"The victim is often forgotten," Miles Corwin told my class on our first day in January 2009. He began the lecture by talking about "The Black Dahlia," the most famous murder case in LA. It's famous because it was such a graphic murder, Corwin explained, and because it was said a beautiful woman was murdered. This is one of the problems with Hollywood--"It is all about the violence, not about the suffering."
Corwin taught as well as gave us, his journalism students, advice on reporting and writing. As a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Corwin has plenty of experience covering homicides and crime in the inner city. "Go early if you have to interview family, friends, or neighbors of the victim," he says, because LA is safest before 8 a.m. "Also, don't interview someone without a shirt on."
Last year, Corwin told me he was working on a novel. Not a nonfiction book, like the three he had already written, but a piece of fiction--something he had never done before. It took him five months to write the book. In comparison to a couple of years he spent reporting and writing Homicide Special, this was a quick production.
But it wasn't until eight rewrites and several years later that Kind of Blue was published.
"I was naive," Corwin admits when reflecting on the idea of him actually completing the novel in five months. But each rewrite served him and developed him as a writer.
Corwin is a journalist, but at the heart of the matter, he is a devout teacher--one who attempts to see eye-to-eye with his students while at the same time challenging them.
"I identify with my students when I see them struggling with a story because I've been there," he says.
Those who sat in "death row" (Corwin's reference to the last row of seats in the class) were often called upon, even though they never raised their hands. During one class, he even eliminated the last couple of rows in order to bring the students together in a more intimate and involved atmosphere.
"I used to be that kid in the back row," he told us one class after calling on a kid from the back--a kid who clearly didn't want to talk. He explained that being called on will help the writer in the long run.
In Kind of Blue, Corwin creates a world he knows well. The novel takes place in LA, where Corwin grew up and has lived the majority of his life. While the story is fiction, the place is real, including the LA lunch spots that not many people know about.
After spending a year, 24/7, with the Los Angeles Police Department homicide unit, Corwin discovered a big part of the homicide detective's day is lunch time. It's a real break from all the detective work, and in the book Corwin incorporates this as his character travels to the same small LA spots that Corwin frequented with the homicide unit.
He has always emphasized to his journalism students the importance of reading like a writer, instead of simply reading for the entertainment of it.
"A story is never as interesting as the characters," Corwin said during one lecture.
When creating the protagonist for Kind of Blue, Ash Levine, he was first inspired by a conversation he had with James Ellroy, who took a bunch of homicide detectives to lunch one day while Corwin was working on Homicide Special.
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Ellroy talked about his bad-ass days in LA when he was younger. While he was being arrested for a crime one day, he noticed a cop's nameplate read "Moscowitz." Ellroy told Corwin his first thought was, "What's a Jew doing as a street cop?" This question was a start for Corwin in developing his main character Ash, a Jewish ex-detective. Corwin himself is Jewish.
Corwin wanted his book to be more than just about violence and murderer, but "the way crime effects people, and the consequences and impacts of crime on family, police, neighbors and friends."
After several years, the rewrites, waiting and anticipation are over, and Corwin has learned much from the process.
"I became a better writer,' he says, "and I think it will make me a better teacher."