A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker

by Claire E. White

New York Times bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker
Photo of T. Jefferson Parker
is a Southern California native, who was born in Los Angeles, and spent his childhood in Orange County. He had what most people would call an ideal childhood in the suburbs, with parents and siblings, trips to church, Little League, bodysurfing and lots of family outings in the station wagon. He received his bachelor's degree in English from the University of California, Irvine, in 1976, and began his writing career in 1978, as a cub reporter on the weekly newspaper, The Newport Ensign. After covering police, city hall and cultural stories for the Ensign, he went to work for the Daily Pilot newspaper, where he won three Orange County Press Club awards for his articles. A keen observer, he filed away lots of story and character ideas while he learned the profession of journalism. He began to write his first novel on evenings and weekends. Laguna Heat received rave reviews, was made into an HBO movie starring Harry Hamlin, Jason Robards and Rip Torn, and hit the New York Times bestseller list in 1986. But tragedy struck in his personal life when his first wife, Catherine, died when she was very young. Eventually, he remarried; he and his second wife now have two little boys.

After Laguna Heat, eleven other novels followed, including the Edgar Award-winning Silent Joe, Black Water and, his latest novel, Cold Pursuit. Cold Pursuit is an edgy, pulse-pounding police procedural set in San Diego. The Washington Post says of Cold Pursuit: "If you love the classic crime story, as it has evolved from, say, Raymond Chandler to John D. MacDonald to Michael Connelly, then don't miss Jefferson Parker's Cold Pursuit -- because this is about as good as it gets." Kirkus says of Parker's body of work, "[B]eginning in 1985, with Laguna Heat, Parker has produced a ten-novel skein unsurpassed, perhaps unmatched, by any other contemporary writer of crime fiction."

When not working, you might find him spending time with his family, hiking, hunting and fishing, and haunting the public tennis courts. He also enjoys diving, snorkeling, and travel. He spoke with us about his latest book, Cold Pursuit, the process of writing, and how he got through the toughest times of his life.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

Mom used to put me on her lap and read me great children's books. I remember Perry, the Squirrel; Vulcan the Condor; Gargantua; and especially Shag -- Last of the Plains Buffalo. That book knocked me out. A friend of mine presented me with a new copy a few years ago and I read it again and guess what? It's still a great book. Later, on my own I read the Hardy Boys and Jack London and Edgar Alan Poe and a little bit of Kipling. We had a nice library in our Tustin home and we kids were free to use it all we wanted.

I understand you have secret fondness for reptiles. What do you find appealing about them? Did you have them as pets when you were a boy?

Boy, it's hard to keep a secret these days. Yes, I am fond of reptiles. Isn't everyone? I was always trying to catch them as a boy, and never quite outgrew it. I like their silence and symmetry and unique way they propel themselves. I like their self-sufficiency and the way that they're widely misunderstood and hated. Of course, they're associated with evil, which makes them fascinating.

Looking back to your childhood, in what ways did your parents most influence you as a person? As a writer?

My mother and father were both real "story" people. Dad loved to tell us stories -- still does. Mom was less of a raconteur, but she read to us all the time. And she'd always find good things. She wasn't a fan of the softer, more human children's books. Rather, we'd get the Brothers Grimm and adventure tales. You know, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London. I think the most valuable thing they taught us Parker kids was to question things -- authority, tradition, cultural givens. Mom and Dad never really bought into the "status quo", whatever it might be. They were always looking around the corners of things. That's good training for a writer, or anybody, for that matter.

How did you get your start in journalism? What did you love most about being a journalist?

I pestered every newspaper publisher in Southern California between 1976
Cover of Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker
when I graduated from UC Irvine, until 1978, when Jean Halliburton at the Newport Ensign hired me to write movie reviews. Later she took me on as a full-time assistant. It was hard to get work in those days because the J-school were pouring out Woodwards and Bernsteins left and right. Later, Jean actually got me work on a daily -- kicked me out of the nest. Great editor and person. I enjoyed those years but I was there to learn how to write rather than to carve out a career as a journalist. I don't have the instincts of a great reporter, and to be honest, the quick turn-around of most newspaper work never fit my personality. I'm kind of plodding. Newspaper work is the hardest work I've ever done.

How has your background as a journalist affected your writing?

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It's not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It's the exposure that's valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police -- everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

What led up to the publication of your first book?

I spent about five years writing Laguna Heat, something like 5 or 6 drafts. After that it went smoothly toward publication. My agent, Jane Jordan Browne, submitted it to five publishers and we got four rejections and an acceptance from Jared Kieling at St. Martin's Press. That was May 23, 1984 -- one of the red-letter dates in my life!

Your first book, Laguna Heat, hit the New York Times bestseller list and was made into an HBO movie -- a heady experience for a first time author. How did your life change after your first book was published?

Well, I was able to quit my day job as a technical editor and write full time. It also gave me tremendous confidence -- maybe too much confidence. I thought every one of my books would hit the list and be made into a movie. So I took my time and tried to do something very original and unique for book number two. That was Little Saigon. It got kind of panned and didn't sell well. When I read sections of it today, I think it's good, but boy...it really is different. Kind of an offbeat literary novel masquerading as a mystery thriller with this totally oddball sense of humor running through it. I'm glad I had the confidence to give it a try.

As a crime writer, you deal with the concept of evil on a daily basis. What is evil, to you? Do you agree with some current psychiatric theories that there is no "evil" per se, only people with either brain damage or a chemical imbalance of some sort?

I like the word evil, especially the way it's become verboten and kind of archaic in our mock scientific and politically correct times. For the sake of argument I'll answer yes, there is evil in the world and it finds expression in certain people. It seems like a brief scan of human history would back me up on that. Evil places personal or ideological satisfaction higher than life. It makes all things expendable. It can even delight in pain and suffering and terror.

In all of your works, a character suffers a loss of some kind. The ability of someone to move on after a terrible loss varies widely: some people do well and others never seem to recover. What do you believe is the key to rising above life's challenges and disappointments?

For me it was always a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. I remember doing that, literally, after the death of Catherine, my first wife. She died of a brain tumor when she was very young. After that, I just followed my feet around the house to get some work done; around town to get some groceries; to the beach or the hunting meadow or the tennis court or whatever. Friends and family get you through. Deaths like that make you stronger, I think, in the long run. Maybe they give you some perspective, some protective experience.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, Cold Pursuit. What was your inspiration for this story?

Cover of Cold Pursuit by T. Jefferson Parker
I know a man who went to sea on a commercial tuna boat in the early seventies, and he was released with no pay after an arduous four months of most fruitless labor. That story stuck with me, and it forms the backbone -- the inspiration -- for Cold Pursuit.

The main protagonist in Cold Pursuit is Tom McMichael, a talented homicide cop who's still not over his recent divorce. How did you create the character of Tom?

Tom is what I think a believable hero would be. That's how I approach all my protagonists -- what makes a person heroic, yet believable?

I tried to give Tom common problems. A divorce and a painful split from his son. A job in which he's hounded by an unscrupulous supervisor while he tries to get to the truth. This feeling that he wants to belong to something. This feeling that he comes from somewhat tainted stock. To me, Tom is an Everyman. In a way that Joe Trona, the hero of Silent Joe is not.

McMichael becomes romantically involved with one of the suspects in a murder he is investigating, Sally Rainwater. Sally is a complex character; at first, it's hard to get a read on where she's coming from. What was the greatest challenge in writing her?

I wanted the reader to believe she was capable of murder but innocent of it. I wanted her to be very tough and logical, but also good-hearted at her center. The hard part was making her as attractive to a reader as she is to Tom. Some people said, what's so special about Sally? Why's Tom infatuated? To me, you get infatuated for mysterious reasons. You can't always explain it. So I let Tom fall for someone I might fall for.

Although he's found murdered in the first pages of the book, Pete Braga is also a major character to the plot. What or who was your inspiration for Pete?

"The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It's not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It's the exposure that's valuable."
Pete is wholly invented. I wanted someone with one foot in San Diego's recent history, and the other in San Diego's here and now. He's involved in things that strike me as representative of his city: tuna fish (the past), cars and politics (the present and the future).

The city of San Diego in winter provides an atmospheric backdrop for the story. Usually you set your books in Orange County -- what prompted the move down the coast?

I moved to north San Diego County three years ago, so I pretty much had to write about it. I love writing about where I live, trying to get something authentic and meaningful into the settings. Oddly enough, the book I'm working on now is set in Orange County again.

I'd like to talk about the actual process of writing. Would you take us through a typical writing day for you?

I start early, around 6:30 and work until 5 or so. It's not always all writing, but a large portion of it is. I work in a large metal building, kind of an aircraft hangar with one part finished off as an office. In winter I build a fire in the woodstove. In summer I open the windows. I always listen to the weather radio for a few minutes. Then I just read what I wrote the day before and keep going. I try for 6 pages a day. If I get stuck it's usually a matter of finding out what would be the logical reaction to whatever action has just taken place. I use a computer now, though I've written complete manuscripts on typewriters and longhand.

When you begin a new book, what is the starting place for you -- plot, the setting, the characters? How much of the book's plot do you know when you start writing?

Cover of Red Light by T. Jefferson Parker
For me the starting place is some kind of internal atmosphere that I want to understand. A mood. Then, I find a character who will fit that mood and call him a hero. As soon as you give your hero a goal and impediments to the goal, you've got a story going. Most people don't realize how much of a novel is simply made up as the writer goes along. You hit at the plate. Sure, I've got an idea where I'm going. I know the general shape I want. But getting there is the novel. When I'm done, it's always different than I expected. It always surprises me a little.

How has becoming a father changed your life? How has it affected your writing?

I had great trepidation about becoming a father because it would hurt my work schedule. Now that's asinine. My boys are great and thank God they do hurt the work schedule with things like baseball games and school plays and skinned knees and cool bugs and lizards they catch. Another really great side is that they're fun to write about. They don't know it yet but I've cast them in my books in more than one way, more than once. Pretty obviously, Tim, Jr. in the Merci Rayborn books is based on one of mine. He pretty much "wrote" his own dialogue in Black Water. Some people don't like kid scenes in mysteries -- I used to be one of them -- but now I kinda do. I like my kid scenes, anyway, for transparent reasons.

As a father, what's your opinion of the amount of sex and violence found in television, books and computer and video games? How does a parent police these things? What (if any) should the government's role be in regulating content for children?

You just have to keep an eye on what they're watching. My kids like the kid shows so it hasn't been a problem yet. But at some point, they'll be curious about things and they'll want to see them. I think the government should help make sure that young people aren't drenched in violent and sexual images simply to sell them products. It's more up to parents, though.

Have you ever faced writer's block? If so, how do you defeat it?

"Write and write and read and read. Fill your mind with good stuff and set your standards high. Work very hard on that first book or story. Don't be in a hurry to publish it. Enjoy yourself. That's what it's all about."
I just sit there and think. Usually, I find that I'm not realizing what the logical consequence of something is. You know, a decisive act on page 35 is going to set up what happens on page 45, but sometimes you lose track of things. So that's not really block. I guess my main writer's block is early on, before I've started. It's figuring out what to write about. For instance, after 9/11 I had a terrible time beginning a new book. All my writer friends did, too. That was three months of staring at notes and writing down "ideas" just to watch them prove unworkable. Sooner of later you break through to something.

What project are you working on next?

It's a big-sweep mystery -- fifty years and an incorrectly solved crime and the four brothers who are profoundly affected by that crime. It's a family saga, too. Takes place in Southern California. I've never ever been this excited about a book. If I can finish it as well as I've started it -- heh, heh -- it's going to be my best ever.

What's your advice to aspiring novelists?

Write and write and read and read. Fill your mind with good stuff and set your standards high. Work very hard on that first book or story. Don't be in a hurry to publish it. Enjoy yourself. That's what it's all about.

When you're not writing, what are your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

I love to flyfish for trout and hunt birds. Also love tennis. I've got a trailer in the desert which is quail central, but also a place to go and barbecue t-bones and put your feet up on the deck railing and spend some time with friends. I also spend a lot of time reading good books -- that's sustenance more than fun, I guess. I enjoy helping out with the boys' sports teams. Nothing really exotic. Just being alive and healthy -- and having your loved ones alive and healthy -- is a gift beyond compare.

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