It was the chance of a lifetime. Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini appeared at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale last night. Although Muller had appeared at the store before, Pronzini had never been there. But, they were in town to accept the Spur Award from Western Writers of America for their title story in the anthology, Crucifixion River. With the announcement that Bill Pronzini is the recipient of the Grand Master Award for 2008 from Mystery Writers of America, they are the only married couple to have been so honored.
While Pronzini signed books in the backroom, Barbara Peters, owner of The Poisoned Pen, started the program with questions for Marcia Muller. Muller said other than her Sharon McCone series, one series was about a Hispanic woman, Elena Oliverez, who worked for a Mexican museum. It was based on an actual museum, so she moved it to Santa Barbara. Sue Grafton, who was living and working there, gave her research material. She did three books in that series, including one, Beyond the Grave, with Bill's Quincannon character.
Another series featured Joanna Stark who worked in art security for galleries. Again, there were three books in the series. Three seems to be the perfect number for a series.
She wrote a series of three books that were only loosely connected by their location, Soledad County, a fictional county north of San Francisco. However it was a small county, and Muller said she ran out of things to say. Books in that group were Point Deception, Cyanide Wells, and Cape Perdido.
When Muller criticized one of the reviews of her books, Peters said she wondered if reviewers read the books or read too fast. Muller said she thought they read so many that they forget details. They discussed unsigned reviews, and that they need to who wrote the review.
Marcia Muller wrote her first Sharon McCone mystery, Edwin of the Iron Shoes, in 1976, and it was published in 1977. Sharon, who was around thirty when the series started, is now 42. The series does move forward in time, even though McCone ages slowly. Muller likes to address contemporary issues. She asks her readers to accept that the character doesn't age, but times change. Sue Grafton keeps Kinsey Millhone in the 1980's, and the books have now become historicals. Ian Rankin advanced his John Rebus series in real time, and eventually had to retire him. Muller said Bill Pronzini had this same problem with Nameless, his detective character. He started out as a veteran of World War II, then it became Korea, and then "my war," because his character has been around for forty years.
Muller was asked what inspired her to call her first book Edwin of the Iron Shoes? She said she frequented a street with antique stores, and in one there was a figure with WWII medals that the shop owner called Edwin of something else. She kept the Edwin part, and, when the book was published, the woman called her up, and said I'm the one who owns the Edwin figure, and you killed me off.
When Bill Pronzini finished signing books, he showed up to join in the conversation.
When asked how they choose the places to write about, he said they divvy up California. What she doesn't write about, he does. Until the price of gas went so high, they liked to drive around the state. Mendocino County inspired Sharon.
Someone asked if they flew. Marcis took flying lessons, but said she's a lousy pilot because she gets lost. That's why Sharon flies. Bill never flew with her. He doesn't like to get any higher than a kitchen stool.
Fever is the thirty-third book in the Nameless Detective series. The first one came out in 1971. Pronzini said he grew up reading Chandler, Ross MacDonald, and Hammett, so he always liked private eye fiction. Muller said she didn't always read it, but once she read it, she couldn't stop.
When asked about his westerns, Pronzini said they are crime fiction set in the 19th century. Lee Child talked about the quest novel being the oldest narrative design, and says his Reacher novels are part of that. Pronzini said westerns are the same.
The couple was asked if they argue when they collaborate. They said they only argued over one, and it wasn't a private eye book. It was The Lighthouse. Bill said they sometimes steal characters from each other.
When asked how they maintain long-running series, Pronzini said he changed the format in Spookbecause he was starting to burn out. Until then, the books had been told from Nameless' point of view. But now that he's in his 60s, he's semi-retired, and the books focus on others in his agency. Muller is doing the same, focusing on others to change the voice. Pronzini said they focus on the personal lives of their characters, and the changes in their lives. That carries from book to book. The storylines are new, but characters continue. He had Nameless marry. He had him adopt a daughter. And, his wife had breast cancer. Marcia said she's changed Sharon's life, and the people in it, a lot.
Their comments about one collaboration, Beyond the Grave, brought laughter. In that book they did a time slip with Muller's Elena Oliverez in the present, and Pronzini's 1890s detective, Quincannon. They said it was frequently found in the religious section of bookstores because it has a bad cover with a woman who looks like a madonna.
Bill Pronzini is a tireless short story writer, however the market for anthologies is not good. So, they don't do anthologies anymore, just collections of their own works. Bill said he finds short stories fun. He likes locked room mysteries and whodunnits, and writes those about his 1890s detective, Quincannon. Marcia likes novels better because she can rattle on. Short stories have to be tightly constructed and well-planned. She writes long, and edits. He writes the endings first for his short stories because he knows where he's going. With a novel, he develops it as it goes along because the ending comes out of the character. He doesn't know where novels are going.
Pronzini's new book, Fever, is about gambling addiction. It refers to a fever, an altered state of mind. He said he researched internet gambling for the book. There's a fever aspect for those people hooked on it. There are people who prey on problem gamblers, who turn women who have this addiction into prostitutes. Also in the book, Jake Runyon meets a disfigured woman and becomes obsessed with her; he develops a kind of fever. Nameless and his agency are hired by a husband to find his wife, a woman who periodically disappears. She is a problem gambler. They find her, but she doesn't want to go home. They tell the husband that. Pronzini won't reveal twists, but the woman goes home, and then disappears under mysterious circumstances.
He was asked how he kept his character nameless over the course of the series. He sais it wasn't too hard. When he and Marcia brougt their characters together, Sharon referred to him as "Wolf" for lone wolf. Now that he's changed the format, and the focus is on the agency, he had to have the employees refer to him by name. His name is Bill. With a grin, he said, you don't know his last name, but you can probably guess.
Patrick, who leads the Noir book discussions for the Poisoned Pen, said he went to a Pulp Con years ago in Ohio. It was a convention for "pulp nerds" who collect early pulp magazines. Bill Pronzini is a god to them. He has a world-class collection of pulp magazines and digests. Muller shares the addiction. They have one room in their house devoted to pulp magazines. He doesn't buy as many now because e-Bay and collectors have driven the prices out of sight. Nameless has 6,000 or 7,000 in his collection; Bill has 4,000. Half of his collections are western pulps and the other half crime.
He said the pulp style was definitely an influence on his short stories. He devoured them uncritically when he was younger. As he grew older, he started to read them critically, and, with the pulps, that's not good. However, there were lots of gems buried in the pulps. When he was doing anthologies, he combed through the pulps looking for good stories to bring back in print. Muller said she didn't grow up with the pulps. Pronzini said the cover art was gorgeous on them. The more lurid the cover, the more valuable the pulp was to collectors. He was after the stories, though. The magazine, Black Mask, published "The Maltese Falcon" as a serial.
Both authors were asked about upcoming projects. Muller's next Sharon McCone book will be out in October. In Burn Out , Sharon is suffering from burn out, and she retreats to Hy's ranch in the high desert to work out her future. She's working on the following book, due out in October 2009. When asked why the publication dates switched from summer to October, she said her publisher, Warner Books, was sold to a French company, Grand Central, and the regular months had to be switched because they had more authors under contract.
Pronzini's next book is called The Other Side of Silence. It's a road novel that goes from Death Valley to Las Vegas, and all over. It's a standalone. The next Nameless book is Schemer, due out in April 2009, and then, Betrayal. Someone asked about the scheduled book, Phanton, and he said that became another book; he changed the title.
They were asked if their backlist mysteries would be reprinted. Muller said since she's with a new publisher, she has no idea. Pronzini just said no.
He said he's written about 70 novels, or around 90 books, including anthologies. He gets slower as he gets older. He tries to avoid dead ends. He has written himself into a corner sometimes, and has to throw out some of the work. He can't outline because he doesn't stick to the outline. He starts with a theme. For Fever, it was gambling fever. He comes up with a situation and a group of characters. He wants the same voyage of discovery as a reader.
Muller said they started using computers a few years ago. They used electric typewriters until then. Bill said he discovered that books and pulps could be bought online, so he had to have a computer. Then Marcia had to have one, too.
Loren Estleman and Pronzini said they were the last throwbacks, not using computers. They still wrote on typewriters. Bill wrote to Estleman and said he'd toppled. Esteleman wrote back and said, "I'm so alone."
Muller and Pronzini write at opposite ends of the house, and email back and forth. He said their collaboration isn't difficult. She said she doesn't take criticism well. Bill's her first editor. She yells and screams a lot, but then she'll take his suggestions. He said there is a lot of each other in their books. They read them, run ideas past each other. Even books written alone are almost collaborations.
When asked how they met, they said met at Mystery Writers of America in 1982. Bill was head of the local chapter, and Marcia had just written a book, and Bill called it by the wrong name. They didn't know the writing aspect would work, but they wanted to be together. Their first collaboration was a short story for Boy's Life, sort of a western called "Cave of Ice."
When asked if they would collaborate on another McCone/Nameless mystery, the answer was, they had the same publisher when they did Double. But, they no longer have the same publisher, so they can't get the publishers together on a book.
Pronzini was asked the difference between hardboiled and noir. He said he doesn't like labels. Hardboiled came out of Black Mask in the late 20's and early 30's. They were unrelentingly grim. He thinks he writes humanistic detective fiction. He's interested in the development of characters. Noir is fatalistic and contemporary. Muller agreed that she doesn't like labels, and that the Sharon McCone series is humanistic. Pronzini said they write realist fiction, recreating reality rather than delivering a message or adhering to a school or category of writing. They are realist writers.
And, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are two of the best, true Grand Masters.