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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Interview with Novelist, Poet and Playwright Sue Guiney

As noted in my last post, this blog is adding a couple of features. The first is occasional author interviews, and guest posts, beginning with today's interview,

conducted by email, with the fabulous Sue Guiney, whose new novel A Clash of Innocents launched yesterday in London as the first title from UK press Ward Wood Publishing. Her previous books include the play in verse Dreams of May and her first novel, Tangled Roots.

(The second interview, with breakout suspense novelist Henry Perez, is scheduled for Tuesday, September 28.)

I met Sue during my stay at Anam Cara Writer's and Artist's Retreat in County Cork, Ireland, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and we have remained in touch since then. Sue's UK and US charity CurvingRoad produced my one-act play "Dig" in June of 2010, and I will soon be discussing that amazing experience in this space.

Now on to the questions.

JDS: How does a Londoner originally from New York end up writing a novel set in Cambodia?

SG: I’ve always had terrible wanderlust. If there’s a chance to go someplace new, I go. Several years ago, our family had the opportunity to go to Cambodia on a service trip to help build houses for the poor through the charity Tabitha, and to work in a children’s home. I had never been to Asia before and had no idea my experience there would lead to a novel. If anything, my head was still full of my first novel, Tangled Roots. But the place got hold of me, and a few years later I found that I had a story about it that needed to be written.

JDS: How would you describe A Clash of Innocents? Who are the characters, and what situations do they face?

SG: Deborah, a 60-year-old American expat, is on her way back to the “Khmer Home for Blessed Children” which she has run for ten years. A young woman in her twenties is waiting for her. Another American, but with flip flops and a backpack, she asks, “Are you Deborah Young? I’m here to help.”

So begins a story of hidden identities and questioned motives. Who is this young woman? Who is Deborah? Who are any of the displaced Westerners who find themselves raising the leftover children of Cambodia’s violent past? Against her better judgment and building suspicions, Deborah allows the young woman, Amanda, to stay, but when a sick infant is left on their doorstep, the horror of the young woman’s past catches up with her and infiltrates the orderly workings of Deborah’s home. The precarious well being of Deborah’s “family” of forty forgotten Khmer children is jeopardized, as is her own emotional life. I should also add that a wonderful, larger-than-life Australian called Kyle comes to the rescue, in a variety of ways.

JDS: Since Cambodia is a place relatively few Westerners visit, what do you think we should know about the country?

SG: Most everyone knows about the Vietnam War. And most people also know about the horrible atrocities Cambodia’s own government at that time, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, committed against its own people. What most people don’t know, though, is that many of the Khmer Rouge officials are still in power and the government, though not as violent, is still very corrupt. The UN has finally, after nearly 50 years, been successful in holding a Tribunal to bring these murderers of the past to justice, but the Tribunal itself is fraught with its own obstacles. Cambodia is a very small country caught between larger, wealthier ones and so is easily forgotten. There is unbelievable poverty and neglect. We in the West who care about the welfare of other, less fortunate countries, often forget about Cambodia and think it’s “all better now.” It’s not, and that was shocking for me to see.

JDS: How would you compare the process of writing this novel to the process of writing your first novel, Tangled Roots?

S.G. Very different! Tangled Roots took me nearly 9 years to write! A Clash of Innocents took me about two. I knew a bit better what I was doing and I trusted myself much more. But the biggest difference is that I outlined the plot and structure before I started. I am now convinced that plot and story line do matter! This made the writing more even and coherent from the start. Although I was flexible to change course throughout the process, from the beginning I knew where I was starting and where I was going, and I knew my characters.

JDS: For you, how does writing a novel differ from writing poetry or drama?

S.G: That’s a hard one. I love them all, but they all come from different places within me and take different mindsets. In some ways, writing a novel is a combination of all genres. There are passages in my novels where I allow myself to write as if I was writing a poem (although I do believe all prose needs the attention to language and rhythm that poetry demands). And I seem to set up scenes in my novels and visualize them the same way I do with plays. Maybe that means plays and poems can be seen as subsets of novel writing. They can stand on their own, but a novel needs everything. And for me, who seems to get bored easily and refuses to choose one form over another, that seems to work!

JDS: What would you like to say about your publisher? I know there's an interesting back story.

SG: That sound you hear is me taking a deep inhale of breath…..my publisher, Ward Wood, is for me proof of that old Buddhist adage “the universe will provide.” I had a good but also very difficult experience with my first publisher, bluechrome, who went bankrupt (not my fault – really). One of the principals of Ward Wood, Adele Ward, had also been published by bluechrome, so we knew each other. We both were at a book launch of a friend’s poetry collection and she started asking me “what if” sorts of questions about an idea for a new publisher. I was intrigued and excited. I’ve decided that the publishing world is in such upheaval now that new approaches are mandatory. I also know that my work isn’t the sort of mass media stuff that big name publishers are mostly putting out now. So when Adele asked if Ward Wood could publish my novel as their first book – sort of a double launch – I was thrilled and jumped at the chance. It’s been nothing but joy since. It just goes to show, you really do have to get away from your writing desk and out into the world. Meet people, talk to strangers. You never know what will come of it.

JDS: What are you working on now?

SG: I now understand that it takes a year to publicize a new book, and so I have set this year of 2010/2011 aside to do just that and not try to do much creative writing. But I took the summer to start researching and outlining my next novel. All I’ll say is that it deals with music and medicine and will be partly set in rural West Cork, Ireland. JD – you know that area well, as I do, and I’ll be returning to the writing retreat, Anam Cara, to do some more research and thinking in early December. But I can’t fall too much in love with those new characters. My heart must stay in Cambodia for a while.

JDS: What's next?

SG: More writing of all sorts, more publishing (I hope), more traveling. And of course, my theatrical adventures through my charity CurvingRoad (http://www.curvingroad.com/). Producing your play was such fun and so exciting, I hope to keep doing that for other artists working in the theatre.

Thanks so much for giving me this chance to navel gaze and ramble on. Hi to all your blog friends out there. It’s been great fun!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Harvest Begins, and Things to Come

Labor Day is behind us, the days are a little cooler, and the harvest is starting to come in, both literally and metaphorically.

My yield includes a few poems recently published online.

The first is "Along the Potomac," which appears in the current issue of Able Muse. I would like to take this opportunity to thank editor Alex Pepple for including me among much better-known poets.

The second and third are two poems, "Nocturne" and "Elegy", which appear in the current issue of Innisfree Poetry Journal, graciously edited by Greg McBride.

Finally, The Poetry Section of New York blog The Awl, edited by poet Mark Bibbins, features my poem "The Vikings". No football team is explicitly cited.

In other news, this blog will be introducing a couple of changes. The first will involve interviews and guest blog posts. Later this month, first up will be Henry Perez, author of the thrillers Killing Red and Mourn the Living. My second guest will be Sue Guiney, author of the novel Tangled Roots and the soon-to-be-released novel A Clash of Innocents.

The second change will be my occasional commentary on literary topics other than my own publications and events.

Before long I also plan to provide a small report on what I did during my summer vacation.

You may want to keep checking in.