Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Lee Lamothe

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lee lamothe

Lee Lamothe is the author of Picasso Blues (Dundurn), which is a dystopian-tinged crime novel about a series of racially motivated murders in a city that is under the threat of a viral pandemic. This is Lee's fourth novel. He has also written a number of non-fiction crime oriented books, and has worked as an investigative reporter.

Open Book talks with Lee about the value of reading wiretap transcripts, cats asleep atop of cardboard boxes and maybe the single best piece of advice that you, yes you dear reader, will ever receive about being creative.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Picasso's Blues.

Lee Lamothe:

Picasso Blues is the ongoing romance between Ray Tate and Djuna Brown, two cops in a mid-Western city. They’re doing cop stuff; it doesn’t matter to them what case they’re working on. It matters that they’re together. I chose an American city — the fictitious “Murder City” — for the series because my agent said he was told that no one in Canada wanted to read about Toronto and no one in the US wanted to read about Canada. I was indifferent about it: cops are cops everywhere in the world; crooks are crooks everywhere in the world; politicians and lawyers are bottom-feeders everywhere in the world. The first Tate/Brown book, Free Form Jazz, originally took place in Toronto and northern Ontario. It didn’t sell. But the moment I made it American, presto!, it went, and to a Canadian publisher.

The Tate/Brown series is a love story in spite of the often gruesome events occurring around the characters. All they want to do is build up their pensions, move to Paris and be creative and have lots of food and wine and sex. Just like everybody else.


Did you know from the beginning you wanted to write multiple books featuring Ray Tate and Djuna Brown? How did the characters emerge for you, in the beginning?


No. The first book, Free Form Jazz, was a one-off. The original Tate book — and this goes back almost ten years – was a massive 300,000 word behemoth involving the hunt for a Russian criminal. Ray Tate was then called Harry Tate; there was no Djuna Brown. Needless to say, the size of that book was a problem. So I carved out a non-Tate/Brown book called The Last Thief and it had no cops in it at all. It sold, primarily because it was weird and had a lot of creative violence and was international, in that it took place in Russia, China, Burma, Thailand, Africa, New York and then Toronto. It died a quiet death, although I have to say — and the three folks who read it agree — it was the best thing I’ve written and I’ll never write a book that good again. So, after carving out Thief, I still had the cops left and they were doing a lot of cool stuff. So I gave them their own book, and that was Free Form Jazz, and then Picasso Blues, and now the one I’m working on, The Presto Variations. Variations is a remake of a Toronto/Vancouver-based book called Life After Zero Avenue; it didn’t sell as Canadian so I reworked it as an American book and stirred Ray Tate and Djuna Brown in there. They’re still trying to get out of Murder City and to Paris and they’ll try until the series ends. I love those dreamy kids.


In what ways do Tate and Brown's differences strengthen them as a team? Or are their differences a liability?


People are people. Ray Tate could be Chinese, Djuna Brown could be a Macedonian little person. They could both be overweight street cops. It’s all about the human heart. The human heart beats the same no matter the chest cavity in which it operates. Ray Tate doesn’t see Djuna Brown as black; Djuna Brown doesn’t see Ray Tate as white. They’re blue cops and they’re doing their job, they’re trying to build a relationship, pursuing their dreams. Both were dealt the low cards, but they’re playing them out. They’re good people in a shitty place. They just want to survive and to have a life together. No different than anyone else. If it wasn’t for the gunfire and bodies dropping, they could be clerks at Canadian Tire, trying to snatch some romance time in aisle 38.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


I read very few crime writers — I confess I’ve only read one crime book in the past year and that’s because I had the flu and was bed-ridden. But I do owe a debt to a lot of reporters I’ve worked with, to the cops who have written continuation reports on major investigations, some crooks and, probably most useful, were wiretap transcripts, documents I collect wherever I travel. Even on vacation I’ll drop into a courthouse and find a good case and order the transcripts to find the criminal voice. This is a holdover from being a newspaper reporter and writing true crime books, mostly about the Mafia. I now read almost exclusively non-fiction about art, surrealism, photography, ballet, food, fishing, travel and wine. But there are a lot of poets and even more painters, collagists, photographers and other artists whose work sends me to writer’s dreamland. I find I take what I need from my own life. I have very little imagination. I just have a life that I live; my life informs my writing.


Describe your ideal writing environment.


At the desk in my office in downtown Toronto, very late night, the terrace doors open in all weather. My wife is asleep down the hall, the cats are snoring on various cardboard boxes around the room. A bottle of wine, emptying at about a glass per thousand words which is a good healthy balance; Philip Glass in the background. Moderation in everything except Philip Glass.


What are you working on now?


The third book in the Tate/Brown series, The Presto Variations, is about to be signed. And I have several writing projects, stuff I’ll probably self-publish in tiny quantities for friends or as free ebooks, now that ebookery is sweeping away the timid gatekeepers, those “small men” of publishing who are essentially civil servants whose salary is laundered through grants. This could be a great time for new writers who believe in their words, and a long-awaited nasty time for publishers who only believe in the numbers and are content to follow whatever European trend is popular. I predict some very good and very innovative writing is on the way from people who until recently have been shut out. The new writer won’t require the small men to bless what they write, to bestow competence or approval. You know, when I asked the artist Tony Calzetta if he thought a photograph I’d taken was any good, he said, “What do you care what I think? Did you get the photograph you wanted to get?” I said, “Yes.” He smiled, “Then what are you worried about?” Apply that to your writing and you’re off to the races.

Lee Lamothe is the author of several non-fiction books, including the bestsellers The Sixth Family: The Collapse of the New York Mafia and Bloodlines: The Rise and Fall of Mafia's Royal Family. His previous crime novel was The Last Thief. A journalist known for his investigations into the seamy underworld of organized crime, he travels widely in Asia and Europe from his base in Toronto.

For more information about Picasso Blues please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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