Irish writer and blogger Martin Frankson visited Vancouver recently. We met at the inaugural Noir at the Bar event at the Shebeen Room, and then again at Kafka’s, one of my favourite coffee shops. He took our conversation and turned it into a blog post here. This is a slightly condensed version.
You have written short stories, many of which have been published. One was even dramatized by the CBC. Tell us about the story behind the dramatization?
For a time, the CBC ran a fantastic online multimedia magazine of art and culture. They called it Radio 3. Budget cutbacks killed it a few years ago, and now it’s just a pop music channel. When it was still an art and culture weekly magazine, I emailed them a story idea. I hadn’t published anything – not creative writing at least – at the time. It was just a cold-call type email. They asked to see the story and they accepted it. What was astounding to me was how quickly the process proceeded – compared to the glacial pace of the publishing industry. The time from the initial email to the acceptance was perhaps three days. Two days later I received a late night phone call from the recording studio. They were recording it with actors and had a request for slight changes. At the end of the week it was online! It’s still there if you go hunting for it. The instructions are on my website.
Are short stories good grounding for novelists? What strengths do you think they add to a writer’s skillset?
I wrote short stories for about two years. I used them as a vehicle for exploring various forms and trying out what works for me. Short stories are perfect way to dig into character, atmosphere and description without having plot take over. And, frankly, you can experiment more freely, with a lot less investment in time. More than half of my short stories were unpublished and rightly so. But without the validation of having short stories published, I wouldn’t have had the courage and self-confidence to embark on writing a novel.
‘Almost Criminal’ is your debut novel. It’s set within the marijuana industry in BC. Why this concept in particular?
I like stories to be “about” something. I like there to be social relevance that speaks to a time and place. What attracted me to the marijuana industry in BC is that it’s everywhere, in every town, every city block, every rural area, and yet no one talks about it.
When I began, the only marijuana stories were Cheech and Chong type stuff. Stoner humour. Weeds and Breaking Bad weren’t on the air. I didn’t know of another book about it. I became fascinated with prohibition stories and gangster novels from the prohibition era. I saw parallels between the growth of organized crime — the American mafia – which was directly created by alcohol prohibition and the growth of Hells Angels from the 60s and 70s to today, fuelled by marijuana prohibition.
Did researching this industry, which still remains the shadows of legality, pose any logistical problems?
Well, of course, few people in the industry want to speak to someone who looks like a narc. Especially a couple of years ago, when even medical growing was illegal. But that was overcome. The truth is, there’s grow op on every block, and it doesn’t take very much work to get hold of people who know people. I even had a number of back-and-forth emails with Marc Emery, the self-proclaimed Prince of Pot, from his jail cell in Yazoo City, Michigan. Research books like Bud Inc, and books on the Hells Angels, like Angels of Death, were really helpful.
Did you experience hurdles during the writing of your novel?
A first novel is a giant hurdle. You may think you can write one, but you’ve never done it before. No one wants you to write it, and no publisher will consider it before it’s complete. It’s a leap of faith and a multi-year exercise, and your initial self-confidence may prove to be self-delusion. Yeah, there were hurdles.
Do you have an agent and if so how did that relationship come about? If not, can you talk about the journey between completing the novel and its publication?
I have a terrific agency and agent, Chris Bucci at the McDermid agency. I was introduced to the agency by a writer friend, a mentor at the Banff Centre. But there were years and several drafts of the novel between my first introduction to the agency and the point where I was finally accepted for representation. In today’s world, agents tend to act as gatekeepers for the industry. I think lots of writers will tell you that getting an agent can be harder than getting a publisher.
Why crime-fiction and does crime fiction play a role in exposing unhidden truths about society?
I didn’t plan on writing crime fiction. The story turned in that direction on its own. It began as a family drama and coming-of-age story. The coming-of-age story is still there, of course, but once the bikers showed up it was hard to deny that what I had was a crime story. That said, I couldn’t be happier being considered a crime writer. Crime readers are the best. And the attention I have received, with the award nominations and the reviews that I’ve received… the industry has been very kind to me. So let me be clear: my next novel is a crime novel. And unlike Almost Criminal, it’s conceived from the outset as a crime novel and I’m having a lot of fun with it.
I understand that marijuana accounts for an estimated $7-9 billion of untaxed revenues in BC and according to studies, 1/100 homes in BC have at one point in time, been used as grow houses. Is this industry common across Canada or peculiar to BC and if the latter, why do you think this is?
The industry is everywhere, right across Canada. It began in BC, certainly. And BC Bud is a pretty well known brand. I’m told it began with a group of American war resisters—draft dodgers, we used to call them— who came up from California and then settled on Lasqueti Island. The history of the character Randle Kennedy, in my novel, follows that trajectory. The coffee shop owners and Randle have a shared background in resisting the Vietnam war and coming up to BC, and then one way or another becoming involved in BC Bud.
Are biker gangs common in BC and how are they regarded by the authorities and did you contact any during your research and if so, what impression did you glean from them?
Bike gangs are a big deal. The authorities know, it everyone knows it. And don’t assume that all of them actually ride bikes anymore. When it came to those guys, I stuck to book research. Some of my marijuana contacts verified what I had to say about the industry and how the bike gangs play into it, but direct contact with bikers, no.
Do you detail the synopsis/storyline before you write a word or do write and plot as you proceed?
I wrote so many outlines! I found I’m terrible at outlining. But the process of doing the outlines—which I didn’t really follow as the writing proceeded— gave me signposts, landmarks, that were very useful to me in getting the story done. I think that outlining is essential in writing crime stories, and I’ve been working on my outlining skills. Crime readers expect a certain level of plot complexity that is very difficult to do without a pretty solid outline.
What authors do you admire the most and why?
I probably read more literary writers than crime writers, although I read a lot of both. The writers whose books I’ll buy as soon as they appear on the shelf are Barbara Kingsolver, Dennis Lehane, Russell Banks, TC Boyle, Martin Cruz Smith — those are the names that come to mind first. I love writers who cross the genre divide, like Graham Greene did. These days there’s Benjamin Black/John Banville.
Many writers also have full time jobs that can be demanding. What advice would you give such writers to help them find the necessary mental energy to write?
Until recently I was a full time writer of marketing and advertising. It’s very tough to finish a draining day of writing and then stare at an empty page, or empty screen, and hope that inspiration will come. But ultimately the only way to get writing done is to write.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Junot Diaz, ‘This is How You Lose Her’, and Harry Karlinky’s ‘The Stonehenge Letters’, and Owen Laukkanen’s ‘The Professionals’. Diaz’s voice grabs you from the first word. Karlinsky is all dry, intellectual wit. The footnotes in that book bring tears to my eyes. And Owen, who I just met a couple of weeks ago, is so smart. His plotting is really clever.
Are you a full time writer now?
I’ve been a full time writer for over 20 years, but I’m now a full time fiction writer. On my LinkedIn page I called myself a recovering copywriter. Until I unplugged from LinkedIn.
Have you a set writing schedule for each day?
I’m a working writer. I write all day long! But in the morning, I tend to business: dealing with emails and whatever. My creative brain works best later in the day.
Is a writer ever truly happy with his/her work even after the zillionth revision?
When do you know to let it go into the world?
When the editor says it’s ready, and there’s no more time to meet the deadline.
What topics have your short stories covered and do you still write them?
My most successful short stories were, I think, those dealing with coming-of-age type of issues. My first published short story is about teens in garage-rock bands. There’s another historical story, a novella set in the Depression, which is a first person story about a young man in the north of Quebec. They all informed, in one way or another, the character of Tate in Almost Criminal. I haven’t written a short story in a while. I’m happier with the long form.
What differences have you experienced between writing short stories and your novel?
I feel really comfortable in the plot driven novel form. Style is so much of what makes a great short story, and I’ve found I’m more of a traditional storyteller than a literary stylist.
When you completed the final draft of a novel, do you immediately start work on the next novel or some other project?
With only one published novel, I don’t have a lot of experience with this! But so far, each time I’m getting near the end of one novel, I find myself casting about for ideas for the next. Not to say that I’m writing yet, but I’m looking at potential subjects and starting to do research.
Should unpublished novelists seek or rely on the advice of friends or social media contacts to beta read their work? Who in your opinion should a writer rely on for sound advice?
I’m a big fan of the reading circle. I’m a member of two reading circles. Each one includes unpublished and published writers, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without them.
How important is factual research to you? Can the truth be bent in favour of a better story without breaking the bounds of credibility?
It’s important to me that the sense of place feels true, the surroundings feel authentic. Also that the details of both the criminal activity and the plot trajectory feel accurate and plausible. That does take a lot of research. But, at the same time, I don’t write textbooks. The story goes in unexpected places, and reality gets bent. You just hope that the reader trusts you, and enjoys going along for the ride.
How important has social media been in promoting your work and what strategies do you employ to maximise its effectiveness?
It’s connected me with readers who are far beyond my physical reach — in places where I can’t do readings or signings. As someone with a smaller publisher that’s been fantastic. But something’s happening in the world of social media. So many people, especially the young influencers, have bailed out of Facebook, don’t blog anymore, and so on. I wonder what’s going to happen to take its place.
Do you believe in writer’s block or should a writer just write something until the muse returns?
The only cure for writer’s block is putting your butt in the chair and writing.