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!
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