Monday, October 21, 2019

My Interview with Peter de Jonge

Having read several well-written interview pieces in GQ, I would like to say I met novelist and journalist Peter de Jonge at a rooftop bar in Manhattan. I would like to describe the way he sips his beer (dropping the name of a trendy brew), the fit of his crisply tailored trousers and the fashionably random fall of hair over his forehead. But actually, I have no idea what he was wearing when I interviewed him, what his hairstyle was or what he was drinking at the time.

We didn’t meet at a rooftop bar. Next best thing: We “met,” in the social media sense of the word, via messages on Goodreads, where he spotted my review of his second solo novel, Buried on Avenue B, then graciously waited until I had gone back and read its predecessor, Shadows Still Remain. After accepting my honest criticism of his work, he even more graciously let me pelt him with interview questions via a series of emails.

So, for full disclosure, we didn’t have a face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation. After an exchange of Goodreads messages, I emailed him some questions and he emailed me some answers. Nevertheless, I think our exchange opens up an interesting vista on the life of a writer. Any impression, in the story that follows, that we sat down and chatted over cocktails is unintentional, and probably an artifact of my fantasy of doing what Peter de Jonge does.

De Jonge is the author of two “Darlene O’Hara” novels, featuring a hard-living New York City cop who makes Detective First Grade by solving a high-profile murder, and who specializes in doggedly pursuing the truth, going to the mat for the most vulnerable victims, and pushing back against authority including her own department’s chain of command. His other writing credits include articles in Manhattan Inc., Harper’s Bazaar, National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, as well as four novels in which his author credit appears after that of James Patterson: Miracle at Augusta, Beach Road, The Beach House and Miracle on the 17th Green.

I gave Peter the option of skipping over questions he considered boring or impertinent; he took that option in the question I asked him about working with James Patterson. Enquiring minds will have to learn to live with disappointment.

The first I heard from Peter, he had just spotted my review of Buried on Goodreads, in which I quoted a paragraph that I found delightful. “I really appreciate your thoughtful reading of my novel and your enthusiasm for that opening paragraph of the Florida section,” he wrote in the kind of flattery of my critical perceptiveness that really draws me out. “That kind of reaction means a lot,” he said. “The Florida section was the first part of the book I handed in, and because it was late it was crucial that it make a good impression immediately.”

Later, Peter admitted that he probably spent too much time on that paragraph, “but I probably would have done it anyway because, like a lot of writers (I’m guessing here; I have not conducted a survey), I tend to spend a lot more time polishing something that is already OK than addressing the parts that are bad.”

In a later DM, he said, “I think your criticism of the novel is valid and it's something I'm keeping in mind with the book I'm working on now, which has elements of a crime novel.”

That must be a reference to the bit of my review in which I noted that a sense of closure eludes the sleuth in Buried, perhaps due to a lack of the stereotyped crime-thriller ending in which the good guy (or gal) looks the true face of evil in the eye – followed by a cathartic fit of violence. If I was a kiss-ass, I would hasten to say I meant that as a compliment. But with left-handed compliments like that, who needs criticism?

“I don't really think of myself as a crime novelist,” Peter explained, “and have a tendency to shy away from the most dependable satisfactions of the genre. Shadows Still Remain probably does a better job in that regard.”

I asked him to unpack this a bit. In reply, he confessed one of the challenges of his career: an inability to fully embrace whatever he is doing. “In my perverse way of looking at things,” he said, “I’m not so much a professional writer as someone who has proven quite a few times that I’m capable of being one. I’m just trying to make a point that this is something I can do, and having done it, I don’t see a lot of advantage of doing it again and again; and if you’re writing crime novels, publishers don’t have much enthusiasm unless you’re pounding out one a year.”

In college, De Jonge majored in English, writing some short stories for his senior thesis – “none of which prepared me in the slightest way for gainful employment,” he said. He graduated from Princeton University in 1977.

The first piece of writing he sold was a feature on a dart champion who owned a bar in Trenton, N.J. “I just went to his bar and interviewed him and then sold the story,” Peter recalled. “Getting your first writing job can be excruciatingly hard, but you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to go and write a story, and if nothing else, it can help you get that first job.”

He worked a couple of years for a chain of Connecticut weeklies, then a year with the Associated Press, before quitting to look for a job as an advertising copywriter. “The idea,” he said, “was to find a relatively lucrative, cushy job that would enable me to write on the side, and that’s what I did.”

A year or two later, his profile of young, driven director’s rep Stavros Merjos got published in Manhattan Inc. “I spent several months on it and sent it in unsolicited and caused a minor sensation,” he said. “That led to an assignment for The New York Times Magazine and others.”

Any way of writing for a living, he said, is helpful for a novelist – “doing the best you can in a finite amount of time and sending it off.” He noted that magazine stories are more challenging in some ways because, “in addition to being surprising and entertaining and hopefully having something to say, they have to be true – or at least not clearly wrong.”

According to his online biography, de Jonge was working as a copywriter at J. Walter Thompson when Patterson, then an executive at the firm who was just establishing himself as a bestselling author, noticed his articles in the NYTM and NatGeo. “Instead of firing Peter for slacking on the job, he hired Peter to be the first of his many co-authors on the golf novel Miracle on the 17th Green,” the bio went on. After a few more collaborations, he struck out on his own.

I asked Peter whether he parks fiction and journalism in different parts of his headspace. “I don’t make a big distinction between my magazine writing and the fiction,” he said. “In both cases, my goals, pretentious as it sounds, were literary. Given a choice of paucities, I’ve always been more interested in a little glory than a little money. What gets more confusing, he added, is when the choice is between a lot of money and very little glory.”

Also, one of his motives for writing two crime novels was the hope that if they were a hit, there would be interest in a collection of his magazine work.

The biggest crossover between fiction and feature writing is the importance of a strong lead. “I have probably given up on reading more books on the first page than I’ve read – many of them highly praised – but then again, I’m kind of a hater,” he said.

By choosing crime fiction for his first solo flight as a novelist, De Jonge was able to approach the project like a reporter. “Before I had any idea of the story,” he said, “I spent several months hanging out and riding around with detectives in the 7th Precinct in lower Manhattan.”

He happened to know someone who was married to a former detective from that precinct, who offered to take Peter in and make introductions. In the process, De Jonge discovered an amusing fact: “There is such an entrenched fictional crime industry that all of these detectives had already spent time with a writer at one point or another. It was kind of embarrassing, and may be one of the reasons I don’t want to think of myself as a crime novelist.”

The starting point for the character development of Darlene O’Hara was an actual NYPD homicide detective. “One thing I was doing, when I was researching the book and hanging out with detectives, was looking for a hero or heroine,” said de Jonge, “and I eventually stumbled upon her.”

By her, he means NYPD Homicide Detective Donna Torres, according to that online bio. “Like Darlene, she had a son when she was a teenager and still managed to end her career as a first-grade homicide detective,” Peter explained. “That indicated just how smart and ambitious she was, while also revealing latent self-destructive tendencies, and I worked with both of those elements.”

Darlene’s colorful, rough-and-tumble background and her issues with authority at times make her a great sleuth, but they come at a cost. Peter commented, “Deep down, Darlene O’Hara knows that she is lucky as hell to have stumbled into one of the few vocations in America where the lack of a college education is not a deal breaker. Darlene is an extremely smart and hardworking detective, and she earned her spot among her overwhelmingly male colleagues. On the other hand, being white and Irish didn’t hurt, and like a lot of New York cops, she would not be quick to concede that point.”

As readers get to know Darlene during the two books, de Jonge said, her distinctive voice emerges naturally from conversations with other characters. “Writing dialogue can almost be fun,” he said, “because it really isn’t planned. One character says something, another responds; and unlike the rest of the book, I have no idea where it might lead.”

I asked Peter about his living situation as compared to Darlene. I’ll admit, it’s a weird question to put to a male author regarding a female character, but he answered it anyway. “I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but when I came to New York after college, I lived in the East Village and it is still the neighborhood I am most attached to, and where I hang out on the rare occasions that I hang out. Unlike Darlene, I’m not much of a drinker, but I’ve been to all the bars she frequents and, for research purposes, I went to Milano’s one morning when it opened.”

Darlene has one adult son. Peter has two. “Like Darlene,” he said, “I have experienced the carefree pleasure of watching them sleep.”

Both crime novels have autobiographical touches, he admitted. “To a large degree, Darlene has been saddled with my personality and issues, etc. My current project is [more] overtly autobiographical.”

He didn’t want to say more than this about the book he’s working on now, except that readers should be able to look for it “hopefully quite soon.” As of now, he said, “there are no O’Hara stories in the pipeline,” but if “there was a groundswell of demand, I would probably write another. Once you have the characters, it can go on indefinitely, and by now the characters are very real to me and hopefully to readers.”

Darlene’s cop partner in the first book, who also helps her in the second, is a guy named Krekorian who, at least on, shares billing with her in the title of the “O’Hara & Krekorian” series. De Jonge said this is a misnomer, as Krekorian is a secondary character. “Nevertheless,” he added, “I have a great deal of fondness for Krekorian, who is not based on a cop, but an Armenian American friend who died in a plane crash.”

Peter said writing a crime novel is about managing the sequence of revelations. “The intelligent path, which I followed in the first book, is to start at the end and work backwards,” he said. “The much harder road, which I went down in the second, is to come up with an intriguing start and then try to figure out someplace for it to go.” As a result, he considers Shadows “a cleaner, tighter piece of entertainment” but believes that Buried is “hopefully … richer.”

“Writing is hard for me,” he said. “But it’s also a source of pride and satisfaction. From an early age, this is what I’ve wanted to do, and I’m very grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to do it and make my living at it.

“Some of that is really due to luck,” he added in what I would like to describe as a moment of O’Hara-like moodiness. But alas, the distance across the imaginary cocktail table between us was too wide for me to read his face.

PHOTO CREDIT: Peter de Jonge, a selfie shot while on assignment in Moscow(!)

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