Friday, September 23, 2011

Simon Wood for Authors @ The Teague

Simon Wood is a favorite author of the Desert Sleuths Chapter Sisters in Crime. This time, when he came to town on his book tour for Did Not Finish, he appeared for Authors @ The Teague.

Simon told us his writing is a product of the immigration service. He is British. He met his wife in Costa Rica, and, romantically, they decided to meet in different countries. They did that every few months for eighteen months, and then decided it was easier to live together in England or the U.S. So, he came to the U.S. on an extended visa, but he wasn’t allowed to work for eighteen months. He had to decide what to do with his time.

Wood wanted to tell stories, but he was dyslexic. He was a good liar as a kid. He took those months and worked on his first book, Accidents Waiting to Happen. It took him three years, and it was a product of the INS machine.

Wood tackled writing in a mechanical way. He was a mechanical engineer who designed things like oil rigs. He applied the same method to writing. He listened to audios, and broke them down to study how the stories worked.  Since the INS wouldn’t let him have a job, he owes everything to them.

Simon has always followed his dreams. He loved race cars, and twenty years ago, he went from racing a car to running his own cars and owning a race team. At twenty-one, he was shipping cars around the country. He loved it.

But, he decided he needed to do something that was more respectable. So, he became a pilot. Simon’s mother is convinced he does things just to upset her. The government underwrote one third of the cost of his training because they pay for vocational training. He did have to crash land his own plane as a student pilot. But, it was one more example of his brush with luck.

Then he told us about his job as a private investigator. Since Simon couldn't work, he and his wife had to come up with other ways to bring in money. For a long time, his wife was a mystery shopper. First, she had a contract to go to movie theaters. They saw a movie a week for eighteen months. Then, they shopped at Albertson's. They would go up and down aisles, examining displays, checking to see how long it took someone to clean up spills. Mystery shopping was a method of quality control.

Then, they did restaurants. They ate at every four or five star restaurant around San Francisco. They would eat there, and make sure everything was OK, the service, the food. This was around the time of the tech bubble, when people were paying $1000 for dinner. Wood and his wife did this for three or four years. Then, they did hotels. Then, they did casinos.

When they investigated casinos, they worked for a little man, a blond Joe Pesci. They went undercover into casinos for three or four days. Before they did it, though, they had to know all the table games. They learned on the Internet, and they had to be proficient at all of them. Wood found himself the only non-Asian guy at some of the games. There was a list of things they were looking for at the casinos. And, all there work was all in cash. They would stay at one place, and go to different casinos. For different jobs, they would have to come up with cover stories. Often, they were doing more than one job. One bartender might be doing something, or a dealer. Most theft from casinos is not like Ocean's Eleven. It's theft from the inside. They'd watch dealers. But, they had to commit everything to memory because they couldn't record it or film it. So, they'd have to remember the time something happened, and a description of the person involved. His wife would handle the time, and Wood would do name and description. And, every fifteen minutes or so, he'd go to the restroom so he could write it down. They learned to never forget anything. That's a problem. His wife doesn't forget. Simon and his wife would have a script for their cover story. Depending on the contract, they would keep any money they won. 

Wood told us he kept falling into jobs. He took odd career paths. He admitted he attracts a certain amount of trouble. That turns into stories. He has a thing about chaos. If anyone thinks their life is on a nice even keel, it's not true. Decision A can lead to two outcomes. Wood examines the subsequent outcomes.

When Wood was racing, he ran a Cinderella team. Everything was begged, borrowed, or stolen. The night before the race, he went around picking up stuff. Once, he had a close encounter with a woman on a roundabout. She gave him a wave with one finger, and he waved back with the same finger. They brought London traffic to a standstill. Then, he thought it was over, but she followed him for miles before giving up.

Wood's sponsor was later approached by the police who said his van had been involved in a crash. Wood said there hadn't been an accident. They showed them pictures of that woman's damaged car, and accused Simon of running her off the road. He said just look at the van. It wasn't in an accident. The police officer said here's the statement I wrote saying you ran her off the road. Wood said he wasn't signing it, and he changed it in about thirty places after the officer said, if you don't sign it, I can't help you. How did that incident on the roundabout turn into this? How did this happen that the police show up with a statement for him to sign, saying he did it? Any action, big or small, can impact anyone.

Wood's book, The Fall Guy, is the best example. It's about a down on his luck guy who is late for work one morning. He hits a Porsche, cracking its tail light, and there are witnesses. So, he writes a note to put on the windshield, saying, everybody thinks I'm leaving the address, but I'm not. 

There a repercussions. The Porsche belonged to a drug dealer, who was puled over because of the broken tail light. The police found the drugs, and confiscated them, arresting the driver. But, the big boss tracks the man down, and tells him, you cost me drugs, a car, and a driver, you owe me. And, he's inducted into the drug world. Things tend to come back and bite you.

Wood's novel, Terminated, deals with workplace violence. Twenty people a week are murdered at work. Retail is the most dangerous work environment for women. The safest work environment? Coal mines. There's only one murder a year. The working conditions might not be good, but no one murders you. In Terminated, a man's annual review doesn't go as expected. Someone on edge can take it personally. Simon's favorite story of workplace violence is about a man who tried to kill a female coworker by putting mercury in her heating system to try to poison her. He's been trying other ways for a while, but they caught this one. The reason he went over the edge? She didn't like his deviled eggs once at a company picnic.

Wood likes the Hitchcock big story. He likes stories of the human condition, when people are tempted, teased. 

All of Simon Wood's books have been standalones until now. Did Not Finish is the first in a series. It's set in the racing world. Racing is expensive, and people are willing to compromise. It's a competitive world with rule-bending. Dick Francis took readers into the world of horse racing. This series is an inside point of view of motor sports.

Did Not Finish is based on an actual incident. In 1972, there was a tight championship. Two drivers were just two points apart, and whoever was in front at the end of this race would win. 

The night before the race, there were drivers, teams and officials in the club house. There was a rumor going around that the driver in second place had said if the leader doesn't pull over and let him win, I'll kill him. The public didn't know about it.

Qualifying went okay. But, in the second lap, the two touched wheels; the guy leading the championship hit the wall and was killed, in the same way Dale Earnhardt died. 

Wood told us there are ways to make cars go off the track if you know how. The driver can slip wheels. Anyone who has seen Ben Hur has seen one driver slip his wheel inside the other driver's. 

The race was televised, but it wasn't a live feed. Everyone was quiet after the race, thinking the threat had played out. So they expected TV on Tuesday would expose it. But, the TV coverage was edited. They changed the grid, didn't show the first two laps since the driver was killed in the second lap. The third lap appeared to be the first one. And, the driver's name didn't appear on the roster. Police wrapped up the case, and the car disappeared. Everyone pretended nothing happened, and some people were told to stop asking questions. The story just went away.

Here's where it got personal. Wood had seen something wrong with the dead driver's car in qualifying, and told him so it could be fixed. Then, when they call the drivers to the cars, Simon always had to go to the restroom. Other drivers were there, and then it was just Wood and the guy who later died. Simon wished him good luck, and the guy responded, that's OK, after this one, I'm telling my girlfriend I'm going to stop driving, and we'll get married. It's my wedding gift to her. Wood never told the guy's girlfriend that after the accident. But, he wanted to tell that story.

The story is somewhat changed in Did Not Finish. Some of the people from that time are still around. Aidy Westlake, the protagonist, is the third generation in motor sports. His grandmother was a mechanic. His father was a driver who had just moved up to Formula One, but he and Aidy's mother were killed in an accident on the way home from a race. Aidy was raised by his grandfather, much like Heid, except for lots of oil and grease. He's twenty-one years old at the grass roots championship when a driver dies, and he wants to find out who the killer is, and expose him.

Wood intends to follow Aidy through his rise in racing. He'll take him to different races around the world. One will be set in Europe, then Le Mans. There's a lot of gambling corruption in sports, so he'll take him to Vegas. One team had made ends meet by being drug mules. They crossed numerous European borders before they were caught. If you can imagine it in sports, it will happen. The people have to have money.

When the audience asked questions, the first question was about humor in his books, because Simon is funny. He said he might be lighthearted, but he's way too into justice or digging out the truth. There's not much humor in his fiction, although he writes humorous nonfiction.

Asked where he gets his ideas, he answered that he cuts lots of things from newspapers. He likes the odd cases, not the big ones. Wood lives in the east bay area, across from San Francisco. There's a big case right now. A Deputy Chief of a county task force on narcotics has been convicted of selling drugs as part of a prostitution scheme. It was a private eye who brought him down.  It's like the Sopranos are working out of small towns with populations of 30-50,000.

Once confiscated drugs are no longer needed for a case, they're burned. But, in that recent California case, the stuff was not destroyed. It was moved into storage, and then the whole case was wrapped up in prostitution. Wood likes this case. He likes stories from the back of newspapers, not the front page.

He was asked if he goes to trials, and he said he has gone to some. He went to night court in New York because he wanted to see what kind of cases go to court at 2 in the morning. He's been inside prisons. The California Parole Board was interesting.

Simon likes the unusual. "Body found in public storage." Why? People can bid on public storage units when the rent is delinquent. A woman paid $38 dollars for the contents of one, and when she unwrapped the contents, she found a body. 

Wood likes the unusual, unexplained crimes. He's most inspired by news stories. And, it's those kind of stories we'll continue to see in Simon Wood's books.

Simon Wood's website is

Did Not Finish by Simon Wood. Severn House. ©2011. ISBN 9781780290072 (hardcover), 215p.


Sandie Herron said...

Wow, what a story. The photo you've taken of Simon shows him with a very mischievous smile. It just seems like he could do the things you've outlined. There's just so MUCH of it! It does seem almost impossible for one person to have done ALL of that, but when you're young and need work, you get creative.

Thanks for the fabulous write up!

Two for the Road said...

Thanks so much Lesa. You make me sound very interesting...I suppose I am when Danger is my middle name. :-)


Lesa said...

Thanks, Sandie. It was fun to host Simon at the library. And, I think that smile says it all.

Lesa said...

As if you're not interesting, Simon. Thanks for coming to Velma Teague.