Sleuthing Out the Story: An Interview with David Corbett

Want mystery, intrigue, and colorful characters in your stories? To amplify all those elements in your storytelling, Writing Pad brings you a weekend with David Corbett on Mar. 8-10!
David’s work has been touted as “the best in contemporary crime fiction” by the Washington Post. This January, Penguin published his newest book on the craft of character, The Art of Character, for which he is currently on book tour.
In a previous incarnation of his career, David was a senior operative for the private investigation firm Palladino & Sutherland for over 15 years, working on numerous headline cases including the DeLorean Trial, the Michael Jackson case, the Lincoln Savings Loan Scandal, the Cotton Club Murder Case. He’s published four novels: The Devil’s Redhead (nominated for numerous Best First Novel awards), Done for a Dime (a New York Times Notable Book), Blood of Paradise (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, Washington Post Top Ten Mystery/Thriller for 2007, San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book), and Do They Know I’m Running (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel—Rising Star Category 2011).We were thrilled that David was able to carve some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us.

In your previous life as a senior operative for Palladino & Sutherland, you were involved in some headline cases. Tell us about a few of your favorites.
The Michael Jackson case was an eye opener from the standpoint of realizing just how many parasites throng around a superstar. Jackson’s own staff bled him dry while sucking up and feeding his insatiable need to be loved and validated. You put weak, venal people that close to power and money and their souls turn into sewers in an eye blink.
The People’s Temple case was the most heartbreaking. Larry Layton was being tried for the second time for conspiracy to assassinate a U.S. Representative, Leo Ryan, who was killed at the Jonestown airstrip in Guyana along with several others. Layton was definitely one of the gunmen, but our defense centered around showing that the prosecution could not prove intent due to the long-term brainwashing and deprivation Layton and other Temple members suffered, exacerbated by isolation and the Temple’s bizarre rules and structure.
I interviewed dozens of Temple members. Hearing their stories about being gullible and betrayed, of losing loved ones, of being treated savagely by the FBI, then ostracized upon coming home, afraid to mention they’d once belonged to the Temple truly broke my heart and galvanized my commitment.  You recently came out with a new book on developing characters. Which one of your real life cases as a Private Investigator had the most colorful cast of characters?

I worked on a number of interrelated marijuana smuggling cases linked to a group of characters out of San Diego who called themselves the Coronado Company. They were Navy brats for the most part, comfortable with boats and the sea, and began dealing pot in high school, crossing into TJ for party-size loads, nothing major. But little by little the demand grew and so did their nerve, until they got to the point someone needed to speak Spanish. So they recruited their high school Spanish teacher, a walking mid-life-crisis named Lou Villar, into the company. They began doing major smuggling runs up from Mexico, then teamed up with some Vietnam vets yearning for a little adventure who had contacts in Southeast Asia. They became the largest smuggling operation on the West Coast, and were more wild than evil. If they’d lived in the 17th century they would have sailed around the world for treasure and fame. They were just born four hundred years too late.
In particular, one money laundering case out of Reno involving the Coronado Company had a real cast of oddball characters. One of the defendants had spent five years in a Cambodian prison, one had a fascination with a Peppermill cocktail waitress because she resembled a young Donna Reed,and the informant was a former Las Vegas midnight movie host.
How does your background as a private investigator inform your work as a crime fiction author?
I realize that criminals are not two-dimensional monsters preying on the noble innocents of the world. Morality is a bit more ambiguous than that, as people are far more complicated.
What inspired your leap from investigative work to professional writer?
I was actually writing before I became an investigator. I decided to take the job figuring it would serve as my “years at sea,” providing me a much broader and varied view of the world than I might otherwise experience. And I was right, to put it mildly.
How has your writing process changed over the course of writing your four published novels?
I have increasingly embraced the use of scenes at all levels of character development, I outline my structure far more extensively at the outset, and I’m more attentive to subtext.
In addition to novels, you’ve also written short stories and poetry, with two of your stories selected for Best American Mystery Stories. What’s the key to packing in all the necessary mystery and suspense in short form?
You have to remember that a story usually focuses on a key revelation as its climactic event, and not try to do more than that, or else things get unwieldy. And suspense is largely a case of asking a question and withholding the answer. That’s true of whatever form you use.
We’re very excited about your new book on character creation, The Art of Character, and your workshop at Writing Pad that will apply some of the techniques for developing complex characters. Can you give us a preview of your approach?
I focus on developing an intuitive link—or a bridge of empathy—between the writer and the characters, which requires a certain level of self-scrutiny and honesty. I work on plumbing one’s own experience for both character conception and development. I show how five key elements are crucial to compelling characterization, and that development from that point forward largely requires focusing on moments of significant emotional impact, usually involving an element of helplessness, to develop a deep understanding of where the character has come from, where he stands when the story begins, and where he might realistically head.
When you say it like that, it almost sounds easy! Thanks for your time, David.
Learning from a storytelling master of mystery and suspense like David will do wonders for your own work. Writing Pad is hosting two upcoming classes with David – She’s Got Character: Developing Characters That Work on March 9th and The Spine of Crime: Structure and the Crime Story on March 10th – in addition to the one-night panel Crime Scene Confidential: Writing The Believable Mystery along with fiction, craft, and TV uber writers Bill Rabkin (“Psych”, “Monk”) and James Scott Bell (“Plot and Structure”, “Deceived”). Sign up before they’re full. Your characters will thank you!