By Denise Baton
Powerhouse writer, T. J. Parker, was born in Los Angeles and has lived all his life in Southern California. He decided to become a writer in high school after he read CATCH 22 by Joseph Heller. T.J. took a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976 and later was honored in 1992 as a Distinguished Alumnus. He snagged a first job as cub reporter on the weekly paper, THE NEWPORT ENSIGN. In short time, he graduated to a position on the DAILY PILOT, where he earned three Orange County Press Club awards for his well-written articles. He says his work is inspired by everything, but mostly by good novels. His story locations are Orange County, Laguna Beach and San Diego and all are infused with the politics and social milieu of those regions. His first book was LAGUNA HEAT which was a bestseller. It was optioned and made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn. He then wrote LITTLE SAIGON which was followed by PACIFIC HEAT, both of which were also optioned by Hollywood. He starts his writing day at six-thirty in the morning and when the muse is on he will put in a full eight or nine hours.
I met T.J. Parker, a writer who has been called “potent and irresistible” by the LA TIMES for the first time at a little bookstore located in Thousand Oaks known as MYSTERIES TO DIE FOR. The place was cozy and readers were sitting around in chairs discussing T.J.’s work while he held court at a small desk, signing books. He is an especially gracious man. People just love the guy. He owns an infectious masculine dynamism. Having raised a few hellions myself, I couldn’t help but suspect that he was a hell-raiser as a kid. It’s just a feeling you get. There’s an underlying mischief to his energy, a little tease to his smile. That recipe for boys kept running through my mind: snakes and snails and little puppy dog tails. Jane Becher, one of the three store-owners of MYSTERIES TO DIE FOR (you can find them online at www.mysteriestodiefor.com) was working as his flapper, preparing each book for his signature. The other two owners, Deanne Harrington and Hiedi Sobel, kept the books coming and I watched quietly as T.J. signed a book collection of his work.
Besides T.J.’s “author’s escort” his sales person, Elizabeth Hickmann, a charming redhead, was also present. I’ve been to many signings and I’ve conducted more than a few interviews but this was my first encounter with a full-fledged entourage. T. J. demured when I commented on it and explained that the escort made finding the store locations a smooth operation since he no longer knows all the ins and out of L.A. And that Elizabeth happened to live in the area. I got that he was comfortable and pleased with their attention. We went across the street to a little deli to talk. As we made our way I remembered something that author Barbara Seranella said about T.J. during my interview with her. I include her quote here:
“… I went to his book signing. By then I had sold my first book, NO HUMAN INVOLVED. I asked him in a tremulous voice if he remembered me and might consider reading my book and giving it a blurb. He was very friendly and said yes. After he read the galley, he tried to call me and fax me. I wasn't at the address he was calling. Undaunted, he wrote me a letter. He also sent a nice letter to my editor Ruth Cavin along with the blurb. In his note and phone call to me he offered to meet me and help me even more. He asked me what my goals were, and if I wanted any advice or other help from him. I told him I needed a different agent and he introduced me to Sandy Dijkstra who is still my agent and doing very well for me. Jeff also blurbed my second book and when I was touring with my first he threw me some great gigs that either he was overbooked for or thought would help me…”
Once T.J. and I were inside the tiny deli with red and white checkered plastic table cloths and our diet root beers were in hand we had a seat and got to talking. I was caught off guard because he started by interviewing me. I hadn’t realized what was happening until after I had answered the third question and then I called him on it. Not that I minded exactly. He apologized saying it was a habit from his journalism days and then we settled in with our diet root beers.
Denise: In BLACK WATER, your most recent book, now available at bookstores, Mercy Rayborn is back. She's already been featured with great success in two other T. Jefferson Parker books. We first met her in THE BLUE HOUR and in RED LIGHT. There is something about her that prompts you to give her books titles with colors. Is there any reason for that? Why do you keep bringing her back? Is it because your readers love her or because you do?
T.J.: I liked Merci when I first wrote her in THE BLUE HOUR. She was the dark horse, coming up from behind to run to the finish line - literally -- in that book. When it was done I thought she was interesting enough to write about again. Plus, I'd left her in quite a predicament at the end of that book. I was actually curious about where she'd go from there. People seem to like her so that helps. So far as the color scheme goes in the titles, that's simply a way to make the books recognizable.
Denise: Which is your favorite book and why?
T.J.: I like BLACK WATER the best. The reason is, it moves into territory you don't expect, and I love that in a book, especially in a mystery. There's also a kind of lightness to it -- not humor, really -- but a movement through things that feels vertiginous and risky to me. I also like that it's a love story at bottom, and I think Archie is a terrific character. I got the idea for him from Jim Harrison's terrific THE BEAST THAT GOD FORGOT TO INVENT -- that of a brain-damaged fellow. I took my story in a different direction, though, and I'm happy with it. There was serendipity, too. I went to a neuro-sciences conference at UC Irvine, and listened to some high-powered researchers talk about their work. One man, Dr. Larry Cahill, talked about a part of the brain called the amygdala, which governs the emotional components of our memories. When he talked about the amygdala, it was like a gift from heaven. It opened up the book for me in a way that I'd wanted to do, but couldn't until I heard his talk. There's lots of luck in writing a book. Even more in getting people to read it.
Denise: You are clearly a veteran of mystery suspense writing. Do you feel confident about your work?
T.J.: Pretty much. But there's always a giddy feeling in my gut when I start a new one. I wonder if my whole career is about to collapse in front of me. Lots of writers and other people have this feeling, too.
Denise: Do you see a direction for your future writing?
T.J. I want to get better and better and better. I don't think I'll change from crime writing. I like it and I'm good at it. I'd like to try a true-crime book sometime. I'd like to write a screenplay, also. But really the novels are my favorite thing. Such a wonderful thing, to sit down with 600 blank sheets and fill them up with a story. Writing is hard work but I enjoy it.
Denise: Out of all your books I think RED LIGHT is the strongest contender for being made into a film. It has all the right elements. Especially that ending. It is just so triumphant. Is there any other book that you've written that you feel is most adaptable to film?
T.J.: I like SILENT JOE and THE BLUE HOUR and BLACK WATER for movies. Heck, I like them all! But realistically, those are the ones I think would make good movies.
Denise: In BLACK WATER, as in RED LIGHT and THE BLUE HOUR, Mercy Rayborn is one helluva woman. She's incredibly strong. Have you known women that were as strong as her? Is she based on anyone you have personally experienced?
T.J.: My mother was a very strong woman -- calm and intense and gracious and goofy all at once. Both women I've had the honor to be married to are 100 times stronger than I am. My sister is the same way. Grandma Mae, who died at 94, was pure gentle iron. I think a lot of women are that way. They just have reserves and humility that go on forever and ever. I like it that Merci is strong but not superwoman, either. I mean, she makes mistakes -- some bad ones -- and keeps coming back. She's very strong, but she's also not really cut out for a social network, which is certainly what being an ambitious cop is all about. So she shoots herself in the foot. A lot. There's also a difference between being strong and being a bully, which Merci doesn't fully understand. Part of what's interesting to me about her is her growth -- will she get to the next level or not?
Denise: Have you already started writing your next book?
T.J.: Yes, I'm 375 into it.
Denise: At what point in your writing do you decide on your title? Does your title ever change?
T.J. Early, then late. My editor's assistant came up with LAGUNA HEAT, very late in the game, while LITTLE SAIGON came to me early. It's often a bone of contention.
Denise: Who are your favorite mystery writers?
T.J.: Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, John Shannon, James. W. Hall, Don Winslow, Ridley Pearson, Elizabeth George. Robert Crais. There are a lot of good mystery writers out there. We're in a particularly rich period for the genre.
Denise: Who are your favorite mainstream writers?
T.J.: I like the stoner outdoorsmen -- McGuane, Harrison, Ford. And the patriarchs -- Bellow, Mailer, Roth. Those light, magical fellows -- Marquez, Borges, Calvino. The list is fairly long. The youngsters blow me out, too -- Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen in particular. There is an awful lot of good writing being done now, not to mention over the last hundred years, not to mention since the language was still being formed. What a tradition. It's history, drama, philosophy, comedy, everything. Writing is the mind doing its hardest and most naked work.
Denise: Did you have a particular teacher, professor or mentor that influenced you in the early stages of your writing?
T.J.: Londa Jones and Carl Sims at Tustin High School were terrific. As were Larry Carlson and Alan Gauley at Orange Coast College. Frank Lentricchia, John Rowe, Bob Peters, Al Wlecke and Charles Wright at UC Irvine were important to me. Novelist Donald Stanwood helped me a ton when I was young. He was my window on what real writers did, because when I met him he was just about to be published and I was slinging margaritas in a Mexican restaurant. Everybody who wrote anything good that I read -- hundreds of men and women -- they're the real hands-on teachers. That's one of the things I love about this trade: I can take private lessons from James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck any time I want.
Denise: Do you ever feel you’ve become a certain style of historian when it comes to Orange County?
T.J.: Yes, after a while it feels that way. Not that I get all of it right. I'm living in and writing about San Diego now, so I've fallen from the nest. It's flat-out exciting, seeking out a new world to write about.
Denise: So, tell us about the L.A. Times Book Prize. What was the award ceremony like? What does the award look like? Is it a piece of paper, a plaque or what exactly? How did you feel?
T.J.: The L.A. Times Book Prize was great to get. With only four books nominated, you realize how stiff the competition is. The ceremony is really nice -- Royce Hall at UCLA is a wonderful room. I always think of my ancient Neil Young recording, done there way back in 1971 or something. The prize is a certificate in a folder, with a thoughtfully laudatory paragraph in it. Very classy. I was surprised to win. Robert Crais presented it, and he's a buddy of mine. CJ Box, one of the other finalists told me after the ceremony that he finished reading SILENT JOE on the plane that morning and decided not to write an acceptance speech. Funny and touching words from a very good writer.
Denise: You do your actual writing in a super cool work space. Tell me about that.
T.J.: It's a plane hangar, a big metal building, where I work. Part of it is finished off as an office. It's away from the main house so there's plenty of peace and quiet, which I like. I've got tons of books and other things in there. It's very chaotic and not hygenically clean. The lizards get in somehow, and the occasional bird or mouse. I like the critters, though. You dig into a box for an old copy of LITTLE SAIGON, say, and out jumps a fence swift that's made a home in it. Very cool. I named one last week (Horace), and kept waiting for him to go back outside. He had a routine that I noted. I snagged him one day and tossed him in the woodpile where he'd be happier among his own kind. Three days later, he was back.
Denise: You're a husband, a dad and a dog owner. And you're going to New York with the family. Do you think that being a writer allows you to be a better family man?
T.J.: The New York trip is half business and half pleasure. I'm not so sure about writers being better family men. I think that's difficult, no matter what you do for a living.
Denise: You seem like such a nice guy, a person of a friendly and reasonable temperament. We're you always a happy kid?
T.J.: I was often an aggressive, bullying and morose child. Mom called me "Dreary". I was high energy, too. Back in 1962 a teacher recommended this newish drug called Ritalin, which Mom and Dad declined to give me. Around age eleven I started realizing that people -- especially girls -- couldn't stand me, so I tried to clean up my act. It worked. Sort of. Life is self-control.
Denise: What's the next book about?
T.J.: It's a straightforward whodunit set in San Diego. The hero is an Irish-American cop, divorced, with a son he loves but doesn't see much of. The dead guy is an old civic leader/businessman, politician. The two families -- the cop's family and the dead man's family -- have a fifty-year history of antagonism and violence between them, so that complicates things. There's a woman -- isn't there always? -- who complicates things immensely. I'm having fun with it. San Diego's a terrific city. It's the first book I've set outside of Orange County.
Denise: Will we see Mercy Rayborn again? How about Joe? He was pretty successful.
T.J.: Merci, sure. Next time out. Joe -- maybe. He's a great character, but something in me wants to leave a good thing alone.
Denise: It's been assumed by many that your first name is Thomas as in Thomas Jefferson. Is that true? If not, what does the T. in T.J. Parker stand for?
T.J.: The T. just stands for T. Mom and Dad put it there, and there it has stayed.
Denise: How do you do research for your villains? Where do you get the details to create those dark evil characters?
T.J.: The details come from my imagination, but the broader strokes come from research into criminal "types." The FBI has helped me quite a bit. The whole profiling thing is great for writers. Forensic psychiatrists and psychologists know a ton. Law enforcement people are very good at telling you what's "typical" or unusual about certain offenders. So you take the generalities, such as "rape is about violence, not sex" and you spin outward from there. It's really not hard to do, for me, anyway. The difference between a criminal and a non-criminal isn't the way they think, it's the way they act. Self control, again.
Denise: Now, on top of the LA TIMES BOOK PRIZE you’ve won the EDGAR. How are you feeling about the Edgar, an award from your fellow mystery writers? What does that award look like exactly and where will you place that one?
T.J.: It was great to get that award. I've been flying high all week, still haven't come down. It's inordinately enjoyable for a writer to get an award because we spend so much time alone, tapping away. The Edgar itself is a heavy plaster (I think) bust of Edgar Allen Poe. I've got it in the living room now but I'm not sure where its permanent place will be.
Denise: Your wife must be so proud of you.
T.J.: Yes, she's thrilled. She gets more wrapped up in my career than I do sometimes. I'm always amazed at people with such high empathy quotients, people who really feel what others feel. Well, she's that: very attuned and generous with her emotions. I'm more than lucky to have her running my life; I'm blessed! We partied in New York that night, and for a few nights after. Nothing too raucous but it was great. I'm back at work now.
Denise: You have a very interesting segment on your author’s web site entitled SOMETHING TO CHEW ON, a series of essays. How did that writing come about?
T.J.: Those were columns I wrote for the L.A. Times back in 1992-94. They let me write about pretty much anything I wanted, so long as it tied into Orange County in some way. That was a great gig. Wouldn't mind doing it again. Writing essays or columns is harder than you'd think.
Denise: You truly are gracious and at one with the book signing scene. Do you like to do the signings?
T.J.: I've seen writers and other public people treat their fans and audiences poorly and I think that's bad. If you're going to show up, at least have decent manners. Like a lot of seemingly "engaging" people, I tend to ask about others rather than dwelling on myself. You get material that way, and it's a wonderful way to hide! My wife and I met Peter Jennings last week, and guess what? He ended up interviewing us. We walked away thinking what a charming man he was -- very genuine and intelligent and engaging.
Denise: What is the best advice you can give to a new writer?
T.J.: Read a lot of good writing. That's extremely important. Then, write. It's low-tech. It's not who you know. It's not what school you went to. It's all about words on a page. That's the simple beauty of it.
Denise: Now, you are really coming into your own. How do you feel about how your writing career has developed?
T.J.: I think I've gotten a little better with each book. It's important to believe that, anyway. It goes to the point above, about reading. I read a lot. Only good stuff. It raises the bar for you, and you learn from it, and you're inspired by it. There's almost always a good book that helps inspire what I write. For BLACK WATER it was THE BEAST THAT GOD FORGOT TO INVENT, by Jim Harrison. For SILENT JOE it was MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN by Jonathan Lethem. For THE BLUE HOUR it was Thomas Harris's RED DRAGON. For SUMMER OF FEAR it was Norman Mailer's TOUGH GUYS DON'T DANCE. Everything you read goes into your writing. It's the water for the tree. Drink lots!
Denise: Is there anything you'd like to say to your readers?
T.J.: Just thanks for reading my books. I'll keep writing if you'll keep reading.
And with that, T.J. Parker, one of the great writers and ambassadors of our present mystery writing renaissance, goes home to his family, his plane hangar, his snakes, lizards and dogs to get back to work.
Visit T. Jefferson Parker’s author web site at: www.TjeffersonParker.com