What: As part of the Washington, D.C. music scene in the early 1980s, Robert played bass in Artificial Peace and Government Issue. He’s toured the country, and his music was released on Dischord Records and other labels. In DESCENDING MEMPHIS, Robert tells a detective/coming-of-age-story set just after the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Congrats on the success of your debut novel, DESCENDING MEMPHIS. What was the inspiration for this story?
Thank you for asking. It began with a question. What if Johnny Cash never made it as a musician, but instead became a detective with all the character traits, quirks and flaws of the Man in Black? I considered writing such a story, and mentioned the idea to a friend who happens to be a lawyer. He saw it as a legal issue. Meaning, the Johnny Cash estate might not look favorably upon such an endeavor. So I created Tommy Rhodeen, a small-time private eye in Memphis whose dream is to make it big in rock ‘n’ roll. It was the right decision.
While separated by nearly 800 miles and 25 years, there are similarities between the two music scenes. In each, guys were coming up with new sounds that influenced many bands that came afterwards. Without Elvis and Carl Perkins, the Quarrymen would’ve remained a skiffle band and not become the Beatles. And without bands like Minor Threat and Government Issue, you can make the case that Nirvana, even Green Day, and a bunch of other bands would not have existed or achieved success. I’ll explain. The major labels came knocking on the door at Dischord House. Ian (MacKaye) literally wouldn’t open the door. But, afterwards, the majors signed bands that never would’ve got attention from an A&R man. They saw the potential.
There are other similarities as well. Each of those two scenes had a couple of small-but-mystique-laden studios where the bands recorded. Each had a few independent record labels with one that dominated the scene. All of these indie labels not only helped make the music available around the world, they championed their town. Memphis became the place where rock ‘n’ roll began. People moved to D.C. to play in bands. So I felt a kinship to Memphis in 1956, and yet I could maintain some distance. Having a bit of detachment enabled me to look objectively at that time and place, which would’ve been difficult had I set my story in D.C. in the early ’80s.
How much of you is in your protagonist, Tommy Rhodeen?
There’s a bunch of Tommy Rhodeen in me, or me in him. And there’s a lot of other guys in him, too. Some I know personally, some I read about. Especially some of the supporting characters, who are based on real people who lived in Memphis in 1956.
How did you make the transition from music to publishing? What are the similarities or differences?
Playing and writing music gave me the opportunity to take control of my creativity, but I never saw it as a career. I still get royalty checks every year from Dischord Records, about enough for a nice dinner for two. There are some guys from the original D.C. scene who’ve made music their life’s work, and a few have done extremely well. I fell into writing as an occupation. I didn’t go to school for it, or plan it. I ended up at advertising and marketing agencies and now freelance for a bunch as well as work directly with clients. I enjoy the work, but as a technician who uses words, images and ideas to fulfill someone else’s vision.
After so many years in advertising, I felt like I needed to write something creative for myself and not a paying client. I hadn’t played in a band since 1983, and I’d thought that part of my life was over. So for more than a year and a half I worked on DESCENDING MEMPHIS. I got up early to write, went to bed late, took weekends, and wrote full days during the week if I wasn’t booked on a paying gig. Not a day went by that I did not work on it. It was hard on my wife and son.
Do you envision DESCENDING MEMPHIS as the beginning of a series? Do you have a specific number of books in mind?
My goal is to write a trilogy, each novel taking place about ten years after the other. Tommy Rhodeen would solve a new case as well as deal with new developments in his life as he matures. In DESCENDING MEMPHIS, he’s 24 years old and single so he has much to learn and experience. Music is a big part of Tommy Rhodeen, and that would let me weave in how rock ‘n’ roll changed from the 1950s to the ’60s and ’70s.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a mystery writer?
The mystery writers who’ve influenced me range from Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to Michael Connelly and Walter Mosley. The last mystery I read is Joe Ide’s IQ. The last book I read is THE SEARCHERS by Alan Le May, and I’m currently reading DELIVERANCE by James Dickey. Other writers who influenced me are Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2017 and beyond?
I don’t owe a manuscript to a publisher so I don’t have that pressure. But I have got back into playing music. I picked up a guitar a little over a year ago after not playing bass for more than 30 years. And I’m writing songs again, but this time more straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll. More like Slade, New York Dolls and Sweet. Right now I’m having a blast; I’ll get back to Tommy Rhodeen when I need him. In the opening of the next story, Tommy will find himself in a huge amount of emotional pain. And even though he endured a great deal of physical trauma in DESCENDING MEMPHIS, that story ends with Tommy in a good place, which is where I am as far as expressing myself creatively.
Some Recent Interviews:
- James W. Ziskin
- Nadine Nettmann
- Maria Alexander
- Jeffery Hess
- Nik Korpon
- Danny Gardner
- Scotch Rutherford (Switchblade)
- Scott Montgomery (MysteryPeople)
S.W. Lauden is up for two Silver Falchion Reader’s Choice Awards! Voting is open to everybody and no registration is required. Please cast a vote for GRIZZLY SEASON (Best Action/Adventure) and CROSSWISE (Best Mystery). Thank you!