First of all, thank you Paul for inviting me to write about my upcoming novel.
Zero Avenue is a crime novel set to the cranking beat and amphetamine buzz of Vancouver’s early punk scene. The story follows Frankie del Rey who aspires to launch her music career and raise enough money to cut a demo record and take her band Waves of Nausea on the road. To make ends meet she mules drugs for a powerful dealer named Marty Sayles. Things are going well when she gets in a relationship with Johnny Falco, owner of a struggling club on the Downtown Eastside. That is, until Johnny decides to raid one of Marty Sayles’ pot fields. When he gets away with it, Frankie’s bass player finds out about it and figures that was easy enough and rips off another one of Marty Sayles’ fields. When he goes missing, Johnnie and Frankie try to find out what happened. Meanwhile Marty Sayles comes looking for who ripped him off the first time — a trail that leads straight to Johnny and Frankie.
I’m in the habit of listening to music while I write, playing what goes with what I’m working on. So, to get into this one I got my hands on as much of the early Vancouver punk sound as I could find: D.O.A, the Subhumans, Pointed Sticks, the Dishrags, Payolas, Braineaters, Young Canadians, the Modernettes, the Reactors. I added some Toronto bands from the era like the Viletones, the Demics, the Diodes, the Cardboard Brains, the Mods, and the Ugly; and Teenage Head and the Forgotten Rebels from Hamilton. And I rounded it out with bands from the U.S. like the Ramones and the Stooges. And there were the Clash and the Sex Pistols from the U.K., and lots more.
I wasn’t living in Vancouver during early those punk days, so listening to the music and talking to people who remembered the times helped to get the vibe right. And there are some great books on the subject that filled in a lot of the details: Guilty of Everything by John Armstrong, Perfect Youth by Sam Sutherland, I, Shithead and Talk-Action=Zero, both by Joe Keithley helped relive those times. And there was Bloodied but Unbowed, an awesome documentary by Susanne Tabata. It’s jam-packed with clips, music and tales from that first wave of Vancouver’s punk scene.
What drew me to using the punk scene as the setting was its edge and the us-against-them outlook, how that indie shake-it-up attitude threw a middle finger to the status quo. It made such a sharp contrast to what many considered a sleepy backwater town at the time. So, there was this natural tension that made the perfect setting for a crime novel. Also, I knew people growing up who were like some of the ones in the book, right down to a couple of guys who went to rob a pot field and had rock salt shot at them. And the late seventies were also a time before Google Earth, Google Maps and satellite imagery, back when pot fields were a lot easier to hide.
Visualizing the chapters like movie scenes as I write is how everything comes together in my head. And I tend to keep the chapters short and descriptions sparse, giving just enough detail for the reader to imagine what’s there so the pace can keep moving. For this novel, I started with a single scene where the male protagonist Johnny Falco goes to rip off a pot field. By the time I finished that scene, I had the idea for the next one, and so on. Then I came up with the female lead Frankie del Rey and the opening chapters just grew from there.
Ideas kept coming and the first draft took shape, giving me something that was better than anything I could have come up with if I sat down and outlined the whole story beforehand. Once I completed the draft, I went back and took out anything that wasn’t working, added in some new bits on the second pass — a real ‘seat of the pants’ approach, but it worked well for this story.
This is the first novel where I tried writing a female lead character, and at first I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but once I got going I had fun writing Frankie’s lines.
To get any character right, the dialog has to sound unique and natural, like the words just flowed out. And as the characters developed, I kept my own principles and values out of it and just let them speak and be themselves. When it felt like I was just typing their words, then I knew I had it right. Generally, I like to let dialog do the heavy lifting. I love the scheming and the characters’ exchange of words, particularly when they say one thing and mean another, which sometimes reveals more about them than their actual words. And no matter how wrong or devious, I love when they show that sense of righteousness, that ‘they had it coming’ attitude.
Levity and the tension in any crime story create an interesting balance. While there’s nothing funny in the crimes themselves, sometimes it’s the characters’ cleverness or the lack of it, and sometimes it’s their desperation that leads to moments of dark humor. And I think there’s plenty of it in this story.
After Zero Avenue comes Poughkeepsie Shuffle which will be released in 2018. The story takes place in Toronto in the mid-eighties and centers on Jeff Nichols, a guy just released from the infamous Don Jail. He lands himself a job at a used-car lot and finds himself mixed up in a smuggling ring bringing guns in from Upstate New York. Jeff’s a guy who’s willing to break a few rules on the road to riches, living by the motto ‘why let the mistakes of the past get in the way of a good score in the future.’
Thanks again, Paul.