Tom Straw published his first mystery, The Trigger Episode, in 2007 and then authored seven crime novels under the pseudonym Richard Castle—all of which were New York Times bestsellers. An Emmy and Writer’s Guild of America nominee, Straw also wrote for and produced television shows, including Night Court, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Dave’s World, Grace Under Fire, Cosby, Whoopi, and Nurse Jackie. For the first time since his fiction debut, he reclaims his own name with Buzz Killer (available October 31, 2017)—the inaugural title in a prospective new series featuring New York City Public Defender Macie Wild and ex-detective Gunnar Cody.
Recently, the author generously took time from his creative endeavors to indulge curiosities pertaining to retiring his nom de plume, using relationship dynamics to promote character development, staying ahead of technological advancements, and capturing a realistic sense of time and place. He also teases what comes next.
Buzz Killer is the first book published under your own name since writing seven bestsellers as “Richard Castle.” What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a pseudonym, and how does this book balance that tradition with reasserting your own identity?
Advantages, yes. Disadvantages, few. The advantage is right there in your question. As a new novelist, I dreamed of making the New York Times list just once. But seven times in a row? Sure, I always gave the writing my best effort, but the power of the brand name and all the promotion that came with it—including a hit show of quality—no doubt made a difference. But tie-ins have been attempted before with lesser results. All the good stars lined up for this.
Any disadvantage wouldn’t be the cliché of credit. It’s more about being a writer working to craft his own mystery with the TV series tapping on his shoulder. But that’s a quibble, too, because I was able to forge new roads in the books with support from Castle creator-executive producer Andrew Marlowe. To wit: the TV show was loaded for seasons with “will-they-won’t-they?” I had my characters, Nikki Heat and Jameson Rook, sleep together in the first novel. And Andrew championed that because after “will they-won’t they?” comes “now what?” In book length, I was able to explore those juicy complications that arise when romantic partners find themselves in professional conflict.
Writing Buzz Killer under my own name did free me from servicing source material, but I was surprised at how I ended up approaching the story and characters in much the same way as my Richard Castle books. Ultimately, I suppose it’s about serving the readers, not a show.
You introduce dual protagonists in NYC Public Defender Macie Wild and ex-cop Gunnar Cody. In what ways does their relationship dynamic allow for organic character development, and in your opinion, how does the element of romantic suspense enhance the overall narrative?
Wow, John, you’ve hit the very essence of the whole thing. The Macie-Gunnar relationship in Buzz Killer is not only full of romantic tension, but I also made sure that aspect informed everything in their efforts to solve the mystery. You know, it’s not hard to conjure a generic plot, scatter a bunch of clues, and let some solution come to pass. Snore. I believe a reader craves investment on a personal level. Most of my effort goes into thatching the human, often intimate, connection the protagonists have to solving the crime into the obstacles and dangers they confront. For them, it’s not just some case. I give them skin in the game so the reader can have it too. I want the reader to feel. To worry. To get scared. To experience thrills. If I do it right, it’s a mystery that only they can solve together, with jeopardy only they can feel as a couple.
Of course, I made sure to have their romantic tension legitimately complicated. There’s robust sexual magnetism that is at odds with fundamental differences they have about the world. Macie is an ethicist and die-hard champion of the disenfranchised. Gunnar excelled at brash surveillance methods she disdains—until she needs his help cracking her homicide case. So that tension dynamic will stay in play and develop in deeper ways. For seven books, if I’m lucky.
Technology, and the inevitable gray areas that come along with it, is an integral component to the story. How can such advances both help and hinder a plot, and in what ways did you endeavor to stay current on what’s available?
The thematic engine for this novel is all about the impact of technological advances on us as human beings. And my response was not to judge but to place my characters into the arena where surveillance technology gets used and abused and let them roll around in the gray areas until they question their own views. When Macie experiences her first illegal stakeout, she ruminates on it by saying:
“What is private anymore? Not our homes, our neighborhoods, our mistakes, our intimate moments—our secrets. Nothing is sacred. And when nothing is sacred, what happens to us?”
But it’s not all earnest. When Gunnar counters with, “What did Orwell say about rough men who keep vigilance so that the innocent may sleep at night?”, Macie replies, “You do realize you’re quoting the guy who wrote 1984 from inside a surveillance van.”
Staying current is a writer’s job; staying ahead is a novelist’s. By that, I don’t mean guess what invention is coming next but imagine how current tech could be used and then ask what the ramifications of that use are for all of us so I can have my characters poke around in that. It’s the byproduct of my author’s mantra: Notice what you are noticing.
The story plays out against the backdrop of New York City. In what ways does, or can, setting become its own character within a book, and how important is it for you to have an intimate knowledge of the places you write about?
To me, setting is vital, and I immerse my books in place and time. But not in the same way some writers gas about the weather just to have something to describe (I say this fully aware I wrote a book entitled Heat Wave). Your point is a good one; setting should be a character, and that means using it as you would a human one: for specific purposes and with aspects that impact the story. And it’s important to me to get it right.
For the New York of my Richard Castles—and now, for Buzz Killer—I researched streets, buildings, fishing piers, everything. And then I walked the city to visit those places so it feels real to the reader. I want him or her to feel they are there. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner wrote that a good story should be an unbroken dream. Nailing the setting is one more way to put my reader in that dream.
You have a long, distinguished background in television. In what ways has that influenced your storytelling? Conversely, what are the greatest differences when writing for one forum versus the other?
I’d say TV writing has aided me technically, but a lifetime of reading has fueled a hunger to imagine and spin tales on a book-sized scale. Yet, a few decades of writing to television’s strict forms and onerous deadlines is my ally in crafting the work. The tight structure of a TV script demands building dramatic tension quickly, focusing on a clear story with a satisfying and, hopefully, surprising resolution. But beyond all that, TV writing is character and relationship writing. In each episode, you want to use the unique needs, drives, and frailties of your characters to make it all a personally felt journey. That’s true in both comedy and drama.
For them, it's not just some case. I give them skin in the game so the reader can have it too. I want the reader to feel. To worry. To get scared. To experience thrills.
The principal difference between forms is not length. It still astonishes me how the novel form is as tight in its constraints as TV’s. The real difference is the ability I get, as an author, to share the inner narrative of my characters. That stuff gets acted on TV, and I’ve had some gems who pulled off that magic—from Edie Falco to John Larroquette to Mary Tyler Moore. But in novels, I share all that on the page, and I enjoy that part. Although Edie could do with a suppressed smile what it takes me a paragraph or two to achieve.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
I am already deep into writing the sequel to Buzz Killer. I take it as a good sign that Macie Wild and Gunnar Cody won’t sit still. Got me a fresh, very cool story building on fragments from their first adventure. It not only gives them a big, nasty mystery to solve but also puts their new and complicated relationship to a huge test. To give more away would be … well, a buzz killer.
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Tom Straw published his first mystery, The Trigger Episode, in 2007. Subsequently, writing as Richard Castle, he authored seven more crime novels, all of which became New York Times Bestsellers. Buzz Killer is Tom Straw’s first book under his own name since that blockbuster Nikki Heat series. He is also an Emmy- and Writer’s Guild of America-nominated TV writer and producer having written and produced Night Court, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Dave’s World, Grace Under Fire, Cosby, Whoopi, and Nurse Jackie. A former board member of the Mystery Writers of America, New York Chapter, he lives in Connecticut, where his home is his castle.