Your first two novels are set in places such as Panama and Egypt. Why set THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE in Oklahoma City?
For one thing, The Long and Faraway Gone is a different kind of book. I wanted it to be entertaining, but it's also deeper and darker, about memory and the past and coming home. Oklahoma City is where I'm from, and where (after many years away) I live now, so I have an emotional connection with it that I don't have with anywhere else.
And I loved the idea of using Oklahoma City as a setting because it's such fresh fictional territory – there's aren't that many novels set in Oklahoma City. And, more importantly, it's RICH fictional territory. Oklahoma City is a complex and quirky and beautiful place, with a colorful history and a lot more diversity, in a lot more ways, than most people realize (best Vietnamese food in the United States, for example!). And since the bombing twenty years ago, the city has really changed in rapid and fascinating ways.
Were the mysteries in THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE inspired by real crimes?
Yes. In 1978, six employees of a family steakhouse in Oklahoma City – four of them teenagers – were murdered during a robbery. That really shook the city up, and it shook me up too. I was thirteen years old at the time and working across town at an ice cream and burger place. I remember thinking about how terrified those kids must have been. I guess I never stopped imagining what they must have been thinking that night they died, and what their lives had been like before that.
A few years later, I was working at a movie theater when two teenage girls disappeared from the State Fair of Oklahoma. It turned out the mother of one of the girls sometimes worked at my theater, checking box-office numbers for the studio. I didn't know her, but I remember watching her from across the lobby and trying to imagine what she must have been going through.
What do the titles of your first two novels mean? Both titles – GUTSHOT STRAIGHT and WHIPLASH RIVER – are poker terms. A "gutshot straight" is when you have to draw a single card rank to make a straight – a pretty reckless gamble, in other words. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT isn't about poker, but it IS about characters who do quite a bit of reckless gambling. But I don't see that as always a bad thing – when you're trying to make big changes in your life, to really change who you are, sometimes a reckless gamble is your only play.
The title of WHIPLASH RIVER refers to the final card revealed in a game of Texas Hold Em – the "river" card. In poker as in life, sometimes you think you've got a great hand, but then a surprising, last-second turn of fortune can really slam the brakes on you – and give you whiplash. In the novel, the characters have lots of experience with surprising, last-second turns of fortune that jerk them around in unexpected directions.
Your bio says you're a professional screenwriter. What movies or TV shows have you written that I've seen?
Outside of Los Angeles, I get asked this question a lot, in usually a kind of skeptically hostile way: What do you mean, you're a screenwriter, if you've never written anything I've seen? You must suck! The truth is, only a small percentage of screenplays that are bought or commissioned ever get produced. The quality of a script can definitely help its chances of getting shot, but there are a lot of factors beyond a screenwriter's control. The money might fall through (it takes a lot of money to make even a modestly-budgeted movie), or a star who's attached might jump to another project, or the head of the studio who loved the project might get fired, or a movie just like the one you just wrote bombs at the box office.
All that said, I finally had my first produced credit in 2013, an independent movie called ANGELS SING. It's a family-friendly Christmas movie starring Harry Connick Jr., Connie Britton, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Lyle Lovett. As you may have already noted, it's very different from my novels (and very different, as a matter of fact, from any of the other movies or TV shows I've done). But I had a fun time working on the project, which is adapted from a novel, WHEN ANGELS SING, by Turk Pipkin.
Are any of the characters in your novels based on real people? A few. One of the characters in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, I'm not going to say which one, is based almost entirely on my wife. Another character in that book – Dick "The Whale" Moby, ruthless Las Vegas strip club owner – was inspired by a real-life strip club owner I encountered several years ago while riding BART in San Francisco.
One of the key characters in WHIPLASH RIVER is based in large part on a producer I worked with in Hollywood. Personally, I think it's a flattering portrayal, but I don't know if the producer would agree (so we won't mention any names, okay?).