Thursday, January 22, 2009

Interview with Bruce Cook ~ Blood Harvest

Bruce Cook was kind enough to allow me to interview him. Enjoy ~

When and why did you begin writing?

I took screenwriting from Irwin Blacker at USC while working on my second Masters (this one in Cinema, the first in Math). He had been the head writer on Bonanza, had been nominated for a Pulitzer for his novel Taos, and had written hundreds of hours of television and film. It was a summer course lasting only six weeks. I was headed toward a PhD in cinema and needed a B or better to remain in grad school. The only item for a grade was to complete a feature length screenplay.

We weren’t allowed to begin writing until we had pitched a story to the entire class that they agreed was worthy of being developed as a studio movie. They didn’t accept my first two stories. Finally in week three I pitched an idea that the class greenlighted. I now had 21 days to write a 110 page screenplay. If it wasn’t completed by the end of the course I would receive an F, be dropped from grad school and be unable to begin a PhD elsewhere.

I did finish—an hour before I had to hand it in. The script went on to be optioned by a studio. I received a B.

But what I really got was the self-knowledge that I was capable of working under pressure and that I could tell feature length stories. Prior to that I had only written poetry, short stories, and short films.

What inspired you to write your first book?

I had written nearly 30 screenplays and directed six movies before I attempted my first novel. Hollywood is a very competitive place so I had already experienced dozens of rejections before I sold my first script. It was painful and ego-shrinking the first time it happened. My “child,” the offspring of my imagination, had been critiqued and criticized and cut down to size.

In fact, the first script never sold at all and I “suffered,” developing my aura as an “artist.” The aura and a part time job put groceries on the table.

After half a dozen sales of scripts that were made into films I finally achieved a more balanced perspective.

Publishers are much like film producers. They may like “art” but they keep their jobs by putting out projects that appeal to a larger public than just their own tastes.

Having adjusted my attitude, I then adjusted my working pattern. I joined a writer’s critique group. I cannot overstate the value of having other writers look at, respond to, critique, and make suggestions for improvement to my work.

Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

My recent novel, Blood Harvest, is an attempt to give a new perspective to a past that is still within living memory. When most people hear the background of my story they express either astonishment or disbelief. A few confirm it and add more details to what I have learned.

In the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan had as many as six million members in 35 states. It controlled state legislatures. It controlled the Democratic National Convention in 1924, stalemating the nomination of Al Smith (a Catholic) for 103 ballots.

Its power base was NOT the south. It was the northeast and Midwest. It certainly was anti-black, but in the 1920s it was especially anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic. There was a rally of 20,000 Klansmen in Worcester Massachusetts in 1924 that ended in a riot, where the opposition was the Knights of Columbus. There are films of the KKK marching down Pennsylvania in front of the Capitol in 1925, fifteen thousand strong, in full Klan regalia.

My question to you is this: where was all this information when I was falling asleep in high school history class during the height of the civil rights movement?

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

This novel grew from an incident related to me by my grandmother when she was in her nineties. She was a Scotch-Irish girl from rural New England, one of twelve children, though two died in infancy.

I knew she had married young, perhaps at sixteen, though she sometimes claimed she had been eighteen. She said that after her wedding day she never returned to her home town. I assumed that she eloped or otherwise angered her parents. At one point I asked if her parents disliked my grandfather, who I remembered as personable and charming.

She claimed that they liked him very much. He was a perfect example of the immigrant success story. Came to America from Greece at sixteen, without any English. Started working the next day. Within five years he owned his own restaurant, and in another five he added a chain of candy shops and drug stores.

“So why didn’t you ever return to your home town?”

“It was those dumb clucks.” She used this expression only when quite angry. “My brother-in-law didn’t think it right for a white girl to marry a non-white European.”

This was new territory to me, but when I read my grandfather’s immigration papers I found that southern Europeans—the Greeks, Spanish, Italians, and Turks—were classified thus until 1912. But it was her next revelation that stunned me.

It wasn’t dumb “clucks.” It was dumb “klux.” It was the KKK that had driven my grandparents from the town. This was not consistent with what I had learned in my history classes (if only they had been so interesting!), and so I began to research.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

Yes. History is not a real object, but an amalgam of reports by unreliable witnesses who have their own agendas.

I read a number of histories of the period, then histories of the KKK. I did research on the net and found photos and film of KKK rallies in front of the White House in the. I read contemporary accounts in newspapers of the day. (You can see this film footage in the book trailer on YouTube. Go to )

Best of all I interviewed friends and family whose memories extend back to the 20s. Their reminiscences were wonderful and invaluable. I found that as they spoke of their childhood they often dropped into the jargon and slang of the times.

In brief, I learned to ask the people who were there what happened. What they say may be wrong or biased or dead-on accurate, but it is always compelling.

What books have most influenced your life most?

Hands down it is How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. He made me understand that I could and should have an interactive conversation with the author. This holds true for non-fiction, plays, and fiction—whether they are good or bad, true or false, well written or clumsy. It changed the way I read everything. This book is almost 70 years old and has never been out of print.

Plato’s Republic made me realize that “modern” thought began more than 2,000 years ago. What he has to say about citizenship and the good life are still relevant.

Aristotle’s Poetics taught me the basics of storytelling—how to construct a drama, how to bring a character to life, how to set the story in motion.

What book are you reading now?

Just finished Joe Lansdale’s latest, Leather Maiden. Excellent.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Robert Fate in his Baby Shark series handles action well without skipping characterization or details of the time and place that make his books come to life.

Sheila Lowe has created a new character, Claudia Rose, who is a handwriting analyst. I love seeing the details of her craft applied to solving a crime, much like the early Scarpetta stories.

Gwen Freeman has created a character named Fifi Cutter who is so contemporary, so sarcastic and witty, so bound by Los Angeles that I laugh out loud when I read her misadventures.

What are your current projects?

My third book, Tommy Gun Tango, is due out in July 2009. It concerns the corruption of the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1930s and the way they helped the movie studios cover up murders by stars.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

In fourth grade I decided to write a sequel to the Wizard of Oz. I decided it should be typed, so it would look more like a real book. A few pages filled with typos killed that. Still, I have always been a storyteller.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?

One of my characters is Jackie Sue, a precocious young woman who has run away from the family farm, hoping to make her fortune in the Hollywood of 1932. One evening she attends a sermon by Aimee Semple McPherson at Angelus Temple, which is still an active Four Square Church. Here is what happens, as Jackie Sue tells it.

The headliner was a handsome woman in her thirties. Aimee Semple McPherson was a powerful preacher and boy did she know how to stage a great spectacle. She could have taught Cecile B. DeMille a thing or three. There were choirs—not just one, but two and there was a full orchestra. There were men and women in costume acting out the story of Noah’s Ark. Before I knew it there were animals parading down the aisle right next to me, two by two.

Now when you have an auditorium filled with five thousand people and you try to drag two sheep and two goats and two donkeys and two of I don’t know what all through them, things are bound to get a little cock-eyed. An old woman, must have been in her fifties, sitting in front of me, turned to stare at the animals traipsing by. One of the donkeys rolled a jaundiced eye, then turned its head to look her square in the face and brayed with a sound like the last trump.

The lady shrieked right back, “Glory!”

That made the donkey start bucking and kicking. The donkey’s handler, a hefty young Mexican gal, had to jerk hard on the bridle and use all her weight to keep the animal from breaking loose and running wild through the crowd. The donkey bawled, the lady bellowed, and then the donkey snapped its huge yellow teeth at her, almost catching her nose.

She—the lady, I mean—fainted dead away. Fell face down over the pew ahead of her, her flower print dress hiked up, showing her bloomers to the crowd. I thought it would cause a scandal, but people around me hardly turned a hair. An elderly man next to her just reached over and tugged her dress into place and carried on like nothing special had happened.

What with the animals—which, by the way, did not make me pine for the family farm—and folks fainting and Aimee hollering over the microphone system and the orchestra and the choirs singing back and forth at each other like it was a contest, it was some time before I was able to focus my attention again.

I went to Sunday School as a girl so I was somewhat familiar with the story of Noah. I thought Aimee put a peculiar twist on it.

“And so God could only find the family of Noah that was righteous. He got them on that ark and then He sent a Great Flood.” She paused here and beamed a thousand watt smile over the multitude. “A Great Flood that covered the whole earth.”

She went so far as likening the Great Flood to the Great Depression, in what my 9th grade English teacher would have called a strained comparison.

The audience went for it big, though, and began shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! and Preach it, Sister Aimee!

And Aimee did. She got to campaign shouting like a southern Democrat. By the time she talked about God wiping the wicked from the face of the earth, she had worked the audience up to fever pitch. Aimee stopped sermonizing and looked out over the crowd.

I did, too, and saw that there were a fair number of Negroes, Orientals, Mexicans, and maybe some Gypsies mixed among them. And every one of them, regardless of color, waited with bated breath to hear what came next.

Aimee leaned right up close to the microphone and stage whispered, “Let’s take it to the Lord in prayer.”

She raised her hands towards Heaven and began to speak aloud, her eyes closed, her body swaying. I couldn’t make out what she was saying. It seemed to be in a foreign language, and I later heard that this was what they called speaking in tongues.

Not to be outdone, most of the congregation raised their own hands, closed their eyes, swayed back and forth, and began to gabble. Not quietly to themselves, but at full volume, like they thought God might be hard of hearing.

If you stand in the midst of five thousand people who are carrying on like that, all I can say is it’s electrifying. I kind of froze in place and looked around in amazement, wondering how long this could go on, but kind of glad that they had forgotten to take the offering. Though to be fair I would have put something in the basket, as I hadn’t been so entertained in a good while.

Just then the lady who had fainted came back to life. She stood bolt upright, craned her neck back, her eyes rolled up in their sockets, and began to yodel. She ululated—I believe that is the technical term—in a register even the pipe organ couldn’t match. The dogs up on Noah’s Ark began to howl in response.

The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck stood to attention and I clutched my pocket book pretty tight. The yodeler began to gyrate in place, her arms flung wide. Her neighbors in the pew moved out of the way, not wanting black eyes. She spun out into the aisle and began a jerking spinning kind of dance that took her three steps forward, two steps back, one to the left, one to the right, but always led her toward the stage.

As soon as she began to move well, a dozen others joined her, arms raised, heads back, praying at the top of their lungs. In a couple of minutes there were hundreds in the aisles, snake-dancing their way down to be close to Sister Aimee.

For her part, Sister Aimee seemed unaware of the ruckus. Or else it was so common as not to need her attention.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

For me the problem is balancing the various facets of my life: teaching college; being (and staying) happily married; seeing my 3 grandchildren in different parts of the country; keeping up with yard work, house repairs, helping friends. Oh yeah, and writing.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

My biggest influences are:

PG Wodehouse for a sense of structure and the seemingly effortless use of dialect and manners;

Joe Lansdale for his ability to bring a new character to life in a single paragraph and his ability to keep the story moving forward even though it is full of asides;

Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard for their ability to mix humor into situations that would be horrific if they actually happened to the reader;

Ken Bruen for his ability to immerse in another culture (Irish or British) and still have us recognize the similarities with our own, though the daily language and habits are quite different.

Ginny B Interview

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?

I travelled 8000 miles by car and about 12000 by plane attending 10 conferences, and 125 book signings on my first novel, Philippine Fever. That was pretty intense. On this novel, Blood Harvest, I did another 6 conferences, 75 signings and this virtual book tour.

Who designed the covers?

Nick Zelinger [] A great designer, wonderful to work with.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

My growth as an author has come from hearing directly from readers. I love getting their feedback and I respond to every email. It has taught me what seems to connect with them and what things just irritate folks (even though I thought those things were precious).

So readers, do not be afraid to write to an author. Ask them a question, correct their grammar or facts, tell them you love (or hate) their work, but please tell them why.

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Max Weismann said...

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Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

Misty said...

great interview! I have had this book in my library "to read" basket for weeks. Guess I should read it, huh?

Doc Cook said...

HI Ginny,

Thanks for the chance to speak to book lovers. It was a treat being on your site.

Bruce Cook/Brant Randall

donnas said...

Great interview. I cant wait to read Blood Harvest.

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