John Dunning, author of “Booked to Die”


 A friendly smile and an outstretched hand, that’s how John Dunning greets you – unless you’re lucky enough to be his friend and then you get a big bear hug. The author of the biblio-mystery Booked to Die lives in Denver with his wife Helen. His background reads like one of his novels. He’s worked with thoroughbred horses at various race tracks, he was an investigative reporter, worked in political campaigns, taught journalism, critical writing, and novel writing at the University of Denver and Metropolitan State College. He had his own weekly radio show, “Old-Time Radio,” for over twenty years. He’s a collector of old radio shows and has amassed over 35,000 shows covering the period 1926-1962. He opened Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver in 1984. The Dunnings have two children, a daughter now in college and a son in real estate.
John Dunning

John Dunning

Pat : You won the Nero Wolfe award for Booked to Die . How does it feel to be responsible for bringing so many people into book collecting?

John : I am still amazed at the life that book has had. In 1990, when I finished it, I was just hoping it would sell to someone— anyone! I was ten years between books and was beginning to think I would never publish again. Then Susanne Kirk at Scribner bought it, and life has never been quite the same since.

I think it’s great, to answer your question, that so many readers have become collectors—and in fact many have gone on to become booksellers—because of Booked to Die . I hear from them all the time. When I was a kid I envisioned writing a book that would have this kind of deep effect on its readers. That’s why we all got into it then, to move people in deep and mysterious ways. It wasn’t all about money, as it seems to be today. I mean, the money is important—nobody wants to write in a garret with his neck chained to a wall living on gruel and water—but I would far rather write a book with some staying power and make just a decent living than make millions each time out and say nothing.

Pat Bookman’s Wake was the second Cliff Janeway mystery, will there be more?

John : I am of the grope-and-hope school, so I never say what will be until I have it in the can and my publishers love it. I get a premise and I grope my way through it. I don’t write by outline, and as a result there are always half a dozen places in a book where I lose faith and have to find it again. I’m in that place right now, even as we speak.

Having said that, I guess I can say that it is a Janeway book I am groping toward. We’ll see what happens next.

Pat : Your latest book, Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime , is a terrific WWII mystery which takes place in a New Jersey radio station. How much of that came from your own radio background?

John : All of it if you consider as part of my background the fact that I’ve been researching the era forever. Yes, I did work in radio, but I totally missed what people lovingly call its golden age. I caught the very end of that as a listener, and I was captivated by those stories as I never was by TV all these years later. I had to do a lot of research into that time for a nonfiction book I wrote for Oxford called On the Air , so that played into it. When I was doing my radio show the station let me have the entire afternoon on Sunday to play around with. So between playing old shows I could track down old radio people and interview them live on the air. I had newsmen like Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood, character actors from The Jack Benny Program , writers, sound effects men—you name it. I had Jim Jordan (who was Fibber McGee) and Dennis Day, Howard Duff (who played Sam Spade on the air), and a fellow named Dennis Horsford, who as a BBC engineer in 1940 went up on the London rooftops with Ed Murrow to try to capture the sounds of the German blitz. All of this became the stuff of my book.

Pat : I think that this book is your best to date. It’s written beautifully. I was just a little kid in 1942 and you brought back a lot of memories of the old radio shows and fighting with my four brothers over who got to sit closest to the light on the front of the radio console on our living room floor.

Booked to Die HC

Booked to Die HC

John : Well, thank you. It was a special time, wasn’t it? It was our time.

Pat How do you feel about signing your books? Some authors think that it is an imposition or seem overly concerned that the collector might make money off the books.

John Anyone who makes a dime off my signature will be, to paraphrase Lou Gehrig, the luckiest guy on the face of the earth. It’s got to be the commonest signature there is. I don’t like to get boxes of books in the mail, because I can stand in line at my post office as long as 30 minutes waiting to get a package, and that’s a drag. But generally speaking, say at a book fair or if someone waylays me on the street, I’ll sign anything. Writers who get elitist after some huge success give me a royal pain in the keister. They should be glad people care, and I can vouch for that because I spent at least two-thirds of my writing life having no one care at all. Tell you the truth, I am embarrassed when I go to a bookstore to sign and the store imposes one of those rules where the author will only sign his current book. That’s pretty self-serving, isn’t it? If it’s up to me, I’ll sign anything they can pack in on their backs.

Pat : What advice would you offer to someone just starting in the book business?

John : Be lucky. Narrow the hunt, don’t be a flaming generalist like I am. Still, the most important thing a new book dealer can have is a good eye for the arcane book. You’ve got to have good juice for books you’ve never seen or heard of. Then you’ve got to be willing to spend the money on the good stuff you do know, because in this business you’re only as good as your stock. And those great books don’t grow by themselves on your shelves, you’ve got to go get them.

Pat : How about advice for the struggling new author?

John : Again, be lucky. Never hope more than you work, as some sage said. Be persistent, keep after it. Remember what Churchill said in London’s darkest hour, never, never, NEVER give up! Don’t be too much the “writer” at the expense of your story. Here’s another quote, this one in Alice in Wonderland —take care of the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves. Great advice. Try to write every day. Keep your hands busy. Follow the five Heinlein rules religiously. 1. Write. 2. Finish what you write. 3. Learn when to stop rewriting. 4. Market what you write. 5. Keep it on the market till it sells.

Pat : Thanks John.

-Pat Ahearn

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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