|Welcome to New Faces, where we introduce some of the newest authors on the mystery scene. This week we're pleased to welcome Nathan Walpow, whose book The Cactus Club Killings is a Dell
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in 1948 in Brooklyn, NY, and grew up in the borough of Queens.
Went to high school and college in Manhattan, getting a degree in chemical
engineering from a small college called Cooper Union. I lived in upstate New
York for four years, ditched engineering, and, using the excuse of a woman
I barely knew, moved to Oklahoma. Lived there for six years; in '79,
moved to Los Angeles, I city I'd known I was destined to end up in the first
time I visited it.
While in Oklahoma I'd been dabbling in acting, and a year
or two after reaching L.A., right after picking up a masters degree in
communications management - whatever that was - from USC, I decided to
pursue an acting career. I spent most of the eighties cursing agents who
couldn't get me auditions. I did manage to get a part on Moonlighting,
though I was cut from the episode. I ended up with one line on prime-time
TV, on a show called Sledge Hammer!: "What's the point? Between you and me,
you don't have a snowball's chance in hell." For this gem I still receive a
couple of bucks in residuals each year.
The biggest event in my pre-writing days was my Jeopardy! appearance. (I
seemed to have a knack for getting on shows with exclamation points in their
titles.) I was, as they loved to phrase it, a five-times-undefeated
though I bombed in the Tournament of Champions. In '91 I went on another
quiz show called The Challengers, where I won seven games, the most ever in
the show's (albeit short) history.
In the last week of the 1980s I met the woman who was to become my wife.
Her name's Andrea Cohen and she's a high-school history teacher. Also, the
best thing that ever happened to me. (Selling a couple of books is the
second-best.) We got married December 26, 1993, and recently bought a
house. No kids, no plans for them; three cats, dogs on the horizon. The rest
of my family's still back east; basically just my sister and her brood, and
Are you coming to mystery writing from another job?
I started working in computers when I moved to Oklahoma in '73. Worked in
mainframes for ten years, decided I hated it; when I quit to pursue acting I
swore I'd never work in computers again. Then I ended up in a job where I
accidentally got involved in microcomputers. Decided I liked it, and have
been involved in PCs in one way or another ever since.
Currently I do
computer support at a bank, setting up and troubleshooting systems for
several hundred users. It's the best job I've ever had, especially in terms
of support for my artistic endeavors; the head of the computer department is
my biggest supporter, and they're having a publication party for me at the
corporate headquarters. I find writing and working in computers exercises
both halves of my brain, and designing and maintaining my website draws on
What led you to write mysteries?
I'm not a longtime mystery fan. Other than a year or two when I read a lot
of Ellery Queen (sparked by the wonderful TV show with Jim Hutton), I'd only
read mysteries here and there. I'd always been a science fiction reader,
though in the '80s and '90s I found less and less new stuff that I liked and
kept rereading my books from the so-called Golden Age. I began writing in
'92, when, more or less on a whim, I took a beginner's short story class at
It was not my intention that the stories I produced be
speculative in nature, but after I'd written a half-dozen or so I realized
they were all science fiction or fantasy. I sold seven or eight to various
small press publications; when I sold the first I started on my first
(unpublished) novel, a science-fantasy in which aliens in spaceships the
size of a grain of rice enlist a woman in a quest to Baja California to
recover an artifact they need to survive. It wasn't science-fictiony enough
for the SF crowd, and two weird for the mainstream folks. (Someday I'm
going to rework it as a young adult novel.) Then I worked for two years on
a mainstream comic novel, which I never even finished the first draft of.
So my writing career was kind of drifting when my friend Bill Relling, who
writes the Jack Donne series, was the instructor in that first UCLA class,
and ran a writing group I was in for a couple of years, suggested I try a
mystery. I protested, saying I didn't know anything about them, and that
mysteries needed good plotting and I didn't know how to plot. Bill - who
knew I'd just steamed through the complete works of Raymond Chandler -
insisted I knew more about writing mysteries than I thought I did. So I
decided to try one. I read a lot of them to kind of figure out the market,
and now they're about all the fiction I read.
Tell us about your road to publication.
I started The Cactus Club Killings in April 1997. I set myself a goal of
finishing it by the end of October, in order to be able to push it at
Bouchercon if I happened to stumble across any agents or editors. I managed
to meet the goal. The only people who saw any of the book before it was done
were my wife and Bill Relling. Bill gave me some notes that made it a
stronger book. I didn't meet anyone at Bouchercon (naive Nathan didn't know
that really wasn't what Bcon was about), so I started the submit-to-agents
routine, a process that with the first book netted me nothing but seventy or
I'd gotten as far as one
when something prompted me to go to the San Diego State Writers'
Conference. They have read-and-critique sessions with agents and editors. I
chose two from their list, at semi-random. The first told me all the things
that were wrong with the seven-page sample I submitted, then said she'd like
see the whole manuscript when I had a final draft. I didn't tell her what
seen was the final draft. I was quivering when I had my second appointment,
as we'd all been told the agent was a tough sell. But she loved the sample,
and asked for the rest, which she also thought was great. She sent it along
to her mother, who handles mysteries for the agency, and she joined the
bandwagon. About a month later the manuscript went out to the first batch of
editors. A week later we had an offer, and a week after that I had a
two-book deal with Dell.
What kind of research was involved for your first book?
I've been collecting cacti and other succulent plants for over twenty years,
so when I started my first mystery, and I realized series characters with
interesting jobs or avocations were doing well, I decided to make my hero
Joe Portugal a succulent collector too. (I also made him an actor, albeit a
reluctant one, to give him his days off so he could wander around
detecting.) It just made sense to keep the first book in the succulent area,
so I made the victim and some of the suspects enthusiasts as well. So I
really had to do very little research. The only thing I wasn't up on was cop
stuff, and Paul Bishop, who's a police officer as well as a mystery author,
helped me out with that.
On the other hand, the second book, Death of an Orchid Lover, involved scads
of research, since I knew next to nothing about orchids. I joined both the
American Orchid Society and a local club, made the rounds of orchid shows,
bought some books, visited a couple of collectors. It took a month or two
before I felt I had enough to get started, though I kept learning as I went
along. Of course, all this hanging out with orchids got me hooked - though
not nearly to the extent am to cacti and their friends - and I now have a
couple of dozen orchid plants.
Who are your influences as a writer?
Strangely enough - since my hero is an amateur sleuth - most of my faves
write about private eyes. And for me, everything starts with Raymond
Chandler. Besides the fact that I love the way he writes, he was
instrumental in putting Los Angeles on the crime fiction map. Since my books
are set in L.A. - and always will be, I suspect - I always feel he's looking
over my shoulder as I write. I try not to be consciously influenced by
anyone, but every once in a while something pops up on my screen and I say,
"Hey, Chandler would have liked that."
My other favorite among past writers is Fredric Brown. I've been a fan of
his from way back, since I was a kid, because he wrote science fiction as
well as mystery. I started reading his mysteries just a year or two before I
moved over to writing my own. (Maybe, subconsciously, that was a factor in
the changeover.) Brown wrote with humor, but he could scare the pants off
you as well. He's probably best-known as being the master of the short-short
Among modern writers, I have to start with Lawrence Block. My wife had been
after me for years to read his stuff, particularly the Matt Scudder books.
Finally one day I did, and I was hooked. I ate up the Scudders in two
months - and I'm a very slow reader - and the Bernie Rhodenbarrs in another
few weeks. I like the way we've seen Scudder age, and how he's managed to
get his life more or less in order.
I also like Dennis Lehane's work very much. It's more violent than my usual
taste, but he's such a good writer that it doesn't bother me. Also, the
buddy?/lover? relationship between Patrick and Angie in his books is kind of
the hard-boiled equivalent of the one I've been building with Joe Portugal
and his best friend Gina Vela.
Then there's Harlan Coben. The Myron Bolitar books are so funny and so
well-written. And I'm sure there are many others waiting for me to discover
them. One problem with being a writer is that I don't get as much time to
read as I'd like to.
What does your family think of having a mystery author in their
My wife Andrea has been there with me every step of the way. She's always
backed me up, and egged me on when I got discouraged. I remember the day I
sold my first short story, standing in the kitchen, opening the envelope,
thinking it was another rejection, discovering it wasn't, and the two of us
were jumping up and down all over the place. She has a big extended family
of aunts, uncles, and cousins who are always asking me questions about the
publishing process. My sister thinks the whole thing's pretty cool.
Tell us about plans for future books.
The second Joe Portugal book, Death of an Orchid Lover, will be out in early
2000, most likely in March. That ends my current contract, but of course I'd
love to continue on with Dell. I'll be starting the third book shortly.
It'll be a bit of a departure from the others, in that, rather than
concentrating on a particular family or group of plants, I'm placing the
action at the Los Angeles Flower Market. I'm very leery of getting into a
pattern of, the cactus book, the orchid book, the rose book, the begonia
book; while I want to continue the botanical thread, I want to make all the
Joe books as different as I can.
After a few more books I'd like to start another series, this one featuring
a private eye. I recently came up with a very appealing idea regarding
setting, but the whole concept's so unformed at this point that I don't want
to say any more.
How can readers get in touch with you?
While I think the Internet is, in many ways, I giant time-waster, I do
appreciate the way it's allowed people to easily find and communicate with
each other. I've had e-mail correspondence with dozens of people through my
participation in DorothyL and the Sisters in Crime Internet chapter. And I'd
like to continue to do so. My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org (a vanity
address, as one person put it). I've also put a lot of time into a website,
where folks can find, among other things, the first chapter of The Cactus
Club Killings and photos of many of the plants mentioned in it, as well as
all my published short stories. Everyone is invited to drop in at
Readers, check out our review of The Cactus Club Killings.
May 18, 1999