Thursday, August 31, 2023

Chatting with Kristin Kisska

By Steve Weddle

I had the pleasure recently to chat via email with Kristin Kisska, whose The Hint of Light has been called "shimmering" by Adriana Trigiani.

While The Hint of Light is Kisska's debut novel, you may already be familiar with her short stories, which have appeared in a number of award-winning anthologies.

The new domestic thriller published August 29, 2023.

In this heart-wrenching exploration of unconditional love, what a mother finds in the aftermath of her son’s death could put her family back together—or tear them apart for good.

In the wake of her son’s sudden death, Margaret Dobrescu struggles to keep it together in the face of her grief…and her guilt. She can’t help but blame herself for Kyle’s own lifelong struggles—namely, the alcoholism that plagued him.

But within mere days of his funeral, secrets and suspicions begin to surface, and Margaret’s husband admits that Kyle once confessed to having a daughter. Clinging to the hope that some part of her son is still out there, Margaret embarks on a search to find her rumored granddaughter.

What Margaret hasn’t prepared for, however, is the deluge of secrets that keep coming. And as she digs deeper and deeper into her son’s life to find the truth, what she finds instead is that her own secrets can’t stay buried forever.


Steve Weddle: The Hint of Light is so full of twists and turns and family secrets that I don’t even know where to start. Where did you start? Did you know what was around each corner or did you ever surprise yourself?

Kristin Kisska:  That’s a good question! I’m a big fan of bullet-point plotting, which I do with the help of my dining room table and colored sticky notes (one note per chapter, one color per POV). Since I’d loosely plotted the main points of The Hint of Light before I’d started writing it, I already knew most of the shocking details and twists. That said, while I knew the ending ahead of time (no spoilers!), I changed the reason behind it during my editing phase, which I think added richness and complexity to the novel.

Once I started drafting it, I decided to write the chapters chronologically so that I never messed up what each POV character knew and, more importantly, ensured they only touched on details that were already revealed in the story. I wrote all the Before chapters, followed by all the After chapters, and then adjusted anything that was off when I braided them together.

For me, Ally’s chapters were the hardest to keep straight because she is in both the Before and After timelines. I ended up making her a high school senior in the before chapters and a college freshman in the after chapters to help readers avoid getting confused.  

SW: Margaret Dobrescu starts out looking for one thing and ends up with much more than she’d bargained for. Some people might not react in the same ways that she does when faced with so many surprises. Why is she the perfect character for this story?

KK: To me, Margaret, the matriarch, is a core character because she’s the glue that keeps the Dobrescu family together. As Kyle’s mother, she’d be the person who would grieve his loss the most, and she would be the most invested in finding her unknown granddaughter. That she’s willing to endure such a painful emotional journey on the remote chance her rumored grandchild is true is a testament to her unconditional love for all her family members.

I think—I hope—most readers can pinpoint someone in their family who they consider to be like Margaret, the glue, and therefore find her relatable. And if not, that could make for a lively book club discussion!

SW: You are an author who seems fairly active in various groups and events -- Sisters in Crime, Malice Domestic, etc. How important is it for writers to connect with each other?

KK:Writing is, by and large, a solo adventure. But it doesn’t always have to be. Over the years, I’ve found tremendous support, camaraderie, and help learning craft and publishing from other writers. I’m always amazed at the time and talent that seasoned thriller and mystery authors offer to those of us who are rookies. I’ve benefitted from their generosity in spades.

Networking, both online and in person, has really made all the difference in my writing career. I belong to International Thriller Writers, the James River Writers, Sisters in Crime (both national and the Central Virginia chapter), The Authors Guild, and WFWA. I also try to attend at least two writers’ conferences per year, such as Malice Domestic and the WFWA conference in 2023. I expect to add ThrillerFest next spring as well since I’ll be featured as one of ITW’s debuts. In my opinion, almost every fiction writer will benefit from networking within the writing community.

I even credit networking for having achieved my first published writing credit. A writer friend forwarded me the call for submission to Bouchercon’s mystery anthology, MURDER UNDER THE OAKS, in 2015. Without that lead, I’d never have submitted “The Sevens,” thus embarking on my journey of writing and publishing short stories of suspense.

SW: Having an MFA degree is more common for a novelist than having an MBA. How did you end up writing this “heart-wrenching” domestic thriller?

KK: I have a surprising confession. My MBA helped me refine my fiction writing. Seriously. In business school and in corporate banking, I was trained to distill my memos from big concepts into succinct, actionable bullet points, or no one would read my content. So, I was already in the habit of using strong words, keeping my prose to the point, and deleting anything that got in the way of the story I was trying to write.

Don’t get me wrong, it still took a lot of trial and error before I ever wrote anything that would qualify as readable. After my first attempt at drafting a novel, I found blog posts on the craft of writing and found a critique group. I made every clichéd rookie mistake in the books, including info dumping, opening my novel with my character assessing herself in the mirror, and over-writing about fifty thousand words than the standard thriller. Fifteen years, four polished novel-length manuscripts, hundreds of queries, and a dozen published short stories later, I’m represented by a literary agent, and my debut novel is published…even without an MFA!

SW: LynDee Walker called your debut “stunningly crafted.” What is your writing process like?

KK: As a morning person, earlier is better. So, when I’m drafting a novel, I try to hit my daily word count goal as early in the day as possible. Usually, that involves working in the dark, with night lights on and a strong pot of coffee brewing. You’ll find me Tweeting with other #5amWritersClub members. I also refuse to edit anything until I have a complete draft. Throughout my draft, I’ll make stage-direction notes to myself in mid-text, such as: [In Chapter X, add this super-twisty detail]. Finally, if I am drafting in the fall, I tend to participate in NaNoWriMo as that deadline never fails to give me a boost in discipline and energy to draft 50,000 words in a month.

Thank you for interviewing me on the Do Some Damage blog, Steve. I’ve enjoyed being in the author hot seat and wish everyone out in fiction-writing-land happy wording!

Kristin Kisska is a native of Virginia, where she currently resides with her family and their moody tabby, Boom. She holds a BS in commerce from the University of Virginia and an MBA from Northwestern University. She is the author of a dozen short stories published in anthologies. The Hint of Light is her debut novel. Kristin loves hearing from friends and readers at

Find out more about her books:

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Death Among the Undead

When in my browsing for a mystery to read, I came across Death Among the Undead, written by Imamura Mashiro, published in Japan in 2017, I didn't think I'd want to read it. Much as I've been loving the Japanese fair play mysteries I've been poring through, the idea for this one didn't grab me. Adding zombies to the classic locked-room/impossible crime setup seemed like it would have to involve cheating. The supernatural and iron-clad logic working together? How? What could the author do here to make this work while still following the rules dictated by a mystery form demanding a rational explanation for its solution? I was skeptical, but the praise for the book was so high, I became intrigued. I read that in Japan, the book turned into a phenomenon. A film adaptation resulted, as did a manga adaptation. And I saw a blurb that intrigued me, from Shoji Shimada no less, a master of Japanese whodunnits and the author of the great The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. He called Death Among the Undead "a work of great importance." Well...

I bought it.

And I found a superb introduction to the book written by Shimada, who I think, describing the novel, is worth quoting. He addresses the very reservations I had at first, and then he perfectly sums up what makes the novel work. He writes,

"At first sight, the concept of zombies might sound outrageous, but in Death Among the Undead their supernatural powers double, nay, triple the amount of entertainment the book provides. The almost manga-like presence of these beings brings thrills and suspense to the story, and provides unexpected new developments of the country house murder mystery we thought we knew inside-out. This is because Imamura simultaneously maintains the necessary rigor of the locked room mystery by making the zombies bound by strict rules governing their behavior and even their existence."

"Despite the rigor, the plot of Death Among the Undead does signal a revolutionary change for the mystery genre. The core elements of any classic murder mystery are the killer, the victim and the murder weapon, and the lines between these three elements are never crossed. Zombies, however, can change from one element to another. A zombie can be a killer, the victim and even a powerful murder weapon. Such a concept changes the very foundation of the mystery story, which is why Death Among the Undead is a masterpiece of the genre." 

Everything Shimada says here, I'm in total agreement with, and I too would consider Death Among the Undead a mystery masterpiece. 

The plot, in brief, involves a group of twelve students who decide to rent a boarding house in the mountains. A couple of these students are members of their school's Mystery Society, and one student, a young woman, is actually a brilliant and eccentric detective who has helped solve crimes in the past. There are levels of sexual tension in the group, and some among those gathered have done things in the past, in their relationships, that no human being should be proud of. The group's retreat starts well enough, but soon a nearby bioterrorism event results in the boarding house being surrounded by zombies. These are people in the remote area who, exposed to the biological agents unleashed by the terrorists, have turned into zombies. At first, the students repel the attacking horde by using swords and spears, but then a murder occurs in a room locked on the inside. As things appear, a human could not have made the bite marks that killed the victim -- only a zombie could have made such marks -- but on the other hand, a zombie could not have gotten into the room to do the biting. What's going on?

I will say no more about the plot, other than that more murders occur and the bafflement I experienced was complete and utterly enjoyable. The book reads lightning fast and also has a good deal of humor despite the grimness of the situation the students find themselves in. Since a few of the characters are mystery fanatics themselves, the novel also has the meta-mystery quality a lot of these Japanese fair play mysteries have. Discussions about mystery stories and what the rules are and how this could be happening in "real life" and how to apply mystery novel rules to a situation involving zombie creatures abound. They are most entertaining discussions, as is the abundance of pure action in the novel, scenes with the salivating zombies launching their assaults on the besieged humans. There is even, in a charming way, romance. This is a book in which every single thing works and the plot marches forward relentlessly, making it very hard for you as a reader to put the book aside. And to cap it all off, as Shimada implies, there is a solution of absolute rigor that develops from the clues and situations the reader has been presented with. It's a marvel, with zero cheating, and it comes in the classic way, with the main investigating characters making connections and deductions built on pure logic, zombies or no zombies.

Death Among the Undead is a great and innovative mystery novel, and as a person who's been reading mysteries for about 50 years, I really would place it among my all-time favorites. It's ingenious and pure fun. And to think that this was the author's debut novel!

But PS: Imamura has a follow-up, called Death Within the Evil Eye, and so, since I now currently happen to have a two-week vacation from work, during which I'll be traveling a little, with time to read more than usual, maybe even on a beach, I think I know what I'll be sinking into next.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Review: Malcolm Gladwell Takes on Police Fiction--Good Points, Wrong Conclusion



By Claire Booth

Malcolm Gladwell takes on all sorts of subjects with his Revisionist History podcast, which I’ve listened to for years. Everything from college endowment funds to McDonald’s French fries has gone under his Gladwellian microscope.

Last month, listeners learned he’s a crime fiction fan. A huge fan, and he spent an episode on the modern murder mystery novel. It’s a lecture he gave during the New Orleans Book Festival, where he introduced his classification system for the mystery story.

His thesis was to see it through the lens of policing and how it then affects the public’s view of real-world law enforcement. No other profession gets so much space in books, television and movies. Professions like teachers and nurses don’t have to contend with perceptions created by screenwriters and authors. Law enforcement does.

“The stereotypes put forth in popular culture matter. They are the raw material people use to form their attitudes and perspectives. And I really worry that police narratives are doing the same thing. They’re doing an injustice to our understanding of the police.”

Police aren’t all good or all bad, Gladwell says bluntly, but the mystery story can portray them that way. In his view, the fiction that portrays them can be lumped into four categories:

He starts with the 1950s TV show Dragnet, which he calls one of the top five most influential shows of all time because it introduced to a mass audience the notion that police were good at what they did. That becomes “Eastern” on the four compass points of his “Taxonomy of the Modern Mystery Story.”

“Northern” stories are ones with incompetent police, where civilians have to step in and solve the crimes; here he lists detectives such as Hercule Poirot and Philip Marlowe.

Swing down to “Southern” and those are stories with corrupt authorities, where others have to come in and clean things up. He uses John Grisham as an example for this one.

Then of course, there’s “Western,” the only one that truly fits its namesake compass point. Those are stories with an absence of authority/police, just like the lawless frontier towns. He highlights Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, because Reacher rides into a town, “kills scores of people, and never gets caught—so, Westerns.”

He tends to lump many subgenres together. This is, I know, a much more normal way to view things than the thin sub-sub-genres that crime fiction writers (like me) often find themselves slicing. But I like how I divide things, so I’ll do some quibbling here. His “Northern” classification isn’t police procedural at all, but rather amateur detective. And any modern mystery worth its salt will use more than one East/West/North/South in its plot and character development. “Modern” is what we do now—mixing all of these in a single work, as an acknowledgement that the world is not just four points on a compass.

Gladwell says he knows his categories are reductive, and that’s his point. That over the years, the genre has made it easy for two things to happen: for real police to be unjustly reduced to stereotypes, to less than what they really are; and to create fertile ground for a certain kind of narcissism to develop that moves away from the people they serve. “These are not novels and shows about solving crimes. They’re novels and shows about crime solvers … and where is the public in there?”

I think that good crime fiction—much current crime fiction—tries to address these questions and problems. I know I do. And I don’t think we’ve in any way exhausted the possibilities of the form.  

One other note:

There was a big lack of diversity in his name-checking. There’s only one direct mention of a woman—Murder She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher, whom he lists when counting TV civilian detectives. In that same part of the discussion, he mentions Hercule Poirot, although he never does name Agatha Christie—or for that matter, her other, equally adroit (but female) amateur detective, Miss Marple.

He also doesn’t include any writers of color. Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, John Grisham, Lee Child, Joseph Wambaugh, Daniel Silva. Dragnet, The Untouchables, Columbo, Slow Horses. All white male authors or cast with almost all white male actors. He makes good points with many of them. But there are plenty of non-straight white male writers who could have reinforced his ideas, too. Walter Mosley, Naomi Hirahara, Kellye Garrett, Sujata Massey, Kwei Quartey. Sara Paretsky, Patricia Cornwell, Joseph Hansen, Sue Grafton.

You clearly read deep, Malcolm. I look forward to hearing what you think when you read wide.

"Taxonomy of the Modern Mystery Story" was released July 26, 2023, as Season 8, Episode 12 of Revisionist History. You can listen to it here, or wherever you download your podcasts.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Lion and Lamb: The Book With the Wittiest Banter This Side of Nick and Nora

Scott D. Parker

“They can catch a killer—if they don’t kill each other first.”

That’s the tagline for LION & LAMB, the new novel by James Patterson and Duane Swierczynski, released just a couple of weeks ago and I downloaded the audiobook that very day. Yet I had to finish another book before I pushed play on Lion & Lamb, but as soon as it started, I wondered why it took me so long.

Okay, fine, it was only a week.

Quarterback Archie Hughes of the Philadelphia Eagles is a week away from starting in the NFC Championship Game, the last step before the Super Bowl. And he’s found dead in his car.

But things don’t add up. That’s when Philly’s two most high-profile private investigators take opposing sides of the case. Witty, charming, and roguishly handsome Cooper Lamb is hired to find out the truth for the widow, Francine Hughes. The district attorney’s office reaches out to Veena Lion, a wicked-smart PI who can be as cold as her martinis but coy with what she knows.

The pair have a past and it’s referenced from time to time, but that just makes this pairing and their wonderful tete-a-tete that much more fun. We get to avoid the meet-cute and just get plopped down in the middle of what is the highest-profile case they’ve handled.

I am a shoe-in for “Nick and Nora”-type stories: The Thin Man movies, Hart to Hart, Moonlighting, and The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal. So I was already in the bag for a tale like, but here’s the real secret:

This book is So Much Fun!

Patterson is known for many things, but high-speed pacing is certainly among the top things you think about when you consider reading one of his novels. From the jump, you are plunged into the action and sent barreling from one scene to the next. Swierczynski, a native of Philly, added lots of local color and I suspect local Philadelphians got a kick out of all the places mentioned.

The mystery at the center of the book is twisty—NOTE: I have not finished the book yet, but I couldn’t wait to write about it—but it is the characters that jump off the page (or out of my earbuds) and land fully formed.

I’m an avid audiobook listener and the two main narrators are so good at their readings that you basically don’t need the attributions. Lisa Flanagan embodies Veena just as if she stepped out of a 1940s PI film but with an utterly modern sensibility. Her tone alone lets the listener in on just how much (or little) Veena thinks about certain characters. Corey Carthew is the voice of Lamb and you can hear the sing-song snark just eek out of every piece of dialogue. He’s a single father with a young daughter and son and the relationship between that trio is fantastic. It’s like Lamb is having the time of his life trying to solve this case.

A third narrator, Joshua Kane, uses his deep baritone to let us know the chapter names and the scenes. His voice is one that when I looked him up, I realized I recognized from, of all things, commercials.

When you find a book or characters that you instantly form a connection with, you just want more and more stories. As a writer, I know how long the process can take.

Which is why I’m requesting, on behalf of all the reading audience, that Patterson and Swierczynski write a new Lion and Lamb novel every year.

Oh, and TV execs? Read this one. And then make the series. Call me. I’ve got some ideas on casting.

Friday, August 25, 2023

The Dark Side of San Diego

 by Holly West

A thing I just texted my writing squad: God help me, I'm getting the itch to edit another anthology. Call 911; I think I'm having a stroke.

Two things: First, at my age, I can't afford to joke about having strokes because you never know.

Second, I have my own projects to concentrate on.

The thing about editing an anthology is that it's both yours and yet not yours. There is plenty of work to do as an editor, but it's a different kind of creativity. Choosing stories, sending edit notes to contributors, balancing the rhythm of the Table of Contents, and compiling a draft for the publisher all require careful thought and many hours of labor, but it doesn't compare to writing a story from scratch. That's where the real hard work lies. 

But goddamn, editing them sure is fun. In some ways, I think I'm more suited to being an editor than a writer—for me, it's sort of the best of both worlds.

"Crime fiction anthologies aren't huge money-makers, a sad fact we probably all know by now. But they still serve an important purpose in our genre. "

Too many people who read Do Some Damage have done editing work for me to come in here and claim I'm an authority on the subject. I've now edited two anthologies, plus several novels and short stories, but I can't imagine ever feeling like I've actually got my shit together. And yet, if anyone were to ask me whether I'm a good editor, I'd have to say, yes. Yes, I am. Despite the insecurities plaguing me, editing rightfully belongs in my wheelhouse. 

Anthology number two comes out on August 30. Killin' Time in San Diego is the 2023 Bouchercon anthology, and editing it was a completely different experience than Murder-A-Go-Go's: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of the Go-Go's, which came out in 2018. 

The biggest difference? Blind submissions.

"For me, editing anthologies is a true labor of love, even though I complain incessantly while I'm in the process of doing it."

 was invitation-only. It wasn't my preferred submission process, but since each song could only have one story, I couldn't think of another way of ensuring that songs weren't duplicated. If I were to do it over again, I'd do blind submissions with a few slots saved for invitations. No shade to Murder-A-Go-Go's and other anthologies that don't use blind submissions, but in general, I think it makes for a better anthology.

Crime fiction anthologies aren't huge money-makers, a sad fact we probably all know by now. But they still serve an important purpose in our genre. They allow emerging authors to be published and, potentially, to be published alongside higher-profile writers. They're also community builders. Sharing a Table of Contents with writers you might not be familiar with introduces you to them and their work. These can—and do—become lasting relationships. Finally, agents and editors sometimes read short stories to find potential projects and clients. I know several writers for whom this has happened.

Editing anthologies is a true labor of love for me, even though I complain incessantly while I'm in the process of doing it.

But enough about me. I'm here to talk about Killin' Time in San Diego. Instead, I'll do one better. Here's a tiny sneak peek at each story in the collection.

See you on August 30!


“Once you’re on the river, you’re on the river for the rest of the day. You can’t stop and go home. You can’t get out. There’s nowhere to go.” —CJ Box, “Every Day is a Good Day on the River”

“San Diego wasn’t where he expected things to end, but he wasn’t sorry. The weather and the sightlines were very much to his advantage.” —Mary Keenan, “The Canadians”

“We came out West after the Hooker Chemical Company dumped twenty-thousand tons of poison into our water supply. Before that, we had it pretty good.” —C.W. Blackwell, “Hard Rain on Beach Street”

“She was the kind of girl who was cute and knew it, and who was determined that, before the night was out, every man in the place would know it, too.” —J.R. Sanders, “Dead Even”

“What does all this you’re telling me have to do with you being at the police station? If he was really Vic Hollister and was stalking you, why aren’t you dead?” —John M. Floyd, “Plymouth West”

“A comedian once riffed that California has four seasons: earthquake, flood, drought, and fire. I can’t speak to the first three, but as an arson investigator for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, I’m a fire expert.” —Kathy A. Norris, “Wildfire”

“Fran’s frown eased, June’s deepened, and I—I no longer felt like smiling. After years of interviews, I prided myself on recognizing a lie and a liar.” —Kathleen L. Asay, “Buy the Farm”

“It was just after noon on Wednesday, and she’d been on the hunt since nine that morning. She’d checked two bars, a dozen tents, two SROs, three liquor stores, a needle exchange, and the big blue Church of Scientology. No one had seen or heard of Jeannie Chatham.” —L.H. Dillman, “To Hell and Back”

“Lopez had just ordered a beer at the Chee-Chee Club when he received a call and walked outside. Someone shot him point blank, right there on the pavement.” —Richie Narvaez, “Shamu, World’s Greatest Detective”

“I paused, and for a moment, I was young again, lying on the sand, still warm from the day’s sunshine, all the edges blurred by the smoke from the fire and the booze.”—Ann Cleeves, “Drowning”

“A four-seat UTV came roaring up the path to the amphitheater with three men aboard dressed in regular clothes but with their heads covered in black balaclavas, and they had the bride in the back. The string music came to an abrupt halt.” —Wesley Browne, “29 Palms”

“It wasn’t until she sat and sipped her iced tea at her reserved seat in the conference room that she wondered what had gotten into her with this odd duck Maribel, with her sangre de leche, as her mother referred to flatliners. What bizarre maternal instincts had kicked in?”—Désirée Zamorano, “President-Elect”

“I’d met guys like him before. Barely eighteen, already trained to kill, eager to do their part. In fact, I used to be one of them myself. Too young and too stupid to know the newsreel battle scenes were a load of malarkey.” —James Thorpe, “Casualties of War”

“I hated that this was happening, that it involved me, and that it was causing problems for Janine. She’d clearly loved her grandfather. Funerals were hard enough without thieves preying on the grieving.” —Kim Keeline, “Business of Death”

“Pearlie looked down at the Bay and thought about the gun that lay down there, under forty feet of saltwater. She’d never mention it, but it was safe to think about.” —Victoria Weisfeld, “Pearl of a Girl”

“Every night, Sergeant Heider recharged his air gun, donned his night-vision goggles, and defended his territory. Neighbors probably thought he was just taking random potshots at the opossums. No, sir.” —Anne-Marie Campbell, “Palms Up”

“Jean looked at Charles, with his broad shoulders and strong jawline. He was the vice president of a bank in Los Angeles, but at the moment, he didn’t look like a banker.” —Jennifer Berg, “A Bayside Murder”

 “Keir swallowed whatever bit of ire he was swishing in his mouth and forged a grin as he reached into the left breast pocket of his black sports jacket and pulled out a thick wad of green paper bundled together with a shiny gold-plated clip.” —Tim P. Walker, “Bidding War”

“Martin hunted treasure every day, even (or maybe especially) on the day he retrieved his wife’s ashes from the Chula Vista crematorium over on F Street.” —Emilya Naymark, “Girl of Gold”

“Maggie had been there the longest and wasn’t afraid to talk straight to Marudome-san: She would not service men from China or hakujin men either. She preferred, for reasons known only to her, men from Japan.” —Naomi Hirahara, “The Celestial”

Killin' Time in San Diego, edited by Holly West and featuring stories by twenty of best crime and mystery writers, will be available on August 30, 2023, from Down & Out Books. Buy links here.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Thick of It

 I've never been particularly great with schedules. 

Or maybe it's more project prioritization I'm not good at. 

Either way, it is not uncommon for me to to find myself in the absolute thick of something, running with it until I'm exhausted, and then I look up and realize, "oh. Shit. Yeah, I was supposed to do that, too." 

Which is all my way of saying that, yeah, I haven't been around Do Some Damage as much lately. Not because I don't have things I want to talk about, but because because my schedule means I have to write at night. Because the novel I'm working on has crossed a few pretty important milestones. Because its hard to focus on anything else, especially when my rule has always been, "anything you want to do after has to come after you get your words down". Because I'm in the thick of it. 

I've written a few novels before.

The first was so absolutely god awful I didn't even bother to edit it. I just threw the file in a folder, then threw that folder in a different folder, and then put it all on a USB drive that I've probably lost by now, thank god. There are parts of that book I remember fondly, a few turns of phrase that seemed clever. But my clearest memory is of racing towards the finish. Of a fevered writing session in which I lay down 10k words, finally typing THE END with my shirt off, absolutely pouring sweat. I remember I was alone - I hadn't had a kid yet, and my wife was on a business trip to LA. I remember it was my birthday. I think I turned 32 that day. I remember all that, but I don't remember being in the thick of it, then. I don't remember any part of writing that book where it felt like it was taking over my life. Where I felt animated by something somehow both internal and external at the same time.

My second attempt at a novel was better than the first, but probably still not particularly great. I had a main character whose motivations I didn't fully understand, and an antagonist who was so clearly the better character it made several scenes hard to write. It was more ambitious than my first attempt at a novel, but it didn't quite gel. There was hope though. I remember a few times during the writing of that novel where I looked up and realized, shit, I just lost two hours. What do I do now? I was in the thick of it. That obliterating flow state, pushing creation towards the surface, blotting everything else out. I was so in the thick of it, actually, that I just realized, writing this out, I finished that novel on my birthday too. The night before my birthday, actually. The night before I turned 34. 

There was another book shortly after. A lot better. A novella, called Blood Bends the Rail. You might even see this one come to light someday. It was the first thing I wrote after becoming a father, and, at the time, I can remember falling into it, but being pulled away to feed my daughter her midnight bottle. But I was never resentful of that. I was already exhausted all the time, so the thick of a new book, it was just another log on the pile, another thing to be managed. If I hadn't fallen in to it, I probably would have tossed it aside as a self-imposed burden on an already impossibly tired and genuinely freaked out new father. But the book spoke to me, and I found myself returning every night, after the midnight bottle had been delivered, falling further in again. 

I almost didn't get this post up, snapping a potential streak of postless days which might have caused my Do Some Damage compatriots to start ask themselves, "wait, who do we have posting every other Wednesday, again?", because, if you can't guess, I'm in the thick of it now. 

Tonight, a character I had planned to make it to the end, died unexpectedly. 

Tonight, I saw an image of a new ending, flickering with life. 

Tonight, I fell in to the thick of it. Deeper than I have with any other book before. And I wrote through it. I wrote until I was exhausted. But I'm so energized by it, I'm back. Posting here.  

I'll be back again, two Tuesdays from now. The book won't be done by then, but I hope I'll still be in the  thick of it. And I hope, whatever you're working on, you will be too. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Talking Fadeaway Joe with Hugh Lessig

Crooked Lane Books (August 22, 2023)


By Steve Weddle

Recently I chatted with Hugh Lessig, whose short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, as well as that magazine John Hornor Jacobs and I started up, Needle: A Magazine of Noir

Hugh's debut, Fadeaway Joe, published August 22, 2023. 
“Man, I can’t tell you the last time I tore through a book like I did with Fadeaway Joe. Paula Jessup is a two-ton firecracker and Joe Pendergast is the match. Echoing the best work of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, Lessig filters it all through a voice entirely his own.” —Todd Robinson, author of The Hard Bounce and creator of Thuglit.

Steve Weddle: Library Journal said your debut is carried by "intriguing characters" and Mark Westmoreland said that Joe and Paula "get into your marrow and travel with you." What do you think makes Joe and Paula come alive in your story? 

Hugh Lessig: Joe and Paula engage in an emotional tug of war throughout the story. Paula pushes Joe out of his comfort zone and Joe promptly returns the favor. Yet, both need what the other has.

Joe is an old, white guy who never married or had kids. His experience in dealing with young people comes from working the door at a bar. He grew up in the segregated south. His dad ran a corner grocery store and belonged to the Klan. If a Black person came into the store and touched a piece of produce, they bought it. Now here comes Paula, a 22-year-old biracial, Mohawk-wearing firecracker. She was raised by a grandfather (another old, white guy) who was a bum and small-time hood. She is both scared of Joe and fascinated by him.

Why do they need each other? That becomes farther along in the story, but Paula needs the sort of protection Joe can provide, while Joe needs a planner and a schemer to get back at his boss.

Rob Hart helped edit this book, and I was particularly pleased at his comment that the novel is “just the right amount of gritty before giving way to the depths of human connection.” That’s where I was aiming.


SW: Joe Pendergast is struggling with early-onset Alzheimer's in this book, a fight the reader really feels throughout the novel. How important was it to you to really capture this, rather than merely using it as a plot device?

HL: My dad suffered from dementia late in life, and I began reading about it. One thing that fascinated and terrified me was how dementia can sometimes lead to episodes of aggression or rage. My father was not a violent man. He almost never raised his voice. I couldn’t imagine that aspect of the disease affecting him.

Joe Pendergast is naturally violent. He can bring a man to his knees by bending his thumb. He can dislocate the thumb. He can break it. For him, that’s a day at the office. His violence is a tool, and he always controls it. But dementia-induced rage is violence without the guardrails. How would he act? 

There are two instances of uncontrolled anger in the book, one where Joe is exhausted late at night and waves a gun at his neighbor. The second occurs later in the book where he is frustrated at Paula and lashes out with half-fist. The consequences of the violence are minimal – he never fires the gun, and Paula gets a bloody nose – but I found them more chilling than the more controlled acts of violence elsewhere in the story.

The diagnosis of early-stage dementia also lights a fuse inside Joe’s head. He knows his days are numbered, but he doesn’t know how slow or fast the disease will progress. First, it creates a sense of urgency. He’s been abandoned by his boss, he wants revenge and he wants it soon. But when he meets Paula and their relationship progresses, he becomes reflective. He can help Paula navigate a tough crossroad in her life, and he begins to wonder about his legacy (which ain’t much, at this point.) He believes a man will be remembered for the last thing he did.

SW: Joe's story of coming to terms with his lost friendship with Maxie and what to do about it seems as if it could have been its own novel, yet you've woven this in beautifully with Paula's involvement with a trafficking ring. Did you start out with this combination fully formed or did it develop as you went along?

HL: It developed as I went along. This story began as a piece of flash fiction published in Shotgun Honey in 2018. It was a death row scene between an elderly criminal and his much younger partner. It got me thinking about a longer story involving a criminal whose life was winding down and a younger person whose life was at a crossroads. 

In the first draft, “Paula” is a male character. Switching to female increased the tension for Joe, who doesn’t know how to handle a wise-cracking young woman. I knew the story would turn on them having to depend on each other. Joe could provide physical protection, which meant Paula needed to be on the run from something. Hampton Roads has had its share of trafficking -- both labor and sex trafficking – and she stumbles into a situation that she tries to solve. That prompts bad people to chase her. Oddly enough, Joe’s breakup with Maxie was the last part of the story to fall into place. I knew Joe had to be a tough guy, and it seemed like a collector of gambling debts would be a good day job for him.

SW: You were a newspaper reporter for decades. Was that helpful for this story?

HL: Yes, in both specific and general ways. Toward the end of my newspaper career, I covered the military in Hampton Roads and became interested in veteran homelessness. I interviewed a number of homeless people, and that helped develop Paula as a character. She is newly homeless and living out of the back of her car.

For years, I always thought of homeless people as two-dimensional, this shadowy person standing at the end of the exit ramp holding up a sign. My work as a reporter helped me see them as people with work histories, family lives and skills. Many were temporarily homeless or “couch surfing” with friends until they recovered. A few of them, not many, ended up favoring the homeless life. They didn’t want four walls and a roof.

Homelessness did not define them, and it does not define Paula. She simply sees it as another problem to solve.

Working as a reporter generally helps when writing a novel. Andre Dubus said talent is cheap, and what really matters is discipline. A career in news writing will teach discipline. You must press your fingers against the keyboard when you’re tired, stressed, busy, hung over or half sick. I’ve written news stories in hotel lobbies, airport terminals and buses, with all sorts of distractions. I didn’t need my special music for inspiration. I didn’t need to wear my favorite hat. If I had a muse, it would be yelling, ARE YOU DONE YET?

As a reporter, you meet people at various highs and lows. You interview lottery winners and people who lost their jobs in corporate downsizing, parents frantically looking for a lost child and the joy of a homecoming soldier who returned safely. It’s fertile ground for developing characters.

SW: Are there any "minor" characters in this book you'd like to develop a little more into their own story?

HL: Donna P.L. Fallon appears very early in the story as Joe Pendergast’s neighbor, then plays an important role during the climax. She is an amalgam of every kind/nosey/oversharing neighbor I’ve ever had, and her backstory merits a stand-alone treatment.  I’ve got her 1,500-word bio sitting in a file, most of which never made it into the story. 

She’s in her mid-40s, raised by hippies who ditched their van and moved to a trailer park to raise a family. Mom and dad tended to walk around naked (Inside the trailer, not outside.) smoked pot and disdained material wealth. Donna was the most beautiful girl in high school, but she refused to go the cheerleader/homecoming queen route. 

She took up exotic dancing at a “gentleman’s club” after high school and made good money. Her dad would wait in the parking lot to pick her up. She got into real estate a few years later, taking courses and trying to avoid talking about her past. 

Her career path – exotic dancer to realtor – is based on a real woman I once interviewed during my newspaper days. The exotic dancer stuff was off the record, sadly. But I imagine Donna as someone who gets up in your face, smelling of breath mints and perfume, with floppy hats and jangling bracelets. 

She is equal parts curious and kindhearted, and her exotic dancing days have taught her not to take an shit from men. In some ways, she is exactly what Joe needs to get through his various challenges.

SW: What's next for you?

HL: I have three stories due out in various anthologies. The first comes out in September. It’s a collection from Down & Out Books, and all the stories are set during Prohibition. I also have a novella due out from the same publisher, part of a novella series based around a Dallas, Texas chop shop where the main character is a car thief.

I’m working on a second novel about a famous thief in a small Virginia town. She grew up homeless and stole from rich members of the Mallet Society –  a rich men’s club that runs the town. She’s eventually caught, serves five years in prison, and returns to her hometown determined to change her ways. As the story begins, she is blackmailed into burglarizing the home of the richest woman in town, where she finds a secret that would bring down the hated Mallet Society for good. But will the town believe its most famous criminal is now a whistleblower? In a fever of creativity, I have titled it “Mallets.”

Hugh Lessig spent more than 30 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter, covering everything from city council meetings to the earthquake in Haiti. Along the way, he’s met people at the highs and lows of life, interviewed accused murderers and governors, welders and lawyers, and old men who fought our nation’s wars. Born in eastern Pennsylvania, he moved to Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1997. His short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory and Needle. In addition, his work is featured in the following anthologies: Mickey Finn 21st Century Noir, Volumes I and II; Groovy Gumshoes: Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties and Guns & Tacos. Fadeaway Joe is his first novel.

FADEAWAY JOE: Sixty-four-year-old Joe has known violence his entire life. For forty years, he’s worked as an enforcer for loan shark and close friend Maxie Smith, breaking more than a few bones along the way. When Maxie abruptly fires him, Joe isn’t sure where to lay the blame—on Maxie, the man he once considered his brother, or on the early-onset Alzheimer’s that made Maxie lose faith in him in the first place.

To keep his head above water, he begins to operate a food truck that’s barely getting by. Desperate to regain some purpose in his life, Joe makes a life-altering decision: he’s going to take down Maxie Smith by any means necessary, once and for all. However, his plan of revenge is sidelined when he meets twenty-two-year-old Paula Jessup, a wise-cracking amateur detective with a few scheming cards up her sleeve, who’s on the run from a trafficking ring she’s been investigating. The two form an unlikely bond: Paula needs some protection and Joe needs a purpose.

With the stakes running high and the clock ticking down—will this gamble pay off?

Get your copy of  Fadeaway Joe