Friday, April 20, 2018

Book Bites: Alex Segura, author of Blackout

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

I'm so excited to bring you an interview with Alex Segura today! Segura is both an uber-talented crime and mystery writer and one of my favorite people to 'event' with. (He's also one of the nicest and most hardworking guys in the business...) Blackout, Segura's fourth novel to feature Miami PI and anti-hero Pete Fernandez, keeps the hits coming as Pete now finds himself entangled with both cult leaders and politicians, all set in front of a steamy South Florida backdrop. When you're done reading, be sure to check out Segura's website for information on his upcoming tour dates, including a stint with me at Books & Books on May 23rd. And be sure to pick up a copy of Blackout, hitting shelves May 8th.
“Alex Segura one of the writers who reminds me why I fell in love with PI fiction and wanted to write it.” ―Laura Lippman, New York Times bestselling author of Sunburn

What drew you to the genre you write in?

That’s a great question. I’d always been a fan of mysteries and crime novels – I think Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was one of my earliest pulp novels, at the tender age of eight or nine. So that kind of set the tone. I was also an avid comic book reader. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I’d moved to NY from Miami and was working in comics, doing PR. When your hobbies become your job, the tone is different. I was now working in what was once a realm of fantasy. I turned to crime novels as a form of escape – building off masters like Chandler and Jim Thompson and discovering people like George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman and Dennis Lehane. Those novels were so seeped in setting, too, that it got me to thinking about Miami – a place I was very homesick for – and how cool it’d be to have a Miami PI that was as flawed as Tess Monaghan, Nick Stefanos, Pat Kenzie or Moe Prager. I didn’t have any luck right away, so in an act of hubris, I though, “I’ll write one myself!” That’s kind of how Pete Fernandez was born. To more directly answer your question – I think crime fiction, if we have to get into the genre debate – is the most authentic space if you really want to showcase the world as it is, and present it in an honest way, warts and all. The best bits of social commentary and reality have come to me by reading crime fiction, which often presents us with a raw, unfiltered look at the world around us, and I find that really appealing as a writer.

Is there anything in the novel that you wish more readers noticed?

I put a lot of little hat tips and in-jokes in the Pete books to keep me entertained, so it’s always fun when people catch them. I gave a sleazy lawyer the same name as a reporter friend and one of the baddies shares a surname with an editor I worked with at DC Comics.

In terms of bigger picture stuff – I hope the themes are clear. That’s the struggle for all writers, right? That your message comes across? All the Pete books have been about Pete’s personal struggle as he tries to solve a case. Some of the cases are direct pulls from his father’s files. Others tie into his family’s life in Cuba. This one – Blackout – is all him. A case he failed to solve, because he was a raging drunk, has come back to haunt him and it’s collected a ton of deadly baggage on the way. This book is about Pete’s realization that there’s more to recovery than just not drinking – it’s a pass to a new life, and in this book, hopefully, he realizes that and takes it. At least that’s what I was going for. Fingers crossed people get it, too.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

My only routine is that I jump on pockets of time when they arise. I have a full-time job, I have a family (including a rambunctious toddler) and everything else that keeps people busy – so I do my best to prioritize writing. I was listening to Attica Locke speak at the Virginia Festival of the Book last weekend and she said something I completely agree with and will paraphrase, but basically – you don’t have to write every day. But you do have to write. Don’t let the idea that you have to write every day prevent you from writing, because there is no one, clear method to succeeding as a writer. That said, you should stay engaged as a reader and think about your writing as much as you can. My routine, then, is to be mindful of when I have time to write – usually at night, after dinner and after the kid is asleep – and make the most of those times. It’s worked for me so far.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Stephen King’s On Writing is invaluable – a heartfelt memoir of the craft that is loaded with good advice and lots of humanity. I reread that book every few years and always feel reborn after. So, that’s a cheat, but there you go. Elmore Leonard is spot-on when he says not to spend too much time describing places and people. A book is a mental contract with a reader and, I feel, you have to meet them in the middle – give them just enough to paint a picture in their head and go on this journey with you. If you bog the book down by describing how many notches a belt has or the kind of soda bottle you’d find in the backseat of a car, you might lose them. Especially if you’re writing a crime novel that relies on the propulsion of plot.

Another bit of advice that comes to mind, that I’ve been going back and forth with fellow authors and thinking about a lot lately is “focus on the work.” There are so many damn distractions in life today, especially for writers – promoting your book, building a brand or platform, campaigning for awards, creating the right look for your website, whatever…but none of it matters if the book isn’t good. That should be the focus, first and foremost. You have to hope the rest will fall into place, but your main concern as a writer should be the work.

What do you wish more readers would ask you about?

I’d love to talk about Pete’s supporting cast! I really enjoy writing them – sometimes more than Pete, to be honest. Kathy Bentley, Pete’s partner, is a big part of the series and really interesting to me. I hope readers enjoy how we push them forward – Kathy, Dave, Harras, Jackie – in the next book and beyond.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Bites: D. Michael Hardy, author of Pain and Longing

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

This Friday, I'm bringing you something new: an interview with author and photographer D. Michael Hardy. In his debut collection, Pain & Longing, Hardy combines unflinching, soul-searching poems with gorgeous black and white photographs in a compelling exploration of the razor's edge of solitude. Just in time for National Poetry Month!

How do you handle writer’s block?
Whenever I’m feeling stuck I put on music – jazz, darkwave, trip hop - something that conveys the mood of the piece I’m working on. Music has saved my life on countless occasions, and it almost never fails to trigger the flow of words when I start thinking I’ll never be able to write another word again. Going for a long walk, especially after dark, when there’s nothing but you and the stars and the creatures of the night, also helps clear my head of all the distractions life throws at you and get my head back in the game.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

I think for me, being a successful writer means putting out the best work I possibly can, something I can look back on after six months or twenty years, and be proud of, and hopefully enough people enjoy it. And I’d like to make enough money to live without having to work a day job. I think that’s the more realistic dream for most writers. I’m not really interested in making six-figure book deals or winning awards. If those things happen that would be amazing, but it’s not why I write.

Do you have a set routine as a writer?

In a way. I mean, I write whenever I can, but because of my day job I usually write from around ten p.m. to midnight or a little later on the weekdays, unless I go out, which I rarely do these days. I like to write at that time because everything else has been taken care of, work and emails and chores, and I can focus solely on the writing. Sometimes that involves some whiskey or wine, and knowing I don’t have to go anywhere and can just crawl into bed when I’m done is a huge comfort. I also like to write early on Saturdays, for a couple hours between breakfast and dinner, and then the rest of the weekend I can be free to enjoy at my leisure.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

It’s not advice I’ve received personally, and I’m sure most every writer has already heard this, but it was to write the book you want to read. I’ve held onto this piece of advice more than any other, and it’s almost like my mantra when I sit down to write. The stories and poems in my head are what I want to read most, so I do my best to transfer them to paper. Ultimately, at the end of the day, you have to be proud of the work you put out because once it’s published it no longer belongs to you and your name is on it, and you have to be able to stand behind it. And whether people like my poetry and forthcoming novel and whatever else I write in the future, or they hate it, I know I need to be proud of it. And I’m proud of this book I’ve just put out, so that’s what truly matters to me.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

For poetry, hands down it would have to be Charles Bukowski’s The Pleasures of the Damned. I think his greatest poetry is in that collection, and if you’ve never read him before it’s a perfect book to start with to truly get a feel for his poetry. He’s my biggest influence when it comes to poetry, so I can’t recommend him enough. His poem “Eulogy to a Hell of a Dame” is beautiful and never fails to bring me close to tears. Of course, Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis was the book that, when I was young, convinced me that I wanted to be a writer. That book completely changed my life.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Book Bites: Vincent Chu, author of Like a Champion

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I bring you an interview with Vincent Chu, author the debut short story collection Like a Champion. Chu's eighteen stories are self-deprecating in their humor and sharp in their style- odes to the underdogs, the disappointments and the people who try really, really hard but still fall short. Happy Reading!
"Chu finds ways to turn the everyday into the revelatory." -Kirkus Reviews

What drew you to the genre you write in?

I think short stories are a great way to get into writing fiction. I was always a fan of literary fiction, that just happened to be what I read and related to, and stories were a natural entry point because you can jump right in, experiment and get easier feedback. Once I started writing stories I fell in love with the genre, uncovering a whole history of unbelievable writers and collections. With short stories, I love this idea of jumping suddenly into a new world, right into the action, into someone’s head and then jumping out. For a writer, it’s a dream come true because it lets you try out so many different voices, characters, formats and settings.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

For me, being a successful writer means being able to write something that makes you happy, and at least one other person happy. If you can satisfy these criteria, and build from there, of course, I think you can consider yourself a successful writer. The secondary stuff, getting published or selling books or getting good press, means little without those first two things.

Did the collection have any alternate titles?

For a long time, I had the working title of Little Wins, which a friend and confidant suggested to me, which is fine and accurate to the collection and the corporate tone fits some of the themes of office drudgery, but I felt like it was perhaps missing something. I also loved the idea of using sports terminology, especially as some of the stories are about sports and all are about notions of victory and defeat, and competition of some sort, and so I also bounced around with the title of Look Alive, which probably triggers traumatic memories for anyone who has ever played organized sports growing up. I still like this title a lot. In the end, Like a Champion just felt right, and just that word 'champion' I love so much aesthetically.

How important is the setting in your collection?

Setting is really important, even if I don’t always specify the actual location. Some of my stories take place specifically in San Francisco or Germany, but most are in an unnamed big city or small town, that perhaps seems American, but perhaps could be elsewhere. Setting is so important to empathizing and understanding a character, and of course it can just be such a fun element to write.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

There are a lot of good and true answers to this question that perhaps reveal how basic I am, like Catcher in the Rye or The Sun Also Rises or High Fidelity, and I could gladly go with one of these, but I’ll back up and go with John Grisham’s The Firm. I read this when I was 10, and certainly had no idea what the hell was really going on, but it was the first grown-up book I read that had me really hooked, that I read start to finish in a month, wanting to jump back in as often and for as long as I could. The Firm has little to do with my writing style now or what I write about, but it was the first book that showed me what was possible with a book, reeling a reader in and keeping them engaged. That should be the goal of any writer, regardless of genre, to get someone as addicted to a story as I was to The Firm in the fifth grade.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Do Some Damage Bucket List

Many thanks to Marietta Miles (author of May) for including me in her piece on writerly bucket lists over at Do Some Damage!

Monday, April 2, 2018

Giving Up on Bleak House

Oh hey, I threw in the towel on reading Bleak House and crime writer Art Taylor reached out to ask a few questions... Check out his piece (also featuring Patricia Abbot) in the Washington Independent Review of Books about giving up on books.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Book Bites: Sarah Frank, author of One Chance

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I've got something completely new in store for you: a teen author (really, Frank is only 15 and already published- I think I was still showing up at school with my shirt on inside-out when I was her age) and a middle-grade novel. I was lucky enough to meet Sarah Frank, author of One Chance, a few months ago, as she attends Howard W. Blake High School, my former work stomping ground. Read on as Frank discusses writer's block, time travel and shares the best piece of writing advice she's received so far. Cheers and happy reading!

What drew you to the genre you write in?

Growing up, I fell in love with the Magic Tree House books so I knew that I wanted to include time-travel. In second grade, Harry Potter became my new favorite series (and it still is.) I loved the idea of creating unique and magic worlds. The following year, in third grade, I started reading biographies and found a new love in history. When I sat down to write the very first draft of One Chance in 5th grade, I knew I wanted to write a book that I would want to read. So, I combined time-travel, magic, and history to create the Stone of Discedo, a time traveling stone, which was the foundation of the book.

How do you handle writer’s block?

Writer’s block is tough. When I come to a spot where I don’t know what to do next (which happens more frequently than you might think), I pause my work, go do something else, and then come back to the piece with a fresh pair of eyes.

Who was your intended audience for the novel?
One Chance is middle grade fiction, so the target audience is between 4th and 7th grade, but I’ve met 2nd graders who read it and enjoyed it, as well as adults who have read it, too.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best piece of writing advice I ever received was from a camp counselor at a writing camp I’ve gone to for 6 years. I remember her saying that no matter how many times you edit, there will always be things you want to change, and that everything is a draft until you die or get it published. This couldn’t be more true. Editing was a difficult process for me; it’s hard to let go of things you feel close to, but I kept reminding myself it’s just the way things go.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?
Harry Potter is the most influential book to me. J.K. Rowling has such an amazing craft and it was her that inspired me to want to write my own magical stories. If I hadn’t read Harry Potter and fallen in love with magic and fantasy books, I feel as though I’d be in a very different place then where I am today.