Jerold Last, Author of “The Body in the Bed”

What is your book about?

The newest entry in my South American mystery series brings my series characters P.I. Roger Bowman and his wife Suzanne back to Montevideo to attend a festive dinner honoring their friend’s promotion to police captain. There’s a surprise guest waiting for them when they get to their hotel room (hint: the title of the book is “The Body in the Bed”). Roger and Suzanne are the lead suspects in a murder, their allies on the police forces of Uruguay and Paraguay may be the targets of a conspiracy, and nobody can be trusted. This fast paced, action filled, novella should satisfy readers of the previous books in the series as we renew acquaintances with old friends and enemies, and say farewell to one of them. Readers new to the series can enjoy this book as a stand-alone introduction to the region and to the series characters.

Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite?

Roger Bowman is a private detective. He has been a police detective and a patent lawyer in his earlier careers. Suzanne Bowman (née Foster) is a scientist, a professor of biochemistry at UCLA Medical School whose work includes collaborations with scientists at the University of the Republic. I first introduced Eduardo Gomez, a Paraguayan policeman and more, in “The Ambivalent Corpse”, the second book in this series. Eduardo actually did a guest interview on one of Pat’s other blog sites shortly after “The Ambivalent Corpse” was published, when he indicated that he wanted to play a bigger role in subsequent novels in the series. He has gotten his wish in both of the novels set in South America since then—“The Surreal Killer” and “The Matador Murders”—and now in this novella, “The Body in the Bed”. Of all of my recurring characters, he has the most depth and, at least for me, is the most fun to play with while more and more is revealed about his very, very complex life and loyalties.

Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it?

Some of the background for the plot dates back to the first time I lived in Montevideo for a summer in 1982 and the second time I lived there, in 1999. The material was updated by searching the Internet and from knowledge I acquired during multiple return visits I’ve made to Montevideo since 2001.

What about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The descriptions of Montevideo, a city of almost three million people that is the capital of Uruguay. The basic premise of the plot, which is taken from the current news media. The characters, which have been central in three previous novels in this series, all set in South America. The whodunit aspect of the plot that encourages the reader to try to guess who the killer is before the detectives figure it out.

How has your background influenced your writing?

My work has brought me to Montevideo for two sabbatical leaves for teaching and research at the local public university, The University of the Republic. I have also collaborated on research and graduate student training with scientists in Montevideo for more than a dozen years after that second sabbatical. My experiences in South America, especially in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, have stimulated my interest in writing fiction set in the region to introduce readers to the places and people my wife and I have enjoyed so much.

What are you working on right now?

My wife breeds and shows German Shorthair Pointer dogs. She has been urging me for more than a year to get a dog for Roger and Suzanne, especially now that they have a toddler, and to write a book set in the world of dog shows and dog breeders. That is the underlying premise of the novel I’m currently beginning. I also have another novella in progress. In this book Roger and Suzanne visit The Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, and take the 5-day cruise my wife and I took a decade ago and that Charles Darwin took more than a century ago. Of course Suzanne will find a body floating in the Pacific Ocean and there will be another mystery to solve.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

Being responsible for marketing the books I write. I’d love to just write the books and let someone else try to sell them for me. In addition, my motto as an independent author has been “don’t quit your day job”, so finding the time to write, do book promotion, teach, do research, serve on committees, and spend time with my family is challenging. There’s never enough time to get everything done. I think I do the worst job on book promotion, which may be the best choice for me by default.

What do you like to read?

Hard-boiled mystery novels, preferably with a P.I. based in California as the protagonist. For me the classics are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. I also like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series a whole lot, even if it was set in Boston and James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series set in Louisiana. I like writing hard-boiled novels even if the noir world I try to recreate in my books is based on the oldies but goodies a lot more than on reality.

What writer influenced you the most?

Probably Dashiell Hammett for plot style. The storyline of “The Matador Murders” was patterned after Hammett’s first novel, 1929′s “Red Harvest”. Almost certainly Ross MacDonald for character motivation of my bad guys, who tend to be pretty evil villains. And all of the old timers for the character of the private detective, who solves the murders because someone has to because it’s how justice is achieved, and generally the conventional police can’t because there is too much politics, policy and procedure, and corruption in their daily lives to do the job properly.

Have you written any other books?

Yes, I have. “The Body in the Bed”, a novella, is Book #5 published on Amazon in my South American Mystery Series and Book #6 featuring Roger and Suzanne. A previous novelette, “The Body in the Parking Structure”–Book #5 featuring Roger and Suzanne–is also published on Amazon, but takes place in Los Angeles, California. Books #1-4 are novels set in South America and include “The Empanada Affair”, “The Ambivalent Corpse”, “The Surreal Killer”, and “The Matador Murders”.

Does your understanding of the story you are writing change during the course of the book?

Yes, it does. I usually find the story takes on a life of its own and my original choice of whodunit, and sometimes why they done it, changing as the story gets written. This can be scary at first, but in the long run it allows for a good deal more creativity in plot and characters in my opinion.

Who designed your cover?

For this book, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted the cover to look like before I began and found the image that ended up on the cover by myself. My friend Caitlin Harley, a graphic artist, fixed my original version of the cover by playing a little bit with light and shadow to enhance the contrast of the lettering and to highlight the mood of the image.

Where can people learn more about your books?

The author’s blog (which can be found at the URLs at the end of this answer) contains excerpts from, and some background material written about, each of the published books, as well as links to the book pages on Amazon. There’s also quite a bit about me, my life, and my impressions of the creative process on this blog, as well as invited contributions from several other writers including our hostess, Pat Bertram. Visit the blog at (US) or (UK).

J. Conrad Guest, author of Backstop and One Hot January

How much of a story do you have in mind before you start writing it?

I start with a protagonist and his conflict; most times I have the ending in mind and simply write to it, although often the ending is amended depending on what happens prior to my getting there. Everything before that — the digressions, the journey — are discoveries that, hopefully, translate as discovery for the reader. I’ve never written from an outline. I haven’t even tried to work from an outline; I feel it would be too restrictive to me.

What is your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain number of words each day?

Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite novelists, despite Faulkner (no stranger to drink himself, Faulkner butchered the screenplay for The Big Sleep) calling him a “world class drunk,” wrote Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off. My writing schedule is like that: the first sentence is magic, the second intimate, the third settles me in for the session, and after that it’s like taking the girl’s clothes off. I used to set a word count but learned to accept what comes. Some sessions produce more word count than others; but I focus on the content as my goal. Certain parts of the story are going to be more difficult to put down on paper than others. Some sessions result in 1,500 words, while others end with 4,000 words. I’m grateful for it all.

Do you have any rituals that you follow before sitting down to write?

Oh, yes, I do. We laugh at our pets for being creatures of habit, but we are, too, if we’re honest. My morning sessions start with a pot of coffee and a trip to my humidor to select a cigar. (In the evening, substitute bourbon and beer for the coffee.) The cigar is all about the ritual — selecting the right cigar to go with my mood, the time of day; taking it out of the cellophane, inhaling the fragrance of the wrapper, admiring the label, the workmanship (the better cigars are still handmade by someone with skilled hands in another culture thousands of miles away), snipping its head, lighting it, those first few draws, and watching the smoke infiltrate my den. The ritual helps get my creativity flowing.

Do you prefer to write at a particular time of day?

Yes, my preference is for Sunday morning. I schedule my entire day around my session. During the week, in the evening, I’ll polish or edit what I wrote on Sunday; but sometimes, if I’m really humming along, I’ll push the story forward during the week. But it’s difficult to do that consistently with a day job, especially one that puts me in front of a laptop writing. Sometimes the last thing I want to do when I get home from work is switch on my own laptop and be creative.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a major project — A Retrospect in Death. It begins with a man’s death, and the reader is taken to the other side where the narrator encounters his higher self—the part of him that is immortal and is connected to the creator. The protagonist learns (much to his chagrin) that he must return to the lifecycle. But first he must be “debriefed” by his higher self, and so they set about discussing the man’s previous life — in reverse chronological order: knowing the end but retracing the journey, searching for the breadcrumbs left along the way. I’m just now tinkering with a concept for my next novel, a period piece during the golden age of motor racing—the 1960s—with the Indianapolis 500 as the centerpiece.

What is the most difficult part of the whole writing process?

When I started my first novel, nearly twenty years ago, the hardest part was sitting down to write the first sentence—even though I’d written it in my head several weeks previously. I was intimidated by the whole process and feared that I’d never complete it. I only talked about it to friends. Finally, someone asked me when I would stop talking and do something. It was the kick I needed to set pen to paper. Now, when I near the end of a project, I begin to worry about my next one. What’s the story? Who are my characters and what are their conflicts? How can I top my last novel? Today I find the revision process the most difficult part. I love polishing a text; but sometimes I get carried away with the tinkering. At that point I go back to the original draft and determine whether the tinkering adds something, some new dimension, or does it get in the way?

What is the easiest part of the writing process?

The late great sports writer Red Smith wrote Writing is easy. I just open a vein and bleed. Opening a vein is never easy, but it’s essential, in my opinion, to great writing. It separates the great writers from the mercenaries, who write simply for the masses, for profit. Unfortunately, that seems to go against what many creative writing courses are teaching young writers today. They’re told that they must allow the reader to experience the text in their own way. I understand that, but one must still lead the horse to the water. What if your reader has never experienced what you’re writing about? For example, I’ve never fathered children, so it does me little good to read about a character’s joy over holding his newborn son for the first time by writing, “He was proud.” I like metaphor and so I could relate to something like, “Holding his son for the first time he felt as if he’d just hit the walk-off homerun in the seventh game of the World Series.” Raymond Chandler was one of the greatest stylists ever to write, and I consider myself somewhat of a stylist, too. It comes natural to me. I love language, and to me how something is said is as important as what is said; yet sadly, the publishing industry seems to frown on anything that might take a reader out of the story. Well, commercials do that on TV; but it doesn’t lessen our enjoyment of our favorite shows, does it? If the industry is losing money, perhaps they should reconsider the cookie cutter mold stories they seem to want to publish.

Does writing come easy for you?

It comes a lot easier today than it did when I started twenty years ago! That’s a product of experience — like an exercise routine, the first few workout sessions are difficult as your muscles rebel against the abuse you put them through. But in time, your body craves those workouts. Writing is like that for me. The more I do it the more I feel the need to do it. Raymond Chandler wrote Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say. I hope I never reach that end because every session is an adventure. I learn something about the craft of writing and, more importantly, about myself.

What, in your opinion, are the essential qualities of a good story?

For me, the most essential quality of a good story is characters with whom I can connect. Finding a good story to write is easy; but writing about characters the reader cares about is more difficult. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most demented characters ever conceived, yet he was fascinating, a train wreck away from which we want to look but can’t.

Where can we learn more about your books?

My third novel, One Hot January, is soon to launch, through Second Wind Publishing. You can learn more about me and all my literary endeavors at my website.