As a lover of true crime novels I was honoured to interview Nate Hendley, a Toronto-based journalist and author who has written several books, primarily in the true-crime genre. Here’s what he has to say about his work and the books he loves to read.
How did you come to define your writing style? What drew you towards crime writing?
My style largely stems from the fact I work as journalist. I like to state the facts and tell a story while avoiding too much moralizing. I describe the actions of people in detail but don’t attempt to explain what they were thinking at a given time, unless I have direct knowledge of their thoughts, derived from interviews, reports or personal correspondence. I like to write in a direct, lean fashion that avoids too many flashy words unnecessary explanations.
I was drawn to crime writing almost by accident; ever since I was very young, I always wanted to write a book. I did write a few (unpublished) books in the fiction genre (primarily action type stories). In the early 2000s, an opportunity came up to write books for a Canadian publisher. The publisher was looking for short, punchy “pop history” books (that is, non-academic books about historic events or people). I pitched them a book about Edwin Boyd, a notorious Toronto robber from the 1950s. They liked the pitch, I wrote the book and they proceeded to suggest other topics to me, primarily in the crime genre. I accepted and became the publisher’s “go-to” person when it came to crime writing.
I like the crime genre because it’s extremely broad: you can discuss history, social issues, politics, personalities, cultural events and psychology all in one book. For example, I wrote a book about bandit duo Bonnie and Clyde that delved into the socioeconomic conditions they operated in (that is, the Great Depression of the 1930s) and how they actually had better guns and faster cars than most police departments at the time.
Tell me about how your background in journalism. How does this influence your writing?
My background in journalism has been extremely helpful to me as an author. When you’re a journalist, you learn the importance of deadlines, word count, interview techniques, research techniques and self-discipline. Journalists don’t have the luxury of “waiting for muse to strike” (unless they’re looking to lose their job). They have to be prepared to write a story any time, any place under just about any circumstances. All these attributes help in getting books done.
What aspect of your books do you feel attracts your readers and makes your work so hard to put down?
Storytelling. Keeping the reader interested. The best way to keep the reader interested is to tell a compelling story, usually based around people rather than an issue. Nothing will draw a reader in than a good story. Nothing will turn a reader off faster than a dry, dull recitation of facts or pompous opinionating.
Where do you find the inspiration for your work? Are there any specific exercises or tricks you use to get your creative juices flowing?
As a journalist you learn quickly how to sit down and write, even when you’re not in the mood. That said, there are certain helpful tricks that can kick-start creativity. I call one of these techniques, “Trick Yourself to Write”. Tell yourself, “I’m not going to do any real writing on my book today. I’m just going to put down some information/data in point form.” Write down your info/data—in rough form. Then, start “fleshing the points out”—adding details, transforming data/info into proper sentences. Then turn these proper sentences into paragraphs. Keep going. You will often end up writing several complete pages—even though your actual goal was much more modest.
If you could collaborate with any write, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Truman Capote ,author of the classic true-crime book, In Cold Blood, would be an interesting person to collaborate with. He never took notes (he claimed he had a photographic memory) and he had a weird, squeaky voice and theatrical mannerism. Yet, he did a brilliant job covering the murder of family in rural Kansas in the 1950s (the subject of In Cold Blood). Capote was accompanied by his friend, Harper Lee, the future author of the classic anti-racism novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, during his Kansas travels. It would have been fascinating to watch the two of them in action, interviewing locals and gathering facts about a horrendous crime.
What does the future have in store for you as a writer? Any upcoming projects you would be happy to share with me?
I am playing around with some ideas for future books. Most of these ideas are based on historic crimes that occurred in Toronto. I live in Toronto so I figure I might as well cover my hometown. And it’s a lot easier to research a Toronto crime when you live in Toronto (as opposed to say, a crime that happened in the Baltics).
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
Anything by Jeff Guinn (click here to see his books on Amazon). Amazing writer who books about Jim Jones (the cult-leader who oversaw the mass suicide of his followers at Jonestown in South America) and Charles Manson. Guinn did a huge amount of research for these works and did a great job demystifying both Jones and Manson (who have achieved cartoon-like “super villain” status among many crime writers).
I also love Erik Larson (click here to see his books on Amazon). I’ve read two of his books, Devil in the White City (which tells two separate stories, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers who was murdering people in Chicago) and Dead Wake (about the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, an ocean liner, by a German submarine, an action that brought America into the First World War).
Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you for hosting this blog. Writers hugely appreciate people who promote writing. Not enough people do.
Thanks to Nate for answering my questions! For more information about his books and background, please visit his website at www.natehendley.com or click here to check out his books on Amazon.