By: Felicity Landa
Tyler Dilts spent his childhood investigating police work, hoping to one day follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he found himself to be much more interested in writing about crime than pursuing a career solving it and has since become the author of five books on crime fiction, including the Edgar Award nominated, Come Twilight, and the forthcoming, Mercy Dogs. His chilling and sometimes terrifying novels explore the complex and haunted characters of the Long Beach homicide department and the murders they solve. Dilts’ Long Beach Homicide series has gained quite a following amongst crime fiction fans, Long Beach natives, and many others. “Someone told me to set a couple of long-term goals, for motivation,” Says Tyler Dilts. “So I set some goals that I thought would be impossible to reach,” he told me when we met in L.A. to discuss his upcoming novel. “I thought, I’m going to sell a quarter of a million books, and I’m going to get nominated for an Edgar award. And in the last year, I’ve realized those goals weren’t as unrealistic as I thought.” He laughs, “I’m still in shock that those things have happened. Having so much success as a writer still baffles me.”
Dilts became a household name for his MFA and undergrad writing program at California State University, Long Beach; he is an advocate for those who are fortunate to take his class. As a young writer with only twenty pages into her novel, Dilts was the first person to read my work and told me that I needed to finish what I started; that what I was writing was worth it. “That’s the most important thing we can do for students, actually taking their work seriously and valuing it on their terms. Helping them reach their goals, not helping them write what we think is good writing,” he says. I consider him a mentor, an exceptional professor, and a friend, which was why it was an honor and great pleasure to sit with Tyler over coffee to discuss his newest novel, Mercy Dogs.
THE COACHELLA REVIEW: While this is not your first book, it does hold a lot of firsts for you. It’s very different from the Long Beach Homicide series, whose protagonist Danny Beckett is explored in four previous novels. What made you decide to step into something new?
TYLER DILTS: Before I wrote my previous book, Come Twilight, my publisher thought it would be a good idea to write something that could be a stand-alone, that wasn’t connected to the LB Homicide series. I wanted to write this full-out-thriller that was exciting and fast-paced. I started it, got about a hundred pages into it, and realized I couldn’t write the kind of thriller that I wanted to write, at least not with that story at that time. I realized I needed to do a lot more research than I had done, and I needed to do the kind of research that wasn’t easy. A big part was set in Mexico and it dealt with fracking, surveillance, and corporate malfeasance. I just bit off so much more than I could chew. And I thought if I’m going to do this and make it anything like I want it to be, I’m going to need two more years and a lot more money than I have to pull it off, so I had to pull the plug on that one. But I had another idea for another Long Beach Homicide book, so I wrote Come Twilight, and then I was still thinking about something that would make a good stand-alone. The lesson I took from the last stand-alone was, okay, maybe something a little closer to home.
TCR: One of the more prominent and compelling aspects of the novel is the caregiving relationship between the protagonist Ben, and his father, Peter. Ben is a retired cop who was injured on the force, and his father suffers from dementia among other health issues. You’ve said this book is a lot closer to home for you, where did the development for that relationship come from?
TD: A couple of things were happening simultaneously. Because I was spending so much time taking care of my mom, who has dementia, I was thinking about incorporating a character who suffered from that same thing, and it kind of grew out of that. So, if somebody was taking care of an elderly parent, but there was also some sort of a crime involved, to fit in with the crime novels I’ve been writing. But more than any of my other books, it wound up being based on my personal experience. There’s a lot of stuff that winds up in that relationship that’s very closely based on stuff that’s happened with me and my mom. Peter, the father, he basically has exactly the same health issues that my mom has, so there was a lot of first- hand experience going into that. We had just moved into exactly the same neighborhood that they live in when I was in the early stages of the book. I thought I’m putting so much of our lives in here anyway, let’s just put it right where we are. One thing that ended up in the book is the way that Peter waves at the planes. That is something my mom does. Every day when we go for a walk and the jets take off, she stops, and she waves as it goes over.
TCR: There is a lot of personal connection within this novel to your life. Right now you’re taking care of your mom, and your dad died on the force just as Ben’s mom did. What was it like to dive into your own personal struggle in order to enrich the narrative?
TD: That turned out to be a much bigger challenge than I expected it to be. There are a few instances where something would happen with my mom in the morning, and then it would be a scene that ended up in the book that night. There was a great deal of that. There was an upside to it. I felt really at home in the emotions and I felt really connected to what I was doing. I didn’t have to dig as much as usual to get the emotions in the scene because they were so present. But the downside was almost the same thing. So much of what I was feeling on my day-to-day experience was winding up in the book, so I didn’t have any sense of, “okay my mom’s going to go to bed and I’m going to get to work.” There was no usual sense of, I’m going into a different world in the writing. I’m staying in the same place where I’m living, and that felt really different; something I wasn’t accustomed to. Sometimes it was empowering, and sometimes it was draining. I felt like I was leaving a lot more of my guts on the page.
TCR: Well, some of the scenes are so painful to read. There’s a scene where Peter relieves himself in the bed, and you really did leave it all on the page.
TD: I laugh at that because of all the violence and horrible things I put in my books, I’ve never had an editor say, “you should tone that down a little bit.” The first time my editor ever said that was with the bathroom activities of the novel. I felt like I had to put that in. I even felt like I was pulling back on that, an alarming part of my daily life has been dealing with stuff that happens in the bathroom. It’s kind of like having a baby, it becomes this major factor of life. I fought for it, I said no that has to be there. Just a couple scenes will give the idea and that will be enough. I find it really amusing that’s the one thing I’ve had to fight with an editor about. I’ve had some pretty gruesome scenes in my other books.
TCR: It is very different from your other books in that regard, and in others. You’ve gained quite a following since you started the Long Beach Homicide series, but this book is not just a standalone, it’s an entirely different kind of novel. Do you worry about the way your readers will react to it?
TD: The thing is, I understand that there will be some readers who read it and say, no that’s not for me. But that’s okay, I would rather have those readers stop reading because the readers who that resonates with will have a much more powerful response. I’ve done a few readings, and Q&As. It really seems to be resonating with people who have elderly parents who they’re caring for. I think that might be a group of readers who respond to this who haven’t necessarily been interested in my other stuff. I hope it goes beyond just being of interest as a crime story. I hope people respond to it as a character study.
TCR: The character study of Ben is central to the premise of the book. He is a broken man, at one point he thinks to himself, “Remember this, remember what it feels like to do something right.” He’s taking care of his father while trying to find Grace, but in doing so he becomes neglectful in his obligation to Peter. What was it like to delve deeper into such an emotionally damaged and fractured character?
TD: Something I’ve really learned over the last couple years is that with taking care of my mom, teaching, and all my other obligations, I’ve always felt I’m dropping the ball on something. So every day’s a choice of okay, where am I going to be more neglectful today, so I can get the other stuff done. So that dynamic in the novel grew out of that experience. There’s more of my experience in Ben than I thought there was. For a long time, I really struggled with depression and anxiety. Even though Ben has a different set of causal factors, a lot of what he’s going through is connected to things I’ve gone through in the past. Even the shift in their long-term relationship. Ben has his injury, and Peter’s still healthy enough to take care of him, and then there’s the slow transition. About 12 years ago I went through a pretty overpowering episode of depression, and that was just when my mom was starting to have a little bit of memory loss, but she really took care of me in a way during that period that was surprising. Even that was something that really influenced that dynamic that they have. One character is taking care of the other, but then gradually overtime that role switches.
TCR: In Peter’s healing process he finds a lot of solace and excitement in taking care of his neighbor’s dog. What inspired you to come up with the title Mercy Dogs, and this part of Peter’s recovery?
TD: It was right around the time where I was just figuring out that maybe it was going to be a guy taking care of an elderly parent. I read something that Susan Orlean wrote, she had a book a couple years ago called Rin Tin Tin, about the famous Hollywood dog. There was a thing in the New Yorker that had to do with that, but it was strictly about Mercy Dogs. It’s in the prologue, but Mercy Dogs in World War I, were dogs that would carry little canine backpacks that were filled with medical supplies around the battlefield, because they didn’t have enough human medics who could attend to all the wounded. The dogs were set free so wounded soldiers could use the medical supplies to administer first aid to themselves. The dogs were also trained to stay with the soldiers while they died, in the event that the soldiers were too badly wounded to help themselves. I got so consumed with that idea as a metaphor, the dog as a caregiver who might be able to provide something that would help the person survive, but if that wasn’t the case, they would also be present to stay with them until they died. So, I had that title really early on in the process, but I didn’t know that the metaphor would be so powerful in developing it because it guided Ben and Peter’s relationship. I tried to bring some hopefulness to the book, but part of what gives the relationship its weight is the fact that there’s no happy ending. It’s that idea of how good can you make a horrible thing. What can you find in this suffering that provides a little bit of solace along the way. I’m going to help you as much as I possibly can, and when I can’t help you anymore, I’ll still be here for you.
TCR: You have a recurring character, Jenn Tanaka, who is the voice of reason for these hotheaded male cops that run gung-ho into the line of duty, sometimes without thinking of the consequences. She’s appeared as an important character in all of your novels now, so she’s obviously an important character to you. Will we see more of her in the future?
TD: That’s one of the huge issues of my next novel that I’m wrestling with daily. She’s going to be the protagonist for the next novel, and I’m very worried about writing a mixed-race character. I feel okay about writing a woman, I’ve had much better experience with women in my life. I was raised by a single mom, and I feel I connect better with women. I’m not as worried about writing a woman as I am about writing someone who’s half Asian. I think it’s good that I’m worried about it, it’s really complex. I feel like I, as an old white man, have learned a tremendous amount about representation in literature, and what it means to be a white man writing a woman, or writing a character who is of mixed race, and some of the challenges that are inherent in that. There are some times where I feel like I wish I would’ve made her white, and then I think, well that’s much worse than where I am now, because part of what I want to get at is the diversity of Long Beach and the police department. That would have put me in a more difficult position. This is definitely going to be a challenge, but I have to step up and take a shot, and I have to hope I don’t screw it up too badly.
TCR: The research that goes into writing a crime novel is extensive, but in your books, the details are intricate and very authentic. How have you been able to hone the research part of your process?
TD: Because my dad was a cop and he died when I was very young, I spent my whole childhood being fascinated by police. I thought I wanted to be a cop for a long time. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, largely because my dad died, I have this big gap, and I had all these questions. One of the ways I tried to figure out who my dad was, was by figuring out who cops were, what they did, what their jobs were. So, the basic knowledge I have of police work comes from that. And then we’ve had friends of the family who were cops, so one of the most important things, probably more important that the investigative and forensic details, is the police culture and the way they interact with each other. How different departments and squads have different dynamics, but that there’s kind of core elements to what those cultures usually incorporate. I’ve been fortunate enough to have sources who I can go to with questions.
TCR: In recent years the relationships between the public and the police force has become tumultuous and controversial. As someone who’s close to the inner workings of law enforcement, do you ever feel the need to portray this struggle within your novels?
TD: In terms of law enforcement and police work, we do need to address what’s going on in the culture, societally and historically. I feel like if I’m going to be writing novels about cops, I need to get at -not necessarily some monumental socially significant statement- but how things are different than we think they are. A huge part of the problem is that we simplify the narratives and the situations. We want to think there are black and white solutions to things, and that cops are either good or bad. Things are not as simple as we think they are, and on either side of the equation, it’s not as clear-cut. Everything is much more complicated and freighted with all sorts of social, cultural, and personal issues that don’t fit into the traditional crime story narrative of good guys and bad guys. I really need to capture that complication. Even from the beginning I’ve tried to undercut clichés within the genre and show characters who were more than what we’re so used to seeing in movies and TV, and even in a lot of books. I’ve always been trying to do that, but now I feel like there’s even more of an imperative to demystify and deconstruct the perceptions that we have of not just police, but of the entire legal system and the people who are on both sides of it. Some are served by it some are victimized by it, and the mess that it really is.
TCR: I can imagine that being a very complicated thing to explore, I’m looking forward to seeing more of that in your upcoming novels.
TD: I’ve always said my dream is a detective novel where all they do is paperwork. I say that as a joke, but also I’m fascinated by how a huge part of what detectives, attorneys, and the legal system needs to do is construct a narrative, and how the success or failure of an investigation usually winds up depending in court as who tells the best story.
TCR: You’ve had quite an impact on your students at CSULB, and teaching has been a big part of your life for a long time. How does your teaching career factor into your writing?
TD: For me, the dream of being a teacher is completely synchronous with being a writer. I wanted to have success in writing because I knew it could get me the kind of teaching job I wanted to have. I enjoy writing, but I never thought that my dream was to be a professional writer and a successful writer. My dream was to write the stuff that I wanted to write and have enough success from that to get a teaching job. I still feel like teaching is my calling more than writing is. I’d been at this community college for two years and I was kind of floundering and didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. So I took a theatre class, it was completely random. But it was the first time I ever took a class where the professor made me feel like I could do something that mattered. Like what I did could be valuable. It just so happened that he was a guy who taught acting, if he’d been a guy who taught accounting- well accounting probably wouldn’t have worked because I can’t do math-but it could have been a whole range of things, the subject wasn’t important. It was that relationship with the professor, and for the first time I felt like I mattered in the context of the classroom and the world outside of that. And I thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to be the guy that makes people feel like they can matter. I want to give other people what that teacher gave me. My wildest dream has always been to have a teaching job that I really love in a place that I really believed in, and on some level that’s still my big fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classes that I’ve been able to teach, and I love what I’ve been able to do as a teacher. But I still want that job where I feel like I can do the whole package, where I can give students what they need, and I can be a part of a program that is serving students in a really positive way, preparing them to follow their dreams in a way that makes it practical and possible to achieve their dreams.
Tyler Dilts’ fifth novel, Mercy Dogs, will be released on March 13, 2018.