Monday, December 7, 2009
One Too Many Blows to the Head is a novel set in the fight world of Kansas City 1939 and it's everything you love about classic film noir only bound and printed. Co-authors, Eric Beetner and JB Kohl are each solid writers on their own, she is the author of The Deputy's Widow and he of numerous shorts published in online zines as well as the film Taking Your Life which he also directed. Together they've pulled off an improbable collaboration by composing and publishing the novel without ever having met... Never even having spoken on the phone...
WTF? you may well ask. I did.
Where did the characters come from?
ERIC BEETNER - Jennifer had the character of Dean Fokoli already sketched out as a possible character for her own work and he just adapted perfectly to the new story. We're both originally from the midwest so we liked the idea of it being set there rather than New York or LA. Setting it in the world of boxing was just a vibe we both enjoyed and my Grandfather Ray, whose name I stole for the book, was actually was a professional boxer in the 1930s. I also used my uncle Rex's name who was not a fighter, just a guy with a cool name. To the best of my knowledge neither one ever killed anyone. There is a lot I don't know about that side of the family though.
JB KOHL - Fokoli is a character I created a few years ago. He's sort of a regular guy; the sort we all know. He's middle aged, nice enough, but he's done some things in his past he can't quite let go of.
My first boyfriend (way back in second grade) was a cop's kid. Nice family. The cop had cop friends. They all got frustrated with a guy outside of town . . . you know the sort, beats his wife and kids, is drunk and disorderly . . . just watch an episode of Cops some time.
Anyway, these renegade cops got tired of running into walls when it came to getting justice for this guy's family; so they took the law into their own hands. They went out to the guy's house and beat him up. I don't know how bad . . . I was in second grade at the time after all . . . but those cops lost their jobs. My boyfriend moved to Wyoming after that. Second grade romance over, just like that.
Fokoli isn't made up entirely of that cop, but he's some. He's like those guys you meet at the car parts stores who never smile. He's like the guy that sits on the couch and pretends he can't hear what his nag of a wife is saying from the kitchen because she's usually not saying it, she's yelling it.
EB -When we first started talking about collaborating I knew Jennifer's previous book was a period piece. Our first ideas were centered around a past narrative and a present one using a central mystery that started in the past, which she would write, and was taken up and solved in the present, which I would write. That was a hard nut to crack and one night I was driving home late and had 3 or 4 hours in the car to just think and I thought of this idea of a man out for revenge and the cop who is chasing him. We both latched on to the concept, decided it should all be in the past and it went incredibly smoothly from there.
How much autonomy did you have in defining your character?
JBK - When it came to making Fokoli my own, I had all the autonomy in the world. Eric was wonderful to work with. He had his character and I had mine. There was some cross over in the book, naturally, but by the time we reached that point I had a good grasp of the character(s) Eric created so it was kind of fun to try my hand at writing them. Eric gave me suggestions on what he wanted certain characters to say. Glenda, for example, uses a lot of 1940's jargon. I had to write a scene with her and Ray and Fokoli. There were certain things Eric thought would sound good coming from her, so he sent me phrases I could use. But he always made sure I understood they were just suggestions.
There's a landlady in one of the chapters . . . she first appears as a voice in Eric's work, but I wanted to write her, so he kept her behind closed doors. When my character showed up I got to bring her out and play with her. We are both respectful of one another's work and I think we have a good working chemistry and we both wanted to make the book the best it could be, so it was never an issue.
EB - A huge part of the fun of writing this book was that I got to both write a book and read a book at the same time. We wrote linearly so I would write a chapter and then wait until I got something back from her. We had an outline and some bullet points of what scenes would be but it was very loose and we adapted and adjusted as we went based on what the other had written last. Neither one of us ever really questioned another character's motives or plot points. So I would say we had near total autonomy. The characters only interact very minimally and Jennifer had much of that than I did but after reading each character for so long leading up to it there was never any question of "how would this character react?" or "What would he or she say?"
How was the quid pro quo?
JBK - This is how is shook down: I harassed Eric until he agreed to write with me. Once he agreed I figured we'd talk about some plot ideas. But Eric sent me an idea he had for a novel. I thought it sounded cool. Basically we built entwined stories . . . Eric's character was the innocent driven to do things he never imagined. I built a story around Eric's story in outline form.
We worked from the outline but I think we revised it once or twice as needed. When we started to write it was amazing. Chapter by chapter we hammered the thing out. We started in June and were done late October. I'd send my work into cyberspace like a kid leaving a tooth under her pillow . . . in a few days, the tooth fairy would visit and I'd get a new chapter to read. Easiest work I've ever done.
EB - I started to feel bad at the start because Ray lays out so much of the back story and the groundwork I felt like the first few chapters were too heavy on my stuff and at risk of taking over, but it was needed and after chapter 3 it all is more evenly balanced. Other than that we shared the burden equally. Even since the actual writing with the promotion and publicity side of it we have split things. Jennifer did most of the sending to publishers, I've done maybe a little more of the PR aspect. Put it all together and we come out perfectly balanced, I'd say. She did take on more of the editing process because we wanted there to be one master document rather than two versions floating across the country so she took on the 'keeper of the final draft' title. At the end of that process she did declare that I owed her a lot of chocolate. (I still need to pay up)
About this point I turned the tables on my subjects. They were both so friggin NICE and deferential to the other. Collaboration is a tricky thing at the best of times and methods vary as wide as successes. So I decided to ask them about their working relationship as well as their partner's strengths and weaknesses.
But I went about it ass-backwards.
You ever watch The Newlywed Game? Buncha wide-eyed marital matches bleary from the whirlwind of the past few weeks together answering questions from their mate's point of view. Think of the following conversation like that.
What attracted you to working with Eric?
ERIC BEETNER ANSWERING FOR JB KOHL - I know this one. Jennifer originally contacted me through the Film Noir Foundation myspace page, which I oversee and which anyone interested in film noir should check out. She wrote in to ask if she could link to our page from her author website JBKohl.com and I said sure after I checked it out. Her book sounded intriguing so I bought it and I liked it a lot. I sent her a note saying so and included a short story of mine called ‘Ditch’ (subsequently published at Thuglit). She liked the story and asked if I had ever considered collaborating on anything. Yes, she asked me.
I guess she saw potential in that story. It is one of my favorites. I’m quite proud of it and so glad it led me to this partnership. I’m almost certain she doesn’t make a habit of it either. I was the first person she approached about a partnership. I’m flattered.
Why were you eager to work with JB Kohl?
JB KOHL ANSWERING FOR ERIC BEETNER (A quick note - JB had so thoroughly channeled Eric for this round of Q&A that she actually answered in his voice. Readers, I had chills)- “Eager” is probably a strong word. Truthfully, she’s a nag. In the end I figured it was easier to work with her than to change my e-mail address. Although she did have a proven track record for finishing a novel so that was a bonus.
What are your biggest influences?
EB as JBK - Jennifer is an old school detective novel gal. Chandler, Hammett, etc. She is also influenced by films as much as novels. I bet you could lock her in the basement and as long as she had a Thin Man marathon on TCM she’d be happy. A little Maltese Falcon and some Murder, My Sweet and she’d stay down there for a week.
JBK as EB - Ummm . . . Raymond Chandler, of course. I like Megan Abbott. I read Reed Farrell Coleman. I also like the unknowns . . . any writer who is writing good, gritty stuff that turns my head and churns my gut. I read Thug Lit when I get the chance and I’ve even been published by them a couple of times. I like “A Twist of Noir” and look at that whenever I can. There are lots of good bloggers out there and I like to keep tabs on that when I get the chance.
Who works faster between the two of you?
EB as JBK - I think she would say she does. She’d be right. I bang stuff out quickly when I get to it but it takes a while some times to find the time. She gave up a budding career in medicine to pursue writing full time so she has her days relatively free. Of course, she has three kids, a household, does freelance editing on books and lives in the wilds of Virginia so I assume she chops wood and quite often fights bears so she might argue that I have more time. She might be right on that too.
JBK as EB - She did. She works at home and writes full time. I have the Noir Foundation Web site to tend to plus my day job. I also write short stories when I have the time and I’m working on my own solo novel, so I had a lot on my plate while we were writing. Plus, I think Jennifer abuses caffeine.
What did you find most gratifying about working with Eric?
EB as JBK - Oh my. I know how I’d like her to answer that it was the quality of my writing. Instead, I think she will agree that it was very gratifying the way we never ran into “creative differences”. All along we were very much on the same page as far as what kind of story we wanted to tell and how we wanted to tell it. Of course, I’m sure one of her favorite things was having me a full continent away so if she wanted to ignore me or tune me out it is as simple as not answering an email. That must be nice. I bet my wife is jealous.
What did you find most gratifying about working with JB Kohl?
JBK as EB - It was nice to work at my own pace with no deadlines hanging over my head. I get enough of that in my day job. I liked that I only had to write half a book! Plus, we never had to make small talk or wonder if the other was actually working on the project . . . it was almost too easy.
What did you find most annoying?
EB as JBK - I’ll go with something here that is not personality related but rather my refusal to write in MS Word. I just don’t want to pay that much for Word and I am generally suspicious of Microsoft. It makes it a little hard though when everyone wants submissions in Word, manuscript deliveries in Word, draft revisions in Word. It meant she had to do much more typing drudgery than I did. That got annoying I bet.
JBK as EB - Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s good when Jennifer nags me because I deserve it.
Whose work had more typos?
EB as JBK - Oh mine. No contest. If she says any different she’s just being humble. I am a two finger, stare at the keys typist who goes way too fast and will 99% of the time type form instead of from. That is just the tip of the iceberg of my bad habits.
JBK as EB - I think it was about even, although Jennifer was a total diva about my use of the word “had” in places.
How much research did you do?
EB as JBK - Jennifer is not a super serious researcher but she did her homework. It was good that her previous novel, The Deputy’s Widow, is also a period piece so she came already steeped in the era. Since her character is the detective she didn’t have to do much research on boxing. We both looked into some things we didn’t know about Kansas City. I know we had to look up if they had cable cars or a subway or just taxis. Stuff like that. The character of Fokoli talks in broad terms about the mob in Chicago and general organized crime details but nothing that needed to be meticulously researched.
JBK as EB - My grandfather was a boxer so that was helpful. I’ve got some old pictures of him in his trunks. We even toyed with using one for the cover at one point. Mostly I watched old movies which wasn’t hard since I’m a fan of noir films. I didn’t do any police procedural research since that was Jennifer’s area. Regarding the boxing, most of it I already know from my grandfather and the technical boxing aspects were a very minor part of the novel.
The central themes and subtext of this book are ______.
EB as JBK - Hmmm, what would she say? Desperate men taking on futile tasks in order to outrun a past that cannot be outrun.
There is action and a great cat and mouse element to the chase that is central to the plot but each character also functions individually as a Noir archetype of his own. Both men make mistakes they regret. Both men are being pushed or pursued by forces larger than themselves and both men are shadowed by their pasts. Fokoli a more recent past and Ray a more distant one but they are warped mirror images of each other.
JBK as EB - Revenge and redemption.
I would work with Eric again if ______.
EB as JBK - If he asked me. Which I have. We are each finishing up solo projects and then we have a rough outline for a sequel to One Too Many Blows To The Head which could be really cool. I never thought we could take this story anywhere else but the more we thought on it things fell into place. We’re a little burnt on these characters after the editing and revisions phase of publication but we are both really excited to get into these guys again. It was too much fun. We can’t stop now. This isn’t the last you’ve seen of us as a team
I would work with JB again if ______.
JBK as EB - Not “if”, “when”. We’re already outlining a new novel. We’ll keep working at our own pace, doing our own things, and somewhere down the road, you’ll see another book by us on the shelves.
I think that's all I have to say about it. I hope that helps you get a better idea of what we did/how we worked together. We both continue to agree we won't meet or speak. That may change in time . . . for now I kind of like the way things are.
Well, I never got them to really snap at each other, but what they've pulled off is remarkable. One Too Many Blows to the Head is available from Second Wind Publishing.
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Great interview Jed.
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