Interview with Nick Dorsey, author of Bleeding Levee Blues
The Indie Crime Scene is pleased to interview Nick Dorsey, author of Bleeding Levee Blues. This interview was conducted by Dennis Chekalov.
- When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a kid I wrote and drew comic books with some friends, stapled pages together, that sort of thing. That was maybe age 7-8. I wrote short stories and bad poetry throughout high school and into college. At about 24 or 25 I realized not only did I want to be a writer, I actually could be a writer. I met a few authors, a few screenwriters. Weird people, sure, but not aliens. Just weird people, or totally normal people, even, working hard on something they love. I could do that.
- What are the most important lessons you learned while studying the writing craft?
First, do the character work. Know your character. What do they want? What do they need? Are those two things different? Is there tension or conflict there? What drives them. There’s a Japanese term, Ikigai, a “reason for living,” what’s the character’s ikigai?
Beyond that, work your story out ahead of time. Story is connected to character, it’s a set of choices and actions a character makes based on their wants and needs. So have a strong outline. Then, of course, have the confidence to stray from that outline when your character starts doing things on their own.
- Tell us please about your work as an indie film screenwriter.
I can be a bit more honest if I don’t give names here, if that’s alright. I wrote several scripts for thrillers and horror movies shot in the south, these were not classy Sundance movies. These were high concept films that would be sold mostly in China and South America, very low-budget stuff with C & D list actors who needed a quick paycheck. I would write a treatment, then a first draft. All this happened pretty quickly. I was young, and inexperienced, and frankly, not very good. And then it would be off to the races. They’d shoot that. It was madness. Plot holes you could drive trucks through. Then my job would be triage. Fix all the big problems caused by shooting the first draft of something, which is impossible. These were not good movies, but I learned about rewriting, working with other people-an important skill- and how it feels to fail, and fail big. Friends and family saw those movies. That was rough. My buddies still give me a hard time about some of those movies, some of the bad dialogue I wrote. Finally, I learned how to say “no” to projects. That last bit is pretty important, too.
Your story has its own interesting story; what was your book’s path to publication?
I started thinking about the story right after Hurricane Katrina, when I was driving through the city with a few friends. Trash stacked up against buildings, mold everywhere, everything stank. Bleeding Levee was fleshed out as a screenplay for one of the aforementioned indie movies, but the production companies thought it was too expensive. After that, I began the long and arduous process of turning the script into a novel. And then the book sat in a drawer for years. Life goes on, you know? A few years ago I met some folks who were into indie publishing, and I decided to give it a shot. I had sent the book out to one agent who asked to take a look, but it wasn't for him. Indie publishing became this interesting experiment for me. I had an idea for the cover-make it look a little waterlogged, something salvaged from the flood, and my friend who's a designer did awesome work. I found an editor and got some marketing tips, and before I knew it the book was out there in the world.
- If you could choose, what actors would play the main roles (any actors from any time)?
Alright, I think this is sort of limiting for readers. They should picture whoever they want. And none of these actors is going to do a good New Orleans accent, probably… But at this moment, for fun… Tom Connelly, maybe a young James Caan... Lesley, Natalie Zea... Dennis, some young actor from the city…. Rick, Lance Reddick... Hanks, Forest Whitaker... Sarah, Angela Bassett… that’s good for now.
- Your main character, Tom Connelly, who is he?
Tom is a man overcome with guilt and the mistakes he's made over the years. It's become such a big part of his life that he doesn't have time for any healthy relationships. When we meet him he's an alcoholic. The main case he works in Bleeding Levee Blues is a chance for Tom to redeem himself, recast himself as a hero, to go from disgraced cop to some sort of a savior.
- Why did you choose the theme of Hurricane Katrina?
I lived in Louisiana during and after the hurricane, and I spent time in New Orleans rebuilding houses. I was born in the city and it's an important place to me. It's beautiful and charming but it certainly has its flaws. The Hurricane exposed those flaws- crime, wealth inequality, a failing justice system, rampant corruption - for the whole country to see. The city had hit rock bottom in my mind, just like Tom. His flaws are exposed, now he can fold, or he can try to build himself into something better. Tom's backstory was very loosely based on a real-life case in New Orleans, a horrific police shooting that happened on the Danziger Bridge during the hurricane.
One last point here - I wanted to weave the trauma of living through something like Hurricane Katrina into the story on an elemental level. Tom has nightmares about the bridge, but also about rain, flooding, drowning. These hauntings are very real. The hurricane itself is a huge symbol of past trauma for Tom.
- How did you research and prepare for your book?
I drive around New Orleans, really. I have friends in law enforcement and in the Public Defender's office, so I buy them a beer or lunch and ask them questions. I do some wool-gathering before I start writing, online research, look through old newspapers, that sort of thing. But I do just enough to get a general idea of my subject matter. If I need details, that's when I buy lunches.
- What will your next book be about?
In the next Tom Connelly Story, I'd like to deal with two communities: The Public Defender's Office and the Mob. Tom grew a bit in Bleeding Levee, but he's still got a bit of a hero complex. I'm looking forward to working on that again.
In the meantime, I’m working on a novel called The Jupiter Man, about a reformed petty criminal and his struggle to lead a normal life in a world of superpowered heroes and villains. That should be out in late February 2018.
- Talking about your favorite authors, you have said, “I grew up reading Kurt Vonnegut and Elmore Leonard, Robert Heinlein and Newton Thornburg.” Now you are writing thrillers like Leonard and Thornburg; do you plan to write sci fi as well, like Vonnegut and Heinlein?
Sure. I'm leaning more towards speculative fiction than sci-fi right now, though. And honestly, I don't think I'm going to write Heinlein-level sci-fi. I never really had a head for engineering or math in general. When you read some of Heinlein it feels like he's working out how to build a warp drive right there on the page. I always appreciate the humor that Leonard and Vonnegut infused in their work, I'm going to try and capture that in my next non-Tom Connelly novel, The Jupiter Man. It will deal with a world of superheroes, but from a street-level perspective. Vonnegut also brought a great humanity to all his very strange characters. His characters had heart, even when they were doing something silly or terrible or crazy. I left out comic books when I was talking about my favorite authors, but Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore were right up there. Still are.
So I'd like to write more superhero or fantastical stuff, and some horror, too. I have some ideas for hard sci-fi but nothing has congealed just yet.
- Do authors have ethical responsibilities beyond the book?
Everybody has ethical responsibilities, right? With regards to the books themselves, authors should write whatever they want. Depectition of an event, or a type of character- say, a sociopath, I'm thinking Dan Gilroy's great movie, Nightcrawler- is not an endorsement of that event or character. I think some stories are the author's answers to a question "How should I live my life?" but it's not an answer simply given, it's not black and white. There's complexity, irony and satire involved. More often, though. good books are just posing interesting questions rather than answering them. Aside from books they write, authors have the same level of responsibility we all have. Here's a good Vonnegut quote: "God damn it, you've got to be kind.”
- What, in your opinion, is the place of literature in the modern world?
Like I said above, pose interesting questions. Depict interesting characters or events. Give us a little distance from reality so that we can see the truth in that reality reflected, right? On the other hand, we all need entertainment... This question is pretty tough, right? Because there's not a cut and dried answer. Something I've been thinking about recently is this: In a world with so much good television & film, literature is a place where the reader and author can share a mind space. Watching a movie, you're sucked into another world- but it's one created by a director, a writer, a camera and lighting department, a sound crew, so on. They are putting on a show, you're watching.
With a great book, the author is coming half way to the reader with prose and character and story, but there are shades that the reader adds on their own. The reader fills in the story and makes it complete. The Hobbit I saw in my mind as a kid was different from every other version every other kid saw when they read Tolkien's book. It was just me and Tolkien. I think that's a special thing.
About Nick Dorsey:
I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. After a stint at Louisiana State University, I moved all over the country and I worked odd jobs. These included, but are not limited to: barista, copywriter, house painter, bicycle assemblyman at Toys R Us, carpenter’s assistant rebuilding houses damaged during Hurricane Katrina, writing instructor, indie film screenwriter, and salesman at an art gallery. You know those little beads that make up braille words set into plastic signs in office buildings? For a while, I was the guy who stuck those beads into the plastic. Yeah. They still don’t have robots for that. I grew up reading Kurt Vonnegut and Elmore Leonard, Robert Heinlein and Newton Thornburg. I live in New Orleans with too many dogs. Bleeding Levee Blues is my first novel.