On Continuing to Challenge Oneself: An Interview with Greg Herren
Photo by Jeremy Beckford
Prolific and award-winning crime writer Greg Herren is our June author feature. He is the author of many novels and short stories—including Bury Me in the Shadows, which was recently nominated for 2022 Anthony Awards in Best Paperback/eBook/Audiobook and Best Children’s/YA—and writes a daily blog titled Queer and Loathing in America. 3RP’s own Peter Carlaftes spoke with Herren about writing from a restless imagination, challenging oneself as a writer and continually creating new characters and stories, and the importance of community among writers and readers. Check out the full interview below.
Peter Carlaftes: You’ve written over 30 novels and 50 short stories, won multiple major awards. You write a daily blog that’s one of the most interesting among all the writer’s blogs out there. You comment often about recent books you’ve read, comment on current culture, and pursue a daily exercise regimen. Plus you’ve got a day job and you’re deep in the editing process for a brand-new book, A Streetcar Named Murder. What keeps your creative fires burning so bright? And do you actually ever sleep?
Greg Herren: I have a very, very vivid imagination, and I have what I call “creative ADHD”—my mind and my imagination really bounce all over the place.
Seriously, I will never be able to write all the books, stories and essays I want to, or have ideas for; I have filing cabinets filled with notes and ideas and partials, as well as journals filled with them, and I get more and more ideas every day. Whenever I research something, I inevitably go down wormholes that give me even more ideas. Louisiana/New Orleans history and folklore, for example—there’s so much there!
I think I counted one time and I had something like over a hundred short stories in some sort of progress—whether a full draft, a few pages, a few paragraphs, a few sentences. I know I have at least five novellas in progress that I need to finish at some point.
And yes, I actually do sleep (it’s one of my favorite things to do)—but I always dream, which just gives me more ideas.
PC: Both your Scotty Bradley series spanned 8 novels and your Chanse MacLeod series spanned 7 novels and big accolades. Both are gay noir, set in New Orleans, and show the city itself as both setting and character. As a longtime Nola resident, how have changes in the city, especially since Katrina, affected your perspective of your characters? Are you continuing one or both series?
GH: It’s funny; from the very beginning I always said Chanse would never go beyond seven books, if I was lucky enough to find an audience with him. Initially I had planned to follow a personal arc for him throughout the entire series, and I had his personal journey completely mapped out. Katrina blew those plans out of the water—man plans, God laughs—and so I stopped following the plan I’d mapped out for him and just decided to see where it went organically, as I wrote the books. When I reached book seven, I decided to go back to the original plan and end the series. It wasn’t the way I’d planned to end it, but it just seemed right at the time. Some of those ideas I had for his personal journey still pop up in my head from time to time, and I think, oh, you should go ahead and write that but…I turned one of those ideas into a short story that was in my collection, Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. One of in-progress novellas is a Chanse story which I hope to finish someday.
On the other hand, Scotty just won’t go away. He was originally intended to be a stand-alone—but the publisher wanted a series and thus he became a series character. I decided to simply do a trilogy, but for any number of reasons I was unable finish the personal story I wanted to tell in three books. Then came Katrina—I turned in the third Scotty book about two weeks before the storm—and then I couldn’t see, for quite some time, how to write a light and funny book in the wake of a huge natural disaster…but I didn’t want to leave it the way I had at the end of the third book. When I finally had an idea of how to wrap it all up in another book, the original publisher was no longer interested because so much time had passed, so I took him to another publisher, and here we are, all these years later. Every time I write a Scotty book I think, this is the last one. And then I get an idea…
I joked on a panel once when someone asked me if there would be another one—I think there were five at the time—and I said, “If I can think of story that will include Huey Long, Mike the live tiger mascot at LSU, and a treasure hunt in the story, I will.” Later that night it came to me how I could do exactly that…which is kind of how every Scotty happens, really. (That was Baton Rouge Bingo, by the way.)
When I finish the edits on this book I’ll start writing the next Scotty—and that story came to me in much the same way: here are the three things I want to include in the story, and how can I do that? It came to me a few days later. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.
PC: And, as you recently wrote in your fantastic blog:
“Chanse seriously went through some shit, and part of the reason I stopped writing about him was because I was tired of torturing him…just let him live happily ever after already and be done with it. (I’ve had a couple of ideas about bringing him back–I have some story ideas he would be perfect for–but then I think, maybe I should just leave him be and create someone new for those stories–using a character you’ve already established and know very well is kind of lazy writing, isn’t it?)”
Do you actually think continuing a series with the same character is “lazy writing”?
GH: First off, thank you for your kind words about my blog! It never occurs to me that people can and do read it—it’s almost always intended primarily for me—so it always catches me off-guard when someone tells me they read my blog: “You do?”
Actually, I was talking in terms of my own writing (I always talk only in terms of myself; I should have said I’ve instead of you’ve.). For example, I have an idea for a book based on an actual true-crime story here in Louisiana that happened in one of the smaller, less populated Louisiana parishes most people have never heard of; just pass through on I-10 and never notice. One weekend I was playing around with the idea and trying to conceptualize the book, how to structure it and who the characters would be. I decided to use a character I had already created (see what I mean?) and has appeared in both of my series already; he’s interesting and I’ve always thought there was story there to be explored. When I started coming up with his back story, I realized what I was doing with him was making him part Chanse and part Scotty; a combination of the two characters I had already created and did so much work on, and knew I would have to throw all that out and start over, completely fresh, and really dig deep into creating someone, something new…and thought, or you could just bring Chanse back because that would be easier.
That’s what I meant by lazy writing; for me, bringing Chanse back for this book or that idea instead of creating something entirely new would be lazy for me, the easier, less challenging way to go. And I want to keep challenging myself…the last Chanse book I wrote kind of felt to me like I was “painting by the numbers” and I was just repeating story structures and patterns and plots. I don’t ever want to write a book that doesn’t challenge me.
I admire authors who keep series going for dozens of books and manage to keep the characters and stories and everything fresh and new and exciting. I’ve always loved reading series, and I don’t think that will ever change, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for series authors.
PC: Tell us a little about your upcoming novel.
GH: As I said earlier, I like to challenge myself when I write. I’ve long loved and appreciated traditional mysteries—cozies, if you will—and have always wanted to try writing one. My main character is a widow whose twin sons have recently left for college, so she has a bit of the ‘empty nest’ thing going on, so she’s been trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life—she married young, never finished college, has never worked full-time, and after her husband’s death she primarily focused on being both mom and dad to her sons. The book opens with her getting word of a strange inheritance from a great-uncle of her husband’s that she never knew existed…which includes a majority partnership in an antique shop. The shop also connects her to an unpleasant woman she doesn’t like, and someone gets murdered.
PC: As you report in your blog, in addition to writing you read a lot. Any recent books you recommend?
GH: I really love the Heartstopper graphic novels by Alice Oseman, which were recently adapted into a Netflix series. I’m enjoying James Kestrel’s Five Decembers right now. Ellen Byron’s Bayou Book Thief, Wanda M. Morris’ All Her Little Secrets, Mia P. Manansala’s Arsenic and Adobo, Raquel V. Reyes’ Mango, Mambo and Murder, Alex Segura’s Secret Identity, Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister, Marco Carocari’s Blackout, Chris Holm’s Child Zero, so many great books!
PC: How important is a writers community to authors—especially genre authors such as yourself?
GH: I think it’s very important. Writing, at least for me, is a very solitary endeavor and I need to get out there, listen to other authors talk about writing, meet and talk with other people who love to read and love books. I often dread conferences because I really am uncomfortable speaking in public—whether on a panel or having to talk or teach a workshop—but I always have a great time when I get there (the public speaking aside). I always come back from a conference energized and motivated and inspired, and I always take lots of notes listening to other authors talk about inspiration and writing and so forth. I didn’t realize how much I needed that kind of interaction until the world shut down in 2020. Crime Bake last November was my first event since the spring of 2019, and I am sure everyone there kept wondering why I had such a big silly grin on my face the entire weekend.
PC: Most of the books you write feature LGBTQ main characters. What are your concerns about the recent book bans that seem to focus on LGBTQ-themed books? Have any of your books been banned? Do the bans affect your writing or activism?
GH: Unfortunately, my existence has always been political through no choice of my own. It does seem like we keep repeatedly having to fight the same battles over and over and over, doesn’t it? I was banned in Virginia in 2005—not just my books, but me personally, LOL. It was a very eye-opening experience, and what I learned from it was that at its core, it’s about power, more than anything else, and that’s still the case now. It’s smoke and mirrors, a distraction…
You can take all the LGBTQ+ books out of a library but that doesn’t make us cease to exist. Banning knowledge—because that’s what banning books is—never works. Ulysses was banned, The Postman Always Rings Twice was banned, etc. etc. etc., but those books are still out there, they still exist, they are still in print and are still read every year.
The experience I had in Virginia made me more political than I had been. I always voted, but never got involved in the process before. I started working on campaigns, served on the board of directors for the National Stonewall Democrats, donated money and solicited donations…but I’m not as engaged as an activist as I once was.
I’d like nothing more than to be left alone to mind my own business and write my stories. But so long as there is political capital to be had by targeting me and my community, this will continue. I hate to be cynical, but I suspect this will continue long after I’m in my grave. And it’s always the same baseless accusations and lies, going back to Anita Bryant in the 70s.
It always amuses me that one sentence in Leviticus and a couple in Paul’s letters are enough for “Christians” to target us…but we didn’t make their God’s Top Ten, and they are oddly silent about that commandment about adultery, the one about bearing false witness, the one about coveting things…
PC: Your writing career started with writing a sports column for Lavender Magazine in 1996. Your first short stories were published four years later in 2000. Now that you have 22 years of writing LGBTQ themed work, what can you tell us about how that much-expanded field has developed?
GH: It’s a different world now, that’s for sure. As far as queer crime is concerned, we still have a way to go despite some great progress. I’d love to see more trans writers telling trans stories getting published, and what I would really love to see is more queer writers of color getting published—there are some, but certainly not enough. I do miss the queer bookstores…but I don’t think those are going to be coming back anytime soon. We still are marginalized within the overall crime fiction community, but that’s also starting to change—the community is becoming more inclusive, and it’s nice to see queer books by queer authors getting recognition in reviews and awards. It’s a lovely start.
PC: You’re throwing a dinner party for your all-time favorite 4 authors—dead or alive. Who do you invite and why?
GH: I am going to stick to dead people because I don’t want to offend any of my friends—all of whom I wish I could have over for dinner regularly. Daphne du Maurier because I love her work and have lots of questions for her; Elizabeth Peters because I love her work and I’ve heard she was just as witty and fun in person as her books were; John D. Macdonald because I love his work and just would love to hear him talk about writing; and James M. Cain because I love his work and I have some questions for him about his books being banned.
Find Greg Herren’s work in 3RP anthologies such as The Faking of the President and Florida Happens.
You can also follow his daily blog, Queer and Loathing in America, and check out his recent novels like Bury Me in the Shadows and #shedeservedit.Share This!