Why don’t we start off by you telling us a little about yourself?
I’m an incredibly buff, handsome 53 year old fiction writer (emphasis on fiction and you’re not including a pic with this, right?). My novel, Pursuit, is coming out in August. Like my first two novels, it’s fact based fiction. My first two novels were published by Talk Miramax Books, a subsidiary of Miramax Films. How they got published was pretty interesting. A friend of mine had moved to L.A. to become a screenwriter. Around that same time, I finished my first novel and titled it, ’57, Chicago (a dateline from when the story takes place). ’57, Chicago was the story of a bookie, fight promoter and boxer and was really a fight story told from the perspectives of the bookies and gangsters surrounding the sport. I sent the manuscript to my buddy just to see if it was readable and he loved it. He then called me and said, “I know this young movie producer that I see at Starbucks every morning. Do you mind if I give the manuscript to him?” I obviously said, no problem. My buddy gave the script to the guy who then called me and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read. If you’ll give me a free option (period in which he could market the property) I’ll sell this to Miramax Films.” I did…and that’s exactly what happened. They bought the movie rights and did a two book deal with me. ’57, Chicago was published in 2001 and ’46, Chicago (not a sequel but a standalone novel) was published in 2002. I have a lot of funny stories from that whole process, particularly the film side.
What do you like to do for fun?
I work out seven days per week and have supplemented that, unintentionally, by raising a yellow Labrador Retriever puppy, which requires multiple walks per day. Despite spending most of my year in the Seattle area, I’m a Cubs season ticket holder so head back to Chicago pretty frequently during the summer for games. I’m also an insatiable reader and have embraced audio books when in the gym, my Kindle on airplanes and wonderful hardback or trade paperback books in my recliner.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
My parents really encouraged reading. They would put a book at the foot of our beds late Christmas Eve and thus we’d wake to a new book on Christmas morning. It was a brilliant way to instill the love of reading in their kids and get them a few extra hours of sleep. I recall, vividly, the year I received Tom Sawyer and suddenly couldn’t have cared less what was under the tree. I also loved comic books. Writers are readers, first.
In third grade, I wrote a story for class and the teacher read it to the rest of the class, twice. I was thrilled. It was a western in which a gunfighter switched sides in the middle of a gunfight. At home, my younger brother and his friends frequently gathered around me to hear exploits of my group of friends. Thus, I was a storyteller from an early age.
What does your family think of your writing?
My mother is a brilliant writer and incredibly encouraging. My father is a voracious reader and a good storyteller himself and my siblings are all supportive. Having parents that read and encouraged us to read was an incredible blessing.
What do you think makes a good story?
When I read I simply want to be surprised. I think there are great stories in a variety of subjects and often the way the story is told is more important than the actual plot. For example, if you’d have asked me if I had any interest in building cathedrals, I’d laugh. But Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth was a fantastic book. In a different way, you can read the works of George V. Higgins, which are all wonderful dialogue and all of a sudden realize he’s led you along a plotline and you didn’t even realize it. I also really appreciate subtlety. If a writer beats me over the head to make a point, it’s irritating. That same appreciation goes with television and movies.
Is there a subject you would never write about as author? If so what is it?
I would never write about friends or family unless I got their permission ahead of time. I don’t typically do nonfiction anyway, but even in my blog, I don’t get into specific about friends or family. They didn’t sign up for the online experience. I did.
Do you create an outline before writing?
I spend a staggering amount of time outlining. You’d laugh if you saw the hand written calendar I create showing what each character is doing every segment of the day. It’s very difficult to keep your reader on a path of logic if you lose your way yourself, so I create the outline as a map. I used to teach a literacy class and my students were sick of hearing, “An outline is like a roadmap.”
How much research do you have to do before writing a novel?
Minimum of a year. Even though my work is fiction, if I get something wrong, it jars the reader from the story. I can tell you, when I read something in a novel that is simply wrong, I question the writer the remainder of the story. Same goes for watching movies. For example, there was a movie in which sports gambling was a theme and a bettor lost some money but when they tabulated it, they forgot the juice. So, I’m watching and going, “Huh?” I realized immediately they had no idea what they were doing. One of the biggest problems now is that young people don’t get out and get experience. Rather, they create art that is imitating art.
Research is critical to even works of fiction. For example, I interviewed several homicide detectives in Chicago because Pursuit is somewhat of a police procedural and I didn’t want any glaring errors. Their help was invaluable. Cops have extremely difficult jobs. When I was a kid, in social studies class, each year they’d ask classmates what jobs they predicted for fellow classmates. The others always said I’d be a comedian or cop. Funny, none said pro football player or movie star. Many of the cops I’ve met could be comedians, too.
Any advice for getting through the dreaded writers block?
I do so much research that I never get writer’s block. Doing your research is like filling a balloon. By the time you’re ready to write, you’re ready to burst. Writer’s block usually occurs because the writer either hasn’t spent enough time thinking about their story, researching or perfecting their outline. I spend an unbelievable amount of time thinking about my stories. It’s ludicrous to think you can sit down and have this wonderful prose burst as you tap keys. I remember a flight from Seattle to Chicago that took about four hours and I stared out the window the entire time, lost in thought. When the flight landed, the guy next to me, who had been working on his laptop the entire flight, said, “Get a lot done?” with a smirk on his face. I just smiled and said, “Yep.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, like myself?
Keep the day job. That’s not pessimism; you’re gaining experience! Also, work on one project at a time. I talk to writers all the time that are working on multiple projects and all that tells me is that they’re not putting the time and effort into finishing just one. The best advice I got (from my pal Howard Harband, a brilliant screenwriter) was not to edit while writing. Wait until you’re done. Then, put the manuscript down for a few weeks and then when you pick it up, you’ll be able to edit with a fresh perspective. Any writer can testify to the urge to edit while writing but all that does is slow progress. Your manuscript isn’t perfect when you finish the first time, anyway. Get used to rewriting (ask Harper Lee about that!).
How is the publishing process? Any advice?
My story about getting published is a complete fluke. The one thing I’ll tell you is that I think I have a good idea about what people will find interesting so when I wrote ’57, Chicago I was pretty certain it would sell. That was incredibly naïve but ultimately true. The publishing process just fifteen years ago was markedly different. It was competitive but publishers were willing to take risks. There is no doubt in my mind that Talk Miramax bought the rights to my book because they planned on making the movie and then figured they’d sell the book like they did the copies of the script for Pulp Fiction. Then, when they rejected two scripts and the movie went into turnaround (and I ultimately got the rights back) they didn’t quite know how to market the book. They used a great cover (which I found –a bird’s eye view of a fight at the Chicago Stadium) but that pigeonholed the book as a boxing book. It wasn’t a boxing book; it was a slice of underworld life. The Sopranos was drawing millions of viewers each week (and the Chicago Tribune actually said my book had dialogue like that of the Sopranos). But, rather than capitalize on that hunger, they opted to go with the boxing angle. Thus, when the book came out (to mostly good reviews –and the publisher did a great job getting it reviewed in USA Today, Esquire…) sales were just o.k. But, some of that can also be attributed to the bizarre book sales process. For example, I went to the Border’s Bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago one Friday afternoon and was thrilled to see a huge display of my books at the register. I introduced myself to the manager and had a nice conversation. Then, I went back on the following Monday and saw the display was gone. I asked the manager and she told me that they’d sold every copy. I was thrilled. I said, “Wow, that’s great. When do you get more copies in?” “We don’t,” she said. “That’s not the way it works. Whatever we preorder is it. If someone wants it, we can order it for them.” How crazy is that. Believe me, I’m not complaining as much as illuminating some issues in the publishing industry. I came to realize that the publishing industry is a really poorly run business. Frankly, that’s why I really respect the POD and eBook publishers and distributors. The bookie in mean appreciates the lack of risk.
My advice is fairly typical: Write what you know (or research the heck out of your subject until you really know it) and write because you enjoy the process –not because you assume it will sell. And finally, do not quit your day job. You need the experience of real work and the real world. Writing can be an incredibly isolating experience. I could stop working and just write but I don’t see the point.
What’s next for you?
I’m finishing research for the follow up to Pursuit and also completing a screenplay (so only writing one thing!).
Okay now for some lighter questions.
Coffee or Tea?
Coffee and lots of it until about 10:00 a.m.
Do you write more in the morning, afternoon or at night?
Night. But, I research during the day (mostly weekends or really early morning).
Are you an early bird or night owl?
Definitely an early bird. I get up at 4:30 every day, including weekends. That’s when I start the binge coffee drinking.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I read a little of everything. I love good crime novels but have to be surprised. I can’t enjoy books like Gone Girl when I see the twist a mile away.
Is there a book that you wish you could have written?
Homicide, Life on the Streets by David Simon. Genius.
What is your favorite book at the moment?
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. It’s a heartbreaking look at crime in inner city Los Angeles, and is a social study that becomes very personal tales. I should also throw in Don Winslow’s The Cartel because the timing of the escape of El Chapo right when Don’s book came out simply can’t be made up. His book Power of the Dog is excellent too (and the prequel to The Cartel). Skip Savages and read The Cartel (right after Pursuit).
Is there anything else you would like for your readers to know?
If you read my novels, note that nearly everything in the background of the first two is true –from the murder of the banker in ’57, Chicago to the kidnapping of the policy racketeer Ed Jones in ’46, Chicago. Pursuit is pure fiction but was inspired by the events leading up to the Family Secrets trial in Chicago when the FBI pulled back surveillance on some guys they were about to indict and they fled. They found a heinous hitman living in a small town in Kentucky, paying cash for rent and I thought that was incredibly creepy –the guy sitting at the diner every morning, asking you to pass the sugar was actually this horrendous murderer… Then, I thought, “What if that guy hadn’t left Chicago but, rather, had murdered someone in the suburbs and worked his way downtown?” The results was Pursuit. The quote prefacing the book pretty much sums it all up. Sophocles wrote, “He escapes who is not pursued.” You see that on signs in homicide detective’s offices. Finally, I love reader feedback. I can be reached at http://www.stevemonroebooks.com Thanks for this opportunity. It was fun!
Thank you Steven for chatting with me – I love how long and detailed your answers are it helps me feel like I got to know you. It takes a lot for me not to edit while I write but I’m really going to try to stop and just get through this first draft. You’re amazing and I’m so glad you participated in this interview with me – thanks again!
Check out his latest book The Pursuit, scheduled to publish August 11, 2011.
Present day: A major mob bust going down. The FBI pulls back surveillance, a killer flees. There’s slaughter in the ’burbs of Chicago; a murderer heads downtown. Why did he do it? Where is he going? Above all, what will he do next?
Detective Wallace Greer and his partner, Romar Jones, are hot on the killer’s trail. They give chase through the Gold Coast and its tony restaurants, under the El in the East Loop, by Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, following the evidence, but always slightly behind; bodies mark the route. Five days in a cold Chicago winter. Motives collide. Psyches split. There’s no rest, no time; it’s all angles and action. They have to head off the killer, prevent killings too close to home. But can they catch him? Kill him? There’s only one way to find out.