I stumbled onto Terrence McCauley—almost literally—through no fault of my own: sitting in the common seating area at Bouchercon 2013 in Albany. We were scheduled to be on the same panel the next day—moderated by the Hardest-Working Moderator in Show Business, Peter Rozovsky—which was how we recognized each other. I’d read his book, Slow Burn, while preparing for the panel and loved it, so you can imagine how I reacted when gave me a signed copy of its predecessor, Prohibition. (Which turned out to be just as good.) So, yeah, full disclosure, I’m in the tank for Terrence McCauley.
In addition to writing those kick ass books, in 2008 Terrence won the TruTV “Search for the Next Great Crime Writer.” In 2014, he won three New Pulp Awards for Best Short Story, Best Novel and Best Author. He’s had short stories featured in Thuglit, Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 and 2, Atomic Noir, and Big Pulp, among other places. He recently assisted with the compilation of Grand Central Noir, an anthology where 100% of the proceeds go directly to a non-profit called God's Love We Deliver. A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently working on—whoa. Read the interview and see for yourself.
I’ve known Terrence for almost two years now; it seems a lot longer. (Wait, that didn’t come out how I meant it. I meant it like, “it seems like I’ve always known him. Yeah, that’s better.) I’ve also been lucky enough to meet his lovely wife, Rita, who is, by any definition or standard, a saint. His new book is a departure for him, a techno-thriller titled Sympathy for the Devil. Let’s hear what he has to say for himself.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Sympathy for the Devil.
Terrence McCauley: Sympathy for the Devil is a techno-thriller set in modern day New York City, which is a big change in genres for me. James Hicks is in charge of the New York office for a mysterious intelligence organization known as The University. This organization possesses stunning technology that analyzes threats and helps mitigate those threats in their own way. When one of his most trusted assets is compromised by a seemingly minor group of radicals, Hicks tries to find out why. His investigation takes him on a wild chase that uncovers a much larger threat no one saw coming; a threat that only Hicks can stop.
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.)
TM: I got the idea for Sympathy from my own weariness of the techno-thriller genre. The market is flooded with stories about ex-Special Forces operatives going toe-to-toe with terrorists. There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of books. The people who write them do a great job and the people who read them obviously enjoy them. It’s just not the kind of story I wanted to tell.
I wanted to write something that emphasized the human element of the intelligence game. I wanted Sympathy to be about characters you might not like, but you’ll want to read more about. All feedback indicates that I’ve done that.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Sympathy for the Devil, start to finish?
TM: It took me about six months. The story grew as I became more familiar with my characters.
I didn’t intend on writing that fast. But I knew if I stopped to work on something else, I’d lose the thread of the plot. Sympathy is also probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my writing career. Once I understood how Hicks worked, the words really flowed.
OBAAT: Where did James Hicks come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you? (Be honest.)
TM: Hicks has a jaded world view which matches mine. He also accepts people and circumstances as they are, which is something I’ve learned to do over time. Like me, he also likes cigars and has a healthy contempt for authority.
But unlike me, he’s ruthlessly cunning and violent as hell. In many ways, he’s the most brilliant and the most brutal character I’ve ever written. He’s a master manipulator and, often, a total son of a bitch. I didn’t intend on writing him that way, but that’s how he turned out.
OBAAT: Your previous books focus on the Prohibition era. What made you switch up from historical crime fiction to a modern thriller? (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just a dramatic change.)
TM: I’d written about the 1930s era for so long that I wanted to challenge myself to do something completely different. The pacing of Sympathy is slower than Prohibition or Slow Burn, but that’s intentional because the plot is far more intricate. I needed to create a new world the reader could believe and understand. That takes time, so I sacrificed narrative speed for the development of the plot, especially in the beginning.
I’m comfortable with writing about the 1930s. I’ve done tons of research on the era and I hope to write several more novels about Terry Quinn and Charlie Doherty. But I’m always looking to challenge myself as a writer, which is why I started working on a western. But as I was working on it, the idea of Hicks kept popping up; pulling me out of 1880s Montana. So I set the western aside and started working on the idea of an intelligence operative trying to understand why one of his agents betrayed him. I thought it would be a short story I’d submit to Thuglit. Before I knew it, I was 35,000 words into it and just kept going until it was done.
OBAAT: How did Sympathy for the Devil come to be published?
TM: Luck had a lot to do with it. I’d had a lot of people tell me they liked Prohibition and Slow Burn, but couldn’t find them in many bookstores. I decided to look for an agent who might be able to represent these titles, since neither had gotten wide release by the small houses that published them. They were available as e-books, but people still like to read paper. So do I.
At the time, I’d heard about Jason Pinter’s efforts as he was starting up Polis Books. I’d met Jason at a couple of Noir at the Bar readings. I was intrigued by the idea that he had the guts to start his own publishing house at a time when most people think the industry is in trouble. He’d liked some of the stories I’d written in Thuglit and was kind enough to let me pitch him on publishing Prohibition and Slow Burn. He liked them and asked me if I was working on anything else. I told him about Sympathy and he wanted to read that as well. Fortunately, he liked it and wanted to publish it. After a second draft, I sent it to him. He gave me some great feedback and made the story even better.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TM: I’ve always been a big fan of Donald Westlake/Richard Stark. His Parker books really helped me find my voice. Robert B. Parker is another inspiration, since he wrote several successful series, including westerns. Richard Matheson is also a huge inspiration because he did what I hope to do: write across several genres. I also like James Grady and Ben Coes. They write thrillers with an emphasis on storytelling and character development. Of course, there’s always Ellroy. As flawed as some of his later work has been, no one gets in my head like him.
Eric Beetner, Todd Robinson, Ed Kurtz and Rob Brunet are also some of the best novelists working today that not enough people are reading.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
TM: Necessity. I didn’t really have a choice. I know that sounds trite, but it’s true. I would’ve been happier if I’d picked up a hobby like golf or stamp collecting or jigsaw puzzles. Christ knows my ego would still be intact if I’d decided to chase a little ball instead of getting caught up in the publishing world. But I come from a long line of storytellers and I’ve always been an easy mark for a well-done book or movie. I started writing because it satisfied that urge within me to tell a story and I’ve worked hard to find ways to do it as well as I can.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
TM: I’ve been fortunate enough to have lived a pretty interesting life. That’s not to say I’m interesting, but I’ve had the chance to see a lot of interesting things in my life. I’ve also been in politics and government for over twenty years now, so I’ve seen the best and worst in people. I’ve seen the human condition first hand. I’ve seen people I thought were honest get led from the building in handcuffs with raincoats over their heads. I’ve seen people I thought to be scoundrels constantly do the right thing because it was for the public good. I’ve watched noble ideas get corrupted and I’ve been surprised by the benevolence of greed. I guess that’s why I emphasize the human element of my stories instead of the crime.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
TM: I love getting lost in a world of my own divining with the characters that call the place home. I also love the feedback I get from the audience – good and bad. I wrote one story for Thuglit – “For Whom No Bell Tolls” – where I actually got hate email from people who objected to how I treated Ernest Hemingway. I was a bit surprised by the rebuke, but enjoyed the feedback.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other
TM: I hated to read when I was growing up. In fact, I didn’t voluntarily read a novel until I was in high school. I always loved a good story, though, but got my fix in other ways. My uncle Jimmy was a chaplain in a woman’s prison, so he always had great stories at the holidays. My grandmother was also a pretty good storyteller, which I guess gave me my first look at life in the early part of the 20th Century. I guess that’s what got me interested in that era in the first place.
TV and movies were big influences, too. John Ford, Orson Welles and Clint Eastwood-directed movies always had stories to tell. Actors like Spencer Tracy and Gene Hackman and Robert Ryan could act with their voices as much as they physically acted out a story.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
TM: Since I do most of my writing on the porch on weekends, I usually wear pants, lest I get arrested, which is something I’d like to avoid at this point in my life.
I did one outline back when I was trying to write Prohibition. I was just out of college and had a grand idea for an epic mobster tale about the battle for control of Manhattan’s underworld. It was a sprawling story and I wrote a ten page outline. My father was an avid reader and still alive at the time. After I finished the outline, I handed it to him and waited anxiously for his reply.
When he was done, I asked for his feedback. He told me, “It’s as long as a whore’s dream and just as pointless.” He told me to just pick one crime family and tell a story. That was the last outline I’ve ever done and I have no complaints.
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?
TM: I just sit at the computer and write. If I hit a rough spot or if I get stuck at a plot point, I’ll pick up a pad and pen and start writing out the reason for the blockage. The physical act of writing cursive actually helps get the creative juices flowing again. I keep at it until I’m done, then it’s on to editing and editing some more until it all makes sense. Then it’s off to the beta readers and their feedback.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
TM: I never listen to music while I’m writing. In fact, the quieter, the better. But music does influence my work. Every book or story I’ve ever written has at least one song that influenced its creation. Sympathy had a soundtrack, but it was not the Rolling Stones song of the same name. Sure, the song influenced the overall moral ambiguity of the plot. It also underscored the subversive nature of the novel and of The University’s presence as a whole, but the song didn’t shape the narrative of the novel in any way. Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” is the song that influenced the voice of the Hicks character the most as I wrote him.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
TM: I wish I had a snappy answer, but I don’t. I usually just sit down and write and keep writing until it’s done. I do whatever I have to do first – shopping, paying bills, stuff like that – and then I write. Even if it means giving up watching the football game or the baseball game or the soccer match on the weekend, I do it. That’s why Al Gore invented the DVR, right?
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TM: To quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon: Don’t nibble on the barrel. Pull the trigger. If you can find another activity that fulfills you, do it. If you keep coming back to writing, then come back to it all the way. That means you have to do a lot of reading. Take risks with your writing. Take criticism and use it to improve. Write the story you want to write and don’t waste time chasing trends.
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?
TM: All of them are important, but some are slightly more important than others. Every story or novel I’ve ever written is about character, so I’d rank that first. Defining what and who they are will compel the reader to follow the character on the journey, especially through the unavoidable dull points of any book. I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve quit reading simply because the book got boring and I didn’t care what happened to the characters. Interesting characters will carry the day.
Narrative tone has to be consistent and used to enhance the characters and the plot, whatever the plot might be. Setting is important and must be convincing.
This is just my opinion. I could be wrong.
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?
TM: I can’t think of a single one I wished I’d written. There are writers and novels of the past and present that I enjoy reading and re-reading. Many are better than I’ll ever be, but I’ve always seen my work as my own and done in my own way. I’ve had influences from the writers I’ve mentioned above and many more, of course, but I’ve never been jealous enough of an existing work to wish I’d written it.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
TM: Watching horrible TV. It cleanses the brain. Playing video games. That also cleanses the brain. Smoking cigars calms the brain, especially when enjoying one in the company of other cigar smokers.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
TM: I’ve completed the first drafts of the sequels to all the novels Polis just published. The Long Road Back (sequel to Prohibition), The Fairfax Incident (the sequel to Slow Burn) and A Murder Of Crows (the sequel to Sympathy For The Devil).
I’m currently working on a western called The Devil’s Cut. The title was around long before Sympathy came about, so I don’t know if I’m going to keep it. The story is about Aaron Mackey, the sheriff of a small Montana town that is undergoing change with a promising future. But although times may change, people stay the same. Mackey must defend the town against a band of murderous renegades who threaten the lives of everyone in it. I’m just about done with the final draft, then it’s off to the beta readers.