Greg Fallis is the published author of four books and several short stories, and he teaches mystery writing for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I first encountered Greg on Flickr, where I became a fan of his photos, and soon enough learned that I was a fan of his writing, too, some of which I get to read on Utata.org, of which he is editor. I recently asked him some questions because I was geniuinely curious to find out the answers. I think you will be too. — Jamelah
Jamelah Earle: You’ve had some interesting careers, from military medic to private investigator. How did you settle on writing (and mystery writing in particular)?
Greg Fallis: I don’t know that I have settled on writing, although it’s past time I settled on something. I never had any intention of being a writer. It does seem to me, though, that all my earlier careers… medic, prison counselor, private detective… were all great training for writing. Not because the jobs were cool, but because they’re all about paying attention and making close observations and listening. And they’re all about keeping yourself in the background. Those are valuable skills for a writer, I think.
I actually came to writing through a fluke. I was badly burnt out as a private detective and had decided to leave the field for a year or so and go to graduate school (I wasn’t particularly interested in a degree; I just thought it would be a pleasant way to recover from the burnout). Around that same time I was approached by a publisher to write a book on investigative techniques. I was offered an advance and it sounded like fun, so I agreed. I wrote the book in just a few months.
About a year later the university offered to pay me to continue on toward a PhD. My dissertation was, not surprisingly, an exploratory study of private investigators and their work. One of the people on my dissertation was a mystery fan. She suggested I include a chapter comparing real life investigators to fictional ones. The only problem was that I hadn’t read any detective novels, except for the Sherlock Holmes novels when I was a kid.
Since I was ignorant of the genre, I arranged to do an independent study of detective fiction through the Department of Literature. I read a bunch of novels and found myself thinking “Lawdy, I can do that.” So I did. I wrote a novel, sent the manuscript off to a publisher (St. Martin’s Press), and they bought it.
I still had no thought of being a writer. So I took a teaching gig in New York City. I kept writing for the fun of it and I sold most of what I wrote. After a while I realized two things. First, I got more pleasure out of writing fiction and ‘popular’ nonfiction than I did from writing for academic journals.
Second, I realized I could reach a wider audience writing fiction than I ever could writing for academic journals. If I really wanted to educate people about issues of crime, criminality and deviance, I’d be more effective writing fiction. An article in an academic journal would reach maybe a few hundred scholars. But a novel or a short story dealing with the same issue would reach an audience of many thousands.
So I left academia and became poor.
JE: Do you have any influences? What are they?
GF: I don’t quite know how to answer that. I’m inclined to say no, but that sounds silly. The thing is, I don’t write mysteries and I don’t write traditional detective fiction (which I’ve come to learn are two different things). I’m not particularly interested in puzzles, which are at the heart of most mystery stories. And I’ve no real desire to write about murder, around which most mystery and detective stories revolve. I’m more interested in the smaller, more mundane and more common sins and crimes and deviances by which people managed to fuck up their lives.
I guess if I had to name an influence, I’d have to go with Jane Austen. Her protagonists would be great detectives because they pay attention to the minutiae of life and have a talent for seat-of-the-pants profiling. Austen understood that people get themselves in trouble more through stupidity and cupidity than by wickedness.
JE: You’ve written four books (three nonfiction and one fiction). Do you approach writing fiction and nonfiction differently, or is it a lot the same?
GF: The sort of nonfiction I do is mainly explaining stuff. You know… how to tail somebody, how the felony-murder rule works, how the police work a crime scene… that sort of stuff. It’s mostly just accumulating a lot of information, sorting out what needs to be told and what doesn’t, then putting it in a form that people will find engaging. It’s mostly grunt work. The hardest part, in my opinion, is keeping a consistent narrative voice that teaches without being didactic. You really want a nonfiction book to sound to the reader as he is listening to a friend who is a bit smarter and bit more articulate than he likes to think he is.
Fiction is an entirely different ball of wax. There are dozens more decisions to make, all of which can have an effect on the success of the story (and by “success” I mean how well the story reads, not how well it sells). The biggest difference is that the architecture of a work of fiction… novel or short story… is a lot more sophisticated but has to be discreetly hidden away inside the story. The structure of a nonfiction work is laid right out in the table of contents; the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen when. With fiction, the structure has to be just as organized, but invisible… and yet it should feel totally organic.
JE: Working as a writer is a dream for many people, yet it can also be terrifying in that there’s a fear that the creativity will somehow disappear once it becomes work. How do you keep it fresh for yourself? Is there something that you do to push yourself past those inevitable times when writing is just a job?
GF: I think if you’re serious about writing it would be a mistake NOT to treat it like a job. Because let’s face it, you have to get the damned thing finished.
I get great pleasure out of writing. But a lot of writing is just sitting down at the desk and putting words in a row. It’s not very romantic and it’s not very thrilling. Beginning a new story is always exciting and that excitement can carry anybody along for a chapter or two (or a few pages, if you’re working on a short story). But there’s always a hump that comes after that first flush of excitement. There’s always that bit where you just have to move the story along. That’s the point where most folks walk away. And who can blame them?
The only thing that gets you past the dull, grinding bits is keeping your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. Putting words in a row.
JE: What’s your process?
Like I said, I treat writing as a job. The same way folks who work in a store or at an office treat their job. They don’t interrupt their work to go do laundry or do the dishes. They don’t go run errands or meet their friends for coffee. When I sit down to write, I take that same approach.
I write almost every day. I generally work in short blocks of time… a couple of hours, maybe three. But I do that two to four times during the course of a day. I always start every writing session by reading and editing what I wrote the last time, but I limit that editing to about 15-20 minutes. It’s too easy to spend an entire writing session editing. Every time I sit down to write, I want to move the story forward.
For me, writing is an accretive process. Adding bits onto bits, a little at a time, until I’ve got something I can call finished and I won’t be too embarrassed by if it sees print.
JE: I’m a fan of your blog for its combination of words and images. Do you have the pieces you write i
n mind when you take the photographs, or do the ideas come later? When it comes to pieces like this or this — or any of the other ones, really — where do the ideas come from?
GF: Where do the ideas come from? I’ve never thought about it. I suppose they come from having spent a long time poking around in the private lives of folks who have problems or are in crisis.
I let the photograph drive the narrative. For example, there’s a photo of a cat’s feet for which I wrote a little piece about how cats go about eating a dead body. [link] I suppose it’s a sort of educational piece, though not the sort of education most people want. Still I think some folks would find it intriguing in a guilty sort of way. But I didn’t decide to write about the post-mortem feeding habits of domestic cats and then find a photo that fit; I took the photo for some other purpose and when I looked at it…well, I can’t say I immediately thought about cats eating bodies, but I’ve been unlucky enough to see a body that had been nibbled on by hungry cats. It’s not the sort of thing you forget. So I guess the photo stirred up a memory.
JE: You also teach. Is there a piece of advice that you like to give your students about writing? How did you come by it?
GF: Everybody always tells new writers to write what they know. I tell mine to also write about stuff they don’t know. Stuff they have to research and think about. The problem with writing what you know is that you know it so well; it’s sometimes hard to approach it from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t know it well. But if you approach a subject with innocent eyes, you can usually find a few things about it that interest you, and those things will likely interest other folks… folks who will, it’s to be hoped, read your work.
JE: Anything else you’d like to add?
GF: I think the thing most new writers fail to consider is the fact that they’re writing for an audience. If the only audience you’re writing for is yourself, that’s fine and it makes your job a lot easier. But if you’re writing for public consumption you have to keep the reader in mind. That doesn’t mean you have to give them what they want or expect, nor does it mean you have to neuter your opinions or your approach. It just means you should think about what you want the audience to experience at any given point in the story, and mold the story so that it heightens that experience.
Writing is the hardest work I’ve ever done. And the most quiet. And the most fun. What are the odds of that?