Before launching into a career as an author, Alan Orloff worked on nuclear submarines, facilitated technology transfer from the Star Wars program, and learned how to stack washing machines three high in a warehouse with a forklift. (Clearly it’s not the appliance stacking that has best served him as a writer, as he and I have that in common.)
Midnight Ink published his debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead in 2010, which earned a nomination for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Alan published two more novels with Midnight Ink, Killer Routine in 2011 and Deadly Campaign in 2012, a duology in his Last Laff Mystery Series. He has also self-published a number of horror and darker thrillers as Zak Allen, including The Taste (2011), First Time Killer (2012), and Ride-Along (2013).
His latest suspense novel, Running From the Past, was a winner in Amazon’s Kindle Scout program and was published just this past March by Amazon’s new imprint, Kindle Press.
His short fiction has appeared and is scheduled to appear in Needle: A Magazine of Noir (2013), Shotgun Honey Presents: Locked & Loaded (Both Barrels, Book 3) (One Eye Press, Spring 2015), Jewish Noir (PM Press, Fall 2015), and Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (Wildside Press, Spring 2016). He’s been a guest editor for SmokeLong Quarterly, and has served on the editorial selection panel for Chesapeake Crimes’ latest collection, Homicidal Holidays.
In recent news, he was featured in The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook by Kate White, published in March with Quirk Books.
When he isn’t busy writing, Alan can be found teaching fiction-writing workshops at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Running From the Past.
Alan S. Orloff: After selling his company for millions, Colby Walker takes his family—and his son’s friend Jess—on vacation, wanting nothing more than to unwind in the sun and surf. But he spots the alarming signs in short order: Jess’s downcast eyes, a familiar passivity, and angry red welts marching across the boy’s bare back. Walker understands what they mean because he’d been that boy, many years ago.
He’d suffered in silence, too.
Can Walker stand by and let the torment continue? Does he trust the authorities—the same ones who had failed him in his youth—to take care of Jess?
With Jess in tow, Walker packs up the minivan and takes his family on the lam, keeping one step ahead of Jess’s cruel father and unhinged ex-con aunt. When the stakes escalate and his headstrong actions put people’s lives in jeopardy, Walker must finally conquer his past before he can save those he loves.
He can run no longer.
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.)
ASO: I don’t remember where I get many of my ideas, but I do remember where I got this one—on the beach! I was on vacation with my family, and we’d brought along one of my son’s friends. As I watched them frolic in the surf, I wondered what would happen if I just plain out refused to take the friend home. If we simply took off for parts unknown. I’d also just finished reading John Gilstrap’s excellent first novel, Nathan’s Run (which is about a kid eluding those pursuing him). Those two themes merged in my head, and I’d come up with the germ of my plot.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Running From the Past, start to finish?
ASO: The first draft probably took about three months, then another three or four months to revise it. Then it sat on my hard drive for about four years, because, well, it sucked. After those four years, though, I re-read it. I liked the story and I liked the characters. But the prose was hideous. So I opened two Word documents on my computer—one was the manuscript and one was blank. And I retyped every single sentence until I got the novel into shape.
OBAAT: Ah, the Raymond Chandler method: Don’t revise so much as rewrite. This is something I may need to look into in more detail.
Where did Colby Walker come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
ASO: Nowhere specific, I made him up like I make up most of my characters. Like me, he cares about his family and the welfare of others. Unlike me (I hope!), he makes some questionable choices along the way. Another big difference: Walker had a terrible childhood, while mine was perfectly pleasant.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Running From the Past set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
ASO: The book is set in the present, and most of the action takes place at the beach and in the woods. I chose the woods because I wanted the isolation, and I wanted Walker to be a fish out of water, compared to the antagonists.
OBAAT: How did Running From the Past come to be published?
ASO: My previous agent liked the book, but didn’t know exactly how to position it. We put it up on Wattpad for a while (as part of a mystery novel feature), so it got a fair number of views, but eventually we took it down. It never got submitted anywhere, mostly because I was busy with other projects. When the Kindle Scout program came along, requiring a completed suspense novel with a professionally-designed cover, I was ready! I figured there was no downside so I submitted it there. After a 30-day American Idol-type campaign, it was selected by Amazon and published by Kindle Press. I have nothing but great things to say about the experience—I got a thorough copyedit, the people are great to work with, and if there’s one company that knows how to sell books, it’s Amazon!
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
ASO: I read a lot of crime fiction, but I also enjoy YA, horror, and science fiction. There are too many great authors out there for me to list.
ASO: I came to the writing game fairly late in life. As a teenager, I hated all my English classes. In college, I majored in engineering so I avoided more English classes. Twenty years went by. Then about ten years ago, I decided to give writing a try. Working out, so far!
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
ASO: Well, there was that time I knocked over a 7-Eleven…Actually, I can’t think of any specific experiences that shaped my writing, but as I got older, I gained more wisdom and perspective about the human condition. I guess.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
ASO: Underwear Friday.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
ASO: As a kid, I started reading science fiction, then graduated to horror, before finding crime fiction. Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert B. Parker were early inspirations.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
ASO: I’m an outliner. I think that if I tried to write by the seat of my pants, I’d end up in a dark, dead-end alley somewhere in Brisbane. No, I need to know where I’m going. How else would I get there? As for whether I wear pants, see previous answer.
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?
ASO: I start at the beginning and keep typing until I hit THE END, never stopping to go back and edit (sometimes I’ll take a break to eat and sleep). Understandably, my first draft is always a steaming hot mess. When I calm down, I dig into the revisions.
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?
ASO: No music. Silence works best for me.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
ASO: BICFOK—Butt In Chair, Fingers On Keyboard. In other words, sit down and write! I write to a daily quota. Once I hit my quota, I get up and do something else. I’ve been known to get up in the middle of the sentence, if I’ve reached my word count.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
ASO: Well, BICFOK is pretty good advice (for me, anyway), but I’d encourage all writers to hook up with a critique group so they can get worthwhile feedback on their work. Invaluable.
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?
ASO: In order: character, story/plot, tone, narrative, punctuation, a readable font, then setting. Just my personal ranking. For me, it’s all about a character faced with some sort of personal crisis. The tone, or voice, is vital to get that story across in the most effective/entertaining way.
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?
ASO: There are some that come to mind: Ender’s Game, The Lock Artist, Firestarter, Defending Jacob, but if I had to pick only one, I’d choose Jurassic Park. What a fantastic hook!
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
ASO: I watch a fair amount of TV. I exercise. I like to play poker. I cook. I eat.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
ASO: I could tell you, but then I’d have to hire someone to kill you (I’m not much on doing the wet work myself).