Paul Barra, Man of Mystery
Meet author Paul Barra, writing pal and frequent visitor to Pineapple Hill’s famous second floor porch overlooking the bottom field and woods beyond. We get together to talk writing and life over coffee and, sometimes, Irish coffee. I need to get better at interviewing other writers so he let me practice on him.
You served as a Naval officer on the rivers of South Vietnam, received the Bronze Star with Combat V; managed a bar in Hawaii; raised eight children included two adopted; taught high school chemistry, worked as a newspaper reporter and senior writer for the Diocese of Charleston; gave writing lessons to prison inmates; kept chickens, alpacas, and a burro named Cletus; published several novels, which were short-listed for writing awards; participated on writing conference panels; and wrote short stories, one of which was selected for a Mystery Writers of America anthology. This seems like a lot yet I know I’m citing just a few the key waypoints…
Q…Before getting into your work as a writer of mystery thrillers, may I ask if you will someday write a memoir?
- That’s not a likely scenario, given that memoirs are a different genre than I specialize in. Besides, my life was rough enough to live through; I don’t have the energy to experience it again by writing about it. Also, I think memoir authors who are true to their craft antagonize some of the folks who peopled their lives, and I’d rather not do that.
Q: Your six published works include historical mysteries and even a story for grade school-aged readers. Too, you go the extra mile in the setting you use and your descriptions of those places. You could easily work across other genres too yet clearly prefer writing mystery/thriller stories. Why? What led you in that direction?
- Two of my books were historical mysteries, as is the one I’ve just finished writing. SGT. FORD’S WIDOW took place only fifty years ago, but it‘s still the time before cell phones—and that makes the writing and reading historical.
But whenever they take place, mysteries are the genre of choice for me because I think plotting is the most difficult task for the novelist and mysteries have sort of built-in plots: crime is committed, clues are sought and obstacles faced as the protagonist tries to figure out who committed it, and then the crime is solved. They have beginnings, middles and ends. Although I try to use creative language when I write, I like strong characters and strong plots. I like plotting mysteries.
Some non-fiction has strong plotting and characterization, but I’d rather create my own plot and characters than just report who other people are and have actually done in their lives.
Q: In what form do your mystery stories generally present themselves? Setting? Character? Predicament? Is it this way across all your mystery novels or have they differed in their first kernel of an idea?
- That’s a hard question to answer, but I’d say that usually I think up a main character and then think about where I want to put him. Place is important to me. Once I wanted to write about the third bishop of Charleston, a misunderstood man who Horace Greeley called The Rebel Bishop, so I made up characters to support him. Since Bishop Lynch was a real person, he could not be the protagonist in a mystery novel, but I used his writings and recorded homilies to fit him in as one of the main characters who was nevertheless portrayed true to life. I wanted to write a sea story, so I invented Big Anthony Tagliabue for WESTFARROW ISLAND and two as yet unpublished sequels.
Q: Tell us about the protagonists in A Death in the Hills, The Mekong Junkman, Astoria Nights, and Westfarrow Island… How similar at they and how are they different? If a fight broke out between Tagliabue in Westfarrow Island and Seamus Muldoon in Astoria Nights while they were drinking in a hole-in-the-wall bar one night, which would come out the winner and why?
- I generally dislike protagonists in action stories whoare always being beaten and abused. It seems to me that the hero should be competent in defending himself and others, or else, why would he be involved? There’s certainly a place for sensitive and peace-loving protagonists in fiction; I just don’t think they should be played as crime fighters.
- In The Mekong Junkman (now called JUNKMAN in a new incarnation) the protagonist is not a crime fighter, so he is different than the others—except for the protagonist in DEATH OF A SACRISTAN, who is a priest.
- Among the others you mention, I think Tagliabue would probably be the last man standing in a bar fight—even though the hero of ASTORIA NIGHTS is a prize fighter, the heavyweight champion of Queens. Tagliabue wouldn’t worry about the Marquess of Queensbury Rules when fighting in a bar.
Q: Mystery thrillers begin with a predicament that hooks readers into the story. They’re fed clues and hopefully—as with the famous potato chip brand—no one can eat just one. Clues are doled out like a breadcrumb path. Hopefully the audience gobbles them up, following the trail no matter how much it zig-zags. Obviously, plot is everything to a creating a successful page turner. But what about character development? Especially with the heavy fisted, tough guys you sometimes develop as protagonists? Do you think readers expect them to be much changed by what you put them through in your action-packed yarns?
- Another beauty part of writing crime fiction is that solving a mystery or catching a criminal is usually change enough for most readers, I believe. Many books involve a cop who finally manages to overcome his drinking habit or learns to love his long-suffering wife or go to his daughter’s soccer game, but those kinds of changes tend to distract from the main plot, and I think readers are getting tired of the same old ploys. They see the author as trying to make the hero more human, while they’re really more interested in the main plot and the action. One’s main character has to be well-defined, however; he or she cannot be one-dimensional. In my new manuscript, SGT. FORD’S WIDOW, the widow of the title is a main character, and her relationship with the Private Investigator protagonist serves to define him morally as much as her.
Q: Now let’s talk settings. Some writers prefer their stories take place in the same or at least similar region. For instance, Dorethea Benton Frank’s Low Country tales. There’s probably a dozen others also choosing the South Carolina coast as home base. Your books, however, have set out from the Black Hills of South Dakota, a borough in New York City, an island off Bath, Maine, and even the Mekong Delta. And from these places your stories cover further ground—various cities, small towns, and regions. What is the role of setting, not only in the stories you write but in your act of writing them?
A One of the big benefits of writing stories is getting to really know a location. If the story’s setting is local to the writer, then he or she has less research to do and should be able to really make place a major part of the tale. Otherwise, the writer has a built-in excuse to travel somewhere to learn about his setting. Many best-selling crime writers have concentrated on a specific place and it becomes integral to who the protagonist is as a person. I haven’t settled on a place yet.
Q: You read a lot of books outside the genre of your novel writing. What different genres do you explore and how do they influence your contentment as an author?
A My main reads are mysteries. My favorite author is P.D. James. I do read all kinds of books, as you say, especially non-fiction and authors who are artists with our language. One reason to celebrate the conclusion of a long work is that I can then read writing artists without them intimidating me and making me feel as If I’m writing drivel myself. My books are entertainment, not literature as we usually think of it.
Q. At one point you were going to dedicate greater time to writing short stories. Tell us about that. How is that experience different from penning novel length manuscripts? What are the biggest hurdles and which of them have surprised you the most? Do you start from scratch or take inspiration from earlier projects, perhaps bits cut from novels you’ve published or novels that ended up in a drawer?
A. Many of my short stories are adapted from my novels. That adaptation is a lot easier than starting from scratch, I find. However, short pieces are a fine way to write something entirely different than I would dare try in a full-length work. I’m a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society (SMFS) but don’t like mystery short stories to read as much as I like to write them. I continue to write stories when I get into a slow section of a novel, or when I finish one and am not sure where to go next. Writing 5,000 words instead of 85,000 is easier to contemplate but requires much more attention to every sentence and character nuance. Writing them is a good way to improve one’s creative writing craft.
Q. What are your goals for this coming winter?
A. I hope to find a suitable publisher for my latest work, get it edited and produced, and then begin writing a new novel. By planting time I should be halfway through a first draft, I hope. Writers are being pushed more and more into becoming publicists and marketers for their own works, and I hope I don’t get too sidetracked by that. Writing is hard enough without learning a new profession to supplement it.
Q. An author’s life can be fairly isolated. Not necessarily lonely but definitely alone and away from family and friends. In the end, what do you want them to know about the hours and hours you’ve put into this thing you do?
A I like being alone and I love writing. I do very little on a computer except for word processing, yet I am in front of my computer writing and researching every chance I get. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about a scene or some dialogue or plot point. If I have a fifteen-minute period of free time, before supper is ready, say, I will go to my office and bang out a sentence or two. It’s all I want to do for a living for the rest of my life. Being alone, I would tell my relatives, is really no different from their perspectives than having any other relative who goes off to work every day: he is off at the office or work site all day, I’m at my desk–alone—but we’re both away from them.
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