Interview: August 6, 2010
Henry Perez follows up last year’s acclaimed thriller, KILLING RED, with MOURN THE LIVING, which finds reporter Alex Chapa investigating a serial killer with an unusual calling card who is responsible for the murder of a friend and colleague. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Perez discusses the different elements he had woven together to create the plot of this story and speculates on the appeal of journalists in mystery fiction. He also mentions a few current favorite reads, shares his thoughts on the future of the newspaper industry, and recounts some of his own colorful experiences as a journalist chasing stories.
Bookreporter.com: MOURN THE LIVING is the second novel to feature Chicago Record reporter Alex Chapa. Following the death of a friend and fellow reporter, Alex finds himself on the path, and in the target, of a serial killer who has been moving from city to city, and with a purpose. For me, one of the most interesting elements of the book is the killer’s motivation. To put it another way, the “why” behind the murders --- both as to reason and choice of victims --- is as important as the “who” behind the killings. If you would, put us behind your writing desk when you first conceived MOURN THE LIVING. With what element of the story did you begin? Which came first --- the killer, victims, or motive? And did the conclusion of the story occur in the manner in which you originally conceived of it?
Henry Perez: I knew how MOURN THE LIVING would end before I began writing it. That was also the case with KILLING RED.
This story emerged from two separate themes. The first was Alex Chapa’s ongoing struggle to re-establish and maintain a relationship with his daughter Nikki. That situation was brought to a head at the end of KILLING RED, and I knew then that if I wrote a follow-up it would have to pick up that thread right away. As a result, MOURN THE LIVING begins just a few days after KILLING RED ends.
The second theme concerned the role that patronage and favoritism plays in our politics and business dealings, and the question of how far some people or organizations would go to protect one of their own. Could a mass murderer operate within a business or political matrix if he or she helped others make money or stay in power?
I got to know the antagonist in MOURN THE LIVING as I wrote the book. Starting out, I knew the “how” --- I had to, since his M.O. is integral to the plot. But the “why” revealed itself to me just as I hope it does to the reader. There’s a flashback regarding the character’s background in chapter 40 that truly broke my heart as I wrote it. In an odd way, I have a great deal of sympathy for this character.
BRC: In MOURN THE LIVING, the serial killer leaves a carefully hidden drawing of a stick man at the scene of the murders. There is actually what may or may not be a real-world urban legend involving a similar symbol that supposedly has been left at the scenes of murders and abductions nationwide, including Seattle, Atlanta and Columbus. It is unknown whether this is being done by one person, a network of people, or is simply the work of copycats who are familiar with the legend. Are you awar of this occurrence? Did it inspire the serial killer you created in MOURN THE LIVING? And what do you think about the theeory that there is a network of serial killers operating in this country, or even worldwide?
HP: There’s a visual in chapter 61 that I had in mind since before writing KILLING RED. I sensed it was good because it creeped the hell out of me when I thought of it. Then I had lunch with John Scognamiglio, my editor, and he brought up the urban legend that you referred to, a.k.a. “The Smiley Face Killings.” I was familiar with the legend, but had never given it much thought from a narrative standpoint. A few months later, I was thinking about that conversation, attached my visual to it for the first time, and a lot of the pieces I already had in mind suddenly fell into place.
Sometimes it just happens that way, and it’s a beautiful thing when it works.
BRC: You and Alex Chapa appear to have much in common, not the least of which is your shared occupation as newspaper reporters. A thread that runs through MOURN THE LIVING is Alex’s concern that he will lose his job due to the state of the newspaper industry. If you were made czar of this industry for one day, what would you do to turn things around for newspapers? Or have the times and technology started tolling the bell for the dailies?
HP: Actually, we have relatively little in common, and I’m determined to keep it that way, although, yes, we’ve both had a few bylines in newspapers.
You’ve just asked me a question that many if not most reporters would love to be asked, so here goes. The newspaper industry as a whole was slow to respond to the changes in the way readers get their information, in the same way that the music industry was slow to respond to the changes in their area of media.
At this point, the key to the industry’s survival is to maximize its remaining strengths. For most papers that means focusing on local news, something the Internet does not do as well. I know it isn’t sexy to talk about town council meetings and prep sports, but that’s where the small and mid-sized dailies still have an edge. Of course, the big dailies face a different set of issues. In either case, newspapers would also be wise to quit letting some of their best columnists go or cutting back on the space they’re given.
BRC: Alex Chapa is the kind of reporter who likes to get his hands dirty with a story, going out and investigating it even when it leads him into personal danger. Did you ever investigate or write a story that took you into places you regretted, or put you in personal danger, as occurs with Alex? Can you share it with us?
HP: Thankfully, I’ve never been in the sort of danger that Chapa can’t seem to stay out of. But I have found myself in interesting situations as a result of trying to get as much as I could out of a story.
I once joined an Australian Rules Football team while doing a story on the underground popularity of that sport in this country. I got my butt kicked around some, but I had a blast doing it and got a couple of darned good stories out of it. A few years ago I wrote a long piece on the skateboard and x-game culture. I wanted to focus on the people who had immersed themselves in these activities and that lifestyle more than the sports themselves. So I hung out with a group of them, was completely out of my element, but I got a solid story out of it.
Regardless of the subject, the best stories focus on the human aspect. I once did a feature on polo riders in this country, previously unaware that organized polo existed in the U.S. As I spent some time with a couple of the riders, most of whom come from South America, I learned how they spent long months away from their families as they played the circuit, from the U.S. to Europe, because that’s where the money is. That’s where I found my story. Going in, I had no clue what I was going to write about, but as Alex Chapa explains to Zach (a young intern at the Chicago Record) in MOURN THE LIVING, you have to go wherever the story takes you.
BRC: What advice would you give to someone in their early 20s if they were considering a career in writing? What sort of courses would you recommend that they take, obvious or otherwise? And do you think that courses in journalism will become a thing of the past, or will there always be a need and a market for high-quality journalism?
HP: I don’t believe journalism will become a thing of the past because we’ll always have a need for news and information, and the basic principles of journalistic writing also at the core of how to tell a good story.
College writing courses are generally good, especially when taught by established writers.
Every writer has to come at this in his or her own way, but there are certain traits that all successful writers seem to exhibit. The first is a love of reading, and anyone who hopes to become a writer must do a lot of reading. I know it seems obvious, but it’s absolutely vital. And don’t just read in the genre that you love. Try a bit of everything. Think of it as a form of literary cross-training.
And of course, writers have to write, not just “want” to write, or “plan” to write. I’m not one of those who claims to write each and every day, 365 of them a year, 1,000-word minimum, etc., though I am in awe of those can do that. I write on most days, and I’m always working on something.
BRC: While private detectives are a staple of mystery fiction, newspaper reporters have been as well. What common ground do detectives and reporters share in the real world and mystery fiction? And when you were considering career paths, did you ever think about pursuing private investigation work?
HP: I have never seriously considered becoming a detective. Of course there’s that romanticized image of Sam Spade or Philip Marlow, but I’ve known a few P.I.s and former P.I.s and the reality is quite different. I might, however, write a detective story some day, but that’s another conversation.
Detectives and reporters are both fact finders who operate outside of the system, or within a system of their own. A reporter like Alex Chapa considers himself to be, not outside of the law, exactly, but equal to it in a way. He believes (rightly or wrongly) that his job is just as vital as any police officer’s. I’m not sure most detectives see their jobs in the same way.
BRC: Many of our readers, and fans of thrillers and mysteries in general, have aspirations of writing and being published. Could you tell us, step by step, how you made this happen for you, from the point that you began your first novel to the first time you saw KILLING RED on a bookstand?
HP: I tend to jump into things with both feet, but I also like to have some sense of where I’m going to land before I leap. With that in mind, I spent quite a bit of time learning about the publishing industry, going to conferences, meeting authors and industry professionals, in an effort to learn as much as I could about how to become a successful novelist. All the while I was developing several ideas for my first book.
When the time came, I pitched my ideas to a few author friends, and the one that would become KILLING RED was deemed the most attractive. I spent about eight months writing it. I knew exactly what I wanted that book to be: Lean and mean and very fast. At the time, I did not know it would be the first in a series. Looking back now, I believe that was a good thing. Sometimes the first book in a series can be a little heavy on exposition, as the author feels committed to fully introducing the series character. I didn’t have to worry about that with Alex Chapa, since KILLING RED was written as a stand-alone. Though I was always open to the possibility of a follow-up novel.
After I polished the manuscript several times, I turned it over to my group of readers, which included friends and professional writers. After I got their input, I made another series of revisions.
During this time I was also researching agents, using not only the available reference books, but also several websites, as well as gathering information from published authors about their experiences. Eventually, I created a pecking order, and when KILLING RED was as good as I believed it could be, I queried the agent at the top of my list --- Scott Miller --- via email. He responded 20 minutes later and asked to see the manuscript and requested a two-week exclusive. He offered to represent me, and he’s been my agent ever since.
Not long after, Scott went out with the book and there was interest right away. The deal with Kensington got done without much drama. John Scognamiglio made some vital editorial suggestions that helped make KILLING RED better. I revised one more time, and my publisher took it from there.
I have been very fortunate, certainly more so than some of my colleagues.
BRC: There is a haunting quotation within the first few pages of MOURN THE LIVING: “(Y)ou’re either a good reporter or a good family man…(B)eing both would require two lifetimes.” Is that statement true, as an absolute? If so, why? If not, how does a reporter make his work life and family life function adequately?
HP: When I wrote that line, I was thinking of the old school reporters whose work and words helped shape this country. There aren’t many of them left. They are underappreciated and a dying breed. The line certainly applies to Alex Chapa.
BRC: Our readers are always interested in discovering authors who are new to them, and in knowing what their favorite authors are enjoying. What have you read in the past year that you would recommend to our readers?
HP: I’ve read a lot of great books over the past year. Among my favorites were Andrew Grant’s first two thrillers, PREY and DIE TWICE; SEVERANCE PACKAGE by Duane Swierczynski; SNOWBOUND by Blake Crouch, which I just finished; THE AMATEURS by Marcus Sakey; MIDNIGHT ROAD by Tom Piccirilli, which I read in one sitting; VICIOUS, which is yet another terrific thriller by Kevin O’Brien; and THE DEPUTY by Victor Gischler, who is one of my favorite authors. I finally read THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and found it simply magical. I also recently reached back into my college years and re-read THE GREAT GATSBY --- it still rocks. Lately, I’ve been on a major Ross Macdonald kick (speaking of P.I novels).
Q: What is next for you? Will we be seeing more of Alex Chapa in your next novel? Or will you be taking things in a different direction? Given your background, have you given any thought to writing a true crime book?
HP: While I can imagine writing a nonfiction book someday, it will not be true crime. True crime scares the heck out of me. That fear helped inspire KILLING RED and to a lesser extent MOURN THE LIVING, and is the reason I will continue to dispose of fictional villains.
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