Interview with The Twenty-Year Death Author Ariel S. Winter

winter20yeardeathbookNext week on August 7th 2012, Titan Books will be releasing Ariel S. Winter’s debut crime noir novel “The Twenty-Year Death.”  Our Retrenders staff had a chance to interview Mr. Winter and talk a little about the book, his influences, and more:


RTNDR:  How did you come up with the idea to start The Twenty-Year Death? What inspired you to write not just one story but three complete novels written in the style of three different iconic mystery writers?

Ariel: I originally set out to write a different book. It was going to have a frame narrative, and within that frame would have been full novels of various genres. So it was in that context that I wrote Malniveau Prison in the style of Georges Simenon. When I decided to jettison the original idea but keep Malniveau Prison and expand it into what became The Twenty-Year Death, it only made sense to continue with other pastiche/homages. The character that I was going to follow from book to book was an American writer living in France in the 1930s, and so many of the writers who did that in real life, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, ended up writing for Hollywood at some point. And Hollywood led naturally to Raymond Chandler in the 1940s. So with ten years between the first two books I figured there should be another ten years between book two and book three, and the list of choices of master crime writers from the 1950s was basically Jim Thompson and Patricia Highsmith. At the time, I’d read more Thompson and his style fit better for the subject of the book.

RTNDR:  I’m not spoiling anything here for our readers, but in the first story – “Malniveau Prison,” I really enjoyed the chemistry and interaction between the Chief Inspector Pelleter from the big city and the small town Chief of Police Letreau.  In the second part –  there’s the persevering and steadfast private investigator Dennis Foster – how did you come about creating these characters? And were there specific novels or stories that helped shape them?

Ariel: Pelleter is very much a stand-in for Chief Inspector Maigret in the Simenon books, and Foster is a stand-in for Marlowe in Chandler. There are minor differences, of course, but for the most part the characters come from the source material. The Simenon book that was most influential on Malniveau is The Yellow Dog, another story of Maigret visiting a small town, which he actually does in quite a number of the books. Otherwise, it was each author’s whole oeuvre that underlay my own work. The trick was finding characters that each of these authors could have written, even though they didn’t.

RTNDR:  Story 1 – “Malniveau Prison” takes place in 1931; “The Falling Star” was next and it takes place in 1941; and finally Story 3 – “Police at the Funeral” happens in 1951 –  how long did it take to research the look and feel of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s?

Ariel: My goal was for each of the novels to read as though they were written in that time. So unlike historical novels, whose purpose is to recreate and explain a specific time in history, I didn’t want to explain anything that a reader in the ’30s, ’40s, or 50s would take for granted. It’s the same way that we don’t need an author writing about today to tell us what a cell phone is when a character uses one. As a result, I didn’t have to do much research beyond Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson. I knew the characters would be driving manual cars, and that Chandler was always careful to write “automatic elevator” instead of just “elevator,” but otherwise I would sometimes spot check things as I was writing, but that was all.

RTNDR:  What is your process for writing or developing an idea and putting it to paper?  Do you just open up the word processor and write away?

Ariel: The short answer is, yes. It’s hard to describe the process before actually sitting down to write since it’s not exactly a process. I often start with an image, in the case of Malniveau a dead body in the gutter in the pouring rain, and a style or tone, and then I let it come as I write. When working on a rough draft, with an ideal schedule, I write for a few hours in the morning, then I try to not think about it for the rest of the day until after dinner when I begin to think about what I’m going to write in the morning. Again, it’s usually just an image or a few lines of dialogue, something that I can use to get started. In rewrites I take more notes, writing out timelines and chapter breaks and characters, and lots of questions I need to answer, and then I refer to those as I go through the next draft.

RTNDR:  How does it feel having very positive reviews and praise for your first novel from peers such as Stephen King and Peter Straub? Who are your major writing influences?

Ariel: Stephen King has been an inspiration since elementary school, and his book On Writing made a strong impression on me, so my dream had always been that I would one day send him my first book with a note of thanks, and then I could tell myself he might read it. To know that he did read it, and that he loved it, is unreal. It’s like a dream come better than true. And then after King’s quote, which was the first one we received, to have James Frey, John Banville, Peter Straub, Alice Sebold, and many others give blurbs was unbelievable. For the longest time, when I would read the quotes, I would think, they can’t be talking about me.

As for influences, outside of the obvious Simenon, Chandler, and Thompson, I’d say Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, along with the regular classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner.

RTNDR:  Many of our fans at Retrenders are the creative type and some are budding writers and artists  – what advice, if any, can you give to future aspiring writers?

A: It’s hard not to give a pat answer to this. I’m inclined to repeat a message one of my professors said many times, which is, if you can do anything else, do that. Writing is a miserable profession. But I think what’s probably better advice is, don’t give up. A friend and fellow novelist says, everyday that he writes is a day someone else gives up. If you never give up, the field keeps shrinking around you. It’s an encouraging thought when you feel like you can’t go on anymore.

RTNDR:  You also have a children’s picture book coming out – One of a Kind (Aladdin) – so we were wondering is it more difficult to write a crime novel or a children’s book?

A: They are so different, and the challenges they pose are so different, that it’s really hard to compare. The novel takes a lot more time and agony, so it feels more difficult, but in the actual composition, the work is the same. The hardest part of working on a picture book is that you rely on someone else to make up half the work, namely the illustrator, so it can be very difficult to realize the book you want to realize and that is very frustrating. So in terms of the final product, the children’s book was much more agonizing and difficult than the novel, even though the novel required much, much more work.


Retrenders would like to thank Ariel S. Winter for taking time-out to do this interview and would also like to thank Tom Green @ Titan Books.

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