Thursday, February 28, 2013

Author Interview #163 – Murder and Other Distractions by Michael Estrin

Our interview is with Michael Estrin the author of Murder and Other Distractions (4.1 stars, 55 reviews). Before the interview a brief book description: If you’re wanted for murder, the last thing you should do is smoke a joint, eat a taco, and alienate potential alibis. Then again, Ethan isn’t a very good murder suspect. Maybe it’s just been a lousy week for him. There are layoffs at the office, poorly written death threats, and a vapid, but alluring coworker sending Ethan mixed signals. The f-buddy who loves to loathe him doesn’t understand that it’s over, and his philosophizing best friend is pretty sure that Ethan’s problem is merely the dreary momentum of the hipster ethos. Or it could be that Ethan’s pot dealer is out of baggies once again. But the cop who’s after him doesn’t buy any of that bullshit. Despite being lazy and crooked, Boyd is damn good at his job. He’s certain Ethan murdered his ex—The Girl Who Got Away—along with her nobody of a boyfriend. And the more Boyd hounds him for a confession, the more Ethan comes to see the murders as his way out of the existential crisis consuming him.

Interview with Michael Estrin

1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance the story?
I set Murder and Other Distractions in Los Angeles, my hometown. There’s nothing unique about setting a book in Los Angeles, just ask Raymond Chandler, or James Ellroy, or Bret Easton Ellis. Actually, don’t ask those authors. Chandler is no longer with us, Ellroy is something of a recluse, and Ellis… actually, do yourself a favor and tweet your LA questions @BretEastonEllis, because he’s pretty hilarious in 140-character bursts.
Anyway, back to Los Angeles. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine setting Murder and Other Distractions anywhere else. Readers describe the book as “very LA,” and I really like hearing that. One person told me that I ruined Silver Lake for them because whenever they drive through that part of town, all they can think about are the jokes I wrote lampooning hipsters. Other readers have told me that the book changed their mind about eating at Tito’s Tacos, which is the backdrop to my main character’s most opinionated rant and the site of an epic beat down.
2. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the novel?
I’m mostly interested in how we define the meaning of life and the things that matter to us. Specifically, I wanted to write about something I think most of us experience—caring for someone only to find that you really didn’t mean as much to them as they did to you. That’s what The Girl Who Got Away is to Ethan, and his understanding of that topic comes to shape the way he looks at his life when he realizes that there’s a strong possibility that he’ll forever be known as her killer.

A related theme in Murder and Other Distractions is alienation in the digital age. We have all these powerful tools for connecting with each other, but mostly we just screw around online watching Gangnam Style parodies and checking Facebook. The Internet gives us the illusion that what we do matters and that our relationships mean something. But honestly, I’m not so sure. As individuals, we dedicate a ton of time and effort to casual and frivolous things. We all act as if a Like on our Facebook post really means something. But how much can one mouse click really matter?
3. Do the characters seem real and believable?
I think so. But Ethan, the protagonist in Murder and Other Distractions, is a dark dude. The book is an unfiltered look inside Ethan’s head. His cynicism and apathy are palpable. I’m sure there are people like Ethan, but they usually aren’t that candid. If they were, you wouldn’t want to talk to them. Heck, you’d probably run away screaming.
4. How do characters change or evolve throughout the course of the story?
I think Ethan is consciously working not to evolve. If he evolved, he’d be a good hero, a likeable hero. But I think Ethan is a lousy hero, which makes him a fantastic antihero. If he were real, you’d probably punch him in the face. But as a fictional character, Ethan has the ability to get under your skin and challenge your worldview. He can disgust you, and anger you, but he can also hook you with his candor, and while you may not agree with him, it’s hard to deny his point of view.
5. In what ways do the events in the books reveal evidence of your worldview?
Not as much as you might think. The book is told from a very cynical perspective, and while I have my cynical moments, I’m probably more of a skeptic than anything else. That said there’s a lot of satire in the book about Los Angeles, hipsters, and Web 2.0. That’s all me.
6. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way?
I had a hard to writing one of the sex scenes. My first draft just came out way too flowery. Murder and Other Distractions is a dark comedy, so flowery is really the wrong tone. The scene is about indifference; it’s the last time Ethan is with his f-buddy, who he calls Inside Girl. To achieve an indifferent tone and still keep things interesting, I used a lot of crude language. One reviewer called it “porn in print,” and a few people thought it was sexy (which kind of makes me worry about them), but most people got it.
7. Was there a basis for your story? A previous experience?
Have you ever seen those stupid lists on the Internet? I’ve written a lot of them in the last decade, and if you clicked on one you’ve made a small contribution to my employment. Thanks!
I wanted to tell a story about someone who gets paid to make you go click. That kind of job can really skew your worldview, and I think that’s where Ethan is coming from.
8. What is your method for writing a book? A certain amount of hours every day? A certain routine?
I need to find the perfect first sentence. That’s my hook and my way into the story. From there, I like to write until I discover the tone. Once I have the tone down, I usually put the manuscript aside and write a loose outline. Then it’s back to pages. I rewrite as I go, so it’s hard to say that I do a specific number of words or pages a day. But I know when I’ve done a solid day’s work and when I’ve been slacking. The good news is that I really beat myself up for slacking, so I’m usually pretty productive. The bad news is that I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I may spend a day crafting a single sentence.
9. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the Internet?
I don’t believe in writer’s block, it’s a fiction for people who write fiction. To me, not writing because you have writer’s block is like canceling Christmas morning because Santa was impaled by a unicorn.
12. Favorite book from childhood?
I probably owe it all to the “See Spot” series.
13. What’s on your desk? Describe what you see when you look around.
My desk has two yellow legal pads on it and more dirty coffee mugs than I’d care to admit. There’s also a picture of my wife, a bunch of pens, and a cup overflowing with change.
Across from my desk are two red chairs. My dog is sleeping in one of them, but he reserves the right to get up, stretch, and nap in the other chair.
There’s a white board above the chairs. There are some illegible scribbles on it that have been there for a year. Honestly, I’m not even sure what project they’re for. I keep the white board around in case I have visitors because a white board gives people the impression that you’re making some 

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