Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. His newest Pete Fernandez novel, Down the Darkest Street, dropped April 12 from Polis Books. In addition to the previous Fernandez novel, Silent City, Alex has written a number of comic books, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed Archie Meets Kiss storyline, the "Occupy Riverdale" story and the upcoming Archie Meets Ramones. Alex is a Miami native who currently lives in New York with his wife.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Down the Darkest Street.
Alex Segura: Down the Darkest Street is the second Pete Fernandez mystery - my crime series set in Miami, my hometown. Pete’s a washed up ex-journalist who’s reeling from his first case, chronicled in my debut, Silent City. Jobless, broke and in a much darker place than when we last saw him, Pete is entangled in the case of a missing girl that turns out to be part of a much bigger problem - a deadly killer cutting a path through Miami. Pete enlists an unlikely partner to help solve a case the cops can’t seem to get a handle on - but he also finds he’ll have to resolve his own personal demons before he can step up and face the murderer he’s decided to take down.
OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
AS: I’m always jotting stuff down for potential projects. In the case of Pete and Down the Darkest Street, I came into it - after writing the debut Pete mystery, Silent City - knowing I wanted a sequel. I wanted to pit Pete against a very disturbing evil and I knew I wanted the book to be darker and more complex than my first novel. But it wasn’t until I had a conversation with my best friend back home, Andrea, that it all kind of fell into place. We were talking about murderers and the best ways to get away with murder - as one does, when you’re a crime writer - and she mentioned something offhand that stuck in my brain. I can’t say what it is because it’ll spoil a twist in the book, but suffice to say, the idea helped me pull in all the other stuff that was floating around my head in regards to Down the Darkest Street, and it set me off on the path to writing the novel.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Down the Darkest Street, start to finish?
AS: It’s hard to estimate. I wrote the first draft in a few months, but the revision process tends to take a while for me, because I often slice and add to help the story. So I’d guess about a year and change.
AS: The idea for Pete was a byproduct of me reading a lot of great, modern crime fiction when I first moved to New York. I was homesick for Miami and, having started a job in comics, was looking for some kind of reading/entertainment that wasn’t “work,” if that makes sense. I’d always been a crime/mystery reader, but I hadn’t read authors like Lippman, Pelecanos, Ellroy, Connelly and Block. Diving into those series opened my eyes, and showed me that the best PI novels were about much more than just detectives - they were about place, and the heroes were often just as messed up as the bad guys.
That got me to thinking about creating a Miami PI - someone I could relate to. I liken Pete to the guy I went to college with but didn’t keep in touch - we have a similar upbringing and background, but we diverge at a certain point. So while I think Pete’s a good guy, has great taste in music and can relate to his life on some levels, I also think we’re pretty different, too.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Down the Darkest Street set and why was this time and place chosen?
AS: It’s set in the present day. When I first started writing Silent City I didn’t think I was ready to do a period piece, nor did I have the inclination. I’ve since gotten over that, so in Book Three - Dangerous Ends - you’ll see some flashing back to Pete’s history and the history of Miami and Cuba.
OBAAT: How did Down the Darkest Street come to be published?
AS: Silent City was originally published in 2013 by a small house, Codorus Press. I wanted a bigger platform for the second Pete book, so we shopped it around. I’ve always been a fan of Jason Pinter and really loved the books coming out from Polis, so it seemed like a great fit. Thankfully, Jason agreed! He reissued Silent City, which I think was really smart - as it allowed for better distribution of the first novel and it gave readers a chance to dive in from the beginning. That really set the stage for a strong Down the Darkest Street launch.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
AS: I like engaging, flawed characters. I’m a fan of any kind of genre that pulls me in - be it crime, sci-fi, fantasy, literary fiction, whatever. It sounds vague, but as long as the characters speak to me and I care about what they’re doing, I’m in. In terms of favorite authors, that’s tough - I’d be forgetting someone. I will tell you that the last two great books I read were Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger and Melissa Ginsburg’s Sunset City.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
AS: It wasn’t a decision that happened at any given moment. It just was. Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to make up stories - comics, songs, poems, books. I knew from an early age that I wanted to write. It was just a matter of making the time and doing the work.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
AS: Well, my books are set in Miami - so, in many ways, my life was building to writing this series. Every experience I had there informs the books in some way, be it a memory or reference point. It’s hard to quantify which ones, but in general, I wouldn’t be writing about the things I write about without the experiences I’ve had.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
AS: The thrill of starting or finishing a major project. Meeting fans and readers. Networking and swapping stories with fellow authors.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
AS: My parents. My grandfather. My uncle. My wife. George Pelecanos. Dennis Lehane. Raymond Chandler. Patricia Highsmith. Jim Thompson. Henning Mankell. Lawrence Block. James Ellroy. Laura Lippman. Reed Farrel Coleman. Philip Roth. David Byrne. The Replacements. Ross Macdonald. Raymond Carver. Off the top of my head.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
AS: It’s a mix for me. I usually start writing blind, with only a general idea of what I want to do. Then I’ll reach a point where I have the rest more or less mapped out, and I’ll cobble together an outline. Then I’ll write through that. The outline, though, is usually pretty loose, allowing the characters to take alternate routes and giving the whole thing some room to breathe.
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?
AS: For me, the first draft is about getting words on the page. I’ll make notes as I go - “rewrite this,” or “add X or Y” - but I usually want to finish a draft first, as I described in the last question. Once I do that, I let it sit for a few weeks and then revisit it in hard copy form, with a red pen. Then I mark it up - mainly for content and structural/style stuff. Then I revise. Then it’s ready to share with my beta readers and agent. This kicks off the revision process all over again!
OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
AS: I’m not sure I’d say all Americans like happy endings. I like earned endings. I like it when I feel like I’ve experienced a character arc. I don’t need all plot threads to be resolved but I do want to feel like the unresolved stuff was left dangling for a reason. For my work, I try to give the reader a complete story with enough string to lead them to the next one.
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
AS: That’s a tough question. Like any other writer, I don’t want to limit myself in terms of potential readers. I’ll just say that I write for people looking for an engaging story.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
AS: Be patient, do the work, brace yourself for rejection and don’t read the comments or reviews.
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?
AS: I’m terrible at lists and rankings. I think each of these things are very important to a successful novel, especially a PI novel series. In terms of story/plot, I try to create something that is engaging and moves at a good clip but also allows for character development. In terms of character, I want to show a genuine arc. I don’t want the character/protagonist you meet on Page 1 to be identical to the protagonist at the end. Setting, for my series, is hugely important - I need to show Miami as a living, breathing part of the cast, and that requires research, colorful and genuine descriptions and a strong contrast to other works set in different cities. You have to make your setting feel unique. Narrative and tone are key, too, of course - and that’s more a matter of deciding what they’re going to be and finding the tools to keep them consistent throughout.
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?
AS: Oh, I don’t like the idea of taking credit for another book. I will say I have great admiration for Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
AS: Listening to music, spending time with family, watching movies.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
AS: I’m working on a draft of the fourth Pete novel and prepping for revisions on the third, Dangerous Ends, which is out next year. Also taking a pass at the script to the Archie Meets Ramones comic, which hits later this year.