|Robert Asprin and Eric Del Carlo: No Quarter|
Be careful when you try to interview Robert Asprin and Eric Del Carlo. Before you know it, they'll start interviewing you. Which is only what you'd expect from Asprin, renowned for his comic fantasy series featuring Phule and the Mythadventures of Aahz and Skeeve, his single-title novels, and his work as editor of the Thieves World anthology series. Del Carlo, a short story writer nominated for the 2000 Pushcart Prize and a past semi-finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial award, boasts fewer credits to date, but he learns fast.
Recently, Asprin and Del Carlo began collaborating on a mystery series set in New Orleans which promises to be the kind of stretch writers dream about. The series marks Del Carlo's first venture outside the world of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories. For Asprin, it represents a change from the light, punny voice of his fantasy novels to something darker, like New Orleans coffee with a bit of chicory added. At Dragoncon 2001 they talked about their plans for the new series and their love of the city they both call home.
Crescent Blues: How did two people best known for writing fantasy start working together on a mystery series?
Robert Asprin: Ever since I first visited New Orleans back in '89, I've been intrigued by the French Quarter. I always wanted to set something in the Quarter, whether it was historic or contemporary. Unfortunately, I was always tied up with previous commitments -- earlier multiple contracts -- and could not get a crack at it. I've had a five- or six-year down-spell as a writer, and now that most of the other contracts are cleared or down to the last book, I have a chance to do what I want to do -- specifically, something set in New Orleans.
I was hanging around with Eric, and it occurred to us that we could do this. Not to speak ill of other New Orleans writers -- there is considerable New Orleans fiction, particularly in the mystery side, some of it excellent. But for someone who lives in the Quarter, most writers' rendition of the Quarter sounds very much like an Uptowner who has come down to visit. They never really caught the flavor of the French Quarter neighborhoods, the gossip circles…
Eric Del Carlo: That is our principal qualification -- that we do live down there. Bourbon Street is the street that we cross to get to the A&P. We are, very much, on the inside. We live it. We breathe it. I've gone months and months at a time without leaving the French Quarter. There's everything there.
Crescent Blues: You actually can breathe it?
Eric Del Carlo: You get used to it after while.
Robert Asprin: It makes your hair go funny.
Seriously, when you live in the Quarter, a lot of your social life revolves around the bars. [The economy is] very heavily service industry. The staffs of the different restaurants hang out at different bars when they get off duty. And if something happens in the Quarter it can ripple through the area within a matter of a half-hour, if not a matter of minutes. If there's a shooting at one of the bars, if something happens, if there's a flash fire at one of the restaurants, within half an hour, all of the regulars in the Quarter know about it. "Do you know people who work there?" "No, but I know the people next door?" The Quarter is a very, very tight community.
There are about two thousand people who actually live in the Quarter, and a lot of those work Uptown, and only come back to the Quarter to sleep. But there are people who live and work in the Quarter who firmly believe you need a passport to get in and out of the Quarter. It becomes a little universe unto itself.
Crescent Blues: Is that how you met and decided to work together -- you lived near each other?
Robert Asprin: It's also right across the street from where he works.
Eric Del Carlo: Where my wife works, and she would go there to grab a cab late at night to get home. Even though the French Quarter is small, it can be rough like any city, so my wife prefers to cab it home. I would go there to collect her there occasionally or just to have a cocktail with her, to decompress from the job.
It was Bob's hangout. I got introduced to him. I had not read any of his fiction. Of course, I recognized his name. It's a recognizable name. But I had not read any of his fiction, so I didn't come across like a sycophant or even a fan. We got chatty, because he knows movie trivia, and I love movie trivia.
Crescent Blues: Does your mutual love of movie trivia factor in the series?
Robert Asprin: It factors occasionally in the "Bone" character. It crops up a bit more in the "Maestro" character.
Crescent Blues: Could you tell us a bit more about those two characters and their roles in the series?
Robert Asprin: The characters are roughly based on our own characters -- our physical description and age. Some of the obvious differences are apparent. For the character of Maestro, for example, I believe I may have created a new position in the Mafia. As the story begins to unfold, it turns out that Maestro used to be up North -- basically Detroit. You've seen the things with the knuckle-draggers and the knee-cappers who come in to collect. In the series, there are freelancers who are the actual hunter-trackers that go around and figure out the location of the [enforcers'] targets, which door to kick in. Once they point out the targets, the hunter-trackers step back.
Crescent Blues: Hunter-trackers are needed, because the knuckle-draggers can't figure it out on their own.
Robert Asprin: Also because when the knuckle-draggers walk in, everyone is going to shut up. Maestro spent considerable time as a hunter-tracker. He worked with a mob where he picked up some street-fighting tricks. But he accidentally tapped the wrong person -- the visiting son of another family -- and ends up in his own self-created witness protection program. He's on the run from both the mob and the police, and he's hiding out in the French Quarter. Everybody in the Quarter uses nicknames or assumed names. He has been living down there for a while and keeping a low profile, because he doesn't want any of the other trackers to pick up on him.
The basic story for the opener (No Quarter) is that word came through the bar that someone got knifed and killed up on the Moon Walk. It turns out to be one of the quarter regulars that everybody knows, including Maestro and Bone.
Eric Del Carlo: The Moon Walk is the promenade down by the Mississippi River.
Robert Asprin: The Bone character is…
Eric Del Carlo: Bone is much less exotic. He's the perfect Everyman for my generation -- I'm in my thirties. Bone is a waiter in a pretty much locals-only restaurant. He despises his job. He does it anyway. He's an atrocious waiter, but he makes very good money at it, because he knows the people who come to the restaurant, he's very quick with his wit. But he does not like to eat. Bone hates food. That's why they call him "Bone."
Crescent Blues: Is that a characteristic you share?
Robert Asprin: He usually eats once a week.
Eric Del Carlo: Whether I need to or not. I'm still waiting for them to release food in pill form, so I don't have to deal with the mess of it.
I based Bone a lot more closely on myself than Bob based Maestro on himself. (I'm pretty sure that Bob hasn't worked for the mob, though you never can tell. And I'm sure the rumors will fly after this.) I pretty much took my own neuroses and stuffed them into this character. The most important exception is that Bone has no creative outlet. I write, so I've always had something to aim for. There's a brass ring at the end of this. You won't be a waiter forever -- I have waited tables, by the way. There will be a pay-off in this life, somehow.
Bone doesn't have any of that, and I was always curious what I'd be like if I didn't have writing. Essentially, I'd be screwed, because I'd be doing these rotten jobs until I keel over.
In the first book, Bone is a good friend of the gal that gets killed. He decides that he's going to do something about this. We hook him up with Maestro, because, obviously, Maestro has more experience with this.
Robert Asprin: Bone starts ranting at the bartender in the bar he frequents, and the bartender says, "Maybe you should talk to Maestro before you try to do anything." The bartender is an old friend who knows more about Maestro's background than most of the Quarterites. After being annoyed at the bartender for saying as much as he did, Maestro concedes that Bone is a good man and about to go off half-cocked. So Maestro decides to calm Bone down or, at least, keep him out of too much trouble. These are the two hunters.
It is an interesting fantasy that we're building with these characters, particularly in the first two books, and it is a fantasy that will fit in very well with the local New Orleans power structure. We all know that the Quarter is very small and closed, and there are undercurrents that the police never hear about. And if the police try to come in and get answers, they often get stonewalled.
Suddenly, here we have a couple of characters that are borderline vigilante. If something goes on that they don't like or think is wrong, and they can pursue it, by whatever means possible, they can do it with the tacit approval of the police. And New Orleans being New Orleans, we can all jiggle the reports in the newspapers, and it all looks effervescent from the outside, and tourists don't get scared. At the same time, everybody who's interested in justice down there knows the Quarter is the Quarter, and it may take a couple of extra right turns to get justice there.
Eric Del Carlo: This is almost a fantasy wish-fulfillment. You wish that these two characters existed, so you could tap them for jobs no one else wants to do.
Crescent Blues: How does the character of Bone relate to the characters you've created for your short fiction? Were all of your stories science fiction, fantasy and horror, or do you write in other genres?
Eric Del Carlo: No, it's all been fantasy, science fiction or horror. This is the first time I've strayed outside the lines. I believe that every writer who does it for a little while eventually winds up writing about him or herself as the main character. It's the easiest thing to do, no matter how you disguise it. Robert Silverberg, for example -- you can always find Robert Silverberg in his books. He's always there, always the glum, introspective, dismal character with a bad view of the universe. [Samuel] Delaney, [Harlan] Ellison -- they're always the same.
Crescent Blues: Yet writing teachers always tell you not to write about yourself.
Eric Del Carlo: They also say write about what you know. I happen to know myself. But the resemblances are probably a lot more obvious to the writer than the reader.
Robert Asprin: You always put a little piece of yourself in every character you write. Lynn Abbey, my second ex-wife, summed it up very nicely: "If you don't care about your characters and what happens to them, how do you expect the reader to?"
I think too many people try to distance themselves from the writing, because if it gets rejected, they don't want to hurt too much. They try to go with formula, archetype or what-not -- and wonder why it won't sell or, even if it does, why people don't respond to it. Again, if you don't care about it, why should anybody else?
Eric Del Carlo: It's much easier to get involved when, essentially, your life is on the line.
Crescent Blues: Bob, between the books you've written and the anthologies you edited, you know both the buying and the selling side of publishing. How do you keep the roles of writer and editor separate?