When crime novelist Robert Ferrigno’s Horse Latitudes was published in 1990, Time hailed it as “the fiction debut of the season.” That’s certainly a nice way to start a career as a book writer, though, as Ferrigno deadpans, “it was only April.”
The author is now in the summer of his content; his brand-new eighth book, The Wake-Up, is one of his best. “Sharp, fast, and slick,” says Kirkus Reviews. “Ferrigno can read like Raymond Chandler on speed, with pages turning and adrenaline pretty high throughout.”
Thankfully, The Wake-Up is not about an alarm clock going off at some godforsaken hour, but the unintended consequences of a good deed performed by a burned-out special-ops man. A “wake-up,” writes Ferrigno, is “what they called it in the shop when you wanted to send a message, a love tap to prod a source, to remind a restless contact of his vulnerability. A hotel receipt placed under a married man’s pillow or an ‘insufficient funds’ hold placed on a Cayman Islands bank account worked wonders. Thorpe just wanted to get the hard charger’s attention, to show him how quickly the storm clouds could roll in on his sunny world. Just a little wake-up.”
Ferrigno lives in the Seattle area and runs a website dedicated to his fiction. He recently took a few questions from NRO’s John J. Miller.
National Review Online: In The Wake-Up, the plot turns on a hard-charging businessman who is cruel to a boy and a bystander’s belief that a wrong must be made right. Like your other novels, it feature loads of bad guys and no cops, yet there’s a moral sensibility as well. How do you work that in when even the good guys live outside the system?
ROBERT FERRIGNO: I think the highest morality is by definition, personal, and outside any system. As a character in one of my previous books says, “if you need a rule book to tell you the difference between right and wrong, you’re f*** ed forever.” Consequently, none of my protagonists are cops, and there is little official police presence. This began instinctively and has since become quite deliberate, as a reflection of the moral imperative of my fictional universe. I don’t like characters who are required to do the right thing as part of their job descriptions–so no cops, no firefighters, no crusading attorneys. I prefer the individual who is confronted with a moral choice and, out of his own free will, does the right thing. The fact that the consequences of such action are that things are frequently made worse is part of the moral conundrum. (The Wake-Up revolves around an innocent good deed that has terrible consequences, and the “hero” of my last book, Scavenger Hunt, investigates an old crime, a supposedly solved case, and in so doing sets the real killer back killing to cover his tracks) My protagonists, even knowing the risks of moral involvement, always choose to take that risk. The good man is compelled to do good, no matter the consequences. It is the blowback, and how the good man deals with the blowback, that I am most interested in. The hero cleans up his own mess. I take my work very seriously–the dangers of an undergraduate degree in philosophy–but while Nietzsche said he philosophized with a hammer, I prefer a more deft approach, and a funnier one. I spend most of my time at the keyboard laughing at the things my characters say. If the writer isn’t having fun, the reader isn’t going to get a satisfying ride, and that’s my true intention.
NRO: Al Qaeda makes an appearance in The Wake-Up. Could this book have been written before 9/11?
FERRIGNO: The initial notes for the book did precede 9/11, but I’m not psychic, I’m just a writer that reads a lot and has a vivid, and uncensored imagination. If you remember, shortly after 9/11 the government called in a lot of Hollywood honchos and asked them to brainstorm about where a dramatically inclined terrorist group might strike next. The instinct was correct. Creative types really can see the future more clearly than bureaucracies, but of course the government went to the wrong place looking for creativity. It’s like hoping to find a racehorse to enter in the Kentucky Derby by walking into a French butcher shop.
NRO: When I your books, I often feel like I’m watching a movie. I understand that you studied filmmaking in school. How does this affect your writing?
FERRIGNO: I think and write very visually, which is one of the reasons I studied filmmaking. Thinking cinematically, thinking in terms of dialogue and movement, is an advantage. It allows me to lie in bed with my eyes closed and “play” different chapters in my head as scenes, reshooting them from different angles and points of view until I get it right. Then I can get up and go to the keyboard with certain problems solved. It’s mental storyboarding and keeps things fast and true. If it doesn’t look right, it’s not going to read right. An extra advantage is that I can reassure my wife that I am still working, even when horizontal.
NRO: Will we ever see The Wake-Up, or one of your other books, on the big screen?
FERRIGNO: Most of my books have been optioned, some more than once, but none have been made. The Wake-Up is currently being considered by a major Hollywood studio.
NRO: You were also a professional gambler. How does someone make a living doing that?
FERRIGNO: It’s really a natural job for a writer. To excel at poker you need discipline, a keen eye for observation, an ability to evaluate risk/reward ratios, and the killer instinct. I worked my way through college beating frat boys with a poor grasp of numbers theory, and then played in a variety of pickup games around the country for a few years. It was a great way to get in touch with the wonderful world of little criminals, but the downside was that you sometimes get held up afterwards, particularly if you were a big winner. You have to consider it a tax on earned income and move on.
NRO: And your website says you were a professor, too. Why don’t you set one of your novels on a college campus? Imagine the characters!
FERRIGNO: I was a professor for a year and a half. I didn’t meet any characters.
NRO: What’s the best review you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
FERRIGNO: I have a letter from Elmore Leonard framed on the wall of my office. It says that I’ve written “an awfully good book. Wonderful characters and dialogue and sense of place.” To me, that’s the best review possible. The worst review I ever got was from the Los Angeles Times in which the reviewer attacked the jacket copy which called my fiction “noir,” a term which he didn’t think it merited, and then he devoted the whole review to explicating the history of the word and what a fraud I was for allowing my publisher to use it to hawk my book. My favorite review was the Washington Post’s take on Flinch: “Many writers have presented Southern California as a freak show but perhaps none more convincingly than Robert Ferrigno. His lurid cast of crazed killers, zonked-out porn stars, bottom-dwelling journalists, and connoisseurs of aberrant art (‘Gas-chamber photos are a splendid investment’) boggles the imagination.” This is a fine review, but I love the fact that the Post was amazed at my imagination, while I still think of myself as a reporter. Most of the things the reviewer thought were so bizarre were just my slightly tilted version of the people and places that make up daily life in the Golden State.
NRO: A lot of writers have strange habits. One novelist I know says he eats cereal all day long when he’s writing. Do you exhibit any bizarre behavior when you’re putting a story on the page?
FERRIGNO: It takes me a year or so to finish a book and I always listen to music when I work. The last three or four months, when I am hitting it 12-14 hours a day, I load the CD-player with five CDs, and that’s all I listen to. The Wake-Up was completed listening exclusively to a black gospel compilation from Rhino records, Puccini Highlights by Leontyne Price (for when I write the violent scenes), My Life in the Bush Of Ghosts (Eno/Byrne), Portishead, and Tammy Wynette’s Greatest Hits. I’m not sure if that’s strange.
NRO: Who are your favorite fellow novelists? In other words, what books would you recommend to NROniks who like crime thrillers?
FERRIGNO: Anything by Elmore Leonard, the master of invisibility. Dennis Lehane has great heart, as does James Lee Burke.
NRO: The epigraph to The Wake-Up is from Jim Thompson: “There is only one basic plot: things aren’t what they seem.” Is that a good motto for your work? Why?
FERRIGNO: It’s an apt motto for several reasons. On the literal level my stories are rife with duplicity and false assumptions, but on the larger level it speaks to the limited viewpoint we all have, just by nature of our egos and experience. In my books this plays out with the various bad guys doing terrible things while being utterly convinced that what they are doing is perfectly justified. The self always trumps reality. Vlad, a Rumanian hit men in The Wake-Up, is the product of some genetic tinkering by Ceausescu’s scientists. (This is actually true, like the East Germans, the Rumanians wanted to improve the basic human design.) Having never had a childhood, Vlad suddenly interrupts his torture of an in-debt carnival worker to inquire about the cost of buying a small roller coaster for his personal use. Vlad is quite serious, without a trace of irony. The characters in my books fool themselves as often as they fool other people, and to even more comic and devastating effect.