an interview with Julia Buckley
Bill Cameron is a mystery writer whose debut novel, Lost Dog, received accolades from readers and critics alike. He is also one of the writers in the Lee Child-edited Killer Year Anthology. I asked him to chat about his writing, his nature-watching, and his life in general.
Hi, Bill! It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was hanging out with you at the Madison Bouchercon. How did it get to be 2008?
Through the awful onslaught of inexorable time. Oh, the bitter cruelty the universe casts upon us! But, boy, Madison was sure fun, wasn’t it? We gotta do that again some time!
Okay. This is a very cool photo of you, and solidifies my image of you as a Thoreau-like individual. But is that a giant gun on your shoulder? Or are you a National Geographic photographer? Those are the only two choices.
Okay, seriously, it’s my tripod and spotting scope. In that pic I have been caught in the act of attempting to find birds to watch, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult, owing to the fact that I am a giant, noisy, lumbering oaf. Still, I enjoy going out to the woods or getting down to the river bottoms in the early morning and seeing who’s hanging out.
I’d like to pretend like I am a skillful and knowledgeable birder. Sadly, this is a typical conversation between me and my wife Jill while out on the peek:
Jill: Honey, what kind of bird is that?
Me (leafing frantically through the Sibley’s Guide): Um, er, eh . . . it’s, um, brown.
Jill: You’re holding the book upside down.
Still, that picture makes me look like I know my business, doesn’t it? Please don’t tell anyone of the tragic reality.
Well, you've been outed now, because millions of people read this blog. :)
Your book, LOST DOG, came out last year. Has it been fun promoting it?
It has, though at times it’s been tough as well. I enjoy getting out and meeting readers, but because I’m probably more introverted than extroverted, I can usually only handle a little bit at a time.
I’m so much of a fan that even when I do meet readers, inevitably the conversation ranges to any number of books in addition to my own. I love to talk about books I’ve read and to make and receive recommendations. I’ve had appearances where I think I’ve sold more books by other people than by me.
This means you are humble, and that makes you loveable, like Underdog.
What’s the most excitement you ever experienced at a book signing?
The first time someone who wasn’t already a friend or family member came out specifically to see me was both thrilling and really humbling. The hope for any writer is surely to produce work that gets read, but so much of the publication process involves rejection that once you finally get something in print, it can almost be hard to believe anyone actually wants to read it. So when it turns out someone actually does, well, it’s just an incredible feeling.
I love the title of your book. It applies, naturally, to your character, Peter McKrall, and to a lost toy dog in the novel. But do you ever see yourself as a bit of a lost dog? In an existential sense?
Interesting question. The simple answer is yes, though it’s not really that simple. Certainly I draw on my own views and experiences in my writing, but I don’t want to imply the events of Lost Dog are in any way autobiographical. That said, one of the things that drives my work is an attempt to wrestle with my own demons. The pages of my stories become a place to come to grips with the world around me, with the things that trouble me, with the things I find important. So while the events of Lost Dog aren’t directly reflective of me or my own life, the themes are reflective of what I consider crucial.
LOST DOG is a finalist for the Rocky Award, and your short story in the much-lauded KILLER YEAR anthology was called “an irony-filled gem” by the Chicago TRIBUNE. Has the fame gone to your head? :)
Yes. I am insufferable. My wife makes me sleep on the back stoop, I’m so bad. But if I behave for a couple of days running, she lets me back in the house and gives me access to the coffee maker again.
What are you writing now?
I’m currently at work on my third novel, tentatively titled Blood Trail. I completed Chasing Smoke, the follow up to Lost Dog, last year—-my agent currently has it out on submission.
Though the three books are essentially standalones, they are each part of the same milieu and feature recurring characters. Skin Kadash, one of the detectives from Lost Dog, is the main character in Chasing Smoke. Ruby Jane also returns, along with a number of other folks, though Peter does not. In Blood Trail, the primary focus is on two new characters, a young car thief and a woman fleeing her abusive husband, though Skin is also a significant point-of-view character again.
These books are not a series per se, but I do think of them as a kind of thematic triptych. Lost Dog is about confronting loss, Chasing Smoke about acknowledging mortality, and Blood Trail about renewal. I admit the whole renewal thing could tarnish my modest noir cred, but Blood Trail is shaping up to be fairly harrowing.
Because these books don’t comprise a true series, it won’t really matter which order they’re read, or even if all are read, though I try to reward readers who start with Lost Dog and then go to the others in turn. All that said, I still don’t know what will happen in terms of publication of either of the new novels, but hopefully I’ll have good news soon.
In addition to my work on the novels, I’ve written a number of short stories during the last few months, something I hadn’t done for years before the opportunity to write a story for the Killer Year anthology came along. I’ve discovered a new love of the short form, and found myself producing a hardboiled, contemporary version of Rumpelstiltskin, a melancholy short short about puppy love, and a gritty revenge tale. So far, I don’t know what will happen with any of them, but they’re all out on submission to various publications.
Well, as you know, I'm a LOST DOG fan, and I'll be eager to read the next two. And now that you have used the word "triptych," I have even more respect for you. :)
You are, it would seem, the rugged and outdoorsy type. Are you ever called the Hemingway of Portland?
I’ve been called that guy who never gets out of the comfy chair at the coffee shop, and my wife calls me Silly Billy. Somehow I have a hard time picturing anyone referring to Hemingway as Silly Ernie.
Speaking of Portland, you do a lovely job of describing this city in your mystery. Have you received accolades about your gift for creating setting?
Accolades? Goodness gracious!
It has been very gratifying to hear from people who were struck by the sense of place in Lost Dog. I think of setting as almost another character, so I try to treat it as seriously and infuse with the same depth and richness as I would with the people in my stories. Of course, in Lost Dog, the particular Portland I show is colored by the perceptions of the characters through whom it’s seen. Peter’s outlook might suggest a drearier Portland than I actually see myself. In Chasing Smoke, Skin sees Portland rather differently. Both views are, I think, true to life, but both are necessarily incomplete, limited as they are to what the characters in question see.
Would you ever live somewhere other than Portland?
I love Portland, and have no plans to leave. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t respond to the right opportunity if one came along. I love so many places. If money were no object, I’d probably keep apartments in New York and Paris (for fall and spring, respectively) and a nice beach house somewhere warm. But since reality insists on imposing its demands on life, I’m quite content with my little house here in Portland. It’s a great city, just big enough to offer a rich diversity of experience but not so big that I feel lost in it.
While it’s still cold, I’ll ask this: what are your summer plans?
Real plans, or imaginary? My real plans are to do a little gardening, do a little biking, and mostly just stick to earning a living and writing. With the family I hope to get away once or twice for a little camping or beach time, but we don’t have big summer plans.
Now, in my imaginary life, I’d like to bike with my wife across Europe, stay in lovely B&Bs every night, and then maybe settle down for a month or two on some Greek island. And then take the yacht across the Mediterranean to a few choice spots on the North African coast. Just, you know, fart around—live the life of the idle rich. Except I probably wouldn’t fit in so well with the yachting crowd, owing to my wretched propensity for projectile seasickness.
Still, it sounds awesome, as do the apartments in New York and Paris.
What books are currently on your bedside table?
I just finished Marcus Sakey’s new book, At the City’s Edge. Marvelous. Next for me is David Corbett’s Blood of Paradise. I also just picked up The Guilty by Jason Pinter, and that might be my airplane book for the flight to Denver for Left Coast Crime. I’ve also been snacking my way through Expletive Deleted, the anthology edited by Jen Jordan, which has been delightful. Sadly, there is never enough time to read as much as I would like.
Are there any indelible lessons you’ve learned now that you are a published author?
Whatever you think you know, you don’t. Whatever you think you’ve learned, it’s already obsolete. Last month is old and last year is ancient. But the future is at least two years away.
That is very Zen-like. What words of encouragement would you share with those who are still trying to publish their mysteries?
Don’t give up. You’ll hear that from many published writers, but I don’t think it can be said enough. And yet, I know it’s not always easy. I have struggled to follow that advice myself, despite my adamant belief in it. When the rejections start to pile up (and they do for every writer), it can be so tempting to give up. During the last year, I’ve questioned my own decision to write over and over again.
But in the end, what else can we do but keep writing? We can’t control the marketplace, or the decisions of editors and publishers, but we can continue to put words on the page. And if there’s one thing that’s certain in this business, books can’t be published unless they’ve been written.
So keep writing. If acceptance seems slow in coming, look for satisfaction in the process itself. As frustrating as the effort to get published can be, in the end, I believe writers write because they must. Let that be your focus. The market will find you when the time is right.
That was so profound, Bill! I'm going to frame it on my office wall.
How can readers find out more about you, your books, and your future endeavors?
I used to be a well-behaved blogger, but between the day job and writing, plus all the rest of life, I found that the time required to regularly post was too precious. I don’t forgo blogging completely, but my main info source right now is my website. When I do blog, it’s typically my monthly contribution to InkSpot.
The time may come when I revive my regular blog, but for now I use it only for announcements.
Thanks for chatting with me on PDD, Bill! I'll be looking for news of the new books.