Thursday, June 8, 2017

Finish What You Start: A Conversation with Alex Segura

Interview by Andrew Scott

Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of three Miami crime novels featuring Pete Fernandez—Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends—published by Polis Books. By day, he works at Archie Comics. He lives in New York City.

Tell us a little about Dangerous Ends, your new novel.
       Dangerous Ends is my third novel, and the third in a series starring Miami PI Pete Fernandez. Pete debuted in Silent City, which introduced us to the drunk, washed-up journalist who had just returned home after flaming out on his investigative sports reporting gig in New Jersey. He’d also just lost his father and his fiancĂ©e had just left him. Not an ideal moment for him. Since then, Pete’s evolved—he’s solved a few major crimes (as detailed in the first book and its sequel, Down the Darkest Street), decided to make the leap into being an official private eye, gotten his drinking under control and managed to cobble a life together. That’s where we meet him at the beginning of the new book—dealing with the more mundane aspects of PI work and trying to keep his head down and his life simple. Unfortunately for Pete, it doesn’t work out that way. His partner, Kathy Bentley, drags him into a controversial case involving an ex-Miami Narcotics officer named Gaspar Varela. Varela’s serving life in prison for the murder of his wife. The case has been a hot-button topic in Miami for almost a decade—debated, dissected and the subject of myriad books and even a documentary. Varela’s daughter, Maya, hires Pete and Kathy to discover any bit of evidence that might lead to a new trial for her father, and perhaps grant him his freedom. At the same time, Pete and Kathy find themselves in the sights of a deadly Cuban street gang known as Los Enfermos, who have some mysterious ties to Cuba, Fidel Castro and perhaps Pete’s own past.

What is it like coming back to the same protagonist for multiple projects? What is the benefit to you, as the author, and how is this a challenging decision?
       There’s a comfort level there—dealing with the same world, characters and general conflicts. But the appeal, to me, isn’t in the static. It’s about showing how these characters—specifically Pete, Kathy and their FBI agent friend Harras—evolve from book to book. I’d get bored if it was more about the case and they remained the same. I’m not into writing that kind of book. I want the characters to change and be in a different position at the end of the book. So, for me, it’s about Pete’s arc as much as it is about the mystery or whodunit aspect. The challenge there, though, is that you have to make each book feel open—so anyone can pick it up and not feel like they’re completely lost. The other side of that, though, is that you have to also make it worthwhile for the people who’ve been around since the first book and want those Easter Eggs and hat tips to what came before. It’s a balancing act. That’s part of the challenge and the fun of writing a series.

Many authors who write a series of books about the same character seem to find a real groove during the stretch you’re in now—the third book, the fourth book. Do you have plans to write many more Pete Fernandez novels?
       I’d like to. When I first wrote Silent City, I didn’t know what I was doing or where it was going. Toward the end of writing that one, I knew I could do one more, maybe two. I thought three would be it. But now it feels like I get a new Pete idea every other day. I think I could definitely write a couple more and keep him on his toes, they’d just have to feel like stories that had to be told. I don’t want to crank them out just to do them.

Miami is, obviously, such an important part of your work. I know it’s your hometown, and you bring it to life vividly on the page. Did you always plan to write a series in Miami, or did you suddenly find yourself writing that story one day?
       Writing about Miami went hand-in-hand with deciding to write a PI novel. I wanted to showcase my hometown and present it through my eyes, as opposed to the way I’d seen it portrayed on TV or in movies. There’s so much more to it than the surface stuff most people see. It’s a big, sprawling city with corners and neighborhoods that are extremely different—from inner cities to suburbs. I wanted to show that, and have Pete explore those areas for the reader. Now, as I enter my 11th year as a New Yorker, the work of writing about Miami becomes more research-intensive. I visit a lot—at least twice a year for extended periods—but it’s different. So I find I have to spend more time making sure the facts are straight. Which is a long-winded way of saying I could see myself writing a book set elsewhere, if the idea struck at the right time.

In a recent interview, you said that you thought you would write literary fiction. How did you get started as a writer? And how did you find your way into your current genre?
       When I first started writing—short stories, poems, that sort of thing—I was in college and I wanted to be the next Michael Chabon. I wanted to write these deep, literary tales. I still love literary fiction, though I kind of cringe at that genre label, but I have to laugh at my younger self. I hadn’t really lived much yet, so I don’t know if I would have had any stories to tell. I think it just felt like that’s where you went, work-wise, if you wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t have a passion for that kind of writing. It wasn’t until I started embracing the kind of books that I read for visceral pleasure, the mysteries, true crime books, pulp novels, that I realized I could combine passion with craft. Then I dove in head-first. Because I now had the spark to go with the direction. The turning point, for me, was reading more modern hardboiled fiction. Books like Queenpin by Megan Abbott and White Jazz by James Ellroy. Novels that crackled and felt sexy and rough all at once. They showed me that you could do a lot within the crime genre, perhaps you could do more inside the genre than outside, because you get so much cloud cover by being a “genre” or “mystery” writer. It really lets you do anything.

What is the most difficult thing about writing for you? Not the writing life, but actually putting words on the page and bringing a fictional world to life?
       I think the challenge is always in making time. I have a family, a full-time job, other writing—we live in a world where excuses are everywhere. So the challenge for me is to get into that routine, even if the routine is not “wake up at five each morning and write,” because that’s not realistic for me. My “routine” is more about being aware enough to jump on found time when it appears, and maximizing it to create the words I want each day. I’m not a word counter, though it’s fine if people are. I do try to, when I’m actively writing a novel, write every day for at least a few hours. I feel like you need that momentum pushing you from one day to the next, and when it stalls, you run the risk of losing the whole thing.

If other writers are thinking of “crossing over” into your genre, what are the five crime/mystery/detective novels you would recommend they read first?
       Oh, great question. Off the top of my head:
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith
The Killer Inside Me, Jim Thompson
The Galton Case, Ross Macdonald
Beast in View, Margaret Millar
       These aren’t my top five overall, but I do love each of these books. It’s a good starter kit, though, which is I think what you were asking. It’s a good cross-section, and you get a taste of different takes on crime books. If I had to list the five books that got me, someone who was thinking of writing a crime novel, they’d be:
A Firing Offense, George Pelecanos
Darkness, Take My Hand, Dennis Lehane
Baltimore Blues, Laura Lippman
The Black Echo, Michael Connelly
The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy
       I cheated on this question. Forgive me.

As a writer of comics, you’ve tackled Archie Meets Kiss and Archie Meets Ramones, as well as Archie’s “Occupy Riverdale” storyline. What skills as a prose writer translate easily, and what’s challenging or more difficult in writing for the comics medium?
       Prose is a solitary endeavor. You’re the be-all, end-all. You may have an editor or beta reader or what have you, but by the time they look over your work, you’re done with at least a draft, which is a huge undertaking. Comics are much more collaborative. You give your script to an artist, they interpret your direction and then it moves on down the line, each person, from inker to colorist to letterer, adding their take on the script. The final product is always different from what the writer envisioned and the hope is that it’s better. It usually is, if you’re working with skilled people. But that’s extremely different from prose, where you have to do everything, at least in terms of how you communicate with the reader. In comics, you also have to be more compact with your words—which, honestly, you should be in anything you write. You have only so much space and you don’t want to cover the pretty art with words. It’s a visual medium and it should be embraced.

I’ve known you for a while now—first as a publicist for DC Comics, then as a publicist for Archie Comics and editor of Dark Circle Comics, an imprint of titles that includes The Black Hood written by Duane Swierczynski. You’ve written three Pete Fernandez books. You also have a small child. What does your average work day look like? How do you manage to stay productive? Do you own stock in a coffee company yet?
       We have known each other a while! Time flies.
       I don’t have an average day, which I like. At least in terms of the work I do. It can range from writing press releases or generating PR to collaborating with a creator I admire on a new or established Dark Circle book. Most days, I wake up, go to work, come home, make dinner and write. My family is important to me, so I try to maximize my time with them. Those are the broad strokes. But there’s a lot of room in there to allow for other things, like teaching a LitReactor class, editing a line of books or running a PR department, not to mention writing novels and comic scripts. I like to keep active, so this works out. But yes, coffee helps.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about writing and one piece of advice about life, what would you say?
       Work hard, be kind, stay humble and finish what you start.

Andrew Scott is the author of Naked Summer, a story collection. His fiction and nonfiction credits have appeared in Esquire, Indianapolis Monthly, Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and other outlets. He is a Senior Editor at Engine Books and lives in Indianapolis.

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