Setting in mystery novels is so important to me. My favorite mystery novels always feature a strong element of setting – Robert B. Parker’s Boston, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Shepherd’s Bush area of London, and Lawrence Block’s New York City, just to name a few. Former journalist Joel Mark Harris joins me today to talk about setting in his wonderful John Webster series of noir mystery thrillers.
Joel and I both live in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and Vancouver is also the setting for Joel’s novels. On today’s podcast we discuss how important setting is to Joel, as well as the research he does for his main character, John Webster, who is a soldier back from Afghanistan, who is struggling with PTSD and substance abuse problems.
Joel’s cat Phantom also make a special guest appearance!
Transcript of Interview with Joel Mark Harris
Alexandra: Hi, everyone. I’m Alexandra Amor and I’m here today with Joel Mark Harris. Hi, Joel!
Joel: Hello. How are you?
Alexandra: Very well, how are you?
Joel: Good, thank you. Thanks for having me.
Alexandra: Oh you’re so welcome, my pleasure. It’s nice to have another Vancouver writer on the show.
Joel: Yes. Yeah.
Alexandra: That’s pretty exciting. I’ve had writers from Thailand so far, the eastern United States and U.K., so finally someone from my hometown. So by way of an introduction I’ll just let everyone know, Joel Mark Harris is an award-nominated journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and producer. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, he graduated from the Langara Journalism School in 2007. After working various jobs in the journalism and PR fields, Harris wrote and produced the award-winning feature-length film “Neutral Territory,” which we’ll have to talk about. I’d love to know more about that.
Joel is also the author of the “John Webster” mystery thriller series of books, which is primarily what we’re here to talk about today. So, tell us a little bit about John, Joel. He’s an investigative journalist and he’s back from the war in Afghanistan.
Joel: He comes from way back when I was in school and some of my teachers had some really fascinating stories about times when they were in the field, and there was no one in Afghanistan, but some of them had been to Iraq, and some of them had been into conflict zones like Africa. And I just loved those stories and I thought they were super fascinating, so John really came out of those stories. He comes back from Afghanistan and he suffers from all that war and all the trauma that he experienced over there, so he tries to fit back into normal life, into Vancouver, and he has a really tough time. He copes with alcohol and he doesn’t really sleep, but he does the one thing that he’s really good at, and that is investigating crime, or cover-ups, or anything that is suspicious to him.
Alexandra: And in the first book I think he’s investigating, oh no, I was going to say a sniper but that’s one of the later ones.
Joel: That’s, yeah, that’s called “The Tiger Always Eats Last” and that’s my most recent book. The first one is called “A Thousand Bayonets.” All my titles come from some quotes about journalism. “A Thousand Bayonets” is from a Napoleon quote that says he fears four hostile newspapers more than a thousand bayonets, and that one is about…he investigates these gangsters who are basically running the city and running drugs, and I took that from basically the headlines when I wrote it. That was one of our major issues in Vancouver, and I mean it still is today, but it doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in the newspapers or in the news stories right now. So that was that one.
Alexandra: Mmm, okay. And so you obviously take a lot of your journalism background and bring that into the story.
Alexandra: And how much does research play a role in what you write?
Joel: So, generally the idea comes to me and it would be different pieces from different areas of my life. A lot of it can be from newspapers or from stories I read, and then some of it is from the fiction, so I take that, and then that’s sort of when the research comes into play. And so for my latest book I didn’t really know much about snipers so I did a lot of research about snipers and the weather conditions that they have to shoot through and some of the history for the snipers and learned about the longest shots somebody has made. And also DNA plays a part in the story, so I did some research on DNA and I talked to people in the field, I talked to other writers and kind of accumulated my knowledge through that.
Alexandra: Oh, cool. Awesome. Yeah, research is one of my favorite things to do. Learning interesting things about something you had never had any idea about is always one of the most fun parts of my job, I think.
Vancouver is the setting for your novels. John lives here. I have two questions.
One is, what kind of a role does Vancouver play in the story? And have you learned anything interesting about the city that you didn’t know before you started writing the books?
Joel: Good questions. So, there’s two stories, two novels that Vancouver plays a role in. The other two novels, there’s Calgary and then Toronto.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Joel: So each of the stories, the city…I love cities and so the city plays a large part in each of the novels. And for Vancouver specifically, I find that the rain and the mood plays a big part in the story. So, for example, my last book, it’s always raining, so it’s always cloudy and thundery, and so that really sets the mood for me and it sets the tone of the book. And so that really played a big part in my latest novel.
For the first one, “A Thousand Bayonets,” there’s more of places, Gastown, sort of the older parts of the city really inspired me I think partly because of the film noir aspect of the books. I guess we’re going to talk about this later, but if we turn into a film, then that will also play a big part. The visual aspects of the city, the older buildings, definitely play a big part. I think, to answer your second question, the part that really played a big part was Blood Alley. I don’t know if you’re aware of the history behind that, but there’s a lot of folklore with that. It’s a very little alley and very insignificant but it’s called Blood Alley.
Alexandra: Okay. Yeah, I’ve heard of it.
Joel: Yeah, so there’s several stories of how it came to be named Blood Alley. One is it used to be the place where they hung criminals.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Joel: And there’s another one. There used to be a lot of butcher’s shops and so there would be a lot of slaughtering of, I think cows, and the blood would actually run down the alley. I don’t know, little stuff like that that I learned about the city and I found I was really fascinated by. I mean, it doesn’t really play a huge part in the novel, but a little side bar, if you will.
Alexandra: I think too as authors, just kind of having that information running through our veins is a really nice way to bring texture and character to a novel.
Joel: For sure, yeah. Definitely. I felt that it really fit in with the film noir aspect and John Webster as a character as well.
Alexandra: I referred to the books as mystery thrillers in the intro. Would you consider them more noir novels, or…?
Joel: A bit of both I would say. They definitely have aspects of each. Definitely some mystery, thriller, suspense sort of all thrown into one book, so to speak.
Alexandra: And then the noir element comes in, I guess, in John Webster’s character. He’s a troubled guy with a difficult past. Is he dealing with PTSD?
Alexandra: Wow. What was the catalyst for writing these books? You went to journalism school. Had you always been attracted to writing fiction? Oh, there’s Phantom. [Joel’s cat Phantom makes an appearance in the video.]
Joel: There’s Phantom, yeah. I went to journalism school because I thought it was a way I could make a living as a writer. I knew fiction was really difficult to make a living with, and so I was like, “Okay. I’m going to do what I really love,” which is writing, “and apply it to the real world.” And I mean if I thought about it a little longer, I perhaps would have realized that the world is kind of shifting away from the old school model of newspapers and subscriptions and it’s in the transition mode that it’s really hard to get a job as a journalist. You can do freelancing, but even freelancing doesn’t pay like it used to.
So I did journalism for a while and I loved it. I worked for a couple newspapers when I graduated, but I was like, “You know what? If this is as hard as making a living writing fiction sounds like, screw it, I’m just going to do what I really love, which is writing novels.”
It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I could remember, basically. I think when I went to journalism school, it opened up a whole new world for me that I didn’t even realize existed, and that was how important journalism and newspapers and knowledge really is what it comes down to is for people to have. I think a lot of people, they take it for granted, especially in the Western world.
People think that journalism is dying, and obviously it’s not, that it’s just transitioning, and I really thought that it was very interesting and I don’t think people realize this, that journalism still has a huge impact on us. The whole Syrian refugee crisis, the fact that all these countries are taking in these refugees happened because of one photograph of a little boy who had died while trying to escape Syria. And so it still has a big impact on us, and so I want to be able to communicate that through my fiction and show that to other people, that journalism still really matters. I’m not sure if I really answered your question there, but…
Alexandra: No, that was great.
Joel: It did really impact me, my journalism degree, and even though it may be a little bit of a blip on my fiction radar, it really did impact the way I write and what I write about.
Alexandra: That is so cool. I actually got chills when you were talking about it. That’s a really neat kind of, I don’t know if you would call it a moral background, but a deeply held value that informs your writing.
Joel: Yeah, and I think, just to get back to the fiction, John Webster, he believes in what he’s doing. He believes it has value, but at the same time, he’s very jaded about society, about life that he tries to kind of swim through all that muck and get to the truth and what he’s really good at.
Alexandra: Which is exposing the truth about…
Joel: Exactly, yes. Yeah.
Alexandra: Okay. Yeah, got it.
And does he struggle to keep a job as well? He works for a fictional newspaper here in Vancouver.
Joel: Yeah. Yes, there’s several pressures on him. One is obviously the financial side of newspapers going out of business and not making as much money, and of course then he’s a bit of a decorated journalist so he’s won some awards. He’s obviously held in high regards in some factions of the newspaper, but then in other factions he’s mistrusted, and there’s some jealousy. He’s not very punctual, so he does have trouble holding down that nine to five job as well. So he has kind of two forces that are against him.
Alexandra: Okay, so meaning his character and then the economic realities of journalism?
Joel: Yes, exactly. That’s well put.
Just getting back to Vancouver as a setting, I noticed one of your reviewers said they had never been to Vancouver but they felt like they had after they read your book. I thought that was a pretty cool thing to say about stories that are location-focused.
Joel: I get that a lot actually, and it goes back to the fact that my cities or the settings do play a big part in the story, and whether it’s the mood or…I really try to, some places are fictional, but usually I will pick a place that is actually there. So if it’s a coffee shop or some sort of building, I try to make it as real as possible and make it stand out for the reader as well.
In my latest book, I have a tower that is not actually in part of Vancouver, but it plays a pivotal role in the story. And I won’t give too much away, but it’s not there, it’s not a real place just because of the storyline, so there’s part of that and part of trying to ground everything in reality.
Alexandra: Yup. Yeah, exactly. I totally get that. Let’s touch briefly on film.
Alexandra: Tell me whatever you want to, actually, about your work in films and production and the possibility of your novels going into film.
Joel: Sure. So again, it’s been kind of crazy, but I always wanted to write screenplays and get into film a little bit, but then I met a director and producer just by chance. We were playing soccer together, and he’s like, “Oh, I need a writer for a film that I’m producing.” So I sent him some of my stuff, and he liked it, and we got along really well. And so we went in, and he has a production company called “Counting Ants,” and so we basically collaborated together on the film called “Neutral Territory.”
It’s based on the director’s life with, again, a little bit of fictional elements thrown in there, but it’s about an immigrant who comes from Switzerland. He immigrates to North America. He has a falling out with his dad. He moves to a big city, becomes this big-shot lawyer, gets engaged, and then his father falls sick, and he has to move back and take care of him. So the story is really about him reconnecting with his father. And so it’s a family drama. It’s a really universal theme. It’s something I haven’t really touched on in my fiction writing, but I think it works better as a screenplay.
And so through the years we have tried to get some projects off the ground, and film is even harder than making money from books, to make a living as a screenplay writer or a producer, especially if you want to do your own things and have some semblance of control over your work. So over the past, you know…he’s been a great supporter of my work, so when “A Thousand Bayonets” came out, he was one of the first people to buy a copy, and even though he’s not much of a reader, he read the entire thing. I think he connected to with the very visual aspects of the story and he could really see the city as well and see how it looked in his mind. He’s like, “Oh this would be a great film.”
I worked on several drafts of my book into screenplay, and then sent it off to several people, and got some feedback. One of the things they said was, “It’s too Hollywood.” Yeah. So we were sending it to more…to the CBC people, more Canadian producers, so they have smaller budgets and they wouldn’t be able to visualize and turn this into the film that we thought it could be. Over the years we’ve been kind of tinkering with that, and then we teamed up with a producer actually, and he was like, “No, this would be a great TV series.” Over the time, I feel like the Hollywood studios are going away from those movies. They’re taking less chances on smaller independent films and just rehashing the X-Men and all the superhero movies.
Even my movie-watching tastes have changed, and I’ve been watching more series, and so I feel like a lot more of the better writing and even the better producing is in Netflix and television series these days. We shifted gears over the last year and looking at turning it into more of a TV series, and I guess my biggest influence in the past little bit has been “Breaking Bad.” We thought, “Okay, so we have this character, John Webster, and he’s jaded, he’s bitter, he’s emotionally damaged. What was he like before that when he was a new journalist?”
We went back in time and started with John Webster as a fresh young face, and so what we hope to do is take young John Webster and then, through the series, have him progress into the journalist he is today, which I think is a super interesting transition and it’s a great place to take a character. We’ve been working on that for, I guess, about six months now and just working on the marketing package. We filmed a trailer, and that was the trailer that we sent out to the CBC people and the local producers. They thought that was too Hollywood, and so what we’ve done now is we’ve simplified it and we’ve really ramped up the quality of the piece, of the trailer, and we’re going to combine that with a marketing package and so send that out to the Netflix people, the Amazon people, and hopefully we’ll get a bite.
Alexandra: Oh, nice. Wow, that’s incredibly exciting.
And the thing that strikes me is I that I’ve realized that I didn’t think that any old person, any old author, could do that.
Alexandra: But you’re essentially pitching them this idea kind of cold, essentially.
Joel: Yeah, I think that it helps to have…because I’m not in the industry day to day, whereas my producing partners are, and so they bring some very valuable experience. They know what is selling. They know what doesn’t work, who likes what, and so that really helps, whereas my head is more focused to the writing aspect. They bring in such great knowledge, and so I would say that if there’s anyone out there who wants to follow this path is to really team up with people, with AAA+ players, people who are in the industry who know the ins and outs of it, because it’s a bit cliche to say, “It’s who you know,” but that is true for a lot of it. And being able to have those relationships is really key.
Alexandra: Yeah. Oh, so well said. Yeah, absolutely. Well, that is fascinating. This has been amazing, Joel. Thank you so much for talking to me. And so tell people where they can find your books online.
Joel: Sure, so obviously you can go to Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, all those regular places that you buy books. It’s in Chapters, Barnes and Noble. If you want to find out more about me, you can go to joelmarkharris.com or tweet me @JoelMarkHarris.
Joel: I think so, yeah.
Alexandra: Yeah, for the first three novels. That’s awesome. Alright, well thanks again so much and take care.
Joel: Yeah, thank you so much. Thanks for having me again.
Alexandra: You’re welcome. Oh, you’re welcome. Buh bye.