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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

The Interview -- Part I

What has gotten easier and what has gotten harder over the years of your writing career?
The short answer: Writing that first draft.

The reason the first draft got easier is Natalie Goldberg in Taos, where I went for help in mid-career, after I had published a couple of Matt Murdock PI books, because I had a bad case of writer’s block—and she initiated me into writing practice, writing under the clock, no crossing out, going deep. Spend it all, Natalie said. Don’t hold back.

I was frozen, I was dead, my career was zip. I’d left a full-time teaching position. My wife was on the verge of being an Ex. I had met Margot, we were good. I’d stopped teaching tennis, more time to write.

And I remember that first day at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, New Mexico, waiting for Natalie. I had read her book, Writing Down the Bones, but I had not tried writing practice. The New Mexico connection was perfect. My Mom, Miss Lillian, was 30 miles away, at the family cabin in Eagle Nest, an easy drive through Taos Canyon. I was stalled out on writing, and Natalie was not famous yet, and then she walked in.

She did not say good morning. She did not smile. She laid out the rules for Writing Practice. Keep the hand moving. Don’t cross out. Go deep. She gave us a startline: “I remember….” Then she said go, write for five minutes.

Emotions burbled up, my writing hand trembled. I felt a cramp lurking. But that first day, writing for a puny five-minutes, showed me the way out of writer’s block—the solution was writing practice.

That first class with Natalie met in the Rainbow Room, directly under Tony Luhan’s bedroom. Our class had 19 women and 6 men. From the first reading, the women took charge. They wrote better, they read with fierce emotion, charging the room with electricity. I was out-classed, I was cowed, this was not working. Maybe I should split, rush back to Mom. On Thursday morning, I was roused from sleep by the ghost of Tony Luhan—Hey you, he said, roll over and write—and I wrote ten minutes using the startline “I Am Not a Woman,” and when I read it to the group, I saw smiles, nods, approval, and women came up asking if I’d like to meet a sister, a friend, someone to connect with.

All week, Natalie had looked through me and said, “I’ve forgotten your name.” That morning, after the reading of “I Am Not a Woman,” Natalie knew who I was. She did not become a friend until later. That next summer, I went back to Taos to write with Natalie. I brought my writing students, I urged Jack to go. When he came back, he typed up his notes on Natalie—it would make a book—and that segues to the next interview question: 

You and Jack Remick have worked together for a very long time. What makes your collaboration work so well?
The short answer: Balance.

Jack has a big brain. He knows math, I do not. He gets angry fast, while I simmer. He acts before I can make a move. He did his Ph.D. work in comparative literature—his dissertation was on Fernando Arrabal, a Spaniard living in France, whose characters are prostitutes, murderers, and torturers. I did my dissertation on the novels of Frank Norris, a late 19th century Naturalist, who used an Octopus to represent the power of American railroads in the early 20th century.

Jack cut his poetic teeth on the Beats—Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. I spent 6 weeks reading Moby-Dick, neglecting my other grad-work, until I figured out (helped by a scholarly essay) that the structure of this great book was built on the 9 ships of the Pequod—marking a trail of increasing destruction as the Pequod got closer to the Great White Whale. Jack found his rhythm in books like Kerouac’s On the Road, which I never finished—I could not name the villain. I found my literary heartbeat in Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren. I found my villains in detective fiction.

We met because my wife Margot knew Jack’s wife Helen. They worked as powerhouse executives at the UW.

One day they were talking about their husbands—Margot said her husband was a lazy bum who worked at home in bathrobe and pajamas and called himself a writer. Helen said that her husband was a lazy bum who worked at home in khakis and an old plaid shirt and called himself a writer.

We met on the phone. Jack sent me a manuscript. He called it a mystery but it was really a philosophical treatment on the nature of existence. We arranged a meeting. On his first trip to my house for a meeting of male writer-minds, Jack got in an accident—not his fault—when his car was rammed by a driver who hated writers, totaling Jack’s beloved VW.

Then I took Jack to writing practice—this was before I knew about Arrabal and the bearded Beats—we wrote in a smoke-filled coffee shop on Capitol Hill and I remember being impressed when Jack read his work. It wasn’t just the topics—gun-running in South America, hitch-hiking outside Yuma, AZ, with the mercury at 114, singing Handel in the choir at Christmas—but Jack’s words sang.

When we taught, we focused not on the subject, not on our vast combined data-bank, but who was in the room. Our main teaching tool was timed writing. We built a big syllabus, packed with charts, lists, key concepts like Aristotle’s Incline, Core Story, and archetype. We had a time-table, no stopping to answer questions, no breaking of the spell cast by writing and reading aloud—a writer must attend to the words of other writers. At the end of a long Saturday, 3:55 PM, the writers would write for 5 minutes, and when they read their voices rang out like children singing in a cathedral.

Jack loves breaking through. He reads evolutionary biology (the street-name is Evo-Bio) because he’s looking for scientific evidence to support his belief—that humans are born with a story-gene.

When we took Natalie’s timed-writing to Centrum, it was like the Jack and Bob show had pitched tents in Port Townsend. We took it to Surrey, the 4-day writing conference in Canada, and gathered more converts. We used timed-writing when we taught fiction, screen-writing, memoir. We used timed-writing in a 2-week workshop in story development at the UW, and the response was so positive that our boss asked for a three-term course. A lot of our stuff on the blog (bobandjackswritingblog.com) came from teaching with writing practice—if you do the work, timed writing takes you deep,

The discoveries we made together—intruder and closed circle, core story, Act Three is the template for Act One—generated numerous book ideas that we have not had time to write. When the teaching was done (Jack could not hear, I got too old), we knew it was time to bear down, to focus on fiction. Jack, speedy as usual, brought out a book a year. His publisher, Camel/Coffeetown Press, unearthed my Murdock back list—which gave me the energy for a new Murdock, which segues to the next question:

What allows your Murdock private eye to sustain over so many books? What keeps his well from going dry?
The short answer is: Other characters besides Murdock.

I created Murdock in the shadow of Travis McGee, John D. MacDonald’s “salvage consultant” protagonist who stars in the popular paperback mystery books with a color in the title—A Deadly Shade ofGold, The Turquoise Lament, etc.—set in touristy Florida, lots of killing and tracking and dalliance with beach babes.

McGee lives on a houseboat. He drives a pickup converted from a Rolls-Royce. He takes fifty per cent of what he salvages. His books are all first person—like Chandler and Robert B. Parker—and McGee does not age. So I used First Person in the first five Murdock books.

First Person is chummy. The reader sees the sleuth as a friend, maybe even a close friend. First Person is very Jane Eyre, with the same problem Bronte had in 1847: with a single POV, you get tone, but it’s harder to create dramatic irony, the key to suspense.

So for the Murdock books, I focused on secrets in the other characters: a nasty Killer dies, good riddance. A Victim with a dark past dies, that starts the book. A Witness dies before she can give evidence, the sleuth digs elsewhere. A Love-Interest with movie-star potential offers herself to Murdock—it’s a trap, she turns into a Femme Fatale. I developed Cops who made the reader laugh, Witnesses who morphed into Suspects, the Old Friend from the Past who’s mixed up with the Mob.

But Murdock did not change. If he got shot, he healed fast. If he fell in love, he got over it in the next book. He was the Eye of Private Eye. In another kind of book, your main character could change by growing up, that’s a Coming of Age story. Or your character could get rich by marrying a prince, that’s a Rags to Riches-Cinderella tale. Or your character can unseat a king and take his place—that’s King Replacement.

But the core story for Murdock is always Revenge Quest. The sleuth acts for Society—punishment delivered in the name of the Omniscient They, what Society wants, what Society deems proper—but if you forget what you’re doing, and if you kill off your sleuth—bowing to statistics, ballistics, and the tyranny of Realism—there goes your series.

My favorite Killer-character is still Philo Waddell, from Bloody Murdock. He’s an import-export drug dealer who staged blood-spattering cock-fights in his basement arena, while Mob Guys from Vegas hustled his party guests. Philo’s back story includes snuff films, he’s nasty and super-confident, but when he goes after Murdock’s lady, this dude is dead. And Society is pleased, now back to shopping, TV, visits to the shrink, and golf.

When Murdock got published, I was a newbie in the writing game. I knew how to write, but not how to write fiction. I got support from local booksellers and the local newspapers. I was the local writer. I felt wanted, and the First Person allowed me to wax poetical.

A reviewer from the NYT said my style was “exhilarating”—music to my needy ears. I didn’t know it at the time, but the First Person POV crunched the story into a strait-jacket—the mind of the narrator—leaving only these four tools to create character depth:

1. The interview—the sleuth does a Q and A with the character.
2. The back story monologue—the character digs up childhood trauma.
3. The physical evidence—old sepia photos, diaries, letters, home movies.
4. The confession—the character confesses, a TV staple.

After publishing five Murdocks, the publisher dropped the series. I switched to non-fiction—three books in the Weekend Novelist series (including The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery, with Jack, see below), and then Jack’s publisher brought out my back-list, and that gave me the momentum to write Murdock number six, where I shifted to Third Person, which allowed me to get inside the heads of the other characters.

In Murdock Tackles Taos, for example, the POV shifts from Murdock to Helene Steinbeck, his new lady-friend, and then to the killer, Theo Ulster, a British expat whose fictional grand-daddy is Hannibal Lecter.

The shifting POV gave life to Helene Steinbeck, Murdock’s best sidekick. Like her detective dad, Helene was a cop in New York City. She’s smart, funny, good-looking, and she shoots to kill. She gives Murdock the balance he lacked in First Person. I didn’t know it when I started the Taos book, but Helene Steinbeck marks my departure from writing in the shadow of John D. MacDonald.

In the seventh book, Murdock Rocks Sedona, I created a private equity billionaire who lived in a penthouse atop a hotel called Sedona Landing. His name is Axel Ackerman. He’s seventy-eight, selfish, snappish, over-confident because he buys people. He buys Helene first, $5,000 a day for bodyguard work. Then he buys Murdock. Ackerman’s old friends are dying. The killer’s working up the hit-list. To find motive, Murdock and Helene dig up Ackerman’s back story. As the back story emerges, Ackerman blossoms into a major character. And the main point here is still about POV, where the Murdock books started 20 years ago: with Third Person, you have a better chance at creating memorable characters, who help create suspense. Just like the movies, with quick cuts.


There is a piece of the Jack-and-Bob story missing here: After the NYC publisher dumped Murdock, I toiled over The Weekend Novelist, hoping to seize the magic key to novel-writing. The success of The Weekend Novelist prompted unknown agents to suggest sequels—my non-fiction how-to book was selling better than my fiction—so Jack and I whipped up a book proposal called The Weekend Novelist Writes the 90-Minute Short story. And the publisher wrote back: How about The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery—and that leads to the next question:

Check back on July 15th to read Part II of the Interview


  1. Anxious to see part 2 of this interview. You have a way of getting the writer to talk in a new voice, Elena. Congratulations.

  2. Wonderful interview. I learned more about Bob and Jack by reading this. Look forward to reading part 2.

  3. Truly enjoyed learning the backstory of Bob and Jack's sublime collaboration. Great interview.