the 2003 LA Screenplay Festival.
Tell me a little about your life before Ride the Lightning was first conceived?
I was a commercial artist for over thirty years, first in Toronto, then here in Vancouver. It allowed me to be creative, and I liked the work, but I always wanted to write a novel. About ten years ago I started finding a little time here and there to work on short stories or screenplays, mostly in the evening when the workday was done. Then about five years ago my wife convinced me to make a career change and write full time. And here I am.
Why crime and does crime fiction play a role in exposing hidden truths about society?
There’s always intrigue around a crime story; partly, it’s the range of characters that make it interesting. They generally walk a fine line between good and bad, crossing lines that most of us would never cross. So, it’s fun to go on a ride with them from the comfort of an armchair and experience what they get mixed up in without paying the consequences. I find it interesting how
crime fiction delves into the human condition, and how it touches on the disorder within the order of society. I have read that crime fiction is a means of controlling and fixing what’s wrong in the world. I don’t necessarily agree with that but it’s an explanation worth exploring.
Ride the Lightning is your first novel after a number of short stories and indeed a screenplay ‘Between Jobs’ that was a finalist in the 2003 LA Screenplay Festival. What was the impetus behind writing the novel?
I read an article a couple of years back that sparked the idea. It talked about BC Bud being the province’s reigning cash crop, bigger than tourism, lumber or fishing. The article estimated, at the time, it was a six billion dollar per year industry, and that as many as one in every hundred homes had been converted to a grow-house at some point. That night as I walked my dog, I started looking at our neighbourhood differently, looking for telltale signs, trying to pick out the grow houses. Statistically, I must have passed two or three of them, and some of my neighbours had undeclared income. The next day I started writing.
I can only speak for myself, but working to a tight outline and planning every detail of the plot from start to finish would feel restrictive, like wearing a tie when I could be in a tee shirt
Some interesting things came out in my research. Did you know it’s possible for infrared satellites to take the temperature of any particular house? If the temperature is unusually high, then it’s a candidate for suspicion. Other things too like unusually high use of hydro, water power and in winter, due to the heat inside these houses, they’re like greenhouses, they’re only houses in the block with no snow lying on the roof. It’s crazy. Some houses have been illegally tapping water but it’s a dangerous thing as we know, mixing electricity with water. Some have been turned into McNuggets just trying this.
The hero of your novel, Karl Morgen first appeared as a character in a short story who served divorce papers. What was it about Karl that made you elevate him to the main protagonist in your novel above every other character you’ve written?
I liked the tone of the piece, and Karl was cool in the way he handled himself. I wanted to put him in different situations, get him in over his head and see how he’d handle it.
Will Karl feature in future novels?
I don’t have any plans for Karl right now. We leave Karl at the end of Ride the Lightning, and I think the reader will feel he has grown and learned from his experiences, not likely to repeat the type of mistakes that nearly got him killed. But who really knows …
This is interesting. There seems to be penchant for serials where the same hero returns time and time again and indeed, standalone novels may have a harder time getting an agent or even a book deal but by no means impossible. What was your experience? Did you get any pressure to make Karl the hero of your next books?
My publisher wondered if I was thinking of featuring Karl in a series, but that wasn’t my initial intention, and they were fine about it.
So are you working on your next novel?
Yes, I had the idea for it as I finished Ride the Lightning. The only thing I’ll say is that it’s set in Whistler, BC, a picturesque ski-resort town north of Vancouver and that a character that played a minor role in Ride The Lightning becomes a central character.
How important is it to credibly infuse modern day facets such as Facebook, twitter and mobile technology into the narrative of the novel and does modern day technology in your opinion, make it easier or harder for plot development when in the past, lack of such devices made for more shoe leather being worn down for detectives?
If the story takes place in present time, you can’t have characters running around with a blunderbuss or searching for a phone booth. Incorporating modern technology can be just as interesting as when more shoe leather was being worn down. It’s just different in the details.
Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do you write and plot as you proceed?
I write by the seat of my pants. For Ride the Lightning, I started with the spark of an idea. That spark got me thinking what if this happened … and from there I dropped the characters into the scene and let them guide the story. I find that, for me at least, I can only speak for myself that planning every detail of the plot of a novel from start to finish is like wearing a tie. Why wear a tie when you can wear a tee shirt?
So is it difficult to infuse subplots when writing in such an unplanned way?
Not really, the subplots also grow organically. In the second and subsequent drafts, I reread the story from start to finish and iron out any creases and make necessary corrections.
What authors do you admire the most and why?
I read a lot so I could make quite a lengthy list. It’s the voice of a great writer that always gets me. Twain, Salinger, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Miller, Lee. Such great voices. In crime fiction, some of my favourites are Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, Leonard, Ellroy, Higgins, Winslow, Hiaasen. Outside of the genre, I love reading Kerouac, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Thompson, Burroughs, Smith. Of course, I could go on …
I have heard that crime fiction is a means of controlling and fixing what’s wrong in the world. I don’t necessarily agree or disagree with that but it’s an explanation worth exploring.
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?
When I was working full-time, I wrote some short pieces in the evenings and weekends. It wasn’t always easy to get started when the best part of the day was gone and I often felt tired; but I found if I persevered, I often caught that second wind. For me, it’s important to write whenever I can; I believe, the more you write, the better you will get. And when you’re not writing, read something that will inspire you to write.
Is it important for a writer to have a good degree of life experience to draw from?
Absolutely. Life experience lends perspective and can bring a certain depth to the story.
What are you reading at the moment?
Nearly finished Owen Laukkanen’s Kill Fee. A book that’s hard to put down. Next up, I’m looking forward to getting into Black Rock by John McFetridge, one of my favourite Canadian authors.
Are writing short stories helpful in an aspiring novelist’s development and in your experience, what are the essential differences in terms of form between the two art forms?
Writing short stories was the way to go for me when I was starting out. I wrote as much and as often as I could, gaining the confidence and voice that could sustain for the length of a novel. It also allowed me to try different genres and find what worked best for me. If a short story didn’t turn out, it wasn’t a big deal. I just chalked it up as a learning experience and moved on. With a novel, it’s a much greater commitment.
I love writing both short stories and novels, and I don’t think one is easier or better than the other. The essential difference is that the shorter form generally doesn’t allow the writer to build on multiple characters and subplots and can limit the focus on a single event and possibly on a single character, keeping things simple and concise. With a novel, there’s more elbow room to add in twists, subplots, additional conflicts, multiple characters, backgrounds, back-stories and points of view. And, of course, there’s a lot more to juggle for the duration of the novel.
Vancouver is a city of stark contrasts from the heavenly vistas of English Bay and Stanley Park to the destitution of the blocks around Victory Sq and Gastown. Does this give Vancouver an additional sense of edginess that a crime story needs?
Exactly. A postcard-perfect town with a seedy underbelly. And it’s right on the US border and has the largest seaport in Canada. Ripe for a crime story.
Did you get many rejection letters for your debut novel and how did you handle it? What kind of reasons were given if any?
I got my share of rejection letters when I was submitting short stories. Once I finished one, I would submit it to three publications, then start writing the next one, sending it out to three more publications, and so on. So, after a while I had several out there at any one time, and the rejection letters did flow. But that was okay. Every time I heard no, I felt a step closer to an acceptance, not to mention, occasionally an editor would send along some helpful comments or constructive criticism which I learned from. With my debut novel, I sent it to ECW Press who have a couple of my favourite crime writers on their roster. I thought my novel might be a good fit. Luckily, they agreed.
Are you a full time writer now?
But you did have a full time occupation once upon a time. How difficult was it to juggle this with writing
Well, there’s no other way to do it but just sit down and write. That’s what I did, every evening after work I sat down in my office at home and wrote, sometimes until around midnight. Weekends too. It’s hard, there’s no question about it as you can get tired but I enjoy writing so much that I wrote every single day, seven days a week come rain or shine. There’s no other way but to just write.
Have you a set writing schedule for each day?
Yes. Walk dog, eat, write. Repeat.
When you work on a major project such as a novel, do you take breaks to work on side projects if you feel slow progress is being made or do you just single mindedly concentrate solely on the novel in hand?
No side projects, I just focus exclusively on the novel until its complete otherwise themes and characters from two or more stories can get mixed up with one another.
Do you create and use character sheets, detailing their likes, dislikes, quirks and beliefs and back story and if so, how does this help in your writing and character development?
I create one for every character. It’s a great way to keep track of details.
Is a writer ever truly happy with his/her work even after the zillionth revision?
I have to be happy with it before I send it out. And I get happier with every edit.
When do you know to let it go into the world?
The first edit I call rewriting. By the second I’m checking for typos and inconsistencies. By the third (maybe the fourth) edit, I’m just looking for the odd picky little thing I missed. When I’m at that point, I know it’s time to call the work done. And out it goes.
When you completed the final edition of Ride the Lightning, did you immediately start work on
the next novel or some other project?
Yes. I had already formed an idea for the next one and was raring to get started.
I notice there’s a lot of dark humour in your book. How important is humour in your writing and does it reflect your own sense of humour?
To me, a crime novel can be a grim read without a touch of humour.
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 think it depends. If your friend’s name is Steven King, you’re likely getting sage advice, otherwise a friend’s advice might be subjective and better thought of as mere opinion. If several friends are giving you the same opinion, then you might consider their advice. Otherwise, seeking out a writers’ group or a willing author, editor or agent to take a look might be
How important is factual research to you? Can the truth be bent in favour of a better story without breaking the bounds of credibility?
Factual research lends credibility to the fiction and should be bent and shaped liberally to help the story along.
Do Vancouver crime writers all live in one big house and make breakfast for each other? If not, would you like that idea?
We do live in one big house. And we’re a very supportive group.
I’m Karl Morgen. Nice to meet you in person at last. Have you anything to say to me?
Great question. Yeah, I’d say, hey Karl, hurry up and marry that girl.
How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximise its effectiveness?
I think social media is a great way to promote my work. I’ve made a lot of contacts networking through social media (Facebook mostly), and I add to my blog on a regular basis and the counter tells me it gets a lot of visits.
Do you have any input over the cover art?
I have the most amazing publisher who let me take a look at the artist’s layouts. Right from the start, everyone involved agreed on the same one, and I’m very pleased with the result. The cover of Ride the Lightning totally rocks.
Is it hard to write when it’s sunny outside for so much of the Vancouver summer time? Do writers really prefer rain?
I write everyday until noon. Rain or shine. I pretty much disappear into my writing so there
could be a blizzard in July and I probably wouldn’t notice. But generally, after lunch I get out
and go for a long walk so I don’t feel denied the nice weather.
Do you believe in writer’s block or should a writer just write something until the muse returns?
I’ve yet to experience writers block; every morning I get up and go through my routine: walk the dog, eat breakfast, sit down and write. I am always inspired and eager to get started. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I love what I do or because I got a late start as a writer, but whatever it is, the muse is always there.
Have you a muse?
My wife and son are both very creative, and they inspire me.
Do you attend many crime fiction conferences and what has been your experience of them? Any advice to eager unpublished writers out there who attend them?
I was at Bouchercon last year, and I had a great time. It’s a chance to meet other writers, sit in on panel discussions, catch award presentations and hear some interesting guest speakers as well as make new friends. I’m already booked for this year.
Finally, have you any funny anecdotes/stories to tell about your life as a writer?
Sometimes it’s funny where ideas come from. A few years ago, my son told me a story about coming out of a movie theater with a friend. The movie was somewhat of a sleeper, but the real-life police chase that happened just as the pair stepped from the theater livened things up. The car being chased lost control and struck a light standard right in front of them. The car took off with the police cruiser right on its tail. All that remained was the bumper that had been ripped off…complete with its license plate. When I heard the story, I thought what if somebody witnessed a scene like that, took the license plate and tried to blackmail the getaway driver. After twisting it around a bit, I used it in one of the early chapters of my novel. I think my son is a bit more careful about what he randomly tells me now.
Many thanks to Dietrich for what is, a wonderful and insightful interview. His novel Ride the Lightning is available in eBook format and in all good bookstores, published by ECW Press, Toronto, Canada
You can find out more about Dietrich and ECW Press by visiting their websites: