On The Line interview
Q: George Pelecanos has called your Lydia Chin/Bill Smith books “the most consistently compelling series of traditional detective novels published in this decade.” Now here’s On The Line, a complete departure. It’s a ticking-clock thriller, not a traditional detective novel. What happened, you don’t like being called the best?
A: Are you kidding? I love it. But you need to stretch you wings every once in awhile, no?
Q: A Bill Smith thriller seems like a big stretch. Bill Smith is usually like a riptide: boiling and racing where you can’t see it, calm and laconic above. Calm isn’t very useful in a thriller hero. They need to be in action every minute. If SJ Rozan was going to write a thriller within the series, I’d have expected it to be for Lydia Chin. She’s always in action anyway.
A: Well, that’s why I did it this way. You set yourself a challenge, it ought to be a challenge, right?
Q: You like to make trouble for yourself, I get it. So what did you do to get Bill in gear like that?
A: I put Lydia in serious danger. Worked like a charm. Not for a single moment in the book does he ever stop.
Q: He sure doesn’t. He’s at warp speed and he’s running all over New York.
A: Giving me a chance to feature New York, which I love to do.
Q: Though you only got three boroughs in this time.
A: I know. But the Bronx and Staten Island have had their own books (Concourse and Absent Friends, respectively) so I figured that was okay.
Q: I feel obliged to point out Absent Friends wasn’t in the series.
A: True. Okay, you want a Chin/Smith Staten Island book? I’ll put it on the list.
Q: Can we get back to On The Line?
A: Why not?
Q: Why not indeed? In On The Line, Bill Smith doesn’t stop, but he’s never alone, is he?
A: Lydia’s always accused Bill of wanting to be the Marlboro Man, the lone hero. He does lean that way, but when it comes right down to it — when Lydia’s life is at stake — he takes all the help he can get.
Q: In this case he gets some of it from one of Lydia’s seemingly countless cousins.
A: They are, in fact, countless. This one, Linus Wong, is a cousin Bill already knows. Bill used Linus, who was 16 then, in his role as a computer hacker in Winter and Night.
Q: What role does Linus play in On The Line?
A: Computer hacker. But so much more. Linus is 19 now and operates his own e-security firm out of his folks’ garage. Wong Security, whose motto is “Protecting People Like You From People Like Us.” Linus and his friend, Trella Bartoli, get brought in by Bill at the beginning of On The Line to help with a specific technological issue that’s beyond Bill — most technological issues are beyond Bill — and they just refuse to leave. They’re with him for the whole book.
Q: They’re terrific characters, too. I’m glad you did that.
A: Thanks, but I didn’t actually do it. I brought them in at the beginning of On The Line and they, um, just refused to leave.
Q: Characters really do that?
A: Of course not. The rational part of a writer, in charge most of the time, knows they don’t because they don’t exist except inside our heads. But the irrational part is often in charge during the actual writing of a book. Then it seems to the rational part like the characters are doing whatever they want and we’re just running alongside writing it down.
Q: So it’s that easy?
A: Are you kidding? It’s not easy at all. A lot of the time they run into a thick fog and you have no idea what they’re doing in there or whether they’ll ever come out.
Q: Then what do you do?
A: Then the rational part has to get out the de-icers, the giant fans, the radar, the fog lights — that metaphor’s getting out of hand, isn’t it?
Q: A little.
A: What I’m saying is, it’s hard work, this writing wheeze.
Q: But you don’t stop. In which case, and since you already mentioned “the list,” tell us what’s next. Do you really have a list?
A: I do. I’m not going to say anything about what’s on it, though, because that might put a kibosh on something. Except for the one I’m working on now. It’s the next Lydia Chin book, Ghost Hero. Set in New York, in the art world. Chinese contemporary art, to be precise.
Q: So you get to skewer the art world?
A: Me? I love artists and their world. What Lydia and Bill think, though, you — and I — never know. Or what Jack Lee thinks, either.
Q: Who’s that?
A: Another ABC PI who first appeared in a short story, “Seeing the Moon.” Check him out. Then you’ll be ready for Ghost Hero.
Q: Can’t wait. But first everyone needs to read On The Line. Available wherever fine books are sold?
A: Absolutely. Your local independent, the chains, online, and as a download for your superterrific e-reader.
Q: Then I recommend that you all go out and buy it! A thrilling thriller if ever there was one.
A: Thank you.
Q: Thank YOU.
A: You’re welcome.
Q: You too.
A: We could keep going like this.
Q: Or, we could stop here.