A Conversation with Rob Byrnes by Gavin Atlas

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Rob
Byrnes is the author of five novels including the brand new release,
Holy Rollers (Bold
Strokes Books), which features gay criminals, Grant Lambert and Chase
LaMarca.  Rob is originally from
Rochester, New York and now lives with his partner in West New York, New Jersey
where he has a view of the Manhattan skyline and the occasional jet plane that
lands in the Hudson River. 

Hi, Rob.  First,
from your books, your blog, and your Facebook posts, I have gathered enough
evidence to know for a fact that you’re hysterically funny.  What early influences helped form your sense
of humor?   Who or what (TV shows? Films?)
do you find hysterical? 

I tell you this at
the risk of sounding a bit too precocious, but, when I was growing up, I was a
huge fan of silent comedians.  Especially
Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.  To the
extent my characters seem to always be in a “Huh?  What? 
This is happening to me?”
mode, those pioneers probably get some credit. 
Or blame.  Your choice.

These days, I have
nothing against TV or film – I will argue any day that some of the sharpest
contemporary writing is on the small screen, and I only stopped going to movies
when the VCR and DVD brainwashed people into thinking the theater was their
living room – but I’ve fallen away from pop culture.  Still, my tastes in comedy are eclectic and
erratic: loved Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein;” despise
many of his other films.  Love the knife-sharp
repartee of “All About Eve;” watch the low-brow “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad
World” at least once a year.  Hell, I’m
even one of the last people standing who laughs out loud at “Desperate
Housewives”… although maybe not when the writers want me to laugh.

And if I’m ever
paralyzed and can do nothing but watch TV from a hospital bed for the rest of
my life, bring me DVDs of every episode of “The Match Game” and “Green Acres” –
and a case of white wine – and I think I’ll be a pretty content
paralyzed-in-a-hospital-bed kind of guy.
 

Congratulations on your new book!  Could you tell us what you’d like readers to
know about Holy Rollers and about
your characters, Grant and Chase?  

Grant and Chase are
a very committed couple with all the occasional baggage that comes with that.  But in addition to a bed, they also share a
vocation: they’re criminals.  Not
necessarily competent criminals, but they get by.

In Holy Rollers,
they learn about seven million dollars stashed in the safe of a right-wing
mega-church in Virginia, and decide that money should be theirs.  Of course, complications ensue.
 

What do you enjoy about taking characters who should,
technically, be the bad guys (since they’re criminals) and making them the good
guys?   What kinds of reader reactions
have you gotten about Grant and Chase?

I’m glad you
mentioned that Grant and Chase are technically
bad guys, because sometimes book publicists and marketing people skip over that.  They aren’t fun-loving scamps; they’re men
who’ll steal your laptop or car – ideally both – without a second thought or a
pang of conscience.  If your Christmas
presents are in the trunk of the car, all the better.  They can put the loot on eBay!

I’ve long been a
huge fan of Donald E. Westlake’s “Dortmunder” crime caper series and wanted
to put a gay spin on the genre with my fourth book, Straight Lies, which introduced Grant and Chase.  The key to making it work – and making the
reader root for the criminals – is to make their adversaries even more heinous
than they are.  In Straight Lies, my criminals were up against a manipulative actor, a
sleazy tabloid editor, and a pedophile cop; in Holy Rollers, they do battle with the leaders of the mega-church
and officious suburban neighbors.   By
comparison, they become the good guys. 
If Grant and Chase were stealing from average people, they’d be
unsympathetic.

I’ve been gratified
by the reaction of readers, who appreciate both the gay twist on the crime
caper genre and the fact that Chase, Grant and their gang are decidedly not the
types of people typically found in gay literature.  They live in glamour-free neighborhoods,
scrape by financially, suffer from an overload of bad luck… oh, and they steal
for a living.

If Grant and Chase stole your car, and they checked
your radio pre-sets, your glove apartment, your trunk, and so forth, what
conclusions do you think they’d come to about you?

I’m sure they’d
discover I’m very disorganized and eclectic, and I’d like to think they’d
appreciate that.  All the way to the
chop-shop.

Some of the last names of your characters, like Lambert
or Cochrane, sound rather familiar.  Do
you use the names of your friends mostly just for fun or does it help you
anchor your characters in some way?  What
are some of the reactions you’ve gotten from friends when they learn about the
characters that share their last names?

As you know,
writing can be a lonely activity.  To
entertain myself and readers, I’ve borrowed the names of many friends over the
years.  In the case of the writers whose
names I’ve appropriated, it’s also my way of paying tribute.  That said, when I see Grant Lambert in my
head, he looks nothing like the novelist Timothy J. Lambert; and Lisa Cochrane
– the wealthy lesbian realtor who sidelines in crime for the thrills – isn’t
the writer Becky Cochrane.

Giving a character
a name like “Mrs. Jarvis” or “Mr. Scribner” – to use two examples from Holy Rollers – does help bring them to
life in my head.  I’m not a big believer
in physical descriptions – for the most part, I try to write so the reader can
conjure up his or her own mental image – but it makes it much easier for me to create
a character when I have a model.

I’ve also created
an alternative reality in which many characters cross over from book to
book.  For example, gay FBI Agent Patrick
Waverly appears in Holy Rollers, and
was also a character in my first novel, The
Night We Met
.  Two characters –
publisher David Carlyle and mystery author Margaret Campbell – have managed to work
their way into all five of my novels, although sometimes only in passing.

What
can I say?  It keeps me amused.

I lived in Virginia for six years and had Eric Cantor as
my congressman, so I know can be a crummy place to be gay or liberal.  But what’s your take on the state, and what
led you to choose it as the setting for the Cathedral of Love in Holy Rollers

For the past 16
years, my life has been centered around Manhattan, so that’s what I tend to
write about.  Still, I have seen a little
bit more of the world than that, and – really – my characters needed to get out
more. Virginia was a good fit because I know it.  For years before he moved to New York, my
partner lived in Arlington, and my brother has a home in Loudon County.  It was also the perfect location for a
mega-church.

And if I joke about
a proliferation of McMansions and Walmarts in Northern Virginia, it’s done with
affection.  I actually like what I’ve
seen of Virginia.  Of course, I don’t
have to live there…

What parts of the writing process do you find the
easiest or, perhaps, the least excruciating? 
And which parts drive you craziest?

Here’s where a
great Dorothy Parker quote is useful: “I hate writing.  I love having written.”  And I seriously hate almost everything about
the act of writing.  I hate the blank
screen in front of you; I hate the typing; I hate the mental blocks; I hate the
discipline… or, in my case, lack thereof. I know a writer isn’t supposed to
admit these things, but there you have it.

Obviously, I find some
pleasure in the process, though, because no one has a gun to my head… and the
financial rewards are hardly keeping me in this business. I enjoy the exhausted
feeling at the end of a productive weekend when I’ve made real progress.  I love that “aha” moment when I’ve worked
through a plot point that seemed unsolvable. 
I love that moment when you’re surprised by your own creativity.  And as much as I loathe writing the first
draft, I actually sort of enjoy the revision process.

Every time I finish
a manuscript I tell myself, “Never again.” 
And then that inner voice starts nagging me…

Which books have you read recently (or not so recently)
would you recommend?  Are there any books
you’re looking forward to?

I should take a
pass on this question, because I could list recommendations for hours and not
scratch the surface.  I’m also trying to
write my next novel – staring at the blank screen, thinking of Dorothy Parker –
so I’ve fallen a bit behind in my reading. But I’m very happy to tout my friend
Jeffrey Ricker’s wonderful first novel, Detours, and
anything by Greg Herren and Josh Aterovis. I
recently read with Michael Graves (Dirty One) and Laurie Weeks (Zipper Mouth), and
can’t wait to dive into their books.

For readers who are
interested in the crime caper genre, I’d also recommend devouring the Westlake
series.  He passed away a few years ago,
so there won’t be anymore.  But what he
left behind is wonderful.
 

I sometimes ask interviewees what they would choose if
a genie granted them a wish, but in honor of Grant and Chase, let’s say you get
a criminal genie. (He wears prison stripes.) He says he has the power to let
you get away with a high stakes crime scot-free.  Of course, you can turn him down, but what
capers might you ponder?

I’d like to steal
the next Michael Thomas Ford manuscript, please!

If there’s an interview question that you’ve always
wanted to be asked, could you tell us what it is (and answer it, too)?

Q: Are you really
as arrogant and self-involved as you seem online?

A:  I’m sorry, were you talking to me?

Thanks very much, Rob! 

Keep up with Rob
at  http://www.robbyrnes.net/

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