Thursday, May 08, 2014

Visiting with Ace Atkins

I told you at the beginning of this little interview series that I was going to go way out of my league and I’ve certainly done that with my first two authors. Well people, I’m here to tell you - I’m going to continue that with my next guest. Don’t believe me? I’m gonna run out of dumb luck I’ve had lining up five star authors, right?…well you’re probably correct, I’ll hit the ground hard at some point but not today folks. Not today.  

My new interview is with a gentleman that has written some fifteen books that have been hugely popular - as in New York Times bestselling popular, as in critically acclaimed popular. 

Ace Atkins has been nominated for the Edgar Award as well as earning a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. If that’s not enough, he was recently selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the bestselling adventures of Boston’s iconic private eye, Spenser.Oh and hell, let’s just throw in the fact that he lettered on the defensive line for the University of Auburn football team in 1992 and 1993. Not just any team either. In that 1993 season Auburn went undefeated, 11-0, and there my guest was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. By the way, on that SI cover photo he’s sacking a future Heisman Trophy winner named Danny Wuerffel of the Florida Gators… 

Alright, enough already, clearly this is all way the hell over my head but it’s still my absolute pleasure and thrill to welcome Ace Atkins to Write Answers. 

Ace, thanks so much for agreeing to be here. Before I get to the questions, I just want to say that if I read where you had recently won, or had been awarded ANYTHING, I wouldn’t be surprised. You’re only in your early forties and you’ve already accomplished so much. Now you can call it jealousy if you want but I’m just letting you know, I’m gonna dig for dirt. There’s gotta be something… 

Okay, let’s get this thing rolling. 

1.) I read somewhere that very early on in school, reading and writing were not exactly you’re cup of tea. This is really a two part question, which is cheating, but that’s how I’m going to roll. At what age did the light come on and was it reading first that fueled the writing or the other way around? …and before that reading/writing light came on what subject or subjects held you’re interest?
I first became really interested in books about the time I read my first Ian Fleming novel. For a teenage boy, there was nothing better than meeting Mr. Bond on world travels and all his beautiful women. I was a good student but at that time I had not had a teacher to explain reading was meant to be pleasurable . . . not work. Bond was fun. And very quickly, I found out Mr. Hemingway was even more so.
2.)I would think a major step of your early writing career was in you becoming a crime reporter in the newsroom of The Tampa Tribune, because that led to many things, like a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a feature series based on your investigation into a forgotten murder of the 1950s. Then the story became the core of your critically acclaimed novel, White Shadow. Rave reviews followed and away you went. But back to the Tribune though, how did that job happen; was it just a job at the beginning or was it a passion and personal goal of yours to be a crime reporter?
Taking a lesson from Hemingway, I knew that to become a serious writer, I needed to go through the newsroom experience. After I graduated Auburn, I was a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and then later a staffer at The Tampa Tribune. It's funny, the crime beat was not what most reporters wanted. I, on the other hand, only wanted on the crime beat. I loved it. I learned so much and really miss the work. I would not trade that experience for any MFA program on the planet.
3.)I’m a history nut and I’d be willing to bet that you like history and historical events as well. So many of the writers I know and have talked to enjoy history, why do think that is? What’s the common tie-in or attraction for so many fiction writers; is it romanticism, heroic characters, fascinating plots or something else?
I think it's perspective. Being able to step away and see a period or era for what it really meant. I don't think anyone will be able to write really well about our time now. It takes a few decades to sort out what the politics and pop culture is all about. It's very attractive for the novelist.
4.)Here I thought almost making state as a high school wrestler was kind of good. Your story of being on that undefeated Auburn team and the SI cover caught my attention. Did you ever dream you’d reach the heights you did athletically - and what common strengths that you enjoyed in athletics also helped you in your writing?
I was very proud to be a part of a great football team my senior year at Auburn. I was proud to be a scholarship athlete and get in some good games. BUT I never wanted to continue beyond college. I was glad I saw my time through but I was equally glad when it was over. I am not one of those people who will tell you, "football is like life." I often don't have to sack anyone in the real world. But it's a great lesson to be knocked on your ass and get back up. That's good stuff for a writer to know.
5.)The selection of you to continue the tradition and legend of Robert Parker books had to be a tremendous thrill and honor. Can you explain briefly how that came to be or maybe how the opportunity presented itself?
I was fortunate to have published several novels with G.P. Putnam's Sons -- a legendary NYC house. Putnam's was Mr. Parker's longtime publisher. I learned, not long after his death, that the family was considering keeping Spenser going. My agent asked if I'd like to submit 50 pages and I said, "absolutely." Beyond that, I don't know who else was in consideration. Several weeks later, I got a call from Parker's editor, and now mine, that I'd been chosen for the job. I was just thrilled.
6.)When writing your current Parker novel Cheap Shot, or any of the other Parker novels you’ve written for that matter, do you feel the pressure of reaching the bar time and again? Producing what Parker readers want and love in what I imagine is a demanding publishing schedule.
Bob Parker made it look easy. But it ain't easy. I had nothing but the highest respect for his work. But now trying to continue the series, my respect has grown a thousand times. Yes, reaching the bar and pushing the series ahead is a challenge each time.
7.)You have enjoyed immense success with your titles as well. Is the writing process for The Forsaken entirely different for you than writing a Parker novel? Do you have to put on another hat or is it fairly seamless for you?
I wish it were seamless but it's liking having two careers. My approach and work on Spenser is completely different. And it's not just the obvious -- Boston vs. Mississippi, Quinn vs. Spenser. It's more in the feel, tone and world view. I am influenced by Robert B. Parker but my own style is quite different.
8.)I love your main character, Quinn Colson. Who is Quinn, really? Is he a combination of people you’ve actually known, maybe a little of yourself sprinkled in too, or is he a one of a kind that you completely created from the ground up?
That's a good question. I think most crime writers often go right for the alter ego. I know I did early in my career. I wrote an idealized version of myself. But as I get older and grow as a writer, the idea of doing that bores me. It's more fun and challenging to write someone like Quinn who is no way like me. He is really a combo of real vets who've I've met or interviewed. I know a hundred guys like Quinn Colson and that gives me a lot of confidence in his absolute authenticity.
9.)A few years ago I wrote a short story titled Black Velvet, with the song by the same name playing in my head the whole way. The song has been performed by many artists but this version was sung by Alannah Myles and it was perfect for the haunting moody feel that I wanted. It turned out to be a big part of the story itself. It still pops into my head from time to time. Have you ever had a song influence you that strongly while writing a book or story? In general what music do you like to listen to while drinking a beer or two?
For Quinn: Waylon and Charley Pride.
For Spenser: Chet Baker, Ella, Gerry Mulligan.
Music is everything as I write. It creates the mood, the style and flow of the story. I could not write without being influenced by music.

10.)Time for the traditional food question that I ask everyone. I know you live in Mississippi now but you grew up in Alabama. I've been to both states numerous times and I dearly love southern cooking . I think if I was checking out of this game tomorrow morning I'd have some fried chicken, homemade biscuits and corn tonight. Second choice would be some smoked Texas brisket. But hey that's me, what's your favorite meal?...And like I ask every time Ace, I want details.
I'm headed to Texas. Serve me up some beef brisket and ribs with slaw and beans on the side. And a cold Shiner!
Thanks again Ace. Really appreciate the interview. I’ll be seeing you on May 12th in Austin at the Noir At The Bar/BookPeople get together. Scott Montgomery and his crew, never disappoints.


Nigel Bird said...

ace - wish Texas wasn't quite so far away (like, a million miles). enjoy the event.

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