A Conversation with Crime Novelist Gary Garth McCann
We are delighted to welcome author Gary Garth McCann to Omnimystery News today.
Gary’s new literary crime novel is The Man Who Asked To Be Killed (A Few Good Books Publishing; September 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to catch up with him to talk more about it.
Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character of The Man Who Asked To Be Killed. What is it about him that appeals to you as a writer?
Gary Garth McCann: I wanted a protagonist who innocently gets into trouble, the kind of young hero who rushes into a burning building if he thinks he can save a life. But protagonist Buddy Smith finds himself in a "fire" set by his cousin the governor, a man like an older brother to him. What does a young guy do when strength of body and character, honed through a lifetime of athleticism, can't solve problems off the playing field? How far does he bend? And what does he do if he's in love with two women, one his fiancée? How much of his feelings does he suppress because he wants to have a wife and a baby, like most of his friends have?
I wrote about a protagonist I respect, one I hero-worship for being more "man" than most men. I wanted to enter his mind, live with him, through him, while he suffers traumatic psychological stress at the same time he enjoys daily life, like we sometimes find ourselves at a funeral enjoying a conversation with an old acquaintance. One reader told me that whatever happened in my novel, he felt safe because he was in first-person narrator Buddy's hands. In this sense, I think of The Man Who Asked To Be Killed as a cozy mystery for men (and for women who like men despite male foibles). Meet Buddy for a beer or a glass of wine while he tells you what the fuck is going on.
Writing heroes isn't a habit for me. Buddy is the only one I've written, maybe the only one I will write. My stories and current novel-in-progress feature people more like myself, ones who wouldn't rush into a burning building.
OMN: So that explains the shirtless guy on the cover?
GGM: No exactly. I rejected my publisher's cover — two men in suits, one pointing a gun at the other — because I felt it didn't distinguish my book from the crowd. I wanted my cover to say something about character, to tell readers that in this mystery they would be inside the protagonist's head while he brooded over events. I found a photo of a business-suited man looking ruminative, head bowed, but he was too old to be my protagonist. I typed "men in suits looking ruminative" into another photo licensing site, and the guy you see on the cover popped up. He looks just like Buddy as I've pictured him, so I went with it, even though it violates a convention that says shirtless guys are only on romance covers. I think they're appearing on action covers, too, now. But a few readers have told me they bought the book in spite of the cover, and one said he didn't think my cover did the book justice. Maybe I goofed, maybe I need a gun on the cover. There are lots of shootings in the book.
OMN: It sounds like the book would be hard to put into a single fiction genre.
GGM: The Man Who Asked To Be Killed is difficult to pigeonhole. I like to call it "literary crime." It won the "suspense/mystery/thriller" category of the Maryland Writer's Association novel contest. A recent reviewer dubbed it "noir." A writer colleague says it's a "thriller." I will also apply "cross-over" to it — a cross-over between literary fiction and mystery, in the same way that I see Lehane's Mystic River straddling that line.
Today authors talk about their "brand." My brand is "complex characters in a complicated plot," whether I'm writing crime or comedy (my next novel will be comic) or writing slice-of-life short stories. In a conversation before release of The Man Who Asked To Be Killed, a reader of my story "The Yearbook," in Mobius, commented, "If your novel has the level of detail and complexity of that story, no wonder it's taking you years to write."
OMN: How true are you to the setting of the story?
GGM: The Man Who Asked To Be Killed is set in Maryland's capital, Annapolis, where protagonist Buddy is young cousin and confidant of the governor. The governor's waterfront house and pocket neighborhood, both fictional, are typical of Annapolis where inlets create barriers. A person drives two miles to get to a neighbor's house that he could walk to in five minutes if water didn't intervene.
Other Annapolis settings are real and faithfully rendered, including the Graul's Market plaza on Cape St. Claire and the City Dock coffee shops that Buddy frequents in the historic center. Annapolis, by the way, boasts the largest concentration of 18th century buildings in the US.
Time and place are a problem for authors. An author can know — really know — only places in his own experience, which limits where and when he can set books. Places keep changing. I grew up in LA in the '50s and '60s. Reading Raymond Chandler requires me to imagine LA as he lived it and described it a decade or two before my time. In the years between his and my experience of LA, so much of the city was raised and replaced (much by freeways) that little of what he wrote is recognizable to me.
To write what he knows, an author isn't just limited to writing about places he's been but limited to writing about them when he was there. The Man Who Asked To Be Killed came easily, time and place-wise, because it's set today and I live in Annapolis now. All I had to do was look around.
OMN: How does the title relate to the story?
GGM: The title The Man Who Asked To Be Killed might apply to any of three characters in the novel, but applies most directly to one, as becomes evident in the end — an end that, to date, no reader I've talked with has seen coming. In the book blurb I quote one early reader of the manuscript. "The end is as surprising as it is inevitable." This comment inspired my first venture into filmmaking, the 1-minute humorous video "He Wishes She Wouldn't Read in Bed" in which a young woman reads the end of my novel while her boyfriend believes she's having an orgasm. He asks if she enjoyed the finish, and she says, "I did not see it coming."
OMN: What kind of feedback have you received from your readers?
GGM: Philip K. Jason — a US Naval Academy emeritus professor of English and creative writing — asked to see my book from the hopper of books deemed worthy of review by the Washington Independent Review of Books (WIROB). I'm honored that a literary scholar, a stranger to me, read The Man Who Asked To Be Killed and chose to write the review that appeared in WIROB 11/4/14. Quoting in part: "Small tough-guy delights pierce the brooding atmosphere of The Man Who Asked To Be Killed, establishing McCann as the innovator of what someday might be known as Maryland Noir … As the likelihood of arrest or death by assassination looms larger and larger, the suspense thermometer rises higher and higher … Other aspects of the novel rival this center of interest … the sophisticated handling of the relationships between characters … evocation of setting — including Annapolis …".
I am most heartened by his comment on the relationships between characters. Character is what my writing is all about.