Rich Zahradnik was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1960 and received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University. He was a journalist for over thirty years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter.
In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York's Center for Fiction.
As a novelist, Rich is the author of the critically acclaimed Coleridge Taylor Mystery series, of which the second volume, Drop Dead Punk, won the gold medal for mystery/thriller e-book in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist in the mystery category of the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. The first book in the series, Last Words, won the bronze medal for mystery/thriller ebook in the 2015 IPPYs and honorable mention for mystery in the 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Book of the Year Awards.
Rich He lives with his wife Sheri and son Patrick in Pelham, New York, where writes fiction and teaches kids how to publish newspapers. His new book is the third installment of the Coleridge Taylor series, A Black Sail.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about A Black Sail.
Rich Zahradnik: It's Book Three in a series featuring police reporter Coleridge Taylor, who works in the dirty, busted, burning, crooked New York of the 1970s. (Sort of a dystopia, only in the past.) A Black Sail is set during the Bicentennial celebrations, when 16 tall ships of sail and 53 naval vessels called on New York to be a part of the festivities over the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. These events provide a backdrop to Taylor's efforts to solve the murder of woman whose body is fished from New York Harbor with packages of heroin strapped to it. He'd much rather work that story than write about pretty ships, but is forced to do both.
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?
RZ: This one was easy. I’m writing a crime series that started in 1975. The third book was going to fall in 1976. I love sailing ships, though I know very little about them. I’ve read all but one of the Patrick O’Brian historical novels. I decided to set the mystery in A Black Sail in and around the Bicentennial events that brought 16 ships of sail to New York Harbor. It let me indulge my personal interest while telling a New York crime story.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write A Black Sail, start to finish?
RZ: Six months.
OBAAT: Where did Coleridge Taylor come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
RZ: He comes a little from my journalism career, but we are quite different. He’s a much better reporter than I ever was and has worked the police beat far longer than I ever did. His focus, almost his only focus, is the story he’s on, whereas I was always distracted by other things, like writing novels.
OBAAT: In what time and place is A Black Sail set and why was this time and place chosen?
RZ: New York City, 1976. The city because I’m a New Yorker (of course). The time because I wanted to write a mystery without all the “modern” instant DNA matching, facial recognition in seven seconds and video cameras everywhere that appears in “today” stories. Much of that stuff is sci-fi invented by TV. I wanted a shoe-leather-and-phone-booth mystery.
OBAAT: How did A Black Sail come to be published?
RZ: My agent Dawn Dowdle sold the first book, Last Words, and ideas for three more in the series to Camel Press in Seattle. A year ago, they extended the series to six.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
RZ: Mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, YA (many of the sub-genre), middle grade and some classics (Dickens, for example). Writers: Michael Connelly, Derek Raymond, Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Charles Dickens, William Gibson, Michael Chabon, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
RZ: I read avidly when I was a kid and was fascinated with how books transported me, put entire worlds in my head. I wanted to figure out how to do the same thing for others.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
RZ: Though I didn’t cover the police beat lots, I did it some, plus I handled a fair amount of white-collar wrong doing. Plus, I’ve always read crime. Like since Hardy Boys. Writers read.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
RZ: Putting those movies in people’s heads.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
RZ: An English teacher named John Rehl, Tony Hillerman, Chandler and Hammett, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, both of whom I got the chance to meet and speak with. Bruce Springsteen and every folk singer who’s told the world real. “Winter’s Bone,” “The Last of the Mohicans.” Movies by Ken Loach, Jim Jarmusch, and John Sayles.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
RZ: I’m a half pantser. I outline the first few chapters—a few sentences on Scrivener cards—write, outline some more, stop in the middle to reorganize, then go on again. I could never outline in entirety, as I get too antsy to write the initial scenes I see and they often lead to other ideas.
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?
RZ: I write a first draft to the end, hardly looking back except to check for continuity. I dread the second draft. I do four revisions (two on screen, two on paper read out loud).
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?
RZ: Yeah, the good guy has to win in the current series, though in the latest book he learns some tough lessons.
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
RZ: Mystery lovers, which probably means those over thirty or forty, mainly women. My books are called historical, though I think they feel a bit different because the Seventies was such a crazy decade and near to us in time (or me at least). I try and give the reader a mystery they can’t solve until the end set at a thrilling pace that really speeds up in the third act. So it’s for folks who like that sort of story.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
RZ: Don’t. Give. Up. I’m here today because of all the people I met along the way at workshops, conferences, reading groups who didn’t stick with it. It’s often hard and long, but those who stay in the game, get there.
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?
RZ: Story/plot: People reading a mystery want to follow a whodunit. The story’s got to keep them engaged. Story’s the game.
Characters: But if your characters are cardboard or boring, they’ll bail on you, no matter how intricate the plot. Intriguing complex characters are required in series books—in all books. (Setting goes in here for me because I try to make New York City another character in the book, much like Hillerman did with the Navajo Tribal Nation.)
Tone: Tone is a part of voice and the books that get noticed, even in crime, are those with a distinct voice. I’m working on this hard, usually in revision.
Narrative: Same as plot to me.
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?
RZ: Slaughterhouse 5: It’s got time travel. It’s funny. It’s tragic. It’s an anti-war novel. Written by a World War II veteran, which makes it politically bulletproof. And it covers an incident many didn’t/don’t know about—the fire bombing of Dresden.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
RZ: As a volunteer, I teach kids from fourth to 12th how to publish newspapers here in Pelham and in schools in New York City.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
RZ: Book 4 of the Coleridge Taylor series, tentatively titled The Summer, Hot and Dark. It’s set in 1977, which means Son of Sam and the July blackout.
OBAAT: One last question. Having read your bio, I have to ask: You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?
RZ: I can double down on that one. Not only was I born in a city made famous in a line from one crime film, but I now live in one featured in the title another, The Taking of Pelham 123. Though to be accurate, as I must, the Pelham in the film title refers to the No. 6 train stopping at Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, on the other side of the Pelham town line. (The Bronx has a lot of Pelham place names, going back to the Pell family, lords of the manner). So born in one crime film reference, live in another.