An interview by Crime Book Blogger and Reviewer: Elaine Robinson:
Elaine: Teddy, When and why did you first decide to write detective fiction?
Teddy: I discovered Chester Himes’ novels in 1987 and fell in love with his Harlem detective series that featured the detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. Also, as a boy, I had always loved detective fiction. But Chester Himes’ was the first detective fiction that spoke to me in such a visceral way.
Elaine: Where did your inspiration for the character come from?
Teddy: I met a guy named James back in 1984 who had been a sniper in Vietnam. He had a record number of kills. When I met him, he was sleeping under bench in the print shop and drinking heavily because the weight of what he did in Vietnam had broken his mind. And I began to think about what if his mind hadn’t broken and he had been able to turn that pain into something useful and positive.
Elaine: And why an African American detective in New York?
Teddy: New York was where I was living and there really weren’t any African American badass detectives being written about at that time. Also, no hardcore detective with nuanced social and emotional issues coming out of the African American culture and experience were being written about; so I thought a tough detective with a traumatised emotional past could be a good character.”
Elaine: Hardcore and with issues? How does that work?
Teddy: As a CIA operative Devil Barnett killed a number of people who he sometimes felt might have been innocent. This combined with the racism he was being shown by the CIA, caused him to rethink his life and eventually led him to retire from being an assassin seek redemption and become a useful rather than a destructive force.
Elaine: How important is it to read the series in the order in which they were written?
Teddy: The first book “Blood Red Blues” gives the history and context, but once you’ve read that then you can continue with any of the other books, because the important parts of Devil’s character and his philosophy is touched on in all the subsequent books.
Elaine: The book that you’re relaunching now is called WRONG AS TWO LEFT SHOES, the third book in the series and it includes a soundtrack. How did that come about?
Teddy: The story is about a songwriter. I wanted to allow the reader to hear the songs that were going on in the songwriter’s head as they read the story. Now they can do that from Spotify.
Elaine: Where did the songs come from?
Teddy: I wrote them with other songwriters and producers.
Elaine: I didn’t realise you write songs as well.
Teddy: Yes, I have been writing songs since I was thirteen years old and some of them have appeared on various albums and even in Broadway shows.
Elaine: What do you feel the music adds to the words?
Teddy: I think the music takes the reader emotionally closer to the character. The main character WoodHenry is a simple, frightened and cowardly man, but when he expresses himself through music, he becomes someone with more depth and complexity.
Elaine: I read a review in the Guardian which said that this book was and I quote: “His third blood-and-guts-and-rap-music outing (with accompanying Hayes-penned free music CD) roars along like a jazz jam on Viagra: the disappearance of a songwriter opens a veritable Pandora’s box of shenanigans. It reads like a black Spillane, violent, breathless and never less than gripping.”
Teddy: I think that was partly because the soundtrack helped to bring the story alive.
Elaine: How many books have you written in the series?
Teddy: I am working on the 9th one now.
Elaine: What changes for your character as the series progresses?
Teddy: As time goes by, Devil grows more disenchanted with his personal life mostly because the inner demons from his former life remain a part of him no matter how much he tries to escape them. And this part of him has become an obstruction for a certain level of personal happiness. Still he moves forward trying to help people with problems that the regular police can’t or won’t sort out.
Elaine: And do you see an end to this series?
Teddy: I will write number ten next year and then make that decision.
Elaine: It is very easy to visualise the story. How much do you think about that as you are writing?
Teddy: A lot actually because during my early days working in New York I had a job writing TV, stage and film scripts. As a result, I learned to think in pictures and scenes. So, when I began writing Devil Barnett, I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted my scenes from the book to resonate visually with the reader.
Elaine: How long does it take you to write a Devil Barnett novel?
Teddy: Between 5 and 9 months.
Elaine: Your novels aren’t formulaic. How do you avoid that?
Teddy: I try to bring out something that the reader has not seen before. Because I use some of the same characters in the books, I can delve into these character’s lives in an interesting way.
Elaine: You don’t only write Devil Barnett but other novels as well. Have you written anything else?
Teddy: Yes, I have written children’s fantasy, and other crime novels like “Her Name Was Amy Tillman,” now I’m working on my 15th book. Sometimes its novels, other times its stage plays other times its music and also musicals. I don’t have a set way of doing what I do, I just keep writing whatever and however the spirit moves me.
Elaine: What do you think accounts for the popularity of your work –and the Devil Barnett series in particular? What matters most to you as a writer? What do you want readers to take from your novels?
Teddy: I’d say that the first and most important thing for me is to connect with the audience on an emotional level that reaches into the human experience and resonates in a way that most people from almost anywhere in the world can relate to. I try to do that by giving the reader something to help them make an intellectual, moral and most importantly an emotional judgement about. For example, if an innocent elderly person or a child is murdered, immediately the reader is drawn to the side of the victim because their emotional judgment is that killing an innocent is wrong. I think one of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because the reader can emotionally work along with the detective to solve the crime.
Elaine: And you think all your readers whatever their backgrounds are working alongside Devil Barnett?
Teddy: I think so, because a lot of people read one book after the other and then they write to me and ask when is the next one coming.
Elaine: What is the next one?
Teddy: The next one is called. “Ghost Park” and the last one was “The Killing of Eleanor Rigby”
Elaine: Like the character in the Beatles song?
Elaine: Did you take your inspiration from the Beatles song?
Teddy: Yes, I came up with a way to use the character’s name because, I‘ve always thought that the mysterious way that the song describes the character could lend itself to a different context.
Elaine: What can we look forward to with the new Devil Barnett books?
Teddy: The reader will see Devil working with the different elements of the Harlem community to help bring the bad guys to justice. Sometime those means are not by the book, and even outside of the law, but Devil Barnett is not a by the book kind of detective. And I think if we look at what is happening in America now with respect to disenfranchised people having to organize through organizations like Black Lives Matter, it shows exactly why disenfranchised communities are in need of a character like a Devil Barnett who has a deep commitment to all people who suffer at the hands of a corrupted system and is willing to go the extra mile to bring justice to people who are not protected by the system, no matter their ethnicity or religion.
Elaine: I read in one of the London papers after the publication of Blood Red Blues, “that Devil Barnett is what Clint Eastwood was to the Western genre”.
Teddy: Yes I remember that review. My publisher was very proud of that, and he even made a special poster with that quote on it.
Elaine: Then we look forward to the next book in the series. Thank you for your time.
Teddy: I thank you.