It is inevitable. Sooner or later, every author of a first-person mystery gets asked: So, tell me the truth, aren't you just writing about yourself, here? I'm not sure I know how to answer that question.
Not that I haven't thought about it.
I've written two well-reviewed "horror" genre novels and numerous short stories, but crime fiction has always been my first love. The character of media psychologist Mick Callahan emerged unbidden from my imagination just as I turned fifty, months before the birth of my first child. Young Callahan is a recovering alcoholic who managed to trash a promising career in the entertainment business by punching someone on live television. I pictured the poor guy on the comeback trail, hunched over the decrepit console of a funky radio station in the middle of the desert, desperately trying to hold his own as guest host of a call-in program designed for UFO junkies, black helicopter paranoiacs and the recently anally probed. To make the experience even more excruciating, it seemed appropriate to have Callahan hail from that same area.
The cowboy hero returns home, head bowed in shame.
Since my most wonderful, vital childhood memories revolve around my adventures on what was then my grandfathers cattle ranch near the tiny town of Wells, Nevada, I chose that landscape for the novel, even though I now live in Los Angeles. I hadn't been back to the area in nearly forty years, yet I felt compelled to use those vivid images still frozen in my mind, but I needed a way to weave them into a more contemporary setting.
I contacted my relatives requesting photographs of the town of Wells and what was left of Grandpas H.H. Cazier Ranch. My brother Dwight and sister Marsha came through with some wonderful stuff. Then I did some online research for geographical reference points. Using family contributions, my memories and some photographs of Historical Wells (now the “Dry Wells” of my imagination) I constructed a small, shriveling high desert community and my quirky, slightly misanthropic cast of sinister characters.
The plot seemed to dictate itself as the main character came into focus. I imagined poor Mick, forced to limp home to Dry Wells in disgrace, confronting ugly images of an abusive childhood and his disturbed stepfather, a Nam vet. I saw Mick reluctantly solving the murder of a female caller, the daughter of the richest man in the county, an old family enemy. Since the subtext was memories, the story would take place, with the clock relentlessly ticking, from late Friday night through the evening of Memorial Day. The novel would also be a covert tribute to the classic western as Mick, the reluctant gunfighter, faces the evil rancher and his minions, in this case a small gang of viscous young drug addicts. I even included a fist fight on main-street at ‘high noon.’
Naturally, Callahan’s fiery temper is only part of the story. Since he is a trained therapist, Mick uses a variety of verbal techniques, some subtle some not, to probe the townsfolk for clues. That rendered a lot of the dialogue edgy, defensive and a great deal of fun to write. Eventually, Callahan runs into Annie, an old flame with a great deal of let's call it "sexual confidence," something he now lacks. Their encounters supply both heat and humor.
Mick Callahan also has a sidekick, Jerry, a disfigured computer hacker who lives in the area. He gets information and money from his AA sponsor Hal, a wealthy retiree traveling Europe. The three men communicate via keyboard and monitor—I rather enjoyed the juxtaposition of modern technology in and around those dusty, western buildings; many of them lacking electricity. In fact, the concept of deeply connected opposites became vital to the entire story. Some characters are carefully reversed versions of one another; people much the same at the core who have chosen alternate paths, opting for evil over good as a way of life.
But I digress.
So, tell me the truth, aren't you just writing about yourself, here?
I’ll fess up. The answer is…yes and no.
Like Callahan, I'm a therapist. I've been sober eighteen years. I used to work as an actor, a songwriter and music executive in the entertainment industry. I'm currently a counselor in private practice. As for the rest, I raided my childhood memories for a lot of pivotal moments, but the truth is that I made up most of “Memorial Day," just to suit my nefarious purposes. The town of Dry Wells exists only in the novel and has merely a passing resemblance to the real Wells, Nevada.
Oh, and I haven't been in a real fist fight since the late 1960’s.
Not that I haven't thought about it.
Causes Harry Shannon Supports
Cats and a ton of charities.