Monday, February 29, 2016

Twenty Questions with J.L. Abramo

J. L. Abramo was born in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler's fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo 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 CharlieChan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone, thriller Gravesend.

Abramo’s latest work is Brooklyn Justice, which has already garnered high praise from respected sourses. Three-time Shamus Award (among others) winner Reed Farrel Coleman writes: “If grit, hard guys, and the rhythm of the mean streets is your thing, Brooklyn Justice has got them in spades and J.L. Abramo is your man.” From Michael Koryta, author of the Lincoln PI series: “J.L Abramo writes noir the way God and Hammett intended—tough, terse and smart. Brooklyn Justice is a great read with razor-sharp prose and a compelling cast. Nick Ventura is my kind of PI.” The Denver Review chimes in with, “In Brooklyn Justice, award winning author J.L. Abramo again demonstrates his firm grasp on the language and morality of his native streets, with as many surprises as there are casualties. An ideal follow-up to his acclaimed novel Gravesend.”

So what’s he doing here at OBAAT? Showing his success has not gone to his head.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Brooklyn Justice.

J.L. Abramo: Brooklyn Justice is ten months in the hazardous life of private investigator Nick Ventura.  It is about a man who know trouble—but not how to keep his nose out of it. It is a work of crime fiction which I have come to affectionately refer to as a novel in stories. There is no shortage of villains—including mob wise guys, professional hit men, corrupt businessmen, gold diggers, drug dealers, corrupt cops, gamblers, extortionists, vigilantes, street punks—but often circumstances, particularly the search for illusive justice, can lead righteous people to break the law and pose challenging questions about legality and morality. 

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.)

JLA: I was invited to join a friend in Atlantic City, where I watched a high-stakes poker game.  The drama and urgency of the contest was fascinating and felt like an engaging way to begin a story.  It began as a short story that went too long but didn’t want to be a full length novel—what resulted was a novella called Pocket Queens.  When it was done the protagonist, Nick Ventura, would not let me go.  He drove me to write five short stories involving him.  Buick in a Beauty Shop, The Last Resort, Walking the Dog, Roses For Uncle Sal, and The Fist.  Following Pocket Queens, they appear sequentially, covering a period of less than a year, and featuring many recurring supporting characters.  Call it what you will.  A collection of shorter fiction.  A novel in stories.  Or simply Brooklyn Justice.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Brooklyn Justice, start to finish?

JLA: The writing went unusually quickly—ten months in Nick Ventura’s life penned in only a few months real time.  In part, the quick result was inspired by the novelty of developing and making acquaintance with new characters—particularly Ventura who is much less inhibited than many of the protagonists in my other work.  There was also a thread running through the stories, weaving them together and driving the writing—legal justice and street justice are, in many instances, very different things.

OBAAT: Where did Nick Ventura come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?

JLA: Nick Ventura is considerably more hardboiled than Jake Diamond, the private investigator in Catching Water in a Net, Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway. I suppose the character evolved from my subconscious interest in writing a more dangerous protagonist. Ventura comes from an Italian-American, working class background. He is loyal to his friends, intolerant of deceit and the exploitation of the innocent, and likes his scotch—most similarities between Nick and I end there. He is most unlike me in that he can be a great deal more physically violent.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Brooklyn Justice set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

JLA:   The book takes place, recent past, in the Borough of Churches—with a few sojourns to Atlantic City at start and finish. Brooklyn has that rare quality of being a big city with a small town element.  It is a borough which could be the fourth largest city in the United States—but it has always been defined by its neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves.

After three Jake Diamond mysteries, set primarily in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I felt compelled to write a Brooklyn story—to return to my roots.  The result was Gravesend, titled for the Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up.  It was a more personal journey and Brooklyn was a very important character in that story—as it is in this book.  I am comfortable there—in much the same way Dennis Lehane is at home writing Boston and George Pelecanos is at home writing D.C.  Brooklyn is unique because it is Brooklyn—it is not like any other place—and it is a perfect setting for crime fiction because it has such a rich history of criminal activity.

As T.S. Eliot said—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.  That was my experience in revisiting Brooklyn for Gravesend and Brooklyn Justice.

OBAAT: How did Brooklyn Justice come to be published?

JLA: Through the efforts of Eric Campbell of Down&Out Books.  Eric has been a long-time fan of my work—and a great fan of crime fiction in general. 

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

JLA: I love the classics.  In the Jake Diamond books, Jake is always carrying around a worn paperback classic—A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—and the book he is reading is always tied into his story.  I enjoy crime fiction, and I find that many classics are also crime stories—Crime and Punishment, Les Misérables, Oliver Twist, The Woman in White. In what is referred to as genre crime fiction, I have always admired the work of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson.  I do enjoy books that strongly make use of setting—I always learn something from a visit to Loren Estleman’s Detroit, George Pelecanos’ District of Columbia, Dennis Lehane’s Boston, James Ellroy’s Los Angeles, or Bob Truluck’s South Florida.  Other writers who have inspired me include Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Steinbeck.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?

JLA: I have always needed to express myself in some artistic fashion—a drive I could never suppress.  As Van Morrison so eloquently put it, I can’t not write.

I eventually found I was more adept at writing than at playing an instrument or putting paint to canvas—though I certainly tried both. 

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?

JLA: I grew up around many people involved with organized crime—it was everywhere at every level—and at times I had to depend on some of these people to protect me from collateral damage. My college studies in psychology and sociology always influence what I write—consciously or otherwise.  I have a Masters Degree in Social Psychology.  Social psychology adds another element.  Rather than looking at the individual or at society-at-large, it gives me perspective into the workings of smaller social groups and the dynamics of their membership—be it a mob crew in a Brooklyn social club, a detective squad in a police precinct, a group of strangers thrown together by life-changing events, or a group of friends helping each other get through a common struggle.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?

JLA: What I like most about writing is its privacy—but working completely alone has its dangers. Writing is a very solitary endeavor and it necessitates isolation from others during the process.  The danger lies in losing contact—not only with other human beings but also with the exposure to experiences needed as information for the work.  I have always tried to balance my artistic urges to include working with others in collaboration—acting in or directing a play, singing with a band, teaching a class.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)

JLA: I have mentioned some of the novelists.  Great films have been influential—particularly crime films—White Heat, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil, Double Indemnity, On The Waterfront, Mean Streets, The Godfather, Reservoir Dogs, Miller’s Crossing. And theatre has had a great influence—Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending and A Streetcar Named Desire, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest, Sidney Kingley’s Detective Story.  And Shakespeare.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?

JLA: Each story starts as the beginning of a journey—destination unknown.  I begin with a situation—a scene—which confronts me personally with intrigue and which I think or hope will encourage the reader to jump onboard for the trip. If it is not interesting to me, I may as well watch television or whip up a dish of eggplant parmigiana.

Often, when I finally realize where the plot needs to go, I am on a path that will not get me there—so I need to backtrack to find the fork in the road I missed along the way. 

I usually wear sweatpants—to help absorb the blood and tears.

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?

JLA: I edit as I go and then edit and revise the manuscript as a whole a few times before presenting it to my publisher.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?

JLA: I always listen to music while I write.  My preferences tend to rock music from the sixties, seventies and eighties.  Depending on what I am writing and where I am in the work it can be Genesis, The Kinks, The Band, George Harrison. While writing Brooklyn Justice, I found myself listening to a lot of New York-influenced music—Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Paul Simon.  If there was a theme song for Brooklyn Justice it would be Dire Straits’ Private Investigation.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?

JLA: Write when you feel it—and if it is not related to what you are working on at the moment, write it down anyway.  Chances are it will find a place somewhere down the line.  If you don’t feel that urge, that need to write, don’t try to force it.  Go out into the street instead, look and listen, interact with people and your environment, experience something to write about.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

JLA: Understand why you are writing, what you hope to achieve personally—intellectually, artistically, psychologically, spiritually. And when it comes to determinations of success or failure—judge for yourself.

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?

JLA: I feel a likable, believable protagonist can take you a long way—and it always helps to surround your protagonist with a diverse, engaging and well developed supporting cast.  I borrow a lot from characters I have known when writing characters. Plot is important. It wants to be somewhat original, present reasons for the reader to remain aboard, and remain clear if not predictable.  Plot was the most difficult aspect of the writing to master—it is more technical than intuitive.  It took practice.  A story-driving narrative is essential.  My writing is dialogue driven—it works for me.  I personally believe setting can be a character itself—writing West Coast, San Francisco and Los Angeles, should feel different from writing Brooklyn and New York.  Unless you are writing about a galaxy far, far away—the home of your story adds authenticity and color. Tone is always a consideration, and I find a need to alternate between lighter and darker.  The Jake Diamond novels feature a lot of wit and humor.  When his associate asks Diamond, Has anyone ever told you you’re a laugh a minute, he replies, I hear it every sixty seconds. The stand-alone work, Gravesend and Brooklyn Justice, are more serious—though they do have their funny moments.

You didn’t mention theme, which to me may be the most important element of the process—whether or not you recognized it going in and whether or not it dawns on the reader as well.  Theme is the subconscious inspiration, the self-learning experience, the bottom line.

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?

JLA: Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion is, for me, a perfect novel.  Family, manhood, hard work, drama, romance, mystery, loyalty, deceit, jealousy, a larger than life protagonist, a specific and fascinating setting, conflict and resolution, human weakness and strength—it is all there, presented truthfully, intelligently and beautifully.  I won’t lie—I could never have written that book.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

JLA: Getting out with a small circle of friends.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

JLA: I am working on short stories to appear in four separate anthologies which should appear in 2016 and 2017.  I am putting finishing touches on the follow-up to Gravesend.  I am going back to an epic novel dealing with one hundred years of crime in America as seen through the intersecting stories of two feuding immigrant families.

Piqued your interest? To learn all you need to know about J.L. Abramo, check out his sites:


J.L. Abramo said...

Intelligent questions make a writer sound intelligent...thanks for having me...

Dana King said...

It was my pleasure. Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.