Thursday, February 25, 2016

Twenty Questions With Terrence McCauley

I first met Terrence McCauley at the Albany Bouchercon when we shared a panel with Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Jonathan Woods, and the Master of Moderators himself, Peter Rozovsky. I’d read Terrence’s 1930s-era book Slow Burn and loved it. He was gracious enough to give me an autographed copy of its companion piece, Prohibition, a story that put me in mind of The Glass Key in several ways.

Life has been good for Terrence since his karma got the prestigious King Bump™. Polis Books published his first techno-thriller, Sympathy For The Devil, in July 2015 and republished both Prohibition and Slow Burn. July 2016 will see the sequel to Sympathy For The Devil, A Murder Of Crows.

In his free time Terrence wrote a World War I novella, The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood, published earlier this month by Down and Out Books. Sales proceeds go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund.

Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Spintetingler Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Big Pulp and other publications. He is a member of the New York City chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and the International Crime Writers Association.

A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is yet another example of a writer who has married better than he deserves. We do have that way about us.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood.
Terrence McCauley: It’s a novella about the iconic battle that gave the United States Marine Corps its modern reputation for toughness and determination that it so richly deserves. I’ve always been fascinated by that war, by the complicated politics of the era that caused it in the first place and how it was truly a war that affected the entire world. A plethora of archival footage and first-hand accounts make the Second World War far more accessible to us now, but the horrors of the Great War should never be forgotten. It was a conflict that was fought – at least in the beginning – with Victorian strategy, but modern day weaponry. The two clashed with horrific results.

Since I prefer to write all of my stories in the same fictional universe, I wanted Belleau Wood to reflect the wartime experiences of Charlie Doherty, the corrupt NYPD detective from my previous novels Fight Card: Against the Ropes and Prohibition. In my third novel, Slow Burn, Doherty takes center stage and the story is told in the first person. He finds himself investigating a murder in a flop house that ultimately involves one of the most powerful families in New York City. His narrative reflects his jaded world view, which was shaped in part by his involvement in the Tammany Hall machine, but also his experiences as a Marine in the Battle of Belleau Wood. His training as a much younger man helped him weather the storms of change that are sweeping through New York City at the time Slow Burn takes place.

Charlie’s also been one of my favorite characters, so I wanted to delve a little deeper into his war time experiences. This novella is the result.

I’m also glad that the publisher, Down and Out Books, agreed that the proceeds will go to a wonderful non-profit organization known as The Semper Fi Fund. I didn’t receive an advance to write the story and I won’t be receiving any funds from sales. The money goes straight to an organization dedicated to helping those who have sacrificed so much for us. I encourage everyone to visit their website: to learn more about this group and their wonderful mission.

OBAAT: Before we get too far down the road, let’s get this part out of the way. Most of this blog’s readers are Americans, which means we probably know dick about the Battle of Belleau Wood. Personally, I know it was the first major American engagement, and took place during almost the entire month of June 1918 as part of the German spring offensive, but I only know that because I looked it up prepping for this interview; before that all I could honestly say was, “World War I.” Tell us a little about it, and why you chose this battle for your setting.

TM: I chose this battle and this war for a couple of reasons. The first is due to the point you’ve already made: it’s a largely forgotten battle. Marines know about it of course, as do historians and military history enthusiasts, but most people never even heard of it. I know I didn’t know about it until I began researching The Great War on my own several years ago. When I decided to write about Doherty’s war experience, I knew I wanted to have him participate in a key battle in the war and when I learned more about Belleau Wood, I knew it would be the perfect way for me to show the reader how Doherty became Doherty. It would also be a way to introduce the battle to a new generation of people who had never heard about it before.

I only ask people to keep in mind that my work is a novella and a work of fiction. I strive to make sure the details are correct, but this book is in no way a history book. I don’t mention specific divisions or squads because I didn’t want to get bogged down in the minutia of such an important event. I wanted to capture the essence of the battle, told from one group’s small perspective of a much larger battle. I encourage anyone who wants to read more about the battle in depth to check out Dick Camp’s excellent work by the same title: The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood. It’s a captivating and authoritative read.

OBAAT: You received no advance and will not take any royalties for Devil Dogs, sending everything to the Semper Fi Fund. Tell us a little about that, and why you chose to forego all proceeds to help them out.

TM: Although I never served in the armed forces myself, I admire those who have. I always wanted to show my appreciation for their sacrifice by more than just thanking a vet or cutting a check. The Semper Fi Fund seemed like a logical choice. They don’t spend their donations on commercials or lavish events. Instead, they focus their money on helping the veterans who have given so much in service to our country. I’ve always said that one may not support the war, but we should always support the warriors.

OBAAT: I’ve been in the tank for Charley Doherty since I read Slow Burn when I learned we’d share a panel at the Albany Bouchercon. You had him well established in the Prohibition-era New York milieu. What made you decide to look at his earlier life rather than continue on?

TM: Charlie is a tough, jaded guy who is actually the linchpin between my Prohibition-era work and my spy novel Sympathy For The Devil. He’s the least likely person you’d expect to have such importance, but that’s how it played out. He’s not especially tall or rugged. He’s not Mike Hammer or Jack Reacher. He’s not Sherlock Holmes either. He’s just a man who has been worn down by life’s circumstances and sees things as they are, not as he’d like them to be. I used Belleau Wood as a way to show the reader how Doherty became the man people like in the later works. I’ve actually written a sequel to Slow Burn called The Fairfax Incident, which shows what happens to Doherty after the events of Slow Burn. It serves to bridge that gap I mentioned earlier between my Prohibition-era work and the modern spy world I begin in Sympathy For The Devil.

OBAAT: Doherty is a well-defined characters in Slow Burn. It’s safe to say he’s the man he is in that book at least in part because of what he saw and endured in France. Was it tricky to write for a character who had to come out a certain way for a book that’s already been written?

TM: It wasn’t difficult because I already knew him so well. In Prohibition, he was worldly and jaded and corrupt. He was tired and grasping at straws while the reformers were threatening to take away his livelihood. But he first sees the murder/kidnapping case in Slow Burn as a way he can get influence with one of the wealthiest families in New York City. Maybe get something he can use to blackmail them for some easy cash. But he isn’t so far gone that the tragedy of the murder and kidnapping on this wealthy family failed to reach him. He’s a survivor in Belleau Wood and he’s a survivor still in Slow Burn. I hope readers will eventually get the chance to see him evolve further in more novels. I just need to find someone who’d like to publish them.

OBAAT: Did moving your setting to World War I France pose any special challenges? Any unexpected delights or serendipitous discoveries?

TM: The battle itself was a discovery. I’d always heard about it in passing, but the more I researched this battle, the more I realized what the people who lived through it endured. Not just those fighting it, but those who lived around it. I paid the historical aspects of the battle due attention, but dwelled more on the human impact of it. I’m not a historian and never pretended to be. I’m a storyteller and that’s what I tried to do here.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Devil Dogs start to finish?

TM: It took me about a month from start to finish. Once I got going, I poured right through it. I knew I wanted to tell it in a tight time frame, so that helped. It’s a kinetic story where one scene builds on another as Doherty and the other survivors realize retreat is just as deadly as advance, so they decide to advance. It feels like I wrote it in a blur.

I was fortunate enough to have a friend who had served in the Marines who agreed to read the story for me. His input was essential to making sure I knew the difference between a trench knife and a bayonet and I employed proper terms where necessary.

OBAAT: How did Devil Dogs come to be published?

TM: I had written it for a publisher that has since ceased publishing. I was fortunate enough to know Eric Campbell at Down and Out Books and asked him if he might be interested in it and he was. He was also completely supportive of my desire to make sure the proceeds went to The Semper Fi Fund. He agreed it’s a great organization that does important work. Eric’s been a pleasure to work with.
OBAAT: Your first three books (Fight Card: Against the Ropes, Prohibition and Slow Burn) are set in 1930s New York; your most recent (Sympathy for the Devil) is a modern techno-thriller. Whatever time period you choose, you always put the reader dead square in it. How much research goes into this, and what do you consider to be the key elements that need to be conveyed to the reader? What tricks—sorry, techniques—do you use to keep that from becoming too heavy-handed?

TM: My writing teacher Wesley Gibson always reminded me that I was writing a novel, not a textbook. No one wants to read a textbook. Concentrate on the story and add just enough detail so that the reader feels they’re in competent hands, but don’t dwell on it.

Details are important to me, but not at the expense of the story. Like they say in politics: never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I often allow historical events to frame my fiction, not hinder it. Prohibition and Slow Burn reflect social and political realities of their time. I even employ facts like the fall of the Irish mob and the rent riots and the beginning of the Great Depression to shape the narratives of those novels. In Sympathy, I use a lot of near-technology that may or may not exist to advance the story and help the characters do interesting things. I try to get out of the way between the reader and what’s happening on the page. A little reference they can hang their hat on usually helps make the experience more enjoyable.

OBAAT: You mentioned before the only book you outlined was Prohibition and that was a less than gratifying experience. (Your father said of the outline, “It’s as long as a whore’s dream and just as pointless,” which is a line you really need to work into a book sometime.) Did you write Devil Dogs without an outline, as well, and did the foreign (in more ways than one) setting give you any trouble along those lines?

TM: I began researching the battle and quickly became overwhelmed. I also knew I’d probably never get all of the facts straight and was bound to have the wrong unit in the wrong part of the battle. I was worried about having someone pop up after it was published and slam the accuracy of the work in a bad review. That’s when I remembered what Wesley taught me and realized I’m writing a story, not a history book. So, I decided to keep the historic details to a minimum and accentuated the human elements I wanted the reader to experience.

In short, I learned just enough about the battle to be dangerous and plowed ahead with the kind of story I wanted to tell.

OBAAT: We spoke about process last time. Did you have to change the manner in which you work to accommodate some of the research required for Devil Dogs? For instance, you’re typing away and realize you have a nice scene going and have to stop mid-stream to find out how such a situation would have been handled in 1918?

TM: I was fortunate enough to have some great input on that from my friend the marine. He was kind enough to point out where I was wrong and what tactics/weapons weren’t around in 1918. It was an invaluable resource to have. But, as is my custom, I didn’t throw in so many references that it bogged down the story or wrecked my plans.

OBAAT: This is where I like to ask who your favorite authors are, but we know that from your last visit. (Unless your tastes have changes dramatically, in which case it’s like I don’t even know you.) Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Robert B. Parker, Richard Matheson, James Grady, and Ben Coes were mentioned. Then you said, “Of course, there’s always Ellroy. As flawed as some of his later work has been, no one gets in my head like him.” What is it about James Ellroy that gets in your head?

TM: His narrative. The cadence of his story and the way his characters work. He focuses on the darkest elements of our humanity, which happen to be the same elements that most of us share. If I read too much of his work, especially AMERICAN TABLOID or THE COLD SIX THOUSAND while I’m starting something new, I find his style creep into my work in a way that no other author does. I have to be careful about that, especially when I’m writing a story set in the 1930s. I want my work to be as unique as I can make it, not fan fiction.

OBAAT: You had to figure that last question was a set up. Do you see any Ellroy influence in your own work?

TM: I sure do. I’m still a huge fan of Ellroy the way some people bow at the ankles before Stephen King and others. But the more one reads his work, the more one can see they all think the same way and have the same thoughts throughout his books. Cops, crooks, men, women. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable for me, but it does make me take greater pains to make sure that I don’t do the same thing in my work. (And no, I’m NOT comparing myself to him or his talent in any shape, way or form. I should be so lucky!)

But, the similarities that run throughout all of his later work are reasons why I do my best to do something different in each novel or short story. I never want to tell the same story twice. Fight Card: Against The Ropes showed the death of a dream that led to the events in Prohibition, which covered the fall of a criminal empire. Slow Burn shows the aftermath of that fall. Sympathy For The Devil introduces the reader to my vision of a techno-spy while the sequel A Murder Of Crows fleshes out the world in which those spies operate.

If I’m ever fortunate enough to be given the opportunities to write prequels to any of my work, I’ll change it up just as much as I do in my work where I advance the timeline.

OBAAT: Since we sort of on the topic, do you see a specific style in your writing? I mean, you’re too good to have written Prohibition-era novels, and modern techno-thriller, and a war story as if they were the same, but what consistent elements are in all your work?

TM: If there’s one comment element in all of my work, it’s struggle. Struggle against changing times (Prohibition) or against reform (Slow Burn) or against those who seek to destroy Western civilization (Sympathy For The Devil). That’s a general theme. As for my writing style, I always try to make the character essential to what’s going on around them. You may not like them. You may detest what they do, but if you give me a chance, I’ll keep you interested enough to keep reading about them.

OBAAT: Last time you mentioned some grief you took from Hemingway fans for your short story, “For Whom No Bell Tolls.” Any other feedback stories you’d like to share?

TM: After Sympathy came out, I got a ton of feedback about people who loved the supporting characters. They liked how it wasn’t a typical spy story with a lot of different types of people with different types of motivation. A lot of people enjoyed the pacing of the story and found it believable, which was great to hear. Some told me they wanted the female characters to play more of a central role. I made sure they did in the sequel A Murder Of Crows, which is due out from Polis Books in July 2016.

Last week, I was at an event at the East Meadow Public Library where about twenty-five strangers came out on a cold night and talked about the characters in Sympathy like they knew them. You know what? They did. And that makes all the hard work worthwhile.

OBAAT: Is anything going on with the Western you mentioned last time you were here, The Devil’s Cut?

TM: Yep. I’ve changed the title because that would’ve been three “devil” titles in a row, so I’m calling it Vengeance At Dover Station. It may change if my agent and I can sell it, but I’m working on it as we speak. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it and hope to have it done by the end of February.

OBAAT: What do you know now you wish you’d known before you started to get work published?

TM: The power of the short story. I wish I had tried writing them earlier because writing them helped me tremendously in structuring scenes and narratives.

OBAAT: You’re establishing a footprint in the industry. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

TM: I thank everyone for the positive and negative criticism I’ve received. I found something constructive in all of it, even if it wasn’t so positive or particularly accurate. All I ask is that you leave a review wherever you can for whatever books you read as reviews really do help with rankings and sales online.

OBAAT: What’s the best book you’ve read since we spoke in July? Don’t think about it, just blurt it out, and see if you can tell us why that one came to the top of your head.

TM: Rumrunners by Eric Beetner stands out. That guy is as good as he is prolific, which is saying something because he churns out a shitload of product every year.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

TM: I’m trying to finish up I, then it’s on to the third University novel. I’m not sure what I’m going to call it yet, but it will advance the plight of James Hicks and his University team as they go further down the rabbit hole to uncover the people threatening our way of life. I also ask people to keep in mind that I’m not writing a trilogy. There are many more books – and many more facets – of the story left to write, so stay tuned.

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