Burl Barer interview — classic from BookBrowser, December 2000

BookBrowser Interview: See how much younger I looked back in the good ol' days? Time takes its toll on all of us.  Doris Ann Noris, an admitted fan, conducted this interview with me back in December of 2000.
Burl Barer 
Interviewed by Doris Ann Norris 
(December 2000)

Burl Barer is a fascinating man and satirically self-proclaimed brilliant writer. He has written both fiction and nonfiction and is the proud recipient of the Edgar Award for best nonfiction. It must be confessed that this interviewer is not really objective about Mr. Barer. When I first saw his posts on DorothyL (the premiere mystery listserv), I fell in love with Burl's way of looking at life. His hilarious BSP (blatant self promotion) is so over-the-top that it becomes self deprecating. Barer, however, has proven his talent with his books including the two very different works that were published this August. MURDER IN THE FAMILY is a blood chilling account of a real crime, while HEADLOCK is a riveting mystery featuring Barer's always laughworthy sense of humor. BookBrowser has a few questions to ask the talented Burl Barer, and we hope that you enjoy his answers.

BB: Burl, you have had an extensive career in advertising and multimedia presentations. Do you still work in these areas?

BBarer: I am a well known former media maven. Much to my delight, I was inducted into the Rock n Roll Radio Hall of Fame a few years back. That was one of the biggest thrills since I was made an Honorary Soul Brother at the Motown Review in 1966. That was quite an event–Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas–and Burl Barer (no, I didn't sing or do steps). I was a "Soul Jock" on R&B radio station KYAC, and since I was not what was then termed "Afro-American," it was decided that I would become an honorary Soul Brother in an elaborate ceremony in the Seattle Center Arena in front of about 10,000 screaming Motown fans. What a rush!

Now, to answer your question, I am occasionally hired to write and/or produce radio spots, compose print or web content, or consult on any manner of media/entertainment projects. However, my 30+ years of experience renders me sadly overqualified for most employment opportunities.

BB: You won an Edgar in 1994 for your nonfiction book, THE SAINT. What kind of impact, if any, did that have on your writing career?

BBarer: THE SAINT: A Complete History was my first book, so winning the Edgar certainly had an impact. Once you win the Edgar, you can put it on your book covers for the rest of your life. Both the book and the award gave me instant credibility. I admit, happily, to being a bit daring. My goal was to write a critical/biographical work about Leslie Charteris' The Saint that had a feel and flavor reminiscent of Charteris' books. In other words, I wanted it to be as fun as it was comprehensive.

Because of THE SAINT, I was approved by Warner Brothers and Mel Gibson's Icon Productions to write MAVERICK: The Making of the Movie/The Complete Guide to the Television Series. Spending three weeks with Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, and James Garner was delightful. As Maverick was the antithesis of the stalwart western hero of early 1960's television, and often ventured into satire, I wrote the book as a satire of The Making of . . . books. I was actually writing two books at once–MAVERICK and the limited edition CAPTURE THE SAINT. I only had 28 days to write the 60,000 word, fully illustrated Maverick, so I stopped CTS long enough to crank out MAVERICK. Oh, and I also wrote MAN OVERBOARD: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne, which is true crime, but unlike any true crime book you've ever read. No serial killers, no rapists–the "bad guy" whom you can't help but love, gets work release :-). I wanted to write in a specific genre, but do what is not usually done within the genre. People keep threatening to make a movie out of it, but it hasn't happened yet.

BB: MURDER IN THE FAMILY is a very graphic book about true crime, while your detective novel HEADLOCK is filled with the patented Barer humor. Were you working on both books at the same time?

BBarer: Nope. Headlock was written in Walla Walla when I still lived there–I moved back to the west side–Seattle area–about two years ago, long before MURDER IN THE FAMILY. HEADLOCK was originally written at the request of an editor at Simon & Schuster who wanted either a thriller or mystery from me because he enjoyed working with me on the novelization of the screenplay of THE SAINT. Jane Gelfman, who represented HEADLOCK and THE SAINT, told me, "Don't be too funny." So, I decided I would write a book in which every character was in intense psychic pain, including the hero. We sent the first 30,000 words to him and he loved it, couldn't wait for the rest, was starting to get the contract drafted . . . and then . . . he was GONE!!! GONE!!! And then there arose an editor who knew not HEADLOCK. No deal! We sent it out to all sorts of publishers. Even those who loved it didn't buy it! That really made me crazy. It's one thing to get standard rejection letters–I get plenty of them–but getting rejections from people who were crazy about it and went on at length about its virtues was a new experience for me. Deadly Alibi Press, however, loved it and published it. With Burl Barer's standard luck, somehow the uncorrected (typos, spelling errors) manuscript is what got published–the same thing happened with MAN OVERBOARD! We'll fix that as soon as enough people buy the soon to be rare first edition of HEADLOCK.

BB: In MURDER IN THE FAMILY, you attempt to get into the mind of a vicious sociopath who, at least at the time of your writing, never really accepts the horrible consequences of his action. Do you think it would be easier to write a fiction book on the same subject since you would be freer to speculate about the young man's mental state for your readers?

BBarer: In fiction we have the luxury of sharing internal dialog, thoughts, etc. In nonfiction, I can only do that if the real person tells me what they were thinking at the time. While researching MITF I wrote "Giving Shelter," a first person short story written from the mindset of a psychopath. It is interesting, if more than a bit disturbing. It is up on my web site.

BB: HEADLOCK featuring award-winning crime writer/PI, Jeff Reynolds, is a wonderfully textured novel with some serious themes, but the comedy is outstanding–especially Jeff's view of life. How much of Burl is in Jeff?

BBarer: 99.9% of Burl is in Jeff. But Jeff is more than Burl. Jeff is younger, stronger, more brave, his audiographic memory is 100% while mine was never that good–and has declined with age. It is hereditary–my daughter has/had it also. She saw Return of the Jedi once and could recite the dialog from the film, word for word, as spoken in the movie. She was born in 1978, so she was rather little at the time. She also memorized a good chunk of "The Raven&q
uot; (poem by Poe which I read aloud to her), and she could recite it before she was 2 years old. Once you discover that you are not supposed to be able to do that, it starts to fade. My cousin has/had photographic memory–made law school a snap! I don't know if he still has it or not . . . it lasted up through college for him.

BB: One of the delights of HEADLOCK for mystery fans is the cameo appearances of real mystery writers such as G.M. Ford and your hilarious description of Tony Fennelly's award catastrophe and her physical endowments. Since they wrote blurbs for the book, it appears that they approve.

BBarer: Oh, yes. I promised Tony she would win the Edgar. All dialog by other authors was approved by them. G.M. Ford knows what he said in the book, and it was fine with him–he sounded just like himself, didn't he? Larry Block doesn't have dialog, but I told him what I was going to do with his burglar series–buy Headlock and find out what I'm talking about–and he thought it was cool. I don't know what Earl Emerson thinks about being surrounded by arsonists, but I hope he finds it amusing.

BB: In future Jeff Reynolds books, do you intend to continue your have real life peers as comic relief?

BBarer: Oh, absolutely! I love mystery writers–they are kind, supportive, funny, wise, clever, warm, wonderful, and I have yet to meet a snotty one. I'm sure there is one snotty one out there, but I have not met that one yet.

BB: You have made no secret of the fact that you are affiliated with Baha'i faith and in fact, it is mentioned in both of the books. Could you give a brief synopsis of the tenets of the faith and how it has influenced you as both a person and a writer?

BBarer: Brief synopsis of Bahai Faith: Mission Statement: "to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the entire human race, and foster the spirit of love and fellowship." Goal: "the transformation of the individual and society by the application of spiritual principles." The Holy Writings of the Baha'i Faith are by Baha'u'llah (1817-1892). Basic principles: Oneness of God, Oneness of Religion, Oneness of Humanity–This Earth is one country and mankind its citizens, Harmony of Science and Religion, elimination of all forms of prejudice, dedication to the advancement of women and gender equality, importance of education, and so forth, non-involvement in partisan political disputes, support of international cooperation, unity in diversity.

Central Figure: Baha'u'llah (Glory of God) 1817-1892. Persian, imprisoned for 40 years because of His claim to be the long-awaited Messenger of God who would be the Promised One of all Faiths. Exiled and eventually sent to the prison city of Akka in Palestine. He was preceded by a forerunner (a "John the Baptist" figure) known as The Bab who was publicly executed in Tabriz, Persia in 1850. His remains are interred on Mt. Carmel in Israel. The resting place of Baha'u'llah is also in Israel. This is why the Baha'i World Centre (administrative/archives/Holy Pilgrimage sites, etc.) is located on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. The Baha'i Faith denies any exclusivity or finality for itself, and sees itself as part of an ongoing process of spiritual education and empowerment. It is essentially the same Faith as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc.–not in form, ritual, tradition or dogma, but in purpose: To lead people out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge and establish tranquility within, and between, all people.

BB: What do you see as the future for mystery writers as well as other authors who do not get the million plus advances and end up on the best seller lists before their books even hit the stores?

BBarer: Do I have a future? May I please have the million plus advances?

BB: If it were up to me, Burl, you would get that big advance. Please tell our readers something about the new true crime book on which you are working.

BBarer: Just wrapped up HEAD SHOT (not a sequel to HEADLOCK) which is about aREAL WEIRD double homicide in Tacoma Washington back in 1984–it is toooooo bizarre to explain in this interview. In short . . . two guys are murdered for no reason, no one knows they are dead (and one decapitated) until one of the "killers" leads police to the graves. But whoREALLY killed these two fellows? One victim was, the killers all acknowledged, murdered by being shot in the head with a .45. They buried him in the mountains. Then, they dug him back up, chopped off his head, and threw it in the river. It was either throw away the gun or the head with the bullet in it. When the head and body were discovered and examined, it was found that the victim was stabbed to death.

BB: We can only hope that there will be another Jeff Reynolds mystery, in fact many more. Are you working on another one now?

BBarer: Yeah, I'll write it as soon as I get a chance. It will be published as soon as I write it.

BB: Thank you very much for your time, Burl. Hope that you garner many more fans from this interview and the reviews of Headlock and Murder in the Family. We will look forward to your future books.

Copyright © BookBrowser, 2000. 

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