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The Inimitable Mr. Hobbs – Part 1

March 12, 2013

Hobbs2-xAuthor Roger Hobbs is having a good month. His page-turning debut crime thriller, Ghostman (Read my review of Ghostman here.), was released in February, and is currently in its third printing with 50,000 hardcover copies. Hobbs sent the manuscript to literary agent Nat Sobel the day he graduated from Reed College in 2011 at the ripe old age of 22. So far, Ghostman has been sold to 20 foreign publishers and the film rights have been optioned by Warner Bros. for a cool seven figures.

The other night I caught up with him at Portland’s Murder By the Book where he answered questions about Ghostman and talked about his incredibly short journey to the big time. Although he’s only 24, I should mention that he’s been writing since he was 12. So it’s not really a case of overnight success…

What struck me most about Hobbs is his thoughtfulness when talking about his work, and how completely he seems to understand his own writing process. He’s not just throwing ideas against the wall to find out which ones will stick. There is method coupled with his creativity.

Showing up in his trademark suit with a purple shirt and tie, and looking quite out of place in a room full of denim and polar fleece, he is obviously comfortable in his skin. While most people his age barely know what they will do tomorrow, Hobbs knows exactly what he wants to do for the rest of his life. He wants to write. Articulate and mesmerizing, it was one of the most fascinating evenings I’ve spent at an author reading in some time.

Here’s some of what he said:

Hobbs1Why Writing:
“I started writing when I was 12. One of the reasons I wanted to go into writing was it was a job that a 12-year-old could do. Essentially, it’s one of the few remaining jobs where you don’t have to know somebody, you don’t have to spend ten years licking boots, you don’t have to work in any mailrooms. The only thing that matters is that you’re good at it. There are not a whole lot of jobs like that out there.”

His Street Cred:

“I wrote five novels through middle school and high school, and three novels in college.”

How He Found an Agent:

“I first did the sort of sucker’s approach to publishing which is the slush pile. I queried and queried and queried and queried and queried. I sent out a bunch of samples, but the slush pile is a harsh mistress. It wasn’t until I was in college that I decided this approach was not working…I decided that I would, instead of querying and querying like I’d been doing for the last seven years,  I was going to get as many by-lines as I possibly could. I was going to do short stories, I was going to do newspaper articles, that sort of thing. I was going to build a bunch of credits originally with the idea that that would make my query letters much harder to just burn and throw in the ash pile or where ever query letters go. My agent Nat Sobel found me. He, like most agents, browsed all of the short story venues that they considered good and he found a story that I’d written in Thuglit. He saw a story I’d written about an armored car robbery and he sent me an email saying, ‘Do you have any novels?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I sent him two of my novels. He said, ‘These are absolutely terrible. When you write something that’s half-way decent, send it to me.’

I spent the next summer writing the draft of Ghostman. I sent it to him on the day I graduated from Reed. He read 150 pages and said, ‘This is awful. Rewrite the first 50 pages for me.’ I rewrote the first 50 pages in twelve hours and got that back to him, and those are the first 50 pages as they appear in the book.

His Writing Method:

“I work in binges. Writing is a terrible drug and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Most writers try to work a little bit everyday. I’m not like that. I get into a mindset, it’s almost trance-like and when I start, I cannot stop. If I am forced to stop for whatever reason that’s miserable, terrible. So when I sit down to write, I’ll drink like four or five cups of coffee, smoke a half dozen cigarettes, and then just go for 12, or 16, or 24, or 36, or 48 hours.”

Rumors, Clues, and the Essence of a Mystery:

“There’s a sort of rumor that I wrote Ghostman as my thesis. That is not in any way true. I took one creative writing course at Reed, and it was the only thing that I ever got a B in.  My thesis was on narratology, the study of narrative. I wrote about how suspense functions, what’s a narratological approach to the function of suspense. My example texts were the very first mysteries the Dupin stories, in particular, The Purloined Letter. I wanted to deconstruct what exactly Poe did when he invented the mystery. At the time he was writing the story, there was no such thing as the mystery. The defining quality that makes a mystery a mystery, the clue, hadn’t been invented yet and wouldn’t be invented for like another 50 years. If you go into the mystery stories of that era, they hadn’t really figured out how clues were supposed to work. They’d all have a reveal at the end, but whether or not the clues pointed to that reveal or were in any way relevant to the story whatsoever, that hadn’t been figured out yet. That really wouldn’t be figured out until Agatha Christie. My approach was that the essence of a mystery, the essence of a thriller, is postponing gratification. You suggest early on that there is some information that is not being revealed to the reader. You keep suggesting that throughout the story all the while revealing tiny bits of information that suggest that there’s more.”

Miscellany:

– In the e-book there’s a secret chapter. You can also find it on Hobbs’ Facebook page if you don’t mind solving a puzzle.

– He writes 300,000 words to get 100,000.

– He will continue to live in Portland. “I love this city. It’s super easy to live here. Great people. Great food. The most important thing for me is the pace of life in Portland.
I grew up on the East Coast where everyone is constantly doing battle with everyone else on every level of society.”

Great News:
He’s working on the sequel.

Part 2:
How he got inside the mind of a criminal, and more.

GhostmanKnopf, 2013

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14 Comments
  1. Nice post, Diane. He’s right about the slush pile. You need to do something to make yourself stand out. It’s nice to hear about Hobbs’s success.

    • Thanks, Michael. I think he demonstrates why it’s important for writers to have a plan. We all need a plan.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Diane. While I haven’t read the book yet, I devoured the Oregonian’s fairly recent profile of Roger Hobbs and was so glad to learn more from you about this talented young Portland writer and his successful debut.

  3. Thanks, Laura. Part 2 will be about how he was able to make Ghostman so realistic by culling details of crimes from the criminals themselves. Try and catch a reading of his if you can. Glad that he’s staying in Portland.

  4. Great recap as always, Diane! I, too, was impressed with Hobbs’ maturity and his enthusiasm. Talk about someone who knows what they want and isn’t afraid to work hard for it. Looking forward to Part 2.

  5. imdavidabrams permalink

    As always, Diane, you managed to capture the essence of the evening–even for those of us who couldn’t be there. Great interview!

  6. A colorful character, isn’t he? Something to be said for a page turner well-written.

  7. This was an informative and entertaining interview–thanks. But more importantly, I want to read his book now and hope it is a good as I suspect.!

  8. Let me know what you think. He’s going places, of that I’m sure.

  9. This is my favorite kind of Q&A at an author event- when they talk about the writing process. I love listening to it. He’s definitely unusual with the write-when-I-feel-like-it-approach!

  10. Sounds like an interesting evening and a very switched on and inspiring young man, just love how his agent found him and continued to believe in him despite the initial feedback, Roger Hobb’s seems to have learned how the industry works and has been rewarded by doing what was necessary to gain credibility, I hope he has a long and successful career, and now I’ll go and read your review!

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