'Robert B. Parker's Debt to Pay,' A Talk with Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman, a best selling author of 24 previous novels, has penned the popular Moe Prager series as well as other well-received books. He’s a three-time winner of the Shamus Award, and has won the Macavity and Barry Awards, among others.

Robert Parker, considered by many to have been the dean of American crime fiction, was the author of seventy books, including the series featuring Chief Jesse Stone.

After Parker's death in 2010, Reed Farrel Coleman was chosen to keep this immensely popular series alive.

In Debt to Pay we find Chief Jesse Stone romantically involved with former FBI agent Diana Evans. When a Boston crime boss is murdered, Jesse suspects it’s the work of Mr. Peepers, a deranged assassin who has caused trouble for Jesse in the past. Peepers promised revenge against the Mob, Jesse, and one of Jesse’s cops, and against Jesse’s ex-wife Jenn. Peepers toys with the police as to the when and where he’ll strike, and Jesse knows there’s a steep debt to pay and blood will be spilled in the process.

Debt to Pay is the third Jesse Stone novel you’ve written. What was it like to take over a series written by the legendary Robert B. Parker?

It was an interesting challenge because I felt like a psychologist might feel stepping into Sigmund Freud’s shoes. [Laughter] It’s not like I took over some minor writer’s character...I tried not to worry about that reality, and decided not to try to live up to Bob’s legacy. I think writing is difficult enough without throwing more hurdles in front of myself than already exist. I realized how momentous a task it was, but my approach was to simply write the best book I could.

Do you feel you had to adhere to Robert Parker’s voice for Jesse, or were you tempted to take him in a slightly different direction?

When I was offered the opportunity, one of the first people I called was my friend, Tom Schreck. He’s an author, New York State boxing judge, a drug counselor, and a huge Robert B. Parker fan. I wanted his advice about how to go about writing these books. He said something that crystallized my approach to this series.

Tom is an avid Elvis Presley fan. He said, ‘I’ve seen all the best Elvis impersonators, but no matter how good they are, there are two things you can never get past: number one is, you’re aware it’s an imitation, and number two is, the impersonator can never do anything new. He’s trapped in the Elvis persona. His words were like an explosion in my head. I determined not to try imitating Bob, because I could never escape the fact that readers would see it as imitation. And, imitation—no matter how good—is never as good as the original. And, I could never do anything new if I was going to mimic what Bob did. I decided I’d be true to the character—Jesse Stone would act as he had in the past, but the reader would see different aspects of Jesse emerge, and the town of Paradise would evolve. So, in a sense, I use the same camera Bob did, but my focus is different.

In Debt to Pay, Jesse has given up drinking alcohol. What accounts for this turn of events?

He gives it up temporarily. If you think of Jesse Stone, you think of Tom Selleck, who played him on TV … a tall, handsome guy who’s athletic and whom women love. A reader can have trouble relating to someone like that. Everyday people relate to Jesse because he struggles, as do we all. Personal challenges are what make us human. I think it’s really important to show Jesse having serious problems with alcohol. Sometimes he succeeds, and sometimes he fails.

I’m familiar with your series’ characters: Moe Prager, Gus Murphy, and now, Jesse Stone. How do you go about formulating different characters for various different series?

My own series are easier because the best place to look for new characters is to look in the mirror. Somewhat like method acting for writing, I try coming up with some aspect of a character that I feel within myself—a flaw, an emotion, an incident—something that happens to me, and it becomes the basis for a character. It’s far more challenging to find a way into somebody else’s character. My way into Jesse was his baseball career because I’ve always been an avid baseball fan and consider myself a jock. That was my route into Jesse.

You’ve been called a ‘hard-boiled poet’ and the ‘noir poet laureate’ by various critics. What about your writing has resulted in these characterizations?

Bribery. [Laughter]. I started as a poet when I was thirteen, and it’s evolved into prose, but I’ve never lost my love for the sound of language. I’m not conscious of it while working, but when I re-read my writing, I see a certain lyricism, and know I’ve never lost the love of the sound of words.

If you could read any one novel again as though it’s the first time you’re reading it, which one would it be?

That’s pretty easy for me to answer. It would be The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. It has its flaws, but it’s the kind of writing I wish I could do. There are others like Slaughterhouse Five that come close, and if I didn’t write crime novels for a living, it would be a different novel.

What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?

The cat and the New York Mets. [Laughter].

I don’t regret things. I don’t look back and rue my decisions. I’m not a big sleeper; I sleep five or six hours at most. So nothing really keeps me up at night.

Looking back at your career, has your writing process changed in any way?

I’m not sure my process has changed, but I’ve changed as a writer. I’ve never stopped being influenced by other writers. My writing has become slightly more refined. For me, the more I write, the better I get at it. When I no longer feel I’m getting better as a writer, that’s when I’ll stop. For example, I once had an idea for a novel, but I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to tackle it. It took me five years to complete Gun Church because it took me that long to develop the skills needed to write that novel.

What’s coming next from Reed Farrel Coleman?

Another Gus Murphy novel is coming next. It’s called What You Break.

Congratulations on writing Debt to Pay, a beautifully crafted novel that captures Robert B. Parker’s world view, as it tells the tense story of a flawed but intrepid police chief who finds himself pitted against a tenacious “cat-and-mouse” killer.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest book is Bedlam’s Door: True Tales of Madness and Hope, a psychiatric/medical memoir.

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