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Friday, October 1, 2010

Interview Series: Word-Loving Montana Writer Dixon Rice Talks about His Thrillers and That Editor in the Head

Dixon Rice enthralls the room at Toastmasters
JK: Tell me a little about where you grew up and what you do or have done besides writing. 

DIxon Rice: My father was a Naval officer and I was born on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  I have siblings who were born in Ann Arbor MI, Columbus OH, Norfolk VA and Fairfax VA.  Like most military families, we moved around a lot.  I went to high school in Mercer Island, a Seattle suburb, and got a BA in Political Science at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma WA.  At one time I had aspirations of going to law school, but decided to spare the planet one additional attorney.

I spent 8 years in Army intelligence – a year in S. Korea and most of the rest at Ft Bragg NC, and then moved to Kalispell MT, in the gorgeous Flathead Valley, where my mother and brothers had moved.  I married a school teacher from Butte MT, and we raised our four kids to enjoy long winters and a few weeks of sloppy sledding each August.

Besides an intelligence analyst, I’ve been a funeral director, investigator, office manager, payroll manager, shipping clerk, insurance salesman, and done retail sales.  I’ve jumped out of perfectly good airplanes and helos.  I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been a volunteer going into jails for Literacy Volunteers. I’ve been active in Toastmasters, soccer refereeing and coaching, American Cancer Society, and church groups.  I recently donated blood for the 100th time at the local Red Cross.  

JK: Tell me about your books and their intended audience.

DR: “Montana is Burning” is my first novel, a contemporary thriller taking place in a rural area of mountainous NW Montana.  An abortion clinic serving wealthy out-of-towners is firebombed, with three fatalities.  In the middle of hotly contested election between the incumbent sheriff and his chief of detectives, Paul Longo, the brand new detective, is the only neutral guy in the department. He must confront vicious local politics, a small group of religious fanatics, federal agencies trying to take over the investigation, a newly-formed militia group trying to blockade the county, and jealous local cops.  Pretty much his only supporter in the department is Janet Barefoot, a member of a tiny Native American tribe.  An outsider herself, she appreciates the barriers Paul faces.  When a peace march is bombed, quick thinking by Paul keeps the death tally down, but can he solve this terrorist spree before more lives are lost?  120,000 words and not yet represented. Contains sex and violence.

My work-in-progress is “The Assassin’s Club,” a thriller taking place in the early 1970s, featuring two very different killers.  Tyler Goode, early 20s and newly moved to Montana after his family perished in a hit-and-run accident, is cornered by the town bully and must kill to survive.  Nobody witnesses this battle to the death, and he walks away thinking he did the community a public service – and it felt pretty good.  Then the bully’s brother starts stalking him, and Ty realizes he must kill again, except with forethought this time.  A month after dispatching the brother, Ty kills once more in order to save a friend’s life.  By now, it’s become both a habit and a hobby, with Ty figuring he’s tipping the scales between good and evil after the death of his family.

Alternating chapters present a bearded, thirtyish man who emerges nude from the ocean near Ensenada, Mexico.    He meets a woman walking along the beach.  Startled, she blurts out, “Jesus! You’re naked.”
He thinks to himself, “So that’s who I am” before killing her and taking her white beach robe.  Jesus walks up the coast, killing when it pleases him, and gathers a Manson-like tribe of weak-minded losers.  In southern Washington, he turns east, following the voices in his head.  Jesus will run into Ty when he reaches Montana, but who will survive the encounter?  Two-thirds complete, will be about 90,000 words. Contains sex and violence.

JK: How does real life affect your fiction? Think in terms of atmosphere, plot, characters, language, etc.

DR: I love both the hustle-bustle of cities and the quiet beauty of mountain valleys, and try to incorporate a variety of settings, depending on the goals of each scene.  I enjoy taking people I have met, and flipping an aspect of their personalities on its head – making an honest nun a pathological liar, making a rigid Baptist secretly a gambling addict and alcoholic, or making somebody I find loathsome and phony into a philanthropist. I usually let my characters tell their own life stories and make their own decisions, and I’m often surprised at where they lead.  I attempt to choose timely themes that won’t become outmoded with the passage of time.

JK: What is your favorite book? What other things influence your work?

DR: Early on, I struggled with believable dialogue.  A writer friend introduced me to Robert B. Parker, and I discovered Elmore Leonard and Richard Price on my own.  Each one has his own distinctive style, but they are all masters of dialogue, and I learned a lot from reading their works.  Of recent books I’ve read, my favorite is “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

JK: Do you have a favorite word? How do you use language to differentiate your characters and/or settings? 

DR: I love playing with words, and probably have a favorite word or phrase every day.  “My cup runneth amuck” has been a favorite for many years.  Following the advice of Elmore Leonard, I recently embraced “said,” eschewing all other attributions.  I use “just” much too often.

For my characters, whether primary or walk-ons, I try to visualize their background and level of education, and write with those in mind.  I often find myself making my characters sound too smart and self-aware, and always need to rewrite extensively.

JK: In general, what is your inspiration? What was the specific inspiration for your most recent project?

DR: Everyday people and events, and the continual question “what if…” keeps me occupied with a steady flow of new ideas, many of which are just dreadful.  I visualized my current WIP on a 15-hour road trip after taking my son to college, and loosely plotted the entire book (and 5 sequels) before pulling into my garage.  Thank God for the habit of always carrying a pen and pocket notepad.

JK: How much time a day do you devote to fiction writing? What is your work area like? Do you have any methods that might seem unusual or inspiring to other writers?

DR: I’ve discovered I get lots of writing done if I get up at 5:00 a.m. and take my laptop to a coffee house.  My critical editor is still asleep at this time, so that little voice in the back of my head is not telling me how crappy my prose is.  And the people coming through the door for a fix of caffeine get to be characters in my book (turned on their heads, of course). 

At times, I’ve taken a legal pad to a restaurant or coffee bar, and written pure dialogue for a couple hours.  No descriptions or narrative, just pure dialogue.  Often I’m able to use much of it, and at other times they become background, helping me understand my characters and their conflicting goals. 

JK: When and why did you get started writing? What characteristics from your first efforts survive today?  What kind of feedback do you get? Do you have a definable fan base? Are your family and friends supportive?

DR: I started telling my kids bedtime stories, and they asked me to write down some of them.  A few of my early stories were published in local or regional magazines and journals.  I plotted out a YA novel about a sorcerer’s apprentice, but ran out of clichés about half way through writing it.  Once I started writing adult novels, my habit has gone completely out of control.

I get lots of advice and support from my local critique group and a few other writer friends, and the group’s deadlines help keep the pressure on.  Writing conferences help also, as well as the Writers Etc group on Facebook.

With nearly 1,000 friends on FB, I do lots of networking with fellow writers, editors, agents, and just plain book lovers.  Knowing starving authors, I don’t expect large numbers of these folks to buy my books but I hope to generate some buzz when I’ve got a polished work ready to send into the world.

My fan base is people looking for a book to take to the beach – one that will keep them awake and occasionally give them something to actually think about.

My family and friends tolerate my writing addiction.  I believe they reason that it keeps me off the streets and is less obnoxious than other things I might do with my time.  My kids go “Eeewww” when I send them pages containing a sex scene.

And finally, the voices in my head are generally supportive. 

You can find sample chapters of both of Dixon's novels in the “Notes” at his Facebook account, which is at