||Making Crime Pay
by Pat Barclay
WHEN WILLIAM DEVERELL WON Seal Books` $50,000 first novel award in 1979 for Needles, his hard-hitting thriller about the heroin trade in Vancouver, the experience changed his life. Born in Regina and raised there and in Saskatoon, where his father was a newspaper writer and editor, Deverell worked his way through law school at the University of Saskatchewan as a night reporter, graduating in 1963. He then moved to Vancouver to establish his law practice. The success of Needles led to his gradual withdrawal from the legal profession, however, and he now writes full time at his two homes -- on North Pender Island, B.C. and in Costa Rica -- where he lives with his wife, Tekla, a former psychologist. Deverell`s other novels (all published by McClelland & Stewart) are High Crimes (1981), Mecca (1983), The Dance of Shiva (1984), Platinum Blues (1988), and Mindfield (1989). He has written radio plays as well as film scripts for his novels, and created the concept of the television series "Street Legal." Currently Deverell is working on his first non-fiction book, based on a crime that took place aboard a cruise ship off the west coast of B.C., and is involved in planning the film version of Platinum Blues. Pat Barclay spoke to him in Victoria.
BiC: You began to write early, didn`t you?
Deverell: I think I filed my first newspaper copy when I was 13 or 14 years old, little pick-up items from my father, that sort of thing. What I learned, I suppose, was how to put the subject before the verb, to write simply and in a straightforward manner, before you get fancy. It`s like artists, painters -- they have to learn how to draw a lifelike sketch before they can get into something a little more abstract. And it also taught me something about speed. In a newspaper occupation you`re always working against a deadline, and as a result I probably turn out a lot more pages, on average, than most writers.
BiC: Why did -You choose law over the newspaper business?
Deverell: Well, at that point I had a Young family, two children. My dream was always to be a writer of fiction -- I wasn`t Sure what kind, serious or otherwise -- but I just felt that I needed something more than a newspaper job to allow myself the comfort and ease that would permit me to get into serious writing. But I ended up being more of a success as a lawyer than I thought I would be, and I got into a trap there for about 20 years. I started making too much money and found the work very interesting.
BiC: I understand theres politics in there somewhere, too.
Deverell: I ran a couple times for the NDP in Vancouver. I lost both times, thank God. I came within one vote of winning a nomination just before a provincial election in which my opponent went on to win the seat handily and become a cabinet minister. If I had received one more Vote I Would have ended up being a totally hollow person and would never have written a book. I`m still very interested in politics. I was an incredibly Poor politician though; I hated it.
BiC: What was your fatal flaw?
Deverell: I couldn`t remember peoples` names, and I just could not assume that plastic pose and that plastic face and the plastic smile that one needs when going door to door. It just wasn`t me, it really wasn`t what I wanted to do. As I grew up. all my parents` friends were very political; it just seemed to me I was groomed for a political career and I had to make a stab at it, hut thank God I failed.
BiC: When did you begin to write fiction?
Deverell: Well, I had shelved this dream of writing for many years, and quite frankly, I reached a point in the late `70s when I thought, "I`m never
really going to write unless I quit the practice of law for at least a year." So I took a sabbatical...
BiC: And Seal Books was offering this prize, wasn`t it?
Deverell: I heard about this $50,000 prize, but that really wasn`t what enticed me; in fact, I heard about it when I was two-thirds of the way into my first book, Needles. It was just that I was not going to be able to live with myself. I can remember every year, at some point, I would sit down and have a serious discussion with myself: "Are you going to be a writer or are you not?" And I`d put it off for another year. It was like a writer`s block, almost, for 15 years, plus I was just working myself into an early grave as a courtroom lawyer. And eventually, I just decided, "Okay, put up or shut up," and I went over to the Gulf Islands where we`d built a house and stayed by myself for a year and wrote Needles. It was sufficiently finished to send the manuscript in before the deadline [for the Seal Books award] of December 31, 1978. It was my rookie book and a lot of rewriting was required, but in any event it paid off pretty handsomely, and it changed my life. I became an ex-lawyer. Not right away, but I took a few years of practising three, four, five months a year and writing, just to make sure that it wasn`t just a one-book success.
BiC: Then came High Crimes?
Deverell: Yes, and that was actually based on a trial I did here, involving a lot of crazy Newfoundlanders and 35 tons of marijuana and a satellite-transmitting device. I just finished writing a screenplay for it.
BiC: How did Mecca, your third book, come about?
Deverell: I had for a long time thought I`d try to do a kind of Ludlumesque spy book. I kept seeing covers of his paperbacks saying "six billion copies sold, 10 years on the New York Times best-seller list" and I thought, "This is the way to make one`s entree..." I had a pretty good idea in mind and I probably enjoyed writing that book more than any of the others, but it doesn`t fit the pattern of most of my novels, which are usually lawyer-based or mystery-based more than international thrillers.
BiC: And you`re too funny to be Ludlum, anyway. He`s so serious.
Deverell: Yeah, he`s too serious. I`ve become a little more comfortable with my sense of burnout as I`ve been writing. Needles was fairly serious, too, but there were a few glints of burnout in it. And then High Crimes was much lighter, and Dance of Shiva, which was my fourth novel, was fairly light-hearted, too.
BiC: Was it based on a West Coast crime?
Deverell: No, but it was more based on me and people I knew than any of my other books. Platinum Blues, though, is probably
the most light-hearted of my novels. It`s been a struggle for me; I`ve really wanted to move away from the so-called mystery or thriller genre a bit, but people are warning me not to. Originally, in Platinum Blues, I didn`t have a single body, and I reworked it because I was warned by fellow writers, "You`ve made your name in that field, so you`ve got to leave a body lying around someplace." One of these days I`m going to depart from the genre completely, but on the other hand, I`ve built up a loyal following of fans.
BiC: So you feet responsible to them.
Deverell: Yes, I do. In fact, some of my fans were disappointed in Platinum Blues because it wasn`t more blood-and-gutsy, although I think a whole slew of people who hadn`t read much of mine enjoyed that book because it seemed to move away from the thriller genre.
BiC: What about Mindfield, your most recent
Deverell: This, I guess, is my most political novel; it`s drawn from the ClA`s mind-control experiments, which they ran round the continent but particularly in Montreal in the 1950s and `60s. It actually started off as a film; I was asked to do a film set in Montreal. I did write a screenplay and it didn`t seem as if they were going to produce it, but I fell in love with my own story and decided to turn it into a novel. Then all of a sudden they`re making the movie.
BiC: All your books seem filmable to me.
Deverell: I think there has been a screenplay written for each of my novels except Mecca. I wrote one for each of them, although in the case of Needles, it was pretty bad and had to be redone by three or four other writers. Needles is supposed to be filmed this year in Vancouver, by RKO. I`ve just finished doing a screenplay for Platinum Blues. High Crimes I`ve done; Mindfield already is a movie. I write kind of scenically, I suppose; I visualize as I write. I think a lot of people in this day and age are comfortable reading a book written in that manner, perhaps because it is the electronic age and we`re so used to seeing things on the boob tube.
I don`t write for myself, particularly. I write for an audience. I have a reader in mind as I`m writing, not necessarily a typical reader, but a fan of mine. I like to go to readings and hear in the question period what people like or don`t like about my books. I sometimes move into the reader`s role. As I`m working behind the word processor I`m saying, "Okay, it`s Mary Smith reading this; is she going to get a kick out of this, is she going to find this funny, or believable, is she going to like or dislike this character, does she think I`m totally off the wall with this scene?" I think you have to do this every once in a while. I think it helps my books. It helps make matters clear for the reader. You know, if someone is going to spend $25 for a hardcover book, I don`t feel like cheating them and making things too obscure. I want to
entertain people; I enjoy the feeling that somebody, somewhere, is reading this and getting a kick out of it. But I don`t mind sending them a message or two along the way.
BiC: There are messages in your books. Is that one of the reasons you`re writing them?
Deverell: Yes. I mean, I`m a political person, but I don`t think you hammer people over the head with propaganda, you insinuate it a little bit, in a gentle way. I do like to make people think a little bit about political issues and the courts, the justice system.
BiC: It seemed to me that in Platinum Blues there were advances in technique that you hadn`t used in the other books.
Deverell: Actually, I do a little bit of an experiment with each of my novels. Platinum Blues, for instance, although not a firstperson book, almost is one; it`s written from the point of view of Oliver Gulliver, and in a kind of folksy narrative form that I developed for his voice. Having visualized him, this is how he would talk. I got a real kick out of John Updike`s novel Rabbit is Rich -- it`s by far his best -- where he adopts the voice of Rabbit as a kind of successful car salesman, and that inspired me to do a small-town lawyer, in a somewhat similar fashion. The only book I`ve ever written from a first-person point of view is Dance of Shiva, where Max McArthur has a different kind of voice, a more energetic voice. Needles was written from a multifaceted point of view, as most novels in that genre are; I wasn`t prepared to be too daring with that. High Crimes -- half of it was as if spoken into a tape recorder by Johnny Nighthawk, and then half of it was straightforward narrative. That was my first experiment with a unique or individual voice in writing. Mecca was pretty well straightforward narrative. With Mindfield, I was trying for a sense of more gritty, more realistic, hard, tough dialogue coming from different perspectives in that world. Each of my novels is at least a personal experiment in manner.
BiC: What about the screenplays?
Deverell: I knew nothing about the format when I started, and my first fumbling effort, Needles, was probably not any worldbeater; but I read a lot of good screenplays as I was doing this, including ones written by John Steinbeck and William Goldman.
BiC: And Harold Pinter?
Deverell: I`m amazed that a writer of his accomplishments is writing screenplays; it encourages me to continue doing so. At the same time, it`s very restricting to write for that medium; you don`t have the sense of permanence that you have when you write a book. I learned a lot in the course of the filming of Mindfield about what it takes to write a screenplay, because they involved me in the process right from the beginning, even during auditions. They allowed me to sit with the director and the producer and listen to the various would-be stars trying out for different roles, reading a page or two of my
script. And every once in a while an actor would stumble on a line, and I thought, "Well, this guy can`t act." But then the same line would give the next actor trouble, so you learn that there are certain combinations of words and syllables that you have to be careful with.
BiC: How long does it take you to write a novel?
Deverell: It ranges from maybe eight months to a year and a half.
BiC: At some point, do the books sort of take off on you?
Deverell: My plots will change a bit as I come up with a new idea. Then I`ll have to go back to the beginning of the book to set it up. I have a little calendar with all the dates, making sure that nothing`s out of place. I never start a book willy-nilly without knowing where I`m going; I`ll have a skeleton, at least, and that`ll change, it`s quite organic. I don`t write strictly to my structure, because if I come up with a good idea, to heck with the structure.
BiC: How do you choose your subjects?
Deverell: Dance of Shiva is about the relationship between a lawyer and a client from a different world, and the adversarial thought processes of the lawyer versus the more mystical, eastern thought processes of his client. I was trying to develop how a lawyer can get so involved with his case that he loses sight of the forest for the trees. With Mindfield, I just wanted to tell a punchy, political story, and I was angry, very angry, at the effrontery of the CIA coming into Canada, finding themselves a willing psychiatrist, and running experiments on Canadians that ruined lives. And I just decided I was going to make as harsh and striking a statement about that as possible.
BiC: Have you any advice for writers who are still struggling?
Deverell: Don`t let writer`s block get in your way. I mean, I`m a good example of not having faith in yourself, because for all those years I practised law, I had no faith in myself So the advice is to write -- even if you don`t think you`ve got anything happening, you write and you write and you write.
BiC: What happens when you do that?
Deverell: You write a lot of junk. But then I`ve done that, too. I`ll spend day after day after day just writing junk, but eventually I`ll hit on something in the course of that and it might be the kernel of a story, or a quirk that makes a character interesting. You`ve got to set aside whatever free time you have and do it regularly and be disciplined about it and just write, and not be afraid of failure.