Please welcome Robert McClure to the blog! Robert kindly answered a few of my questions about his new book, Deadly Lullaby, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about your debut novel Deadly Lullaby and what inspired you to write it?
The two protagonists in Deadly Lullaby are a father and his son. The father is Babe Crucci, a mob hit man just released from serving his second, long hitch in prison, and his son is Leo Crucci, an edgy Los Angeles police detective. Not surprisingly given their long separation and opposing professions, Babe and Leo are estranged and Babe sorely wants to rekindle the relationship. The key question that propels the plot is whether Babe will achieve his goal, and events frustrate him at every turn. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot going on in Deadly Lullaby—mob politics, violence of all sorts, murder for hire, romance and pure lust—but at bottom it’s a story about a man who loves his son, a son who’s unsure about how to feel for his father.
Deadly Lullaby began percolating years ago when, for whatever reason—maybe Father’s Day, I’m not sure—I wanted to write a father-son story. What I came up with was “My Son,” a short story that was originally published in the kick-ass ezine ThugLit. The story caught the eye of uber-agent Nat Sobel and he contacted me, said he was a fan (which blew my mind) and offered representation. No one in human history has accepted an offer any faster. Nat had read some of my other published shorts and urged me to write a novel, and we kicked around ideas for a month or so. In the midst of this process “My Son” was selected for republication in Best American Mystery Stories 2009, so we settled on expanding the short into a book. The father-son story I’ve now come up with is Deadly Lullaby, a work that never would have happened without Nat coaching me through many drafts and never accepting a single sentence he didn’t consider to be the best I could form.
What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?
I devote a lot of space in the Acknowledgments section of Deadly Lullaby crediting my research sources, and the book wouldn’t have been half as believable without them. My criminology and law degrees, and my practice of law, have all given me the practical know-how to track down just about any information I want. The hurdle for me to clear was realizing that presenting research to fiction readers is nothing like analyzing it for readers of scholarly articles and legal briefs. After many years of trial and error writing fiction stories, I’m getting the hang of figuring out exactly what I need to find and how to translate the research into believable settings and characters. Researching settings is relatively easy; there’s a slew of picture books out there, Google Earth is at everyone’s fingertips and you can always visit the place you’re writing about, which I often do.
The most creative research, I think, is the deeper stuff I delve into about the lives of police and criminals, their psychological makeup and how they go about their daily activities. Throughout my life I’ve known a lot of cops and crooks, personally and professionally, and I supplement that knowledge by digging into the online text books and academic articles. Though some of this research reaches the page more or less verbatim, it’s mostly (hopefully) reflected in the actions my characters take, in what they say and how they say it. Again, reading my Acknowledgements in Deadly Lullaby is probably the best way to get a grasp on the kind of research I do.
As to my writing process, I always start any story by deciding on a theme; in Deadly Lullaby the theme was “father-son relationship.” Then I develop a premise, the one in Deadly Lullaby being, “A mob hit man is released from San Quentin and yearns for a relationship with his estranged son, who is an LA police detective.” Then I take off writing by the seat of my pants and try to write an opening scene that defines the theme and premise—a scene I’ve always wanted to read but couldn’t find anywhere—and I try to make it as rife with conflict as possible. Once the opening scene is finished, I work from there, crafting scenes that fit the premise and flow together cohesively. I start outlining after about 100 pp or so in, keeping the theme and premise firmly in mind so the story reflects them, and the story develops in roughly 100 page chunks through the first draft. Then I revise revise revise until the story fairies arrive to save the day. So far, they’ve always rescued me.
You have a background in law, but have you always wanted to write fiction?
No, the idea of writing fiction never occurred to me until the late 90s, early 00s. I devoured all types of fiction when I was a kid, mostly mysteries and comic books, and branched off to many other genres as I grew older. Of course I wrote the research papers my college professors required me to write, but I had no love at all for the writing process until law school. Then I had a few so-called scholarly articles published while serving on my law school’s law journal—the one titled Thou Shalt Not Kill (Thy Spouse): A Recent Exception to the ERISA Pre-emption Doctrine, should have given me a clue where it was all headed, but didn’t—and got a real charge writing a piece that someone else deemed worthy to print and sell. After practicing law several years, I ran across a dusty old Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane I had stored away, read it with relish and a light popped on—Ta da, betch’a I can write this stuff!
What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?
Oh, man . . . Unfortunately, I remember the first piece of fiction I ever wrote, a horrible thing I scribbled out on a legal pad while on a flight to a court hearing out West somewhere. It was about two fourteen-year old boys getting in a fight during a pickup basketball game, excruciatingly biographical and not anything approaching what anyone in their right mind would call a story. Weeks later, my wife Kathie found it lying around the house and read it. “This is great!” she said. “I want more!” This beautiful and otherwise very intelligent woman believes in me to a fault, which is just one of the multitude of reasons I’ll forever remain in love with her.
Why crime fiction? What do you enjoy most about reading, and writing, in the genre?
As I mentioned, I’ve had a lifelong interest in cops and crooks, crooks especially. The criminal mind fascinates me. It’s that simple.
What authors have influenced you the most?
With one exception, I’ll list the authors who aren’t around anymore to care whether I list them or not: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, George V. Higgins, and Elmore Leonard. Now, the exception: My general rule is to not mention living writers who have influenced me because there are so many of them I’d leave someone out. In terms of the influence a book had on me, Mr. James Ellroy and his American Tabloid is probably my all-time favorite. A good friend of mine named Jason Vaughn recommended the book to me when I was a busy trial attorney and struggling to decide whether I wanted to devote the time and energy it would take to even attempt writing fiction. The plot of American Tabloid was so damn dense and compelling, the voice so gnarly and fresh, the characters so gritty and fully realized, that when I finished it I knew beyond doubt I’d never write a book that good. But the book made me realize how much I loved the crime fiction genre, how much I wanted to immerse myself in it. So I remember thinking, What the hell. I’m gonna give it a shot, and started writing what I now consider to be my first short story (which was never published).
What makes a good story? Is there anything that would make you put a book down, unfinished?
Seems like everyone in the biz has their own idea of how to define a good story, and I’ve read and appreciated many of them. The definition that always resonated the most with me was the one Robert McKee put forth in his work “Story”: “A story is not an accumulation of information strung into a narrative, but a design of events to carry us to a meaningful climax.” You can put as fine a point on this as you’d like by discussing the intricacies of character, conflict, theme, premise, plot, so on and so forth—and all this and more is certainly important—but Mr. McKee’s compact statement not only tells you what a good story is, but it also tells you what a good story “is not.” Which is the very kind of thing, yes, that makes me put a book down unfinished. The moment an author starts stringing information together in a narrative that makes me not care where he or she is headed, I move on to something else.
I don’t put books down unfinished often, but when I do I do it with a loud smack.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
My Aunt Judy has a lot to do with my love of crime fiction because she lent me all her old Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Black Mask and True Detective mags, and introduced me to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, et al.
Just as I hit puberty, Aunt Judy also lent me her copy of Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker.
As impressive as it might sound for me to say I’d re-experience discovering the crime masters before re-discovering the secrets Xaviera revealed to me, I’d be a liar if I made the claim.
What are you currently reading?
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer. I will not put this one down. Nor can I imagine anyone else doing so. The Sympathizer was just nominated for an Edgar as Best First Novel, and I’ll be surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t win.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’m in the dreaded middle of the sequel to Deadly Lullaby, what I’m now calling The Slow Dawn. The sequel is the next phase of the evolution of Babe and Leo Crucci; the sequel is the next phase of my evolution, too, I suppose.
About Deadly Lullaby:
For readers of Harlan Coben and Robert Crais, Robert McClure’s rollicking crime novel of family and felony takes readers on a relentless thrill ride through the L.A. underworld.
Fresh off a nine-year stint in San Quentin, career hitman Babe Crucci plans to finally go straight and enjoy all life has to offer—after he pulls one or two more jobs to shore up his retirement fund. More than anything, Babe is dead set on making up for lost time with his estranged son, Leo, who just so happens to be a rising star in the LAPD.
The road to reconciliation starts with tickets to a Dodgers game. But first, Leo needs a little help settling a beef over some gambling debts owed to a local mobster. This kind of thing is child’s play for Babe–until a sudden twist in the negotiations leads to a string of corpses and a titanic power shift in gangland politics. With the sins of his father piling up and dragging him down, Leo throws himself into the investigation of a young prostitute’s murder, a case that makes him some unlikely friends—and some brutally unpredictable enemies.
Caught up in a clash of crime lords, weaving past thugs with flamethrowers who expend lives like pocket change, Babe and Leo have one last chance to face the ghosts of their past—if they want to live long enough to see their future.