John Shepphird won the 2013 Shamus Award for Best PI Short Story for “Ghost Negligence.” A writer/director of TV movies, John also serves as the Creative Director of On-Air Promotions for TVG, America’s horse racing network. Noir master James M. Cain inspired John’s three “Shill” novellas, a terse, tense, and twist-filled trilogy with a cast of characters immersed in the art of deception, depravity, and murder. The trilogy’s final volume, Beware the Shill, launched August 1 from Down & Out Books. (To celebrate, Book One, The Shill, is currently free for Kindle.) The trailer for Beware the Shill is also available for viewing.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Beware the Shill.
John Shepphird: The title refers to my character Jane Innes that transforms from a pawn to a rook. In The Shill (book #1) she's naïve, sacrificed, but we like her. But Jane won't be wronged. She's talented and determined. In Beware the Shill (book #3) she relies on smarts and skill to take down the deadly deceivers that ruined her life. It's about rooting for an underdog.
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?
JS: I was drawn to writing a caper and what sparked me was the idea of a girl from the other side of the tracks that uses her skills as an actress to deceive an elite mark. She knows better, but she fell in love with a persuasive con man, and since love it blind…. That was the seed, and it grew from there. The Shill is the caper, Kill the Shill a detective story, and Beware the Shill a thriller.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Beware the Shill, start to finish?
JS: I’d estimate seven months not including other projects that distracted me. I struggled with Beware the Shill more than the others because I had to wrap up my characters and it all had to make sense. I wanted to bring it back to where it had started, California, but not necessarily Los Angeles because I’d already explored that in book #1.
Then I came across a story of California Gold Rush history that lit the pilot light--the shipwreck of the steamship Yankee Blade. This was an incredible tragedy fueled by greed and cowardice. Weaving in elements of that story into contemporary time gave me everything I needed--the setting, motivation, and the basic structure. Once I had that figured out I blazed forward. I’d already touched on Caribbean pirate history in book #2, Kill the Shill, so a dash of historical was not completely foreign. It made sense.
OBAAT: Where did Jane Innes come from? Is she based on people you know? Does she have parts of you in her? (Note to readers: Not that way. Get your minds out of the gutter.)
JS: I work in television and Jane is a hybrid of actresses I’ve known over the years that tie their self-worth into their career. Making it becomes all or nothing and this ultimately this makes them miserable and yet another casualty on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Jane is talented and capable, but also flawed. She hangs on her acting coaches every word hoping for just a little bit of praise. Ultimately she just wants love in her life and dreams a successful career will get her there, but her perspective is skewed. Although I was a writer/director as opposed to an actor in my 20s and 30s I was guilty of that too. In retrospect I wish I would have written more and barked up less trees.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Beware the Shill set and why was this time and place chosen?
JS: The series is a contemporary noir set in Los Angeles, Sarasota Florida, and the Caribbean. Beware the Shill explores Pismo Beach, Morro Bay, and California’s coast in the proximity of Vandenberg Air Force Base.
OBAAT: How did Beware the Shill come to be published?
JS: I was at Bouchercon in Albany and author Robert J. Randisi introduced me to Eric Campbell from Down & Out Books. This was before The Shill was finished as a novella and shortly thereafter it was picked up by an eBook publisher Stark Raving Press but they folded rather quickly. I reached out to Eric, hat in hand, and he graciously picked it up. I’m fortunate to be with Down & Out and honored to be among their stable of great authors.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JS: I’m a fan of vintage noir and continue to re-read James M. Cain. It’s his economy and fractured love stories that resonate with me most. I’ drawn to capers and can’t get enough of Lionel White and Donald E. Westlake. Contemporary authors I read are Steve Hamilton, Jason Starr, Wallace Stroby, and Megan Abbott.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JS: A love for suspenseful stories. I’m not necessarily a fan of fantasy and science fiction because, for me, the best stories are grounded in reality. I have to believe they could actually happen. There’s always been a lot of storytelling going on in my large Catholic family so maybe that has something to do with it.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JS: The theme of most of my fiction is the art of deception so studying and performing magic was a big factor because it’s all about the twist. Working as a filmmaker in a variety of genres has also contributed.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JS: I actually enjoy the process of writing, and re-writing, playing with ideas and seeing if you can make them work. It’s also great to hang around other writers, especially crime writers, and swap notes. We’re all, in one way or another, ne’er-do-wells that share a dark and often humorous sensibility. The community is extremely supportive.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JS: Cinema and 70s crime television has had a major impact--a spectrum from Jack Webb to Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve always been drawn to antiheroes. My first film as a co-writer and director was titled Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
JS: Writing fiction I’ll often write the later part of a story first, the final culmination, and then go back and start at the beginning. By the time I get to that chapter it will need a major rewrite but this process helps me to know where I’m going. In screenplays outlines and synopses are vital to establish structure.
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?
JS: I’ll write (compose) and then go back and rewrite the chapter or scene immediately. Then I’ll move on to the end and then rewrite it all again from the beginning. I’m amazed by authors that can compose from scratch with only minor rewrites, but that’s not me. It’s a process of rehash.
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?
JS: An ending doesn’t have to be happy but it does have to make sense. There are a lot of James Cagney movies without happy endings, but they make complete sense and there’s closure. It’s about the journey and the decisions a protagonist makes along the way should define that ending. Crime and mystery readers expect closure. I think it’s inherent.’
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JS: Readers that enjoy page-turning crime fiction, both male and female--same that read Gillian Flynn or Lee Child.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JS: Carve out time every day to write. A little bit of progress over time adds up. Write what you enjoy. Study structure. Keep it lean and mean.
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?
JS: Escalation (story/plot) is important to me because my aesthetic is structure and not just in fiction and film but music too. If I played an instrument it would be the bass. Then character (the melody) which should drive the structure through his or her wants and needs. Tone and setting tie in third place.
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?
JS: Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t count because that was written over a hundred years ago, so it’s either James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. These three novels were written in the 1930s, the Great Depression. All embrace working-class characters seeking to advance themselves.
OBAAT: Coming from Western Pennsylvania, I have a fascination with the origins of names. “Shepphird” is an unusual spelling of a not uncommon name. What’s the family background there?
JS: My father, when he was alive, did a detailed search of our name. There are no “Shepphirds” in the UK but there are in North America. I’m convinced it was originally “Sheppherd” with an “e” but through bad penmanship somehow that “e” became an “I”. But the mystery writer in me imagines the change was intentional. Maybe my relation purposefully tried to hide identity. More likely it was a combination of an old, leaky quill dotting the “e” and probably bad light.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JS: A whodunit thriller set among the cast-and-crew of a low budget TV movie. It’s titled Bottom Feeders.