Exeter, N.H. author Brendan DuBois has just published his tenth mystery novel featuring the magazine writer and former Department of Defense analyst Lewis Cole. It’s called Storm Cell.
For this week’s Bookshelf interview, I and All Things Considered producer Shelby El Otmani went to Exeter to meet the author in his home office, where, as he put it:
“This is where the magic—ha ha ha—happens. A lot of times it’s desperation. A lot of times it’s pulling out my hair. But this is my office, such as it is. It used to be a bedroom, now it’s packed with books, paintings, plaques, souvenirs and an Apple Macbook Pro where I spend a good chunk of my time before every day.”
On this day, as we spoke, his springer spaniel, Spencer the Wonder Dog, sprawled at Brendan’s feet. The office was packed with books—shelves piled high with them, everywhere.
PB: This is truly a writer’s studio.
BD: It is. A few years back, I was at a mystery writer’s convention, where the New York Times best-selling writer Susan Grafton—someone asked her about her favorite place in the world. She looked embarrassed and said, “I just love my office.” And that’s someone who has worked in Hollywood, who has been all over the world. She just shyly said, “I just love my office.” And I have to agree. When I get in here, on the good days, it’s like, it’s a wonderful place to be.
I’m looking at your compute there and you’ve got a sticky note on your monitor that says, “Make it worse. Tension on every page.” Is that your modus operandi? That’s how you go about it?
One of my modus operandi. A few years back, I took a writing seminar from Donald Maas, who is a literary agent and author. At the time I thought my writing needed a kick. I had plateaued out. And one of the things he taught was: tension on every page. Make things happen. Each page should contribute something to a work. It should propel the plot or examine something about a character. There should not be a wasted page.
Some beginning authors tell them: stay away from architecture, get to the meat of the story. That’s a constant reminder.
I’m picking away now at your sticky notes, getting insights into your writing life. Another one says, “No more one shots.” Is that writing-related as well?
Yes. No more one shots means, no more trying to write something quickly and off-the-cuff. Put some thought into it. For example, this is not a boast, just an acknowledgement of fact, I’ve had 150 short stories published and when you go to number 151, don’t just do it off-the-cuff as a one-shot. Put time into it. Make believe that it’s story number one.
Is that an attempt to make sure that you don’t rest on your laurels and keep yourself on your toes.
Keeps me on my toes, keeps me fresh. A lot of times, if you’ve been in the business—I won’t say rest on laurels, and I’m not going to name names—they tend to get lazy, tend to repeat stuff. That’s something you’ve got to guard against. Being a published author is a wonderful thing, but you always have to put that behind you and say, “What’s the next book? What’s the next work going to be?”
So let’s talk about Lewis Cole, because he’s now on his tenth book with you.
Sure, number ten, Storm Cell. What’s different about this book is that in previous books, Lewis has been the one in trouble. In this case, it’s his friend who is in trouble, Felix Tinios, who is the sometime mob enforcer, part-time security consultant.
In chapter one, he’s on trial for murder. What’s funny about this book is that you’d think Felix, who has helped Lewis on many, many occasions, would welcome Lewis’s help, but the exact opposite happens. He refuses the help. And that’s sort of the mystery that starts the book off. Why won’t Felix take Lewis’s help?
Did you know the reason when you started the book, or did you discover it along the way?
I knew the reason, and I’m going to confess I did not know who the real killer was until almost halfway through. I said, “Oh ,that person would fit the bill.” Which sounds silly, but a lot of times, mystery authors tend to leave that open, thinking if they don’t know who the murderer or bad guy is, then the reader won’t know, because how would the reader know if the writer doesn’t know?
I have to say that I didn’t see it coming.
Well, thank you very much. That means I’m still doing it with book number 10.
I assume you have more planned for Lewis Cole.
The next one, the book is called Hard Aground, is with my publisher now, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he enjoys that one.
I’m also working on a novel and it always strikes me as odd when I say this, but I’m working on a mystery novel with New York Times best-selling author James Patterson. And I’m hoping that gets completed by early next year.
One of the aspects of Storm Cell that I found interesting was that—and correct me if I’m wrong—but it seems like you raised the stakes of this story by throwing into the mix the idea that there are developers on the horizon who want to build a casino on this fictional coastal New Hampshire town and change the character of the town. Is that something you have strong feelings about?
Yes, I do. Because I think a lot of times, developers have good intentions at heart, but can come in and do things that have unanticipated consequences. Hampton Beach, or as I call it in my works, Tyler Beach, has this weird mix of funky yet old-time New England and maritime history that I think is something special. There’s nothing on the horizon now for a casino going there, but I could see it happen. I could see it happen. And that’s one of the things I address in this book—the problems associated with it if that were to happen.
Why do you think people, ten books in, are still interested in a character like Lewis Cole?
That’s an excellent question. I’m always happy that there are people interested in Lewis Cole. I’ve made the attempt over ten books to change him, to grow him so he’s not stuck in amber.
And another thing is that he has fault. He falls down, he makes mistakes, and I think part of it is that he’s exceptionally loyal.
The first few books I think he was more of a bitter loner but now he’s closer to a certain circle of friends, and if something happens he’ll drop everything and do what happens to make something right for his friends, and he won’t let anything get in his way.
A little background about Lewis Cole: in this book, he’s an unemployed magazine writer but he has a history working in the Department of Defense.
Yes, he’s a retired research analyst. Many years prior, he was in a top secret training accident that killed everyone in his group except him, and that’s something that has haunted him all the way.
He was a magazine columnist for a number of years until—again, you want to mix things up—he got fired. So he’s on his own. And in a prior book, his house was damaged by fire, so as someone says, you have to kill your darlings or make them suffer, and that’s what brings people to the books. He’s an endearing and enduring character.
I found myself admiring him for his loyalty and he’s not invulnerable. He’s unemployed and physically hungry because he doesn’t get the money he needs to buy the food he’d normally want to buy.
He’s unemployed and waiting for a big insurance payment and sometimes insurance companies drag their feet. Every day he goes to the mailbox hoping the big check will be there and it’s not. And he finds himself pinching pennies and doing things and that’s when the rubber meets the road. How far will you go? He has to take care of his friend even though he’s stretched out tremendously and really is under a lot of pressure.
What kind of comments do you receive about him from your readers?
A lot of positive comments like that, saying, “I wish I had a friend like Lewis,” or “I wish I had a family member like Lewis.” Most of my female readers, bless them, love Felix Tinios, the sort of antihero, because Felix is loyal but he’s also a much better cook and he’s more handsome than Lewis and much more, shall we say, physically agile if violence erupts.
But you get people who say, “I’m tired of the landscape. I’m tired of Tyler Beach. Can’t he go somewhere else?” One reviewer said, “For God sakes, get him the insurance check already. I’m tired of hearing him whine about it.” So you can’t please everybody, but that’s what happens when you enter fiction.
Well, the lack of the insurance check—for me, it’s Lewis Cole against this massive, faceless thing that has so much control over his life.
And in these times, I think most people can relate to that. Waiting for some big bureaucracy to belch forth a settlement or doctor’s appointment or some bit of news that you need. So I think that makes him more human, makes him really admirable to my readers.
Is that something you sought out in the character, something that would make him relatable in that particular way?
I think it grew along the way, as everything does. You get life experiences or you see other peoples’ experiences, and as the book develops you say, “Well, let’s bring this in. Let’s bring that in. Make him more three dimensional. Make him more real.”
NHPR has another podcast called the Ten Minute Writers Workshop, and they ask the same questions every time, so I’ll steal one of their questions for you. And that question is: which do you find more difficult to write, the first sentence or the last?
Oh boy, that’s a very good question. I will lie. I find the middle. [Laughs] The first one, because it’s usually been batting around in your head for a few months, so you know how to start the book to grab the reader, and the end, because you’re churning along and you have these months of work behind you, and you know pretty much how it’s going to wrap up. But the middle part, the middle sentence, that’s when things start to sag, and you really have to dig in deep because you’re inviting the reader to come along with you on this journey. And if you grab them at the very beginning and you’re satisfied with the ending, you need to keep things up in the middle.
Since we’re in your office, we’ll end with this last question about your office. How much time do you spend in this particular chair working on your books?
Several hours a day, but it’s flexible. Today is Wednesday, which means it’s laundry day, so later today I have to fold the laundry. I also take Spencer out for romps, but usually I’m in my office first thing in the morning. Do a solid three or four hours. Take a break for lunch and other things. And I’m here in the afternoon. And much to my wife’s dismay, the laptop comes downstairs and sits in my lap, and that’s when I answer emails, do a little editing, polishing, working on a short story or something like that. I’m pretty connected here in the office.