When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in November 2007, it's not likely that many of its members saw the work stoppage as a professional opportunity.
Lou Berney was one of the few who did.
The Oklahoma City native, who had spent the previous 10 years or so living in the San Francisco area while teaching writing at St. Mary's College, returned to his hometown shortly before the strike and began writing screenplays. By his own admission, that career move put him a fair distance away from the genre that was his first love: literary fiction.
That was the area in which Berney had found early success. After a short stint as a newspaper reporter in Oklahoma City and barely out of college, he wrote The Road to Bobby Joe and Other Stories, a collection of short stories published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1991, earning the praise of The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Publisher's Weekly, Booklist and The Chicago Tribune, among others, positioning Berney as perhaps a star in the making.
Then he got a bit sidetracked, moving to California and casting an eye at the potentially lucrative world of writing for film and television.
"I started teaching, then I got busy writing for Hollywood," he said. "Before I knew it, I was so far away from writing fiction that I surprised even myself."
Not long after his return to his hometown, the Writers Guild went on strike, and Berney saw a major source of income dry up overnight. Eager to keep busy--"I lived in Oklahoma City, so I couldn't go out and picket the studios," he said--he turned his attention back to novels.
"That gave me the opportunity to start writing fiction again," he said. "It was the kick in the pants I needed to get back to what I loved most."
Berney had been kicking around an idea for a crime story that he realized was too big for a screenplay. There were too many characters and too many plot twists to fit in the tightly formatted, 120-page world of Hollywood scripts, Berney reasoned. So he sat down and began working on a new novel.
Within two or three months--lightning speed for him, he said--he had finished the first draft of Gutshot Straight. Now, less than two years later, Berney finds himself on a national book tour, talking up his debut novel published by William Morrow that was released Jan. 5.
Berney will appear at Steve's Sundry Books and Magazines at 2612 S. Harvard Ave. at 2pm Saturday, Jan. 9 to sign copies of the book. Other stops on his tour include New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas.
While it's parked firmly in the crime novel genre, Gutshot Straight isn't the kind of grim, dark story the reader might expect.
"I'm not a big fan of hard-boiled crime fiction," Berney said. "As a writer, I want to create a main character who is basically a decent guy who does some bad things. That's where my rooting interests lie."
Berney has crafted an engaging, quirky, funny tale that reflects the work of such masters as Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiassen.
His two main characters are a likable ex-con named Shake and an ambitious exotic dancer named Gina who find themselves on the wrong side of the mob as they flee Las Vegas for Panama, where they try to peddle the mysterious contents of a padded envelope to a wealthy collector of religious relics who is hiding from the U.S. government.
Sound complicated? It is, but Berney never lets the plot get bogged down or get in the way of the fun. Along the way, he reveals a sharp eye for detail, bringing a sense of authenticity to such disparate subjects as life behind bars, bluff poker, strip joints, cooking, strip joints, the invaluable and widely coveted appendages of ancient saints, how to take out a hired goon from behind while armed only with a phone book and, of course, strip joints.
Berney said writing Gutshot Straight--the title is a nod to an unlikely poker hand, usually a reckless gamble that reflects the long odds facing the main characters in the book--was one of the more enjoyable experiences of his career, giving him a chance to venture beyond the confines of the pure literary writing that marked The Road to Bobby Joe.
"This is sort of the intersection of literary fiction and so-called genre writing," he said. "It allowed me to combine the things I like best about literary fiction with the fun of crime fiction. It was the best of both worlds--at least, that was my goal."
Berney said he had always been a fan of the work of Leonard, but it was Hiassen who directly influenced his creation of the character of Gina in Gutshot Straight.
"He always writes fantastic female characters," Berney said. "And that inspired me to create a really strong female main character who really balances the guy."
Berney said his depiction of prison life was the product of an earlier, unsold project for Hollywood to which he had devoted a considerable amount of time.
"It was about the world of prison inmates, and I did a ton of research interviewing guards and inmates," he said. "I was able to funnel that into this."
After years of writing screenplays, which he said are limited to only the kind of characters and developments that advance the story directly, Berney was delighted to be able to explore those kinds of themes in greater depth.
"Writing a screenplay is ruthless because you wind up cutting everything that isn't directly related," he said. "But with this, there's room to invite everybody to the party. To me, that's one of the great joys of writing a novel."
Now that he's rediscovered his first love, Berney doesn't plan on waiting another 19 years to write another novel. Although, he has maintained an active presence in Hollywood--he visits three or four times a year and has a project under consideration with director Rob Reiner at Castle Rock Entertainment and a revenge thriller in development at Rickshaw Productions--he envisions a possible sequel to Gutshot Straight.
"I absolutely wasn't thinking in terms of a sequel when I wrote it, but I love these characters so much, and it would be so great to see them through the next chapter of their lives," he said.
There's a good possibility one of his future novels will be set in Oklahoma, perhaps even in Tulsa, Berney said. He's intrigued by the city's colorful past, just as he is with much of Oklahoma's history.
"There are a lot of great, great cultural, historic and political veins to mine here," he said, explaining that most of that kind of material in better-known places like California already has been exhausted by other writers. "I'm eager to mine that."
Berney expects to have his next novel out within two years, and while he declined to discuss the specifics, he believes he's better prepared than ever to do the kind of work he's proud of.
"I didn't know what I was doing 19 years ago," he said. "I think The Road to Bobby Joe is a good collection of short stories with flashes of competence. But I'm happy it took 19 years for me to write my first novel because it's a lot better novel than it would have been if I had written it then. I think it's a much better first book for the waiting."
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