Thursday, June 6, 2024

A Charleston thriller: The Jon Sealy Interview

By Steve Weddle

I've been a fan of Jon Sealy's since The Whiskey Baron came out a little more than 10 years ago. Of that book, the Richmond Time-Dispatch said: "What you’d get if Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner co-wrote the HBO series 'Boardwalk Empire' while on an especially inspired, existentially tinged bender."

Since that time, Sealy has published two other novels, as well as So You Want to Be a Novelist, his memoir and manifesto. 
Jon Sealy

I recently read and loved his new novel, The King Street Affair, his southern crime novel that reaches from South Carolina to Estonia, and deals with lawyers, journalists, spies, and more. 

On Tuesday, June 16, I'll join Jon and Kent Wascom at Fountain Bookstore in Richmond for an "Authors in Conversation" event.

I had a chance to ask Jon some questions prior to that.

Steve Weddle: Why Charleston? Could this story have been set anywhere else?

Jon Sealy: The simple answer is that I'm of the school that believes fiction starts with an image, and the instigating image for this novel is the opening pages. I went to a New Year's Eve wedding at the Francis Marion Hotel years ago and then had breakfast at the Swamp Fox restaurant on a cold rainy January day. Staring out at King Street, watching water drip off the palm trees in Marion Square, the scene just sort of vibrated. Charleston has a unique effect, I think. Some of the plot would work elsewhere, in another port city--Wilmington, say--but it would be a different story.

SW:  Bert and Penelope seem so real and well developed as "secondary" characters. Any plans for a spin-off?

JS: Thank you for saying that. Maybe! I actually did write a few chapters of a book featuring Bert, where I had him retired in the Adirondacks and he gets involved with solving a murder, kind of like Le Carre did with George Smiley in his second novel, A Murder of Quality. But I didn't have the energy to keep at it. Maybe it was the setting, or maybe it was trying to write about Bert without Penelope. The King Street Affair is subtitled "A Holy City Novel," so if I do a sequel or spin-off, it also will be set primarily in Charleston and likely would include Penelope, who became one of my favorite characters in the book.

SW: When you started writing this book, did you know that the story was going to move into an espionage thriller with European gangsters?

JS: No, I actually started this as a sprawling multi-generational Cold War novel about Everett Archer, who ended up being a minor figure in the final version. I have all these pages of backstory about him in the fifties, with Naval frogmen and I don't know what else. After a few years I finally decided I needed to tell a simpler, mostly present-time story, starting with a dead body on a beach.

SW: You tell this story with shifting timelines. Was that difficult? What was the process for you?

JS: As I mentioned, I cut a lot of the backstory going back 75 years, so what's left is essentially three chunks: a guy gets picked up for interrogation in part one; then we see what led the agents to him in part two; then we see what he does to try to get out of his jackpot in part three. It was a project to try to make sure the timelines were clear and consistent, but by the end, the process mostly consisted of me foisting the novel on various beta readers and trying to fix spots where they were confused.

SW: This is your fourth novel, which is clearly written with skill and confidence. What have you learned in the last 10 years since your wonderful debut that helped with this particular story?

JS: That's kind of you. I wrote The Whiskey Baron in my early 20s and The King Street Affair in my late 30s, so I have a better sense of myself and the world, but also, I hope, a little less ego about what I'm doing. I started off like I presume a lot of writers start, wanting to write my story my way and to show off with these linguistic flourishes. The King Street Affair is a bit of a transitional book for me, but I'm moving toward writing for someone.


CHARLESTON, SC—Wyatt Brewer has a respectable life as a newspaper reporter in the Holy City. One winter morning, he is assigned to cover the death of a mysterious Estonian who washed up on Folly Beach.

When intelligence agents Bert Wilson and Penelope Lowe pick him up for interrogation, Wyatt understands he’s stumbled into an underground world of crime and corruption. The agents give him a choice: Help them bring down a mole in their division or fend for himself against Eastern European gangsters and dirty government officials.

Part southern crime novel, part cat-and-mouse espionage thriller, Jon Sealy’s fourth novel is a meditation on the many ways the human heart can betray us.

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