Monday, March 13, 2017

A Conversation with J.L. Abramo

I knew the name J.L. Abramo well before I interviewed him last year, but didn’t meet him in person until the Shamus banquet last fall in New Orleans, where he won for Circling the Runway. It’s always fun when someone with a reputation such as Joe’s turns out to be a true gentleman. He could not have been nicer about crushing my dreams, both of us nominated for the same award. Much as I wanted to hate him, I couldn’t pull it off. (It’s okay. Joe’s from Brooklyn. He understands that kind of humor.)

Joe was not only born in Brooklyn, but on Raymond Chandler’s birthday. (Must be something about July 23 and writers.) He is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thrillers Gravesend, Brooklyn Justice, and Coney Island Avenue, which is why he’s here today.
His short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns; Mama Tried: Crime Fiction Inspired by Outlaw Country Music; Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea and Murder Under the Oaks, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology of 2015.

It’s a pleasure to get to pick his brain again, and on the day Coney Island Avenue drops, when I know he has plenty on his mind.

One Bite at a Time:  Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Joe. It was a treat to be at the Down & Out table with you when you won the Shamus Award last year in New Orleans for Circling the Runway. How did it feel to win?
J.L. Abramo:  First, let me say, it is a pleasure to be back for One Bite at a Time. Talking with you last year about Brooklyn Justice was a treat for me—I admire and appreciate an interviewer who poses smart, challenging and thought-provoking questions and displays a familiarity with the work being discussed.  Does their homework. (Editor's Note: Aw, shucks. I told you he was a gentleman.)

Earning the Shamus Award for Circling the Runway was very special to me for many reasons. Circling the Runway was the fourth in the Jake Diamond series which began with Catching Water in a Net in 2001. (Although Chasing Charlie Chan, published in 2013, is related—the events in that novel taking place some years before the beginning of Catching Water in a Net—Jake Diamond plays only a minor role.)

Catching Water in a Net received the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America Award for Best First Private Eye Novel of 2000—and was published by SMP the following year.

St. Martin’s Minotaur gave me two more shots (Clutching at Straws, 2003 and Counting to Infinity, 2004) before deciding the Jake Diamond series, though well received by critics and readers alike, was not what they considered a money maker. I continued to write, of course, what other choice did I have—but the work seemed destined to remain out of the public realm.  And then, the net held water once again when Eric Campbell of Down & Out Books reached out to me and gave Jake Diamond and J. L. Abramo a second shot.  D&O quickly re-issued the three Diamond private eye mysteries.

Old and new fans kept asking if Jake would ever return. I wondered if after more than a decade away I would still know Jake and his regular band of cohorts. I found writing the novel was much like a reunion with old friends. (Re-reading the earlier books helped—reminding me how funny Jake could be.) 

Circling the Runway was the first new Jake Diamond novel published in nearly a dozen years (Gravesend and Chasing Charlie Chan preceding it) and earning the Shamus was an affirmation that the series was still viable after a long hiatus—and a validation by fellow private eye novelists that the work was worthy.  Earning an award decided upon by your peers is most rewarding.

OBAAT: You’re well-known for your Jake Diamond series. What made you switch to a police procedural when you wrote Gravesend?
JLA:  Actually, the seeds of Gravesend were sown before Jake Diamond.  It was a work which developed for many years and in its final incarnation was given a chance to see the light of day thanks again to Down & Out Books.

Gravesend is about people who happen to be police detectives or criminals or in the neighborhood.  I was writing about how lives intersect—often accidentally and sometimes unknowingly.  I was treating Brooklyn as a small town—which for all its size it had always felt to me when I was growing up in Gravesend.  Writing Gravesend was a return to the place of my origin—more a change of setting from Jake Diamond’s San Francisco to my hometown, Brooklyn, than a change from one sub-genre to another.  It was a chance to rediscover for—as T.S. Eliot put it—We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

And although Gravesend is crime novel on the surface—the book evolved into its present incarnation when I finally understood what I was humbly attempting to explore—namely how the manner in which human beings handle adversity will ultimately define them as persons—good or evil—weak or strong—fair or unjust—loved or despised—admired or feared.

OBAAT: Coney Island Avenue is the sequel to Gravesend. Tell us a little about it.
JLA:  I never really planned to write a follow-up to Gravesend.  Gravesend was a very ambitious and personal novel—it had been developing for a long time—and I was proud of the work.  I feared it might be too hard an act to follow.  But I received lots of encouragement from readers who wanted to hear more about the characters and where they might venture—and I found myself wondering also—so I picked up where Gravesend left off and wrote a sequel which is a crime novel and also very much about parents and children.

OBAAT: It’s always interesting to talk with an author who switches between sub-genres as you do, probably because I do it myself. Do you take a different approach when working on a PI novel as compared to your procedurals?  I’ve thought for years that PI stories and procedurals are each uniquely suited to telling different kinds of stories. Police have to take whatever cases come to them—and they have to close them. PIs sometimes have a chance to look for closure.  Do you see fundamental differences in the genres?
JLA:  I think I approach all of my writing in the same way.  I begin with a scene, a situation, which stimulates my imagination and which I hope will draw the reader in—and what follows is the journey.

I see genre as the vehicle for that journey—the vehicle in which the writer is most comfortable—be it crime, mystery, science fiction, etc.

That being said, I agree that some situations are better served by different types of protagonists—some more suited to the private investigator, often working alone, and others more suited to a team of police investigators.

The Diamond novels tend to be lighter, less intense, more humorous due to his personality—although Murphy does provide comic relief in the precinct novels.) 

As a private investigator, Diamond may require or depend on assistance from friends and colleagues and Jake is often at odds with the SFPD—whereas the detectives of the Six-One count on and expect back-up from each other.

The private eye novel can get away with focusing on one case, but I see police detectives in a large city usually working a number of cases at once.

As you mentioned, police feel pressure to close a case—from the public, the city politicians and media—which the private eye may not have to face. Unless, of course, solving the case is a matter of life and death.

OBAAT: Moving back to Coney Island Avenue and the 61st Precinct, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your opinion of Ed McBain and his 87th Precinct novels and whether they had any effect on you.
JLA:  Ed McBain, NYPD Blue, Blue Bloods, Serpico—these and other books, TV and films involving police officers and detectives have always appealed to me and certainly inspire me to explore and conscientiously depict the kinds of challenges faced by law-enforcers both on the job and in their personal lives.

OBAAT: New York police stories tend to focus on Manhattan. What appeals to you about Brooklyn? I don’t mean that to sound like a pejorative. I like stories that aren’t set in the same old places.
JLA:  As I mentioned earlier there is a small town character unique to Brooklyn even though by population it would be the fourth largest city in the United States—and when writing a book that is character and dialogue driven what better place to set it than the Borough of colorful characters and speech.
This piece I wrote about my little town says it as well as I could:

OBAAT: Your 61st Precinct books are ensemble pieces. Do you have to plan differently when you have so many moving pieces?
JLA:  I have always loved classic literature—as does Jake Diamond.  Diamond is reading a classic novel in each book—one that has parallels to the story at hand.
I particularly enjoy books with a lot of individual characters—so I tend to write that way. I remember early on a reader saying he thoroughly enjoyed Catching Water in a Net but had trouble at times keeping the many characters straight.  As a reader, I was used to books with a large number of characters—Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo—so I am good at keeping it all straight in my head as I read and write. But I tend to forget it is a lot to keep track of for some readers.  So, since Catching Water in a Net, I have included a Cast of Characters at the beginning of each book for back reference—and it seems to work.  And, also, perhaps my books are ensemble pieces because of my theatre background. 

I don’t really plan the number of characters—they just keep showing up as the stories progress.

OBAAT: Who’s your favorite character of the 61st Precinct ensemble?
JLA:  I like many of the characters—enough to have decided to bring them back—but if I had to pick one favorite it would be Detective Thomas Murphy.  Murphy is very Brooklyn.  He is funny.  He is tough and vulnerable at the same time.  He is honest and loyal.  And he has a dog named Ralph.

OBAAT: Do any of them give you trouble?
JLA: For the same reasons I like Murphy, he gives me the most trouble. He can be taken the wrong way if I am not careful. He has a Brooklyn sense of humor some might take as sarcastic and a Brooklyn cynicism some might consider defeatist.  But he is neither. 

It is Murphy who says: There are degrees of guilt, shades of innocence—and they all congregate on the same avenue—which is, to a great extent, what Coney Island Avenue is about.

Since I have spent a good deal of time in places outside of Brooklyn assuring people I wasn’t making fun of them and I really think the world is a pretty cool place, I know the dangers of being misunderstood—so I need to keep a close eye on Murphy to assure he remains a likeable and sympathetic character.

OBAAT: You’ve had quite a career as an author and obviously still going strong. Looking back, what do you find the most satisfying and what has surprised you the most?
JLA:  Most satisfying is hearing from readers that the work has affected them in some positive way—even if it is simply you made me laugh.
Most surprising is that they haven’t made any movies yet.

OBAAT: Thanks again for stopping by. It’s been a treat for me and I hope to see you in Toronto, if not before. Before we call it a day, what are you working on now?  Do you have plans beyond that, or are you strictly a one book at a time guy?
JLA:  I am working on a novel about two Sicilian families who bring their blood-feud from the old country to New York City and San Francisco in the early years of the 20th Century and slug it out over the course of nearly 100 years.  Romeo and Juliet meet the Hatfields and McCoys.

What follows will be strictly up to my muse.

For more about Joe and his work please visit:

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