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Baron Birtcher: On Music and Writing in Hawaii and Oregon

Thrilled to have author Baron R. Birtcher with me on my blog today! Such a fun interview …


The Author …

Baron R. Birtcher spent a number of years as a professional musician, guitarist, singer and songwriter and founded an independent record label.

His first two hardboiled mystery novels, Roadhouse Blues and Ruby Tuesday were Los Angeles Times and IMBA Best-Sellers.

Angels Fall, the third installment in the critically-acclaimed Mike Travis series, was nominated for the 2009 Left Coast Crime Award (the “Lefty”) for Best Law Enforcement/ Police Procedural novel of the year.

Rain Dogs is Mr. Birtcher’s first stand-alone novel, and a Claymore Award finalist.
He has also had the honor of serving as a judge for both the Edgar and the Shamus Awards.


The Interview

Your “first” artistic career was in music, as a musician, singer, songwriter, and founder of an independent record label. How did that artistic path inform your writing career? (And yes, that is Baron with Randy Meisner of the Eagles …)

As it turns out, my background in the music business has informed my writing quite a bit. For starters, with one exception, my book titles all come from songs. The exception is Hard Latitudes. (There’s a story behind that, but I’ll save it for another time. Now we have to do another interview because I’m curious!).

More importantly, though, I think of a book in the same way that I used to think of an “album” or LP. The songs have to segue smoothly, the tempo and tone have to take you somewhere as a fan, emotionally speaking; and finally, the work has to be cohesive, has to have a stylistic thread that ties the whole work together tastefully. I try very hard to use descriptions and dialogue to evoke a mood, much like a song would, and I believe there’s a certain “rhythm” to my work.

Also, if you want to really geek-out on the music thing. I have a certain ritual that accompanies the writing of each project. I come up with the title first (after the plot, of course) then create a set-list (a mix tape, so to speak) that represents the feeling that I want the book to “sound” like. During the writing process, I limit my exposure to music to that particular set of songs until I’ve finished the manuscript. What I’ve found that it helps keep me in the proper mindset, the proper historical zone, so that I can have that soundtrack in mind as I sit down to write each day. It keeps me in my lane, tonally. Readers will find many of the songs on the soundtrack I referenced as section headings in my books.

Are you sorry you asked me that?  😉  No! I find that totally fascinating!

You split your time between two of my favorite areas of the US. Kona, Hawaii, and Portland, Oregon. These are very different climates and topography, what led you to these two places? And how does that impact your writing?

I always wanted to live in Hawaii, from the time I was a kid. It was a fantasy for me. I had the opportunity to actually do it in the mid-90s and jumped at the chance. I love Kona because of the people, and the “country” nature of that island. Tourism is a factor, but not nearly to the extent it is on other islands. I am a scuba diver, as well, and because there is relatively so little sand on the Big Island, the visibility is incredible for diving. The whole volcano thing is such an incredible factor. Everyone who lives in the islands is acutely aware of the volcanoes, and the attendant risks. Of course, an eruption will never happen to me, right? Wrong.

As for Portland, the short answer is: my first grandchild was born in the Willamette Valley and I wasn’t about to miss out on being a grandfather by being 2,000+ miles away. I had been to the Portland area quite a bit over the course of my career in music, so I was familiar with it, and knew that I would like it. Plus, it’s reawakened the cowboy side of me that was such a part of my growing up. We live on a few acres out in the boonies southwest of the city, and I love it. It’s a great place to find inspiration.

Now I have the opportunity to set two separate thriller series in my two separate home towns.

Your series heroes are classic American figures. The Wild West cattle-turned lawman and a hard-boiled detective. What drew you to these iconic characters and the two writing styles (of noir and western) for your mysteries?

My first series features Mike Travis, a retired LA detective who relocates to Hawaii to leave the rat race, and a considerable amount of troublesome memories behind. As you point out, he’s a hard-boiled character dealing with the crimes and cultural climate in polynesia. I fell in love with the idea of setting an archetypal noir, gritty, modern detective in the islands, which had not been done (to my knowledge) up to that point.

Frankly, it bothered me that the islands and their complicated, beautiful culture had been relegated to backdrop, scenery and cheesy dialogue. A postcard version of the tropics that, to me, was pasteurized to a point beyond my liking. My solution to that was the Mike Travis series. [Roadhouse Blues; Ruby Tuesday; Angels Fall; Hard Latitudes].

The Ty Dawson series is set in mid-1970s rural Oregon. Ty is a Korean War combat veteran, a former Army officer, and a third-generation cattleman in southeastern Oregon. The 1970s bring a great deal of change with them, and small-town Oregon was not immune to the effects of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Ty Dawson is asked (some might say ‘Shanghai’d’) into assisting the local cops in heading off the threat represented by the arrival of an outlaw motorcycle gang into the valley. Cultures clash, values clash, people clash. Violently.

These two men, though somewhat iconic, are operating in a world that neither man completely understands. Each brings his own skillset and moral compass (or lack of one) to the situation, and has to deal with the consequences in his own way, through his own filter. These two are very different men, and I am not at all certain how they would get along with one another. I think, however, that each of these men represent a bulwark against wrongdoing, and have the skills to accomplish their aims. You might be well advised to get out of their way, though, if you see them coming.

Much of your work is either set in or revolves around events from the 70s. Why does that decade resonate with you as a writer?

As I mentioned earlier, the 1970s is a time that I grew up in. It was a decade in which I passed through my teens, listened to the music, and was exposed to much of the cultural upheaval that we all were during that time: Watergate, Vietnam War, gas shortages, riots, NYC bankruptcy, Zodiac Killer, Manson family…  And, to top it off, recorded music had never—literally never—been so popular, or polarizing.

It is a magical backdrop against which to set a story. And for me, it has the added bonus of being one that I remember how it looked, and how it felt, and what it sounded like, and how people spoke. What I was not so much aware of, though, were the underlying tensions that had created all of that upheaval. Now, as I research my books, it is fascinating to revisit the cultural events that shaped the stage-set of the world I grew up in, and to do so with the eyes of an adult. I have a far better and more empathetic understanding as to the worries that my parents, no doubt, held in their hearts for us, as children.

Plus, the music is cool. Did I mention that?

You have two series, plus the standalone Rain Dogs. With seven successful novels under your belt, what do you think writers just starting out should know as they try to break into this industry?

This is a team sport.

The writing part, you do all by yourself; the rest of it requires a great deal of professional insight, assistance and forbearance.

Listen.

Be nice.

Be supportive of your fellow writers.

Allow them to be supportive of you.

Have fun.

Do your research.

Know your characters intimately, and know your setting equally as well. Each element informs the other.

Don’t believe your own bullshit.

Don’t believe other peoples’ bullshit, either.

Give criticism honestly, but kindly. Deliver compliments the same way.

Be humble.

Be grateful. We’re all fortunate as hell to be able to do this thing we do.

How would you categorize the types of books you write?

Probably “Literary Thriller.”

I would say that the thread that runs through all my books is an effort to step up the language and the architecture of the stories, taking the traditional forms of hard boiled and/or noir and bringing something a little new and different to them.

What are you working on now?

Just now wrapping up the manuscript for the third Ty Dawson thriller.

Final Words of Wisdom:

There’s no right or wrong way to do your work, other than you’ve got to finish what you start if you ever want to see it published.

Procrastination is poison, so write that next scene whether you feel like it or not—or, write a different scene. Just write.

Some days it will feel like what you wrote is crap.

Some days it will feel like it is pure freaking genius.

Don’t believe either of those perceptions. Both of them are probably wrong.

Just be sure to finish the damn book, then you’ll know for sure.