It was noir and New York City that made me ask Stephen Solomita for an interview. They’re elements that seen made for each other — noir, that genre of cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity and NYC a melting pot of pretty much … everything, and where anything can happen.
Stephen has been writing for 50 years, and below describes how his research, publishing and the perils of pounding out an idea that may just not work in the end.
His newest novel, which definitely does work, The Striver is out now.
What would your fans be most surprised to learn about your writing habits?
That I write almost every day? That I view myself as a mechanic going off to the plant every morning to work my shift? That when it comes to the creative arts, novelists are the drudges who toil in the basement? I tell you, Verushka, sometimes it’s just one damn word after another. Seriously, though, when you’re working on 80,000 word manuscripts and have a deadline, there’s no waiting around for inspiration. What I do is put my ass in the chair and pound the keyboard. And if my day’s output is awful, which it too often is, I fix it.
How or why or what made you first put pen to paper to write?
When I was thirteen years old (back in 1956), my cousin and I, for reasons I no longer recall, decided to write an
essay. Although the subject of this essay was far too sophomoric for me to openly express, I was thoroughly hooked by the time I finished. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a writer. I thought I was a writer, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why the literary world didn’t throw its collective self at my feet. I’m still waiting.
The point, I suppose, is that I had a vocation strong enough to keep me at it for more than thirty years before I published my first novel.
You’ve been writing for over 50 years – how have you changed as an author in that time?
Except to say that I began, as almost every writer does, hoping to write the great American novel, then later came to my senses, I don’t have an answer to this question. In fact, I’m not sure that my basic approach to the mystery/thriller genre has changed. I only reread my own books when I’m in search of some detail important to a current work, a name, for example, or a location. Otherwise, it feels too much like opening my own coffin.
How has publishing changed since your first book in 1988?
At one time, before I broke into the game, an author could send an unsolicited manuscript to an editor with at least a small chance that it would be read. That was no longer possible by the time I completed my first book. Editors would no longer read an unsolicited manuscript, but agents – like the agent I acquired, Richard Curtis – still would, though reluctantly. Now most agents won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, even in digital form. You have to send a three-page query letter to an agent who receives hundreds every week. As for the industry itself, the digital age has obviously roiled the waters and I doubt that anyone really knows how it’ll play out. For example, will self-published authors find some way to separate the wheat from the chaff? There’s a lot of trash out there, but given the number or books being written, and the near impossibility of finding a mainstream publisher without a personal introduction, there must be good, and even great, self-published novels in print. (And just for the record, publishers deem your novel in print even if the only available version is digital.)
You’ve said you write by the seat of your pants, so I wondered what sort of advice would you would give to anyone just realising that is exactly the kind of writer they are? What are the pitfalls of it, in your experience?
When I claimed that I “write by the seat of my pants”, I was probably (I don’t recall the exact context) referring to an approach common to many of my peers. I don’t begin with an outline and don’t know where the story’s going to go. I get an idea and pound the keyboard, expecting the various plot developments to emerge as needed. The obvious pitfall is that I’ll run out of ideas in the middle of the book and have to abandon the manuscript, which has happened to me several times. Trust me on this, ditching a 35,000 word manuscript is a painful experience.
How does your research fit around your style of writing “by the seat of your pants” – do you research and then write, or do you write and then at the end, research?
I’ve been studying homicide investigation, the criminal justice system in general, and the New York Police Department in particular for the past thirty years. These days, most of my research is confined to small details, including the names of streets and the direction of traffic flow. Google Street View has become an invaluable tool. In a recent work – not yet published – I needed to set a chapter in a rundown neighbourhood in Paterson, NJ. If not for Street View, I would have had to rent a car and drive to Paterson. But to answer your question directly, I research as I write, commonly performing one or two Google searches in the course of a day’s work.
My basic approach remains the same, series or standalone. That said, both the main characters in the series I’m writing for Severn House, Boots Littlewood and Crazy Jill Kelly, began life as characters in short stories. The first two chapters in the first book of the series, Dancer in the Flames, comprise one of those stories. An NYPD detective, a fanatical Yankee fan, interrogates a bookie, his bookie, in the death of the bookie’s sister while watching the last few innings of a Yankees-Red Sox baseball game. (For you Aussies, the Yankees-Red Sox baseball rivalry stretches back for a hundred years.) The story lay in a drawer for several years before I wrote the novel.
Crazy Jill Kelly, prominent enough to be called a co-protagonist, had her own series of short stories. One of them was published in the collection, Queens Noir. I’ve published another on my website: www.stephensolomita.com.
Describe the research you undertake into your books in three words?
Efficient and thorough.
What do you think are the essential elements of a great procedural/mystery/thriller?
Dutch Leonard instructs writers to avoid detailed description, especially descriptions of characters. When I first came upon this advice, I was reading one of Lee Childs’ mysteries, specifically a three page description of several characters. Bottom line, there are few hard and fast rules. I have to know how it turns out. I have to know what happens next. Get the reader to that point and you’ve done your job, whether you’re writing a procedural or War and Peace. It doesn’t matter how you accomplish this task.
Who are your greatest influences as a writer?
First, as a writer, I’m self-taught. I didn’t begin by imitating other writers, and any major influences I may have had were strictly unconscious. As a teenager, I read the books I found around the house, the novels my parents read. Paperback bestsellers for the most part, crime novels predominated, with a number of international thrillers and family sagas thrown in for seasoning. Knock on any Door, The Hoods, A Stone for Danny Fisher. These are the books I remember. What I find curious, now that I think about it, is that the protagonists of all three were criminals. Perhaps that why some of my critics claim that I over-humanize my evil doers.
What does noir mean to you as a reader? Will you be adding Stephen to your reading list?