My Interview with Diary of a Small FIsh author Pete Morin.
You can find Pete’s incredibly well-written novel, Diary of a Small Fish, here.
R. Lewis: What’s the story about?
P. Morin: Diary of a Small Fish is about a fundamentally honest man who is accused of a federal crime – playing golf with his friends. Already grieving the tragic loss of his parents and divorce from a woman he still loves, he is pulled into the grinder of the federal justice system, due to the machinations of a corrupt prosecutor with a personal vendetta. It is also a love story involving that man, his ex-wife, and his new girlfriend – a member of the grand jury that voted to indict him.
R. Why this story? What was it about this story that fascinated you enough that you wanted to spend an extended period of time with it?
P. There is an autobiographical aspect to most good fiction, I believe. In the mid 1980’s, I was a member of the Massachusetts Legislature, at a time when the socializing between legislators and lobbyists was ubiquitous. There must have been a dozen “charity” golf events a year, in which hoards of House and Senate members would participate in a free day of golf, drinks and dinner. This was all dubious activity, in the context of a weak state statute drafted to protect the status quo, and something regarded as the equivalent of an illegal U-turn. That all changed when a federal prosecutor attempted to turn this behavior into a federal felony under the so-called “theft of honest services” section of the mail fraud statute. I was in the middle of that – a very small player in it – and the story of Paul Forte was born out of my personal experience.
R. How long did it take you write this? From 1st draft to the point you could send it out to publishers.
P. I started it in February of 2008, finished the first draft in March of 2009, got an agent one year later and finished her suggested rewrites in September of 2010.
R. Where do you think your style comes from? What books would you point to that heavily influenced your writing?
P. I’m not sure I really have any idea. Certainly, I was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway at one point in my life – in college in the mid-70’s. I wrote some short stories back then that were rip-offs of his style. But I’ve always tried to emulate the sparse style, and I believe firmly in Hemingway’s theory of “the thing left out.”
I had no influences when I began to write this, and it showed. The first efforts of the story were nothing short of putrid, but I was just beginning the journey. As I wrote, I began reading voraciously. Everything I could find by Cormac McCarthy, John D. McDonald, Ross MacDonald, Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Harlan Coben. Did any of them heavily influence my style? I don’t really know. I know all of them inspired me, I know I paid attention to their styles, structures, voices. If any one of them really had an influence on me, it was probably McCarthy, in the sense of his ability to describe scene and action in such an economical, evocative way.
R. Do you have a favorite part of a book you like to write (such as the opening, or the climax, dialog)?
P. I say right off the bat that I don’t really know a hell of a lot about what I’m doing. It just comes naturally to me, and without a lot of forethought. Dumb luck, really, that I discovered this before I was too old to do it.
That said, reviewing my own work and listening to others talk about it, dialogue is a real strength. Some might say that there is too much dialogue at times. And in light of my great fondness for McCarthy, I have also been criticized for a paucity of dialogue tags. I hate tags.
The other thing that seems to come naturally to me is the opening and closing lines of chapters or chapter breaks. These are, of course, immensely important to the success of a manuscript, and I have friends who struggle mightily over these before finding just the right approach. More often than I deserve, these lines just seem to pop right into my head.
R. Writers are fascinated with other writer’s processes. I know I am. What’s your process like?
P. Process? Writers have a process? I have a simple process. I write when I can.
A lot of Small Fish was written at the bar of a Joe’s American Bar & Grill at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, or any of a dozen other watering holes. Some of it was written on the commuter train to or from Boston. And a lot of it was written between midnight and 4:00 am at home. I did, oh, a dozen edits (the last file I numbered was 12-6, the sixth version of the twelfth edit). I printed out 5 or 6 versions and line edited each one, many of them sitting on the beach.
I did a timeline with a magic marker on a roll of butcher’s paper. Chronology was important, since the story spanned almost two years. Yet for all my diligence, my editor pointed out to me that at one point, Paul went to sleep in August and woke up in September. At another, Paul ordered a pastrami sandwich and ate corned beef.
Process? Apparently, not much.
R. Which author would you most like to drink with?
P. Tough question. I’m tempted to say Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but I might be projecting their characters onto them. So I’ll say Dennis Lehane.
R. Why Dennis Lehane?
P. I’ve met him, listened to him speak at conferences, and find him to be a fascinating guy. I’m familiar with his background (being from Boston), so I’m pretty confident he knows what a beer is. I love his writing, and he’s just a regular guy.
R. What was the revision process like with your agent?
P. My experience with Christine Witthohn was unusual, I suspect. After she’d read the manuscript, she had her husband, Jeff Mehalic, read it. Jeff is also a trial lawyer (there is a lot of legal stuff) and a devoted mystery reader. She and Jeff discussed the manuscript together, and then I discussed their thoughts with Jeff. What was amazing to me is that both Jeff and Christine agreed on the points they wanted to raise, and I agreed completely with all of them.
R. What’s the next book about?
P. Law & Disorder is about a disgraced homicide detective and recovering sex addict (the cause of his disgrace) who uses his investigation of a drug dealer’s murder to find redemption, and finds out no one is redeemable.
R. Do you write to music? If so, what’s your favorite music to write to?
P. Now Robert, you know how much I like music. But no, I can’t listen to music and write. I can sit in a crowded bar and write like the wind. Even with the occasional “what are you writing?” interruption. I can write while watching t.v. I can’t write and listen to music. I think it’s because I can’t tune music out. I have music going on in my head most of my waking hours. Weird.
R. What else is going on with your career? What’s coming down the pike?
P. Who knows. I’m reluctant to call this part of my life a “career.” We’ll see what happens with Small Fish. I like my second novel a lot, I think because I’m not repeating mistakes. I’m happy with the short stories I’ve written (in a collection called Uneasy Living, 99 cents). I’ll do some more short stories after Law & Disorder is complete, and I’ve begun to sketch out the plot for #3 (another murder mystery on Cape Cod involving the descendants of John Wilkes Booth).
R. What good books have you read recently?
P. Oh my. I try to read at least two novels a week, one bestseller and one indie. I’ve been spending time with the contemporary top selling crime/mystery/thrillers. They’re all good. I don’t know why some people think Lee Child is no good. Everything he writes in unputdownable. I like Walter Mosely’s stories about Easy Rawlins. I liked the first Janet Evanovich I picked up, but I could put it down.
I’ve read some wonderful indie stuff. Dan Holloway’s The Company of Fellows is a superb thriller. I thought very highly of Austin Nights, a literary work by a fellow who calls himself Herocious. Ruby Barnes wrote a hilarious crime novel called Peril. Melinda Clayton’s Appalachian Justice is unique and moving. Marion Stein’s Loisada is chilling, gripping, raw.
I’m reading The Sun Also Rises for about the hundredth time. I never noticed how much telling there was in it. So much for rules.