Write what you love to read: The advice, oft touted, sounds simple enough. But few embody this approach as successfully as Robert Crais, whose slickly plotted, tough-talking, wisecracking crime novels continue to prove worthy of comparison to the hard-boiled classics he cut his teeth on—while showcasing a style that still manages to be his own.
An Emmy Award–nominated writer for “Hill Street Blues,” “Cagney & Lacey” and “Miami Vice,” in the mid-’80s Crais traded in his lucrative TV credits for his dream of having a spot on bookshelves. He put his own team on the case, and Los Angeles private eye Elvis Cole and his partner, Joe Pike, have been collecting fans since their introduction in The Monkey’s Raincoat, which won the 1988 Anthony and Macavity awards and was nominated for an Edgar. They’ve starred in 16 of Crais’ 20 novels to date, making their author a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master. His latest, The Promise, new in paperback earlier this year, pairs Pike and Cole with the stars of his 2013 bestseller Suspect, LAPD cop Scott James and his K-9 partner. A 17th in the series is slated for early 2017.
How his writing has evolved along the way—and what we can all learn from it—is, like many things in the writing life, best described by the author. The feature-length Robert Crais Interview in the November/December 2016 Writer’s Digest is a rich read for writers of all stripes. In these special bonus outtakes, he talks more about what drives the best writing, and where he might go from here.
Is there anything in particular that you’d like to try but haven’t attempted yet?
I toy with the notion of writing plays. I may do that one day, simply because I like the notion of a singular set, and working with actors, and creating theater that’s three-dimensional and has light and sound and is alive in the moment. But I have no hard plans for that
When I started writing, before I left Louisiana and went to Los Angeles, my notion of being a writer really was that I just wanted to tell stories. I wanted to write everything—short stories, which I was writing at the time, novels, and TV, and movies, and comic books—I want to tell stories. There are so many crazy notions bumping around in my head, and these are my enthusiasms. This is what I want to do with my life: I want to tell stories and write. I still feel that way today.
There’s something about the novel that is most appealing to me, and I find it enormously satisfying and fulfilling. But still, there’s this desire to work in other forms, always in the back in my head, just a couple notions I’ve been playing with on and off, and maybe I’ll do it.
Until then, I have all these notions for novels that I want to do that I don’t have enough time [to do]. I love Elvis and Joe; I’ve written so many Elvis and Joe novels because I like spending time with them. If Elvis and Joe were real, they would be the people I would want to hang out with. They would probably not want to hang out with me [laughs] … but I’d love to be on Elvis’s deck, grilling steaks and drinking beer and watching the hawks fly out in the canyon. That’s why I do this.
What do you see unfolding for your career from here?
Prior to Suspect I had published an Elvis Cole / Joe Pike novel called Taken, and it was my most successful book to date at this time. It debuted at No. 1 at The New York Times list, and everyone was thrilled—publisher’s thrilled, agent’s thrilled.
Because they’re all right-thinking people, when they called to tell me the good news, they ask, “Hey, what’s the next Elvis book going to be about?” Because that makes sense, right? If you had a No. 1 bestselling novel, you’d follow it up?
I said, “Well, the next book’s not going to be about Elvis, it’s going to be about a dog.”
They thought I was crazy. “Why would you … a dog?” But I had stumbled onto these two characters, Maggie the German Shepherd and her handler—completely inadvertently and they came to me—and I said, “I have to write this.” So, I wrote it.
So when you say, “What do you see unfolding for your career,” I think, I like the way it has unfolded. I hope it continues to unfold exactly in that way—meaning I’m going to write about the things I care about and am passionate about, and hope to discover new characters who compel me and motivate me, and I’m going to go wherever they take me.
To read the full WD Interview with Robert Crais, download the November/December 2016 Writer’s Digest now or find it at your favorite library or newsstand.