Today, we get a chance to sit down and chat with author Robb T. White. We’ve been honored to publish several of Mr. White’s short stories in Thriller Magazine, and he is also the author of several novels, including his Thomas Haftmann Series. He’s a terrific author, and we were excited to ask him a few questions about his writing background and his works. You can learn more about Mr. White on his WEBSITE!
THRILLER MAGAZINE: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Robb. To start off, can you tell us how you began writing?
I’ve always been a reader of fiction, especially of true-crime fiction. Many years ago, I was browsing the new arrivals in mystery fiction in my hometown library, and I grabbed a so-called bestseller off the shelf and read a couple pages. Two things struck me immediately: the first thing was that the author was already “head-hopping”; a crime scene cop’s mind was opened to view the arriving detective. The second was that the detective was a stereotype—a young, handsome, unshaven maverick with a reputation for going his own way and always solving the toughest homicides against all odds and without help—so the interior cop’s estimation of the hero cop force-fed us readers in an unconvincing way.
I’ve met a couple good detectives since I began writing, and I’m impressed by their diligence in working within the rules, following up every lead regardless of its promise, and hammering out the endless reports that go with the job. They don’t sit around the precinct like Brad Pitt in Se7en complaining about being tied to a desk chair and wondering about the killer’s next move. The police are a paramilitary organization and cops like that bestseller’s don’t exist—except on TV and on library shelves. I thought I’d give fiction writing a whirl and wrote at night for my own amusement. I started a second private-eye story right after. I didn’t make any effort to publish either and I put them out of mind for about ten years.
TM: How was your first piece published?
The I.T. department at work was going to ghost my desk computer, and I was called by a student lab worker. He wanted to know if I wanted those Haftmann files or else they were going to be scrubbed. He backed them up on disk for me. A couple weeks later, I thought about them and did a brief google search for potential publishers. Ryan Thomas, now the chief editor at Grand Mal Press, liked the draft of Haftmann’s Rules I sent him, although it was the second Thomas Haftmann outing. He sent me a contract. A year after that, Saraband for a Runaway went to press.
TM: What drove you to write in the mystery genre?
I think it’s in my DNA from my mother’s side. She was an avid reader of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. My father never read anything but the daily paper. The odd thing is that I couldn’t finish the one Agatha Christie novel I attempted at the age of 25. Bored by its slow pace, I tossed the paperback across the lawn when I was halfway through. I need violence in my fiction, reading it or writing it. Betrayal and revenge are staple themes for me.
I chose private-eye fiction because it provides the necessary freedom of movement for my protagonist. I have to eat a little crow here, however. My intense admiration for Raymond Chandler’s style and his character Marlowe were a big influence in creating Haftmann. He’s a sorehead whose wife divorced him, he’s an on-and-off-again drunk, and he wisecracks way too much without those wonderful similes of Chandler. One of the Amazon reviewers of a Haftmann novel wrote this about Haftmann: “I found myself endlessly instructing Haftmann not to do the stupid, heroic, vainglorious thing, startled in the knowledge that he would do it. And he always did.”
I can say now, after that of all the reviews (not all good, of course) that have come my way since my writing hobby began in earnest, this observation pleases me most and tells me I might have succeeded.
TM: How has living in Ohio affected your writing?
Hard to say, both in good and bad ways. I’ll use my father’s expression for the bad: “Ohio is the biggest zero state in the Union.” I’ve lived in beautiful states: Arkansas and West Virginia; both are distinctive in scenery, the dialect spoken, and the quality of life I experienced. I also traveled around the Great Lakes as a deckhand and saw some gorgeous landscapes in Michigan and Wisconsin. My house is within rock-throwing distance of the house I grew up in, but it overlooks Lake Erie. The backyard views are stunning for the play of light over the water, the changing colors of the sky in all seasons. As I type this, the Belt of Venus is a stunning crimson band across a cobalt-blue sky. Big waves are smashing into the breakwall. But, to be specific about my hometown denizens, it’s a small rustbelt town with a grim population of mostly unhappy people. Yet that collective misery gives me plenty of grist for my fictional material. I’m definitely a Midwesterner by temperament. I’ll borrow (and modify) Gene Hackman’s statement in The French Connection: “I’d rather be a lamppost in Ohio than king of New York—or California.”
TM: What was the inspiration for The Dearborn Terrorist Plot & 4 Stories (forthcoming from New Pulp Press) and where will the series go from here?
The Dearborn Plot novella is a Haftmann prequel. I wanted to imagine him before everything went to hell in his life—before he became a burned-out ex-cop, a hard-drinking p.i. in a tiny resort town where he gets mixed into serial killer investigations or chases down runaways—once a missing dog when he was really short of cash (“The Dog Returneth to His Vomit”). The plot idea was probably inspired by Nine Eleven coupled with my sailing days—what would happen if terrorists hijacked a lakeboat full of explosives and rammed it into a port?
I’m not unhappy to say I don’t know the answer to that second part of the question. If I don’t write another novel, I can live with that. I won’t write just to write. I don’t have that starving-artist mentality you need. Obviously, I secured the job and the pension first, so there’s little ego involved. I’m not deluded about my “talent” because any one page of any novel by Thomas Harris or Martin Cruz Smith makes me realize what real ability in writing involves. Of my fiction to date, Haftmann occupies only a third of the total. I have a recent p.i., Raimo Jarvi, who operates out of my hometown (Northtown), and he’s far more down-to-earth than Haftmann on his best day. I’ve tried my hand at a couple different female detectives, Annie Cheng and Jade Hui in Special Collections, 2014, and Perfect Killer, 2018, respectively. I’m not sure if Haftmann’s been supplanted in my imagination by Raimo or my fictional women detectives, but time will tell. I’ve spent the pandemic year writing short stories. I’m not waiting for another inspiration. It’ll happen or it won’t. The world will spin on whether I crank out another “entertainment,” as Graham Greene once called his less-worthy fiction.