Jeff Hess was born in New York and raised on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He subsequently served six years in the Navy and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. Jeff is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. His writing has appeared widely in print and online. Jeff currently lives in Florida, where he leads the DD-214 Writers Workshop for Military Veterans. (DD Form 214 is a Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty, issued upon a military service member's retirement, separation, or discharge from active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States.)
Jeff’s newest book, Beachhead, dropped last on Monday from Down and Out Books.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Beachhead.
Jeff Hess: Beachhead is dark noir in the Sunshine State. A story of crime and loyalty, love and hate, and choices made when everything you care about is on the line. It’s 1980 on Florida’s Gulf coast. Sun, drugs, gambling debts, and dirty deals push Navy prison parolee, Scotland Ross, deeper into the life of crime he never wanted. His sister’s life, a potential newfound love, and his own freedom are all on the line as he tangles with a redneck gangster intent on becoming the state’s next governor. Will Scotland make the right choice or the one that keeps him alive?
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.)
JH: On a warm spring day, my wife and I sat at a beachside bar in St. Pete. When the bartender found out I was a writer, he told me I should be writing about the fishing ban going on in our local Gulf waters. I was in between stories, so I gave the idea some thought. I didn’t know anything about grouper fishing, but I did know about living and working in tourist areas. So I began a story about a guy who gets laid off from his easy bouncer gig because tourism is down. The next thing I knew, he had a sister who was hurt worse by the ban because her husband is a fishing boat captain and he’s not allowed to leave the dock. One thing leads to another and their need for money leads them all too regrettable decisions.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Beachhead, start to finish?
JH: I began that original short story on a warm March day and by June I knew it was a novel. I spent the next year writing it and almost all the following year revising it. So, just under two years.
BAAT: Where did Scotland Ross come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JH: Scotland was the name of a plumber who helped me with a screwed up hot water heater. It was such an uncommon name I had to ask him about it. His mother’s reason for naming him that was similar to how my character came to have that name, but much more wholesome. He’s unlike me because he’s taller and fifty pounds heavier and the product of a sad upbringing, but like me because he too has a touch of virtue, even though he doesn’t always do the right thing. And the book opens with Scotland flossing his teeth. It’s mentioned that he doesn’t’ miss a night. That’s something that’s just like me. That’s not necessarily related to any kind of virtue, but rather an irrational desire to keep a streak going as long as humanly possible.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Beachhead set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JH: The time period is August 1980 until January 1981. I was in high school then and I recall this simple and fun time, but when I look back at the contentious presidential campaigning going on at that time, combined with the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the way John Lennon was gunned down on the sidewalk, it’s clear that the world was changing. The juxtaposition of that simplicity and uncertainty was the perfect backdrop for a noir story set on Florida’s west coast where all manner of strong-arming and shady real estate deals made all sorts of people rich or dead. To me, the setting is a foundation, which, in any building is just as important as the roof.
OBAAT: How did Beachhead come to be published?
JH: I spent a good bit of time querying agents in New York—some very complimentary, some downright dismissive—none willing to take a chance. I’d been following a number of independent crime presses and submitted it to Eric at Down and Out Books, who was kind enough to sign me.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JH: I’ve read a good bit across all genres, but I’m really drawn to noir stories, where the spotlight blurs the line between good guy and bad guy. Favorite authors run the range from Jim Thompson and James M. Cain to Richard Lange, Chuck Hogan, Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollock, Nic Pizzolatto, Cormac McCarthy, and many others.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JH: The credit (or blame) for that lies in the hands of Steven King and John Irving. I read their books, Christine and The World According to Garp (respectively) when I was in high school and both blew me away. I knew from that point on that I wanted to do what those guys were doing.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JH: Aside from my enlistment in the Navy, I’ve spent my entire adult life writing in some capacity or other. Each gig required productivity on deadline, which is a skill that transfers to writing fiction. But what prepared me for crime fiction specifically is a good question. One I’ve never contemplated before. I suppose it would be a lifetime of attention to detail and a curiosity of why people do what they do.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JH: Those rare occasions when the words come out right the first time tops the list of what I like best about being a writer. That magical flow when you’re impressed with yourself not only in the moment when your fingers fly over the keys, but also when the sentences and paragraphs hold up the next day, too. Chasing that, above and beyond the pure pleasure of crafting something out of nothing—or at least very little—is what keeps me coming back.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JH: I’ve always admired art that is aesthetically beautiful, but art that surprises me and makes me think is something that always fascinates me. For example, Salvador Dali and Diane Arbus, two very different artists in two very different mediums, both portrayed insights into worlds that fascinated me and taught me that nothing is off limits. Similarly, Steven King and John Irving did that for me with their books, but so too did Harry Crews, Elmore Leonard, and Charles Bukowski. Comedians like Richard Pryor and George Carlin and even Steve Martin taught me to push beyond established boundaries. Movies and television (perhaps most notably, The Godfather and The Rockford Files) is where I developed a love of story long before I developed a serious fiction habit. Music influences are far too varied to list because I love at least some of every type of music, especially rock, punk, metal, southern rock, and country. Speaking of country music, one of my greatest influences is my buddy, Jeff Prince, who is a songwriter in Nashville. His dedication to his craft has always inspired me, especially on those dark days when nothing in the writing world goes my way.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JH: I do most of my writing on my back porch, so that’s a Yes to the pants question. As for the outlining, I’ve been known to outline, but usually as I go and only one bullet point ahead of the writing. This is a process I’ve developed over time. (Beachhead is the fourth novel I’ve written, though the first to publish.) I once outlined an entire novel, which didn’t work for me at all. I hate to use the driving cross country cliché, but I typically get there by seeing only as far as my headlights allow. That’s not always the most efficient or economical method, but it’s what I’ve found works for me.
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?
JH: First drafts are no place for modesty. I don’t know who may have originally said that, but I believe it. Writers often come out timid and their manuscripts are often lifeless. For me, the cause and effect relationship drives what my characters may or may not do, usually followed by my asking, “And then what?” or “What if…?” With that said, I’m scene-oriented. I’ve gotten in the habit of writing one scene at a time so I stay close to the sequence of the cause and effect and try not to get too far ahead of myself so I can maintain some sort of logical chain, even if the action is illogical to the character, it has to seem logical to the reader.
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?
JH: This story and this world always calls to mind Southern Rock and Outlaw Country music. A fair amount of each occurs throughout the book, as does a good bit of popular music of 1980. When I write, I prefer instrumental or even classical music in the background because it helps me concentrate without being a distraction. That goes back to the study habits I had in college, on the sixth floor of the library where they always played classical music for some reason. It helped then, it helps now.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JH: The only secret I know for productivity is Consistency. Just the other day, I was encouraging my students to develop a daily schedule and stick to it—even if it’s twenty or thirty minutes a day. It’s better to get an hour or two, but any regularly scheduled writing time, consistently maintained, yields productivity and will count toward the ten thousand hours that Malcolm Gladwell talked about in reference to succeeding at just about anything.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JH: It always sounds harsh at first, but I tell people with aspirations of being a writer: Unless you like the idea of spending large chunks of time alone, focusing on words and convoluted ideas, then find something else to do. This relates to the previous question, because there’s no way to wish a book written. It takes time and energy and patience and a lot of time alone to get it done. Long story short, being a writer is like having homework every day of your life. If that appeals to you, then jump in. If not, then save yourself the torment and take an Italian pottery class or join a jazz band or something.
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?
JH: Character, tone, story/plot, setting, narrative. For me, it’s character above all else—not in the high-literary sense of the term, but rather the truest way into the depth of empathy I will or will not feel as I read. I’m convinced the most intricate and action-packed plot fails to engage me if I don’t care about the character and what he (or she) wants and what’s at stake. Those are all entwined in character, as is tone. The narrative is a direct extension of this, as is setting. To my mind, the books I’ve enjoyed most are the ones that make me care about the protagonist and root for them getting (or escaping) what they want (don’t want).
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?
JH: This is by far the toughest question to answer. Wow! How do I conjure in my mind all the great books I’ve read and place one at the top of the list? By way of compromise, I’ll say, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, which led us all into a fascinating world filled with tremendous characters. With that said, I could list about a thousand other books that I like for similar reasons, as well as for the quality of the writing itself.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JH: Spending time with my wife is top of that list. The only thing that gets me to break my scheduled writing time is traveling or visiting with family or friends, which is well worth it. I also run a writing workshop for veterans. We’re in our ninth year already and meet once a week. It’s a multidisciplinary approach to creative writing, so on any given week we may discuss a novel chapter, a short story, a memoir piece, or a group of poems. And every day, except Sunday, I exercise in some capacity—weights, bike, treadmill, kettle bells, interval training, stretching, anything to offset all the ass-time that comes with writing. (We haven’t discussed standing desks, but that’s something I try to incorporate into writing and/or reading time.)
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JH: I’m knee deep into a new novel. I hate to be vague, but—call me superstitious—I’m hard pressed to discuss work in progress. Hopefully it won’t be long before readers get to see it for themselves.