MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Dennis Tafoya today, whose latest novel THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK has just been released. His first novel, DOPE THIEF, was published by Minotaur Books in 2009. His short story “Above the Imperial” will appear in Philadelphia Noir, coming from Akashic Books in November as part of their award-winning City Noir series. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Liars Club, a Philadelphia-area writers group. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Dennis, let’s begin by talking about how you first got started. What got you interested in being a writer?
DENNIS TAFOYA: Writing is something I’ve always done. When I was nine I wrote a story about a monster with my friend Keith Parker. We thought it was pretty good, but looking back I have to admit it was basically a rip-off of an episode of the TV show, One Step Beyond. I associate my love of writing with a love of reading, and my early stuff was very much influenced by the science fiction and horror authors I loved when I was young, like Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison. I would still like to write something in a paranormal or horror vein, and I still think those authors are amazing.
VENTRELLA: Do you think starting authors should concentrate on perfecting short stories first? Do you feel the skills needed for novels is different?
TAFOYA: That’s a really interesting question, and I’ve never thought about short story writing as a prerequisite for the aspiring novelist. I know people who are very comfortable in the long form who really don’t like writing short stories, and short story writers who really struggle with the requirements of the novel. I think the best novel chapters are frequently short stories in themselves, though, and trying to master the short story can teach the writer a ton about tight control on the elements of story.
I love writing short stories — I’ve got a bunch of them out or coming out in the next few months, and I’m really proud that I’ve got a story in upcoming Philadelphia Noir from Akashic Books. I did write shorts before I tried a novel, I think to show myself that I could write a complete story. It’s also a lot easier to find a home for a short story because of the explosion of story sites on the web. I frequently advise my aspiring writer friends to take advantage of those sites, both to get work out there and get reactions, and as a way to meet people who are writing in your genre, too.
Actually, my only creative writing teacher was a poet, and I think writing poetry is an excellent path to writing fiction. Writing good poetry requires a brutal discipline, and it kind of distills the tension that should be present in all good writing to a very fine point. Poetry teaches an awareness of rhythm and word choice, too. I think making demands on ourselves as writers is the only way to get better at what we do.
VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to be a “crime writer”? What sort of background do you bring to the genre?
TAFOYA: Oh, not much other than a deep interest in crime. The threads that inform my work are literary fiction and true crime, I think. I have a few relatives with a little Damon Runyon quality to thier lives, but mostly the characters in my novels and stories are out of my imagination, applied to what I’ve read and heard about criminals and the criminal life. I’ve been lucky to know police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers, and I’ve gotten some amazing things out of those associations, but I’m pretty boring and middle class personally. I think that’s a little disappointing to people who meet me, and I was thinking I should get some tattoos or something to sell the image a little more.
VENTRELLA: What kind of research do you do when preparing a story?
TAFOYA: I’m a fiend for research. I want to get the details right, and I want to write about those worlds as well as I can. I did a ton of research for both DOPE THIEF and WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK. I read, go to the library and spend thousands of hours on the internet trying to learn the things I want to know.
The cool thing is that research itself can generate new story ideas and take me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to move. Reading about crime in Philly for WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, I stumbled on stories about ‘hoppers,’ kids who ride freight trains and live in squats in the city. So I added a couple of hopper characters to the novel, and the stuff I’ve learned is tucked away in my brain in case I want to spend more time developing characters or stories that involve that world.
VENTRELLA: Do you like being called “hard boiled”? What the heck does that mean, anyway?
TAFOYA: I’m not entirely sure. I guess it’s fiction with a gritty edge. I don’t mind the label, but I hope it doesn’t keep people away who might enjoy the books but who think my work might be too intense. My stories are character-driven, and while the stories do involve violence and drug use, I really want to arouse the interest and sympathy of the reader, not shock or alienate anyone. I write about people who struggle in the margins, who live compromised lives but who are still smart and aware and want more from life than their roles would suggest. I hope people recognize themselves, at least a little, in characters like Orlando in WOLVES or Ray in DOPE THIEF.
VENTRELLA: How did you interest a publisher in your first novel?
TAFOYA: I was extraordinarily lucky. Basically, a very nice woman from California, a writer and producer named Cori Stern, took an interest in my work and started me toward publication. She introduced me to her manager, Brooke Ehrlich, who agreed to represent me. Brooke found me an amazing literary agent, Alex Glass of Trident Media, who sold the book to Minotaur. It was all so painless I feel guilty when I hear other writers tell me about trying for years to find representation and get their work in front of editors. Like Blanche Dubois, I depended on the kindness of strangers, but it went much better for me than for Blanche.
VENTRELLA: THE DOPE THIEF was released first in hardcover. Why was that decision made? Do you think it was the right decision?
TAFOYA: It’s been Minotaur’s decision to release both books in harcover. I’m still a little worried that, times being what they are that people will balk at the price, but I have to trust that my publishers know what they’re doing. I think there is more interest and attention aimed at hardcovers, but there is that price issue, too. It’s a tremendous vote of confidence from Minotaur and my editor, but I feel a huge responsibility for it all to go well.
VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about characters. The best and most memorable are flawed in some way yet believable. What sort of process do you take when developing your characters? How do you make sure they don’t turn cliche?
TAFOYA: Trying to avoid cliche is one of my major preoccupations, in my characters, in the plot and in the prose itself. My aim is to write something readers haven’t seen before, but that delivers a satisfying experience and engages them emotionally. It’s a lot to try to accomplish, but I think I’m a better writer for at least moving in those directions.
I’m really only interested in characters who are deeply compromised. Maybe because I see myself that way, maybe because people who are self-contained, capable and sort of unassailable are cyphers to me. I don’t know many people like that in real life, either. Good writing is about tension, and I think that tension between the way we live and the way we want to live is what generates story in a really interesting and organic way.
VENTRELLA: Also difficult is making unsavory characters appealing to a reader. What do you find works best?
TAFOYA: I think some degree of self-knowledge is the key. My characters are drug addicts and criminals, but their awareness of themselves and the gap between what they want for themselves and the lives they lead is something we can all identify with. In DOPE THIEF, the main character is trying to figure out where things went wrong for him and whether he can get to a better life that’s about connection and engagement with his own best impulses. You don’t have to be a criminal to feel that way.
VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? Do you outline heavily, jump right in, start at the end…?
TAFOYA: I outline very briefly and generally, a couple of pages. I find so much in the writing that I don’t want to limit myself. The story will demand it’s own level of planning, too. WOLVES was a mystery, and there are logistical issues that need to be worked out with a little precision when you’re working on that kind of project, but I always find new characters or new ideas, so my sense of the story remains pretty fluid. I do have an image or scene that I’m writing toward, usually, a kind of state I want things to be in at the end. That’s pretty important for me.
VENTRELLA: WOLVES was bought by your publisher based on a one sentence synposis, about a heroin addict trying to solve a mystery. Did that provide a challenge? Are you pleased with the result?
TAFOYA: I don’t know what I was thinking promising to write a mystery. I have so much respect for writers who can deliver those on a regular basis! I’m really glad I did it, and I’m pleased that the book is getting good reviews, but it was a real challenge. It stretched me in new ways, and not just because of the requirements of the mystery form. I knew I was going to have to plan much more extensively, create red herrings and keep control of the way information is revealed, but I was also working for the first time with multiple viewpoints and a much larger palette. It was pretty ambitious, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that the book is getting good reactions.
VENTRELLA: WOLVES also deals with the seedy underbelly of Philadelphia. What is it about Philly that makes it unique to your stories? Could your fiction work in any other place?
TAFOYA: I was asked that in another interview recently, and I’ve been thinking about how Philadelphia and its characters might be unique. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and Washington and some other places and I can say people in each of those places really seem different to me. I recently set a short story in Vegas that dealt with characters from the west, and I think the speech patterns, the way people engage one another, reflect a slower pace and sometimes a little more recalcitrance than the people I know here. My friends and relatives from Philly talk fast and loud and share different kinds of information. We’re on display in a way that a guy from rural Nevada might not be.
Another thing I think is interesting is that here in Philly we’re more rooted to the place we live. In my family we used to joke about that, about our relatives who thought they needed a passport to leave South Philly. We’re defined by neighborhoods, by where we grew up and where our families live. Our accents are very specific and we’re very conscious of class and income. My relatives from Oregon Avenue regarded the Main Line as a different planet.
VENTRELLA: Can we expect your third novel to do the same?
TAFOYA: I’m working (very slowly) on a new novel dealing with little criminals from South Jersey. It’s an excuse to do a ton more research, of course, and to spend time in the area getting to know the places and reading local papers, eating in the diners. Research like that is always fun and it always yields really interesting stuff, some of which might actually make it into the book.
VENTRELLA: And finally, what advice would you give the aspiring writer that isn’t obvious (“write better”)?
TAFOYA: Find other writers. I meet people who have been working alone on novels for years, hoping to finish that novel or screenplay, or endlessly refining work they’ve already done. Meeting other people who are doing the same thing you are will help you gain confidence, it will get you help and advice, and it will hopefully let you get reactions from people who are engaged in the same work. Your friends and family might be really supportive, but they’re rarely able to help you get better at your craft or help you find ways to get your work in front of readers or agents or editors. Your best bet is to meet other writers. I think you’ll find, like I have, that writers are extemely generous and supportive. Nearly all of the great things that have happened to me have been because other writers went out of their way to help me or give me advice.