R is for Robert L. Iles

Photo by Patty Foster

Robert L. Iles passed away in 2007, and his wife, the lovely Phyllis, in 2010. I only met the two of them once, when Bob came to do a book signing in Corydon, but I corresponded with him by email. He was one swell guy, and funnier than hell. I miss him every day.

I interviewed him once, for an online magazine which also is no more. I reprint it today in Remembrance of him.

The Burning Woman is Robert L. Iles’ second book published
     by Avid Press in ten months. After many years in medical
     writing, he says switching to fiction is “a blast. It’s like
     getting out of a limo and hopping in a Corvette and flooring
     it.” He lives and works in Olathe, Kansas.

     MA: You have a new book of short stories just out from Avid
     Press (ordering information linked at end of article). Tell
     us something about it: Over what period of time did you
     write these stories? What inspired you to write them? Have
     any of them been published before? If so, where?

     ILES: I wrote the first story in the Peter B. Bruck, Private
     Investigator series, “The Missing Sister Caper,” in 1995,
     and it was published in the 1996 winter issue of Red Herring
     Mystery Magazine.  Twelve more stories followed in rapid
     succession, so that by 1999 I had 13 in print. When my
     publisher wanted to collect them in a book, I decided to cap
     them with a short Bruck novel, “The End of It,”  which I
     wrote in early 2000.

     The 13 short stories appeared in Murderous Intent,
     Whispering Willows, Blue Murder, The Thrilling New
     Detective, Cozy Detective, Potpourri, and Sleuthhound
     magazines before coming out as a collection. “The End of It”
     has never been in print before.

     My inspiration for the stories was the private-eye stories
     I’ve enjoyed reading over the years, and the film noir
     movies with private detective leads like Bogart, Mitchum,
     Powell, and, believe it or not, Jack Carson and Bob Hope.
     Other than a believable plot that keeps me guessing, the
     thing I like most in a story is humor. When I wrote the
     laugh lines in the Bruck stories, I realized I could just
     about hear Jack Carson or Bob Hope saying them.

     MA: Bruck stories aren’t all you write, are they?

     ILES: I also write about a fictional rural sheriff’s
     department staffed by the former sheriff and his son, who
     feels that being deputy is just a temporary spot from which
     he will spring into the sheriff’s job, now occupied by Okie
     Bliss, who served as undersheriff for 20 years. DEAD WRONG
     told the story of their pursuit of a suspect in the death of
     a beautiful young girl. THE MOTEL MURDERS, soon to be the
     second in the series, centers on deaths at a ma-and-pa motel
     way off the beaten path.

     When the cupboard is bare, I return to medical writing,
     where I made my living before turning to crime writing.
     Generally, it consists of ghostwriting journal articles,
     book chapters and monographs for physicians and researchers.
     I also do medical writing under my own name, so you’ll see
     me listed as an author here and there. And my GUIDEBOOK TO
     BETTER MEDICAL WRITING, “the how-to book for writing journal
     articles,” is selling well not only in the U. S. but in
     Europe, Asia and Australia.

     I credit a friend in Japan for getting me to write it,
     translating it into Japanese, and getting it published in
     Japan. Takeo Hikichi is a professor of English at the
     Fukushima Medical College in Fukushima City. I’m the
     publisher of the English-language version. (Please, no smart
     questions about who translated my U. S. version into
     English.)

     MA: Any plans to blend your medical expertise and your crime
     writing?                                                     

     ILES: Not any plans, but a writer uses what he has. I’ve
     found that in some of my stories I present information that
     I wouldn’t if I had no background in medicine. For example,
     Doc Young is a character in DEAD WRONG and in the book I’m
     working on now, so I have him doling out bits and pieces of
     medicine that are integral to the plots.  And in THE BURNING
     WOMAN I used some of what I’ve learned about medicine.

     My so-called medical background is just a crazy-quilt of
     bits and pieces. I could do what I’ve done in medical
     science for another 100 years and still not be half a
     doctor. Of course, I tell all the women in my neighborhood
     practice…… Well, I won’t go into that.

     MA: You’ve told us about your Hollywood inspirations; how
     about your literary inspirations? Hammett? Chandler? Stout?
     Spillane? Any others? Any surprises?

     ILES: I think any mystery writer would like to say Hammett,
     Chandler, Stout, Spillane et al are his inspiration. But I’m
     not ready to claim any connection with them. (Well, if you
     insist….)

     The writers whose work appeared so simple that I thought,
     Gee, I oughta be able to do that are Maurice Proctor,
     Jonathan Ross, Reginald Hill, Michael Gilbert, Colin Dexter,
     James McClure, Georges Simenon and Matsumoto. Surprise. It
     isn’t simple.

     If I ran the literary world, I’d see to it those guys were
     ranked up there with the authors who produce serious novels
     of relationships, passages, angst, societal insights and
     other dreary stuff. I would like a literature professor  
     to tell me why Hill, Dexter and McClure, for example, can’t
     be honored as literary masters instead of just as mystery
     writers.

     MA: What’s the hardest part of writing a mystery? Concocting
     clues? Hiding the clues? What do you think about the “play
     fair with the reader” stance? Did Agatha Christie, for
     example, “play fair”? Do you?

     ILES: For me the hardest parts of writing a mystery are
     figuring out who did it and why. That’s because I invent the
     murder at the outset and go on to invent the characters.
     Subsequently I let the characters develop; actions and plot
     points grow out of their development. It’s the hard way of
     doing things but also the most fun, and maybe the best way
     to build a mystery the reader both believes and enjoys.

     Yes, clues must be hidden along the way, and in plain sight.
     They might be an expected part of a character’s behavior so
     they aren’t seen as clues, or they may be ambiguous. But
     keeping from the reader until the very end that Colonel
     Mustard had a hollow leg in which he kept an apparatus that
     transmitted TV pictures of everything that went on in the
     library to the back of his eyeglass frames…well, that’s
     not cricket, or even baseball.

     I’d like to be able to hide clues as well as Agatha Christie
     did. Rex Stout was pretty good at it, too. And Ed Dee, who
     writes New York cop stories, ranks pretty high. But enough
     about the acknowledged craftsmen. (Craftsmen and
     craftswomen? Craftspersons? Crafty writers? As William
     Safire said, “Person the lifeboats, the language is going
     down!”) Me, I try to play fair with the reader. I’d love to
     hear from anyone who thinks my clues aren’t fair. I can’t
     make a money-back offer, but if complainers are nasty
     enough, I will put them in my next book as the cranky Miz
     Kerridge or the grouchy ol’ Payne. Step right up, don’t be
     bashful.

     MA: That brings up another question: Do you ever write real
     people into your books, as tribute, as revenge, or just for
     fun? If you wreak revenge on a real person through your  
     fiction, what do you do to protect yourself from their wrath  
     or, worse yet, their lawyers?

     ILES: When I go back through my casts of characters, I have
     to admit a few are close to 100 percent from real life. But
     I only do that with people who can’t read. (See how neat I
     did that? None of my old pals is gonna jump up and claim he
     is the model for some knucklehead who can’t read.)

     Probably no writer makes a character up out of whole cloth.
     His observance of human behavior is going to determine how
     he paints his fictive people. And I know that in my case I
     sometimes devise characters whom I at first don’t think are
     modeled on someone, but later realize, “Gee, there’s a big
     slice of ol’ Juice in the con man. He came up out of my
     subconscious and got on paper without me knowing it. He
     really is a sneaky guy.”

     MA: DEAD WRONG seems to have a more somber tone than the
     Bruck stories. Are you trying to “do more” with that series,
     or is it a matter of length–do you feel you can go more
     into depth and motivation, create more reality, in a longer
     work?

     ILES: I think I was just writing two different books, and
     the accident of mood (“Gawd, I feel mean today. Think I’ll
     write a book about mean people.”) might have had something
     to do with the mood or tone of DEAD WRONG.

     There is no doubt, though, that the Bruck stories are my
     idea of fun. I doubt I could write a somber Bruck story.
     Somehow at the outset I saw Bruck as a guy who likes a
     laugh–even at his own expense, even when danger is
     direst–and that’s the groove I’ve stayed in.

     Practicing a little psychiatry without a license, I’ll tell
     you I have, in the trendy phrase of the day, some “unresolved
     issues from my childhood” in the town where I grew up, which
     is the inspiration for Mt. Hope in DEAD WRONG. If I ever get
     to the William Faulkner level in literature–may take a
     week or two–it will be fun to see what the amateur
     psychologists (more commonly known as literary critics) have
     to say about me. “Hmm, deep-seated anxieties that someone
     was going to steal his bicycle are clearly reflected in the
     scene where the sheriff beats the bejesus out of the dead
     girl’s stepfather.” Wow, I get to be a writer and get free
     analysis of my id, ego, and super-ego plus free drinks at
     book signings. When do the girls get here?

     MA: You’re both a short-story writer and a novelist. Are the
     two similar? Can a writer who does one do the other?

     ILES: I don’t think mystery writers see them as similar. A
     short mystery story is a little like a watch. The pieces fit
     each other precisely, without gaps. There are no pieces
     plugged in from other “watches” (stories) that didn’t
     work right. And most notably, there are no extra pieces.

     In a mystery novel, you can have extra pieces–characters
     who are interesting but who don’t do much to further the
     plot and scenes that illuminate a character’s mind but do
     little to make the plot work. And if the main character’s
     bartender comes from another book you never completed,
     well, as long as he’s interesting and doesn’t get in the
     way, that’s okay.

     Can a writer who does one do the other? I don’t know. There
     is a long list of writers who have done both well, but who
     knows how many have tried to jump from one form to the other
     and have fallen on their face. (You English teachers out
     there may now pause to debate whether that should be “face”
     or “faces.” That’s one of the great things about
     first-person detective and cop fiction: No one expects them
     to talk right. And while I’m on the subject, I know English
     grammar better than the average bear, and the hogwash I have
     heard at writers’ conferences and in writing courses….
     Well, let’s just say you’re better off teaching yourself to
     write, with a college grammar book at the ready.)

     MA: What kind of research did you do for your books? I’m
     particularly thinking of the Bruck stories/novel, with the
     period details and atmosphere. You didn’t crib all of that
     out of old movies.

     ILES: I lived in Jersey for a year and half, close enough to
     Manhattan you could see the Empire State Building from my
     bedroom, and from time to time my work would take me to the
     city. And there are times now that I live back in the good
     old midwest that my work takes me there.

     But the number of visits and the amount of time I spend
     there don’t matter as much as the fact that the place
     fascinates me. I’m still Leonard Hick from Punkin Crick.
     “Gorsh, looka all them tall buildings. Golly, where do all
     these people come from and where are they going?”

     I do not have a New Yorker’s love for the place, but I like
     being there, feeling the hustle-bustle, the mysteries of a
     place that could be called the capital of the world. So I
     pay attention to it. I’d ten times rather read a mystery set
     there than in LA or Dallas or Corydon. (I made that up;
     there is no Corydon.) [Interviewer's note: The interviewer
     is from Corydon.]

     Finally, the real truth: When you’re a fiction writer, you
     can claim Broadway crosses Second Avenue and most readers
     either won’t know or won’t bother to care about it. Those
     that do will publicize your book with their rants about
     inaccuracies.

     I especially enjoy making up “truth” in psychiatry when I’m
     writing fiction. Anything you say about the field or the
     practitioners has been or will be true. A Park Avenue shrink
     who treats psychoses by spraying patients with horse dung? Uh,
     sure, I suppose it’s happened, or will.

     MA: One final question: Your Bruck book is a print-on-demand
     publication. What does this technology mean to authors?

     ILES: As I see it, only good. The production values–cover
     color, quality of cover and inside paper, price, readability
     of print–are the same or better. So to readers, everything
     is fine.  

     To book distributors and bookstores, everything is probably
     better than fine. They don’t have to carry large stocks of
     books that take up expensive space and that cost an arm and
     a leg to ship. “Shipping” is done pretty much
     electronically. Just think how quickly the online
     booksellers will take unto their bosom the idea of printing
     on demand. Well, yeah, Amazon is actually a word meaning
     without a breast, but….

     “Ah,” you say, “but will Mr or Miz (I hate that so-called
     word, and women should, too. It sounds like short for
     ‘miserable’) Ordinary Book Buyer want to wait for a
     book–won’t they just buy one that’s on the shelf and be on
     their way?” Ah, I say, it ain’t the way you paint it.

     First, print-on-demand books can now be shipped to the
     retail stores in a matter of days from a warehouse that
     prints books on demand. We wait that long now for the books
     we order.

     Second, the day is coming when the books will be printed at
     the bookstore in about 15 minutes. It’ll be like ordering a
     decaff latte, whipped cream, no cinnamon. Large. In a
     go-cup.

     Third, unless you are a blockbuster author, the chances of
     your book being on every store’s shelves all the time are
     nil. But with POD, books by new authors and from small
     publishers as well as books by big-time authors and from
     huge publishers will be “on” most stores’ shelves “all” the
     time, in the sense that the books can be printed and a
     quality cover can be glued on in about 15 minutes.

     Fourth, small publishers and new authors probably will have
     a better chance of reaching their particular readers. Right
     now, only big publishers are making respectable profits, and
     their operations are so expensive they don’t want to gear up
     for Jack Nobody’s book about insect fossils at the South
     Pole. Small publishers who do POD can afford to publish
     books like that.

     Fifth, forget everything I said for a couple of years. If it
     turns out I was right–that POD books have a significant
     (10-30%) and growing fraction of the market–erect a statue
     to me, bow down and send money. If it turns out I was wrong,
     well, it’s the fault of all the people who don’t like me
     and gummed up the works on purpose.

     MA: Whether or not one likes Mr. Iles (and the interviewer
     confesses that one does like him, in spite of his attitude
     toward the chattel-neutral term, “Ms.”, which was standard
     business usage long before the ’60’s backlash demonized it)
     –whether or not, the interviewer repeats, one likes Robert
     Iles, one has to admit he spins one hell of a yarn.

Bob’s books are still available at Amazon.com.

If Bob were around today, he would love it if I signed this:

Yours truly,
O. ReVuar

A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Interview a friend.

MA

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Comments

R is for Robert L. Iles — 15 Comments

  1. Wonderful interview. I feel like I’ve met up with this gentleman now, too.

    Print on demand. So wonderful an idea. It looks like e-books have just skipped right over it, though. POD is still available, but …

  2. Thank you — Thank you — Thank you for this, Marian.

    Any given morning, I could count on Bob to lift me from sad, depressed, grumpy thoughts (I’d add “nasty” — but we both enjoyed a lil’ bit of “gutter humor”). He was a jewel of a man, and a wonderful, talented writer.

    …and I believe *he’d* love the fact you posted this on “4/20″.

    Bob Iles? I know you’re lifting “spirits” in Heaven…. Party on, Dude!

    Ginny Fleming would love to share..Please “bear” with me… I’m not “lion” when I say: I’mma idiot.My Profile

  3. Robert L. Iles was my father. A friend sent me the link to this interview today, and I was overjoyed to read it! While your name is familiar to me, Marian, I don’t recall having read this before.

    Thanks for keeping him alive through re-posting the interview. He was a great man on many levels – a great father, grandfather, husband, friend, and writer. I only wish he’d had more time to share his wit and humor with us all.

    • You were kind enough to reply to an email I sent Bob, letting me know what had happened to him. It was so very kind of you to do that. Just what I might have expected of a son of my friend. :) I honestly do miss Bob all the time. He was a spark of joy. In checking some facts about Bob for this post, I was saddened to learn of the death of your beautiful mother, too. I met her when she accompanied Bob to Corydon for a book signing. I’m so sorry for your double loss.

      Thank you for stopping in and commenting. Please keep in touch with me, okay?

    • Hello, Sarah! Bob was FULL of personality. :) It’s hard for me to believe I only met him once, and we conducted this interview over several rounds of email. Thank you for stopping by. Anybody with anything good to say about Bob is a friend of mine!

  4. Hello, Marian.
    My siblings just shared this article with the rest of us. Thank you for re-posting the article and keeping his voice alive. I can “hear” him in the interview and I just love it!

    • Hi, James — pleased to meet all of you. One of the great things about Bob’s writing is how strong his voice was. What a treasure it was to know him, even if it was only over the internet. And what a blessing it’s been to me to hear from all of you! :)

    • Jean, I miss Bob every day. I only met him once in real life, but he and I were mischief-makin’ buddies online. He passed a few years ago, but I still think of things he would get a kick out of and wish I could share them. Hugs!

      Marian Allen would love to share..SAGEMy Profile

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