Thursday, May 10, 2018

Alex Segura: The BLACKOUT Interview

By Steve Weddle

The lovely and talented Alex Segura did a stint as a regular blogger here at Do Some Damage. He's written a number of comic books, as well as the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series. Pete is back in BLACKOUT, the fourth in the series. 

In BLACKOUT, startling new evidence in a cold case that's haunted Pete drags the exiled PI back to his hometown of Miami. But as Pete and his partner Kathy Bentley delve deeper into the unsolved murder, they become entangled in Miami’s obsession with a charismatic and dangerous cult leader and his even more menacing followers. At the same time, the detectives find themselves at odds with a Florida politician’s fixation on wealth, fame and power. It all converges in the heart of the Magic City and Pete is left scrambling to pick up the pieces—or die trying. 

I recently fired up the email machine to chat with Alex about his new book.

Steve Weddle: The relationship between Pete Fernandez and Kathy Bentley has evolved over the books, and it’s been compared to the pairing of Dennis Lehane's McKenzie / Gennaro. Is that a fair comparison? How do you see the dynamic between your pair?

Alex Segura: I think it's fair, and I'll never dodge a Lehane comparison. Those books were hugely influential for me - the way Lehane shows that relationships, romantic and friendly, can be sloppy and wallow in the gray areas. I didn't know Kathy was going to be such a key player until near the end of SILENT CITY, when Pete finds her and she just jumps off the page. But even back then, you know there's a connection between them. So I put that in my back pocket and let the next two books unfurl, and they developed this really strong bond as partners and friends that I found myself enjoying as a reader and writer, which is rare. But I knew I had to shake things up in BLACKOUT, because while DANGEROUS ENDS, the third and most recent novel, finds them settling into a bit of a happy ending, they were still on the run - there was stuff bubbling under the surface. So, without giving too much away, I pivoted the relationship in a direction I think people wanted, but yanked it back in kind of a cruel way. It made it more interesting to me, and at the end of the day, that's my gauge for whether to write something one way or another - would I get a kick out of it as a reader? I get bored easily when things are happy and linear. I like gray areas and messy situations. I see them as eternal partners - whether that's professional, friendly or romantic depends on the circumstances, but in the same way Miami will always be a part of the series, so will Kathy. She's Pete's co-conspirator and as much of a star to the series as he is.
Image swiped from
SW: One of the characteristics of the Pete Fernandez novels has been music as setting. Have you built scenes around songs or do you match the soundtrack up after you know what you want to happen?

AS: I think about music a lot when writing or when thinking about the novels. It's like creating a soundtrack to a movie in my head. Sometimes these references pop up in the actual book - whatever Pete is listening to in the car or at home, a nod to an artist - or in the playlists I put together as I write. Sometimes both. Like Bosch or Spenser or other iconic detectives, I wanted Pete to be a music fan - to unwind and think a case over while playing a favorite record. I've imbued him with similar tastes to mine because a) it was easier, not gonna lie and b) I felt like a lot of other books I was reading defaulted to jazz or older music - which is fine - but I wanted Pete to feel a little different, more vibrant - in the same vein as Nick Stefanos or his contemporaries.  

SW: You've had organized crime and gangs and more in the previous books, and you've got a cult in this one. How much fun was it to write about a cult and did you find yourself tempted to go over the top?

AS: That's a great question. Yeah, I had to really keep it in check, because so many cults are known for their insane methods or some other, secondary fact and the cult I was creating for BLACKOUT needed to be more disturbing than that. So that's why it evolved into a faded, "defunct" cult that ends up being not so dormant by the time Pete crosses paths with them. I wanted it to seem like they were running a skeleton crew as opposed to being this robust, well-funded operation. In my research, I found that a lot of these cults, at least the ones that had long stretches, started out actually doing some good - helping the poor and undocumented, feeding the homeless, that sort of thing. Then there was a major wrong turn at some point, and a lot of the members felt trapped, tied to the rocket, basically. I used that as a template - this was a group that included some good people that were corrupted and morphed into something much more menacing, then went away and sprung back once they discover Pete meddling in something that could hurt them. 

SW: How has Miami changed since you started writing about it?

AS: It's very different. The landscape has changed. Neighborhoods that were not great are now gentrified and hip. Wynwood didn't exist, really, when I lived there. The Miami I write is as true to the city as I can be, but is also "my" version of Miami. Places that maybe have closed still exist in my version. I get down there often because my parents live there and I have friends there, so I use that time as research along with socializing - I need to keep up with the changing skyline, honestly, and it's not easy. But as long as I do my research and stick to the things I'm familiar with, along with some great beta readers, I end up okay. 

SW: We've see Pete change over the course of these past few novels, but how have you changed as a writer? Would Pete be a different character if you started writing him now?

AS: I think so. While you see hints of what the series is going to become in Silent City, it's still very much a linear PI novel, and while I think it's different, it also honors the genre and its tropes clearly. I don't think I'd write it the same way now, as you can probably see from the books that follow SC, which isn't a diss on PI novels, I'm just saying I don't really approach the Pete books that way. I'm aware it's a series and he's a private investigator, so there are some things that have to be there - a crime, a mystery, etc. But I also just want to write about whatever is interesting to me in the moment, and I'll find a way to make that work within the framework of Pete I've created, so I'm engaged in the writing, whereas with the first book I was very much thinking "how do I add to this pantheon of private investigators? What does this series need and how can I make it different?" And, of course, I'd also like to think I'm better. I don't know what other authors do, but I don't reread my older books. I'll flip through them to reference something or make sure my info is correct, but I don't have the desire to sit back and crack open one of my books - they're done. I'm on to the next thing and that's what I'm interested in: how can I make the next book something else, something more than the ones that came before. 

SW: Whether a book or movie or TV show, a series can be tricky because people are reluctant to drop in after the story has started and, if you're already halfway through a season, who wants to go back and start all over? With that in mind. how easy is it to jump right into this series with this new book? Would you recommend a new reader start with four and go back? Or start with the first book and work forward?

AS: I always read series from the beginning. That's just me. I like to start at ground zero, or the author's desired ground zero, to learn about the characters and their world. That said, I've started series in the middle sometimes, picking up he "most acclaimed" book. But I always end up going back to the start. But I write each Pete book as a standalone, with the idea that it's going to be someone's first, because, if I'm doing my job, you're going to get new readers with each new book. I try my best to recap clearly and concisely, without bogging down the current book's narrative, because that, to me trumps all - the new book wins all. That's what matters most - making it good. But I do want readers of the series to feel like they're getting something special for being around since the first one, and on the flipside, I don't want new readers to feel lost or, even worse, bogged down by exposition. It's a tightrope, I won't lie. I've had beta readers say "Whoa, you just spoiled the whole series here!" And I get that, but I also think readers are savvy enough to figure out that they're coming into things late and hopefully they'll enjoy it enough to go back and read 'em all, even if they know where Pete will end up. 

SW: I've seen authors spend a month high on a good review and wallow in the mire after a bad one. How do you deal with reviews? Do you even look?

AS: Yeah, I look. I have a publicity background, which is a huge help to me when promoting the books because I'm a total ham when it comes to interviews or what-have-you, but that also means I'm vigilant about coverage, including reviews. I see them pretty fast, and I don't have the self-control to not read them. Unfortunately, I feel like most authors are wired to dwell on bad reviews much longer than they should, whereas with the good ones it's like empty calories - like potato chips. You want another one because you're still hungry. I have gotten better, though. If I do get a bad review I get over it faster, and I try to appreciate the fact that the person took time out of their lives to read the book. Few things are for everyone, mystery novels included. Same with good reviews - I give myself a day to enjoy it then I move on, because people/fans forget about the good ones as fast as the bad ones, I think. The one lesson I've learned, over time, is that the best solution to any kind of review/promotional or perceptional book problem is to take a step back and talk about someone else's work. I try to plug authors all the time because it's a tough racket. There's value in recognizing good work, and I try to spread the love as much as possible. It also helps me, selfishly, because it gets my mind off whatever minor thing is stressing me out in relation to publishing - whether it's a review or potential review or whatever.

SW: I've heard that the key to marketing your product is to have other people break your news, so that you're not guilty of blatant self-promotion. What is something helpful to your author career that you've learned from your marketing/publicity career? What is something authors misunderstand here?

AS: Well, first off - there's no magic bullet, no single review or outlet that will "make or break" you. There's a handful of spots - New York Times, NPR, etc. - that will definitely move copies, but at the end of the day, it's about word of mouth, which is this vague hard to quantify thing. You need to get your books in the hands of the right people - tastemakers that will give the promotional cycle a life of its own. As a publicist, you're always happy when a PR hit you worked on happens. You're even happier when people you didn't even pitch start reviewing the book or asking for copies. It means the work resonated, and it all goes back to the book. Write a good book first and foremost, then worry about the window dressing.
Another thing that I think about a lot, especially when I'm careening toward release date and stressing about every little thing - plug other writers. Spread the love. It's the best tonic to the inside baseball publishing hamster wheel.

SW: Now that you've got a stack of books under your belt, what do you wish you'd known with your debut?

AS: I guess I'd tell myself to enjoy it more - events, panels, the writing. We can get so caught up in "what's next?" that we don't think about what's happening. It's something I've gotten better at, for sure, but I remember a lot of early events or things where I wasn't in the moment, and that's not ideal.
I'd also just tell myself to write the book I want to read, because no one else is, and that makes it unique - which is what you want your work to be: compelling and different.

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