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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Author Interview with Wayne Zurl

Author of A NEW PROSPECT and eight other Sam Jenkins mysteries, Wayne Zurl was born shortly after World War Two in Brooklyn, New York. Although he never wanted to leave a community with such an efficient trolley system, he had little say in his parents’ decision to pick up and move to Long Island where he grew up.
Like most American males of the baby-boomer generation, he spent his adolescence wanting to be a cowboy, soldier, or policeman. All that was, of course, based on movies and later television. The Vietnam War accounted for his time as a soldier. After returning to the US and separating from active duty, the New York State Employment Service told him he possessed no marketable civilian skills. So, he became a cop. That was as close to military life as he could find. Now that he's retired from the police service, he still likes the cowboy idea.
He lives in the picturesque foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains with his wife, Barbara.


Tell us about A New Prospect in a few sentences.

A NEW PROSPECT follows Sam Jenkins, a retired New York detective, who takes the job of police chief in the fictional Smoky Mountain city of Prospect, Tennessee. Sam finds a lot on his plate to contend with: Several years of relative boredom after moving to southern Appalachia, a mid-life crisis, and on his first weekend on duty, a grisly murder at the annual British car show.

How did you come to write this particular book?

After I read Robert B. Parker’s first Jesse Stone novel—Stone is an ex-Los Angeles detective who became chief in a small Massachusetts town—I bundled up more than my share of hubris and said, “If he can do it, so can I. I used to be a cop and he wasn’t.”
I wanted to use a former New York detective and put him in Tennessee. So, I write about what I know. All the procedures, some of the storylines, and my protagonist’s personality come from my experience as a cop on Long Island.

If you have a favourite character in your novel, why that particular one?

Police Officer Bettye Lambert has a lot going against her. Her first husband, a Prospect police officer was killed by a drunk driver. To provide for her two young daughters, Bettye asked to take his spot as a cop in Prospect. (The local civil service system is not terribly formal and something like that could easily be accomplished.) But things haven’t always been easy for a female officer in that traditionally male occupation. Bettye, however, is a sharp piece of work and the new chief, my main character, Sam Jenkins, recognizes this. Being a beautiful forty-two-year-old blonde doesn’t hurt either.

Where and when is your novel set and why did you make these specific choices?

The story begins in July 2006. I needed to set a time when Vietnam veteran, Jenkins, could be old enough to have all his prior experiences, be fully involved in his mid-life crisis, and battle a mild case of post traumatic stress from his time in the war and twenty years with a busy police department. I use the backdrop of the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee because the area is beautiful and unique and it enables me to actually cast the locale as a character, much as Raymond Chandler did using Los Angeles as a central character in his Philip Marlowe novels and stories.

How can people buy your books?

A NEW PROSPECT will be available from the publisher, Black Rose Writing, at www.blackrosewritingbooks.com or, in the US, from all the usual storefront bookshops and worldwide from Amazon and the other dot-com sellers.
My earlier Sam Jenkins books were produced as audio books and published in various eBook formats by Mind Wings Audio. All those are shown at www.mindwingsaudio.com.
I’ve recently signed a contract to publish a novelette-length eBook with Echelon Press some time in 2011. Their web address is: www.echelonpress.com.

What qualities make a successful writer?

Logistically, I think tenacity is most important. It will provide the discipline necessary to set a writing schedule, the ability to mentally handle major rewrites if necessary, and persistence to pursue an agent or publisher.
You also need either a good memory to draw material from personal experiences or a great imagination to write fiction.
Possessing a thick skin is necessary to handle criticism and rejection, both things being inevitable.

How do you set about writing a piece?

I get an idea based on a personal experience. I think of how to transplant it from New York to Tennessee and then I wake up at 3 a.m. many times with assorted ideas of how to proceed. Next, I sit down with a lined pad and pen and go at it. I usually don’t outline anything first. That seems too much like work. But when a timeline is crucial, I’ll go back and list the days and events to maintain continuity.


Beginning writers make many mistakes; what do you think is the most harmful?

I made two big mistakes. I had no formal training at fiction since school and I started my first novel in a style more suited to the 1980s than the 21st century. I’d say get the basics down with competent supervision and look for what the publishing industry wants to see today and tomorrow, not yesterday. I had to jump through hoops to reconstruct what I wanted to say.

To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?

Spelling is always important. It goes to your credibility as a writer. But with computerized spell-check, that’s taken care of for you.  Good grammar in narrative is essential. Editors don’t want to spend valuable time correcting your mistakes when that’s your responsibility. And they shouldn’t. Good grammar is a requisite for a serious writer—even for someone writing for other than publication. I’ve always told police officers that. Many times someone will read what you write before ever meeting you in person. Your written word is how they judge you. Make it perfect and take advantage of the halo effect.
The dialogue we write is a different story. Few people speak with perfect grammar. We get latitude there. Dialogue/dialects should be written as we hear them.

How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?

Revision? LOTS. After learning a vast amount of new things about writing over the last four years, I’m doing better off the blocks than I had been, but I still workshop a piece to get input from other good writers. Then I go over it countless times until I like the cadence of the voice and it’s as nit free as I can make it.

To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?

Marketing a book to agents or publishers by genre can be difficult and the industry is unforgiving if you choose the wrong genre to start. I began pushing A NEW PROSPECT as a mystery and found no one interested. After discussing it with an editor I hired to evaluate my manuscript, we decided it didn’t exactly fit the current template of a murder mystery. So, I switched to a police procedural/detective story. I didn’t sell it overnight, but I think the tactic was helpful. I certainly didn’t mind calling a dog a cat if it got me the results I wanted.

How do you know where to begin any given story?

Now that my main character is totally seated in his job as police chief, I dive right in using the writer’s maxim of “arrive late/leave early.” I try to minimize any set up. Sometimes I begin with the police standing over a body. Real police work usually starts with a cup of coffee and a doughnut, but that’s not what a reader wants. Back-story needs to be filtered in somewhere after chapter 3.
Richard Peck, a writer who won Newberry and Edgar awards, told me, “Finish your book and then throw out the first chapter. Read it again and cut out at least 10%.” I guess he likes the idea of diving right in, too.

What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?

A big displacement for me is sleep. I’m serious about waking up at 3:30 with what I think is a great idea. Realistically, it’s not easy to get up, start jotting down notes, and then go back to sleep. I never could.
Then all the daily interruptions hurt: A minor emergency that needs attention, pesky things like meal preparation when I’m on a roll, and all the rest of Life’s inconveniences.

Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?

My wife is great about my writing. She helps a lot. But I know when I must attend to the basic necessities and interrupt my story. I belong to an on-line writer’s workshop which I like. Writing in the mystery/crime genre limits the number of interested readers/reviewers I get. We’re almost the stepchildren of the workshop compared to those who write literary or commercial fiction. But I’ve got a bunch of comrades. We do a pretty good job of helping each other. Multiple heads are not only better than one, they’re essential.

Is presentation of the MS as important as most agents and publishers suggest?

I’d never argue against presentation of a pristine manuscript. Go back to what I said about good grammar. A clean MS is the only way an agent or editor can judge you if you’ve never met. Remember that halo effect. It’s free. Take advantage of it.
I’m not totally keen on the one page query letter as being fair to the writer. Agents and acquisitions people love them because they’d like us to think they are always overworked. However, I’ve noticed some agents tending daily and seemingly endless blogs that have few if any responses or comments from readers. Perhaps a class in time priority should be taught in Agent’s School.

How long does it normally take you to write a piece?

One of my 10,000 word novelettes may take me two days for a first fairly polished draft. Then a chapter or section a day on the workshop, and a day or two to get it into super shape. A NEW PROSPECT is 81,000 words. I wrote it in about two months, but spent a LONG time learning from it and finalizing it. My second full-length novel went much quicker. I’m ready to begin the final stage with that one now.

Who or what inspires you?

Some of the damnedest things remind me of something and create the inspiration to build a story from an old remembered incident. I’ve been in the middle of a novel and get an unexplained inspiration to go write a short novelette. I usually go with the inspiration. If I don’t, what I consider good lines may be lost forever.
Recently, my workshop held a contest to write a droubble (exactly 200 words) about time travel back to a famous event. That inspired me because I’ve always wanted to write a western. But I doubt I could scribble out a Christmas card salutation in only 200 words. So, I just went with the idea and finished up with 2,600 words. The short story won’t go into the contest, but it received good reviews and I love it.

If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?

From the beginning of my fiction writing career, I’ve tried to not duplicate, but sometimes emulate the styles of my favorite authors. In doing so, I may write in a manner not generally accepted from newer writers.
Occasionally, I’d be told, “You can’t do that.”
“Oh, really?” says I. “I saw (insert name: Robert B. Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, Nelson DeMille, whomever) do that.”
“Oh, yeah,” says they. “You’re not (reinsert chosen name).”
I hate double standards in anything. I accept it, but . . .

Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?

I like creating things that please me. I’ve always done something artistic or crafty as a creative outlet. Stacking up a pile of completed manuscripts is easier than finding space to store a bunch of model airplanes or oil paintings. When I create a story I consider artwork, I’m pleased no end.

Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?

I believe skills are inborn. Anyone can write fiction, just as anyone can paint, shoot, figure skate, etc. After competent schooling or coaching, most people can be good. Those with the natural gifts can be great.

What single piece of advice would you give to writers still hoping to be published?

If you limit me to only one piece of advice, I’d focus on marketing what you write. Learn to live with rejection and NEVER GIVE UP. Keep submitting until there’s no one left. James Lee Burke said one of his early novels received 111 rejections before he found a publisher. I went through so many agents who never requested one page of sample writing, I decided to change tactics and began to query any publisher who would accept submissions directly from an author. I had only four left on my list when I received a contract.

What are you writing now?

I’m about to do the final revision of A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT, chronologically the second novel in the Sam Jenkins series. It begins with a rather innocent background investigation on a civilian employee of the police department, turns to a murder investigation, and involves the FBI, CIA, British Intelligence, and the Irish Garda.

Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?

My website is: www.waynezurlbooks.net. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, and recently I posted my first video trailer on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OI63_29n9KQ.

Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?

We live on a five acre parcel of hilly, wooded land. There’s a hollow just west of our house that’s perfect to build a writer’s cottage. I’d want a comfortable chair, a small kitchen, and no phone.

Where do you actually write ?

In an upholstered chair in the living room next to a stained-glass Tiffany lamp.

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