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Last November we set our WEbook community a NaNoWriMo Monthly Challenge, in which we asked you to write the best opening or closing chapter of a novel. 

Not only was the prize an iPad Mini, but the winner of this challenge would also be considered for publication by WEbook. This elicited such a phenomenal response from our community of authors, that our judges had a mammoth challenge when it came to picking a winner. Despite this they did, eventually, come to an agreement, and our winner, SigmundSquirrel, won with his brilliant entry, The Nothing Blonde
SigmundSquirrel

Recently, we had a chat with SigmundSquirrel to discuss his submission The Nothing Blonde, and what types of literature inspired him to write such a brilliant submission:

WEbook: So, Frank, your submission to the November Challenge, The Nothing Blonde, was a wonderfully crafted piece of writing that had the reader hooked from the first sentence - could you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write it?

Frank Ladd: I have always been interested in writing a 1940s-style noir detective novel. I collect old mystery paperbacks from the 1930s-50s. Dell, Popular Library, Gold Medal. I studied film at art school and watched all the great and lesser noirs. I love reading the classic detectives.
So it was a natural. But very hard to do without sounding like a satire or a homage. Your contest provided yet another chance to take a whack at it. I combined ideas and themes kicking around in my notes and my head. I had already tried to write a detective novel set in Boston at that time period, so I’ve done research. What I love most about the noir genre is the strong presence of fate. It’s almost like classic Greek tragedy. The whims of the gods gave the Greeks a way to understand irrationality and bad luck. We don’t have that now, so the
world can seem more bitter to us. Noir captures that.


WB: The Nothing Blonde has a strong Hard Boiled crime and detective fiction feel to it. In fact, it reminds us of a number of great titles from that era - it hints at the sordid underbelly of post war society, like in The Black Dahlia, while retaining the characteristically detached and factual aloofness to the narrative found in Cain and Chandler's work. Did you actively take inspiration from authors of this genre when writing The Nothing Blonde, or is this a style that you've developed yourself?

FL: I began reading Raymond Chandler when I was 12. My father had all the Philip Marlowe novels in his den library. The humor and world-weary sarcasm, and the cartoonish hyperbolism, were perfect for my youth. He has been a big influence. But Chandler is a trap. He has become the most influential writer of detective fiction, and his style is imitated endlessly into caricature. Hemingway suffers the same fate. People focus on the style and forget the content. When I began trying to write a noir detective novel, I tinkered at the edges of Chandler, writing in a way that he didn’t but still recalled his tropes. People would say, stop writing like Chandler. Any 1940s detective voice is going to make people say that. So I’ve spent the past few years moving farther away from his voice.
James M. Cain is interesting, and also one of my big influences. Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are both brilliant. Camus’ The Stranger, another influence for me, is also based around Cain’s style. Cain is the anti-Chandler. Chandler’s characters have made adjustments to live in their world. They know who and where they are; they are playing the game. Cain’s characters are almost always lost. They think they have a scam going, but are really two or three steps behind the game. Cain writes about people who make mistakes and lose their way. It’s funny that Chandler wrote the script for the film version of Double Indemnity, turning Cain’s main character into more of a wise-cracker than in the book. Chandler also wrote the screenplay for The Black Dahlia that you mentioned, so you can see how big a presence he has.


Here’s an ironic anecdote. My father had many of Ross Macdonald’s books in his den as well. Macdonald’s detective was Lew Archer, written mostly in the 1950s-1960s. I picked a few off the shelf when I was 14 or so, but they didn’t interest me. Too serious. None of the wisecracking weariness. No colorful metaphors. Even the covers were dull. I turned instead to the Travis McGee novels with their blondes-in-bikinis covers. The Lavender this and the Lemon-Yellow that. But today Ross Macdonald is probably my favorite detective
writer. 
All of this is to say that I’m very aware of the noir tradition, and of how it is caricatured by most modern attempts to write in that style. I’m trying to move away from flourish and sarcasm, to write that book that wouldn’t have interested me as a 14-year old.

WB: The November Challenge was all about writing the first or the last chapter of a novel, could you give us a bit of a hint as to what we can expect to happen in The Nothing Blonde, in Chapter 2?

FL: When I wrote chapter one, I had no thought of what would happen in chapter two. Honestly, that’s how extemporaneous it was. But I have two ideas. One is a brief interstitial episode, like the anonymous vignettes between stories in Hemingway’s In Our Time. WWII hangs heavily over The Nothing Blonde, and I’m thinking short flash-like scenes from the war. The hidden character, the man with the truck, was a sniper in Italy. He’s also very young; he lied about his age to get into the action. He has what was then known as shell shock. I might periodically drop into his inner voice for these episodes.Then there will have to be a scene with Sam Brill in the morgue at Mass General Hospital identifying the body of the blonde, and a scene at the Precinct 3 station between him and Lieutenant Detective Leslie about his involvement in the case. I may return to the woman in the hotel room, who is probably trying to kill herself. Apparently hotels were popular for high windows to jump from.
Don’t ask me about chapter 3.

WB: Is this story something that you've been working on for a while, or did you write it especially for the Challenge?

FL: I’m actually working on a totally different novel (different time period and different genre). But I’m keeping that one under wraps for now. So I didn’t want to enter its first chapter in this contest. I wanted to enter something, though, so I looked through old notes on my desktop and found a file called The Nothing Blonde. Hey! I didn’t even remember writing that down. I loved the title and thought I could work it into a passable first chapter in time for the contest.
Some people find first chapters difficult because you are starting from scratch, trying to get a reader’s attention before they know anything about the characters or the story. I’ve always found first chapters the easiest, once you solve the opening line. You are introducing things: the setting, the characters, the tone, the story problems. If each of them are important, then how could discovering them not be exciting?

WB: Could you tell us a bit about your writing background? How did you get into writing fiction, and have you had any of your writing published as a book or in magazines etc, before?

FL: I am completely unpublished. I have also never submitted. I’m a bit single-minded about a novel, so I won’t submit until it is finished and up to my expectations. I’m also a bit slow (perhaps in many senses of the word). I’ve written some very short stories that I don’t see as more than exercises, and a longer story would take too much time, so I’m riding the novel horse pretty hard. I hope the poor animal doesn’t collapse.
I’ve always intended to be a writer since high school. I was trying to write a literary novel about ten years ago, then became absorbed with my design career and paying rent. Three years ago, during one of my long commutes, I decided to get back into writing and focus on genre to provide a framework for my thoughts.

WB: You've been a member on WEbook since 2010 - what first inspired you to join WEbook, and how do you think that your interaction here on the site with other members has been beneficial to you?

FL: When I started writing again, I googled “online writers groups” and WEbook was one of the search results. Most of the sites seemed excruciatingly juvenile or amateurish. I’m a designer, so the user experience of a site makes an impression on me. WEbook looked like a place where the creators took care to provide a friendly, usable, useful community. It was the only site I joined from that search.At first I loved the Page-To-Fame idea. But ultimately there was too little feedback and uneven reasoning behind the results. How can a story get a 5 and a 1? I find the most benefit from the writing challenges. For me, that is the core of your site. Because it is timely, people check in frequently, if not daily, and you can see (and learn from) the spectrum of responses to the same prompt. Plus, it is the most social area of your site, with lively feedback and response to each entry. I made several tweaks to The Nothing Blonde based on comments it received. And I’ve got several novel ideas sitting around in files that were spurred from some of my writing challenge efforts. (If I can ever get to them. I’m trying to follow the one-at-a-time
rule.)


WB: What one piece of advice would you give to a new member on WEbook?

FL: Participate in the writing challenges. Comment on writing you think is good and make friends with those writers. Also, have writing you show to others (because it is good to get feedback on style and general writing issues, depth of character, etc.) but also think about keeping your serious writing to yourself. I started posting chapters as I finished them in a project group here, and it started to freeze me up and slow me down knowing that each chapter had an instant audience. Sometimes I think it is better to make early progress on your own, and show it to trusted readers after it is too late to mess up your momentum. Let your ideas come out before your critical minds steps in.


WB: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us Frank - and again, congratulations on being our November Challenge winner!

***

We'll be working closely with Frank as he develops, The Nothing Blonde, into a full length novel… so watch this space!

WEbook's January Challenge is all about new beginnings… have you submitted your entry yet? 

WEbook

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5 comments

  1. Sexy and talented. Way to go, Squirrel.

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  2. Great interview SigmundSquirrel. Nice to be able to put a face to the name.

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    Replies
    1. He's such a phenomenal writer. I really enjoyed reading this interview, and I agree with Sue, it's nice to put a face with the name.

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  3. Frank congrats on winning the challenge with yet another thrilling read. Best of luck on publishing!

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  4. Frank - I've been a fan of your writing for a long time and am so happy to see it getting the recognition it deserves!

    ReplyDelete

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