Bob Goldsborough: Mystery Writer at Large
Interviewed by Ben Kowalski
The world of mystery writing is filled with secrets, clues, and brimmed hats, and Bob Goldsborough has seen just about every corner of it. The author of eleven Nero Wolfe novels and five Snap Malek novels, Goldsborough started as a newspaperman, working for 21 years at the Chicago Tribune and 23 years at the trade journal Advertising Age. His most recent novel, Stop the Presses (Mysterious Press), was published March 8, 2016.
Hair Trigger had a chance to talk to Bob Goldsborough about his unlikely route into mystery writing, the creative process involved, and working in Chicago.
Ben Kowalski: How did you first get into mystery writing?
Bob Goldsborough: When I was a teenager, I made what seemed like a mistake—telling my mother I had nothing to do. She could have come right back saying “mow the lawn” or “wash the car,” but what she did [was] say, “Why don't you read a mystery story?” She gave me a Nero Wolfe story by Rex Stout. She loved these mysteries, partly because [they were] Who-Done-It [stories], but even more because these were not violent stories. There was not a lot of gore or a lot of sex or a lot of swearing in them. They were puzzles. Over the years, I began reading and enjoying them more and more.
In the 1970s, Rex Stout died at a ripe old age, in his upper 80s. My mother saw his obituary in the Chicago Tribune and said, “Now there aren’t going to be any more Nero Wolfe stories.” I got to thinking about what my mother had said and thought, “Maybe there could be one more.” Without any real purpose in mind, I started writing a Nero Wolfe novel myself, using the very same characters that Rex Stout had. I finished it in time for the next Christmas. This was just type script—type-only on one side of a page, 8.5x11—but I had this thing bound in a leather binder, and I gave it to my mother for Christmas!
I had not written this story with a plan to have it published, but I later met a man who was involved in the Rex Stout estate. I told him I had a manuscript [for] a Nero Wolfe novel and showed it to him. Through a very complicated series of events, it ended up being published about eight years after it was written. Of course by this time, my mother had passed away. That story, Murder in E Minor, became a new Nero Wolfe novel published by Bantam Books in [April 1986]. That was the beginning.
The people at Bantam liked the book, and this helped to revive the backlist [of Nero Wolfe books]. It was good business for them. They wouldn't publish it, though, unless I signed a contract for two books. I ended up, over a period of years, writing seven Nero Wolfe books for Bantam Books. Then I stopped. The publisher felt that these books had accomplished what they’d hoped for—not only did they sell reasonably well, but they [also] reignited the backlist. Rex Stout wrote over 30 novels and almost 40 novellas in his 40 years of writing, so they were able to put [those] back in publication.
Then, I started writing my own series. I created a Chicago newspaperman named Steve Malek, and called him “Snap” Malek. He was a police reporter for the Tribune—my old employer—and I called him “Snap” because he always wore a snap brim hat. I set [the books] in the 1930s and ‘40s, using some real people and real Chicago events as a backdrop. That was phase two.
About five years ago, I got the idea to go back and do some more Nero Wolfe books. I wrote a prequel to the series Stout had done, called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. There really wasn’t much of a backstory to how they met in Mr. Stout’s books, but he gave me a few clues and I used every one of them in putting this book together.
BK: What is the biggest difference between your first Nero Wolfe novel, Murder in E Minor, and your most recent one, Stop the Presses?
BG: I have gotten more comfortable with the characters. There’s an ensemble company of characters in these Nero Wolfe books—close to 20 people making continuing appearances. [In the beginning], I was very cautious about making them behave exactly like Rex Stout would’ve had them behave. I still do that, but I’ve gotten more freewheeling and given the characters more of a backstory. For instance, there is an Inspector Kramer on the New York City Homicide Squad and Rex Stout never gave him a first name... so I gave him the first name of Lionel. I’m still trying to make sure I don’t do the silly things—make the characters behave in ways that are totally out of character—but I have gotten less timid about the way I picture the characters.
BK: How has your creative process changed since you began writing mystery novels?
BG: Probably not very much. There are usually a five or six suspects in every one of these books and I do write thumbnail biographies—maybe 100 words or so—on each of these suspects, [including] their age, their appearance, their personality, and so on. I still do that.
Basically, my approach has been pretty much unchanged over the years. I’m not a disciplined writer—I’d like to say I was, but I’m not. I don’t dedicate a certain time of day to writing a book, and I didn’t in the beginning. The thing that was a little different early on was that I had a full-time job at the Chicago Tribune, so I had to work on a book in off-hours. In the last eleven years.... I have [gotten] a much more flexible schedule. I could be writing right now, for instance, because I’ve got no job to go to!
BK: How has your time working in Chicago journalism affected your mystery writing?
BG: When you’re working on deadlines for a newspaper, you cannot sit at the type writer, or in front of the computer screen, and just agonize over what you’re going to write because you haven’t got the luxury of time. You’ve got to write fast. That really prepared me—I didn’t intend it to but it worked out that way. When I’m working on a book, I can take small chunks of time like an hour [...] and write several pages. I don’t sit in front of that computer screen and agonize. I’ve always been able to use small chunks of time to my advantage, and I think that was the newspaper training that did that for me.
BK: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
BG: I’m going to echo a quote from Rex Stout: “If I don’t have fun writing these stories, readers aren’t going to have fun reading them.” I feel the same way. To me, writing should not be agony—it should be fun. Sometimes I do run up against a tough spot and have to work my way around it, but by and large when I am working on a book, I’m having a good time doing it.
Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.