Thursday, January 29, 2015

Twenty Questions With Jim Winter

I first encountered Jim Winter when I read Road Rules, a speedy trip from Cleveland to Savannah with a carload of dope the guys driving don’t know is there, though it seems everyone else in the world does. I moved to Northcoast Shakedown, featuring his recurring PI character Nick Kepler, and is as well done a look at insurance scams as I’ve read.

Jim was born in Cleveland and moved to Cincinnati to, as he puts it, “marry the love of his life;” seventeen years later he met her, and the rest is history. His newest is a Kepler novella, Gypsy’s Kiss.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Gypsy’s Kiss.
Jim Winter: Gypsy’s Kiss is a novella that brings Nick Kepler’s story to a close. It brings back Gypsy from the story “Roofies” and has her leaving the sex trade for good. Only someone wants to get even with her for some perceived or real slight.

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.)
JW: When I wrote “Roofies,” I noticed that Gypsy had developed feelings for Nick that he either didn’t notice or chose to ignore. I hit on the idea that Gypsy would express this by asking Nick to be her final client. I wrote a short story based on the idea, but didn’t like it, so I expanded it and decided this would also be the end of the series.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Gypsy’s Kiss, start to finish?
JW: The current version, which is a 14,000-word novella, took about three weeks to draft. I did several revisions and had it professionally edited. The final edits took about three weeks as well.

OBAAT: Where did Kepler come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
JW: I came up with Kepler in the late 1990s. I had an earlier character by that name, but could never get it to work, so I developed my freelance insurance investigator instead. Like his creator, he doesn’t really like fads very much unless it’s something that makes his life better. Like he probably jumped on iPods before most people, but he didn’t like our national obsession with oversized gas-sucking cars early in the last decade. Unlike me, I think he’s horrible with women. Not to them. He loves women. But his decisions as to which ones to be with are a bit questionable.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Gypsy’s Kiss set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
JW: Since the original novels were written and set in early 2000s Cleveland, I set this one in the spring of 2005. That keeps the events of Bad Religion recent enough to have consequences, yet it also has Nick heading to New Orleans mere months before Hurricane Katrina.

OBAAT: How did Gypsy’s Kiss come to be published?
JW: Since it’s so short, I decided this would be my last original independent offering. I’ll still do short stories for now, but with a novel passing back and forth between me and an agent, I decided it was time to end the series.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JW: It varies. I read a lot of history and biographies. For fiction, I divide my TBR stack between crime and science fiction. (Editor’s Note: Jim did an excellent series of reviews of presidential biographies on his blog, Edged in Blue. If you’re interested in presidential history, these are well worth going back for. I know I felt bad we hadn’t had more presidents when he finished the series.)

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JW: Stephen King was a huge influence on me for the way he creates a sense of place. His Maine does not exist, and yet many people can tell you how to get to Castle Rock better than Google can tell you how to get around your hometown.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JW: It depends. Gypsy’s Kiss is a short, short work, so outlining really doesn’t work. For longer work, I try to outline. There’s no way to keep track of where you’re going without it.

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?
JW: I draft, and I try to power through the first draft. If I go back after getting an idea, I lose momentum. Then I let a story sit in the drawer and go off and work on something else. There was a novel I finished in the spring of last year I haven’t looked at, although I try to get back to a first draft much faster.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JW: As soon as you finish the first story, start the next. Always have something to work on.

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?
JW: I wish I could have written Mystic River. That was the novel that gave me the push to write the novel I’m working on with an agent now.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JW: I’m finishing up the degree I should have had when I was 22, so right now, writing sort of is my break.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

JW: I am putting the final (for now) revisions together on Holland Bay for an agent I’ve been talking to. It’s sort of The Wire meets 87th Precinct.

Monday, January 26, 2015


I was going to promote The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of today, but, frankly, I’m tired of treading the line between promotion and bloviating. I don’t much like telling people how good my book is and how they really, really ought to read it if they want to be happier/have nicer hair/better sex/live longer. I think it’s a good book, but I’m prejudiced, not to mention a writer (read: introvert) and not a marketer (read: extrovert). It’s not only awkward for me, it’s exhausting. So, not today. If you think you might like Stuff, or any of my books, I’d be delighted if you bought or downloaded a copy, and will sign a paper copy any time you want. If not, buy someone else’s book. There are a metric shit tonne of excellent writers out there, as even a brief perusal of posts here will prove. Read any the authors mentioned. You’ll thank me for it.

So what am I going to post about, if not as an act of shameless and blatant self-promotion? Well, there are a few things:

McFly Day 2. The original box of books for The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
had some errors I hadn’t caught. Friend of this blog and blogger extraordinaire himself Peter Rozovsky pointed them out and I corrected them. While the errors
weren’t major—not as bad as some professionally edited and printed books I’ve read recently—the books didn’t meet the standard I like to set, and I appreciate Peter’s pointing them out. That was the last book I’ll self-publish without first availing myself of his professional services. It’s nice to think the original versions with the errors will be worth something someday, but I’m pretty sure the only five copies ever printed are in my office, so you missed your chance. That ought to learn you.

(Editor’s Note: I thought you weren’t going to promote the book.)
(Author’s Note: That’s just a mention, not promotion. They don’t want to buy the fucking book, they don’t have to.)

/ / / /

The Center for Fiction’s Crime Fiction Academy posts interviews and talks from noted crime writers. I’ve seen the interview with Elmore Leonard (Part Two is here) and the talk given by Dennis Lehane (also in two parts). Both are educational, engaging, and funny, well worth the time. Other authors in the series include Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, and George Pelecanos, though I’ve not had a chance to check theirs out.

/ / / /

I have long considered Ed McBain’s work to be the apotheosis of crime fiction, so it was better than good news to learn last week Hard Case Crime will re-release two early (as in pre-87th Precinct) McBain novels, both out of print for over sixty years. So Nude, So Dead will launch in July, with Cut Me In to follow in January of 2016. Details and samples of each can be found by following the links. Congratulations and thanks are due Charles Ardai, one of the good guys in publishing, for bringing these back.

/ / / /

Every parent worries if they’re doing it right. Rarely is the correctness of an approach brought home as well as was done for me last week, when The Sole Heir told me a brief anecdote that took place between her and The Beau. They were cooking, and he didn’t think she used enough non-stick coating on the pan. She acknowledged she might have used more, but had recently received a
“Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?” from me in a similar situation. The look he gave her made it obvious he had no idea what she was talking about. Understanding references to movies released 22 years (and more) before her birth was a bit of a project we undertook when she was about eleven years old, so she’d understand cultural references derived from those films. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jaws, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Animal House, Lawrence of Arabia, The Big Lebowski, both Godfathers, Alien, Aliens, The Terminator, Terminator 2, and probably fifty more over the years are familiar to her when they might not otherwise have been. We’ve all seen Internet lists of the “Ten/Fifteen/Twenty Greatest Movies Ever For [some quality],” that include only movies made in the past fifteen years or so, or since the writer first started paying attention. The Sole Heir knows better, and I’m happy to have played some small part in that. Our educational and entertaining screening room is available to her and The Beau on request.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Movies Since Last Time

It’s been a while since I passed judgment on any movies. I was busy and didn’t see many for a bit, then saw several during a time I already had more blog posts than I needed. Not that anyone cares. I didn’t even care, but I felt some introduction was needed. This was it.

Fed Up (2014). A (mostly) well done documentary of the insidious effects of sugar on Americans’ diets and politics. Hard to say which is more disturbing: the secret addition of sugar to virtually all processed foods, the misleading labeling, or the industry’s ability to pay Congress to gut any regulations or policies that might cost it money? (Actually, the worst isn’t mentioned in the film: how much of the money they pay Congress with came from us in the form of sugar and corn subsidies.) As with most documentaries, it works best when presenting its evidence matter-of-factly. Afterward I couldn’t say whether I was more angry at the shameful politics, or depressed over the knowledge of why my best efforts to lost weight have failed. On the down side, choosing three overweight teens as anecdotal examples—which seems to be de rigueur for news and politicians alike—forces one to wonder how representative these examples are. Still, far more reasonable—and, therefore, affecting—than anything by Michael Moore.

Jerry and Tom (1998). Interesting film, great fun in spots, clever idea, great cast, and good lines for them to speak. Still, not quite all there. Joe Mantegna plays a hit man whose straight job is working at a sleazy used car lot, where he’s breaking in Sam Rockwell as the new guy in both areas. Maury Chaykin owns the car lot, and Charles Durning is the senior sales/hit man. Victims include Ted Danson and Wiliam H. Macy. I thought I’d like it more, but the primary conceit—a comedy about hit men and their work—didn’t hold up for me, as the movie found it too hard to catch all the right tones. Maybe I’m getting old. Or growing up. Damn, I hope not.

The Skeleton Twins (2013). Saturday Night Live alumni Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in as depressing a movie as one is likely to sit through. Wiig and Hader play estranged twins who try to reconcile after he attempts suicide. While they have their moments, neither has enough likeable qualities for the viewer to care whether they live or die. By the end, when Wiig weights herself down and jumps into the deep end of a swimming pool, Hader miraculously knows not only that she’s attempting suicide, but exactly where she is. (Twintuition, I guess.) By that time I was hoping she’d drag him down with her. (Yep, that’s a spoiler. I did you a favor.) The only character worth caring about is Wiig’s husband (Owen Wilson), who is given short shrift and shuffled off when they don’t need him anymore.

Fargo (1996). An unequivocal thumbs-up, which was why I watched it. If not the Coen Brothers’ best, it’s in the top three, with Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple. Often misunderstood—it is not a comedy, except in the blackest sense of the word—the accents aren’t meant to portray the locals as rubes, but as a community, which, with the exception of Jerry Lundegaard, has pretty much figured out how life works, for both good and bad, and has to find a way to deal with events so far removed from anything they could have expected. A classic.

Night Moves (1975). Gene Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a retired pro football player working none too successfully as a PI. Hired by an aging never-was to find her missing daughter (the 16-year-old has been missing two weeks before she bothers to call anyone, and no one thinks anything of that), Moseby juggles a case that flits from LA to New Mexico to the Florida Keys in a plot that only Harry seems to have to fly commercial for; everyone else just appears wherever they’re needed. Hackman is joined by a solid supporting cast: a very young James Woods, Jennifer Warren, Ed Binns, and a too-brief appearance by Kenneth Mars. Too bad the plot doesn’t hold up, and so much of the dialog is the “adults acting out as though confused children” bullshit that became popular in the 70s.

Sabotage (2014). Lots to like about this one, but it doesn’t quite hold together under anything like close inspection. I won’t say what, as they’re potential spoilers and the movie is definitely not a waste of time if you’re into action flicks. Arnold Schwarzenegger is more subtle than usual, and, hey, he’s Arnold, so you kind of have to like him. The character is a departure for him, and he pulls it off relatively well as the leader of an elite team of undercover DEA agents who tried, just once, to rip off a DTO (“Drug Trafficking Organization; we don’t call them cartels anymore”). The heist goes bad, the team is suspended for six months, then they start turning up dead in grisly fashion about the time they get back together. The plot is twisty enough to be fun, but holes were left where logic would become inconvenient.

Chicago (2002). Another classic, pretty close to perfect entertainment on multiple levels. On the surface, one of the great song-and-dance movies ever made, with a great score by John Kander and brilliant lyrics by Fred Ebb. Pay even a little attention and it’s a scathing satire of American media and justice that hasn’t changed much since the 1920s. Who knew Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere (who steals every scene) could sing and dance? (Okay, CZJ has won a Tony since, but who knew it then?)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tim O'Mara, Author of the Raymond Donne Mysteries

If you’re lucky, you know someone who is passionate about whatever it is they’re doing, even if it’s just the conversation you’re having at the time. Tim O'Mara is one of those people. He’s taught math and special education in the New York City public schools since 1987. His top-selling debut mystery Sacrifice Fly (Minotaur 2012) was nominated for the 2013 “Best First Novel” Barry Award, and his second in the Raymond Donne series, Crooked Numbers (Minotaur 2013), solidified his place among today’s most talented new crime fiction writers. His third mystery about the Brooklyn public schoolteacher who used to be a cop, Dead Red, hits the shelves tomorrow.

In addition to his teaching and writing, Tim has hosted and produced a bi-weekly reading series of poetry and prose in New York’s East Village for the past thirteen years. He received his Bachelors in Communication and Media in 1985 from State University of New York – New Paltz and his Masters in Special Education from Long Island University – Brooklyn in 1992.

O’Mara lives with his family in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen and is a proud member of Mystery Writers of America and several teacher unions.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Dead Red.
Tim O’Mara: Dead Red is the third Raymond Donne, but the first where you see him during summer vacation, away from his school teaching job. He gets involved with Jack Knight, an ex-cop who’s now a PI, when a mutual friend of theirs is shot and killed in front of Raymond. Ray actually gets to play full-time PI in this one.

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.)
TO: The murder victim is a recently returned Marine Reservist who served in the Middle East. I was interested in the difficulty many of our returning vets have assimilating back into civilian culture. I’m also interested in New York City politics and the people who are so good playing that game.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Dead Red, start to finish?
TO: From first draft to final rewrite it took a little over a year. Deadlines from publishers can be wonderful things.

OBAAT: Where did Raymond Donne come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
TO: Raymond is a combination of me—a NYC schoolteacher—and my brother, Sgt. Mike O’Mara of the Nassau County Police Department. I like to say that whenever you see Raymond being kind and insightful, that’s me. When he’s being tough and investigative, that’s my brother.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Dead Red set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
TO: Dead Red is set in modern day Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Williamsburg is key to the plot, as it is to all three of my Raymond Donne novels. Williamsburg is part bohemian artist haven, part new families who want to stay in New York City and can’t afford Manhattan, and part low-income folks who struggle day to day to feed their families.

OBAAT: How did Dead Red come to be published?
TO: St. Martin’s/Minotaur gave me a two-book deal for my first two Raymond Donne novels. Four weeks to the day after my second novel, Crooked Numbers, came out, I got an offer for a third book. I guess they liked the numbers. (Pun shamelessly intended.)

OBAAT: You have an affinity for using names of old Yankees in your books. (Dead Red has a cop named Roy White and Raymond uses the alias of Chad Curtis.) As a life-long Pirates fan, when can we expect to see Art Ditmar?
TO: Not Art Ditmar, but I’ll meet you halfway and put in Bill Virdon. He was traded by the Yankees to Pittsburgh in the mid-fifties and was a Pirate for about a dozen years. He later went on to manage the Yankees for a season and a half in the mid-seventies. Thanks for the idea, Dana. (Editor’s Note: Art Ditmar was a major league pitcher who went 47 – 32 for the Yankees 1957 – 1961. Unfortunately—for him—he is best known for serving up the pitch Bill Mazeroski hit over the left field wall at Forbes Field to win the 1960 World Series, still the only walk-off, seventh-game home run in World Series history.)

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
TO: I’m a crime novel fan. My faves include George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Marcus Sakey, Don Winslow. Outside the genre I like Tom Perotta a lot, and Megan Abbott, who defies genre.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
TO: I can’t get through a first draft without thinking if Alfred Hitchcock would approve. Whenever I create a character, I ask myself, is this person interesting enough to be in this situation and does he or she add to the narrative structure? When a reader is done with the book, are they going to think that was worth the money and time spent? That’s Hitchcock. Not only was he a great storyteller, he also felt a strong obligation to his audience.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
TO: I’m a “pantser.” That being said, when I write an early scene, I often have the next, or subsequent, scene in mind. With Dead Red, I didn’t know whodunit until word 80,000—out of 100,000. Then I had to go back and make sure—as my editor Matt Martz would say—I earned it and didn’t cheat. When I write, I’m strictly a “clothing optional” kind of guy.

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?
TO: I edit as I write. I keep a notebook of scenes I have, scenes I need, snippets of dialogue, etc. When I hand in a “first draft,” it’s gone through many rewrites.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
TO: Keep writing and make sure you enjoy the process. Finish what you’re working on before “putting it out there.” Understand that what you think is a completed novel probably isn’t, but you need to get to the point where you’ve done all you can do for now and are ready to trust it to someone else.

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?
TO: First and foremost is character. The Greeks took all the plots and Shakespeare stole from them. What separates my Raymond Donne novels from all the others out there is Raymond. No one’s ever done an ex-cop turned public schoolteacher before (as far as I know). Then there’s voice. If someone else could have written my novels, then I haven’t done a good enough job getting my voice through. For me, setting my Raymond novels in Williamsburg is very important. There are so many interesting people and places within Williamsburg; it’s really a microcosm of New York City. Plot is crucial, but only in the sense that you’re taking the reader on a trip. You can’t cheat them or take the easy way out. A good reader will sense that and may not want to finish that trip—or return for another.

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?
TO: Wow, great question. Probably Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. Not only is it a great mystery, it’s filled with characters who do bad things and you still root for them. Lehane has great respect for all the characters in that book and it shows in the writing. I don’t think there’s a stereotypical character in the entire novel.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
TO: Anything outside. I live in Manhattan near Central Park and the Hudson River, and love to walk. Not only is it great exercise, it makes it nearly impossible to come down with “writer’s block.” There are so many interesting people and places in the city; each walk ends with an observation that can be put down on paper. When in Missouri—my home away from NYC—my favorite things to do are kayaking, biking, and hiking. As much as I Iove living in NYC, I need my nature fix.

OBAAT: Is there any news you’d like to share with our readers today? Anything about the series, or your books that might not be common knowledge?
TO: I’d love to share some news with your readers, but it hasn’t happened yet. To paraphrase a good friend of mine, if I ever hear I have six months to live, I want to be told by someone in TV or publishing.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
TO: I’ve just started my fourth Raymond Donne novel, Nasty Cutter, and am developing a unit on ratios and percents for my sixth grade math class.

Many thanks to Tim O’Mara for making time to answer questions here today. Dead Red launches tomorrow (January 20).