Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Interview with Breakout Suspense Novelist Henry Perez

In the wake of last week's interview with novelist Sue Guiney, which garnered pageviews from around the world, it is now my privilege to post another interview, this time with Henry Perez (pictured), author of the critically acclaimed thrillers Killing Red and Mourn the Living, a number one Amazon Kindle bestseller about which Publishers Weekly said, "Keeps the adrenaline pumping right through to the ending." I've read both books and can vouch for that.

I've known Henry since we were both high school students and aspiring writers in Aurora, Illinois, a past alluded to in one of his responses below. Now we are both published authors, and we took a break from our long, strange trip to have the discussion below by email.

Over to Henry Perez, who knows that as far as online layout goes, I'm a pretty good writer.

JDS: Tell us a bit about your new novel, Mourn the Living.

HP: Mourn the Living is the second novel in a series featuring Alex Chapa, a skilled and determined Chicago area newspaper man. The book begins five days after the end of Killing Red, my first thriller. In Mourn the Living, Chapa takes over another writer's beat after he dies under unusual circumstances. Initially, Chapa buys into the official story that his colleague's death was an accident. But the more digging he does, the more Chapa begins to believe it was murder. Soon, Chapa becomes the target of some very dangerous people.

I wanted to explore the question of how far a political or business matrix would go to protect a killer who serves its purposes. We all know that governments and politicians, whether local, state, or national sometimes cover for unsavory and even dangerous people who can help them get what they want. In Mourn the Living, Chapa finds himself fighting against a system that is determined to shield one of its own at any cost.

Chapa's personal story—his struggles as a father, the threats to his career, and the challenge of trying to maintain a relationship with the woman he loves—forms a thread that runs through both books.

JDS: How would you compare Mourn the Living to your first novel, Killing Red?

Killing Red was written as a stand-alone. It was only later, after I landed a book deal and sensed the interest in and possibilities of a series that I began thinking in those terms.

Killing Red is meant to be like a thrill ride for readers—fast, a little scary, and with a lot of twists and turns. It begins with Chapa conducting a death row interview with Kenny Lee Grubb. Fifteen years earlier, Chapa had made a name for himself when he broke the story of Grubb's capture after a would-be victim escaped and led police back to the killer's house. But instead of the usual claims of innocence or religious conversion that define most death row interviews, Grubb tells Chapa that a copycat killer is retracing his steps, and that the last victim will be Annie Sykes, the woman who got away fifteen years earlier. That sets Chapa off on a desperate search for Annie, a woman who does not want to be found.

The entire book takes place over a six-day period, and it's very tight story. Both are thrillers, but Mourn the Living has strong mystery elements as well.

JDS: What are the similarities and differences between Alex Chapa and Henry Perez?

HP: Most of the similarities are superficial—we both worked for newspapers, we're both Cuban-Americans, but beyond that, there isn't much.

That's not to say that my own experiences haven't informed the character of Alex Chapa. Of course they have. But not necessarily in the direct ways some readers might imagine.

The character of Alex Chapa emerged from my fascination with people who are brilliant at their jobs, but incapable of managing the rest of their lives. We’ve all heard about politicians, athletes, CEOs who succeed in ways that few others ever could, but who struggle with the everyday challenges that are second nature to most of us. Chapa is a great reporter. His job is his refuge from the rest of his life, which is something of a train wreck.

Both books include chapters written from the killer's point of view. What kind of research did you do to make those chapters plausible, and how did it feel to write them?

Those are often some of the most difficult chapters to write, and also among the most important. There are only a couple chapters from the killer's POV in Killing Red, but one of them, a flashback to when he was a child, was very difficult to write. It's a rough chapter, but also one of the best things I've written. There's a chapter in Mourn the Living, a flashback to a Halloween night, that was also quite difficult for me, but I’m very pleased with the way it turned out. I've received a great deal of email about it.

I have done quite a bit of research. Some of it before starting each book, more during the revision process.

JDS: Every writer seems to have different work habits. How do you make your particular magic?

HP: I don't claim to write every day. But I do work at writing every day, be it on the business end, doing research, jotting down new ideas, or trying to flesh out some old ones.

I tend to write in the afternoon and late at night. It takes me four to six months to finish a first draft. Revision takes another two to three months, and by then I'm working on the next book.

Unless it's absolutely necessary to the writing process, I don't stop while I'm writing to double-check a trivial fact or to research a more significant point. I'm a big believer in the potential dangers of paralysis by analysis, so I keep a notebook next to me on the desk and as I go along I write down every detail that needs checking. By the time the first draft is finished, that notebook is pretty full. It's then that I go back through and verify everything, and investigate any details that I’m unsure of.

JDS: Do you outline?

HP: Not in the traditional sense of plotting out the entire or most of the book beforehand, no. I work off a rough outline that I'm constantly revising. I start by knowing the beginning, end, and several pivotal scenes in between.

JDS: Have you ever experienced writer’s block, and if so how have you dealt with it?

HP: I’ve never had that issue. I'm not personally familiar with the concept of writer's block, have no idea how it's supposed to feel. I think my experience as a newspaper reporter may have a lot to do with that. When you’re on a deadline, writer’s block becomes a luxury that you cannot afford. I have had days when I knew my writing was sub par, but you just have to get past that, write through it. You can fix it later, that's what the revision process is for.

JDS: What path did you take to get from being an aspiring writer to being a published author who is now selling a lot of books?

HP: I learned all that I could about the publishing business before I jumped in. Looking back now, that played a vital role in my initial success. Of course you still have to write a book that an agent wants to represent and an editor is willing to buy, but I was able to avoid a number of common mistakes by knowing what they were ahead of time.

JDS: You've also had some very interesting experiences with e-book publication. Tell us a little about those.

HP: Until recently my e-book experience was limited to a novella I wrote with J.A. Konrath called Floaters. We launched it as an Amazon Kindle exclusive just before the release of Killing Red. Floaters was a steady seller right from the start, and even cracked the bestseller lists in some sub-genre categories. Though I have long believed that e-books will continue to grow in popularity and could eventually overtake print, I wasn’t certain to what extent they could help my career at this point.

A lot of things changed after my publisher ran a promotion though Amazon Kindle, and Mourn the Living jumped to the top of the e-book bestsellers list. It remained at number one for several days, and in the top 10 for just over a week. During that time, the e-book version of Killing Red cracked the top 50. Its previous high had been around 1,200.

JDS: What sort of impact has that had on you and on your career?

HP: This sudden success has changed my perspective on not just e-books, but also my future path as a writer. I now have a large base of e-book readers, and I’m looking into various possibilities for writing directly for that market. Establishing and maintaining an e-book presence, beyond our print titles, is not just a good idea anymore, it’s a necessity for every author.

JDS: How have audiences responded at your readings and signings?

Audiences have been great. There has been a difference between my appearances for Killing Red and the more recent ones in support of Mourn the Living. I spent a lot of time last year introducing myself to readers who had no idea who I was. That's still the case to some extent, but now I'm also meeting people who read Killing Red and liked it. That's more than cool.

There are also people at my appearances now whom I met at signings or conferences last year. In the past, the only familiar faces belonged to people with whom I shared a last name or a sordid history.

JDS: What are the most memorable or surprising experiences you've had so far in promoting your books?

HP: There have been a number of them. Last month I did an appearance at The Mystery Bookstore in Los Angeles, a great store that I’d been to several times over the years, though never as an author. As I was getting ready to go, Bobby McCue and Linda Brown, two very cool booksellers, brought out a huge prison ledger from the 30s or 40s. Mystery authors have been signing their names in that book for many years, and they asked me to sign it. I spent the next twenty minutes flipping through it and looking at all the signatures before adding mine. That was quite an experience.

I did an appearance at Jake’s Bagels, a longtime Aurora, Illinois restaurant that I used as a setting in Mourn the Living. It’s a great place, and the reception I got was incredible.

There have been many others, and each has been memorable in their own way.

JDS: Which writers would you recommend--in any genre--and what are you currently reading?

HP: I read a lot of crime novels, which is fine because this is a terrific period for the genre. In no particular order: Marcus Sakey, Victor Gischler, Elmore Leonard, J.A. Konrath, Carl Hiaasen, Blake Crouch, David Morrell, David Ellis, Ross Thomas. That’s ten, and I could easily list another two dozen or more.

I read more than one book at a time. It’s a habit I picked up back in high school. So I’ll give you the last three books I read–all are recommended–The Deputy by Victor Gischler, Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, and Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski. I’ve also read several very good manuscripts in the past couple of months, some for critique, others for blurbs, but I’m not at liberty to discuss those.

JDS: What are you working on now?

HP: Right now I’m writing two books, the next Alex Chapa thriller and a stand alone. Joe Konrath and I are working on a follow-up to Floaters, titled Burners. It should be launched as an Amazon Kindle original later this year. There are also a couple of other projects in the works right now, so I’m definitely staying busy.

JDS: What's next for Henry Perez?

HP: More author appearances and lots of writing. I’ll be in San Francisco next month for Bouchercon, the biggest crime fiction conference of the year. Then, in November, I’ll be in Wisconsin for Murder and Mayhem in Muskego, and in Miami for their huge book fest. In between I’ll be making a few more appearances at bookstores and libraries in the Chicago area.

JDS: Thank you very much, Henry. I'm looking forward to following your progress.

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