Long and Short Reviews welcomes Barry S. Willdorf, whose second book in his 1970s Trilogy, A Short in the Arm, has recently been released.
He told me he’s pretty conventional when it comes to titles. He tries to have the title relate to the theme of the book.
“For my trilogy, I began with Burning Questions because the mystery involves who is burning down all these old hotels and, more to the point, why they killed a rich kid that witnessed a torching,” he explained. “In A Shot In the Arm, the mystery is who gave this girl a fatal dose of heroin, why, and how the perp covers it up. In both of these books, someone is set up to take the fall. But the title comes from the kind of crime that’s involved.”
Barry’s first published work was on a book called How to Pass the LSATs.
“I was in law school and needed the money. So I took this job for a guy named Gruber,” he explained. “My part was to make up fictitious factual situations for students to apply legal principals. I did crime stories where they had to decide whether evidence was admissible. I did auto accidents where they had to explain who was negligent and why. I made up contracts and businessmen who maybe breached them, and maybe not. The students had to look at the facts and decide how the law would come down on one side or the other.”
I asked Barry how he developed his plot and characters.
“I have a general idea of a mystery or thriller plot. I have some regular characters that I hire from the central casting that is somewhere in the recesses of my addled mind. I use a Mr. Potatohead strategy when I describe them, taking characteristics from different people I’ve met who have prominent and interesting features. Things like bulbous noses, cauliflower ears, comb-overs, crossed eyes, cleft palettes, whatever. I just put stuff together to make a picture of a person with human features and flaws. And I don’t seem to ever know where my characters are going. I kind of let them romp on their own until I get to where I think I ought to stop. In Burning Questions, for example, I completely changed the perp at the last minute. I didn’t know I was going to do it until I read an early draft and decided that I’d rather have a different murderer. So people can read it and think they know who did it, only to get fooled, just like I did.”
“What do you like to do when you are not writing?” I asked.
“I am always amazed by this question because we tend to go one way or another with it. One way you can go is to give a complete fantasy response based upon one’s interpretation of the word: ‘like.’ I like to spend my time on a tropical beech with a warm swimming spot, and an inexhaustible supply of cool mixed drinks. When that’s happening, I’m not writing. The other way people tend to answer this question is by saying the everyday things that they actually do, that they like, as compared to the rest of the bedraggled and hassle-prone things that cross their paths daily. I like to hang out with friends sipping coffee as opposed to cleaning silverware with a solvent. But I prefer that beach.”
Barry tends to get hung up on facts and details during his writing. He’ll find himself wondering what kind of evergreen was native to the British Isles two thousand years ago. Because he wants the background of his scene to be authentic, he can spend a day or two on the Internet reading bits and pieces of academic papers.
” All this work for maybe a sentence,” he said. “But now I know the answer to that question.”
Sometimes he will get a book from the library for research, but when he does he goes through the footnotes and check those out.
“You can tell if sources borrow each other’s work and give themselves a symbiotic relationship,” he explained. “I know it’s not going to the original source, and historians would disapprove, but I’m writing novels and I need to know that I’m within the target, not that I’ve scored a bullseye.”
One of Barry’s favorite characters is Captain Ahab from Moby Dick.
“He’s a madman but he gets everyone to follow him because of his zeal,” he told me. “Every word, every mannerism convey’s Melville’s alegory to watch out we don’t mistake some people’s zealotry for truth, like the crew of the Pequod did. The whole ship got destroyed but one who was left to give warning: Just because somebody is really crazy, 200% sure in their beliefs, it doesn’t mean they’re right.”
“Say your publisher has offered to fly you anywhere in the world to do research on an upcoming book,” I said. “Where would you most likely want to go?”
“I think I’d like to take the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul with a few choice stops along the way. I”ll take it up with my publisher after he ponies up a hundred Gs in advertising and promo, which I’m sure he’ll be doing immediately after he reads this. And then he’ll have to do the same for fifty other authors who will be outraged at my good fortune at being able to hire a PR firm at publisher’s expense. And while we’re fantasizing, I’ d like to have an open bar and a fancy deli plate at every bookstore my booking agent (at publisher expense) can book for me.”
Finally, I asked, “What advice would you give a new writer just starting out?”
“First, you have to learn how to write. Then you need life experience so the things you write about can pass for real. Then you have to learn how to take criticism. Then you have to learn how to take rejection. Then you have to learn how to negotiate. Then you have to learn how to promote a book. Then you have to work on public speaking. Then you have to get a day job to support yourself. Then you have to watch out that you don’t become an alcoholic or a drug addict. After that, it’s a piece of cake.”
About the Author:
I was born in New York City and grew up in Massachusetts. I was an investigator for the New York Legal Aid Society. During a legal career of more than four decades, I have been lead counsel in more than 100 trials from homicides to Ponzi schemes. In 2005, the San Francisco AIDS Legal Referral Panel named me “Attorney of the Year”.
In 1972, I co-authored a military legal self-help book: Turning the Regs Around. In 2001, I published a semi-autobiographical novel, Bring the War Home! drawing from these experiences. Bring the War Home! is available as a free download on Scribd. My historical novel, The Flight of the Sorceress recently won a Global E-Book Award for best historical literature and was an EPIC finalist for a 2012 “best historical novel.” Most recently, my 1970s Trilogy is in mid-publication. Part one, Burning Questions, was published in August 2011. Part two, A Shot In The Arm, was published April 1, 2012. Part three, The Fourth Conspirator, will be published in September 2012. My legal publishing credits include co-authoring How To Pass the LSATs, and part of the Matthew Bender series, California Forms of Jury Instructions. I was also a contributing editor for Matthew Bender’s Trial Master series. I have also written a guide to the courtroom for non-lawyers called See You In Court! currently available as an e-book on Smashwords and Scribd.
I live in San Francisco, am married with three grown daughters and three grandchildren, one pending.
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