introduce yourself and your books
My name is Aaron D McClelland and I am the author of the Gangster series and a companion piece I recently published titled; ‘ That Dog Don’t Bark’. I’m currently working on a crime novel heavy with desert mysticism and have a horror on the back burner.
I was born and raised in East Vancouver, BC, Canada, and currently live on the shore of a lake in Canada’s northern tip of the Sonoran desert where tourists come to die.
What are the stories behind your books?
Growing up, my family was connected to organized crime – not in a bang-bang, stick ‘em up way, but still connected. I didn’t know it at the time, but I grew up surrounded by gangsters and I always felt safe with them; to me they were men who lived large, loved their wives and kids, and had an unquenchable passion for life. As an adult, when I told friends stories from my childhood and adolescence, they said; “You should write a book”. Eventually I did, and it became three books that follow the evolution of a gangster from his childhood to maturity over four decades.
As I said in the forward of Little Gangsters, all of the stories in that book (with one exception) are true and most happened to me. My Grandma was an East Van bootlegger, my godparents were a mob boss and his wife, and the hijinks Denny and Frankie get up to in the summer of 1959 are straight from my preteen years. Each novel spans a summer in 1959, 1969, and 1999 respectively, and each sees Denny face a personal crisis that changes him in profound and sometimes heartbreaking ways.
What inspires your creativity?
In a word; people. In my years as a therapist I saw each person who walked through my office door as a puzzle; broken pieces that at first appeared scattered and disconnected, yet through natural curiosity by questioning and actively listening, the whole person would emerge. With very few exceptions, I found wonder and richness in every person I met.
How do you deal with creative block?
I think it’s a myth. The secret to never experiencing ‘writer’s block’ is to develop fully actualized characters. Each of my characters is an amalgam of various people I’ve known, and within a couple chapters they become real to me and begin to move their own story forward.
There is a hazard in that, however – fully realized characters can change the story on you. When I finished Millennial Gangsters, it was the last in a trilogy and I thought was a tidy end to that series. But I had developed Denny’s adopted daughter – Jessie – too well, and as I started working on another project, I kept hearing her voice. Jessie was grown up now and had a story to tell. Thus was born Gangster’s Girl, and I took great delight in telling her story, especially her reminiscences of key scenes from Millennial Gangsters, allowing us to experience Denny through her young eyes.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Excessive description. I keep physical descriptions of my characters to a minimum – I never did describe Denny in any of the four books. I might talk about hair and eye colour, and small quirks they have, but I try to leave the appearance of my characters to the reader’s imagination.
Excessive description of action can also take away from the pace of the story and hinder the reader’s participation as well. In one passage in Bigger Gangsters Denny had to complete a hit that his partner Frankie couldn’t perform. All of my books are written in the first person, so Denny describes; ‘That’s when I shot Saul in the face. Twice.’ That was it – the reader can fill in the blanks on what that would look like.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
I think a title should be punchy and directly relate to the story you’re telling. The Gangster series titles are self-evident; Denny as a boy in East Van; Denny as a grown man in the psychedelic 60s; Denny a mature adult facing the new millennium. ‘That Dog Don’t Bark’ is the first line in that novel and is what people have been saying about Jackson his entire life.
For covers, I think they should be a window into the book itself. The cover for That Dog Don’t Bark is a young couple’s hands forming a heart, silhouetted against a raging structure fire. The image fits with the tag line for the novel; ‘A love story, with just a touch of arson and murder’.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
I don’t care. I’ve written professionally for over forty years, most of that writing what other people wanted me to write. Now I write what I want – I write to please myself, and so far it has pleased my readership as well because I haven’t received a single critical comment.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I’ve slowed down. The project I’m tackling right now – though it is about crime and criminals – has strong mystical elements to it. To achieve the mood in many of the passages my prose must have an ethereal quality to reflect unseen forces driving the characters and story forward. I’m pretty tight-lipped about the project, but I’ll give your readers a nugget; it too is written in the first person and the narrator is murdered halfway through the novel but continues to tell the story.
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your books?
I’ll start with the worst; I stalled three-quarters of the way through Little Gangsters, so instead of struggling with it I went ahead and wrote Bigger Gangsters. Once that was completed, I knew where Denny was heading and was able to return to Little Gangsters and finish it – doing so was the best choice I’ve ever made.
The most surprising thing I already alluded to; fully developed characters can change the story on you and lead you places you never intended to go. I’ll have a scene that I’ve thought about for months and know how it plays out, but once I insert my character into it, they react differently and change the scene – always for the better.
In That Dog Don’t Bark I set out to write a companion piece to Bigger Gangsters (Dog taking place in 1975) about a street level petty criminal named Jackson. But Jackson went and fell in love with Angel – a girl I intended to be a supporting background character. It changed the path and tone of the book completely from a crime/thriller to a romantic thriller.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I don’t really think about it. My literary heroes are John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr – masters of lean prose that simply tells the story. It is to their legacy that I strive when I compose my stories.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
Emotions are everything in writing. Robert Frost once said; “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” I had to kill off a female character once to drive my main character’s story forward and found myself in mourning after I had done it. Her death gutted me, and I realized I had fallen in love with her and after she died I missed her terribly. I used those unexpected emotions in the novel, assigning them to a character that loved her as well.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
With fully fleshed-out characters, when I feel the story is dragging a bit, I throw them into a seemingly insurmountable challenge and let them figure a way out. It works every time.
What are your plans for future books?
There’s the project I’m working on right now, and on the back burner (35,000 words in) is another departure for me; a horror called ‘Betwixt … where the dead things go’. My fan’s needn’t be concerned however; the main character is an ex-enforcer for a national biker gang who dies in the first chapter. That’s when things get interesting.
Lately I’ve been pondering a novel about a crooked cop. In all of my novels so far, cops and courts are background noise, so having a cop as a main character is intriguing.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
Back when rocks were soft I was a 6th Field Royal Canadian Combat Engineer; served as a Scout leader when our kids were growing up; used to teach Renaissance Fencing (and still have a rack of swords on my living room wall); I’m proud to be a Humanist and a grandpa to four granddaughters and a grandson.
Aaron D McClelland
Summerland, BC, Canada