Thursday, November 2, 2023

An Interview With J. L. Abramo, Author of Short Cuts

 One Bite at a Time: Welcome back to the blog, Joe. It’s always good to chat with you.


Your new book, Short Cuts, is a compilation of short fiction and non-fiction with a little memoir thrown in. What gave you the idea and how did you choose what to include?


J. L. Abramo: Since the publication of the first novel, Catching Water In A Net (2001), I have been invited to submit short stories to a number of crime fiction anthologies. I thought many fans (and I use that term in all humility) may have missed many of these—so I decided to collect them all together in one place, add five never before published short stories as well as several nonfiction pieces written through the years about my writing and crime writing in general. The short fiction was easy to selectit includes all of my short works aside from those appearing in my book, Brooklyn Justice, and a story just completed for submission to yet another anthology. The essays were chosen with regard to those I thought most effectively depicted those elements I find important in my writingsuch as location, food, opening paragraphs—and those I felt were worth researching on the subject of crime and detective fiction historically.


OBAAT: You’re best known as a private eye writer, with your Jake Diamond and Nick Ventura characters covering both coasts. What attracted you to the genre and what keeps you coming back?


JLA: I have always been a fan of detective fiction, from Holmes to Marlowe, and the film adaptations. After no one would look at my first attempt at a novelinstead of wallowing in self-pity, I sat down to write. I decided to try something different. Try a first-person narrative, write something lighter. Without premeditation, I wrote 20 pages of a scene in the office of a humorous San Fransisco private detective narrator, Jake Diamond. When I heard of the Saint Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for Best First Private Eye Novel, I kept working on it, won the contest, and was published by St. Martin’s Press. I was advised to continue writing Jake, which resulted in two additional Diamond novels published by SMP. The fourth Jake Diamond novel, Circling The Runway (Down & Out Books, 2015) won a Shamus Award—all good reasons for sticking with the genre. Jake is more over easy than hard boiled andsince I couldn’t change his nature and wanted to take a shot a tougher, more forceful private eye protagonistI created Nick Ventura and placed him in the meaner streets of Brooklyn.


OBAAT: You’ve also written a couple of procedurals, Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue. As someone else who moves in those genres, I find there are different mindsets involved for each. Do you make adjustments in your writing attitude depending on whether you’re writing for a private eye or cops?


JLA: Well, since you asked. The novel I spoke of earlier, the one no one would look at in 2000 (called, at the time, A Blot On The Landscape) featured Brooklyn police detectives. It was reworked throughout the years and ultimately published in 2012 as Gravesend. What differentiates the procedurals from the PI works, at least in my case, is two-fold. Although Jake and Nick sometimes depend on assistance from others—they are, for the most part, the stars of their respective stories. In Gravesend, and its follow-up Coney Island Avenue, the detectives of the 61st Precinct depend a lot more upon each other. These novels, to borrow theater terminology, are ensemble pieces. On top of that, since these works were allowed to be lengthier than what I feel a private eye mystery should be, it afforded me the opportunity to delve deeper into the personal lives of the detectives.


OBAAT: In the section where you discuss Mickey Spillane you wrote “those of us who command a public audience would be careless to underestimate our influence or to neglect our moral responsibility.” I’ve been beating a similar drum for a while now. Not that all stories should have happy endings or that bad guys cannot be protagonists, but that we owe the public a realistic idea of how cops and courts and PIs work. Can you elaborate on your statement a little?


JLA: Although I don’t believe that reading books about serial killers will make one a serial killer (at least I hope not), I am not a fan of gratuitous violence. And there are some bad practices, depicted in books, that might be more readily imitated—particularly relating to how women, minorities and the handicapped are treated. However, the comment you mention here, with regard to Spillane (who obviously subscribed to red scare, better-dead-than-red McCarthyism—fears which in many cases destroyed lives), was addressing the problem I find with fiction that proselytizes. I believe those kinds of opinions should be left to nonfiction—which is why I wrote Homeland Insecurity.


OBAAT: The section on location also caught my eye. Private eyes seem to cry out to be integrated with their settings: The Continental Op and Sam Spade in San Francisco; Phillip Marlowe, Easy Rawlins, and Elvis Cole in LA; Spenser and Patrick Kenzie in Boston (Dorchester specifically for Kenzie); Tess Monahan in Baltimore; V. I. Warshawsky in Chicago: Moe Prager in Brooklyn. (I particularly enjoy a newer series by James D.F. Hannah set in West Virginia.) Location is a key element in any novel, but why do you think private eyes become so closely associated with theirs? 


JLA: I totally agree with your observation that location is a key element in any novel, and therefore I am not certain if I can answer your question specific to private eye novels. So, I will relate my thoughts about location in general—and hope it works to address the specific. For me, location is an additional character in the narrative. If the writer does the homework, and is accurate with descriptions of places, it serves a number of purposes. It provides familiarity to those readers who are acquainted with those locations. It gives readers who are not acquainted a taste of what these locations are like. And for me, when I write about places I know welllike Brooklyn, San Francisco or Denver—it makes me feel comfortable and at home. And, conversely, when I write of places I don’t know very wellsuch as Los Angeles and Chicagoit gives me good reason to research and learn. To quickly address the PIs. Jake Diamond crossed the continent to California to pursue an acting career, and moved from Hollywood to Santa Monica to San Francisco on the path to private investigation. He has become totally assimilated to the pace and rhythms of Northern California. Diamond belongs thereand his surroundings provide a particular understanding of his character. Similarly, Nick Ventura is totally a Brooklyn animal—and to not make the borough a pivotal element in his journey would be criminal.


OBAAT: “Even fictional characters have to eat.” Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, food was a key element of any social interaction. When I need to have two characters exchange information, I will often as not send them out for something to eat, as what they eat helps to characterize them and the act of eating provides stage business to help the dialog from being a continuous stream “saids”. How do you use food in your stories?


JLA: Food is an integral part of life. A necessity. We deal with food every single day. And food is present at our most memorable occasionsweddings, birthdays, reunions, holidays, even funerals. These realities, if nothing else, make it difficult for me to write about humans without talking about where, when and what they eat. That being said, your question effectively anticipates my answer. It seems we utilize eating in much the same fashion. I always find it convenient, when I need to arrange a meeting between two or more characters, to use a dining establishment as a setting—and I feel that if I put humans in those situations, I may as well talk a bit about the food since food preferences can serve to demonstrate individual tastes, ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions—and the foods people choose can help demonstrate the ways these characters are similar or different. And…oh…I almost forgot…writing about food reminds me that I need to take a break from the writing now and then. To eat.


OBAAT: The inevitable closing question: What’s next for Joe Abramo?


JLA: Hopefully, a trip to Sicily.


OBAAT: As always, thanks for stopping by. It’s always a pleasure, Good luck with the trip. Regardless of where you go, viaggi sicuri.





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