Thursday, December 24, 2009

Interview with Charles Ardai

Second in the Gabriel Hunt series, Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear (Leisure Books, 2009) was penned by none other than the mastermind behind the whole operation, Charles Ardai. The book finds the adventurer traveling across the globe as Gabriel tries to solve an ancient mystery of the Egyptian sphinx while keeping one step ahead of a ruthless Hungarian criminal. Ardai’s parallel careers as editor and writer for both the Hunt and Hard Case Crime lines make him a unique figure in the publishing world. Recently I had the pleasure of discussing how these two positions affect one another, particularly within the context of the Hunt series.

Pulp Serenade: From Hungary to Egypt to Greece, there’s a lot of geography, mythology, and history in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. What sort of research was required for this book?

Charles Ardai: Well, my family's from Hungary, so I've been there a couple of times, and of course, I live in New York, so that takes care of the first two locations in Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear. But for the rest I relied on the magic of the Internet. It's a wonderful thing: You want a map showing every detail of the landscape around the Great Sphinx or every road on the Greek island of Chios? Want a hundred pictures of the Sphinx from every possible angle and every possible time period? It's all just a click away. Things that might have required enormous labor to unearth are trivial to find now. But there's a flip side, too, which is that anything that's easy for you to find is easy for your readers to find, too -- so while in the past a novelist might have been able to get away with making things up, secure in the knowledge that almost none of his readers would know better, he now can be sure that if he gets some point of geography or history wrong, every reader can check him on it and call him on it. So with the enhanced ability to do research comes the obligation to do it, too. And I did. All the interesting historical details in the book are, in fact, true. (Though I fudged details here and there to make for a more exciting story.)

PS: With series novels, it seems that there needs to be a balance between keeping the character consistent from one novel to the next, but also allowing for enough change so that the character grows and keeps the reader interested. Was this something you were conscious of while writing?

CA: It depends on the genre and the level of realism you want. Sherlock Holmes doesn't change significantly from book to book; Matt Scudder does. Indiana Jones didn't change much from movie to movie. We met his lost love in the first one and his father in the third, but he didn't really change, per se. And I think it's in the nature of series adventure stories for the hero not to change a whole lot. You want there to be some interesting character development within a given book -- the character faces some terrible stress and discovers things about himself as he fights his way through it -- but when the next book comes out, he's more or less the same guy as he was in the last one. Now, if we wound up publishing not six books about Gabriel Hunt but sixty, I'm guessing we'd introduce some changes along the way, just to keep things fresh. But it's less critical in the first six books. Remember, for the first few books, you're still discovering who this guy is in the first place -- it's going to be pretty new and interesting even if he doesn't change a whole lot.

PS: Speaking of change, have advances in technology changed the adventure genre much since the days of Doc Savage? At one point, comparing his dead cell-phone to his trust 1945 wristwatch, Gabriel comments, “Sometimes, he thought, the old technologies were better.”

CA: The biggest change in the adventure genre is one that has nothing to do with technology, which is that there basically isn't an adventure genre at all these days. In the late 1800s and on through the pulp era (ending around World War II), you had enough tales of high adventure being written and published and read to constitute a genre. Then the genre morphed into something called "men's adventure," which was more military and less archaeological -- more Rambo than Raiders of the Lost Ark, to use a 1980s movie metaphor. And today there's very little of either. Clive Cussler is sort of adventure-y, and there's all the crypto-religious conspiracy stuff Dan Brown unleashed, but aside from the occasional Indiana Jones tie-in novel, the traditional adventure story has basically ceased to exist. That's why I wanted to create Gabriel Hunt, because I missed this sort of story and no one else seemed to be doing it.

Why is this? I'm not sure. I don't think it has to do with technology making the stories harder to tell -- sure, if you have cell phones some suspense scenes play out differently, but it's easy enough to send your characters to the deep jungle or the heart of Antarctica or a buried city where reception is nil. I think the bigger issue is that, unlike crime or romance (but like pornography, another genre that used to fill bookshelves and has been conspicuously absent for the last thirty years or so), adventure is a genre that's just inherently more fun to experience in a movie or videogame, or through some other kinetic visual medium, than on the page. What's more stirring, watching the truck chase in Raiders or reading about it? Seeing that giant boulder barreling down on Harrison Ford to the strains of John Williams' score...or reading about it? Seeing it will win out every time. (Whereas I'd argue that, for instance, what Cornell Woolrich does to evoke suspense on the page is more viscerally effective that what almost any film director has ever accomplished with visuals.) 

That said I do think there are things you can do on the page in an adventure novel that you can't do on the screen -- all the geography, mythology, and history, as you put it. Conveying a deep sense of the characters being enmeshed in a story that has its roots in bygone centuries. Getting inside characters' heads and finding out what they're thinking while being chased by those giant boulders.

As for technology (and I apologize for straying from the topic), I do think you lose something of the classical adventure flavor if you focus too much on things with bleeping digital readouts, or micro-tracking devices, or fold-out LCD screens -- that stuff feels more James Bond than Indiana Jones. You can use a tiny bit of it if you dirty it up enough -- but not much. Adventure is about sweat and grime, rope and leather, rust and relics -- not about buttons and screens.

PS: Whose life would you prefer: Gabriel or Michael Hunt?

CA: In real life? Michael's. In real life I basically *have* Michael's: I stay at home in a nice apartment in New York City, I talk on the phone and work on the computer in a room surrounded by books. I worry a lot, especially when people I love choose to do reckless crazy things, like flying off to the jungles of Botswana to do research (as my wife Naomi did for her book Empire of Ivory). I was sipping consommé from a porcelain cup while Naomi called me on a satellite phone to say, "An elephant just stuck its head into my tent." And I was very happy to be where I was rather than where she was.

PS: How does stylistic consistency within a series work, with so many writers involved each with their own distinct voice?

CA: It works because everyone has the same beloved references in mind -- all our writers grew up reading H. Rider Haggard and Doc Savage, they all grew up watching Republic serials and Indiana Jones movies -- and because they're all working from a bible I wrote, describing who the characters are, what sorts of things they would and wouldn't do, and what sorts of stores I wanted to tell. Then, when each manuscript comes in, I do a detailed line-by-line edit that not only eliminates glaring inconsistencies (Gabriel's sister can't be short in one book and tall in the next, though her hair color can change) but also results in a smoothing out of the divergent prose styles. I mean, you can still tell they were written by different people -- David Schow's use of language is as different from James Reasoner's, as you can imagine -- but they at least feel like they're writing about the same character. In this respect it's a little like a comic book or TV series. How many different writers have taken a crack at writing Batman comics over the years? Hundreds, probably -- but it's still Batman each time out. And on a TV show you generally have a writer's room with maybe eight or nine people around a table, each tackling a different episode or a different set of scenes, and then the showrunner polishes it all and puts it all together. From the viewer's point of view, it's a single coherent set of stories about a group of characters, but behind the scenes it's the work of a group of disparate writers.

PS: Has your work as an editor and publisher influenced your own work as a writer?

CA: I hope it's made it better. Certainly, exposure to thousands of bad manuscripts over the past few years has given me a greater appreciation for how hard it is to write a good one; and also, just at a practical level, has exposed to me just which scenes in the crime genre are tired and overdone. If I've seen something in a hundred submissions, I'm much less likely to write it myself. Which is one of the main reasons I encourage writers who want to get published in a genre to read a lot -- and I mean a LOT -- in that genre. A hundred books, two hundred...know what people have done, both good and bad, before you start playing around with it yourself. (Would you go to Carnegie Hall for an audition on the violin if you'd never listened to a few hundred pieces of classical music?)

PS: Have you thought about expanding the Hunt series to short stories? Perhaps some sort of pulp-inspired magazine along the lines of The Doc Savage Magazine?

CA: Actually, yes -- but it's tricky. I was planning to write a Hunt short story for an anthology of adventure stories Otto Penzler was working on, and I came up with a great plot, but what I found when I sat down to write it was that it's very hard to cram an adventure plot into 5,000 or even 10,000 words. Exotic scenery takes a certain amount of page space to describe, and a good action scene eats up a certain amount of words, and before you know it, your 10,000 words are gone. You can't do a proper adventure story, with multiple exotic locales and a backstory about an ancient artifact and multiple exciting action set pieces, in 10,000 words. I mean, you *can*...but it can wind up feeling rushed. And the alternative of doing a miniature story, with just one setting and one action scene, isn't entirely satisfying either. Of course, there are decades of great adventure stories to use as models, so it's obviously not true that it can't be done...but I think adventure as a genre just works best at novel length (as opposed to mystery, for instance, which in some ways works better at short story length; certain puzzle plots can support 5,000 words but not 50,000). Combine that with the fact that fiction in magazine form is dying (the audience for magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps a tenth what it was at its peak) and that, while there are hundreds of writers already producing mystery short stories, there are very few who are already writing adventure fiction, and you can see why launching a magazine of adventure short stories would be a risky proposition at best. But that doesn't mean it's not a tempting one.

PS: Any possibility of Gabriel Hunt making it up on the big screen?

CA: Yes. It's a definite possibility. One of the finest agents in Hollywood is currently discussing that very topic with a number of producers and studios, and I think there's a good chance we'll see something happen.

PS: What are your thoughts on the current state of the adventure genre? How does its popularity with readers compare with previous eras?

CA: I think I've probably covered this in my (off-topic) answer to your earlier question, so I won't rehash it all here, except to say that adventure stories have never diminished in popularity -- it's just a question of the form the storytelling takes. Every year Hollywood puts out a number of adventure films and TV series, and they generally do well at the box office, whether it's the period shenanigans of the "Mummy" movies or a child-oriented picture like the recent "Journey to the Center of the Earth" or a TV series like "Relic Hunter." Videogames like "Tomb Raider" are bestsellers (and in turn spawn films starring Angelina Jolie). "Jurassic Park" and "King Kong" are basically adventure stories. In comics, there's a new series coming next year that will team Batman with Doc Savage.

The one place you don't see adventure fiction much any more is in the aisles of your neighborhood bookstore, and that's a shame. The same people who enjoy a "Tomb Raider" game or film would enjoy a Gabriel Hunt novel if only they picked one up. And hopefully they will.

PS: What’s next for Ardai the writer? Will “Richard Aleas” be making his return anytime soon?

CA: Ah, Ardai the writer! Well, first Ardai the editor has to finish working on the next batch of Hard Case Crime books, including Donald Westlake's never-before-published Memory; and then Ardai the editor has to edit the sixth Gabriel Hunt book; but once those tasks are done, Ardai the writer can pick up his pen again. And what will that pen produce? I don't know yet. I do have an idea for another "Richard Aleas" book, a one-off not featuring John Blake but very much in the same spirit as the Blake books, but I don't yet feel I've quite figured out the right way to tell that story. So I don't think that one will be next. I could write the Hunt story I wasn't able to cram into 10,000 words as a novel -- that would certainly be fun -- but after working on six Hunt books in a year and a half, I think I'll be ready for a break. Which leaves a few other possibilities, including a fantasy novel I've been telling people about for more than a decade but still haven't written, and a screenplay Naomi and I have been working on that's just too good not to finish. No shortage of ideas -- just of time...

3 comments:

  1. Merry Christmas to us! Fantastic interview. What a way to welcome Mr. Claus.

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  2. Kudos to you Cullen and Charles for putting together a terrific interview. It was quite fun and informative to read.

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  3. What's this about research? I thought it was strictly forbidden in the Hunt books. Nice piece.

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