Thursday, August 9, 2018

Interview with Stephen Mack Jones

By David Nemeth

Back at the beginning of 2017, Stephen Mack Jones's "August Snow" was published by Soho Crime. It took some time for me to get to it, okay, over a year, and damn was it worth it. I wrote that it was "a fine private detective novel filled with great writing and a timely mystery." If you haven't had a chance to read it, buy it or check it out of your local library. You will not be disappointed.

Stephen Mack Jones
David: A recent review or interview called your book a “sleeper hit.” I don’t know about the hit part, it was much more of a hidden gem. But a lot of that has changed now with the awards: winning the Hammett Prize for Crime Fiction and nominated for the 2018 Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel and Strand Magazine Critics Awards Best First Novel. How did you come to terms with writing what you know was a good novel and then hearing only crickets to the buzz that “August Snow” is getting today?

Steve: I came to peaceful terms with the sound of crickets early on, D.  Frankly, those sounds are the only way I can focus on the job at hand and that’s to create vivid, emotionally engaging stories.  I think any writer who puts the noise of fame, fortune and millions of cheering worldwide fans at the forefront of their storytelling is bound to be sorely disappointed. To be honest with you it was enough for me when my agent called to tell me a publisher made an offer for AUGUST SNOW! I mean, the offer wasn’t nearly enough to nab me that little six-bedroom champagne-and-shrimp shack on the coast of Ibiza—but, come on! Somebody wanted to buy words I’d strung together! And in a traditional publishing world that’s becoming more top-genre exclusive, bestseller-driven and, in some ways, myopic in terms of creative investment, that to me was a major accomplishment. The traditional way to the bookstore—producing the story, finding an agent, trusting that agent to find the right publisher for your work and pocketing an advance—can be a long, hard slog. Fewer and fewer folks find they have the patience for that slog in an age of digital upload and e-book download instant gratification. The traditional way to the bookstore is like choosing to be Sisyphus—the query letters, the rejections, all in an effort to push that 80,000-word manuscript up and over the crest of the hill. I guess my point is, I was well prepared and frankly happy to have sales of the book top out with my mom, brother and maybe a cousin or in-law. At a family discount, of course. Enough copies to say, “Look! I did it! I finally pushed the rock over the hill!” That the book is getting “buzz” these days—curtesy of Soho’s marketing efforts, the Hammett Award and other nominations, and film interest—just gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and gratitude.

David: You come to the novel writing game late in life––you’re giving a 50-something blogger some hope. How has your age helped or hindered you with the publication of “August Snow”?

Steve: I consider myself the poster-elder for AARP and second careers, man! Listen. Everybody knows this is a youth-obsessed culture—and that youth obsession puts a lot of pressure on a person to “succeed” by a certain age. If you haven’t reached your creative and economic life-goals by 25 or 30, then your dreams and ambitions are just fodder for the scrap heap. Might as well just settle in to being a cost-accountant to feed the baby and meet the mortgage. I used to feel that pressure and its awful. It's especially awful if you’re a college-educated minority and you’re hitting walls and pitfalls set up only for you. Something happened to me when I hit forty; I found I really didn’t give a shit about anybody else’s limited timeframe for my success! Success for me after forty simply became a matter of staying true to myself, my family and my writing—whatever came of it. And that’s the attitude that helped me stay true to the storytelling of AUGUST SNOW.

David: The character of August Snow is half African-American and half Mexican American. He grew up outside of both cultures and is always having to prove himself. When we meet Snow, he’s an ex-cop who has turned on crooked cops and now he’s out of that group. In the creation of Snow, you’ve seemed to have isolated him by making it difficult to be part of a group. I thought writers were supposed to like their protagonist. What did Snow ever do to you?

Steve: August and me, we cool, D! Seriously, though, isolation is sometimes the best way to find out who you truly are. Mentally, spiritually and physically. Isolation can help separate the wheat from the chaff so that you become stronger and possess more clarity of purpose. August has certainly walked through fires. And in walking through those fires he has more clarity of who he is: He’s a guy who doesn’t see himself as an ethnic anomaly or racial dichotomy; rather he embraces the best of his two familial cultures. And while his experiences as a Marine and as a Detroit cop may have tested him morally and ethically, he found a way to incorporate the best of both into his personal way of life. So, yeah—I may have knocked him around a bit in AUGUST SNOW and maybe a little bit more in the upcoming LIVES LAID AWAY, but I think he’s a better man for it. Did that sound like something a strict Catholic father would say about a son?

David: Before writing “August Snow”, you’ve written poetry and plays as well as read extensively. At the beginning of the book, you name drop a lot of writers, but one struck me and that was Rudolph Fisher. I have since gone out and purchased “The Conjure-Man Dies”. Can you talk about your writing influences and, in particular, what influenced the writing of “August Snow”?

Steve: You got a couple minutes? I mean, ‘cause a whole bunch of folks have made an impact on me over the years. Everybody from Ray Bradbury, Robert Silverberg, Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin to Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert B. Parker and Walter Mosely. And then there are the poets. Always the poets! Frederico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Rainier Maria Rilke and Seamus Haney. Reading poetry is where I learned—and continue to learn—the weight, color, music, and nuances of words. In some ways, I’d like to think of August Snow as the love-child between Robert B. Parker and Octavio Paz. (That image is going to be in your head for a very—long—time.)

David: I read that your father, who is in his nineties, is a prolific reader. What was it like handing him a copy of your book “August Snow”? And, did he like it?

Steve: My father passed away in 2003 at the age of eighty.  Thirteen years before August Snow. That being said he had an insatiable appetite for reading. From William Shakespeare and George Eliot to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Studs Turkel and The Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a blue-collar guy who quit school in the tenth grade so he could work to financially help out his mom and dad, brothers and sisters.  My mother is, at the age of ninety-three, still a prolific reader.  I’ll never forget visiting her maybe two, three years ago.  She spent nearly an hour regaling me with the many reasons I should read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Abraham Lincoln biography TEAM OF RIVALS!  Yeah, to be honest with you, I was a bit nervous about my mom reading the book. She’s Catholic and a Puritan at heart. Alcohol and profanity do not cross her lips. Conversely, alcohol and profanity are familiar companions of August’s.  So, yeah—I was afraid she might say, “Your father and I spent a lot of money on your education—and this is how you squander it? Writing about alcohol and guns and sex, never mind the profanity!”  But her reaction after reading the book was very positive and in line with what I’ve heard from a number of other people:  She enjoyed the story, the intrigue and the relationships that are built between the neighbors on Markham Street in Mexicantown. And the food I mention throughout the book made her very hungry!

David: There’s a lot of love for Detroit in “August Snow”. As much as Snow’s life would have been better in Europe where he escaped to after leaving the police force, he felt the pull to come back to the city. For many of us who have only seen news footage of abandoned buildings and talk of debt, can you tell us what makes Detroit so special?

The GM Renaissance Center in Detroit

The national news media seems stuck in a mid-to-late-sixties time-loop when it comes to their shorthand assessment of Detroit. They love the pious sound of their own studio voices as they spout unctuous pity for Detroit and its residents: The pervasive poverty. The “ruin porn” of burnt out houses and shuttered factories. The unbridgeable black-white divide. The incompetent and corrupt mismanagement of city government.  The only thing missing from their nightly news assessment of Detroit is black-and-white footage of a concrete wall topped with razor wire and the Stasi scanning the area for defectors trying to escape to Chicago!  Yes, there’s poverty and burnt out houses and shuttered factories—but not of the bizarre all-encompassing magnitude the news media might have you think. To begin with, the city that gave you Motown in the ‘60s and ‘70s has since given the world EDM (Electronic Dance Music) and Techno in the ‘90s and the 21st century. I very much doubt you’d have Diplo, The Crystal Method, Massive Attack, Deadmau5 or Koan Sound if you didn’t first have Kevin Saunderson or Juan Atkins or Derrick May. Artists living on the edges of society: Marginalized black communities. The LGBTQ community. Young people in search of a new audio stimulus.  And from Detroit’s recent bankruptcy woes came a new model for economic sustainability and membership expansion for art museums across the country based on the innovations-by-necessity from the Detroit Institute of Arts. I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that Detroiters are tough. Resilient. We’re fighters and our creativity is at its best when we have to fight. If you’re not from Detroit it’s easy to think one right hook and we hit the mat. But the count never gets to ten because we get back up, bloodied and bruised, and with a smile, we say, “Is that all you got?” Everybody wants the story of the fall. The truth of Detroit’s spirit is how we rise.  Every day. All day.

David: Can one really get good Mexican food in Detroit?

Steve: Oh, hell yes, you can get good Mexican food in Detroit! You can also get good Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, Italian and Brazilian!  You want really good Greek souvlaki or Lebanese baba ghanoush? Yeah, we got that! Soul-food from the American South, soul-food from the south of France and the soul-of-soul foods from Nigeria—yeah, no problem.  Did I hear you say sushi? What’chu want, man? California Roll? Spicy Tuna Roll? Come and get you some! Vegetarian and vegan? Try Seva in Midtown, Detroit Vegan Soul on the East Side or The Nosh Pit in Hamtramck. And speaking of Hamtramck—where else you gonna go for really good Polish and Hungarian food? This ain’t a town that makes it easy to go on a diet, ma brotha!

David: Let me give you a chance to promote your new book which is coming out in 2019. Tell me about “Lives Lead Away”. (Pre-order)

Steve: Ya know, D, the last thing you wanna do is give an ex-ad guy a chance to promote something. But since you swung the door wide open, yes, January 8th of 2019 will see the release of the next book in the August Snow series, LIVES LAID AWAY. After the body of a nineteen-year old undocumented Hispanic woman dressed as 17th century French Queen Marie Antoinette is dredged from the Detroit River, August finds himself up against a “lake rat” neo-Nazi biker gang and a rogue Immigration & Custom Enforcement (ICE) unit, both neck-deep in human trafficking. This outing is going to cost August a lot in terms of neighbors and friends, especially when an old nemesis from his Detroit cop days named Marcus “Duke” Ducane plays a dangerous game of up-jump-the-devil. Things get very personal very fast in LIVES LAID AWAY which plays out against a suffocating 90-degree/forty-percent humidity Michigan summer.

David: Give me five books to read, genre doesn’t matter. I was going to ask for only poetry books, but I didn’t want to limit you.

Steve: To begin with I highly recommend either of two non-fiction books by Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University: On Bullshit or On Truth. Compact volumes that are amazing studies of—well—bullshit and truth.  I’d also suggest Anna Leigh Clark’s tremendous non-fiction and profoundly moving investigation of the Flint water crisis titled The Poisoned City.  And any time’s a good time to dip into a poetry collection by Seamus Haney, Rainier Marie Rilke or Octavio Paz. Taken in small bites with a nice Pinot Noir, I’d suggest Jim Harrison’s last collection of essays A Really Big Lunch.  Is that five books? I think that’s just four. Okay, last book. For whatever reason I find myself almost on a yearly basis going back to Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos. Couldn’t tell you why. Don’t know. It just is. And so it goes . . .

No comments: