Writer’s Digest Interviews Owen Fitzstephen

Owen Fitzstephen: Turning Dashiell Hammett’s Real Stories into Crime Fiction

Novelist Owen Fitzstephen shares how a quote from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett unlocked multiple crime novels, the silver lining of a moved publication date, his best tip for other writers, and more!

ROBERT LEE BREWER SEP 15, 2020

Owen Fitzstephen
Owen Fitzstephen

In this post, Fitzstephen shares how a quote from crime novelist Dashiell Hammett unlocked multiple crime novels, the silver lining of a moved publication date, his best tip for other writers, and more!

Elevator pitch for the book: The great mystery writer Dashiell Hammett wrote: “All of my characters are real…based directly on people I knew or came across.” Owen Fitzstephen’s richly imagined new novel The Big Man’s Daughter tells the “real” story of the only character left unaccounted for at the end of Hammett’s classic novel The Maltese Falcon. She is 18 year-old Rita Gaspereaux, who lives with one foot in the world of graft and the other in dreams.

What prompted you to write this book?

Coming across Hammett’s quote in the New York World about having based his work on real characters freed my imagination to consider unanswered questions in his master work, The Maltese Falcon. Specifically, what became of the fabled bird and what happened to the one innocent among the Fat Man’s criminal entourage, his daughter? 

By recontextualizing it not as a “sequel” or “retelling” but as one of many “true” stories that might have inspired Hammett, I discovered new dimensions among familiar characters and situations, ultimately illuminated by my own sensibilities.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

My initial idea, from about 2003, was to tell the story of the “Big Man’s Daughter” as outlined above. Along the way, however, I became fascinated by the historical figure of Dashiell Hammett and so I commenced imagining ways in which the author himself might have encountered the real criminal figures he later fictionalized in The Maltese Falcon

In 2013, this resulted in the publication of my novel Hammett Unwritten, which received wide acclaim. However, my fascination for what might have become of the unaccounted-for young woman never dimmed. So, this past year I was drawn back into that world and The Big Man’s Daughter is the result.

owen_fitzstephen_reconceptionalizing_dashiell_hammetts_real_stories_in_crime_fiction

Were there any surprises in the publishing process for this title?

The global pandemic surely came as a surprise. What seemed a perfectly ordinary publication date, May 19, 2020, became problematic due to supply chain and warehouse concerns, so the book is being released on that day only as an e-book. The publication of the physical book has been set back to September 15, 2020. 

If there is a silver lining, it’s this: two publication parties (via Zoom, most likely) instead of one.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

For me, an essential characteristic of the writing process is being open to surprising oneself. To readers, The Big Man’s Daughter may seem to have built from its inception straight to its rather shocking climax. 

But the truth is, I was as surprised by the ending as any reader. I thought I knew where the novel was going. What a delight to discover I was wrong.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

I hope readers find fascination and character on every page and that the novel ultimately leaves one with something to think about—the wonder and terror and infinite uncertainty of being (along with a ripping good crime tale).

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

While it is essential that an author remain ever aware that he or she is writing for a readership, ensuring that no effort is spared for clarity and pace and economy, it is simultaneously essential to recognize that you are also writing for yourself, tapping into your own unique perspective and attitudes, and by so doing producing a work of literature that may owe much to great books that came before but ultimately could be written only by you.