Monday, February 6, 2012

Interview with crime/thriller author J. Carson Black

J. Carson Black has done it all. Traditionally published author, struggling midlist writer, self-published novelist, and now one of the charter crime writers signed by Amazon's fledgling imprint, Thomas and Mercer. She represents thousands of writers to whom the success of a Connelly or an Eisler or a Child has at times has been tantalizingly close, and at other times, seemingly a pipe dream.

She's also one hell of a nice person, not to mention a talented and engaging writer.

Today is release day for her thriller, THE SHOP (Thomas and Mercer), and she agreed to set aside a few minutes and answer my questions, some of which even make sense:

After selling over 60,000 copies of your thriller, THE SHOP, you seem to be one of the new breed of overnight success stories: Someone who toiled for years as a novelist before hitting it big in electronic media. Can you describe your journey, and were you ever tempted to pack away your typewriter and go sell insurance?

I sold my first book in 1990. (I was three.) DARKSCOPE is a horror novel inspired by Peter Straub’s GHOST STORY and Stephen King’s THE SHINING, although of course it’s not in their league. I thought I’d make a million dollars (even though I was paid $2500) and from then on it would be clear sailing.

But instead of a Carnival cruise, I ended up on a carousel in the parking lot. I’d sell a book, then get kicked off the carousel. I’d get back on and after another couple of books get kicked off again. It was the ultimate game of Rope a Dope. It wasn’t just me. That happens a lot.

Each time I got kicked off I’d go nurse my wounds and try to become a better writer. Raising my game became a way of life. I wrote a thriller I’m very proud of, DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN. I sold it in a two-book deal to New American Library, and got a very nice paycheck for once. Naturally, I thought I’d made it to the Promised Land, and all I had to do was write more books for NAL. Then came The Great NAL Bloodbath of 2006, where any book that wasn’t hot romance, urban fantasy, vampire, or cozy mystery was purged from the roster. My third book, THE DEVIL’S HOUR, never made it into print. I’ll never forget my wonderful editor, who is responsible for the Signet Classics, giving me the bad news, then asking, “Do you know anyone who writes erotica?”

So I went back to the drawing board and came up with a thriller called THE SHOP, which managed to net me my top choice of an agent, one who could open every door in New York. Once again, I thought: this is it. Turns out, not so much. We were turned down by somewhere between thirty to thirty-five editors at every big publisher in NY. I lost count around thirty.

Meanwhile, my husband Glenn was getting the rights back to our books and putting them up on the internets. I said, “Are you kidding? Ebooks? That’s never gonna happen.”

Turns out, I was wrong. I’d been so busy chasing the Big Six publishers like Ahab after Moby Dick, I’d missed the bigger picture.

We put up DARKNESS, and I sold one book the first month and one book the second month. By December, we’d gotten up to a whopping fifteen books a month.

DARKNESS had a spike in March – surprised the heck out of me. It dropped back down, but suddenly I began to see that there was something to this ebook thing. So I told my agent I was going to put THE SHOP up on Amazon, which I did the last week of March.

You originally released THE SHOP last March. When did you begin to get an inkling you might be on to something special in terms of sales?

I had a lot on the line with this book. Had I improved as a writer? Was it better than the Laura Cardinal novels? Would it bomb? It sure bombed with the A-List editors in New York. We put it up at $3.97 at the end of March, but planned to take it down to 99 cents starting in April. It didn’t do very well. Two days before the end of March, we dropped the price. On April 2nd it took off.

This started me on a number-counting kick that kept me busy for three months. It was ridiculous, but I couldn’t stay away from the numbers. I was like a day trader. I forgot about being a writer and became a small businessperson with aspirations of grander things. Four of my books did very well--THE SHOP and the Laura Cardinal novels, DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN; DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, and THE DEVIL’S HOUR. But what goes up must come down (or, in amazon parlance, what goes down must go back up) and by August I was lamenting those golden days of summer. The spring and early summer saw me through the loss of two of our animals to old age and my year-long struggle with my new book, ICON, which I’d neglected for long stretches of time. I’d almost given up on the book when Thomas & Mercer showed interest. Let me tell you, I whipped that baby into shape in a hurry, and in doing so, rediscovered how much I loved it.

You recently signed with Amazon’s brand-new imprint, Thomas & Mercer, for the release of an updated version of THE SHOP, releasing today. Do you have any idea what to expect after selling so many copies of the first edition of the book?

I thought Thomas & Mercer would be different, and it is. They consult with me on everything—the cover, the cover copy, marketing, down to who I see as my main audience and what my personal style is (so the copy editor won’t mess it up). They hired a topflight developmental editor who worked me over good. I never had that at any of the traditional publishers. The marketing team knows what they’re doing and they’re with us every step of the way.

Judging from the other Thomas & Mercer books I’ve seen, THE SHOP should do well, but nothing’s a given. Thomas & Mercer is giving us a lot of marketing help and training, but it’s up to the book. Thankfully, I have my secret weapon: my husband (and publisher) Glenn. He guards the ramparts. He. Never. Sleeps.

Your second Thomas & Mercer book will be ICON, scheduled for release in June. Can you talk a little bit about that one?

Max Conroy, an A-list Hollywood actor, escapes a rehab center in the Arizona desert. He’s sick of his life and disillusioned by stardom. He sees this as a chance to get back to his roots. A couple of things, though. One, he’s suffering from hallucinations and has lost pieces of his memory, and two: somebody’s coming to kill him. Only one person seems to care whether Max lives or dies—Bajada County Sheriff’s deputy Tess McCrae. Tess has an “autobiographical memory”---she remembers virtually everything she sees.

What is a typical writing day for you? Do you set goals in terms of word count? Pages written? Hours spent playing Scrabble when you should be writing?

I know how to goof off so I have to guard against it. “Procrastinate” is my middle name. I’m an early riser so I have to hit the book first thing in the morning and go. When I’m writing a book, I write at least 750 words a day, every day. (If it’s good enough for James Lee Burke, it’s good enough for me.) Once I start writing, it’s unlikely I’ll stop at 750 words. But it’s a bite-sized piece that I can commit to getting down on paper every day. I do have to take time-outs for continued plotting, since I don’t outline the whole book.

I like Elizabeth George’s way of writing a novel. She comes up with several scenes--say, six to ten of them. She outlines some briefly, deciding on point of view, what the point of the scene is and how it moves the story along, what the character is feeling, a description of where they are and what they’re doing or about to do. She doesn’t go farther into the book than those scenes—which go out ahead just enough to keep her from hitting a dead end. I try to do that, although I’m not always successful.

Sometimes when I’m really stuck, I work on a jigsaw puzzle. There's something about physically putting pieces in place, having to work one section and then another, spotting a piece and realizing it will fit—I think it helps, subconsciously.

At what age did you first realize you wanted to write books? Was there any one person most influential in guiding or inspiring you to make that decision?

I was just a little kid when I started “writing and illustrating” books. I think I was four when I started a story about the Easter Bunny—crayon scribbled on the backs of my father’s old test papers (he was a schoolteacher). The title was THE EASTER EEG. I wrote a ton of Chapter Ones, with titles like HOTSPUR: A STALLION, or DARK MISTRAL OF WHISPERING PINES.

I read a lot in school. When I read Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, I wanted to write a book like that, to own something that wonderful and say I’d produced a book. He made me really want to be a writer. Stephen King also inspired me, which led to the writing of DARKSCOPE many years later.

What are you reading right now? What’s next on your “To Be Read” list?

I just started Lee Child’s THE AFFAIR. I haven’t had as much time to read as I would like, but finally, with ICON almost in the can, I get to indulge. V IS FOR VENGEANCE (Grafton), THE DROP (Connelly), TAKEN (Crais), VICTIMS (Jonathan Kellerman), THE JAGUAR (T. Jefferson Parker), THE HUNTER (John Lescroart), NIGHT VISION (Randy Wayne White)—these are some of the books I plan to read in the coming months. I try to read the best in my genre and learn from them. I buy physical books and then I write in them: “Look how he did that! He set it up perfectly.” I also plan to read your book, THE LONELY MILE; M.H. Sargent’s books, Dani Amore, Robert Bidinotto, to name a few of the indie and small press authors on my list. Traditional publishing doesn’t have a monopoly on good writing.

If you could pick one character someone else has written that you wish were your creation, who would it be and why?

Gus in LONESOME DOVE. Or Call in LONESOME DOVE. Damn it! I can’t decide!

Hypothetical situation #1: You are marooned on a desert island, but before your ship sinks, you can grab one book of your choosing. What book would that be?

LONESOME DOVE. (Are we beginning to see a pattern here?)

Hypothetical situation #2: You are given a choice by the Gods of Publishing. Your books can either bring you tremendous monetary wealth or they can be universally acclaimed as outstanding by the critics. Which do you choose, and why?

Both and neither. I try (often unsuccessfully) to ignore what critics say, whether or not they think a book of mine is good, because ultimately, it’s only one person’s opinion. I’d like enough money to stave the wolf from my door and be comfortable, but I’m doubtful my lifestyle would change if I had a lot of money. Mainly, I just want to write. Writing isn’t just a profession. It’s not even a choice. There’s something that makes me want to write, and if someone took that away from me I’d lose all sense of identity.

Thanks for taking the time to visit A Thrill a Minute. Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with my thousands hundreds dozens handful of readers?

Does a hot tip on a horse count? I’m betting the filly Royal Delta to win the Dubai World Cup in March.


THE SHOP releases today from Thomas and Mercer and is available here. I read it a few months ago and highly recommend it. You can also preorder ICON here, or check out J. Carson Black's other books here.


DonnaGalanti said...

Allan, this is a very informative and insightful interview...appreciate the candor in the struggle revealed here by JCarson! And it speaks to all the changes happening so fast in the industry. Congrats to JCarson fo sticking with it and achieving success now! I hope it continues.

J. Carson Black said...

Thanks, Donna. Things really are happening fast. I don't know where we'll end up, but it's been wonderful getting my books in the hands of readers.

Al Leverone said...

Hey, Donna, thanks for taking the time to check it out. I read THE SHOP before she signed with T&M and have no doubt whatsoever her career will move straight ahead from here on; it's a really fun read. I'm looking forward to ICON, too, this summer.

J. Carson Black said...

Thanks, Al, for having me! - Maggy

DaniAmore said...

Great interview, Allan. Love J. Carson, too!

Al Leverone said...

Hey Dani, thanks for checking it out - she's great, isn't she?

Robert Bidinotto said...

What a terrific interview, Allan!

Maggie, I'm supposed to interview you soon, and this guy hasn't left very many unanswered questions on the table. Yikes! I'd better get busy thinking of new things to ask you. And congratulations on your much-deserved, long-awaited success.