Saturday, July 26, 2014

11 Questions for Neely Tucker, author of THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, a Sully Carter mystery

Neely Tucker was born in Holmes County, Mississippi, then the poorest county in the poorest state in America, in 1963. He has since worked in more than sixty countries or territories across the world and currently writes for The Washington Post’s Sunday Magazine. His memoir, “Love in the Driest Season,” was named one of the best 25 Books of 2004 by Publisher’s Weekly, the American Bookseller’s Association, the New York City Library and won numerous other awards.

A seventh-generation Mississippian, he attended Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi, graduating magna cum laude from the latter, and was named as the University’s top journalism student. In college, he started writing for The Oxford Eagle as their “Yalobusha County correspondent,” which is perhaps the best job title any one has ever had. It was the smallest daily newspaper in Mississippi, and as such he covered everything from high school sports to county commission meetings to homicides to the Watermelon Queen festival.

After college, he worked at Florida Today, Gannett News Service and the Miami Herald, all in a four-year span. Moving to the Detroit Free Press, he lived in a loft above a downtown pizzeria, froze in the winters, and was named to run the paper’s European Bureau in early 1993.

Since 2000, he has worked for The Washington Post. He has covered the U.S. District Court in Washington and its appellate division, generally seen as the nation’s number two court beneath the U.S. Supreme Court. His assignments include covering anthrax and terrorism after 9/11, the 2004 tsunami in Southern Asia and the fate of returning prison inmates.

When he is not writing, Neely is usually on his motorcycle, out for a long run or sipping bourbon on the back porch, wishing that Mississippi State and the New Orleans Saints would win more football games than they actually do.

Clinton Greaves: Tell me about THE WAYS OF THE DEAD, your debut novel.

Tucker: The teenage daughter of a very powerful judge in Washington is brutally murdered after a dance class in a rough part of town. Sully Carter, a talented reporter with a lot of baggage – alcohol, war injuries, rage – gets the idea that the girl’s death might be related to the disappearances of troubled minority women in the same neighborhood.  It’s based on the actual Princeton Place murders in D.C. in the mid 1990s, when a serial killer was stalking this same neighborhood. But, thematically, Washington is home to some of the most powerful people in the country, some of the most dispossessed and some of the most violent. “Ways” is about when those three run into each other. It’s not pretty.

Clinton Greaves: Going into the writing of THE WAYS OF THE DEAD did you let the different threads of the story come to you? Or did you carefully map out the entire novel?

Tucker: Creativity is great, but it’s got to have form. So I mapped it all out by chapter, like you’d storyboard a film. But in the write-through, the characters started walking off the page and doing things I hadn’t planned. I always trust that. The final twist of the book was not in any way planned. It just happened. I said, “Oh, SH*T!” when it popped out on the page.

Clinton Greaves: Well, I must tell you, from time to time I’ve heard critics describe the writing in a debut novel as “assured,” and I would certainly say that is the case with your book. I couldn’t point to one false step in the entire novel. It amazed me that this was your first crack at long-length fiction. Obviously, you have a strong background in journalism, and I’m wondering if that helped you in any way with crafting your first novel.

Tucker: Sure. I’ve made my living writing for nearly thirty years now. Fiction is a different sort of mental game, but it’s in the same ballpark, at least to me. The real difference is story flow and knowingly withholding critical information. What one calls a great twist in fiction likely would be called a cheap trick in journalism.

Clinton Greaves: I can’t help but notice the similarities between your name and Sully’s. I hate to ask, but how much of Sully Carter mirrors the great Neely Tucker?

Tucker: Some, but probably not as much as you’d think. Sully and I share the same profession, some reporting experiences, ride motorcycles, and both love Basil Hayden’s bourbon and the New Orleans Saints. But, for example, there really was a reporter who broke open the Princeton Place murders. He was a former foreign correspondent, worked for the Washington Post and came home to cover crime. He really did crawl around in the basements where some of the bodies were found, he really did go to the strip club on the block, really did expose all the problems with the city morgue. And his name was Gabriel Escobar, now the deputy managing editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Washington is lousy with reporters coming home from abroad; someone with Sully’s career just isn’t that unusual.

Clinton Greaves: I’ve previously interviewed Owen Laukkanen and Paul Doiron, two wonderful crime novelists with strong series characters. The ending of THE WAYS OF THE DEAD left me longing for more Sully Carter, as well as wondering how he would reconcile what he learned about another key character in the novel. What are the future plans for Sully Carter? Are there any more scheduled books in the series?

Tucker: The second book in the series is already written. It’s out next summer. The working title is “The Well of Time.” It’s Sully, back in D.C., dealing with some of the people you’re talking about.

Clinton Greaves: Strictly crime fiction for you moving forward? Or do you have a desire to write in another genre?

Tucker: The next two books (at least) are going to be about Sully. I’d like for him to be around for a long time, and I’d like to also bring other characters and stories to life, in whatever style/genre/format.

Clinton Greaves: I am an unabashed lover of crime fiction, so I had to smile when I noticed you dedicated your novel, in part, to the late Elmore Leonard, one of my personal favorites. He certainly was adept at “leaving out the parts that readers skip,” and infusing his work with the little details that add verisimilitude. Do you have much time for reading yourself? What are some books that you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle, Nook, etc.)?

Tucker: I loved Dutch, for many and several reasons. We got to be friends and he was just so straightforward and relaxed and utterly without pretense. Sort of the James Garner of the literary set – somebody with all the chops and none of the ego. That perspective, and his gift for dialogue and seeing good stories, really had an impact on me. I wouldn’t want to give anybody a mandatory reading list, but if one likes crime fiction, say, it’s hard to be conversant without “The Big Sleep,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Silence of the Lambs,” “L.A. Confidential,” “Clockers,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Mystic River,” and anything by Dutch, Michael Connelly and Carl Hiaasen. That’s just off the top of my head as some sort of overview. It’s leaving out about 15 or 20 things just as influential, I’m sure.

Clinton Greaves: Certainly the book industry is changing, as we see more indie works coming to light because of the ease of publishing for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. Amazon and Hachette’s public feud has drawn quite a bit of attention as well (much of it drummed up by writers on both sides of the aisle—traditional versus self-published). You’re a relative newbie to publishing. Based on your experiences thus far, how do you feel about the state of the publishing industry? Encouraged or discouraged?

Tucker: I prefer print, for what it’s worth. I have a Kindle, I just don’t like reading anything very long on it. But as a writer, the technology used or format of how people read it doesn’t matter to me at all.

Clinton Greaves: What’s one question you wish an interviewer would ask? And go ahead and answer it.

Tucker: “Do you get tired of people telling you that you look like Billy Bob Thornton?” Answer: “I just wish a casting director would, so maybe I’d get a movie role every now and then.”

Clinton Greaves: As we near the end of this interview, I hesitate to admit that my wife abused me in fantasy football last year with Drew Brees quarterbacking for her team. Couple that with the fact that I’m a Jets fan and you can imagine how cranky I was for the entire season. Using your keen journalistic eye, what do you think the prospects are for the Saints and the Jets this upcoming season?

Tucker: NEVER PICK AGAINST ST. DREW (His name be praised). Eight 5,000 yard passing seasons in NFL history. He has four of them. As to the season…as a Saints fan, one always views the upcoming season with a sense of doom. I’d guess Jets fans tend to feel the same.

Clinton Greaves: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Any last thoughts?

Tucker: Glad you liked the book…and Sully will be back next summer.

Order Neely Tucker's Thrilling Sully Carter Novel!
Amazon: The Ways of the Dead
Barnes & Noble: The Ways of the Dead

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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

10 Questions for Paul Doiron, author of Game Warden Mike Bowditch mystery series

Paul Doiron is the author of the Mike Bowditch series of crime novels, including The Poacher's Son, which won the Barry Award and the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel and was nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and a Thriller Award for Best First Novel, and the Maine Literary Award for "Best Fiction of 2010." PopMatters named it to its Best Fiction of 2010 list. His second book, Trespasser, won the Maine Literary Award, was an American Booksellers Association Indie Bestseller, and has been called a "masterpiece of high-octane narrative" by Booklist. The third novel, Bad Little Falls, was a BookScan Bestseller and a nominee for the RT Reviewers Choice Award and the Maine Literary Award. Massacre Pond, the fourth in the series, was an Indie Next pick and an Indie Favorite, as well as BookScan Bestseller. The Bone Orchard will be published on July 15, 2014.

Paul is Editor Emeritus of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, having served as Editor in Chief from 2005 to 2013, before stepping down to write full time. A native of Maine, he attended Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in English, and he holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. He is a former member of the Maine Arts Commission and a current member of the Maine Humanities Council. He is also a Registered Maine Guide specializing in fly fishing and lives on a trout stream in coastal Maine.

Clinton Greaves: Tell me about THE BONE ORCHARD, the fifth book in your excellent Mike Bowditch series.

Doiron: Thank you for the compliment and for the chance to talk about THE BONE ORCHARD. Readers of the previous Mike Bowditch books will know that he is a young Maine game warden who is struggling to come to terms with his job and his relationships. Over the course of the series we have watched him repeatedly get in hot water with his superiors who believe he is unfit to be a law enforcement officer. At the start of THE BONE ORCHARD, Mike has reluctantly decided that they are right. He has left the Warden Service and is working as a fishing guide in the North Woods. He has gone from troublemaker to caretaker, tending to both an expansive lakeside estate and the family of an incarcerated friend (both of which were introduced in my previous book, MASSACRE POND). The problem is that the past won’t leave him alone. After his mentor and former sergeant Kathy Frost is forced to kill an unstable Afghan War veteran in a “suicide-by-cop” incident, she begins receiving threats. She blames Mike for quitting on her, claiming that if he’d been her back-up that night, the tragedy wouldn’t have happened. When she herself becomes targeted by a sniper seemingly out for revenge, Mike finds himself outside the police investigation and second-guessing his decision to leave the service. Inevitably, he gets pulled into the hunt for the shooter and starts to demonstrate a newfound maturity. He’s been on a hero’s journey since THE POACHER’S SON, and this book is the end of one stage of his life and the beginning of another.

Clinton Greaves: I was fortunate to discover the series right at the start with THE POACHER’S SON. I was intrigued by the prospect of a crime novel featuring a game warden in Maine as the main protagonist. I’m wondering if writing such an original protagonist aided in your effort to be published or whether Bowditch’s profession made it difficult for you to find a publisher.

Doiron: I think a combination of factors helped me. First was that C.J. Box had already had considerable success with his series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett (his first book came out while I was writing THE POACHER’S SON and punctured any illusions I had about originality). Second was a word I hate to use but which definitely exists in the publishing world today: I had a “platform.” I was, at the time, the editor-in-chief of Down East: The Magazine of Maine, which has a paid readership of 90,000 and is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this year. I also happened to be a Registered Maine Guide, certified by the state to lead fishing and canoeing trips in the wilderness. So I had some credibility as an expert on both Maine and the outdoors that my publisher thought would help in the marketing of the book.

Clinton Greaves: Each year I make it a point to mark up a desk calendar with books I’m eager to read over the course of twelve months. THE BONE ORCHARD and Ace Atkins’s THE FORSAKEN were my marked selections for July ’14. I managed to get my hands on an advance copy of your novel and I’m pleased to say the series remains fresh and progressive. Mike Bowditch continues to grow and discover surprising truths about himself that have kept me on the edge of my seat. Do you have a full story arch in mind for Bowditch? A set number of books you would like to complete with this character?

Doiron: Originally, I had a plan for twelve books with each one taking place in a different month. Game wardens’ jobs change from season to season so I thought it would be fun to show the various things they deal with over the course of a year. In my original plan, Mike would get a year older from book to book, but I have abandoned that concept because it meant leaving a hole I had to fill with each new novel, catching the reader up on what has happened since the last one. Whether I get to twelve books — or beyond — will depend on whether readers stick with me, I suppose.

Clinton Greaves: My reading interests certainly slant toward crime fiction. Reading your biography, I see that you graduated from Yale University with a degree in English. Did you ever consider writing something the literati would consider more highbrow? What drew you to crime fiction, or are you an accidental crime novelist like Ian Rankin?

Doiron: You caught me. Yes, I came out of Yale as a literary snob. My favorite author is Hemingway, and for a long time, I tried to write in the minimalist style that Raymond Carver had popularized in the ‘80s. But I have always had a deep affection for plot. As a reader I’ve been drawn to stories where something happens. About fifteen years ago, my girlfriend — now wife — gave me a stack of books by contemporary crime and suspense authors: P.D. James, John LeCarre, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley. I read them and said to myself, “This is literature.” And I realized that I had been fighting my own interests and talents as a writer. I really only found my voice when I stopped trying to please highbrow literary journal editors.

Clinton Greaves: In a previous interview with Owen Laukkanen, I asked him if he ever considered writing a standalone novel outside of his Windermere and Stevens world. Dennis Lehane’s career spiked once he moved from his PI series and wrote MYSTIC RIVER. How far ahead have you thought about your own career? Any standalone novels in your plans?

Doiron: I have been filing away ideas for standalones for years, but I have recognized over the past year that, at the moment, my readers really want more of Mike Bowditch. And since my readership is growing, it makes sense to focus with the series for the time being. My hope is that my career won’t require a standalone to move to the next level. My role models in this regard are people like the late Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, and Craig Johnson.

Clinton Greaves: So far I’ve mentioned Ace Atkins, Owen Laukkanen, and Dennis Lehane. I think it’s quite obvious that I cannot get enough of well-crafted crime fiction. Do you have much time for reading yourself? What are some books that you think should be on everyone’s bookshelf (or Kindle, Nook, etc.)?

Doiron: One of the things I have found is that it’s hard for me to read crime fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. I’m something of a mimic, and I’ll find myself unconsciously picking up the voice of an author I really admire. (It’s pretty comic when Mike Bowditch begins talking a little like Easy Rawlins.) Recommendations are always so difficult. I’ll throw one out that might seem odd and try to explain it. THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Lewis Stevenson. The story is so familiar that even people who haven’t read it think they know it. I guarantee that they don’t. The novella is one of the best mysteries ever written (and that’s not even getting into the subject of what the book has to say about our divided souls). The way Stevenson spoons out the story, little by little, is just masterful. Everyone who aspires to write a story with a mystery at its center needs to read DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.

Clinton Greaves: Going into a book do you let the story come to you? Or are you a careful plotter with file cards and charts and an extensive story “bible”?

Doiron: I tend to start with a general idea for a story. I’ll know it will be set in February and have to do with men lost in a blizzard, for instance. And I’ll know what the murder is and who did it. After that I try to write organically, letting myself be surprised by the twists and turns that come to me along the way. The analogy I always use is deciding you’re going to drive to some distant destination, but you have the time and freedom to explore various side roads. You know where you will end up, but you don’t know how exactly you’ll get there.

Clinton Greaves: Certainly publishing is changing, as we see more indie works coming to light because of the ease of publishing for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. How do you feel about the publishing industry these days? Encouraged or discouraged?

Doiron: That’s a good question. I tend to think publishing is starting to follow a similar (but not identical) course as the music industry has been going through for the past twenty years. Technology has made it possible for anyone to get their creative work out into the marketplace, but it has changed the way consumers decide how much value to place on a book, an album, or a movie. The pie is being divided up differently. It seems that in publishing the midlist has been hit the hardest by these trends. Digital publishing is great if you don’t expect to make a living from your writing, and blockbuster authors are continuing to do fine, but you see the middle being squeezed out. The challenge for someone like me is to build a growing base of loyal readers who do what you do and pen the date of my release on their calendars.

Clinton Greaves: What’s one question you wish an interviewer would ask? And go ahead and answer it.

Doiron: Which author has been an unacknowledged influence on my work? Flannery O’Connor, definitely. I grew up in an observant Catholic household and attended an all-boys Jesuit high school. I remember discovering O’Connor and just burning through her stories and novels and letters. She’s one of the few authors where I can say I’ve read every word she published during her lifetime. Most reviewers have missed how Christ-haunted my books are. I thought the title TRESPASSER would be a dead giveaway as to Mike’s unacknowledged and unresolved issues with his faith. He’s really struggling in the novels with whether he believes there is a divine order in the universe. Sin, penance, forgiveness: they’re all ideas he’s struggling with. I should add that O’Connor is also responsible for whatever dark comedy there is in my books.

Clinton Greaves: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. Any last thoughts?

Doiron: Thanks again for this opportunity. I’d just add that people always ask if they need to read the books in order. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. The novels stand on their own. But I think you’ll find THE BONE ORCHARD more interesting and entertaining if you start with THE POACHER’S SON and follow Mike on his journey to this new place in his life.

Order Paul Doiron's Latest Thrilling Mike Bowditch Novel!
Amazon: The Bone Orchard
Barnes & Noble: The Bone Orchard

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