Roger Hobbs - 3/4/13

Roger Hobbs has hit gold with his very first book, "Ghostman." There was a bidding war to publish it. The foreign rights have sold to sixteen countries. It's been optioned for a movie. The New York Times reviewed it twice. The Oregonian's Jeff Baker wrote a huge story about Roger. And on and on.

"Ghostman" is about a criminal, Jack, or whatever his name is. His identity is amorphous. There are two tales, one set in the present and one five years earlier. They both involve criminal capers gone awry.

Although Roger is from the East Coast, he now lives in Portland, having come here originally to attend Reed College, from which he graduated a scant two years ago.

The degree of separation isn't very large between Roger and Murder by the Book. We apparently sold him a book that taught him how to pick locks back before we knew his name. He returned for a visit on March 4 for an interview and signing. Here's the short form of what he said. But, really, you should have been there.

MBTB: Are you inclined to move away from Portland?

RH: Absolutely not. I love this city way too much. Great people, great food, and much more important for me is the pace of life. I grew up on the East Coast where everyone is constantly doing battle with everyone else on every level of society. Good God, that gets really exhausting. It's much easier to live here and do whatever the hell I want to do than live elsewhere.

MBTB: What was your Reed senior thesis about?

RH: There's a rumor that I wrote "Ghostman" as my thesis, and that is not in any way true. I took a creative writing course at Reed, and it was the only thing that I ever got a B in. I was disenchanted very early on with the academic approach to creative writing which privileges authenticity over plot. I'm a very plot-driven person.

My thesis was a narratology thesis, the study of narrative. I wrote about how suspense functions. What's a narratological, theoretical approach to the function of suspense? My example texts were the very first mysteries, the [Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste] Dupin stories, in particular, "The Purloined Letter."

My approach was that the essence of a mystery, the essence of a thriller, is postponing gratification. You suggest early on that there's some information that is not being revealed to the reader, and you keep suggesting that throughout the story, all while revealing tiny bits of information that suggests that there's more.

MBTB: Do you really work between four and sixteen hours a day?

RH: I work in binges. Writing is a terrible drug, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. When I start I cannot stop. When I sit down to write, I'll drink four or five cups of coffee, smoke a half a dozen cigarettes, and then just GO for 12 or 16 or 24 or 36 or 48 hours. Another thing about this town – AMAZING coffee!

MBTB: We read that Robert Crais' "The Monkey's Raincoat" was your "aha" moment.

RH: I picked it up because it had the weirdest cover I'd ever seen for a thriller novel – just Mickey Mouse and a pair of sunglasses, which was bizarre. What immediately drew me in was not the content but the voice. That sort of mystery, I didn't think, was being written anymore: the hard-boiled, first-person narrator who talks to you. He's not narrating a story to himself, he's not narrating the story to another character, he's talking directly to the audience. And, God, I really, really liked that.

MBTB: Did you find the first-person approach difficult when you decided to adopt it?

RH: People keep saying to me that it's easier to be the omniscient third person, but [that's not] my experience. The thing about third person is, yeah, you're omniscient. You can tell any part of the story from any angle. So the difficulty is then choosing exactly where to put the camera, so to speak. When you're talking from the first person, however, you can focus more not on what is being seen but on what is being heard. What is this character experiencing? I don't have to worry about what all the characters are experiencing at all times and then having to pick the best one.

MBTB: What's your writing background? Where did you find an agent?

RH: I started writing when I was 12. It was one of those jobs that a 12-year-old could do. It's [also] one of the few remaining jobs where you don't have to know somebody, you don't have to spend ten years licking boots, you don't have to work in any mailroom. The only thing that matters is that you're good at it. You've got all the tools already. If you have hands and paper, you can write.

I wrote five novels through middle school and high school and three novels in college. I queried and queried and queried [publishers], but the slush pile is a harsh mistress. It wasn't until I was in college that I decided this approach was not working. That summer I was living on a couch in Portland and I decided that – instead of querying and querying like I'd been doing for the last seven years – I was going to get as many bylines as I possibly could. I was going to do short stories. I was going to do newspaper articles. I was going to build a bunch of credits, originally with the idea that that would make my query letters much harder to just burn and throw in the ash pile.

My agent, Matt Sobel, found me. He, like most agents, browse all of the short story venues that they consider good, and he had found a story that I had written in "Thug Lit." (I have another story coming out in the next issue.)

He saw a story about an armored car robbery, and he sent me an email saying, do you have any novels. I sent him two of my novels, and he said, these are absolutely terrible. When you write something that's half-way decent, send it to me. I spent the next summer writing the first draft of "Ghostman." I sent it to him on the day I graduated from Reed. He read 150 pages of it and said, this is awful, rewrite the first 50 pages for me. I rewrote the first 50 pages in twelve hours, sent it back to him, and those are the first 50 pages as they appear in "Ghostman."

MBTB: Did you have the two parts of your story already?

RH: No, I didn't in the first draft. I had the Atlantic City story. In the original draft – I try not to talk much about the original draft – horrible memories, horrible memories – Jack was much more of a [Richard Stark's] Parker figure. He was more of a thug, your classic anti-hero. When I rewrote it, I had just graduated, so I was in that great limbo that occurs after college. You don't know exactly who you are or who you're going to be yet. So when I rewrote it, I rewrote it from that perspective. I decided what if there was a hero who turned that miserable feeling of un-being, of not being anyone, and turned that into a strength. I wrote "Ghostman" with the ghostman. I took out the thug and put in a man with no name.

MBTB: In one of your interviews, you said Jack represents freedom. On the other hand, Jack says, "I live alone. I eat alone. I sleep alone. I trust no one." That seems to be the opposite of freedom.

RH: Here's the thing. Jack has the ultimate freedom, freedom from oneself. I wanted a character who explored the different concepts of identity.

Throughout history the concept of identity – what makes a person a person – has changed dramatically. My favorite example is the ancient Greeks. The modern sense of identity is we create our identities; we're crafting it. We're performing ourselves to a whole bunch of different people, and that performance can differ depending upon the audience. The Greeks didn't have that. The Greeks had a solid or inborn concept of identity: You are born with a fundamental temperament.

The concept that a character might develop is foreign to the Greeks. That was really invented by the Romans with Aeneas. He was the founder of Rome, and he was the first to really try to fight against it. He didn't want to be the heroic Aeneas. He just wanted to be "Aeneas, comma, a dude."

Jack's freedom is to become whoever he wants to be. He's not trapped by his past in any way. He's completely future oriented.

MBTB: He also has no anchor.

RH: That's sort of his tragic quirk. This lifestyle of being no one gives him the freedom to be anyone he wants, but it also means – how can a person find value in himself, what does self-esteem mean when you can be whomever you want? So this leads to his central motivation: boredom. It's very boring being no one. He seeks out new experiences where he can try out new identities.

MBTB: You don't have contemporary cultural references.

RH: I wanted it to be ambiguously near-future.

The hundred dollar bills that play a major part in the plot are of the new design that none of us has had yet. You may have heard about this. There's $110 billion in hundred dollar bills sitting in a warehouse in Washington, D.C. They're incredibly difficult to counterfeit. They're so difficult to counterfeit that they gummed up the printing presses. [The government] has no idea how many of them are ruined, which is why we haven't actually seen these bills yet. [It's] sitting there in a warehouse being checked one by one by the fifty guys qualified to do that.

MBTB: True or false: A Miata is a good getaway car.

RH: Yes, absolutely. A wheelman told me.

Over the course of researching this book, I talked to a lot of active criminals. [Murmurs from the audience.] People forget that most criminals are not sociopaths. They fall into other categories. People who are scofflaws, who violate the law because they feel that that law is unreasonable or unjust. There are people who violate the law without knowing they are violating the law. Then there are those people who do moral calculus. The question is do the benefits of breaking this law outweigh the possibility of getting caught.

You strike up a conversation about crime, which is shockingly easy. You've got to also think about the criminal mindset. To most criminals, being arrested, being thrown in jail, being thrown in prison isn't in any way connected with violating the law. They forget that it's supposed to be a punishment for crime because everyone they know is committing crimes. They don't fear incrimination in part because they're not ashamed of what they did.

MBTB: It's a way of bragging?

RH: Yeah.

MBTB: True or false. Armored cars have magnetic plates to connect with bales of money.

RH: This is a real technology, [but] standard issue armored cars do not use this technology. They just pile the money in and hope for the best.

The federal government does use something that's similar to the federal payload that I describe in the book. However, it's not nearly as complicated or safe as the federal payload that I've described in this book. The feds take far more risks than the feds in this book.

MBTB: True or false. Jack has mastered forgery, but he writes a signature upside-down. Jack doesn't know why it is easier for him to do this. IS it easier to forge a signature upside-down?

RH: He doesn't know why it's easier, but I do. When you turn a piece of handwriting upside-down it stops being writing. It loses its semiotic value and it just starts being a piece of art, a piece of scribble, which then, if you are a skilled draftsman, you can copy that piece of art, that image, without getting caught up in the semiotic value of those words.

MBTB: You add so many interesting details like that – whether they're true or not – and that makes the book fascinating.

RH: That was something I could do to connect the two prongs of my research, one being the book learning aspect, where I would go online and figure out ways to do things, and the other aspect which was to go out and ask. I found that many working criminals are using methods of committing crimes that are strictly suboptimal. Many don't know their profession very well. They're using techniques that are antiquated.

MBTB: What is your own natural writing style?

RH: Why would you think I have ONE. I have a hard time with the concept of personal style.

I knew right away that I wanted to write for an audience. It was important to me that people read what I created, which is something that you have to tell yourself when you're just starting out writing. I have yet to come across an oeuvre of writing that I feel I can't do.

I do have a content or approach that I prefer. I much prefer first person to third, as I mentioned, and I much prefer stories that are heavy on the plot, that have a lot of action, that have a lot of suspense to stories that are beautiful but drift along.

I wanted to write a book that was very entertaining, highly addictive, and all other characteristics were secondary, most especially plausibility. It's not an especially plausible book. A thief goes to Atlantic City to collect money that's going to explode in 48 hours. If you think about that for five seconds, it's really bizarre and other-worldly. What was important to me was that I could sell it.

MBTB: Even though he's a criminal, Jack is your hero, your good guy.

RH: There's sort of the cardinal rule of anti-heroes, that an anti-hero needs to fight against people who are even worse than he is, like the film "Inglourious Basterds," which I really like. Let's take these guys who do absolutely despicable things but when we put them up against Nazis, suddenly they're awesome. Pulp fiction does this as well. When you do bad things, when you hurt people for a living, you need to know that there's someone more evil than you so you can think of yourself as the good guy, as the guy who's just struggling by. There's always a bigger fish and there's always a greater evil. Even Jack, who is morally reprehensible on a bunch of levels, even Jack has an endless supply of people who are waaay, way worse.

MBTB: We like the cliffhangers or teasers at the ends of your chapters.

RH: I love books with a bunch of cliffhangers, with something on every page that is propelling you forward. As I mentioned, when I was writing my thesis, the essence of suspense is to suggest that there's some new information that is yet to be revealed, all the while revealing information that you said you would. You've got to fulfill that promise.

When I decided I wanted to write thrillers – this was back in high school – I bought as many paperback thrillers as I could. I went through them and wrote down the main dramatic events on index cards, and I organized those dramatic events into the various acts that the book has, so I could understand which scenes I thought were working, how they were put together and in what order, how much danger is it acceptable to have in the first 50 pages.

It's great to have a lot [of action] in the first 20, 25 pages. That's awesome. But if you keep up the furious pace of the prologue for the whole book, you get completely exhausted. The thing about a good thriller is that it's paced properly. It's got to be exciting, but it's got to be the right type and level of exciting at various key points. It's got to feel that there's somewhere more exciting to go. And that took a lot of deconstruction to figure out how other authors had handled that problem.

MBTB: You've received many accolades. You've sold the movie rights. People threw money at you.

RH: The movie rights were sold for seven figures, to Warner Brothers, who are very excited about making the film.

MBTB: Tom Cruise? [Much hilarity ensued.]

RH: Oh, no. Heaven forbid. [More hilarity ensued.] Ryan Gosling, by the way.

MBTB: Who were your influences?

RH: Duane [Swierczynski] is really great. He keeps the suspense dialed up at 11. Crais is a magical stylist. I'm really tired of stories about cops, but I love the way he writes his stories. They're always like a Swiss watch. Lee Child, obviously. His style is simple, elegant, readable, cinematic. Again, I don't much care for cops, but that's the great thing about Reacher, there's the best of both worlds. He's a hobo who fights crime. That's awesome.

My favorite of the old masters is James Cain. He wrote like he was firing a machine gun at you. "The Postman Always Rings Twice" is this tiny little book that has 800 pages worthy of plot in it. That is an amazing utility of language.