Interview with Christopher Meeks
This question is dependent on each book. I haven’t stuck to one genre, but a literary sense connects them all. My new book, A Death in Vegas, is a mystery, and I’m a fan of mysteries—yet there are so few great ones. Raymond Chandler’s mysteries are often given as example of great ones, and those are what drew me into the genre.
My previous novel, Blood Drama, is closer to a thriller, although it’s also a crime book. The one before that, Love at Absolute Zero, can be viewed either as a comic novel or a romantic comedy with quantum physics. It’s about a physicist trying to land a wife in three days using the Scientific Method—far-fetched unless you’ve hung around scientists as I have at Caltech, where my wife once worked. My two collections of short fiction as well as my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, can be called literary, but they also all have humor. I see the absurdity in life, and I can’t help but layer that in.
I write what interests me, so I’ve never stuck to just one genre. There’s a certain logic to my path, however. My first two books were collections of short stories. My agent, though, kept pushing me to write a novel. That seemed such a huge challenge until a friend said I should write a series of connected stories using the same protagonist—a novel in stories. That was The Brightest Moon of the Century, which was connected to my own life growing up in Minnesota, going to college in Denver, and moving to Los Angeles.
Love at Absolute Zero was loosely based on a year I lived in Denmark after I fell in love with a young Danish woman. While it became the lowest period in my life, in retrospect, it was very funny.
After that, I’d run out of major things that had happened to me. Thus, I wrote my first crime novel, Blood Drama, because if I was going to make up someone’s life, then I was going to put him through hell. That led to another crime book, A Death in Vegas.
My novel-in-progress is a war novel set in Iraq, based on the life on one of my students. We’re collaborating on it.
Tell us about your latest book, A Death in Vegas.
My stories tend to be about average people in extraordinary circumstances. In this case, a man who began his career as a scientist creating pesticides for agricultural took a 180-degree turn. He started a business selling beneficial bugs to organic gardeners. Lady bugs, for instance, eat aphids. The story starts in his booth with his employees at a huge convention: the Lawn and Garden Pavilion at the annual National Hardware Show in Las Vegas. He’s hired a model to be a sexy lady bug. The next day, he discovers her dead in his hotel room, and he had nothing to do with it. The FBI then raids his booth over an investigation into money laundering, which also he knows nothing about. He senses he’s been set up, so he escapes arrest to find out by whom? After all, the police and FBI think he’s guilty, so it’s up to him to solve this thing.
If that weren’t enough, his wife, whom he loves, has doubts about their marriage because why was a model in his hotel room? He not only has to regain her trust, but also she has to help him at one point because there are so many forces against him.
Why do you think readers are going to enjoy your book?
Because it’s a compelling story. I think about my readers when I write. I might get to a part with a fabulous turn, and I’m laughing to myself, thinking, “Wait until they see this.” I like the idea that a story can be a page-turner. I’m not the usual mystery writer, not hard-boiled. Rather, my characters can be quirky, but they will stay with you.
Roald Dahl once said, “I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.” I’m slightly different. I want you to like the story, but I don’t care if along the way some of my characters infuriate you. There are people like them.
Who designed the cover?
Deborah Daly is the designer, and she’s worked on several books at White Whisker Books. She used to be the art director at St. Martin’s Press, and she’s one of those passionate people I was telling you about. She loves a great cover and obsesses over them. Add that to my own obsessions, and we keep on going until she hits something I love. I love all her covers.
Every book I learn something. Kurt Vonnegut said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” He went on to explain that each new book makes him feel like a beginner. While I don’t feel that way, each new book has so many challenges, I can’t say I ever feel like an expert. I’m wrestling an alligator. I hope to come out of it without teeth marks.
With A Death in Vegas, I learned how far I can make my character stray. That is, I wanted the reader to like the protagonist, Patton, and his wife. One of the truths they reflect is that marriage is not always easy, but I never want you hating either of them or hoping they don’t stay married.
What advice do you have for other writers?
I’ll try to be objective and offer what I’ve noticed in my students. It all begins with passion—passion for writing and/or passion for storytelling. My fiction writing class at Santa Monica College, for example, is an elective. Students take it because they already have a passion for writing, and I make them read and write a lot. With passion, a writer is more prone to try new things. In the middle of the semester, for three weeks we put fiction off to the side, and I had them write poetry and a song. That brought many of them into uncharted territory—and they loved it. One piece of advice: push yourself. Try new things. My goal was to get them to feel and understand lyricism in writing, which they could use later in their short fiction.
How does one keep passion going? When it comes to big projects, write things that interest you. Don’t worry about the marketplace.
Of course with writing, you need to be a reader. From my students, I’ve seen plenty who don’t call themselves readers until we hit on a great short story or book that changes the way they think about reading. They simply hadn’t read something that had grabbed them so much. With over a million book titles out each year, there are books for every person. The trick is finding them, but sites like this one help.
The reason to read is to get inspired. When you see a writer doing something that you didn’t think could be done, it gives you permission to try new things for yourself.
What's your favourite quote about writing/for writers?
One of my mentors, the late playwright Robert E. Lee (Inherit the Wind), gave me the best approach to telling stories. He said, “Plot is what interesting people do.” He noted if you get two interesting characters together, they will move your story. Imagine Hitler and Albert Einstein in the waiting room of a dentist’s office, and they both reach for the same old magazine. You can bet they’ll get to disagreeing. Of course, tension and conflict is the motor of all stories, but if you have two characters who are interesting with different needs, you’ll soon have a story speeding along.
Who inspires you?
I’m blessed with constant inspiration. My son, daughter, and wife inspire me in terms of staying in the moment. My students do as I feel them nipping at my heels. Great books do as I’m inspired by what they do and get away with. Tim O’Brien, Kevin Powers, and Ernest Hemingway’s war stories have inspired me to start a war novel. While I didn’t experience Iraq directly, my former student did, and he’s an amazing resource. Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, Lorrie Moore, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Maynard, and Raymond Carver are some of the authors who have stimulated me.
Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
Originally I wanted to be a filmmaker. When I moved to Los Angeles and started shooting a film, and I lost my life savings because I didn’t have a permit, I decided to become a writer. I don’t need no stinking permit for that. I get to make the movies in my head on paper—and now on eBook pages, too.
What are you currently reading?
Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World. It’s a memoir of her ten months of living with J.D. Salinger when she was just eighteen. While I’ve admired and adored Salinger’s Nine Stories—he’s a major influence on my writing short fiction—I wondered what made him a recluse. I discovered he became a misanthrope. If you don’t like people, how will you write great stories? I’m not holding my breath that his posthumous books will be great. Still, he’s touched me. Maynard is a compelling writer, too. Perhaps they were destined to meet, ying and yang.