Friday, August 17, 2012

Interview with Debut Author Jim Wilsky

For the past couple of years, I've been posting interviews with authors I admire on a semi-regular basis. I've been privileged to bother ask questions of Lawrence Block, Robert Gregory Browne, CJ Lyons, and many others, some of whom you are probably familiar with, others you may not be.

Today I'm really excited to feature a new kid, a debut author who is older than me, and that's not an easy feat to accomplish. Jim Wilsky has written some kick-ass short fiction in the past, but never got around to writing a novel. Until now.

He has teamed up with veteran Frank Zafiro to produce BLOOD ON BLOOD, a blistering, profane noir/crime fiction effort that any fan of the genre absolutely must check out. I was lucky enough to read an ARC of BLOOD ON BLOOD, and I tore through it in about three days, diving into it whenever I possibly could.

BLOOD ON BLOOD reminds me of the best of Tom Piccirilli and Les Edgerton, and if you know how much I admire those two guys, you know what a compliment that is.

Jim Wilsky is my guest today, and he agreed to answer any question I threw at him. Here's the result:

You’re a pretty prolific short story writer, having placed tales in any number of outstanding publications, including this nasty little gem in one of my favorites, Shotgun Honey. What makes an accomplished short story writer decide to move on to novels?

Well thank you Allan and thanks even more for letting me do this interview. To borrow from your blog name this is a thrill a minute for me.

I have to say though that as far as me being prolific – well, I can’t even see the front of the prolific line from where I’m standing. Much appreciated, but I sure don’t think I’m in that category, not by a long shot. The outstanding publications mention is absolutely spot on though. There are some great homes for short stories and what talent there is these days. The editors of these publications make that all possible. Those same editors are extremely talented writers as well. I have been lucky enough to get to know them and learn from them. I’ve just been very fortunate and early on I submitted and inquired so many times that I think they finally just said Okay, OKAY, we’ll accept the damn story.

I’ve been writing quite a while but it’s been on again and off again for many years. Now it’s on again at a pretty heavy pace. For me anyway. Throughout this entire time though, the thought and dream of writing a book has always been there for me. When I say the dream, I don’t take that word lightly. It seemed only a dream forever, as time and life as a non-published author just continued to click along. I really don’t think there was any definite point in time where I firmly decided okay this is it, but I had a lot of constant support and encouragement along the way to give it a try one day. Then along came a book idea and an offered writing project made by a very good friend/associate of mine Frank Zafiro. Some more persuasion/encouragement and then bang the starting gun went off and away we went.

Your debut, BLOOD ON BLOOD, just released from Snubnose Press, was co-written with veteran Frank Zafiro. That’s a pretty unconventional way to write your first novel. What was that process like?

To be honest with you there is only one person I would have ever tried this with. It had to be Frank or this thing wouldn’t have even been considered – or hell, offered to me, for that matter. I am not what you would call the most cocky writer around. I’m just very hard on my writing and that’s as it should be, but there’s a little fear mixed in too. Fear of acceptance I suppose, or dread that everybody will read something of mine and unanimously think what the hell was that supposed to be? It’s very odd with me and writing, it’s not like I’m Mr. Trepidation about other things in life. I’ve always been outgoing, foolishly confident and simply an idiot when it comes to accepting challenges.

For me, writing isn’t like sports or business or even raising kids. When somebody reads something of mine, it’s like I look down and notice that I’m not wearing any clothes. There is a baring it all feeling for me there that is tough for a normally confident person. It’s been said many times but writing is just so personal. People are looking through my windows dammit and there are no drapes to pull. Anyway, I’m my own worst critic, half paranoid and cynical about my ability to write something of value that a few people might enjoy. Good example? This interview. Am I nervous about it and how it will read?…Oh, hell yes.

So after that little schizophrenic confession, I’d say that with anyone else but Frank Zafiro, no matter how talented, accommodating and helpful they were, I would have been very skeptical and worried that my work would not measure up in terms of quality and/or I wouldn’t be able to keep up. There would be something that I’d just be sure to screw up.

With him though, it’s different. He’s always been positive and always supportive of my writing but he also is able to tell me in a casual convincing way, ‘oh bullshit, you’re a writer, so write’. I trust his misplaced judgement, value his help and appreciate the hell out of the friendship we’ve forged. Frank and I were somehow introduced or met on line years ago. How many years ago, or when and how it happened, I have no idea. Main thing is, it did happen and without that chance meeting, my first book would probably still be waiting to happen.

We went into it prepared with a damn good shell of a story, pretty well defined characters and a solid but flexible story outline that we constantly adjusted. We kept a lot of open room in the outline. We knew that we would have to expand and collapse the story at times depending on the story pace, our two different characters and our writing styles. We also went with 1st person and we each took one of the two main characters. This was also fairly daunting for me. We alternated the chapters though which always kept it fresh for me as a new chapter of mine would be finished and sent, then I would receive the next chapter from Frank. Once we got that rhythm going, it flowed. It just hummed along. It flowed so well that I was positive I was writing garbage. It shouldn’t come that easy, it shouldn’t be enjoyable…I mean, should it? Frank told me to just shut-up and keep writing. We had momentum and fed off each other.

Were there times during the writing of the book where you wanted to go in one direction and your co-author wanted to go in another? How were these types of issues resolved? Any bloodshed?

Well, I have finally reached the conclusion that Frank is an absolute ass. I mean that, I’m sorry, but there it is.

Seriously though, there were only two fork in the road type occasions. Pivotal points in the story, where we had to lay things out on the table and decide on where we were going, or how we were going to get there. I believe we only had two phone calls the entire time we wrote this novel. Long calls, but only two, the rest all email. I look back on that and think damn – that’s pretty amazing - I think. But him and I read each other well. Really well. We’re also a lot alike personally I believe. Like hearing someone’s tone of voice and inflection, we seem to be able to read each other’s tone. As we were writing, Frank had confidence in our plan and that our combined work would be good. Maybe better than good. I appreciated the hell out of that confidence he had in me. It was classic coach psychology. You don’t want to let them down. We just flat clicked as writers.

The last third of the book, as in almost every book or novel, was crucial. Things were really cooking, coming to a boil and we were looking for that perfect set up/ending. I don’t know that there’s such a thing as perfect but you gotta try right? We had other considerations too, like a sequel or possibly a series. At the end of the day, hey, he’s a pro and I’m like some goofy walk-on in college trying to make the team. Let’s just say I listened. A lot. No bloodshed whatsoever, although I’m sure he thought about where he could hide the body.

Talk a little bit about BLOOD ON BLOOD. It’s billed as a hard-boiled chase novel about half-brothers racing to recover missing diamonds – accurate?

Yes, I think so. That’s a pretty good synopsis. I’m terrible at that. Paul Brazill asked me to write a 25 words or less billing and what I wrote sounded cheesy, like I was trying to be too damn cute or something. For me it’s very hard to wrap it up, but hell you have to. Otherwise, the billing you write up is too long, too descriptive, too something. Attention spans ain’t what they used to be, including my own. You better hit somebody right in the nose with something. A hard, quick jab.

Since I’m a wordy bastard though, I’ll add that I liked that we chose Chicago as the setting for this story. Neither one of us are natives but I’m very familiar with that town and it doesn’t get enough stories. We felt that it was an excellent fit for what we had going on. So many possibilities there. We had a great brother thing going on but we also had some strong ethnic play mixed in. We all know about the distinct neighborhoods and burroughs of NYC but if you’ve ever been to Chicago and I mean really been there, you know that Chicago is second to nobody in the wonderful rich ethnic stew that makes up every major city. And last, the brother that I had was a great character and I had a ball with it. Known some guys like that, not to that extreme but I wasn’t writing blind that’s for sure.

I see you’re hard at work now on the followup to BLOOD ON BLOOD, again to be written with Frank Zafiro. Is this a partnership you see continuing? Any plans to work on a solo novel?

It will continue for as long as he wants to partner up on a project. He writes a lot of books and he’s very good at that, so believe me, it’s his call all the way. Hey, I’m in if he calls. Because of him, Blood on Blood was an absolute blast to write and I’m hoping we’ll get some positive reaction and a good acceptance. We do have some plans for future work together and unless he wakes up to the obvious mistake he’s made with me, or the old warrant out there on me gets noticed, it’ll happen.

Blood on Blood has also allowed me to think very seriously about a solo novel. Not only think about it, but I’m definitely going to make that jump. I’d say about a year from now if I was guessing…and I am. For me, this will be a damn leap. Actually, the equivalent length of an Olympic triple jump event.

What’s easier to write, a novel or a short story? Which is more rewarding?

I’ll answer the last question first. Here’s the way I look at that. I think a story is a story and I love them both. I see them as two different kids. One is older, taller and has more miles, more backstory to tell, more experiences to call on and talk about. Periods of action and then not so much, times that were fast and slow and in between.

The other is younger, shorter but has a certain energetic burst, a quickness. There is an urgency and a little less to tell maybe but it’s in your face. Excited and exciting with a faster pace but still a full story.

As far as easier to write? Wow. I think a better way to put it might be which is harder to write. In some ways, I think the short story is more difficult. You need to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. You still have to have a full story though, so every word is crucial and the dialogue doesn’t have the luxury to be drawn out but it has to be meaningful. With a novel you don’t have those issues but you have pace and rhythm and continuance worries, action or lack of, the middle book blues and the dreaded premature ending.

So my answer is neither and both. I’ll take the vague/easy/cheap way out anytime. But it also depends on who you are and what you cut your teeth on. I know of people, and have read about authors, who have basically never written anything but novels or like me have the opposite experience with shorts. There is a certain level of comfort that comes with familiarity.

You’re one of the few first-time novelists older than I was when my first book came out, so I’m allowed to ask this: What took you so long?

Yes, you are allowed but no one under 40 can ask that. Great question too. I think as I mentioned earlier I’ve always had a little devil on my shoulder saying ‘no way’ on novel, but I also have been writing for a very long time so in a way that kept me from rusting out. My first story was probably at about age 8 or 9 but you have to remember, which I know you do, this thing I’m typing on didn’t exist. A typewriter or just a pad of paper and a number 2 pencil. The medium of the internet that we all take for granted didn’t exist. Neither did the opportunities. There were library cards for crying out loud and rolodex files to check books out and shut the hell up signs (I still miss all of that and it’s not all nostalgia based). I think there was true value in going to a Library. As a young kid like so many others, I was writing to myself many times.

Then life started changing a little. My kids got older and time became a little more free. I still have a career and still need to provide for my family, college, etc. of course. That has always been the number 1 priority for me. You live through your kids. I believe that strongly. Nothing different or special there, millions of other people have the same view or outlook. But people are different too, they look at themselves and the world differently. Others maybe don’t have a family or kids yet, or they never will through choice or chance. All of it figures into writing. If you write early, you take it seriously, then you do what you can when you can afford to. So the short answer I suppose is life. Life is what took me so long. And that, that’s a good thing I think. Again, a wonderful question Allan.

Is there any one author or group of authors you look to for inspiration?

Another good question. I love Western writers. They have a certain passion that I admire and a real dedication to a genre that isn’t always tops on reading list of the masses. I’ve always felt a good solid western is one of the toughest stories there is to write. Writing authentic and realistic are damn hard things to do with a western story.

Demographically, I value guys like you and others in our age group. When you’re in that age bracket and you can relate to others it can be a true inspiration to keep writing. Use our life experiences and celebrate those lifespans instead of shunning them. At the same time, the current crop of young writers is so talented and so damn deep in numbers that I think it pushes me. I mean that in a good way. Makes me compete. Work harder. Gives me a better sense of urgency and makes me realize the time I lost when I was younger. I don’t think I could have matched them back then anyway though. It seems that the younger writers are just more mature and accomplished now. Could be a generational thing - or it might just be that I’m a dinosaur.

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

Well I was lucky enough to get an early read of City of Heretics by Heath Lowrance, published by Snubnose Press. Wow, it just blew me away. Never stopped until I finished the damn thing. Also, just finished The Innocent by David Baldacci. I like Baldacci, like his style and have right from the beginning. Then Pulp Ink 2 is out, a short story collection with an unbelievable author list. Chris Rhatigan and Nigel Bird did a fantastic job of putting that together. This should be strong, very strong. Then there is some book called Revenant that sounds mildly interesting.

Hypothetical situation #1: You’re shipwrecked on a desert island, but before fleeing your sinking ship, are able to grab any one book of your choosing. What book do you take, and why?

This is going to sound very odd but then again it makes sense. Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The island tie in one thing but for some reason this book hit me at just the right time and age. I was young but it had real meaning. I just barely ‘got it’ at the time because of my age, but I got it.

That story has never left me. Written in 1954, the message is ageless, the depiction of our human nature is a bulls-eye and it could easily be set in 2054 or 2154, if we last that long. Somethings will never change.

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?

That’s an evil question Allan. You really ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Hey, okay, here’s what I think. It depends on the author. Authors are people and people are different. You won’t ever find me dissing a popular bestselling author. A bestselling author who by the way writes books that people f’n buy and buy a lot. They write in a way that rings bells for readers. Whether or not that happens because of reputation, or because everybody else is buying it, or because everybody is reading it in the airport, or Oprah likes it…or because his last ten books did the same thing. I hear people say the masses just don’t appreciate good writing and the masses just jump on the bandwagon. I got news for the gifted ones, if you think you have the corner on brilliant, deep writing well that might be true – for some people.

Because you have preferences and appreciate a particular writing style or content doesn’t mean you’re right and others are wrong, but it does mean you have an opinion. All I know is that ‘good’ books are as varied and different as ‘good’ food. Sorry but that’s the truth.

I could find you a minimum of ten paintings, that in my opinion, beat the living hell out of the Mona Lisa. I have a little art, and the appreciation for it, in my background so I’m not Jed Clampett studying art on the wall and cocking my head sideways. It also means that the Mona Lisa is still a helluva piece of work.

If you write what’s true to you, what you’re proud of, then that’s the choice for me. Hey, if I by some serious (almost impossible) stroke of luck, happen to sell some books with a story I love then I’m good. I’m all good in fact, because I don’t find money to be necessarily evil. I sure as hell find some people with money to be evil. I don’t measure illuminated critics opinions anymore higher than I do everyday readers buying books.

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?

The pleasure was, and is, all mine. I really mean that and I very much appreciate you extending an opportunity like this. Also Allan, if you have a handful of readers, that’s a pretty big hand. It also means, doing the math comparison, somehow I have a negative 4 readers.

As far as words of wisdom, man have you got the wrong guy…However, I’ve always been a big quote guy. I love reading quotes from people in history. Sometimes they are misquoted or outright taken from someone else and credited to the wrong person. There is one that I’ve always liked, because it’s honest and true, and those two words have to be at least part of the definition of wisdom. I’m relatively sure it comes from Carl Sandburg and he said, “I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” It sure as hell fits me and probably some others too. Thanks again Allan.


BLOOD ON BLOOD was released by Snubnose Press on August 4. It's priced very reasonably at $4.99 and is well worth your money, not to mention your time.