If you’re a crime-fiction aficionado of any taste and distinction, you recognize Robert Leininger’s Killing Suki Flood (St. Martin’s) as a work of singular voice and power. It flashed like heat-lightning back in 1991, enlivening the genre with its neo-noir assuredness, its laid-back sarcasm, its prurient and sultry charm, and the shocking sadism of its villains. Killing Suki Flood is a book that should have launched a lively publishing career.
However, not long after the back-to-back publication of his sci-fi thriller Black Sun (Avon, 1991) and Suki, Leininger disappeared from the scene, leaving many fans (myself included) wondering what had happened to such a towering talent. The truth is, a dozen years after Suki made her skimpy-clothed debut in that blistering New Mexico desert, Leininger retreated from writing and began a career teaching high school math, which he would do for over a decade.
Recently, after retiring from that career, Leininger has been edging back onto the publishing scene—primarily with the announcement of a new novel called Gumshoe, to be released by Oceanview Publishing in November. After tracking Leininger down (24 years after I read Suki!), I found that Gumshoe isn’t new at all; in fact, he wrote it in 1995 and until now it has remained unpublished, awaiting glory. He has recently updated it and revised it for the 21st century. Even better than that: Leininger has released at least a half-dozen other “lost,” never-before-published, and revised novels to Amazon, in both paperback and ebook formats, including the following:
- Tenderfoot (1983)—a western
- Maxwell’s Demon (1987)—a sprawling sci-fi thriller
- Olongapo Liberty (1988)—a Vietnam-era tale
- Sunspot (1991)—revised and updated (formerly Black Sun)
- Killing Suki Flood (1991)—revised and updated
- January Cold Kill (1992)—a female-detective novel
- Richter Ten (1995)—a sci-fi thriller
During his decade-plus of teaching—which consumed all hours every day, leaving nearly no time for writing—Leininger did manage to come up with something all-new: a self-described “children’s novel written for adults,” Nicholas Phree and the Emerald of Bool, in 2005. All of these books are available on Amazon—a boon for long-time Leininger fans.
It’s an exciting time for the author who brought Suki into the world. The impending publication of Gumshoe heralds the return of a unique talent. As we wait for the November release date, I took some time to interview Leininger about his career, his predilections, and his life.
Was Tenderfoot the first novel you wrote? Interesting that your first was a western, and you don’t seem to have revisited the genre since. So I guess I’m interested in that book as your “first” and your experiences as a young writer. How did it all start for you?
Tenderfoot was the first novel I ever finished. It was called The Willow Creek War for many years. (I liked the new title a lot more, so when I finally published it on Amazon CreateSpace, I changed the title.)
I can’t say I was a “young” writer when I wrote it. I was 36 years old when I bought an IBM PC in 1982 (.064MB of RAM and two 5.25″ floppy disks—no one was selling hard drives back then), and I wrote Tenderfoot in about three months in the evenings and weekends while working as a mechanical engineer for Northrop, an aerospace/defense company near Thousand Oaks, outside Los Angeles. I’d had the idea for years, but I was in college cialis medicament achat and didn’t have the time. After I graduated, I bought the computer and dove in. The novel has changed very little since then. It has undergone minor editing, word and phrase changes, but the storyline never changed a bit. The afternoon I finished the last page, I was floating on air. Literally. I walked across the room without touching the floor. Maybe the first novel is like that, because none of them since has had the effect of weightlessness, gravity suspended.
But it was a western and I wasn’t really interested in continuing in that genre.
Sort of. I didn’t know what to do with it after I wrote it, so I sent a cover letter to one agent or publisher (I don’t remember which) and was basically told that it was unlikely that the novel was any good and they didn’t want to see it. End of story, which might seem strange but at the time I didn’t know anything about marketing or persistence.
I still love the story of Tenderfoot. The hero is a civil engineer who returns home to his father’s ranch and single-handedly defeats a much larger outfit by using his brains and . . . something else he learned back East. I won’t give that away. It’s still too wonderful.
Your next book was Maxwell’s Demon, which looks as if it was quite the undertaking.
That’s still the “biggest” novel I’ve ever written (193,000 words).
A nearly 200,000-word book for your second effort! Did long-form writing come easy to you, in your early years?
I’ve never really cared for short stories. If the story is good, I don’t want it to end, so I’ve never found short stories to be satisfying. Naturally, then, I prefer to write novels. I’ve even written three short stories myself and didn’t find that to be a particularly satisfying experience either, except for one in which a World War II destroyer mysteriously ends up on the main street of a small town in Idaho one morning. That one was a kick and a half. (Read that story, “White Elephant,” for free at Leininger’s website.)
So, yes, the long-form came naturally and “easy” to me—easy being relative, since all novels are marathons or ultra-marathons. Therefore, easy isn’t right; I think the word is “satisfying.”
What was it about the Maxwell’s Demon story that was compelling?
If you search for “Maxwell’s Demon” on Google, you’ll find that it’s a concept first proposed by James Clerk Maxwell in 1867, then again in 1871 and 1872. It’s a way to defeat or circumvent the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
What I found compelling about Maxwell’s Demon is: What might happen if someone (a young boy) had the power to affect the probabilistic motion of molecules, to create order out of chaos, and what might the US Government and the Russians do to get their hands on him?
My agent at the time called it my “Million-Dollar Novel.” Eight or ten major publishing houses turned it down. At this point, it has fallen short of a million dollars by roughly a million dollars.
The novel is part science fiction, part thriller, and part horror or supernatural. As such, publishers had no idea what to do with it. Actually, there are writers out there getting their multi-genre novels published, but I was still an unknown, so even with an agent, no one would touch it. It’s still my biggest and grandest novel, and I think it’s sold about ten Kindle copies in the past eight months, so it’s made me approximately 0.67 cents per hour. Yes, that’s right, about $0.0067 per hour. I’m hoping for more in the future.
Maxwell’s Demon sounds like a ton of fun, quite intriguing, and definitely something that demands more attention than it’s gotten so far. I can sense that you had high hopes for it at the time. I’m sure it was frustrating when it failed to gain traction.
The book has an interesting history. It was actually my very first writing effort. The writing was pretty awful. I was just starting out, just learning. And I made a crucial mistake: I kept going back and reading the first few chapters, over and over, trying to convince myself that it was good, that I was on the right track. I read it so many times that I got utterly bored with it; I lost all faith that anyone would find it interesting since I no longer found it interesting. I made it to about chapter 7 and had to give it up.
At that point I wrote The Willow Creek War (now Tenderfoot), and this time I refused to go back and read what I’d written unless I’d forgotten a character’s name. That worked, and I wrote it quickly.
I then wrote a long novel titled Descent, in which a twenty-year-old kid (intelligent but into shoplifting and drugs) is abruptly transported about 20,000 years into the past. He wakes up on a hillside, naked, in grass. It takes him quite a while to believe that he’s really in the past. The point of the story is this: How would a man (in 1983 when I wrote the novel) survive if he had today’s scientific knowledge but none of today’s infrastructure? Anyway, he ends up with two “wives,” fights a bear, and learns how to hunt, but it’s all a huge, incredible struggle. Very little “modern” knowledge is useable in the world 20,000 years in the past. Makes you appreciate what we’ve got, and the sweat and struggle of a thousand generations.
Then I tackled Maxwell’s Demon again. And again, and again, and again, refining it, adding new stuff, deleting stuff, trying to get it right. This continued well after I’d written a number of other novels. I’ve probably extensively revised Maxwell’s Demon a dozen times and given it a minor scrubbing another dozen times. That book is also available on Amazon/Kindle, but it’s mostly just sitting there. Maybe it’s the word “demon” in the title.
At this point, success was around the corner with Black Sun. Can you talk a little bit about that success, particularly in the wake of your “biggest and grandest novel” remaining “drawered”?
I suppose Black Sun was a success since it was published by Avon Books, a “real” publisher. But it was published in paperback, a print run of 25,000, and although it appears to have done well (considering), Avon didn’t reprint it and it faded into oblivion. (I’ve since re-edited and revised it, and resurrected it as Sunspot. It’s about 6,000 words longer than the original—better, too. On Amazon CreateSpace it’s my number-two “bestseller,” currently selling about 20 to 25 ebooks per month. Hey, it’s better than getting poked in the eye with that proverbial sharp stick.)
Still, the experience of getting Black Sun published—did it feel like the beginning of a career, or at least a new kind of success? Was there something special about that book for you (before it faded)?
Black Sun is the novel that got me an agent (first draft begun on 7/5/87 and completed on 9/20/87). I also sent it to publishers and agents, and in May 1988 Avon Books expressed interest. So I told the lady who was thinking about becoming my agent that I had interest by Avon, so she soon became my agent and Avon became my publisher. My agent asked for a bigger advance, and that took nearly a year to get through Avon (!) but finally, in May of 1989, she got Avon to pay $7,500 instead of their first offer of $3,000. And, yes, it did feel like I might have a career starting up. From June ‘88 to October ‘88, I wrote Olongapo Liberty. I started writing Killing Suki Flood on 6/17/89 and finished the first draft on 8/16/89, and mailed the final version to my agent in November. Early March of 1990 my agent placed it with St. Martin’s Press, also for $7,500. So Black Sun was my fourth completed novel and Suki was my sixth. In fact, I first held the hardcover of Suki in my hands a month or so before the paperback of Black Sun due to Avon’s delays.
So, Black Sun was special in that it got me an agent and made me think I had a career starting up. I floated on air for a month or two. But Avon didn’t promote the book in any way, so it faded into oblivion. By the way, when I sent it to my agent I called it Dark Side of the Sun. I still like that previous (working) title better than Black Sun. But it’s Sunspot now, and I like that even more.
Olongapo is a personal tale in that I was there (from 1966 to 1971, with two years off to go to Antarctica—Operation Deep Freeze). I wouldn’t want to call it autobiographical, but some of it happened to me, a lot of it happened to sailors I knew, and I turned it into novel form by adding about 15 to 20 percent of pure fiction that “could have happened”—that fit the possibilities that Olongapo offered, which were many and varied.
In particular, the infamous tattoo (you have to read the novel to know what that was) is real. And a Navy chief (E-7) really did urinate in the coffee overflow tray in the crew’s mess, as stated in the novel. The town of Olongapo was obviously the “inspiration” for the novel. What it means to me is about what it means to those ex-sailors and marines who have reviewed it on Amazon. It’s a trip down Memory Lane. Those reviews indicate that I “nailed” Olongapo and how it was. If anyone wants to know how liberty was for sailors in Olongapo during the Vietnam War, this is the book to read.
Okay, now we’ve come to Killing Suki Flood. You’ve gotta tell me about the spark that led to Suki.
Ah, the “Suki Spark.” I was driving through Oregon on I-5 with my wife (to be) and saw a person changing a tire on the side of the road with traffic blowing by at 70mph. Not a good place to do that. But, I thought, there are worse places. Like out in the desert, lost, especially if you don’t have a clue how to change a tire. Instantly, Suki was born. Not far down the interstate I saw the name “Limosin” printed in huge letters on the roof of a barn, and that became Frank’s name, the guy who comes along and saves Suki. But it also immediately occurred to me that he wasn’t going to change the tire for her; he was going to make her do it. Anyway, that was the spark. You never know when they’re about to hit.
To me, Killing Suki Flood is close to a perfect neo-noir—vibrant characters, sly humor, evil antagonists, fun, twisty plot, a truly great dame. It had a huge effect on me. I’ve read it probably six or seven times. Once you were inspired to write it, did it flow quickly from you?
It took just two months to write. I told myself right up front that I was “writing a rocket.” I didn’t really plot it, and every time I started to slow down I told myself I was over-thinking it, and to “see” what happens next, and to make it fast and interesting. Just go, go, go.
When I gave it to my agent, here’s what she had to say (I wrote down her words and immortalized them in a journal): “Sensational, marvelous, perfectly crafted. All dialogue, all wonderful. A stunner of a book.” She said it ruined her week since she couldn’t stop reading it. Well, okay, all great words to a beginning novelist wondering if it was ever going to happen. So then I thought maybe I was about to have a career. Avon had stalled for nearly a year and wasn’t paying much. Excitement for Avon and Black Sun were already fading. So my agent’s words about Suki were a huge boost.
And, in a way, Suki really came through. It created movie interest. Warner Bros. optioned it for two years, then let the option lapse. Suki was optioned again by an “independent party” in Los Angeles for two years, and that lapsed. Then Davis Films optioned it, and it’s been under option with them ever since, roughly twenty years, give or take a few. Movie options for Suki were ultimately worth about forty times more than what St. Martin’s Press paid in their advance. Forty times!
Yeah, it might be worth a Holy Cow. Suki has been under option (with three different “places”) since 1991. All in all, it’s made something over $300,000, of which my agent got 15 percent and Uncle Sammy got around 20 percent, give or take. If it weren’t for Suki, I’d probably be back in Reno, still teaching math (to kids who loved me, true, especially when I made them memorize the quadratic formula and use it correctly).
I was particularly taken by Killing Suki Flood’s…shall we say…friskiness. Suki is a hot little number—a fact not lost on lucky Frank. And yet she’s also not merely a damsel in distress. She’s opinionated and strong. Any thoughts about the women in your novels?
Damsels in distress cannot be protagonists in my novels. I like to write about women who are strong yet sexy, opinionated yet mellow enough to be fun. Given reasonable arguments, they are flexible; they can abandon a position they previously held strongly in favor of new knowledge, explanations that make sense. People who have their minds made up and no amount of proof or reason will change their minds are, to me, people who don’t have brains—they have concrete between their ears. They are boring because they are predictable. People like that don’t end up as heroes or heroines in my novels, period.
Regarding “friskiness,” I’m personally bored by novels that don’t contain an element of sexiness. Not sex, but sexiness. Mort says it best In Gumshoe: “Anticipation is sexy. It charges the air, and charged air is worth a lot all on its own. Slam-bam takes the edge off before there’s an edge worth taking off.”
Mink and Charlotte are certainly something else. But … where did they come from? From within me, out of my imagination. Every character created by an author (as opposed to an author putting a known person into their novel) is part of that author, or a product of the author’s imagination. I can imagine evil. We have had examples of evil in our lives, or at least in the news: Dahmer, Gacy, Bundy, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin. Murderous people with no sign of a conscience.
Creating Mink and Charlotte was simply a matter of digging down far enough to uncover them. So if you want to create a truly evil character, give them no sign of a conscience. That worked for Killing Suki Flood, but it’s not a prescription for all novels. Some villains have at least a little redeeming value. They are more complex, true. They’re even more “real.” But if you want to see someone die, and die horribly, then what could be better than a Mink or Charlotte who would laugh at you if you were dying horribly, or worse than horribly? Well, some people couldn’t go that far, even reading a novel. To them I say, don’t read Suki. Winnie the Pooh is still in print.
I can see why you might never have considered further books involving Suki, but I was wondering if you ever did. Were you pressured to do so at the time?
I have considered a sequel—bring her back from Rio, Frank too. No one has pressured me to do so, however. But Suki is a dream girl. She might be worth bringing back. Of course I’ve got dream girls all over the place, in Sunspot, Richter Ten, and more recently in Gumshoe, and in the sequel to Gumshoe that I’m writing now, a novel with the amazing (working) title of Gumshoe Two. Her name is Lucy, and she’s a little doll.
Having had the pleasure of reading Gumshoe, I can see some parallels with Suki, particularly surrounding your protagonists. Mort and Frank are of a type, and the same could be said for Suki and the bevy of lovely opinionated women in Gumshoe.
My ideal sexy protagonist girl/woman hasn’t changed. They can be 18 (in Suki) or 39-40 (as in Richter Ten). Gabbi in January Cold Kill is also like Suki (and like Kayla and Jeri in Gumshoe). She’s the protagonist, and there’s no real male lead in the story. It’s Gabbi’s story. And, yes, I wrote it in the first person, putting myself in the shoes (and body and soul) of a gorgeous 31-year-old woman. I’ve got range. And I’m secure in my maleness. If anyone doubts that, read Gumshoe, in which I happily and with great abandon display all the qualities of a true male chauvinistic pig.
But they share a lot of the same characteristics: strong, sexy, shapely, intelligent, mentally tough, reasonable. They don’t take crap from anyone, but they don’t give it arbitrarily, either. They’re not silly. They’re not flighty. Other women in my novels can be any of those things, but not my heroines.
And Mort? Yes, he’s sort of like Frank, but different. And Tyler in Sunspot is sort of like Frank, but different. And Lew in Maxwell’s Demon (in his sixties) is sort of like Frank, but different.
Was Suki transformational for you? January Cold Kill came after, and then Gumshoe. Was there an element at this period of “finding your genre”? What do you love about the crime genre?
I wouldn’t want to say Suki was transformational for me in any particular sense. To do so, it seems that I would have to have “transformed” from something to something else, and that didn’t happen. I am (now) who I was before I wrote Suki.
I’m still “finding my genre.” By now, I think it’s clear that—to the detriment of book sales—I don’t have a genre. I’ve written mysteries, thrillers, a western, a novel about sailors going on liberty in the Philippines, a political thriller/fantasy, “science thrillers” (Richter Ten and Sunspot), a sprawling novel (Maxwell’s Demon) that encompasses thriller, spy novel, techno-thriller, science fiction, and horror. And, rounding out this circus, a novel (Nicholas Phree and the Emerald of Bool) that has genies, flying carpets, a talking mouse, and a boy and girl who must save the world.
All that said, I don’t particularly love the crime genre. I do love its “range” of motion. You can do things you can’t do in a “melt-your-heart” dog story, not that I don’t like those (read “Follow My Leader” written in 1957 by James B. Garfield—a Children’s Book Club novel I read way back when). Sunspot isn’t a crime novel, but it has “bad guys” who certainly qualify as criminals. Richter Ten is the same. It has criminal evil, but it’s not a “crime” novel. I just like the freedom of having certain characters capable of doing about anything. Crime novels quality, but they’re not the only ones. I just write what I want to write.
Can you talk a bit more about your two detective novels Gumshoe and January Cold Kill? I’m curious about this yin-yang duo: Gumshoe as the self-described “male-chauvinist detective novel” and January Cold Kill with the female perspective.
Gumshoe was male-chauvinist fiction, and fun. January Cold Kill was female-chauvinistic fiction, and fun. I suppose I was yinning in one novel and yanging on the other. All kidding aside, I had stories to tell and I told ‘em. Like I said earlier, I never settled on a single genre. Within mysteries, I didn’t settle right away on the gender of the protagonist. But Gumshoe has sold to Oceanview Publishing, so I’m in the throes of Gumshoe Two (seriously, what’s not to love about that title?) and back to male chauvinism (and loving it since the girls have good-sized breasts and the weather is hot).
As for male chauvinism, I make no apologies for Mort’s (and my own) love of beautiful women. January Cold Kill was just another novel. I had a story to tell. It has a few sexy women in it, but not as many as in Gumshoe. January Cold Kill’s protagonist, Gabbi, is the sexiest of them all. She used to be a showgirl (very often topless) in a big production in Reno’s biggest casino, the kind of huge production that involves as many as eighty topless women and perhaps twenty or thirty scantily-clad men. So she’s definitely “got the goods.” She’s not a “tease”—at all. She uses her looks (not sex!) to advantage as needed, often playing on the immediate interest of almost all men when they encounter a gorgeous woman. And, by the way, that’s real life. Mostly, Gabbi is fun. And she loves to “break and enter.”
I had written Sunspot (as Black Sun) much earlier, but I’ve always liked good “disaster” novels. I just hated all the other “earthquake novels” out there in which there’s some character buildup, then the quake, then seventy percent of the novel is about people crawling out of wreckage. Boring. So I came up with a way for a huge earthquake to be predicted in advance. That way the story could be about characters who weren’t struggling through wreckage. And the quake toward the end of the novel is much bigger than anything the San Andreas could deliver. So . . . I love the fact that my characters aren’t picking their way out of the aftermath of a big quake. Oh, and the two love stories. I’m a sucker for that stuff.
You wrote the majority of these books through the 1990s, and you also tried your hand at screenplays. What was that period like? This is about the time I was wondering what might follow Suki. Were there nibbles on your other stuff? Any “almosts” from Hollywood?
After Suki, I did major rewrites for Maxwell’s Demon and Black Sun in 1990. In January 1991, I wrote a screenplay in 14 days that sold to New Line Cinema. I thought I was a screenwriter at that point. But New Line Cinema did what the film industry does best: They trashed it, then didn’t like the result, so they dropped it. But it was $27,500 for 14 days work, so I shouldn’t complain. I wrote other screenplays, one of which made it to the top 10 in a competition that had more than 3,000 entries. But I never made another dime from screenwriting. I don’t bother with screenwriting any more. It was an interesting and frustrating time. I believe those people have no idea what they’re doing. Sometimes they get lucky, but that’s just part of the second law of thermodynamics.
Another “almost” from Hollywood was my novel Richter Ten. A “movie person” said it would make a terrific movie, and they would move forward with that if it were published in hardcover. A publisher said they would publish it if it were made into a movie. No one could connect those dots, however. I believe there was a total of two dots, but I guess the geometry of drawing a straight line between them was too much like rocket science, so all that complexity is currently spiraling into the black hole at the center of the galaxy.
Did your interest in screenplays stem from the options on Suki?
Yes it did. My agent sent me four screenplays as examples. I read them, then said to myself, “That’s easy. I can do that.” So I wrote The Lemonmobile, New Line Cinema bought it (see above) then trashed it (see above), then dropped it (see above), but it paid the mortgage for a while (see above).
So, after writing all these novels and screenplays, you began teaching in 2001. I’m interested to hear about your years teaching. Do you look back on the years with great fondness? Or were you frustrated by the lack of time for writing? Both? What were those years like for you?
I liked teaching the students who really wanted to learn. Too bad there weren’t many of those, especially in the lower grades: first-year algebra and geometry. The biggest problem was administration, guided by the misguidedness emanating out of Washington D.C. like a noxious vapor—fools who went through high school and then thought they were experts in teaching high school when they didn’t have a clue, not a whisper of a clue, not an ephemeral ghost of a whisper of a clue. One of the things that made me want to leave teaching were those poisonous mandates by idiots that made teaching more and more difficult as time went on.
So, fondness? Not really. Teaching started out taking about 80 hours a week, creating new lesson plans that made sense to me, not the trivial nonsense that was “recommended.” By the time I left teaching I had it down to about 65 hours a week. Those years were simply exhausting, that’s what I remember the most. By the end of a school year I was actually unsteady on my feet, sometimes staggering a little, I was so tired.
The lack of time for writing was a factor, of course. All I managed to write in those 12-plus years was Nicholas Phree and the Emerald of Bool during one summer break.
This is just another example of me not settling down to a single genre. I had a story to tell so I told it. A genie with narcolepsy? Check. A flying carpet who was hit by a flaming arrow during the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066 and now has dreams so vivid he sometimes smolders and catches on fire? Check. Not one of the kids I taught math had a genie or a flying carpet. Oh, I picked up some “kid talk” during my teaching days, but Nicholas Phree certainly wasn’t a distillation of any of that. Magic gave me free rein to have fun of the wildest sort. Check out what the genie (Gene) and the carpet (Jules) and Nick and Hannah do in Area 51. I’m surprised I don’t have black helicopters flying over my house right now.
I call it a “children’s novel written for adults.” If a person likes adventure and humor, there’s no way not to love this one. The adult humor isn’t XXX humor, it’s just references that kids won’t get. In fact, the people who will get the most out of Nicholas Phree are those forty and above. Eighty is by no means too old. This novel takes a certain amount of life experience to really understand all that’s going on. Hence: A children’s story written for adults.
I can’t remember if you told me why you used a pseudonym…
The pseudonym was because this was so different from any of my other novels. I didn’t want to confuse my readers. Turns out that worked. Nicholas Phree is buried so deep within Amazon it currently has sales of about two copies a year . . .
You mentioned you’re working on Gumshoe Two now, and I think series are a great idea these days. What might come after?
Mmmmm . . . how about Gumshoe Three? Man, that’s a title that sings, doesn’t it? Seriously, the protagonist, Mortimer (Mort) Angel runs around with gorgeous, sexy women. It’s fun to write that stuff. The best thing is, I get to hang out with Mort, watching him run around with gorgeous sexy women. And they sometimes take off their clothes.
And on that note, thanks for your time, Rob! I’m very happy to see the resurrection of your writing career! Check out Rob at his website and on Amazon.com, and be sure to watch for the November release of Gumshoe from Oceanview Publishing.