We are reminded all too often of how violent the real world can be. Which is why we're so impressed with the deftness of Seattle novelist Urban Waite, whose bloody western noirs deliver complex characters and thrills instead of schlock. His debut novel The Terror of Living was named one of the best books of 2011 by Esquire and drew praise from Stephen King who called it "a hell of a good novel, relentlessly paced and beautifully narrated.” Waite’s latest, The Carrion Birds (released today), follows Ray Lamar, a reluctant hired gun in New Mexico whose final job—stealing a rival cartel’s drug stash—goes awry, leading Ray into a desert town along the Mexican border, where vengeance awaits.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation we talked to Waite last month about meaningful violence, Seattle’s darkness, and Frosted Flakes.
What are the keys to writing tense, meaningfully violent scenes in a narrative?
I’ve been doing a lot of essays about violence lately and there’s one of the thing that I keep coming back to: If you’re holding a gun in your hand and you’re about to do something horrible, you sort of think about it...well, this act of violence is going to happen, but then at the same time there’s also the human holding the gun. Why are they doing that? Maybe it comes back to some sort of human aspect to what they’re doing—some sort of desire or hope that they’re trying to go forward and they just find themselves in this situation. There has to be some humanistic aspect to it. That’s important to me.
What should people expect from The Carrion Birds?
These characters are kind of a mix of good and evil. They’re not one or the other. I think that some of the characters will go one way for many readers, and some characters will go the other. I’m hoping the reader comes away from the book with sort of that progression: from good to evil, from evil to good.
While The Terror of Living was set in the Northwest, the new book is set in New Mexico. What led to the change of scenery?
My mother’s family is from the New Mexico area. I’d heard a lot of New Mexico stories. We visited a few years ago and I always thought it was a really interesting area. So after I finished Terror, I was kind of looking for something else to write about, and I wanted to go back down there and doing something with that. Coming off of Terror and writing about the drug culture, I was also reading a lot of articles on the cartel and what was going on down in Juarez. I started writing about it and… I dunno… I feel like I got very scared about what was going on. It was only thorough trying to turn things to that more human aspect—that this is a character that’s trying to go home and see his son—that things started to click a little bit better for me.
Do you have a specific writing routine?
Every day is pretty much the same. Get up. Make some tea. Eat some Frosted Flakes. Read whatever book I’m reading for an hour or two. I’ll get up around 8 usually and be in my office by 8:30. Then generally around 10, 10:30, I’m writing whatever project I’m working on currently. Part of that process will be reading back over the last two days of writing, which will hopefully be 10 to 20 pages of work. That just helps me get into it. Then I’ll go at that for four or five hours just to stay in the vein of things: try not to leave the room, don’t stare out the window too much, all that good stuff. And then I’m done.
What are your favorite books that you’ve read over the past year?
I read a ton of Jess Walter this year. I pretty much love everything. I read The Financial Lives of the Poets a few years ago, and then I kind of got turned back onto him with Citizen Vince, and then went through pretty much the whole spectrum. A book I really loved was All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren. I read a book that’s kind of been out of print called The Professional by W.C. Heinz. It was amazing. There’s a blurb on the front that said, “The best book ever written about fighting,” and the quote was from Hemingway. I think he was right. It goes back to what we just talked about, where the book isn’t really about fighting; it’s about everything else that’s kind of related to fighting: the life of these fighters, their personal struggles with doing these violent acts, and the training that goes into it. I could just go on, there’s a whole closet of books in my office.
Are there any up-and-coming local writers we should know about?
One of my favorite books of last year was Peter Mountford’s A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. I just read Tara Conklin’s book The House Girl, which was pretty amazing as well.
How do you feel Seattle has influenced your writing?
I think I’m getting it now, actually. It’s getting sunnier and I’m staring out the window a little bit more. I’m happier when it’s cold, and it’s raining, and it’s overcast because I’m more internalized. I’m more inside my own mind; I’m not paying attention to what’s going on outside my window. Seattle has mountains on both sides, just big green trees everywhere… you sort of feel a little bit cocooned. And it feels good. It feels good in that cocooned way because you can stick to the program and concentrate on this one thing for a year or two years at a time. Go darkness!
Apr 16 at noon, Seattle Mystery Bookshop
Apr 18 at 7, Elliott Bay Book Company
Apr 26 at 7, Secret Garden Books
Apr 27 at 6, Liberty Bar