Daniel Pieracci is a freelance copywriter who is based in Zürich. JJ Marsh talks to him about writing and publishing his debut novel.
This issue of The Woolf takes the theme of Down the Rabbit Hole. When I read your book Take Your Shot, I thought of exactly that phrase. All seems calm and innocent on the surface. Then you gradually spin us into a vortex of small compromises, insignificant manipulations and minor deceptions until they stack up into one centrifugal force. Did you begin writing with the intention to take your reader on that journey?
My intention was to reflect life. On the surface, everything seems normal, but underneath it’s complex and messy. They are people who just happen to be gangsters and madmen.
Switzerland is a long way from LA and not just geographically. Tell us about how this book came into being while you’ve been living here.
I lived in America till I was 28, then I went to advertising school which took me to Europe and got my first job in Hamburg. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing—writing. It was copywriting for an ad agency, but it wasn’t writing for me. Then a friend told me about NaNoWriMo. I said, yes, I can do that! Take Your Shot is the result of a NaNoWriMo project. I wrote 50K words and then it went into a drawer.
Because I didn’t know what else to do. This was 2008 and self-publishing was already a thing, but not my thing. My girlfriend, now my wife, read it and said, “This is great. It needs work, but it feels like a real book!” But I got caught up with the day job which I wasn’t loving as much as I should and time went by until she said, “Go freelance and become a writer. You can, so go for it. So I did.” It took about a year to knock it into shape and build it to 75K. It worked.
I wrote it about LA, but I’ve never lived in LA or even liked it, but I felt it had to set there. It’s about a Mexican American family, and I’m not from that background. It’s about a guy in the FBI and I know nothing about the organisation.
In that case, I have to ask the obvious question—where did the idea come from?
The idea came from … [Daniel gives away the ending of the book].
You can’t say that! That’s a massive spoiler!
How to say it? The evil mix of ambition and murder was the nugget of an idea which seemed interesting to me. Once I had that character, the story went from there. I always wanted there to be a contrast between the son and his father, free-flowing versus rigid.
Which is counterpointed by your gangster family.
Yes, because I wanted the bad guys to be good guys too. I had the beginning, the middle, and I knew how it had to end …
Hence the title.
Exactly. Then I incorporated things that were going on in my life which is where the juicing came in. I’m still juicing today. Then it was this slog to get to 50K words and I kept at least 40K in the final draft. I had a lot of help from a friend who became my editor. When I met her in advertising school, I thought when I write a book I want her to be my editor, so it felt like serendipity.
Your writing is certainly visual and lends itself to the screen. I compared it to movies and TV shows in my review. What influenced you to write a book instead of a movie script?
I would love to write a script and I will. I have so much respect for that skill. Having worked in advertising, writing scripts and knowing what it takes to make a movie, it just feels impossible. But when I learnt about self-publishing, I thought, “This is magical, I can do this! With help of course.” When I’ve gained more confidence I absolutely will write a script. One day.
Organised crime and the internal workings of the FBI were fascinating to learn about, not to mention the fashion and the fruit juice. Did you have a lot of fun doing the research?
With the FBI, it’s a mix of my experiences in big corporations and basic research and watching how the FBI are portrayed. Because it’s not a book about the FBI, I just had to make it look reasonable to the average reader. The idea of the FBI or CIA being run by a bunch of dimwits is funny to me. I didn’t have anyone to check that side of things but I did have a friend of mine check the Mexican-American detail. I only had to change one thing. Turns out you wouldn’t eat enchilladas for dinner, but more likely albondigas soup. Research is always difficult, as you don’t know how much to add.
It comes across well, interesting titbits but no huge info dumps.
Thank you. Writing about the FBI is like writing about people. On the surface, it looks pretty simple, but when you look inside …
Yes. There are certainly darker elements to the book, such as human trafficking, drugs and torture, which you manage to light in different hues according to the character’s voice. In fact, it’s blackly funny when the torturers just need to get it over with and go shopping. How do you keep authorial opinion from intruding?
The interesting part of a torture scene is not the blood and guts. I’m interested in the ideas and insights in the writing. The torture scene was to show that aspect of these people, that this is what they do. The eyeball thing occurred to me while I was vacuuming one day – is that a spoiler? As you said, the truth of that scene is not what happens but the impatience of the gangsters to get the info and go shop.
There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer.
As for keeping my opinion out, I don’t know if I did. There are writers who use their work as a platform for proselytising. I’m not that kind of writer. I’d love to see how my book would look with opinions in it. I try to approach things without judgement. The book is not here to convince people human trafficking is wrong. The characters have their own angle and their own trade-offs. I don’t do drugs, run guns or traffic humans but I understand the people who do are dealing with trade-offs.
On the topic of voice, the range of accents, verbal tics and individual speech markers made for a vibrant palette. With such a broad cast, what’s your technique for differentiating characters?
It comes back to life. Look at this restaurant. All these regular people having conversations, but underneath, they have a nervous tic, something they’re terrified of and that will manifest itself somehow. Some characters are there to move the story along, but if they’re central they have to have something interesting about them. Or be so bland, that’s the interesting thing about them. In all of them there’s something weird or funny. Then if I read back over and think a character is not fully fleshed out, I work on that. But everything is a construct. It’s hard to decide what’s realistic and what’s not.
Do you read your work aloud?
A bit but not enough. I started making the audio book as I’ve done voice over work in the past and realised I need to integrate that into my working process for the next book. Do you do it?
More so now. When I started recording the audiobook for my first one, I kept wanting to change things. Plus I found I’d written a whole lot of words I didn’t actually know how to pronounce.
Yes, exactly! Me too!
Will there be a sequel, or even better, a series?
When I wrote Take Your Shot, I thought of it as a single thing. It had closure and it was done, but a lot of people have said they want to read what happens next. The next book I’m writing is a different series; a crime novel taking place in Luzern with a female inspector. But I have come around to the idea that if people want a sequel to Take Your Shot, I’ll write it.
What compels you to write?
A whole bunch of little things including the following: it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. The only class I excelled at and the only one where the teacher handed back my essay and said you can do better. They all said that but he was the only one who was right. Now in my later part of life I feel like I’m crazy for not having done that from high school on.
Another thing is, when I read something, that one sentence that’s so fucking good, in my mind I’m high-fiving the author and he or she and I are sitting on a couch saying, “Oh wow that’s so great what you did there!”, “I know, I love it!”. It happens occasionally when I write something and I can just bask in it. I haven’t done many drugs in my life because that, right there, is the drug for me.
My wife did this incredibly generous thing for me in giving me the space to write so I have to follow through. I don’t need the affirmation, I have enough reasons to get out of bed in the morning. But when someone reads my work and likes it … it’s just not the same as when I make a good omelette.
Take Your Shot is available on Amazon and all good retailers.