HALLIE EPHRON: Thomas Kaufman has done the kind of work
the rest of us dream about -- he's a prize-winning cinematographer, shooting movies for the likes of National Geographic, the BBC, and PBS and working on gritty independent documentaries. On top of that he's written two terrific mystery novels -- STEAL THE SHOW and DRINK THE TEA -- and his collection of short stories ERASED has just come out.
Welcome to Jungle Red!
HALLIE: Willis Gidney, the DC private eye in your series, is a born liar and an expert at the scam. In your short stories are you writing in a similarly darkly funny, gritty vein?
THOMAS KAUFMAN: Yes. I can't help it. I've been to the best doctors, too. Two of the stories in ERASED feature Willis, so the dark humor is there. The rest of the stories range from funny to dead serious.
HALLIE: As a cinematographer, you've been the proverbial fly on the wall. Have those experiences fed your fiction?
TOM: Absolutely, it's been wonderful to film documentaries and interview so many diverse people. I've learned a lot, especially from the cop shows I directed and shot. It all informs my writing.
HALLIE: Why short stories? Is there something about the form that appeals to you?
TOM: I'm a fan of short stories, from Guy de Maupassant to Somerset Maugham to Lawrence Block. So I love the form. Plus, some ideas lend themselves to the short story approach, I suppose. It's a way of trying something out, to see if it works. And if it does, maybe I can use it in a novel. In a way, it's like using some new camera technology when shooting a commercial. We're living through a Digital Revolution, and this is especially true in the field of media production. So I'll get word of a new piece of gear, and the thirty second spot is a great way to try it out. If I like the new gear, whatever it is, I might use it on a longer form project. In a way, the short story is like that – I have something, a germ of an idea, and the short form is a way to try it out and see if I like it. If I do, that same idea may find its way into something longer.
HALLIE: Do you think you have a particularly cinematic style of writing? And just wondering if there's an up- and a down-side to that.
TOM: It's mostly an upside: readers have told me they can "see" the scenes unfolding as they read them. After so many years behind the viewfinder of a camera, I tend to visualize the scenes when writing them. I'm also interested in body language and gesture, and try to include that information, if I can do it in a way the feels natural. If you look at the paintings of the Impressionists, you can see how important body language was to their method of telling a visual story. As to the downside? When I finish a writing scene I yell "Cut!" That really annoys the folks at Starbuck's.
HALLIE: Tell us about one of the stories in the collection, and what the idea grew out of?
TOM: I was researching precious violins and came across a Nazi program called Sonderstab Musik a program designed to target and acquire valuable musical instruments from Jews before they were taken to the death camps. In Washington, DC there the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, where I had filmed with Walter Cronkite and Elli Wiesel. I had also filmed interviews with survivors of the camps. So those experiences melded together, and from them I wrote the story FORSAKEN, which is the longest piece in the collection.
HALLIE: Gotta say, I love your titles. Where did ERASED come from?
TOM: During the summer when I was seventeen, I worked as a sandblaster. Just one of the many bizarre jobs I've held. Now, sandblasting is hard work. The nozzle is heavy, and you sweat under the protective gear. Usually you're on a scaffold on the outside of a brick building, so there's a risk of falling. And if you're not careful, you can bore a hole right through the side of a building. You have to concentrate. So there I was, up high, with my hood and my gloves and my air supply, and I come across a stone ornament, part of the façade. Now I have to be even more careful here, or I might erase the entire ornament. So I suppose that was the germ of the story.
I didn't give it another thought until thirty years later. It was on that same shoot with Walter Cronkite, we interviewed a survivor who told us about a day when the Nazis came and took all the adults of her village to the country to work in the fields. When the adults came back that night, they discovered the Nazis had abducted every child in the town. These children were never seen again. So that story somehow mixed with my experience as a sandblaster, and the result is ERASED.
I wish I could explain it better. All I can say is that writers are like magpies we're always on the lookout for whatever interests us, and we file these things away until we need them.
HALLIE: Tom will be giving away a copy of ERASED to one lucky commenter!
DEBS chiming in here: I love the way Tom talks about the ideas for his stories coming together from such diverse places. It's that way for me, too. And I can't wait to read ERASED.
Here's the Kindle link!