Daniel O’Shea is a Chicago-area writer. His first thriller, Penance, was published by Exhibit A in April; its successor, Greed is due in February 2014. Drawing on Chicago’s settings and history, the novels explore the city’s history of corruption, but with a national, even international flavor. Old School, a collection of short fiction, was published by Snubnose Press. (Editor’s Note: I know of no better writer of flash fiction.)
His Exhibit A bio states, “Dan would be a handsome gent if he could just stop breaking his nose.” His sartorial splendor more than makes up for it.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Greed.
Daniel O’Shea: Greed is my second Chicago novel. (Although the good folks at Exhibit A call it my second John Lynch novel, ‘cause I guess a series is supposed to center around a character. But, like Penance – my debut – it’s really a pretty ensemble cast, so I think about them as my Chicago novels.) It starts with a guy named Nick Hardin – former Marine, former French Foreign Legion – who’s been knocking around Africa for a couple decades, has fallen on some hard times and is looking for an exit strategy. So he steals some diamonds from some bad guys and heads home to Chicago to sell them to the one guy he knows with the contacts to move a mess of undocumented rocks.
Things get complicated. The night Hardin hits town, his contact is murdered. The bad guys, some Al Qaeda types, want their diamonds back and put their #1 trigger jockey on Hardin’s tale. A narcissistic movie star who has a real beef with Hardin sees him in town, calls up a mob contact and puts a hit on him. And then there’s this Mexican drug lord. See, the reason Hardin left the Marines for the Foreign Legion in the first place was he’d killed a punk in a street beef, and the Mexican drug lord happens to be the punk’s older brother. Turns out he holds a grudge. So when Hardin turns up back in town, the drug lord joins the party.
Which leads to bodies. Lots of bodies.
John Lynch and the Chicago cops start trying to sort out the bodies and end up with a hairball of conflicting clues that don’t make any sense. Meanwhile, a guy named Munroe, who’s a free-radical intelligence fixer for the powers that be in DC, hears that Al Qaeda has lost better than $100 million in diamonds – which they usually put on the move when they have an operation to finance. He starts wondering what Al Qaeda might be up to that requires that kind of financing, and whether it has anything to do with a former US Army biological weapons expert who had some very scary ideas and who just turned up dead.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
DO: Most of it I just made up as I went along. When I write a book, I just need a place to start. Hardin was what I started with this time. I’d read an article about this ex-military type who’s second career was as a fixer for TV news crews. They want to get into the hell-hole of the week and get some film in the can without their reporter getting his throat cut and without having to buy their equipment back from the local warlord for ten bucks on the dollar. So they hire him.
I’d also read an article about the evolution of the blood diamond trade in West Africa. Seems ethnic Lebanese have played a huge role in the West African diamond trade since forever. Seems that, with the Liberian civil war over, bad guys looking to move black market stones needed a new market. Seems that, since diamonds are small, valuable, and portable, Al Qaeda found diamonds to be a handy way to move money. So they used Lebanese contacts to muscle in on the blood diamond business.
That’s what I started with. A character and a situation I found interesting. Just went with it from there.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Greed, start to finish?
DO: I wrote the first draft over a couple of months a few years ago. The problem being that it was written as the second in a series and I hadn’t sold Penance yet. Came close once, though. A pretty big New York house almost bit, but they had some specific objections. Being new and stupid, I figured hell, I’ll just re-write Penance, we’ll sell it to the big New York house and live happily ever after. The re-write changed the story quite a bit as it turned out. And, of course, the big New York house passed anyway. Problem being I wrote Greed as the follow up to the re-written version of Penance. Exhibit A bought the original version. So I had to reverse engineer the draft to work with that. That took, roughly, forever.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
DO: Sort of gave you Hardin’s story above. John Lynch is a second generation Chicago cop, pretty well connected guy, knows lots of people, knows how the city works, doesn’t approve of a lot of it. Munroe’s a guy that started out as a CIA asset back during Viet Nam and has been unofficially coloring outside the lines since the Church Committee decided the CIA needed to actually play by the roles back in the mid-1970s.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Greed set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
DO: Present day, mostly in the Chicago area. Chicago plays its role, but is not quite as important to this novel as it was in Penance. I’ve already got an idea working for my third Chicago novel that will be much more influenced by the city and its history.
OBAAT: How did Greed come to be published?
DO: Greed is book #2 in the two-book deal that crime über agent Stacia Decker squeezed out of Exhibit A.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DO: I read all sorts of stuff, fiction and non-fiction. In the crime genre, on the big-name side, I love James Lee Burke and John Sandford. Also love John Le Carre. But every time I turn around I find somebody new that’s great. Just read Sean Chercover’s Trinity Game and I’ll be wanting more of him. Just read Duane Swierczynski’s Fun And Games and I’ll be wanting more from him. Same with Reed Farrell Coleman and Gun Church. Ask me that any given week and I’d probably throw out some different names.
Outside crime, always have loved Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Updike, lots of the usual suspects.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
DO: I’ve never known how to answer that. Everything goes in the hopper and out comes the sausage. Not sure there’s a way to explain it beyond that.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DO: I wish I could work from an outline. It would save a lot of time. But it doesn’t work for me. In fact, any time I’ve tried to plan anything more than a chapter or two in advance, it seems like my characters actively rebel. So I just make it up as I go.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
DO: I try to clean things up as I go. Don’t usually need to do a ton of copy editing after the fact, but, because I’m winging it, whole story lines get tossed out or baked in occasionally. If something like that happens, I tend to go back and get things to line up again before I move forward. Obviously, because of the way Greed evolved, there was a ton of revision work.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DO: Write. Just sit down and write. I fucked around for years and didn’t. Really wish I could go back two or three decades and kick myself in the ass for all the wasted time.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DO: *sits here scratching head* Ummm… Jesus, I need a life.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
DO: I’ll have to take the reviews at this point. I have more reviews from writing than money. And I don’t have that many reviews.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
DO: Supposed to say never, right? That I’d die a tortured soul? That my neglected muse would claw its way out of my chest like that alien creature if I didn’t bleed onto the page? In reality? I’d like to think I’d say no, but it might depend on the number.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely? 3. Go with a Big Six or legacy publisher that offers a larger advance, legitimate review possibilities, entrance to industry literary awards, and exposure on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Pick one and say why.
DO: This is the kind of stuff I don’t think about. I know myself well enough to know I’d never get around to all the crap I’d have to handle to self-publish effectively, so that’s out. I have a great agent who does think about this stuff, and does so knowledgeably. I’ll do the writing, Stacia can decide what to do with it.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
DO: I got nothing.
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
DO: Something verbose and pretentious.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DO: Well, there’s this Bartholomew Daniels guy that I’m pretty close to. He also got a two-book deal with Exhibit A for this weird idea about turning William Shakespeare into an unwilling Elizabethan private dick. The first of those, Rotten At the Heart, hits the shelves in March. I’m kind busy helping him with the second one.
After that, as I said, I’ve got a start on Chicago novel #3, but I’m also itching to dive into a very different, much smaller, more intimate story that would be more in line with some of my short fiction.
As you see, ain’t no flies on Dan. Thanks a million for taking time out during the holidays to sit for Twenty Questions.