Thursday, December 17, 2009

Author Interview with DON BREDES

Don Bredes lives in Vermont, where he stumbles across real-life crimes that become the basis of his mystery novels.  Okay, so it happened once, but it got his mystery series started!  He is also the author of screenplays and a man with many hobbies:  gardening, cooking, tennis, hiking, birdwatching, reading, kite-flying, star-gazing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.  Good thing Vermont has four seasons,or he'd be wearing himself out!

During a brief chat, you told me that you “backed into” writing a mystery series. How did that come about?

Hector Bellevance is the hero/sleuth and narrator/main character of my contemporary literary suspense series set in the fictional small town of Tipton in Vermont's northeast corner, hard by the border with Quebec. The series consists of three novels, COLD COMFORT (2001), THE FIFTH SEASON (2005), and THE ERRAND BOY (2009). Over the past ten years, writing about Hector's life, his past, his friends, and his harrowing travails, I've come to know and respect him as if he were a real person. And yet, if the first novel in the trilogy had succeeded as I had initially conceived it, Hector Bellevance never would have come to be.

One colorful September day back in 1984 two acquaintances of mine, Roland and Maram Hanel, were brutally slain in their isolated ski chalet in the hills of Jay, Vermont, each shot multiple times with a 9mm machine pistol. Nothing was stolen from the house, nor did investigators uncover any helpful clues. The case remains open today, and the Hanels' executioners are unknown.

More than 10 years passed before I got around to looking into the crime myself with a loose plan to use the peculiar circumstances surrounding my neighbors' deaths (and the frustrated investigation) in a novel about the dismal solve-rate in this country of stranger-on-stranger homicides. I talked to the state police detectives, the state's crime lab technicians, the medical examiner, the state's attorney, Maram's parents in Montreal, the Florida Coast Guard, and many others. The 650-page novel I spent three years writing featured a Vermont dairy farmer who, because of how he reported happening upon the victims' bodies, finds himself the prime suspect in the killings. Even his own wife is not sure of his innocence. So he embarks on his own stubborn, clumsy, and willful investigation. By the end of the story, he manages to exonerate himself, although he does not ever find the true killers.

My agent sent THE SUGARWOODS MURDERS to half a dozen publishers. They all passed. Meanwhile, an old friend, the novelist Howard Frank Mosher, read the manuscript. He said, "Don, I think what you've got here is actually a mystery. It's a genre novel, but the book you've written is almost anti-genre. What this story needs is a sleuth character who solves the crime."

Howard was right. That's how Hector Bellevance was born. I spent two more years rewriting the book, introducing Hector, a Boston Police Department homicide dick who has retired from the department under a cloud--he's the half-brother of the accused dairy farmer--and inventing an outlandish set of motives and villains partly inspired by the factual events. The revised literary mystery, called COLD COMFORT, came in at 370 pages or so.

It took another year and a new agent to seal a two-book deal with Shaye Areheart at Harmony Books for COLD COMFORT and a sequel. At the time, I told everyone, "Hey, the good news is I sold my suspense novel! The bad news is I have to write another one." It was a good line, but the truth was I really wasn't sure I could write another one. These things don't come easy to a writer like me. My stories tend to be less plot-driven than character-driven. They're quirkier and more surprising than the more standard plot-driven mysteries, and they take longer to write.

Tell us about your screenplays.

I have always been interested in screenwriting--but mostly in the abstract, not so much as a practical pursuit, since screenplays, in general, are so mechanical. They aren't finished products in their own right, but, instead, are blueprints--tools for other artists to use as they see fit.

I have been working freelance since 1974. In 1978, when I was out in California on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction at Stanford, I turned down a Hollywood producer's offer to spend the summer on the beach in Malibu (rent-free) to draft a screenplay based on my popular first novel, HARD FEELINGS.

What was I thinking?

Well, I was thinking that I'd had enough of California and that I wanted to return to my home and friends in Vermont. If I sometimes regret the decision, I am glad that the HARD FEELINGS script was eventually written by W.D. Richter, a big-time screenwriter who has written "Norma Rae," among other scripts, and he did a much better job than I would have done. The film was made by a Canadian studio, Astral-Bellevue-Pathe and bought for US distribution by 20th Century Fox, but it was never widely released.

Many years later I wrote two feature-length screenplay adaptations based on two fine novels by my friend, Howard Mosher. Both films were independently produced by a small independent company here in Vermont and released internationally. "Where the Rivers Flow North" starred Rip Torn and Michael J. Fox, and "A Stranger in the Kingdom" had an ensemble cast including Ernie Hudson and Martin Sheen. They're available on DVD.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

My biggest challenge has been to persevere in the face of discouragement and impecuniousness. But I have always thought of myself as a writer, no less so during those times when the difficulties inherent in many a writer's life were most trying, so I have managed to keep at it, day by day by day.

What is the title of your most recently published book? Briefly tell us what it’s about and let us know where we can buy it.

I latched onto another inspiringly awful local crime (Google "Carl Drega" if you'd like to know more), and over the next three years I wrote the second Hector Bellevance suspense/mystery, THE FIFTH SEASON. It was well received. "Kirkus Reviews" said, "Bredes writes superbly and creates compelling believable characters." And Marilyn Stasio in the "New York Times Book Review" wrote, "...inexplicable outbursts of violence take years, generations even, to fester into a poisonous hatred of one's neighbors--a position that Bredes argues with grave eloquence in this disquieting novel."

The third book in the series, THE ERRAND BOY, was released this fall. This one was also inspired by an unresolved crime, the Orville Gibson murder in Newbury, Vermont, 1957. Gibson's killers were known to the community and to the police, but at their trial no one would testify against them. They died unpunished.

What are you working on now and when/where do you expect it to be available?

I am some 450 pages into a young adult dystopian fantasy, which ought to create a stir, I think, as long as I can figure out how to end it. It might be described--very loosely--as an American GOLDEN COMPASS. I hope to have it finished in six months. When it will appear is anybody's guess, though--perhaps in the spring of 2011 at the earliest.

Writers, especially new writers, are always looking for tips and helpful information. What is the single most important tip you can give to a new writer?

My salient bit of advice is a commonplace, I suppose, but it's worth repeating. Ambitious, determined writers must read as much as they can of the kind of thing they think they would like to write--and they must read it studiously, to note exactly what makes a certain work of fiction engaging and effective.

Do you have any upcoming book signings or appearances? If so, give us all the details.

I'm sorry to say that my modest fall book tour has ended, but I am always available to participate in the discussions held by reading groups interested in my work.

FUN QUESTION: You grow vegetables and flowers in your garden; what is your favorite garden plant, and why?

That's hard to say. I have so many favorites. Tomatoes, of course, are the queen of every vegetable garden, but I love broccoli for its reliability, its season-long production, and its robust nutritional value. Rhubarb is a wonder and a joy. And then there's basil.

What are the addresses of your website(s) and blog(s):

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the story of how your character came to be. Like you, I love to read about unsolved mysteries and then write about them. I hava a work in progress that I came upon after reading a news item about skeletons of babies found in an old woman's attic after she died. Got my imagination going.

    I also love to garden, but here in Texas I can't grow rhubarb Did in Michigan and I miss it. Rhubarb and strawberry sauce, or pie, or upside-down cake. Yum.