By day Dave White is a Literacy Coach for the Clifton, NJ Public School district who attended Rutgers University and received his MAT from Montclair State University. By night? Things are murkier, but no less distinguished. His 2002 short story “Closure,” won the Derringer Award for Best Short Mystery Story the following year. Publishers Weekly gave starred reviews to the first two novels in his Jackson Donne series, When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do, calling When One Man Dies an “engrossing, evocative debut novel” and writing that his second novel “fulfills the promise of his debut.” He received praise from crime fiction luminaries such as bestselling, Edgar Award-winning Laura Lippman and the legendary James Crumley.
Both When One Man Dies and The Evil That Men Do were nominated for the prestigious Shamus Award, and When One Man Dies was nominated for the Strand Critics Award for “Best First Novel.” His standalone thriller, Witness To Death, was an e-book bestseller upon release and named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. All three books have been reissued by Polis Books and are available wherever e-books are sold.
Polis is keeping on with Dave and the Jackson Donne series. The third Donne novel, Not Even Past, was published in 2015; An Empty Hell dropped on Tuesday and is why we’re here today.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about An Empty Hell.
Dave White: An Empty Hell finds former PI Jackson Donne hiding out in Vermont after the harrowing events of Not Even Past. He’s doing okay and really likes the isolation. However, back in New Jersey, someone is killing private investigators and Donne’s former cop buddy Alex Robinson is convinced Donne is committing the murders. Robinson hires Jersey PI Matt Herrick—an Iraq veteran and high school hoops coach—to find Donne before any more murders can occur. But the minute Herrick starts looking, there’s an attempt on his life as well. Things get bloody from there.
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.)
DW: Usually, I have an easy answer to this question, but for some reason it’s escaping me at this point. Probably because there wasn’t one single moment where the book came to me clearly. I know this—I created Matt Herrick in a short story from Thomas Pluck’s Protectors anthology, and I couldn’t wait to use him again. And I knew that, at some point, the last remnants of Donne’s past were going to come a-calling for him. I started with that. I wanted to know more about Donne’s days on the Narc squad, and what made him quit being a cop. This book answers that question… plus it give Matt Herrick, a PI who hates guns, some really fun things to do.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write An Empty Hell, start to finish?
DW: I believe it took about eight months, start to finish for me, and then all the edits from Polis Books took another month or so. Is that fast? Looking back it seems like it, but when I was writing it, it felt like forever. In a good way.
OBAAT: Where did Jackson Donne come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
DW: Oh, Donne. Well, to be honest, Donne showed up because I loved PI stories. I wrote my first Jackson Donne story in 1999 (“God Save the Child” for the Thrilling Detective website), and Donne was the prototypical PI. Since then, I’ve worked to push him away from the prototypical and into something new. He started out very much like me, sardonic and young. But you know, years of explosions and violence and murder, kind of change you. He’s not like me at all anymore. Except for his love of craft beer.
OBAAT: In what time and place is An Empty Hell set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
DW: The first part of the book takes place mostly in snowy Vermont, but then rolls back to my usual stomping grounds of north and central Jersey. Yay, New Jersey!
OBAAT: How did An Empty Hell come to be published?
DW: The book is the follow up to Not Even Past and was published by Polis Books. Polis is a company started by the great editor and author Jason Pinter. He’s been a fan and promoter of Donne since 2006-07, and I was so happy when Jason offered to help bring him back.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DW: I mostly read crime and thrillers. I read comic books. I read sports journalism a lot. I have so many favorite authors in crime that I’d be afraid to leave someone out, but in sports I love to read the local college athletics writers: Joshua Newman, Keith Sargeant, Dan Duggan, Steve Politi, Jerry Carino, Ryan Dunleavy, Sam Hellman, Matt Hladek, Zach Braziller, and J.P. Pelzman. Since Herrick is a high school hoops coach, those writers helped shape some of his character.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
DW: I don’t know. I remember when I was in high school and trying to decide on a college, my dad said, “Who knows, maybe you’ll grow up and write novels one day.” Something about that stuck, I guess. I’ve always written. I published my first short story in third grade in the school anthology. When I was in college and wrote “God Save the Child” the professor in the writing class I was in told me that it was good enough to be published. Once I saw things in print, I really, truly got that itch.
And now here I am. I still have a day job (go teachers!), but I spend my other free time writing.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
DW: If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.
Okay, I can’t back that up. I think I have a good imagination and access to the internet.
OBAAT:What do you like best about being a writer?
DW: I love the process of writing (most days), I love getting accolades (yay good reviews) and I love talking with other writers about writing. Of course there are rough days when the words don’t come or the bad reviews, but come on! We’re telling stories for a living!!
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
DW: I always cite The Sopranos as an influence because of how they portrayed New Jersey, with all its silliness, and still told a compelling, emotionally true story. My parents were an influence: my dad actually wrote a book with a character named Matt Herrick, but it never got published so I stole the name. And my mom always has a lot to say about pacing, and I learn that from her.
Other than that--*takes out his hack answer hat*--the world is an influence!
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DW: I’m a seat of my pants writer. I often need to write my way into scenes and plots and characters to figure things out. I have tried to outline, but never make it further than the first couple of chapters. The best way for me to write—the most planning I do—is to write a back cover copy. Really just a short couple of paragraphs about the book. I use that as a guide.
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?
DW: I don’t usually edit as I go, unless it’s a big change. Sometimes, when I think of something late in the book, I’ll go back and fix it before I move on. But a lot of times, I try stuff in the first draft, and see what sticks. In the book I’m working on now, I threw the big twist I was saving for the end into the manuscript about two-thirds of the way through. We shall see how that works.
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?
DW: I do listen to music as I write. It’s kind of background noise to drown out the rest of the world so I can concentrate. Each book has a song, yes. Let’s see if I can list them:
When One Man Dies: “Darkness on the Edge of Town”-Bruce Springsteen
The Evil that Men Do: “Sons and Daughters”-The Decemberists
Witness to Death: “Better Man”-Pearl Jam
Not Even Past: “Sirens”-Pearl Jam
An Empty Hell: “Turpentine”-Brandi Carlisle
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
DW: I don’t have a good tip actually. I used to write at night. Then I wrote when my son napped. Now I pick him up from school a little later. I keep playing around with my time, but I try to find time to write every weekday at least, and hope to squeeze in a few weekends as well.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DW: The best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten came from Duane Swierczynski, who says, “Butt in chair.” Do the work. Just write. Duane used to give me deadlines to get books done, just so I didn’t waste time. Deadlines work for me. Otherwise, I procrastinate.
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?
Character: At this point, everything grows from here. Why are these characters involved in the book? When people talk about stories and they say “I can’t wait to see what happens next,” they actually mean “I can’t wait to see what happens to
Plot/Narrative: These are interchangeable to me. I love to think about events in a story and how they grow, and structure themselves together.
Setting: A lot of my books are reliant on setting, too. Witness to Death featured a character who was scared of water. The book needed to take place near water in order for there to be stakes. Otherwise, who cares if he’s scared of it?
Tone: I play with this right up until the end. I always want my stories to be a little bit funnier; the darkness holds them back sometimes.
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?
DW: I love The Great Gatsby. I don’t know why, but it’s one of the few books I’ve read more than once. I also love the stakes of A Tale of Two Cities. Melodrama aside, it’s such a huge book with big twists and action. I think it’d be a great political thriller these days.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DW: I love college hoops. I’ll watch almost any game and then I’ll weep about my Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DW: I am trying to wrap up Blind to Sin, the next Donne and Herrick novel. It’s a PI novel and a heist novel. Tricky to get just right. But I hope it’s fun!