Los Angeles is known as the city of dreams, largely because so many Americans dream of breaking into the Hollywood film and television industry. In 1976, Robert Crais went west from Louisiana to pursue that very dream. As it turned out, he became one of the lucky few to break into the industry in a big way. Crais has since written for such hugely popular TV shows as Quincy, Cagney and Lacey, Miami Vice, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law, just to name a few. However, after achieving such success (which included a prestigious Emmy nomination) in a business that so many would give everything to break into, Robert Crais decided to step away and pursue his true dream. Frustrated by the collaborative process that comes with screenwriting, and inspired by pulp-pioneers such as Raymond Chandler, Crais became a mystery novelist. With his massively popular Elvis Cole/Joe Pike mysteries series, it seems as though success has a funny way of following Crais no matter what he decides to do.
Crais published his very first novel in 1987. The Monkey's Raincoat introduced mystery fans to Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, a pair of L.A. private investigators who would become his most-beloved recurring characters. Crais's transition from screenwriting to novel-writing was an astoundingly smooth one. The Monkey's Raincoat earned him nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, Shamus, and Macavity awards, winning both the Anthony and Macavity for "Best Novel of the Year." Crais's publisher was so overjoyed by the novel's success that he encouraged Crais to keep the Cole/Pike team going. "I started writing these books to get away from writing other people's concepts, like TV and movies," Crais told Barnes&Noble.com. "I never expected to write these guys as a series...but the book proved to be so popular and the characters were so popular that my publisher wanted more." What followed was a series of bestselling mysteries, including Stalking the Angel (1989), Free Fall (1993), L.A. Requiem (1999), and last year's The Forgotten Man.
Although the series was not part of Crais's original plan, he still seems to hold the Cole and Pike team closer to his heart than anything he has previously written. He explained, "The characters have deepened, and I think they kind of reflect what's going on with me and the world as I see it." When asked about whether or not we can expect to see the crime-solving buddies on the big screen anytime soon, he said, "I think I would have a difficult time in the collaborative process when other people suddenly put their fingerprints on Elvis and Joe," further illustrating his personal feelings for his P.I. team.
As much as Crais loves his series, he does occasionally write novels outside of the Cole/Pike world. His latest, The Two-Minute Rule, tells the story of career criminal Max Holman, a recently released-from-prison bank robber who finds himself hunting an entirely different kind of criminal after his son is gunned down. The book has since raked in positive reviews from such publications as Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, and The Library Journal. While The Two-Minute Rule does not feature Cole and Pike, Crais fans will notice one significant similarity between his latest novel and his famous series -- the Los Angeles setting. "I can't think of a better place to set crime novels because of what Los Angeles is. Los Angeles is the main where the nation goes to make its dreams come true. When you have a place like that where so many people are risking their very identities, not just money and cash, but they're risking who they are because it's their hopes and dreams, when you have that kind of tension and that kind of friction, you can't help but have crime."
Fortunately, Crais will never have to succumb to such friction and tension since, for a success story such as he, Los Angeles completely lived up to its promise of being the city of dreams.
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Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Crais:
"My first job was cleaning dog kennels. It was especially, ah, aromatic during those hot, humid Louisiana summers, but it prepared me for Hollywood."
"My fiction is almost always inspired by a character's need or desire to rise above him-or herself. No one is perfect and some of us have much adversity in our lives; it is those people who struggle to rise above their nature or background that I find the most interesting and heroic."
"Fun details? Like Elvis Cole, I have a dry sense of humor. Sometimes I am so dry that people don't know I'm kidding and think I'm being serious. I enjoy this because their reactions are often funny. Also, I wear beautifully colored shirts like Elvis Cole, only I was wearing them before him. People will say, ‘Look, RC dresses just like Elvis Cole,' and I'll say, 'No, Elvis Cole dresses like me!' I also wear sunglasses like Joe Pike, but not indoors and not at night."
"Elvis Cole wrote two episodes of television. No lie. It happened like this: I had written episodes of Miami Vice and Jag that were rewritten by person or persons unknown -- changed so badly that I didn't want my name on them, so I used Elvis Cole's name as a pen name."
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In the winter of 2005, Robert Crais took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What book most influenced your life or career as a writer?
It wasn't just one book or author, but many and from many genres -- Chandler and Hammett and Robert B. Parker; John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway; Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury; the list goes on. But if I was forced to narrow the field, I would have to say Raymond Chandler's The Little Sister. It was the first book in the detective field I read. I fell in love with the main character, Philip Marlowe, and the setting, Los Angeles, and the power of Chandler's language.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
My favorite books change with my mood. I'll give you a few titles today, but ask me again in six months and the answers might be different. Let's start with five:
The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler -- It holds a special place in my heart because it's the novel through which I discovered "the private eye."
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett -- Simply brilliant on every level. If you want to read my detailed views on this novel, visit the ‘media' page on my website for an essay.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway -- There are great lessons for the all writers here. The power of this story is elemental and stripped of all artifice; no tricks, no gimmicks, no clutter.
Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker -- To me, this Spenser novel shows the modern mystery at its finest -- a true novel.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck-- I love the clean, telling language and Steinbeck's ability to create a cast of characters (and a gopher) with short, deft strokes.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to all types of music, from rock to country to classical, but not while I'm writing. If the music is something I like, I end up thinking about the music instead of thinking about what I'm writing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Two Minute Rule, of course!
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Nonfiction books. I love history, biographies, and popular science.
What are you working on now?
Next year's book, which happens to be an Elvis Cole novel.
Many writers are hardly ‘overnight success' stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
Ha. It took me about fifteen years to become an "overnight success." I had scores and scores of rejections at the beginning of my career when I was writing short stories. I found fairly easy success when I wrote television, but I ‘rediscovered' rejections when I turned to novels. I wrote two novels that were so bad I didn't even market them. Then I wrote The Monkey's Raincoat, which was rejected nine times before it sold. Even then, my career built slowly, but steadily. Each book sold more than the last. I finally hit the bestseller lists with the paperback publication of L.A. Requiem. The worst rejection I received was back in my short story days. I received one of those pre-printed form rejections with a very short, two-word note in the margin. The note was: You suck.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
If you've already written something, write something else. Newer writers will often finish a short story or novel, then live or die through the submission process without working on new material. Keep writing! My other big tip is to write what you love. This might seem obvious to some, but many aspiring writers chase trends or write what other people tell them they should write. This is a huge mistake. Write what you love. Follow your passion. And try to write well. None of us -- including myself -- is ever so good that we can stop trying to improve.
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