Back in the bad old days when dead-tree-book publishers ruled the roost, there was a slew of agents poring through their slush-piles, hoping to find that rare combination of talent and consistency. Russell Blake would be their dream client, had he a penchant for the old business, because he has these in spades and is also the most prolific author I have ever encountered. Plus, his 'drafts' are cleaner than many published novels. But I predicted this last year, of course *smug grin* in my Author Finds article.
Update! Of course, since the time of writing, Russell has written and published a sequel to King of Swords ~ Revenge of the Assassin and also another Steven Cross thriller ~ The Voynich Cypher, to the usual acclaim from readers. Impressed? Well, that's not all, because an imminent launch of his next, yes, next, novel is due; and the beta readers are saying it's his best yet! Watch this blog for the release date.
Update once again! Since the time of writing, Blake has released a slew of thrillers, details of which you will find HERE. Superhuman Blake is now also rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ian Fleming in the all important thriller categories on Amazon ~ from zero to best seller in a little over a year ~ this man's talent and work ethic is second to none.
Watch out for a new interview at the close of 2012, if I can lure him back, where I intend to delve deeper into what makes this paradigm of authors tick...
Beneath this interview, gritty/surreal short story fans will find his *fantastic* Soul Balm in condensed version. Enjoy!
Welcome to our blog, Russell. And thanks for answering some of the questions I wanted the answers to.
Russell, were you surprised to get such a remarkable amount of 5 star reviews for your first novel, Fatal Exchange? It's unusual for a debut novel to get such acclaim. And how did you develop the skill to get it right first time? In other words, what's your 'secret sauce' for characterization, plotting and structure?
Yes. It’s heartwarming to see so many 5 star raves for one’s first book, especially when many of those reviews are from authors who know the difference between twaddle and decent writing. It took me a little by surprise, actually, because I had come to expect a few to trickle in here and there based on what I’d seen for other self-published authors. But apparently Fatal is a book readers feel strongly enough about to take the time to review, and to do it in a glowing manner. Makes the effort seem worth it.
I have been writing for a decade, but I killed all my early work because it just wasn’t up to par. Some of it was acceptable, but nothing really got me excited on reread. The good news is that gave me a decade’s worth of practice to develop a convincing and authoritative voice – and to build confidence in my craft to where I could put books out with a sense that they would stand up to the better efforts from the traditional publishing houses. All due respect, it’s one thing to have your cousin and great aunt give you a rave for something nobody else wants to read, but quite another to hold yourself to the same standards one might expect from the brand authors in a genre. I’ve always wanted to write books that could sit next to Ludlum or Forsyth and not have to apologize, and I waited to start publishing until I could do so with the confidence that they can. I’d put King of Swords or Night of the Assassin, my two latest (The Delphi Chronicle trilogy is just now breaking and will be next out) up against the Lee Childs of the world with no excuses.
You know, I don’t have a secret sauce for any of it. I know f#ck all about structure, and plotting is more of a holistic thing for me than a science. I basically try to move the story forward with every scene, or provide some characterization - I try to avoid pages of filler, which I think is always tempting when you are thinking word count. My approach is to sort of chuck word count out the window and just write the story, and it turns out as long or as short as it needs to be to effectively tell it in the way I want. Having said all that, I only write characters I find interesting. I have a mental filter when I look at characters, and ask myself, “Why should I care? What’s unique about this character? Why are they here, and what are they going to say that any of 100 other characters can’t? What haunts them, what regrets do they have, how self-aware are they, what’s their inner dialog like?” I think that forces one to bring the character alive, or to axe it and create one that is of interest.
You have since written a host of other novels in an impressively short time period, yet they are still garnering 5-star praise; and there is a distinct variation in voice and technique - which novel was the most enjoyable to write?
Enjoyable? I need to make it a three part answer. For overall experience, hands down The Geronimo Breach, because the protagonist was so fun to write. I was laughing out loud every day as I wrote, and imagined what he’d get up to next. The book wrote itself, and races from start to finish. I deliberately broke a lot of rules in that book, and tried to stretch, to accomplish something new for myself. I wanted to write a thoroughly horrible character with no redeeming qualities, and see if I could wind up liking him by the end, and caring about him, and even empathizing with him. I open the book with a dream scene within a dream scene within a dream scene. I sustained the suspense and mystery over the imbedded conspiracy until literally the last few pages. It’s by far my favorite example of a completely unique book – there’s no other I can think of that I can compare it to. And there are millions of books out, so if you can do that, and set your sights on that kind of an achievement, and come even close, you’re a writer.
But for sheer joy of flying through the story at a mile-a-minute, and creating scene after scene of thrills and twists, it would have to be King of Swords, and the prequel, Night of the Assassin. What’s funny about those is I had no plan to write either. They just sort of popped up as ideas the day I finished writing my conspiracy trilogy, The Delphi Chronicle, and I felt a compulsion to write them. They center around the exploits of the world’s most accomplished assassin, hired by the drug cartels in Mexico, which are multi-billon dollar enterprises and can afford the best. Both were breezes to write, and felt completely easy and natural as a writer. It’s like, every now and then, you’re in the zone. I was in the zone on those two, and I think it shows. Probably will be some of my best work over the years.
In your true story featuring your dog, Lobo; An Angel with Fur, the reader felt the pain yet also respect for your contribution to animal welfare; how are things hanging for your other refuge dogs?
It’s always a zoo at my house. I am fostering one dog who was abandoned by his owner, and my three are flourishing, although it’s never a dull moment with the pups, as they are constantly jockeying to be the alpha now that Lobo is gone. He left a vacuum which will never be replaced, and the dogs sense it as much as I do. All in all, though, the dog situation is a strong positive. I think animals force you to be a better human. Mine have.
What literary plans do you have for 2012? Are you going to expand your scope further or take a rest?
I swore I’d only do three or four books in 2012, but it’s looking like it may be double that. I’m currently working on a sequel to the Zero Sum trilogy of Wall Street thrillers, featuring the same protagonist, Dr. Steven Cross (his name changes from Archer halfway through Zero Sum). It’s a radical departure as it’s more of a Clive Cussler meets Dan Brown adventure than my usual conspiracy thriller fare. I wanted to try my hand at a Foucault’s Pendulum-style treasure hunt novel, and The Voynich Cipher is that book. I’m 70% through it, and it’s an entirely different voice, yet again. So that’s kind of fun, although challenging. I’m also thinking, in no particular order, of a sequel to Fatal Exchange, two sequels and a prequel to King of Swords (I really like those characters and the possibilities), and two sequels to Delphi. That’s what, seven? So I think unless I fall over dead, it’s going to be at least seven novels this year, with no plans for any non-fiction. But one never knows what the muse will trot in with. If she shows up with a few compelling ideas, could be more, but likely won’t be any less.
If you were to choose your favorite three-course meal, what would it comprise? And what would you wash it down with?
It would have to be a starter of sautéed pork belly in a truffle reduction, followed by an organic mixed greens salad with walnuts, cranberries, Kalamata olives and shredded chicken in a Dijon vinaigrette, then crowned by the entrée – a 12 oz ostrich filet, medium rare, served over a bed of well grilled tomatoes and onions, with a balsamic reduction and a chipotle reduction drizzled over it for interest.
Probably go with an aged Aussie Shiraz, a la Penfolds Grange for the entrée, and start with an Argentine Malbec for the first courses – likely Punto Final reserve or something similar, or maybe a Washington Cab like Leonneti that’s got a different flavor profile. I like my wines like my thrillers: Big, robust, brawny, unflinching. So I’ll forego nuance in favor of weight and overall drinking experience, unless someone’s cracking open an 82 or 95-96 Petrus, in which case I’d swig that too.
I'd likely finish up with a glass or two of the Penfolds Great-Grandfather port, which is an experience all its own. Then I’d likely sneak in a crepe, with butterscotch, caramel and dark chocolate melted inside, and Grand Marnier or Sambuca splashed over it. That would be my four-course, three course meal.
Thanks for your contribution, Russell (I'm feeling rather peckish now, not to mention a tad thirsty). Best New Year wishes for you, your muse, and members of your private zoo... As a special treat for those who like cerebral, gritty shorts, I've included your condensed version of Soul Balm, which has been head-hunted already for an anthology's opening story (contains a little cussing, Vicar...) You can read the full version HERE
Soul Balm © Russell Blake 2011
The sky-blue Oxford button-up shirt collar chafes my neck uncomfortably as I sit waiting for the light to turn green. The faint stink of fuel-rich exhaust mingles with the musty smell of the ancient Pontiac’s perfectly preserved leather interior; an odor redolent of pimp slappings and drug deals sealed in bygone days. I contemplate lowering the convertible top to celebrate the sun’s burning through the brown haze of smog that hangs over the city like a toxic mantle, but discard the idea. I don’t need a wind-buffeting to make me any more disheveled. Red eyes and three days of stubble stare back at me from my rear-view mirror, a silent testament to an extended weekend of excess and debauchery in Sin City; another long stint in a seemingly endless orgy of indulgence.
Working as a B-list screenwriter is a double-edged sword. The pay’s good, when it comes, and the hours can’t be beaten. With a few rewrite jobs under my belt and an action-adventure flick languishing in lesser theaters throughout the country during the holiday season, I now have enough game to drag most of the dim-witted hotties doing the bar circuit home whenever I want. That never gets old, until morning, when they inevitably want to start talking.
The talking is the worst.
Same story every time: In tinsel town from some small berg where they’d won a talent show or had been crowned Miss Cornhuskers, and after watching too many reality shows, they’d mistakenly computed they had what it took to make it. L.A. is awash in misguided hubris and attitude substituting for talent—an entire industry caters to the delusions of the newly-arrived or the perennially-hopeful. Praise the flickering neon Hollywood Jesus for the lean, hard bodies of the aspiring. Their single-minded focus on getting ahead is my entre, and all I have to do is circle the herd, probing for the telltale signs of the weak and slow and stupid before I streak in for the kill. I’m just one of many predators in an uneasy truce at the watering holes, but my line is a little more convincing than most because, now, I have a movie out. The mention of my name in the credits has an aphrodisiac effect on a certain type of entertainment industry social climber, and once I hint that I have sway in casting, the quarry is down, exposed, supine—another easy conquest.
A strident horn sounds from a bombastic Benz behind me, interrupting my reverie. I goose the worn metal pedal and the gas-guzzling V-8′s reassuring burble propels me down the road. Nervous over the imminent meeting and edgy from the half tab of Dexedrine I choked down as an eye-opener with my coffee, I reach for the dashboard and stab the power button on the stereo like it owes me money. AC/DC blares from the speakers with a thrashing of guitars, the singer’s giddy vocal leer lamenting jailbreaks gone wrong. Keeping time with an anxious hand on the cracked plastic steering wheel, I fumble beside me for a can of warm beer. Coors Light, of course. Breakfast of near, or soon-to-be, champions.
I’ve subdued the flitter of butterflies by the time I pull onto the studio lot, waved through by security who spot the access sticker decorating my windshield—a remnant from a spit-and-polish job I did on a pilot two weeks earlier in Building B. What a cringe-worthy pile of shit that had been. Zero chance of ever being made, but someone’s cousin was blowing the right exec, so at least an hour of unwatchable script had been churned out of the sausage machine, in desperate need of a fix—which is where I came in.
I run my hands through my still-damp hair and pat it into straggly place, in an effort to appear at least marginally professional for my pitch session.
After killing the engine, I swing my feet out onto the pavement and stand, stretching to my full six-foot height with a groan. I should have cooled it with the partying yesterday. And the day before. Oh well, what was done…
I make a guttural clicking sound with my tongue, reminiscent of African tribesmen in television documentaries. In response, a brown furry form scurries from the back seat over the center console—which I f#cking hate with a passion. I shake my head in disgust. We’d covered the proper way to exit a car hundreds of times, but some of us were just too stubborn to learn.
The entry to the administration offices looms ominously across the lot, and I move unsteadily toward it, my companion scampering blithely by my side. It’s time to remind everyone who is boss. I clear my throat and stop on the front steps, turning to lock eyes and ensure I have the reprobate’s full attention.
“This is an important meeting. Don’t be an ass-hat. Don’t crap on the carpet, don’t disrupt things, and let me do all the talking. And please, whatever you do…no masturbating.”
My voice sounds disembodied, as though it’s drifting from afar, from down a long tunnel lined with cotton. Maybe the speed hadn’t been such a wise move. I twist the door lever and push it open, fixing what I hope is an amenable smile on my face.
Jarred by the sound of our entry, a breathtaking brunette glides from behind a backlit orange onyx-faced reception desk. She approaches across the Italian marble floor with an indifferent expression, all tanned, sculpted legs and muscled buttocks sheathed in a black executive skirt cut high enough to hint at heaven. I note with approval that she favors five-inch stiletto heels, foregoing practical business flats in favor of a little spice. Things are suddenly looking up.
“Russell, right? Thrilled to finally meet you. Come on in. Sol’s expecting you,” she says in a dusky voice, assessing me in the way spiders eye flies.
“Super. Lead the way,” I reply, the words sounding flat to my tuned ear.
“You want some Pellegrino or Fiji?” she calls over her shoulder as we make our way down the long hall.
“No thanks, I’m good,” I assure her, admiring the view.
We walk through the cavernous building, my furry associate holding my hand, his leathery palm a reminder of what has gone badly wrong with my life. I should have trimmed his nails, but he could be a regal pain about some hygiene niceties. Whenever I brandished the clippers he went berserk—you’d have thought I was trying to do a root canal on him. At least he’d occasionally acquiesce to file them himself, though doing a slipshod job of it. Amateurish. Another source of irritation for me in an already difficult situation.
The stunning assistant holds the door open for us and we edge past her into a large, wood-paneled office with film posters and celebrity photos plastered on every wall. Row aside row of awards are proudly displayed in a custom-made burled walnut armoire, replete with down-lighting—the better to make them twinkle. The heavyset man in his sixties, wearing the inevitable suit vest and loosened neck-tie, rises from behind the largest desk in the world, and pushes an ashtray bearing a smoldering cigar out of the way. Sol extends his arms wide in friendly greeting.
“Russell. Sweetheart. You look great! You get a little work done around the eyes? Nice. Not all Mickey Rourke. Tasteful. But please, sit, sit. Mi casa, and all that.” He pauses. “So whadda ya got for me today? Zombie cats? Space dinosaurs? Just tell me—I always have time for you, but man, today I’m jammed, you know? Tom and Kate are throwing a hissy fit, and Johnny’s…well, he’s Johnny, you know?” Sol hesitates, noticing my silent companion for the first time. “What’s with the f#cking monkey?”
I regard my simian friend, who is toying with the straps of his well-weathered Lederhosen, fingering the ornately embroidered leather suspenders. I lightly smack him and he drops his arms sullenly. I contemplate correcting Sol—chimps aren’t monkeys, they’re apes—but decide not to lecture.
“Sol, this is Emeliano, the chimp. But he likes to be called Ricky—it’s his name de plume, so to speak. He’s my writing partner. Does great work. Fast, and a wizard with dialog,” I explain.
Ricky glares at Sol with malevolent sunken eyes, and then cocks his head and bares yellowed teeth. Sol pulls back his extended hand, reconsidering his choice of greeting.
“All right. So you got a monkey partner. What the f#ck. You shouldda met my third wife…well, maybe not. No problem. Hey, but, Russ, I gotta tell you, your latest, in the theaters now? Magic. Like poetry. The reluctant vampire ex-CIA assassin who takes on his wife’s murderers in the Russian mob? Unexpected shit, that. Not everyone can write on that level. And I love the gender-confused sidekick, from the hood. Total brilliance. We’ll put a push on it after Christmas. It’s got the legs.”
“It was Ricky’s idea to make it personal this time. He’s good at back-story,” I disclose. It was important in the business to be humble and give credit where it was due.
“So whadda ya got for me today? Your girl said you were excited. When you’re excited, I’m excited. Lay it on me,” Sol invites, reclining back in his sumptuous burgundy leather executive chair while motioning for us to take seats in front of his desk. Ricky hops up and squats easily on one, but I prefer to stand for my pitch; to lend it additional gravitas. I close my eyes, draw in a deep breath, and then launch.
“Sol, look, here’s the setup: you have these beavers, and they’re just lovable little furry f#ckers out in a field with blue skies, and butterflies, and nature shit, doing whatever the f#ck beavers do. I don’t know…eating acorns or chewing grass, and then suddenly, they go Mission Impossible on your ass because an oil refinery project threatens their river! Think Dogs and Cats, think Ice Age, think a Bruce Willis smartass fast-talking beaver with a crusty-but-lovable Chris Rock sidekick! And here’s the best part: their sworn enemies are wolves! So they gear up in ninja suits, and it’s two hours of brain suck! Can’t you hear the dialog already? Do I even need to tell you? Every other line’s a wise-crack, and it’s written so kids will love it, but idiot parents will laugh their asses off too! By the end, we’ll all have learned something about ourselves, as will the beavers.” I stop, assessing Sol’s facial expression. You never want to talk past the pitch. Rookie mistake. Let it settle, steep like tea, and don’t talk. Ricky raises his eyebrows expectantly and picks his ear.
Sol slowly stands and removes his reading glasses. He slams his hand down on the desktop and rolls his eyes heavenward.
“Jesus. You’re a genius, Blake! The merchandising will be worth a hundred mil domestic alone! Ka-Ching! Come over here. Gimme a hug. Where do you come up with this shit? Whadda ya want? Three mil? Four? Okay, ya got me. I’ll go five against the usual back-end, a producer credit, full creative control, and you get to pick the director. You. Look at you! F#cking ninja beaver motherf#ckers. You’re killing me with this shit!”
I hesitate to embrace him. “Sol. Do I look stupid? You want me to mouth-f#ck you or something? Don’t insult me or treat me like your bitch. We’re friends here. Five, the usual back-end plus points, executive producer, fifteen of the merchandise including international, and who gives a shit who directs? It’s a f#cking CARTOON! Now where do I sign? Come over here, honey, and sit on papa’s lap!”
Sol grins at me, and we both throw our heads back and laugh in awful unison.
“A cartoon! Beavers! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
Ricky joins in with the hysteria and executes a perfectly timed back-flip off the chair, landing on Sol’s desk, scattering paperwork everywhere. Sol finds this the height of amusement and cackles with glee, as does Ricky.
The receptionist shimmies into the office and smiles at Ricky after glancing neutrally in my direction. The chimp always has that effect on the ladies. It’s eerie. Ricky decides to push it and show off, and begins lewdly thrusting his pelvis in an elaborately choreographed dance of his own invention. Everyone is amused, even when he leaps off the desk with a somersault and grabs the receptionist’s bottom, fondling her leg in what can only be described as an inappropriate manner. I’ve seen it all before, so know what’s coming. Sol and I watch as the impish primate gropes the young woman’s thigh, and then turns and affords us with a salacious wink.
The next thing I know, the sun is streaming bright through my bedroom window, another dawn having encroached its way into my existence. My head feels like I’ve gone ten rounds with Tyson, and my mouth tastes like I’ve gargled cement.
A noise from the front room rouses me into stark wakefulness. I trudge out, bleary eyed, to be greeted by the spectacle of Ricky and the receptionist lying on the couch, sans attire, though their nakedness is partly covered by his cherished neon-pink felt Hello Kitty blanket. His trademark leather shorts are perched jauntily, if a little precariously, on the receptionist’s head. They’re sharing a cigarette, the stereo crooning Barry White even as Ricky smirks at me in triumph.
I pad back to my room in humiliated defeat and close the door.