Greg Rucka - 6/18/12

Portland author Greg Rucka has said repeatedly that he leaves the fancy writing to other writers. For instance, he loves James Lee Burke's expressive writing, but Rucka's personal straightforward style is not similar to Burke's. Not surprisingly, then, his literary heroes are Hemingway, for the depth he achieves in simplicity, and Stephen Crane, whose taut images of war taught Rucka how to write about violence. He wants his stories to engage, entertain, and leave the reader with something to think about. His stories point out society's woes and offer a way to think about how we live in the world.

Rucka brought his parents to his signing. We got to hear from them how smart and curious and talkative he has always been, things we already could figure out from his writing. The "talkative" part was evidenced by his long, thoughtful, and articulate answers to questions.

Alpha, Rucka's newest book and part of a proposed three-book series, has a lot of action in it. The veteran writer is an expert at keeping the story moving at a thrilling pace. Besides his Atticus Kodiak private investigator series, he has scripted several stories for established action comic book series, developed his own comic book stories, and done both regular novel and comic book versions of his Queen & Country series.

Does Rucka want to do a quieter novel? Heck, yes, and he's tried, but a former publisher kept forcing him back to adding action, until sometimes the finished product did not resemble the thoughtful, character-driven plot he had originally envisioned. He mentioned 2004's "Fistful of Rain," which initially was more subdued. His publisher, however, told him that it needed "more swearing and guns," never mind that he was proud of his deeper and richer storyline. So if the mystery seems "stapled in at the end," he said, that's because it was.

Although he is often categorized as a "mystery" author, he said that he's not a very good writer of mysteries. He famously has committed unintentional plot errors -- and, please, there will NOT be a contest to see if readers can spot the mistake in Alpha. To him, mystery "is a genre of commentary, revealing what is wrong with that sliver of society." "I don't read mysteries to solve them," he added.

Jad Bell, the main character in Alpha, is an ex-military super-soldier. Usually the military point of view has an "implicit right-wing view" attached to it, Rucka said. Although he was "not trying to write a polemic," what he wanted to do was reflect his liberal leanings in his characters, to show that the genre wasn't all Clive Cussler wannabes. And he does not tiptoe about when it comes to his own personal likes and dislikes. Of course, he wants his publishers to be happy, to make back their investment in him, but he has broken all the secret rules of writing crime fiction: Don't kill a child, don't kill animals, don't let your personal political flag fly. "I'm actually very accommodating," he claimed, "I want to collaborate."

Research, research, research is the key to Alpha, Rucka said. He lucked into some of his resources just by asking through his social networks for experts. Some of his old friends also proved unexpectedly useful as well. The wife of a long-time acquaintance knows American Sign Language. Since some of his key characters are deaf or teachers of the deaf -- not "hearing impaired," his resource repeatedly told him -- this provided a bonanza of information. It is Rucka's authentic-sounding transliteration of ASL conversations that brings these characters to life and marks Alpha as an unusual work.

A Disneyland-like amusement park is threatened by "weaponized botulinum," another topic Rucka researched for his book. Thankfully, "that virus currently is impossible," but it makes an effective and scary threat in Alpha. The fictional amusement park itself was something he has had in the back of his mind for over a dozen years. Each time he'd visit an amusement park, he'd look about. "It's all about engineering the movement of people," he said.

Several of the characters in Alpha are female. Rucka considers himself a feminist and prides himself on creating realistic, strong female characters. Realistic, even if they have top-notch survival skills and are covert agents. He especially didn't want Jad Bell's ex-wife to end up the way cinematic wives of thriller heroes often end up, i.e., they were wrong, the heroes were right, everyone kisses and makes up at the end. He is especially mindful that "the tropes of the thriller genre minimalize women."

While Rucka wants his readers to enjoy the adventure, it's also important to him that his books say something or pose food for thought. A theme that underlies Alpha is the question of nature versus nurture. Although most of the book is from Jad's point of view, we occasionally glimpse what's going on in the mind of Gabriel, a mercenary on the "wrong side." Is Gabriel the way he is because of his bankrupt early life or because he was born like that?

What does he hope for Alpha? "I wrote 'Keeper' and 'Finder' [the first two books in the Atticus Kodiak series] when I was 24-years-old," he said, "I pray Alpha is better, that it will show growth." He is better now at stopping the revision process: "Artists and writers tend to navel gaze. At a certain point you have to say, 'I'm done.'"

Rucka's final thoughts on his latest book: "Alpha is a satire. It's not an over-the-top satire, but there's an absurdity to [people in cartoon costumes] walking around with submachine guns."