“James Kestrel” is a pseudonym for the author of Five Decembers, recipient of this year’s Edgar Award for “Best Novel.”
The man behind the nom de plume is a successful author in his own right with six published novels already under his belt. He’s also a partner at a Honolulu-based law firm. Oh, and one time he canoed from New Orleans to Mississippi. This was before cell phones, by the way. Before the age of weather calls and GPS.
A few months back, I was lucky enough to strike up an online friendship with Kestrel. When we first connected, I didn’t know anything about the pen name. I didn’t know anything about Five Decembers either.
I recently tore through the four-hundred-page epic in a three-day dash. I read the last page on my back deck while waves lapped against the lakeshore. When I finally closed the book, the world around me was suddenly cloaked in mystery sheen. It felt like coming out of a dream, or being caught somewhere in between. The best books never end, but instead open our hearts and minds. And that’s just what Five Decembers did for me.
I was thrilled to get the chance to talk shop with the author of such a stunning opus. Little did I know, the mystery was just beginning.
Eli Cranor: When I picture you at your desk, I see cobalt blues and the Hawaiian sun setting through an oversized office window. Please tell me I’m close. Where do you write? Where does the “magic” happen?
James Kestrel: Typically, the magic happens in a bar. I do a lot of writing in bars. I started that before I had kids. I was living in Waikiki and there were a lot of nice hotels around with bars on the beach. I’d go out for lunch on weekends, sit under a banyan tree, and write. Once I had kids, that became not just a luxury but a necessity. Writing at home was impossible. I’m a partner at the law firm where I work, which means I can do what I want. So, when I’m working on a project and things are going well, I’ll take fairly long lunches and go into Chinatown. There are a bunch of dive bars there that are totally empty at lunchtime.
EC: Was there a specific bar where you wrote Five Decembers? Or was it a bunch of different bars?
JK: A lot of that book was written in a bar that back in the 1940s was a brothel. So, yeah. I wrote Five Decembers in a whorehouse.
EC: Does this brothel-turned-bar have a name?
JK: Now it’s called Encore. It’s nice. It’s not a dive bar. It’s been heavily gentrified.
EC: What was the original brothel called?
JK: I’m not certain. It might’ve been the Black Cat Lounge.
EC: When you’re working in these bars, what are you working on? Are you writing straight into a laptop?
JK: Yeah, I use a laptop. A MacBook Air with Microsoft Word. I’m fairly paranoid about losing my work. I use this laptop solely for writing books. I’ve never even opened a web browser on it. I do have email hooked up to it so that I can email myself my work, as a method of back up. I don’t let it touch the Internet because I don’t want to get viruses. Due to my work at the law firm, I have a healthy respect for hackers, targeting us all the time. I don’t want some revenge asshole coming after me and stealing all my books.
EC: Dude, you’re freaking me out. Being from the middle of nowhere—aka Arkansas—I’ve never even thought of something like that. Anyway, are you drinking anything while you’re working in these bars?
JK: If it’s lunchtime, and I’m technically “at work,” then it’s just iced tea. But otherwise, a beer is nice. It doesn’t get you falling-down drunk too quickly, which helps with writing. For Five Decembers, I think I remember drinking a lot of martinis. Yeah, a lot of martinis.
EC: That sounds right. When you’re just getting started on a project—when you get that initial idea—what’s the first thing you do?
JK: That’s always the hardest part for me. Getting started is so hard. I had to do a lot of research for Five Decembers. From my other books, I learned that you write a book, it goes out into the world, and then you start getting these three-a.m. jokers using fake email accounts that are like, “Mr. Kestrel, I see that you do not understand the difference between concrete and cement. Well, I, sir, have a PhD in material science from Georgia Tech and I’m here to tell you all about concrete . . .” I just hate those emails. I didn’t want to get them. Especially since I was writing about World War II. I knew there would be a lot of people who had a lot of very specific information. I got to the point where I was looking up the Pan Am Clipper flight schedules. I didn’t want to get emails from some airplane historian nut who actually knew the days the Clippers flew out of Pearl Harbor. So, yeah, I did a lot of research, but I didn’t do it all before I started. I knew that if I did it that way, I’d never start writing. I did just enough to get me in that headspace. Then I started writing and continued to research as I went. I kept researching for over a year and a half after I’d finished it, all the way up until I was told it was going to print and I couldn’t make any more changes.
EC: Do you brainstorm the narrative, or make any sort of outline?
JK: I’ll get an idea, and I’ll think about it. I go on a lot of walks. I’ll get the story down in my head, at least the first three or four chapters. I won’t have any idea where it goes after that, but then, at least, I can start writing. I’ve never outlined. I never know how it’s going to end. Usually when I’m around the middle I have a real crisis of self-doubt. I start questioning whether the book was a good idea in the first place.
EC: Once you start drafting, do you try to write every day?
JK: Yeah . . . I mean, I say that cavalierly like I’m writing every day now that I haven’t written any fiction since I finished Five Decembers in 2018. I hope I can get back to it sometime soon. But, yes, when I have a book going and I’m writing, I write every day. I’ll usually write about two-thousand words, sometimes three thousand, but I do try to make myself stop. If I keep going, then it’s just all trash. When I sit down to start writing, I read through what I’ve written the day before, kind of revising it. And by the time I get to the end, I’m ready to get going again. It seems to work.
EC: How do you structure these drafting days?
JK: When I’m fully engaged in a book, I’ll get up early in the morning and do some writing before leaving for work. Then I’ll take those long lunch breaks I mentioned. On weekends, I try to grab as much time as I can.
EC: How long did it take to write Five Decembers?
JK: The first draft?
JK: I started it in August of 2018 and finished it in the first week of February of 2019.
EC: And I remember you telling me that first draft tusked in at like eight-hundred pages?
JK: Yeah, the original draft was a little over one-hundred-and-sixty-thousand words.
EC: Take me through that process. How do you revise? How did you make such massive cuts?
JK: Usually what I’ll do as soon as I’m finished with the first draft is I’ll tell myself I’m not going to show it to anybody until I’ve had some time to think about it, and then the next thing I know I’ve emailed it off to my agent.
EC: With no first read? No nothing?
JK: Yeah. I always regret it.
EC: Who is your agent?
JK: Her name is Alice Martel. She has a boutique agency in New York. She’s a great agent, but one of the things that makes her spectacular is that she’s got sub agency agreements all over the world. She’s really on top of selling the foreign rights.
EC: I just saw the Spain deal. Congrats, man.
JK: Oh, yeah. She called me this morning and said we just sold Five Decembers to a Penguin imprint in Spain. I’m thrilled, especially since every single American imprint of Penguin Random House rejected this book. Yeah, that made it really nice to see them bidding on it at an auction in Spain.
EC: So, you send the first draft off to your agent. Do you work through the revisions with her?
JK: This was the first book where I had to do really significant changes. My first big book with Alice, she made me rewrite the ending like three times before she was willing to send it out. And she was right. In the end it was better. But this one, I sent it to her and she read it and she loved it, but she was really freaked out about the length. She wanted me to cut out sixty-thousand words. So I sat and thought about it for a while, then banged out a new draft that was like ten-thousand words longer. She didn’t budge. She just kept telling me I had to cut it down. So that’s what I did. I ended up liking the shorter version much better.
EC: Do you ever use other readers?
JK: One of my law partners is kind of a fan. I always give him a draft early on. My firm’s senior partner, the guy who founded it—he’s like eighty now—he’s also, for whatever reason, really into my books.
EC: I think I’ve heard you mention this guy before. He’s quite the character, right?
JK: Yes. This is a guy who always wants to let his wife know where he is. You know, if he’s going out to the store or something, he’ll tape a note to the door. But if he can’t find tape, he will fucking nail a note to his front door. He’s nailed notes to people’s office doors. He just moves in a straight line and doesn’t deflect for anything. But, yeah, because of the nature of Five Decembers, I really needed readers who were alive in the 1940s, even if they were just kids. So this guy introduced me to a lot of people who were alive in the 1940s and also happened to be happy to read the book. That was helpful.
EC: Do you have any advice for young writers, or people just starting out?
JK: I don’t have any original advice, just the standard stuff. Read a lot. Read as many different styles and genres as you can. And then write the book you wish you were reading. That’s what I always try to do. Also make sure that every word is paying its rent on the page. If it’s not, cross it out.
EC: How have you liked writing under a pseudonym?
JK: I was a little pissed off at first, but I’ve gotten to the point now where I’m pretty content to have this alter ego.
EC: Why do you write? Like, you, specifically—what’s your reason for devoting all this time to the page.
JK: It’s an interesting undertaking. I find it to be quite a lot like building a clock. I built a clock once, from a kit. Writing a novel is like building a clock but you don’t have a kit. You don’t even know what it’s supposed to look like when you’re done. You spend months where you’re putting a cog here and a gear there, and you don’t even know why. But then there’s this moment—this magical moment—when you realize that thing you put over there, if you turn it, it connects up and makes everything else move too. When you feel the book coming together like that, when you understand that somehow, subconsciously, you’re building this machine that works in such a way—I love that feeling. I’m always chasing it.