If you’re lucky, you know someone who is passionate about whatever it is they’re doing, even if it’s just the conversation you’re having at the time. Tim O'Mara is one of those people. He’s taught math and special education in the New York City public schools since 1987. His top-selling debut mystery Sacrifice Fly (Minotaur 2012) was nominated for the 2013 “Best First Novel” Barry Award, and his second in the Raymond Donne series, Crooked Numbers (Minotaur 2013), solidified his place among today’s most talented new crime fiction writers. His third mystery about the Brooklyn public schoolteacher who used to be a cop, Dead Red, hits the shelves tomorrow.
In addition to his teaching and writing, Tim has hosted and produced a bi-weekly reading series of poetry and prose in New York’s East Village for the past thirteen years. He received his Bachelors in Communication and Media in 1985 from State University of New York – New Paltz and his Masters in Special Education from Long Island University – Brooklyn in 1992.
O’Mara lives with his family in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and is a proud member of Mystery Writers of America and several teacher unions.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Dead Red.
Tim O’Mara: Dead Red is the third Raymond Donne, but the first where you see him during summer vacation, away from his school teaching job. He gets involved with Jack Knight, an ex-cop who’s now a PI, when a mutual friend of theirs is shot and killed in front of Raymond. Ray actually gets to play full-time PI in this one.
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.)
TO: The murder victim is a recently returned Marine Reservist who served in the Middle East. I was interested in the difficulty many of our returning vets have assimilating back into civilian culture. I’m also interested in New York City politics and the people who are so good playing that game.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Dead Red, start to finish?
TO: From first draft to final rewrite it took a little over a year. Deadlines from publishers can be wonderful things.
OBAAT: Where did Raymond Donne come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
TO: Raymond is a combination of me—a NYC schoolteacher—and my brother, Sgt. Mike O’Mara of the Nassau County Police Department. I like to say that whenever you see Raymond being kind and insightful, that’s me. When he’s being tough and investigative, that’s my brother.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Dead Red set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
TO: Dead Red is set in modern day Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg is key to the plot, as it is to all three of my Raymond Donne novels. Williamsburg is part bohemian artist haven, part new families who want to stay in New York City and can’t afford Manhattan, and part low-income folks who struggle day to day to feed their families.
OBAAT: How did Dead Red come to be published?
TO: St. Martin’s/Minotaur gave me a two-book deal for my first two Raymond Donne novels. Four weeks to the day after my second novel, Crooked Numbers, came out, I got an offer for a third book. I guess they liked the numbers. (Pun shamelessly intended.)
OBAAT: You have an affinity for using names of old Yankees in your books. (Dead Red has a cop named Roy White and Raymond uses the alias of Chad Curtis.) As a life-long Pirates fan, when can we expect to see Art Ditmar?
TO: Not Art Ditmar, but I’ll meet you halfway and put in Bill Virdon. He was traded by the Yankees to Pittsburgh in the mid-fifties and was a Pirate for about a dozen years. He later went on to manage the Yankees for a season and a half in the mid-seventies. Thanks for the idea, Dana. (Editor’s Note: Art Ditmar was a major league pitcher who went 47 – 32 for the Yankees 1957 – 1961. Unfortunately—for him—he is best known for serving up the pitch Bill Mazeroski hit over the left field wall at Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series, still the only walk-off, seventh-game home run in World Series history.)
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TO: I’m a crime novel fan. My faves include George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Marcus Sakey, Don Winslow. Outside the genre I like Tom Perotta a lot, and Megan Abbott, who defies genre.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TO: I can’t get through a first draft without thinking if Alfred Hitchcock would approve. Whenever I create a character, I ask myself, is this person interesting enough to be in this situation and does he or she add to the narrative structure? When a reader is done with the book, are they going to think that was worth the money and time spent? That’s Hitchcock. Not only was he a great storyteller, he also felt a strong obligation to his audience.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
TO: I’m a “pantser.” That being said, when I write an early scene, I often have the next, or subsequent, scene in mind. With Dead Red, I didn’t know whodunit until word 80,000—out of 100,000. Then I had to go back and make sure—as my editor Matt Martz would say—I earned it and didn’t cheat. When I write, I’m strictly a “clothing optional” kind of guy.
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?
TO: I edit as I write. I keep a notebook of scenes I have, scenes I need, snippets of dialogue, etc. When I hand in a “first draft,” it’s gone through many rewrites.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TO: Keep writing and make sure you enjoy the process. Finish what you’re working on before “putting it out there.” Understand that what you think is a completed novel probably isn’t, but you need to get to the point where you’ve done all you can do for now and are ready to trust it to someone else.
OBAAT: Generally speaking, the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
TO: First and foremost is character. The Greeks took all the plots and Shakespeare stole from them. What separates my Raymond Donne novels from all the others out there is Raymond. No one’s ever done an ex-cop turned public schoolteacher before (as far as I know). Then there’s voice. If someone else could have written my novels, then I haven’t done a good enough job getting my voice through. For me, setting my Raymond novels in Williamsburg is very important. There are so many interesting people and places within Williamsburg; it’s really a microcosm of New York City. Plot is crucial, but only in the sense that you’re taking the reader on a trip. You can’t cheat them or take the easy way out. A good reader will sense that and may not want to finish that trip—or return for another.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
TO: Wow, great question. Probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. Not only is it a great mystery, it’s filled with characters who do bad things and you still root for them. Lehane has great respect for all the characters in that book and it shows in the writing. I don’t think there’s a stereotypical character in the entire novel.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
TO: Anything outside. I live in Manhattan near Central Park and the Hudson River, and love to walk. Not only is it great exercise, it makes it nearly impossible to come down with “writer’s block.” There are so many interesting people and places in the city; each walk ends with an observation that can be put down on paper. When in Missouri—my home away from NYC—my favorite things to do are kayaking, biking, and hiking. As much as I Iove living in NYC, I need my nature fix.
OBAAT: Is there any news you’d like to share with our readers today? Anything about the series, or your books that might not be common knowledge?
TO: I’d love to share some news with your readers, but it hasn’t happened yet. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, if I ever hear I have six months to live, I want to be told by someone in TV or publishing.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
TO: I’ve just started my fourth Raymond Donne novel, Nasty Cutter, and am developing a unit on ratios and percents for my sixth grade math class.
Many thanks to Tim O’Mara for making time to answer questions here today. Dead Red launches tomorrow (January 20).