An Interview with Josh Bazell
In 2009, Josh Bazell burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel, Beat the Reaper. The story of orphan-turned-hitman-turned-mob informant-turned emergency room physician Dr. Peter “Pietro Brnwa” Brown was universally praised for its muscular prose style, dark humor, and its irreverent treatment of several crime fiction tropes. The novel became a bestseller, and Dr. Bazell has spent the last three years writing his follow up, the equally original and compulsively readable, Wild Thing.
Much like Beat the Reaper, Wild Thing is a weird amalgam of hardboiled pacing, political intrigue, and off the wall conspiracy theory. Throw in the possible existence of a Loch Ness style lake monster and a self-destructive paleontologist named Violet Hurst (who also ranks as one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve read in quite some time) and you have a novel that can easily rival (and in my opinion actually tops) the best satiric works of Carl Hiasen and Elmore Leonard.
Like his novels, Dr. Bazell is a true original and I hope you enjoy.
Keith Rawson: Let’s start off with the new book, Wild Thing, and pretend no one’s heard about it. What’s it about?
Josh Bazell: It’s about a guy who gets hired to investigate an alleged lake monster in Minnesota and gets tangled up in all kinds of criminal enterprises involved with it. It also deals with the larger irrational fears taking over American cultural life.
KR: Wild Thing features the hitman character from your first novel, Beat the Reaper, Peter Brown. And this is something that I’ve been curious about, what made you want to write a hitman character?
JB: I went to medical school at a fairly advanced age. I went when I was thirty-one, which is fairly up there for medical school, and I think it was a combination of not wanting to lose my personality in the process and I had a bit more perspective than most people in medical school have, because it’s usually a process that starts at sixteen and goes straight through. I had an awareness of how strange the things I was doing and learning were and I wanted to create a character who was conflicted about what he was doing, and who was a doctor and the exact opposite of a doctor at the same time. So it made it fairly obvious to make him a killer. I was also working in the medical examiner's office in New York at the time and seeing a fair amount of crime scenes, so this type of character was certainly on my mind.
KR: Why did you decide to go into medicine at such a late age?
JB: I always wanted to be a novelist from about the time I was ten and the interest in medicine came around not long after. I did decide to go to medical school at the “normal” age and I applied and was prepared to enter medical school and got sidetracked writing screenplays to pay for medical school. Which was a stupid idea, but it made sense at the time and I ended up doing it for years.
KR: So you wrote screenplays to pay for medical school? Did anything you wrote ever go into production?
JB: Most of the stuff I got paid for was stuff that was already in production by the time I was hired, and mostly I’d be involved in these two-week scattershot rewrites for dialogue and a few different scenes and all of it was uncredited. I kind of started out with an odd career in Hollywood. I started out with Dino De Laurentiis and I ended up writing, I think, thirteen screenplays in the first year? And then I had a fellowship at Disney writing art films for a year. All of it was ridiculous.
KR: With De Laurentiis, what productions did you work on with him?
JB: I worked with him when it was kind of a low point in his productivity, so we didn’t get a ton of things made. I came in after this one John Dahl movie about an evil trucker that I can’t even remember the name of and I don’t know if anyone’s even seen it or not. I, of course, received zero credit for it.
KR: But you got a paycheck out of it.
JB: Exactly, and I was doing a lot of medical volunteer stuff at the time and traveling. But a year working with De Laurentiis was worth its weight in gold as far as learning structure, and also, if you were a film history geek, Dino loved talking the philosophy of film making, so it was a good time. But really, we were writing 80’s movies and this was in the mid-90’s, so they were mostly doomed projects.
KR: So are you now a practicing physician along with being a novelist?
JB: Yes and no. I’m licensed, but I haven’t finished my residency.
KR: Are you considering finishing and picking that career back up?
JB: Absolutely, I only have two years left, so I definitely plan on going back and finishing up.
KR: Let’s get back to the new book, where did you come up with the idea of writing about a Loch Ness style monster?
JB: There were a few different motivations. First off, I wanted it to be a completely different novel than Beat the Reaper. In fact, the third book in that particular series is a completely different book than the first two. But what I wanted to do with Wild Thing was examine the scientific side of Pietro and kind of the curse of the rational mind. It’s not that doctors are always rational, there are plenty of irrational clowns in medicine, it's just you have to work a little harder at being an irrational clown when you’re staring down at the face of evidentiary realism. So I thought it would be fun to throw Pietro into a situation like that.
KR: You introduce Violet Hurst with this novel, and I’ve got to say she has to be one of the strongest female characters I’ve read in awhile. Do you plan on using her again in future novels?
JB: Absolutely! I take it you’ve only read the ARC of Wild Thing?
JB: Well, the finished hardback has these great end cover illustrations that are based off the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew end covers that have Pietro and Violet doing all this crazy shit like surfing, fleeing from Yeti’s, falling into volcanoes, and stuff like that. To me, there’s this great kind of imaginative through line for them that can go all kinds of places. The original idea was for them to be the series stars, it was just that Pietro’s back story was so complicated that I decided to write him into his own book.
KR: Do you see yourself writing a backstory book for Violet?
JB: It’s crossed my mind, yeah.
KR: Let’s go back to Beat the Reaper. I wanted to ask about Pietro’s grand parents and their back-story and how it pertains to shaping Pietro’s character. Do you ever think about going back and fleshing out their story?
JB: You know, it hasn’t really crossed my mind. I do have their story written out. You know, they’re such contradictory characters in a sense that they truly regret what they were and try to become something else. They’re really tough characters to write, being they hated who they were.
KR: I think there are so many parallels between Pietro and his grandparents, where they all start off as these really horrible human beings and then feel they have to redeem themselves in some way.
JB: Oh yeah, I think so many people think of their grandparents, especially the generation who survived World War II, think of them being so solid and humane and honorable, and they often turn out to be just that. But if you really take the time to get to know them, you find out they dealt with so many serious situations and had much more complicated lives than we think of them having.
KR: As a novelist, do you get a lot of critical comparisons with Jeff Lindsay and the Dexter books?
JB: No I haven’t, but I can see that as a valid comparison. I mean, they are both killers who are managing dual identities in a way that will ultimately lead to some kind of justice. But I don’t think anyone has mentioned it other than you. I actually like the Dexter books quite a bit.
I think both characters share the similarity that you can change who you are, but it’s extremely difficult. It takes a lot of energy and dedication to be someone you’re not and if you decide being someone you’re not is a moral requirement, you’re going to be in a serious bind, and I think both Lindsey and I are playing around with that a little bit.
KR: You’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to Elmore Leonard for obvious reasons. Can you see yourself, like Leonard, branching out beyond these characters and writing stand-alone novels and even developing other series characters?
JB: Absolutely! First off, let me say that I love Elmore Leonard; I grew up reading him. One of the great things about working as a crime writer is that you get to meet these people and Leonard’s been fantastic to hang out with. It’s absolutely mind blowing to get to hang out with him.
KR: You’ve gotten to hang out with Elmore Leonard?
JB: Yeah, a couple of times; I’ve gone to the Tucson Festival of books a few times, and it’s one of the few literary events Leonard attends and I’ve gotten to meet him. The Tucson festival is just the coolest, mellowest place to hang out with your idols, at least in my experience.
KR: Let’s talk about the upcoming television adaptation of Beat the Reaper. Do you know what stage it’s at in its development?
JB: Two things about that: one, I have no way of knowing. Because it’s the entertainment industry, I don’t know how seriously to take it or not. Secondly, I’m just so far removed from it and never really hear from the people who are developing it.
JB: Oh yeah. I mean, it would be great if it happened, and I would even go so far as to seek out the chance to write and direct a couple of episodes. But that offer hasn’t been made and I don’t really know where they are in the chronology of it being made.
KR: I ask that question of just about every writer I interview, and just once I wish the answer was different and that the novelist actually had some type of creative say in the process. But what are you writing at the moment?
JB: You know, I’m kind of in a weird space. I have a lot of trouble working on a project just before a new book comes out, so I’m kind of on vacation and writing a screenplay. It should be done by the time the book actually comes out. But as soon as Wild Thing comes out, I want to start working on a couple of stand-alone thrillers, neither of which is related to the previous two books. I also want to start slowly building up the third Pietro novel. It took me so long to write my second novel, and I’m hoping to get a full year to get a third one done.
KR: How long did it take to write Wild Thing?
JB: It took me about three years, which is too long. There’s this mythology surrounding the writing of a second novel, which for me absolutely ended up being true, that it’s very strange to write when you actually have an audience. It’s very strange to write when a publisher has bought a book before it’s been written, it’s a very different go round. The other thing is, it seems like the longer it takes to write the book, the better it has to be to justify how long it took write it, so it kind of becomes a vicious cycle.
KR: Do you currently have a publishing contract?
JB: I don’t; but my current thinking is to not have a contract and not do that again. It was fine this time, but I’m starting to think it’s a good idea to completely finish books before I sell them. It’s weird to get a book contract in advance, it seems like you’re almost betting against yourself. At this point, I’m actually pretty excited to just produce material out in the middle of the wilderness and then show it off at the end when it’s done.
KR: So with the screenplay you’re writing, no one’s attached to it and would you care to share what it’s about?
JB: Literally no one’s seen it or read it and at this point, absolutely not. But it’s great writing it and I’m having fun with it. It’s much wilder than anything I was allowed to write under contract.
KR: Going back to Wild Thing, it seems to be a very politically motivated book, particularly with the economic divides. Was this something you intentionally set out to do?
JB: Yeah. The first book was political because it was about the health care system; I kind of feel like noir fiction has split into two directions. There’s the noir with the original intent in which you describe the fleecing of the innocent by the corrupt, in the same way Hammet and Chandler approached it, or in the way Michael Connelly does it. Then there’s this other aspect of new noir where it’s very cliché and familiar kind of pastiche where it’s the bottle of booze in the PI’s top desk drawer and he’s wearing a fedora and a trench coat, and it feels almost comforting. And I hate that pastiche feel; it almost feels like a betrayal. So I try to find some system where there’s a lot of harm being done by some very crafty people. And with this book, the idea of this kind of irrationality is not only being exploited, but encouraged in American public life by some truly nefarious ends, like being able to pollute more and so forth just seemed like a really natural noir target for me.
I definitely came to the conclusion when I finished writing Wild Thing that it’s practically impossible to not be political when you’re writing. And it seems like there’s this myth now that you shouldn’t put any type of political thinking into a novel, but by not putting certain political things into a book, it just seems like signing off on things that shouldn’t be happening.
KR: Do you think writing politically there’s a danger in dating your book? That audiences eighty or a hundred years from now won’t be able to relate to it?
JB: I do think that all books are of a certain time and place and I should be so lucky to be read in eighty years, or even twenty years from now. But this book with the lake monster is all about realism and reality and the temptation to avoid reality and what kind of criminal activity occurs when you choose to avoid reality.
KR: So do you consider yourself a noir writer?
JB: Absolutely, but like I said, that has whole lot of different meanings.
KR: Are there any current noir writers who influence you?
JB: In terms of crime stuff, there are a lot of people out there who I love and who I read. But with crime fiction, it’s the one genre that I’m least satisfied with and I feel I have to be unsatisfied with it in order to produce new ideas; because if there was a perfect crime book out there, I wouldn’t feel the need to write it.
KR: Thanks for your time today, Josh
LitReactor is giving away two copies of Wild Thing, courtesy of Reagan Arthur Books. Click HERE for more details.
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