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BookThink's Author Profiles

Chasing the Bookman Angle

by Pamela Palmer

#34, 3 January 2005

An Interview with John Dunning

Before he was an award-winning novelist, John Dunning was a bookman. And before that his career path ranged from investigative reporter, writing teacher and Pat Schroeder's first press aide to working with horse trainers - going all the way back to the time he earned a GED after dropping out of school in the tenth grade. Now he can see how his recently diagnosed ADD shaped some decisions and influences his writing process. But to those who value books, his experiences meld seamlessly to make a writer who understands booksellers, book values, and the adventures a man finds by doing the next logical thing.

When his first Cliff Janeway mystery Booked To Die (1992) was a big success and won the Nero Wolf Award, Dunning's focus shifted from bookselling to writing. Its successor The Bookman's Wake was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and finalist for the Edgar Award and Gold Dagger Award. The third title in the series, The Bookman's Promise, appeared to critical praise in 2004. In March 2005, The Sign of the Book will be published. On the non-fiction side, he is the author of two reference works on old-time radio, Tune in Yesterday (1976) and On The Air (1998).

BookThink talked with him recently about bookselling, writing, and how the two work together in his mysteries.

BookThink: Does the focus on detail in your non-fiction carry over the plots of the Cliff Janeway Bookman novels?

Dunning: In fiction, I'm going for a feeling rather than an actual factual account. In fact, I often get in trouble with plots because I don't plan them. Instead I get the character in my head and just start. Sometimes I know where I'm going but not always. I'm a firm believer in the subconscious doing the job. On a good day, I wake out of a dream and don't remember the dream - but it comes to life on the page. On bad days, well ... . When I write into a corner, I go back to where I last felt the heat. Then the plot can take a different turn from what was expected.

You could divide my career into two parts. For my first five books, I followed a plot. Then after a ten-year layoff, I wrote Booked To Die. From that point I haven't written plots in advance. Now the characters dictates what happens and he does pretty much what I would do.

Janeway takes the next logical step and then we see what happens. It's a risky way to write because I can have reams that don't really work. Then I have to punt. A lot of writers can't write like that. They have to work from a plot.

BookThink: When Janeway is intrigued by a mystery, he leaves his bookselling business and sets out to find answers. Is he still a good bookman?

When Janeway takes off after something that matters, he's sure about what he's doing. In The Sign of the Book, Erin asks him to go to a little town. He doesn't really want to go but he wants to help her because she's important to him. Of course, out there he finds a mystery and his own interest is piqued.

Janeway has the good instincts that I think you have to have. He hasn't been in the business long; I don't want him to grow old too fast. He's been a collector for a long time, knows first editions and how to tell them, and knows what they are worth. I think he's a pretty good bookman. He's sure taken less time to get there than I did.

BookThink: How did you learn to be a bookseller?

Before I knew as much as Janeway, I spent seven or eight years as a bookseller on the street where he has his store. Every day you come face to face with your own ignorance. After about five years, I got to the point where if someone said the name of a publisher, say Random House, I'd know they state first editions with a row of numbers starting with 2 but that there are exceptions. For Appleton Century Crofts, the numbers are on the back of the book but there are exceptions to that too.

I learned by using BPI (Bookman's Price Index) and ABPC (American Book Prices Current). This was a more tedious way to learn before the Internet. Now you just turn on the computer and learn what people think a book is worth. The problem with the Internet is there are a lot of flaky people who don't know their keister from a badminton pole.

I learned by using BPI (Bookman's Price Index) and ABPC (American Book Prices Current). This was a more tedious way to learn before the Internet. Now you just turn on the computer and learn what people think a book is worth. The problem with the Internet is there are a lot of flaky people who don't know their keister from a badminton pole.

There are a lot of shady people today who will price books way out of sight. This is great for detective fiction not so great in reality. Sometimes their errors are caused by ignorance and sometimes it's darker than that. If they say it's a first edition and when it arrives, you find it isn't, you have a hell of a time getting your money back. I don't do much buying on the Internet. I used to like buying in the store when I had it. I've had people drive up to the front door with a truck of books.

"You want to buy some books?" one man asked. "I have a truckload of these Franklin Library books."

"Don't think so," I replied.

"I don't know what's the matter with these people," he said. "I mention Franklin Library in bookstore and they are turned off. But they are all signed - Catch 22 by Heller, there's Walker Percy signed, Robert Penn Warren."

That's when what had been lukewarm interest became very active interest. "Wait a minute, let's go out and look at them," I said.

BookThink: Are you still heavily involved in bookselling?

Not now. I stay in the ABA. When my wife and I got out of the store, we sold our stock to a man opening a new store there. But I kept the mysteries. A few times a month, I go out and look. Occasionally I find something. My wife deals with the business part of it. It really isn't the fun it used to be.

BookThink: When you plan a new book, what comes first - the bookselling angle or the plot in general?

The former; the bookseller's info comes to my mind first. It becomes a matter of chasing the bookman angle. In the one I'm writing now, it's difficult to see what these books have to do with the story. This makes for some long nights with this sinking feeling it won't work. My books have always worked because I've been willing to go back to the beginning and start over when there was a problem. That when I find what makes it comes to life.

BookThink: I've heard you use a manual typewriter for your writing. That must make revision difficult.

Until two years ago, I used a manual typewriter. I'd pick up a vast sheaf of paper and rewrite the book. When you start rewriting, the story changes. It twists and goes on in a different direction. I'm not telling people this is the way to write. Sometimes it bores me. Sometimes I have deep despair when I know it's going to bore the reader and start writing again for the eighth time. Then I find I'm writing a different story and it's working. I've done this many times. I deep down know I'll find a way to make it work. Since Booked To Die, I haven't abandoned a story. Once I discovered Janeway and had him as a character, I found it was find it was ok to assume things will work out.

When my typewriter broke, I couldn't find anyone to fix it. Editors were asking if this guy didn't know it's the 20th century. I used to mount fierce arguments with friends in favor of typewriters. Writing on a computer is not the same. With a typewriter I can bend over my pile of manuscript and pick up the last twenty pages. That's when the changes come about. The typewriter is a right brain machine and writing is a right brain activity. With fiction, you can't take ten pages and retype them and come out with the same story. It's endless discovery. Computer advocates don't know what it is to retype repeatedly and suddenly this character comes floating up.

BookThink: In The Sign of the Book, Janeway says, "In a few years much of the romance would disappear from the book trade forever." Is that your view?

I don't know if it's inevitable that the book business will lose romance. My wife tells me, "You make it sound like doomsday." Today all the emphasis is on money, not just can I get what it's worth. A lot of people are selling books that are not what they claim. Yet they ask for obscene amounts of money.

BookThink: Janeway goes to a book fair and sees a book repeatedly change dealers' hands, going from $600 to over $6000 quickly. Did that really happen?

A friend told me that story about a year and a half ago. Right then I knew that I was going to use it in a book. That's the stuff that makes you want to go out there and look.

BookThink: As a bookseller and writer, how do you see your own books as collectibles? What trends do you see?

I see what everybody else sees. They've gone crazy since Booked To Die came out. I don't know if this short-term trend will survive. Generally a writer's book prices go nuts for a while, then cool off. Sometimes a writer only has to write one bad book and that mystique is gone. But The Bookman's Wake [written after Booked To Die] caused mixed feeling - some love it and others hate it. I think it was not a disgrace. Then I got great reviews on the next book, Bookman's Promise. But I know there's no use trying to plot trends.

Look, I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I'm flattered when someone wrote me recently that special copy of Booked To Die sold for $1500. This was the copy owned by the woman who helped me run my bookstore, so it's an association copy. I wrote two-page silly inscription to her. She was there when I was trying to get my books written. She would come in, open the store, and be there when I needed her.

BookThink: When you finish writing a book, do you give it a final editing to tie up any loose ends?

My wife Helen is a great sport. I don't know what I'd do without her. We've been together thirty-five years. In the past two to three years she has become a superb editor. I have rather severe Attention Deficit Disorder, and she knows I'm likely to slip up on some things, so she goes through the manuscript again and again.

I'll see her standing on the doorstep saying Uh --. And I say, "Don't come in here with that." She'll say, "I don't think you meant to say this." Then I'll start to argue with her. I argued with her about raising the kids, and I argue with her writing my books. She's got an opinion and an attitude; I value that. I don't like it when she's dumping grief all over my head but I couldn't do it without her. She doesn't write the books but she has a big role in them. I never go back and re-read my stuff. She does.

For BookThink's review of The Sign of the Book and brief market analysis of Dunning's books, click here.

For more about John Dunning, his writing, and Old Algonquin Books, see his Web site.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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