A Conversation With Keith Snyder

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, February 1999
Mystery author Keith Snyder wears many hats: writer, musician, composer, and designer.
Photo of Keith Snyder
For three years, Keith performed with L.A.-area spoken word and music ensemble The Cosmic Debris. Previously, he played with Afropop band Kadara, appearing often at L.A.'s World Beat venues. He has performed with Nigerian music star Chief Ebenezer Obey and did technical work on the soundtrack album of Jekyll and Hyde. Perseids, his solo cassette, was a CMC best-seller, and was featured in Keyboard magazine. Keith composed the music for Norton Utilities for Windows 95 and Symantec PC Handyman. Also a filmmaker, 1 is for Gun, a short film Keith co-wrote/produced/directed, and for which he composed and produced the musical score, won a silver award at the 1998 Atlantic City Film Festival. It is about a man who fantasizes about being a 1940s film noir detective. Session 52, another short film he co-produced and scored, screened at the New Orleans and Bombay festivals.

Always interested in writing as another form of creative expression, he tried his hand at writing a novel. His first book was published in 1996. Show Control (Write Way Publishing, 1996) stars Jason Keltner, electronic musician, and his friends Robert and Martin, who have a knack for getting into trouble and get involved in adventure, espionage and mystery. Mystery Scene said it was "a highly impressive first novel of rare quality," and readers agreed. The success of Show Control landed him a contract with Walker & Co. His second novel, Coffin's Got The Dead Guy On The Inside, now in bookstores, also features Jason Keltner. (The title is the punchline to a musician's joke.) Coffin is a thriller which features tight plotting, nonstop action and a wicked sense of humor. Publishers Weekly calls it "strikingly original," and ForeWord said it was "exceptional." The third book in the series, Trouble Comes Back, will be released by Walker & Co. in 1999. All three books have been acquired for paperback publication by Dell. The principal talent at Woolly Mammoth Multimedia, Keith lives in Brooklyn with his wife, operatic mezzo-soprano Kathleen Haaversen, and an annoying black cat named Grover, where he misses Los Angeles and complains about New York's lack of good Mexican food. When he's not writing, composing or designing, you can find him spending time with his wife or surfing the Net. Keith talked with us about his life as a musician and author, how he got his start as a novelist and how he created Jason Keltner, the popular star of Show Control and Coffin.

When did you first know you wanted to be a novelist?

I'm still not sure I want to be a novelist. That is the most honest answer I can come up with.

How has being a musician influenced your writing?

I'm not sure. My sense of rhythm and flow in writing is certainly related to my sense of it in music, but I don't think the flow of influence is unidirectional. I learn about both from both. Bob Marley's Uprising and Ernest Hemingway's A Movable Feast teach me the same thing: Choose sparing details carefully, shave away everything else, and have a point.



You are also a filmmaker, and I understand a short film of yours just won an award. Tell us about that.

Still
from 1 Is For Gun
Still from the film,
1 Is For Gun.
1 Is For Gun is a nine-minute detective comedy that just won its first award (a silver) at the Atlantic City Film Festival. I wrote/produced/directed it with my friend Blake Arnold, and another friend, Richard Bugg, was also a producer. Blake is an actor and a writer, and I'm a writer and a composer, and I've ridden herd over complicated projects in my other life as a graphic designer (and co-produced half a dozen short films with another friend, Dale Melgaard), so we decided to make a short film. We chose to do a detective thing because we figured now that I'm published in mystery, maybe it can be used for something mysteryish. It took two days to shoot and another year to finish. We had technical trouble that would have been easy to solve had we the budget, but we didn't have money to throw at any of the problems, so it took a year of begging time in an edit bay, waiting for months on end for a couple hours' worth of work to get done, and so on. (There's an illustrated essay about how we did it at my website.) That's how it is in both music and film, unfortunately -- writers have it easy! All they need is a pad and pen. The artistic frustrations are comparable, but in terms of actual resources needed, writing is a fantastically accessible medium.

Tell us a little about your company, Woolly Mammoth Multimedia.

It's my day gig. I do print and web design, mostly for corporate clients.

I'd like to talk about your latest novel, Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside. What was your inspiration for Jason's latest adventure?

Cover of
Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside
Click here
for ordering information.
Well, the primary inspiration was the knowledge that I could write and sell a book! As for how I decided what book to write, I always start with characters and situations. In Coffin, I wanted to put Jason Keltner (the main character) and Paul Reno, his semi-friend, in a small box and rattle them against each other. I also had a vague idea about the state of computer and multimedia hype at the end of the twentieth century. I wanted to write something that reflected my opinion of computer technology -- which is that it's not very impressive. As Penn Gillette says, has there ever been a time in history when the storyteller couldn't stop and say, "Now, what do you think happened?" "Interactive" is, thus far, a weak medium, in my opinion. Yes, you can do things that we couldn't do before, but so what? I can make a "blorp!" sound on my synthesizer that you've never heard before. Have I done something amazing? Not unless you're a synthesizer tweek who's impressed by blorp! noises, no, I haven't. We're in a tool-building (or instrument-building) phase of technology now, I think. Until an artist emerges who has both the insight into art and the fluidity of technique to do something profound with these tools, we're just wading in a very shallow pool of cool-looking graphics and loud blorps. That chain of thought was the kernel of my making up the rest of the plot. As a longtime user of computer and multimedia/music technology, I just can't take it very seriously.

Jason is an interesting character. How much of Keith Snyder's personality does he share?

Quite a bit, but then, so do Robert and Martin. Jason gets my drive, my self-examination, and my tendency to keep quiet even when I shouldn't. Robert gets my curiosity and intellectualism (including my unproductive intellectualism), and Martin gets my nurturing and loyalty. That's an oversimplification -- all three are quite loyal to each other, for instance, and each has traits I don't have -- but it's as accurate as it is inaccurate.

Another fascinating character is the mysterious Norton Platt. How did Platt come into being?

Cover of
Show Control by Keith Snyder
Click here
for ordering information.
Platt shows up midway through Show Control, the first book in the series. He's a powerful, enigmatic character. My initial perception of him was that he was in the mold of Robert B. Parker's Hawk. But he's also something of a guru for Jason (at least in Show Control) -- the older brother who sees what you're attempting and watches your back, because he's been there too. But in Coffin, I wanted to depart from the more obvious continuations of his character. Hawk is a wonderful character, but... he's been done, and I dislike imitation. So instead of keeping Platt at arm's length, the way Parker does with Hawk, I wrote a scene inside Platt's house, which is a mess. It doesn't read as though it's a particularly risky scene, but I felt I was taking a risk when I wrote it, because I feared it would reduce Platt's enigma. Instead, it strengthened his character, as I'd hoped.

Your novels are known for their wit and offbeat humor. Did that evolve naturally when you started writing novels, or was that intentional on your part?

That's just my sense of humor. Not much I can do about it. I've tried everything. Oh, another thought. "Insert comedy bit from Robert here" isn't how I work. If the books are funny, it's because the characters are funny people, not because I'm telling jokes. Each of them has a distinct sense of humor; Jason tends toward dryness with the occasional silliness, Robert is an intellectual absurdist, and Martin can get earthy. The humor takes just as much rewriting and honing as everything else. In the one I'm writing now, the characters are still funny and intelligent, but they're having to deal with a more serious situation. I'm finding things out about all of them -- Martin especially -- that I didn't know before. I hope this continues with each book.

The action scenes in the book are exciting and quite humorous. Do you like writing the action scenes?

Yes. I liked, especially, writing the car chase, because of the unusual situation -- the old car Jason drives is not in sufficient repair to go fast for sustained periods, and it's packed full of his music gear, which keeps sliding around. I liked the challenge of finding the sensory details, putting myself into his place and "feeling" which way things swayed or pulled as the chase progressed. I was also interested in depicting in writing the sensation of increased detail during moments of immediate crisis or physical danger.

That 60s Plymouth that Jason owns -- it's almost like a living character itself. Did you ever own a car like that?

It was a 1966 Valiant that got me all the way up to Valdez, Alaska and back in 1985. I drove it until about four years ago and then gave it away.

Do you see romance in Jason's future? I must admit that I would hate to see anyone do a Yoko Ono and bust up the gallant trio of Jason, Robert and Martin, permanently.

Mmmmmaybe. :)

What's next for Jason and the gang?

I'm about three chapters from the end of Trouble Comes Back, the next Jason book, which will be out from Walker later this year. (September, probably.) I wanted to explore Martin's family life, so the book starts out with a family crisis that Martin asks Jason to help him with. They're also moving out of the Manor, the old wreck of a boarding house where they live in both Show Control and Coffin's Got the Dead Guy on the Inside. I'm not interested in writing a series in which the characters don't change. I think that would be about the most stultifying thing I could do as a writer. After all, I don't need to be a writer in order to do the same thing every day. I can do that at a real job, and make twelve times more money.

Your plots are very tightly constructed. Do you use outlines? Do you create the plot before the characters?

I create a situation, and have an idea -- sometimes vague -- of where I'm going. I do not outline until I have a reason to, which is often. I neither construct a plot to which my characters must conform nor "just let them go." It's more that I herd them in the general direction. And as long as I remain clear about (a) what each of them wants, and (b) where things need to go, it generally happens relatively tightly. And, of course, I cut anything that meanders. That sounds a lot easier than it really is. I can get stuck for weeks on what seems a minor problem once it's solved.

Do you play music while you write? What kind of music do you find inspirational?

No, I don't have enough hands. Oh, you mean other people's music. Sometimes. I used to, more than I do now, because I didn't have a laptop, and I used the music at home to distract the noisy part of my mind. With a laptop, I prefer to just leave town for a week or two, which lets my other thoughts quiet down so I can work. The music I prefer to put on when I begin writing is not strongly melodic. I like African music -- it's pattern-oriented without a strong melody, and even though there are vocal parts, I don't know the languages, so it doesn't pull me out of my writing. No matter what music I start with, I usually don't notice it ending, so I write mostly in silence.

Although the stars of the book are three guys in their twenties, you have a lot of female fans. What do you think is so appealing about Jason and his friends?

When I've asked younger women this question, they won't tell me.
"[S]omeone who tries "to write a mystery" is in a less interesting and artistically viable position than someone who tries to "write a good book." The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but I think the choosing of the former goal results in less perceived room for risk, and risk is the only way anything interesting happens."
Older women say the characters remind them of their sons. I can theorize a little. I have been told that women find the male friendships interesting. In most books -- especially genre books -- male friendships are usually either back-slapping or cover-me-when-I-go-in. The friendships between Robert, Martin, and Jason are real friendships. They talk about their problems, they empathize, and they try to get by. There's very little hard-boiled machismo, probably because they are artists. Not that there aren't macho artists out there, but it's certainly not a defining facet of the artistic temperament. The types of friendships in my books are patterned after the types of friendships I prefer to have. I didn't know I was doing anything unusual when I first wrote these characters. Jason, Robert, and Martin are also strongly non-conformist; not wacky, just determined to go the routes they've chosen instead of paying attention to what others want of them, which I think is attractive in a person of any gender.

What prompted your move to New York?

My wife is an opera singer. While Los Angeles does have a small opera scene, New York has both its own opera and everyone else's; most of the opera companies in the US hold auditions both locally and in New York. So if you're in New York, you can audition for Utah Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and so on, without having to spend a thousand dollars on airfare and hotels.

What is life like being married to an opera singer? Who is more temperamental?

She is, of course. I'm a joy. Life with an opera singer is frustrating if you're a novelist and composer. Opera is an expensive proposition. To do it properly requires hundreds of dollars a week, many free hours of practice time, and audition expenses. Since I am not yet the Lee Iacocca of the book world and the opera deck is strongly stacked against anyone who does not have a patron, we struggle a lot. But... if I didn't think her singing was world-class, we wouldn't have moved here. Despite the hardships, she has what money would not be able to buy; a God-given amazing voice. I recorded a recent performance of hers, singing the role of Charlotte in Massinet's "Werther" with a very small opera company. I used a lousy microphone, recorded in mono, and the church she sang at had a radiator that went "psssssPT!psssssssPT! PT! PT!" all the way through the performance. I listened to it yesterday as I made her a cassette copy, and it had my tears welling. I think she has the potential to be one of the next greats.

What do you miss most about Southern California? What is the oddest thing you find about living in New York City?

I miss my friends in Southern California. The places aren't that different from each other. There are a lot (a lot!) of superficial differences (pizza's better in NY, Mexican food's better in L.A.) and a few less slightly superficial ones (New Yorkers can't drive, Angelenos don't talk on the street), but mostly, it's just people. Kathleen finds people friendlier in New York; I don't see it. The oddest thing I've noticed about New York is how very seriously it believes itself to be the center of the universe.

When you're not writing or composing, what do you like to do to relax?

I don't understand the question.

What's your advice to the aspiring mystery novelist with a finished manuscript hoping to get it published?

Well, besides "write a good book," I'm not sure. I do know that having an agent is preferable to not having one, and that having no agent is preferable to having a bad one. If I'm to be honest, the only course of action I can confidently recommend is to drop out of college, buy some synthesizers, play with an African band, play with a music and spoken word ensemble, marry an opera singer, and move to New York. Worked for me.

What's new in the world of electronic music? Are there any exciting trends/artists that you like?

We're in a pretty fallow period right now, I think. There's plenty of electronic pop music, and it's become quite homogenized. Styles that
"The types of friendships in my books are patterned after the types of friendships I prefer to have. I didn't know I was doing anything unusual when I first wrote these characters."
didn't have names fifteen years ago now have their own genre bins at Tower Records. That's bad, in my opinion, because as soon as something has a name, a lot of people try to imitate it. An artist who tries to get "that techno sound" or "that Wave" sound is not creating -- she's imitating or interpreting. Similarly, it's my opinion that someone who tries "to write a mystery" is in a less interesting and artistically viable position than someone who tries to "write a good book." The two are certainly not mutually exclusive, but I think the choosing of the former goal results in less perceived room for risk, and risk is the only way anything interesting happens. After all, there are right ways and wrong ways to "write a mystery," and a much more open field if you are trying to "write a book." As in music, the potential for both brilliance and disaster is far greater when the guidelines are loosened. But, in any art, there's usually someone doing something interesting somewhere. Electronic music being what it is, that person is probably sitting in a basement right now, experimenting with some arcane device or software command, trying to do something that doesn't sound like every other techno/jungle/house/drum-n-bass cut out there. I've been listening mostly to twentieth-century acoustic composers lately -- Lutoslawski's 3rd and 4th symphonies, and Frank Martin's work. Martin was a Swiss composer who worked in the thirties through the sixties (or around then), and I'm in love with his music. If you're interested, get the recording of "Petite Symphonie Concertante" and the "Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments" that has the Klee painting on the cover. (There's more than one recording of this piece out there, and I don't like the other I've heard.)

Which do you prefer: writing novels or composing music, and why?

I've usually thought of myself as a composer who has a writing career, so this is a difficult question to answer. My writing career is doing better than my music career right now, but there have been some signs that it may even out a little. I've begun to get very encouraging industry reponses to the music demos I've sent out. Stay tuned...

What has been the greatest challenge you have faced as a novelist? As a musician?


Eating.

Animated gif and still from 1 Is For Gun copyright © 1999 by Woolly Mammoth Multimedia. All Rights Reserved.



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