Saturday, January 30, 2010

Q & A with E. Michael Terrell

Her first novel, Racing The Devil was also one of the biggest PI-surprises of 2009 and one of my favorite books. So it's a pleasure to be interviewing E. Michael Terrell.

Q: What makes Jared McKean different from other (unofficial) PIs?
I wanted to show the emotional complexity beneath the hardened exterior of the traditional, tough-guy PI. Jared is a former homicide detective turned professional private investigator. He’s a modern-day hero who practices Tae Kwan Do and natural horsemanship—a blend of strength and compassion. I think his personal connections are what distinguish him from other private detectives in the genre. He has an eight-year-old son with Down Syndrome, and he shares a house (platonically) with a gay man who has been a friend since kindergarten and who is battling AIDS. Jared’s experiences as the father of a cognitively disabled child and the friend of a terminally ill man have given him a sensitivity he might not have otherwise developed. Unlike many other detectives in the genre, he has strong family ties and a tender relationship with the ex-wife he still loves. The lone-wolf PI with an acrimonious ex-spouse is ubiquitous in the genre, so I wanted to show a different type of failed relationship—the one in which both parties love each other, but simply can’t make it work.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Jared McKean?
I was trying to write a book about a female private investigator, but I kept coming up with bad Kinsey Milhone knock-offs. The world doesn’t need any more Kinsey Milhones; Sue Grafton already did a terrific job of creating her. While I was struggling, I kept seeing a picture in my mind of a tall, rangy (and very hot) man wearing jeans and a leather bomber jacket that I knew had once belonged to his father. This man was leaning against a wooden fence surrounding a horse pasture. His arms were crossed, and he had a bemused expression on his face. I finally realized he was waiting for me to give up trying to write about this woman I didn’t understand and write his story instead.
I knew he was a former homicide detective, because most PIs come from law enforcement backgrounds. (I considered journalism, but Steven Womack’s wonderful Nashville-based series featured a former journalist turned PI, and I didn’t want to tread that ground, which he had already covered so well). I wanted Jared to have left the police force against his will, but I also wanted him to be a man of integrity, so I wanted him to be innocent of whatever infraction he’d been dismissed for. After discussing my dilemma with a retired homicide detective, I gave Jared an ex-lover who is a news anchor and who bugged his phone to get confidential information about ongoing investigations. To protect her, he took the rap and left the force in disgrace. That told me something about his Galahad complex and his fatal weakness—a need to protect women. It’s this weakness that gets him framed for murder in Racing the Devil.
Once I knew that about him, I sat down and made a list of characteristics and interests he and I might have in common. I had a red belt in Tae Kwan Do, a nice, useful skill for a crime fighter. I love horses, so I made him a horseman. I used to do a lot of community theatre, and I thought it might be good for him to have a little acting experience, since his knowledge of theatrical makeup techniques would allow him to use disguises. His acting ability and knowledge of disguises made him an ideal candidate for undercover work, so I wrote that into his history. I had him decide to transfer from undercover work to the homicide department because undercover work is so dangerous and his wife was worried about him—especially once their son was born. That set up the central conflict of their marriage—his need to be heroic versus her fears for his safety. When he offered to quit the police force and take a risk-free job, she said, “It’s not what you do. It’s who you are…You’re a hero looking for something to die for.” I gave him my elderly Akita and a Quarter Horse he’d had since he was a boy. His elderly animals, combined with his love for his ex-wife, revealed the core of his personality—his incredible loyalty. He never gives up on what he loves, even when that means redefining relationships. That “never-give-up” characteristic carries over into all the other areas of his life; not only is he loyal, he’s stubborn.
It was like following that golden thread through the minotaur’s maze. One discovery led to another, which led to another, which revealed a whole constellation of other qualities and a thousand small moments in his history. It began to feel less like I’d created him than that I’d discovered him.

Q: How hard is it for you as a woman to write about a man?
I actually find it harder to write female characters. There’s a tendency to bring too much of myself to the page. Writing Jared gives me the distance I need to make him more completely his own person. I’ve always had close male friends, so I write the first draft as if Jared is telling his story to a woman he is very close friends with, but in whom he has little or no sexual interest—someone with whom he’s very comfortable. After I’ve edited it as thoroughly as I can to make his voice consistent, I hand it over to a group of readers, male and female (mostly male) to see if I got it right. If I get feedback that tells me a certain action or phrase is too feminine, I change it. Sometimes I get conflicting feedback. One man says, “No straight guy would do this,” and another says, “Yes! This is exactly how it is.” In those cases, I take both comments into consideration and see which seems most true to the character.

Q: What's next for you and Jared McKean?
In the second book, the man who seduced Jared’s teenaged nephew, Josh, has been murdered in what appears to be a ritual killing. At first, Josh is a suspect. Then it becomes clear that he’s a target instead. To save his nephew, Jared has to find and stop the killer. Since the murdered man was a vampire wannabe, Jared’s search leads him to a dangerous fringe of the Goth subculture. The manuscript is finished and is currently trying to find a home with an agent.

Q: How do you promote your books?
Marketing is my weak area, but I’m learning. Sending copies to sites like Sons of Spade has brought some good word-of-mouth exposure. I’m also the Thursday contributor to Murderous Musings, a group blog written by five other mystery writers and myself. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Shelfari, MyShelf, MySpace, and Crimespace, and I try to post regularly (though I don’t always manage that). I do book signings and events at local bookstores and libraries, and I’m trying to make contact with book clubs. I’ve spoken at a few of those, and it was a wonderful experience. I’m not a naturally outgoing person, but I love to teach, so book clubs and conference panels are good venues for me.
One of the best things I’ve done is volunteer for Killer Nashville, a local crime literature conference founded by author and independent filmmaker Clay Stafford. As executive director of the conference and a sponsoring author, I can help other writers and also get exposure for my own books.

Q: Do you have any favourite Sons of Spade yourself?
I have many, but I’d have to put Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike at the top of the list. The early Elvis Cole books are very good, but Crais just gets better and better as his stories get darker and more complex. For sheer lyricism, no one can touch James Lee Burke. (William Kent Kreuger, maybe, but his protagonist, Cork Cochoran, isn’t technically a PI.) And, of course, just about anything by Lawrence Block, John Connolly, or Dennis Lehane is golden.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, MacDonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I think PI novels are moving away from the spare writing of Chandler, Parker, and Leonard, and toward the very richly detailed style of Crais, Burke, and Connolly. It’s a style I think has been influenced by writers of police procedurals, like Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Jeffery Deaver.
One of the biggest influences on writers of modern PI fiction is technology. It’s not especially riveting to watch your hero pecking away at a computer. Also, criminal investigation is often dependent on expensive equipment that most PIs would be unable to afford. I think that, as police procedurals become more forensics-driven, PIs will rely more on their knowledge of human nature and behavior. We may see more PIs with training in psychology and kinesics, but I’m not sure who will lead the way. Maybe some heretofore unknown person will come out of the mists and everyone will be slapping themselves on the forehead and saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Q: Kirk Curnutt came up with the following question: If your PI suddenly found him/herself having to moonlight in a television program (due to the economy, let’s say), what show would s/he be on? And what TV character?
He’d be most likely to have his own horse training video series on RFD TV, or he could play the sexy sheriff of a yet-to-be created western. Of the shows currently slated to run on the major networks this fall, he’d be a good fit for Law and Order: SVU in a role similar to the incorruptible Detective Stabler.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
If your PI could choose to be a comic book superhero, which would he choose and why?

My answer? Batman. The other superheroes all have powers that give them an edge, but Batman is an ordinary man who makes himself extraordinary through his own choices and behaviors. (That inexhaustible wealth doesn’t hurt either; as a regular guy who’s struggled to make ends meet, Jared would be happy to have it—and use it for good, of course!)

New short story online!

I just got a new short story on line at the wonderful Thrillers, Killers and Chillers blog!

It's the first story featuring my new character, Philip Banks: ex-cop and dealer in crime memorabilia.

I hope you enjoy it. And if you did and are hungry for more, please be sure to let me know via my blog or drop me a line at

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Robert B. Parker - you will be missed

When I read the news I had to read it four times to make sure I read it right. I just couldn't accept or believe it. I wouldn't be able to enjoy Robert Parker's fantastic prose anymore. His Spenser novels were the reason I became interested in crime writing. Without Spenser there would be no Noah Milano. There wouldn't even be this site.
Not only was he a great influence on my writing, but his sense of humor AND sense of honor greatly influenced the way I decided to live my life.
He will be missed, but with the legacy he left he will never be forgotten.

Gone 'til November (Sara Cross) by Wallace Stroby

The intended main protagonist Sara Cross carries enough baggage with her to make her an interesting character. She's also a pretty dogged investigator. The real star of this crime novel is one of the bad guys however,reminding me of guys like Carter (from Get Carter) or Parker. His name is Morgan and he's an enforcer for a gangster called Mikey-Mike. His illness is not enough to stop him from getting back the money that was stolen from one of Mikey-Mikes men. In doing so he encounters deputy Sara Cross who has very personal ties to the thief.
The writing is tight, the tempo constant. A fast and satisfying read. Not a thriller or mystery but reall a crime story.

Silencer (Thorn) by James W. Hall

In this new Thorn novel James Hall takes a few chances, and they work out perfectly. Florida adventurer Thorn is rich these days. That's why his girlfriend Rusty is able to help the environment with him by donating a piece of land to the State. This altruistic attitude gets him kidnapped however. A large part of the novel finds the hero captured and helpless. This gets his supporting cast (Rusty and sidekick Sugarman)to shine, however. The relationships between these characters is examined and we learn some unsuspected background bits about them. Also, we're introduced to Frisco Hammond, a Miami cop who loves horses. A likable character he could carry a novel by himself so I won't be surprised if we see him return.
For me, the stars of this novel are the villains however: the MoJo brothers! Two very original bad guys who you will love to hate.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Q & A with Kirk Curnutt

Sons of Spade is proud to present an interview with Kirk Curnutt, author of Dixie Noir.

Q: What makes Ennis Skinner different from other (unofficial) PIs?
It’s really his backstory more than his particular demeanor that distinguishes him from other sons of Spade. In fact, in creating Ennis, I was self-consciously weaving the traditional noir hero into a couple of historical threads that fascinate me. On the one hand, Ennis is the son of a white Freedom Rider, Quentin Skinner, who was beaten at the Greyhound station in Montgomery, Alabama—a father who isn’t famous per say but was once immortalized in a famous photograph, which I based on this legendary image of James Zwerg (with John Lewis) from 1961. I’ve always been intrigued by the legacy of men and women involved in the Civil Rights campaigns of the sixties, and how they had to resolve their extraordinary contributions to American history in their twenties with the ordinary lives into which most retreated in their thirties and forties.

But Ennis also has another huge element that plays into Dixie Noir: he’s a disgraced Crimson Tide quarterback, booted from the team twenty years earlier after acknowledging on national TV that he took the field while high on cocaine. That infamy led him to a decade of drug abuse, including meth, and another ten years in prison on an attempted murder charge. So by the time he gets out, he’s nearly forty, and desperately seeking a way to redeem himself. This is where the traditional noir element comes in: I’ve never really been a fan of nihilist heroes, but I love the “fallen” ones. My characters tend to be guilt-wracked and looking for their last chance at making amends instead of amoral. So basically I took two elements central to the identity of the South and Alabama in particular—Civil Rights and football—and gave a rationale to why Ennis might be compelled to search for the missing daughter of the woman responsible for landing him in jail.

Q: How did you come up with the character of Ennis Skinner?
I think many of us have a soft spot for a screw-up. I’d much rather read about a Brian Burghdorf than a Tim Tebow when it comes to sports figures. I should amend that a little by saying I hold no truck for athletes who have a sense of entitlement. But the people who do damage to others and genuinely regret it, how they have to live with their failures, is for me the most fascinating subject. Obviously, Tim Tebow is a great role model, but there’s no conflict there.… and, thus, no story. So when I started writing Dixie Noir I just imagined a guy who had failed spectacularly at the most important public office in the South. I mean, you’re allowed as a politician to be a scamp and a scallywag, but, boy oh boy, you mess up while you’re representing your football team and imperil a season and you’re a villain for life. One of my favorite lines in the book is about how Ennis compares his notoriety to George Wallace’s: history has been kinder to George, he says.

Q: Dixie Noir has a stunning cover in my opinion, did you have any say in it?
I appreciate your saying that! I was delighted by the cover. I found the stock photo that the designer used. It comes from the portfolio of a guy named Jose AS Reyes, but if you saw the original, you’d know how important cropping, shading, and coloring are. I was grateful to have the input but delighted to have somebody else do the work—and to do it so creatively! That’s all Deidre Wait at Encircle Pub, which does all the covers for Five Star. Originally my idea was to have a photo of the interior of the actual El Rey Burrito Lounge where much of the book is set, but while my fiancĂ©e is a great photographer, we could never get the shot we liked. And she tried like three hundred shots. The other element the publisher let me have a say on was the El Rey logo in the lower right corner. Since the bar is integral to the action, I thought it’d be fun to have the logo there like graffiti.

Q: What's next for you and Ennis?
I don’t know that I’ll come back to Ennis. So much of his personal struggle gets wrapped up in the search for Dixie. It’s hard for me to imagine him slipping into the life of an amateur sleuth and still having the intensity of the desire to make things right that he has in this story. Instead, my plan is to take a couple of minor characters from the book and (hopefully) build a series. There’s a former teammate of Ennis’s in the book who works for the African American candidate for mayor, Walk Compson. His name is Ty, and his wife, Sonja or “Sunny,” happens to be white. So my thought is to do a sort of interracial Nick and Nora Charles mystery—a “Nick and Nora for the New South,” so to speak.

At the same time I’ve been working on another piece set in the same area as my first novel, Breathing Out the Ghost. That book was a literary mystery. This one won’t be as dark—more of a cozy, I suppose, although I think that classification has become so broad it basically encompasses anything that is a bit less bloody and explicit than a procedural or a noir. It’s about a man, Booth Brandywine, who is at once a family farmer and the owner of a small literary press. The mystery kicks off when two of his hogs eat one of his writers, but at a more “meta-” level, it’s about how both of those arts are more alike than they might at first seem.

Q: How do you promote your books?
One of the reasons I chose to publish Dixie Noir with Five Star is that they sell a chunk of the press run to libraries. Especially in the mystery market, libraries are a great venue for building an audience. The readers tend to be very loyal and also very prolific. My father-in-law is one such reader and he basically goes through a book a day.

Of course, a lot of readers prefer to own their books, too, so I do a combination of things to reach them. One thing I’ve slowed down on is the in-store book-signing. I only do them at stores anymore where I’m reasonably sure I can draw an audience that will be worth the shop’s while. I used to hit any place that would have me, but in just the past three years, the bookselling business has changed to the point that in-stores aren’t worthwhile unless you’re a known commodity. And the reality is that most of us aren’t. At in-stores you spend most of your time trying to reassure people you’re not going to solicit them.

So I focus my efforts on conferences, the Internet, and select print publications. I love going to conferences. Most of the ones I get invited to are regional, but that is ideal for Dixie. The fun of conferences is that you get to talk about the craft of writing—a rarity anymore. Just to cite one example, I help run the Alabama Book Festival, the big statewide event that several literary groups sponsor. As far as the Internet goes, I do a web site and am on, which has actually been a great place to push books. For my last book, I did some bookclub tours, which are quickly becoming the primo venue for word-of-mouth sales. With review outlets like Kirkus and newspaper literary pages evaporating, these are essential to getting a book evaluated. I think as the audience grows the critical keenness will grow even sharper. One day we’ll all be Michiko Kakutani. As for print, I advertise on my own dollar in a few places such as Foreword, which is another way of reaching librarians. I also try to take advantage of genre publications such as Mystery Scene; I just wrote an essay for them on Dixie for their “how my book came about” column.

Finally, there are guest posts opportunities such as this one right here on Sons of Spade. It’s fun to actually contribute to a website you often visit for inspiration.

Q: Do you have any favourite Sons of Spade yourself?
One book that has influenced me in so many ways is Thomas Sanchez’s Mile Zero. It’s twenty years old now, but I reread it every so often. I like to think of it as the obverse of Roger L. Simon’s The Big Fix, another work I love. Fix is a Moses Wine mystery, of course, and like Mile it’s about the legacy of the sixties. Both books are very locale-centered (Mile is probably the best book about Key West), and the characters are haunted by their past. But that’s where the differences end. Sanchez’s style is hyperliterary and way over the top; that’s part of what I love. But the main thing about the novel is that his two main characters, a sixties burnout named St. Cloud and a Cuban-American cop named Justo, are just so complex. I think it’s a fair criticism to say Mile’s plot gets overwhelmed by the book’s literary ambition, particularly the poetic language, but the characters really shine through. (I also like Simon’s other Moses Wine mysteries, by the way).

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, MacDonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
I think one main challenge will be keeping up with technology. How suspenseful can a book be when your hardboiled PI starts Googling anybody and everybody he’s tracking? Our lives have become some instantaneous and cyber-connected that the tactile sensationalism of traditional noir can’t help but seem old-fashioned, sort of like a horse-drawn plow. But I also think the amoral protagonist needs to undergo an evolution. So much of the testosterone anymore seems stylized and comes off as a sort of juvenile fantasy of power. I think the trick will be in making characters anti-anti-heroes.

Q: Mark Arsenault came up with the following question: In the fictitious world of your last book, does God exist?

God always exists in my books. He’s sort of like Ellen Burstyn playing Alice in that Martin Scoresese movie: he just doesn’t live here anymore.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
If your PI suddenly found him/herself having to moonlight in a television program (due to the economy, let’s say), what show would s/he be on? And what TV character?