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Interview: July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009

Henry Perez is a former television producer and journalist who recently published his debut novel, KILLING RED, a suspense thriller about a serial murderer on death row whose crimes are being replicated by a copycat killer. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Perez compares and contrasts himself to his reporter protagonist, Alex Chapa, and discusses his and other characters' evolutions throughout the course of the story. He also describes his favorite aspect of the writing process, shares his thoughts on the current state of print media, and reveals what readers can look forward to in his follow-up novel, MOURN THE LIVING.

Please note: This interview contains slight spoilers. If you haven't read KILLING RED yet, you may want to proceed with caution as some plot details are revealed in this interview. I loved the premise behind KILLING RED, your first novel. A reporter named Alex Chapa is interviewing Kenneth Lee Grubb, a convicted serial killer who is less than a week away from being executed and learns that another killer, in tribute to Grubb, is busily completing the work that Grubb has left undone. This puts Chapa in a race against time to rescue Annie Sykes --- nicknamed “Red” by Grubb --- before the shadowy killer can reach her and, as Grubb puts it, complete the cycle. We’ve all heard of serial killers; tribute killers, not so much. Are there many of them out there? Are they operating below the radar? And do you think that the Internet makes it easier for them to stay in contact?

Henry Perez: I did some research regarding serial killers and the investigation of crimes believed to be the work of serial killers as part of my background prep for KILLING RED. As far as tribute or copycat killers are concerned, the info and evidence seems to be a bit dicey. Even law enforcement officials sometimes disagree as to what constitutes a copycat crime.

Serial killers, sadly, have become a very real part of our culture. We know they’re out there, and some folks seem to have a strange and twisted fascination with them. That’s something that I addressed a little bit in KILLING RED. As far as the issue of the Internet, we’re all aware of how it’s made it much easier for anyone to get in contact with or find like-minded people. That includes those who want to reconnect with old friends, but also others who may have darker purposes in mind.

BRC: Kenneth Lee Grubb is the book's most frightening character. Even in prison, and in chains, counting down the days to his execution, he is possessed with a malice and a propensity for danger to the extent that he seems to almost jump off of the page. Is Grubb based upon a real-world model, or does he possess a combination of characteristics of a number of death row killers?

HP: There is no specific real-world model for Grubb, but following up on what I said earlier, we have no trouble accepting that someone like that could be out there. In the case of Kenny Lee Grubb, I began the book knowing what his crimes were, and also the motivation behind them. The other details of his life emerged during the process of writing KILLING RED. That worked really well for me as a writer, because it was as though I learned about Grubb in the same way that the reader learns about him.

BRC: Alex Chapa bears a couple of obvious similarities to you, given that he is a reporter for a Chicago newspaper and emigrated from Cuba at an early age. In what other ways is Alex Chapa similar to Henry Perez?

HP: He also lives in the same area that I live and grew up in, but really other than that, I don’t believe I’m much like Alex Chapa. I like to think of myself as being a determined, driven person, which Chapa certainly is. He has a bad-penny quality to him, in that he just keeps turning up no matter how many times people try to get rid of him. Once he sets his mind to doing what needs to be done, you’d pretty much have to put Alex Chapa six feet under to keep him from doing his level best. But, with Chapa, in the course of doing his job and simply conducting his life, he very much believes that the ends sometimes, perhaps even often, justify the means. As a result, he does certain things that I would never do. But that’s the fun of being a novelist. You get to live vicariously through your characters.

BRC: Chapa is a very real-world character, given that he is not instantly transformed into a tough guy by adversity. He, in fact, gets pretty banged up during the course of the novel and more often than not has to be rescued himself. Yet, he has a very strong though subtle element of bravery about him, being ready to stand up and be counted when the occasion calls for it. How did Chapa evolve as a character? Is the Alex Chapa we meet the same individual you originally conceived when you began writing the book?

HP: What I said before about Grubb is also true about Chapa. To some extent, when KILLING RED was in its infancy, before I’d ever put anything on the page, it was the Annie Sykes story. It was the story of a survivor. Alex Chapa was then the vehicle for telling that story. As the book began to emerge, I realized that at its core KILLING RED was about the fear that parents have for their children’s safety and well-being. It clearly became Chapa’s story, his journey, and his discovery of Annie’s story.

In regard to how Chapa evolved as a character, I’ve always been fascinated by people who are exceptional at what they do professionally, especially the ones whose life away from work is something of a disaster. We see this with athletes, politicians, millionaire businessmen, highly successful people who can’t maintain a relationship, let alone a viable marriage, who are estranged from their children. Someone who can be a genius when it comes to making money, writing music, or hitting a baseball, but struggle with those aspects of their lives that are second nature to the rest of us.

Alex Chapa is an outstanding reporter. He has an innate sense of what makes a good story, and an absolute determination to uncover the truth. That’s just who he is. But he’s divorced, and understands that he played a significant role in the failure of his marriage. He’s estranged from his daughter, and doesn’t have a particularly good relationship with most of his co-workers. He doesn’t have a lot of money, certainly not much in the way of savings, and his car is falling apart. So he escapes into his work. It’s what he knows he’s good at, and there’s something of a comfort zone there for him. Most of the choices he makes are the product of that dichotomy.

BRC: There are a number of very chilling scenes in KILLING RED. One of them concerns Chapa’s visit to a place called “Traveling Killer Museum.” Does such a place actually exist? If so, have you visited it? If not, was there any particular place or event that inspired it?

HP: Before I answer, let me mention that there is a spoiler element to this particular question/answer. So anyone who hasn’t read KILLING RED may want to skip this one.

The Traveling Killer Museum, as I imagined it, is an urban legend about a nomadic entity that just turns up in barren cornfields and deserted areas all over the country. When I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, traveling carnivals would show up on the outskirts of town once a year or every couple of years. And they were not like the ones you see today that consist of a smattering of creaky rides in a strip-mall parking lot. These were large, full-blown affairs with midways and honest-to-goodness carnies. There was something exciting about how they would appear for a short while then just pack up and move on. But there was also something weird, edgy, and slightly dangerous about the whole thing. I think that may have served as something of an inspiration. A number of people have commented on it, so it would appear that the concept is having an impact on readers.

BRC: Speaking of chilling scenes, I have a number of phobias, and you managed to nail two of them quite well. Specifically, there is a claustrophobic scene at the beginning of the book, wherein Annie Sykes is semi-buried alive, and near the end, where Chapa’s unique method of breaking and entering will have acrophobics everywhere cringing, but enjoying it. What circumstances set your heart pounding and raise your anxiety level? Or are you phobic-free?

HP: I don’t have any phobias, at least none that I’m aware of. I suppose you don’t necessarily know which phobias you may have until you find yourself in a certain situation. The cool thing about writing those scenes, like the opening that you mentioned and several others in the book, is that my own pulse starts racing as I write them. I write those scenes much faster than any others. I’ll be in the middle of one, and the next time I look up at the clock an hour or more has come and gone, and I’ve knocked out over 1,000 words. I feel something of a thrill ride sensation as I’m writing those scenes, and hopefully that excitement ends up on the page and can be experienced by the reader.

BRC: I enjoyed the interplay between Chapa and Joseph Andrews, an FBI agent who as Chapa’s unlikely friend functions as a sharp-edged foible to Chapa’s rumpled presentation. How did you go about developing the relationship? And at what point in writing KILLING RED did you decide to make their friendship an integral part of the work?

HP: I always knew Chapa was going to have a foil. Andrews was in the book right from the beginning. Just as Chapa is a person who doesn’t always color inside the lines, Andrews lives his life by a strict code of behavior. He has a strong sense of right and wrong that dictates his decisions. Chapa is something of a journalistic throw-back who believes it’s his responsibility to get the story, find the truth, and communicate it to the rest of the world. If that means he sometimes has to ignore the rules, bend or break them, then so be it. His first responsibility is to the story and his readers.

Through his interaction with Andrews, the reader gains some insight into who Alex Chapa is. The other thing I wanted to do with those two characters was explore the way men who have a long-standing friendship and a lot of history together talk to each other, and the verbal shorthand that they use. I haven’t read a lot of books that capture that interplay in the way that I have experienced it in my own life.

You asked me earlier if I was like Chapa, I think there’s bit of Chapa and Andrews in me.

BRC: While we are on the topic of secondary characters in KILLING RED, one of my favorites was George Initsch, the neighborhood buttinski who makes a brief but memorable appearance as the story comes to a conclusion. What is the story behind Initsch? Is he one of your old gym teachers, a good friend, or a bully from your childhood?

HP: I’m very fond of minor characters who seem to have their own narrative going on that extends beyond their appearance in the book, as though their story is intersecting Chapa’s for just a short while. There are several characters like that in KILLING RED. Whether it’s Agent Sandro, Louise Jones, Chico the bouncer at Prather’s, or George Initch, each has his or her own story, but we’re only going to get a glimpse of it. I want my characters, no matter how brief their appearance in the book, to leave an impression on the reader.

BRC: Prather’s, a fictitious Chicago jazz bar where a couple of pivotal events take place, was another of my favorite elements of KILLING RED. You have indicated elsewhere that you named the bar as a tribute to Richard Prather, whose paperback Shell Scott novels you discovered as a teenager. What other authors did you discover at an early age who have since influenced your work?

HP: I don’t know to what extent Richard Prather influenced my work, my writing is nothing like his. But he did add to my enjoyment of genre fiction at a time when I found much of what I was reading in school to be quite boring. The pulp writers of the ’50s and ’60s knew how to entertain their readers, that’s one thing I learned from them.

I also learned from reading writers like Ross Thomas, who knew how to create settings that functioned as characters in his novels, and Elmore Leonard, who catapults his readers into a scene and makes every sentence count. But as much as I love crime fiction, my favorite book is THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, which doesn’t contain a single corpse --- unless you count the fish --- or a femme fatale.

BRC: One of your former professors happens to be David Morrell, who is universally acknowledged as the father of the modern action novel. What do you consider to be the most valuable element of knowledge that you have acquired from him?

HP: I admire the way David Morrell reveals who his characters are through plotting and action without ever allowing the story to slow down. That is not always an easy thing to do, and he does it as well as anyone. He also taught me the importance of engaging the senses in setting a scene or describing a place. That it’s not enough to simply rely on vision. David’s love of craft is contagious, and I’ve never known anyone who knew more about the art of telling a good story.

BRC: Like Alex Chapa in KILLING RED, you have worked as a newspaper reporter for over a decade. What is your personal favorite of all of the stories that you have written? And which story, if any, did you like the least?

HP: I’ve found something to like about most of the newspaper stories I’ve written. I supposed the less interesting ones are no longer taking up space in my gray matter. I’ve done all sorts of stories over the years. I’ve written about bagpipe competitions, people who’ve survived terrible tragedies, joined an Australian Rules Football team here in the U.S. as part of a story, and interviewed professional athletes and celebrities. It always comes down to finding the human element, and the passion that drives a person to do something.

BRC: You are a reporter and an author, both of which share the skills not only of writing but also of storytelling. What do you consider to be the biggest difference between the two occupations?

HP: As a novelist I get to make stuff up, and that’s fun. The key is to get to the core of the story. In both fiction and journalism, you begin with the surface details, then work your way inside.

Writing for a newspaper has taught me the value of each and every word, since your space on the page is usually limited. You either become very measured, or you go do something else. But ultimately, storytelling is storytelling. What makes a novel captivating is not that much different than what makes a good newspaper story.

I suppose the key difference is that when writing for a newspaper, the facts shape the story. With a novel, the story shapes the facts.

BRC: KILLING RED is your first novel, but you have had a number of short stories published in the past. What gave you the push to write a novel? How was the experience different from writing a short story? Did you find it easy or difficult to, if you will, paint on a much larger canvas?

HP: I love short fiction, but I always planned to write novels. As a kid I would read those Alfred Hitchcock paperback collections. But I was truly fascinated by the way novelists revealed their stories over the course of several hundred pages. I enjoy the large canvas, and much of what I’ve learned as a journalist carried over into the writing of my novel. I’m a fairly disciplined writer, by which I mean that I’m pretty good about staying on message and not letting my prose go on a walkabout in the middle of a chapter.

In a sense, I approach each chapter in my books in the same way that I would a short story. Most have a beginning, a middle and an end, which in turn serves to hook the reader into the next one.

BRC: You have a family and currently continue to work as a newspaper reporter. How do you carve time out of your day to write a novel? Have you changed your work schedule or habits at all while writing your second novel from when you were writing KILLING RED?

HP: There is a difference between the way I wrote KILLING RED and how I’m writing my second book. My first book was something of an indulgence since I had no way of knowing whether anyone would buy it. Now I have a book deal, which makes the writing of my second novel more like a job. I don’t mean that in a bad way, quite the contrary. There is something that is truly energizing about knowing that you’re working on a book that will be published. Writing has never been a chore for me, and I have no idea what writer’s block feels like. You make the time to write, it’s that simple, and my family is wonderful about it.

BRC: Now that you have completed the process of writing and publishing a novel, is there anything that you wish that you had done differently during the course of getting your story out of your head and into the hands of your readers?

HP: Every novel is a snapshot of who the author was and what they wanted to say at the time that they wrote it. I spent a great deal of time revising KILLING RED, and getting it to where it was the book I wanted it to be. Once the final version was turned in, I closed that door, at least from a creative standpoint. I’m absolutely thrilled with the way it turned out.

BRC: Writing has been your occupation for over 10 years, whether reporting or writing short fiction, and now novels. What do you see yourself doing for a living if you were not writing or reporting?

HP: I’m a storyteller, it’s what I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve worked in television and video, and always wound up back in the same place. I’m a storyteller. If I was tossed into another profession, any profession, I would eventually be writing about it, or shooting film. And it wouldn’t necessarily be a conscious decision. It’s just something that I need to do.

BRC: On a somewhat related note, one of the more interesting sub-plots of KILLING RED deals with the gradual downsizing taking place at the Chicago Record, the newspaper for which Chapa works. What do you think will happen with print journalism? Do you think it will gradually disappear, undergo a catharsis, or continue to exist, even in a somewhat diminished form?

HP: Print journalism is in trouble right now, but I do believe it will continue to exist. The industry is going through a very tough time, and that’s an issue that plays an even greater role in my second book.

BRC: Some authors have a love/hate relationship with the act of writing. What is your favorite part of the process of putting words to paper or monitor, as the case may be? And what, if anything, about the process do you like the least?

HP: I love the feeling that comes from having created something that had not existed 24 hours earlier. That’s true whether it’s a character, a setting, or a scene. There’s nothing like the sense that you’ve invented something that will eventually become very real to other people. I’ve been asked about some of the locations in KILLING RED, each of which began with an idea and a blank page. There’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment that comes with that.

BRC: You have been a vociferous reader of genre fiction since you were a teenager. What have you read in the past six months or so that you would recommend to our readers?

HP:I was quite fond of a book by Sean Doolittle called THE CLEANUP. I loved Victor Gischler’s very strange and wildly original GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE. I first discovered Victor several years ago when I read his incredible debut, GUN MONKEYS. But GO-GO GIRLS is like nothing I’ve ever read before. I read a lot of Chicago crime writers, and I especially like Sean Chercover, who writes modern P.I. novels as well as anyone, and Marcus Sakey, who is a marvelous storyteller and brilliant wordsmith. I just finished Lisa Jackson’s MALICE. It has a terrific set-up, and I’m always impressed by her ability to deliver a twist at just the right moment. As for pure storytelling, I was blown away by AFRAID by Jack Kilborn. It’s like a jet-powered ride. And of course, I’m looking forward to reading Morrell’s THE SHIMMER.

BRC: What can you tell us about your next novel? Is it completed? And will we be seeing more of Alex Chapa, and possibly some of the other characters, good and bad, from KILLING RED?

HP: My next novel is titled MOURN THE LIVING, and it picks up five days after the end of KILLING RED. It’s not a follow-up in the strict sense, however, as the Grubb/Annie Sykes story is over. In MOURN THE LIVING Chapa takes on a new assignment after a fellow reporter dies under unusual circumstances. I’m working on it now, and really enjoying the process. It will be out next year.

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