The Search Artist Ep 6
As you can probably tell I work in Publishing. So once or so a week I get Publisher's Weekly newsletter to my inbox to stay up on the game. You could sign up for it too, if you'd like. I'm sure you can work in any job and get the lowdown on the book biz. Try this link.
One article that caught my eye was about Alex Segura, a crime novelist who works at Archie Comics for his day gig. The head line got me into the article and I stayed in until I decided to order the first book Silent City. I ended up reading the third book in the series, Dangerous Ends as well but am saving the second book for some rainy day. There's so much to read man! The main character Pete Fernandez is an affable ex-newpaper man, ex alcoholic in living in Miami. Pete feels real by the time you've read a book. He feels like someone you know by a second. This is a testament to Alex's skill in bringing his character to life. He Frankensteined it with words. Below is an interview I did with Alex via e-mail.
AH Setting is a key character. You grew up in Miami but moved to New York City. However, you chose Miami as the setting for your crime novels. What made you choose Miami?
AS-I was born and raised in Miami. No matter where I live, Miami will always be a part of me. I was also struck by how Miami was portrayed in other media. It felt like people were only getting the tourist-y version of the city, and I wanted to show them around the Miami I know. It’s such a vibrant, diverse and complex place, and it stretches out, in terms of space. It’s not a tightly-packed metropolis, but a jumble of towns and cities and suburbs.
AH How do you dig into the Miami vibe while being in New York? Internet, library, books, or memories?
AS-Well, my parents and many friends still live in Miami, so I make a point of going down once or twice a year. While those trips are mainly for fun or book events, I do manage to sneak in a lot of research. You’re right, though - the more time I spend in NY, not living in Miami, the more research I find I have to do, just to make sure my facts are right and it rings true. But that’s part of the fun of writing.
AH- The ragged but right Pete Fernandez character is palpable. Pete’s character is rounded out with a-lot of 80’s-90’s music references like Dinosaur Jr, Pere Ubu, The Pixies, Bruce, The Mats. Sound is a powerful evocative agent. Do you use records to prompt things? Emotions? Character bits?
AS-I actually don’t listen to music while writing - but I listen to a lot of music while I think about writing. So, often while in the midst of a draft, I’ve got a similarly long and unwieldy playlist of songs that I’ve tinkered with while plotting out Pete’s next adventure. Music helps me visualize scenes or character moments, or the vibe of the novel. I treat the playlists as a soundtrack of sorts - though, the songs I mention in the books don’t always sync up with the songs in my head as I write. But yeah, I treat music as a tool to getting me into the right mindset to eventually write. But when actually putting words on paper, I work better in silence. Or as close to silent as you can get living in New York.
AH-I used to write songs but once I gave up the ghost on that I went to crime novels. I picked that genre because it was my favorite type of book to read. I’m still struggling to figure out what my process is. You are a comic book writer, do you have a different process for writing comics from writing novels? Do you remember any transitional moments?
AS- You know, not really. They both - comic books and crime novels - seem to use different muscles in my brain. Comics are about jamming with someone else, or a few other people, to create a story. A crime novel, or any novel, really, is about sitting alone and coming up with the story and conflicts and direction all by yourself. You’re completely in control. My process for comic book writing is much more methodical. It’s almost like putting together a puzzle, because you know how much space you have and how many word balloons you can fit onto each page, so, it feels a lot more mathematical. While prose is much more about gut and feeling and where the story takes you. It flows more, and you can divert and take different directions without being hit by any kind of structure, within reason. I’ve said this before, but I wouldn’t wish my novel process on anyone - because I’m not either/or when it comes to outlining or not. I often start without an outline - just to get a sense of who the characters are and what they do - and at a certain point, usually 30-40,000 words into the whole thing, I realize I need some kind of road map. So I start outlining a few chapters ahead and clarifying what’s come before. It can be stressful, and it often involves stitching things together and then coming back and revising so it all makes sense and flows, but it works for me.
AH-There was a time when you decided to be a crime writer, you mention this in the after-forward to Silent City. You got into writers like Denis Lehane, Lauren Lippman, and James Ellroy. What do you think it was about the genre that made your blood run to it?
AS-Crime fiction is the most versatile and socially relevant of genres, I think. And while I hate getting on a genre soapbox, because I read a lot of books by a lot of different kinds of writers that talk about different things, I do feel like crime fiction has a way of putting a microscope on the ills of our society in a way others need to do more obtusely. Crime fiction shows you how things are, and lets you decide whether it’s wrong or what needs fixing, all while hopefully telling a good story about fucked up people trying to get their lives in order.
AH-Did you read Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr? It’s a biography of The Replacements. At the start of Dangerous Ends is a Denis Lehane quote, “There is something ugly about the flawless.” That made me think about Trouble Boys and the story of that band.
AS-I did. I really liked that book, and if there is one band that mirrors Pete, it’s the ‘Mats. The Lehane quote was really just a nod to one of the writers (and series) that played a huge part in me deciding to write my own crime novels.
AH-Pete’s alcoholism also reminds me of the band. Westerberg always had this Chandler vibe, as a bemused hero that was outside and looking in. It’s very important, the detective not being Police, it’s part of the American outsider anti authority figure lore. Private Detectives are outside the authority realm and that being outside makes them expressly able to solve the crime that is unusual. Did you do research to decide who you wanted Pete to be or did you always have him as a journalist?
AS-When Pete first appeared, it made sense to make him a journalist. That job has a lot of overlap with a PI, in terms of being inquisitive and wanting to get to the bottom of a story or case. With his alcoholism, I wanted to try and present it in a different way from many of the books I’d read, where the hard-drinking PI was very much glorified. Now, I love those books as much as the next person, but to me there’s another side of that coin. There’s wear and tear that comes from drinking and there are people, not just the drinker, who are affected by the actions of the alcoholic. I wanted to show Pete’s journey toward rebuilding his life and the end result, which is somewhat different from the life he hoped for at first, but is no less meaningful, if that makes sense.
AH-It’s funny, I had a question set for you, about Cuban history and digging into that to build out Dangerous Ends. But you went into this and the books you read to inform this in the after-forward, as well I read an online interview you gave that went into how a relative suggested this to you at a party and it brought it all together. I’ve noted your an Ellroy fan and he’s placing his stories in the past but often they are building on events that take place even earlier. There is this real “sins of the father” element to crime fiction. Is there anything you haven’t mentioned yet on this that you’d like to?
AS-Most of the Pete books are about fathers and sons, or daughters. Dangerous Ends, in particular, is about Pete taking up a case his father couldn’t close and also taking on a case Varela’s daughter couldn’t close. It’s about legacy and how our past and the past of our parents linger on, even if we’re not aware of it. I feel like the Cuba/Miami dynamic and history is rich and has many viewpoints, so I wanted to showcase it, and show a perspective that wasn’t necessarily popular - that of not wanting Cuba and the US to reconcile so quickly. That’s a perspective I know a lot of Cuban-Americans share. That maybe, even after decades, the wounds are still fresh and don’t feel healed, per se, because there’s still a Castro in power. I’m glad you picked up on the Ellroy aspect because he did loom large during the writing of Dangerous Ends. I wanted this book to feel heavier and thicker, in terms of tone and conflict. By the end of the book, you’re not really sure who the good guys are, which was intentional.
AH-From the finale of Dangerous Ends it seems clear that we will hear more from Pete and Kathy. Have you started researching the next novel and where it will take them?
I’m well into a draft of the next book, tentatively titled Relics. I’m hesitant to say too much beyond that it deals heavily with Pete and Miami’s own dark past.
Alright gang, that's all she wrote. Please check out Alex Segura's books. Buy them local if you can, tip your bartenders if you go out at night. Be nice to the check out aisle lady at the grocery store. I don't know why I'm giving you free advice. Up top I mentioned Chandler, as in Raymond Chandler the man with the typewriter that all crime writers owe a little piece of their craft to. One of my favorite film adaptations of his character Philip Marlowe is the flicker Murder My Sweet. Dick Powell is the actor and he tackles the PI with a little more mischief than Bogart did. In one scene near the end, Ann, the good daughter of the man who hired him tells him,
"You go barging around without a clear idea of what you're doing. Everybody bats you down, smacks you over the head... fills you full of stuff... and you keep right on hitting between tackle and end. I don't think you even know which side you're on." To which Marlowe replies, "I don't know which side anybody's on. I don't even know who's playing today."
There's something about that kind of PI that strikes me. Maybe it's my own awareness that I'm no tough guy gumshoe. Pete Fernandez definitely has this vibe in spades. He doesn't know up from down, he knows there is something right to aim for and he keeps trying to hit it or let it wear itself out hitting him.