Interview: Crime Fiction Author Robert Crais

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

Author Robert Crais started out in life as a working-class kid from Louisiana — “My family is all cops and hardhats,” he said in a recent telephone interview. Then, as a young man, he literally headed west and swiftly succeeded in making a name for himself as a television scriptwriter and producer. His story might have made a tidy Horatio Alger novella. But to the surprise of his TV-industry peers, Crais took a detour in a “weird perverse direction,” a direction that, 18 novels later, has landed his work on bestseller lists seven times and garnered him an international following for his crime thrillers, 15 of which feature private investigators Elvis Cole and Joe Pike.  Crais will be reading from and discussing his newest novel, Taken, at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Wednesday, January 25, at 7:30 p.m.

What possessed Crais to take the leap from the stink of Louisiana oil refineries to the television entertainment industry to the solitary pursuit of a novelist?

“One week I was swatting mosquitoes in the bayou, and then I was on a sound stage with people like [actor] Jack Klugman. … But when you work in Hollywood, you’re working for somebody else. It’s collaborative art, and I enjoyed it. But— I didn’t want anything to stand between me and the reader, the audience. I wanted to tell my stories my way. It was about wanting to have my own voice. … And then it took many, many more years to be able to make a living on my novels, moving back and forth, back and forth between the two media.”

As is the case with many successful authors, Crais’ persistence was not a lark. It had been a long-term dream for him.

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer. First one in my family to go to college. Came out here to be a TV writer, but I really wanted to be a novelist.”

Now Crais describes himself as a “reformed television writer,” although he has a gift for writing visual action that shines in Taken and makes it a read-in-one-sitting book, despite its 342 pages.

“I think maybe one of the reasons I wrote TV and movies first, and that success in TV came to me quickly, is because I thought visually. Then, maybe because I was a baby writer in television, I learned to write visually. So then, when I finally got to the point of writing novels, that visual nature, I use it constantly. I don’t know how to not use it. When I’m writing a scene, I’m seeing the scene in my head. It isn’t just words that I’m typing. I’m the film director. I’m getting clips and editing it together.  … It’s one of the reasons I write page-turners. It’s like Fred Astaire. It looks easy until you try it. Then you realize how much it takes to put it together.”

Indeed, Taken has a violent and convoluted plot that nonetheless feels as graceful as Fred Astaire in his famous ceiling dance in Royal Wedding. Cole and Pike — and their mercenary buddy Jon Stone — perform a seemingly impossible dance to keep one clever step ahead of the bajadoras, who target vulnerable immigrants attempting to cross the Mexico-U.S. border; the Korean mafia and their human cargo; and two innocents caught in a murderous kidnapping and extortion ring.

But for all the book’s machismo and soulless brutality, Crais has created in Cole, Pike and Stone a thoroughly believable bond, with their unique sense of right and wrong and a rather tender masculine intimacy — something that smacks of the tales warriors tell after a few too many shots. The three characters’ connection is both an indomitable weapon as they take on some very bad guys and a humanizing comfort that makes them feel real, a band of brothers.

“One of my big things is writing about family,” Crais explained. “My guys aren’t married. They’ve built a family for themselves. Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, they are family. This is the closest thing they have to brothers, maybe closer than brothers.”

Crais’ deftly written contrasts between the action, violent enough to bring tears to your eyes, and his protagonists’ moments of odd but compelling humanity are marks of a gifted writer. No doubt, the cops and hard hats in his family are proud.

Author’s website:

Crossposted at the North County Times.