Sunday, October 22, 2000

Writer's break is no mystery

Jonathan Valin's not done with Harry Stoner, he's getting older, wiser, recharged

        This morning's mystery isn't a whodunnit, it's a whereishe? As in Harry Stoner.

        Hard-boiled private eye Stoner, the creation of Cincinnati writer Jonathan Valin, has been MIA for 4 1/2 years — a long silence for a character who popped up in 11 novels over a 14-year period.

        “I'm always surprised and flattered when I hear that someone was asking about him. I do miss him. But I needed a change,” Mr. Valin says, digging back in his memory and puffing on a Kool (“smokers, we're the new underclass”).

        Go ahead. Now, where's Harry?

        “I had a feeling back after I finished Missing (1996),that I was starting to repeat myself, that I wasn't bringing anything new to Harry. All writers write from a mass of experience, and I wasn't experiencing anything sitting in front of a computer night and day, day in and day out . . .

        “So, I left Harry with a decent shot at happiness. I had toyed with killing him, but instead I found him a woman and had him thinking about marriage. Then I went on to something else.”

[photo] Writer Jonathan Valin in the office of his Clifton home.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
        That something else was helping found Fi, as in Hi-Fi, a magazine of music criticism. “My notion was to put all types of music — classical, jazz, rock — under one tent,” he says. “We were close to making it work. It was a wonderful magazine but we ran out of money.”

        But, and here's bad news for Harry, Mr. Valin found something he liked about working on Fi: Paychecks.

        “With novels, it was twice — once when I signed the contract and once when I delivered the book. That's a tough way to live. Now, I'm getting paid regularly and I like it.”

        It also makes life easier in the Clifton home the 52-year-old writer shares with wife, Kathy (“30 years — none of our friends who got married when we did are still married”). There's also Topper, a large white Samoyed, and a bank of computer equipment that lets him work from home.

        Today, he's editing and writing reviews for a pair of Austin-based magazines that are published on alternate months: Perfect Vision (888-475-5991 for info), which covers film, and Absolute Sound 888-732-1625 for info), which covers music.

        “Movies, books, records and Kathy have always been my whole life. That makes this job perfect, although it's time consuming.”

        At first, he worked 12 hours a day, “making calls, writing or sitting at my DVD. It's a little less now, so maybe I can think about fiction again.”

        Like Stoner? “I owe my publishers a novel and I'm sure they're wondering where it is. I started one four years ago, but it's not even close. I don't like to talk about it because, like all writers, I hate to talk about works in progress.

        “You know why that is? If I talk, I'll talk myself out of writing it. The more you talk about it, the more you see its imperfections.”

        Is that where Harry is? In a 4-year-old unfinished manuscript?

        “I've always wanted to try something without Stoner, because I never have, and I want to see what it's like. The novel we're talking about here is a non-Stoner.”

        Still, Stoner is on his mind. “I used to pretend he was an invention, but I realize he's a lot like me. He's a loner and so am I. Neither of us is particularly social. We both love the city, but it's a love/hate thing.”

        “If he comes back, and I really think he will, so maybe I should say when he comes back, maybe in a year or two, he'll be older, wiser and still the knight errant. But I've changed and so has he.”

        There. Harry will rise again, which brings up a question or five . . .

        The easiest thing about setting a novel in Cincinnati . . .

        It's not that I know the geography, though that makes it easier. It's the feeling of being a Cincinnatian. And it's that conservative/liberal mix: There's a Puritanical sense of morality combined with a remarkable heart here. It's amazing to me that a city so conservative has this depth of feeling.

        The hardest thing about setting a novel in Cincinnati . . .

        Is the things I don't like, and in many ways, those are also the things I do like. That moral conservatism bothers me. I feel people should be left alone to do what's right for them as long as they don't hurt anyone. But there are an awful lot of people who want to control their behavior. It's hard for me to say that because I love the city, and that's not very complimentary.

        Life without Harry . . .

        The last four years have been different, but profitable. And not just in a financial way . . . in a recharge-your-batteries way.

        What attracted me to crime fiction . . .

Is a mystery to me. My father was a psychologist and my mother a teacher. No crime there. But my father died when I was 6, so I never had one I knew — it was mystery built into my life, trying to know something that was a blank.

        When I do another Stoner, it will probably be about . . .

        Might be hate crimes. I don't understand them — the evil and the darkness — or what drives people to do what they do. I'm not even sure there's a satisfactory answer.


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