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Festival of Reading: Atkins, Coleman talk about writing in Robert B. Parker's footsteps

Reed Farrel Coleman
Reed Farrel Coleman
Published Oct. 14, 2015

Authors Ace Atkins and Reed Farrel Coleman share an unusual bond.

Both were successful mystery writers with series of their own when they were tapped to continue two of the beloved crime fiction series by Robert B. Parker, who died in 2010.

Atkins has written four novels in the Spenser series, most recently Kickback. Coleman's second novel about Jesse Stone, The Devil Wins, was published this year.

Atkins and Coleman will appear on a panel to talk about writing in Parker's footsteps and about their own novels. Here's a preview.

When you began to write the first novel continuing Robert B. Parker's series, what was the one element you found most important in capturing the essence of his work? Did you have a "Eureka!" moment when you thought you had done so?

Atkins: What helped me most was getting to know those closest to Bob's writing process. My friendship with the late Joan Parker (Robert Parker's wife) was invaluable in giving me the confidence I needed to write as Spenser. She taught me so much about Bob and what made the author and his famous creation tick. Not to mention Mel Farman, Bob's best friend of more than 50 years, who has now become one of my closest friends. Mel and I are often on adventures together in Boston to track down the right neighborhoods, restaurants and new Spenser locations.

Chris Pepe, Bob's longtime editor, and I knew this was going to be a tricky transition for super fans, and we have spent countless hours on the phone to get the continuation right. We are absolutely of the same mind of how Spenser will not only continue to exist but grow as well. We have big plans for future books. Boston and Spenser are changing with the times.

I think the moment when I knew I "had it" was when Spenser and Hawk first see each other in Lullaby. It was clear to me as a writer that these men had a lot more stories to tell. I know them as I know my closest friends and they were alive again.

Coleman: It was an unusual experience because the protagonists I usually write are my creations. So I needed to find a pathway into Jesse Stone, something about him that resonated with me on a very deeply personal level. And with Jesse it was regret and struggle: regret over his failed marriage, regret over his ruined baseball, and his struggles with alcohol. To regret is to be human. We all have that road not taken, that opportunity missed, that girl (boy) we never asked out. And to struggle is to be human. For most of us, it's not with alcohol. Yet we all struggle with something: anger, weight, drugs, gambling … I had to find a way to humanize Jesse for myself and these things did the trick.

Is it difficult to separate writing as Parker from writing as yourself? Does his voice or style ever seep into your own, and if so what do you do about it?

Atkins: It's an odd and often very difficult transition — to switch from my own style and into Bob's voice. But unlike what Reed does for Jesse, Spenser must be first person and be in Spenser's — and in turn Bob's — voice. If I write Spenser as me, he's no longer Spenser. The voice is what makes the series, and keeping that continuity is why I believe fans have remained loyal after Bob's death.

Although his is much different than my own style, I did learn to write by reading Robert B. Parker. My first two or three novels are really in such a Robert B. Parker voice. Much like Parker wrote like Raymond Chandler for his first several novels. It's not easy, but in many ways it's like returning to what I used to do with my Nick Travers books. That character was, essentially, Spenser in New Orleans! I always felt like I was in debt to Parker for his influence, and keeping Spenser alive has been a wonderful way to pay my respects.

Coleman: First, I am a strong believer that any writing I do makes me a better writer. So just in that sense, writing the Parker books has changed me. But generally, no, I am very good at compartmentalizing my characters and my work. And I am fortunate in that the Jesse books are written in third person, a less intimate form that doesn't require me to have Jesse's voice in my head as I write. My new series, featuring Gus Murphy, is in intimate first person. I suppose if I were writing two intimate first person series, keeping them separate might be more of a challenge.