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Author Interview: Robert Crais

Elena Acoba / February 5, 2015

When Robert Crais makes his fourth appearance at the Tucson Festival of Books this year, he’ll have a confession to make.

He missed his fall deadline to complete The Promise, the book in which long-time characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike join forces with cop Scott James and his K-9 partner, Maggie, the characters in his last novel, Suspect.

The book is now scheduled for release in April, which means it won’t be available at the Festival.

“Fact is, as hard as I tried, I didn’t finish in time,” crime-writer Crais admitted on his Facebook page. “My bad and mine alone.”

He told TFOB that his failure will be good fodder for his appearance. “I have 19 earlier books in print, so there will be plenty to talk about, including why and how I busted my deadline.”

Crais is a best-selling author and former writer for television, including Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice. He credits Raymond Chandler, author of 1940s hard-boiled detective novels, for launching his career.

“I fell in love with Chandler…fell in love with the whole notion of Los Angeles and detective fiction,” he said in an interview for Santa Monica Citywide Reads. “You can say he then guided the rest of my life and my professional career.”

Los Angeles, where most of Crais’s books take place, is more than a setting. It’s an ever-present driving force in the lives of his characters, including wise-cracking private investigator Cole and his partner and friend, Pike. They appear in 15 of his novels.

He plays with the idea of L.A. as a magical place where people fulfill their dreams and remake themselves. It’s what he did when he left Louisiana to pursue a career in writing.

But L.A. also is a place of danger and darkness, and it shows in his novels.

“It’s an enormous canvas for someone who writes about the type of things I write about,” he said. “Elvis and Joe couldn’t be who they are in any other city on the planet. They had to be here in L.A. They’re children of Los Angeles.”

Crais comes from a family with four generations of Louisiana cops and feels his books touch on their professional and personal lives. He spends hours with law enforcement—L.A. police, FBI, Secret Service, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives—to put the right insider feel to his police procedurals.

When he’s got an idea for a story, he develops an outline before he starts writing. Then he spends most of his time on the first few chapters.

“Beginnings set the scene for everything that follows,” he told Author Magazine. “I find that I will rework the opening scenes of a novel more than any other scenes in the books that I write. I spend an inordinate amount of time in the first third of the book.

“But after I’ve got that right, then everything begins to pick up speed so that by the last third, I’m darn near unstoppable.”

When Crais arrived in Los Angeles in 1976 to pursue his dream of becoming a writer, he landed in Hollywood and wrote scripts. By the mid-1980s, Crais wanted to focus on writing novels because writing for television required a collaborative atmosphere that he felt got in the way of his creativity. The 1985 death of his father inspired him to write his first successful book, The Monkey’s Raincoat in which Cole makes his debut.

Crais said his agent discouraged him from writing about a private eye at that time because the genre was saturated. He was not deterred.

“I believed in it and Elvis Cole as a character,” he told the magazine. “That particular story was personally important to me and I believed in it so much, it’s what helped make it as successful as it became.”

He advises writers to have that same passion for the stories they write.

“Too many writers read the writing magazines, see what’s hot, then try to chase that heat. I think that’s a big, big mistake. You have to write what excites you even if the magazines are saying that’s old hat.”

Crais, whose novels are available at major bookstores, said he is looking forward to a return appearance at TFOB. “Most of my time is spent alone, writing,” he said, “so TFOB gives me a rare opportunity to meet my readers and other writers. I love interacting with my readers.

“The TFOB is a consistently wonderful literary experience. The line-up of authors is killer, the people are friendly and the setting is gorgeous. The fan-boy, book-lover me would attend TFOB even if I wasn't an author.”

You can find Robert Crais on Sunday at 1 PM at the Tucson Festival of Books at "A Conversation with Robert Crais" session.

Elena Acoba is a Tucson writer and editor who helps companies and organizations tell their stories and craft their messages. She also writes feature stories on assignment, including for the Arizona Daily Star and the Arizona Office of Tourism. Acoba has participated in the Tucson Festival of Books as a panelist and by writing author profiles for the TFOB website.

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