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Interview: February 8, 2024

In the vein of Get Out and RAZORBLADE TEARS, SMOKE KINGS is Jahmal Mayfield’s widely praised debut novel. This powerful and propulsive work of fiction asks us to consider what would happen if reparations were finally charged and exacted. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Mayfield talks about his inspiration for writing his first book and the challenges that went along with it. He also pays tribute to the authors who influenced him the most to become a novelist and offers his thoughts on the state of the book publishing industry and how it has changed in the last decade.

Question: A first novel is always the result of special effort. For how long did you have this book in mind before you actually sat down and began writing? And what was the most difficult obstacle in the writing process for you to overcome?

Jahmal Mayfield: SMOKE KINGS percolated for about three years before I sat down to really start writing in earnest. My little cousin was murdered during the summer of 2018. I sat with the unnecessary violence that ended his life for two years. Then we had the summer of George Floyd, and I knew I had to channel my rage with a novel. I think initially the earliest drafts were all rage. Over time, I had to acknowledge to myself that issues surrounding race are far more complicated than most of us are comfortable with admitting. I worked hard to set aside some of that initial rage to write a conversation piece instead. The early reviews leave me feeling that I might have been successful in this endeavor. I'm particularly pleased about that.

Q: Which authors can you point to as your primary influences in helping you come to the decision to write SMOKE KINGS?

JM: I stand on the shoulders of so many fantastic crime writers. Each is important to me for a different reason. Walter Mosley because his work has always been unapologetically Black. Dennis Lehane for his courage to step away from the winning formula of his Kenzie and Gennaro PI novels to stretch his literary muscles with MYSTIC RIVER. James Lee Burke because his work manages to be gritty, brutal and beautiful all at the same time. Lee Child with his Jack Reacher novels because he strips away any fat and just leaves you with a propulsive tale of somewhat good versus decidedly bad.

With that last one, in some circles Reacher might be considered a psychopath. There are certainly some shades of gray to how he operates. And yet loyal readers will follow him wherever Child takes them. I loved that idea because I knew there would be some moral uncertainties regarding a few of the characters in my novel. But could readers still root for them?

Q: Presumably you will write a second novel at some point. When it’s time to do that, what is one tactical change you intend to make from the way you approached the writing of SMOKE KINGS?

JM: I'm actually working on something now. So far, my process hasn't changed very much. I like to understand some of the "bones" of the story, meaning some key brushstrokes, characters and their challenges, and what the novel is trying to say. These are the things that ultimately hold the novel together. I enjoy the little surprises that occur once I get writing, so I don't overplan at the outset. From there, butt in chair and pencil to pad. I write my first few drafts in longhand until I feel good about the output, and then I transcribe my work to a computer.

Q: It’s not that common for a crime novel to take on the issue of social injustice as overtly as you do in this book. Can you name one or two classic crime novels that paved the way for what you’ve accomplished in SMOKE KINGS?

JM: I can answer that by pointing to a few contemporary novels rather than classics. One, I was simply blown away by Steph Cha's YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY. She did a yeoman's job of getting to the "heart" of the unrest that was occurring in Los Angeles in the ’90s. Her work was sort of a blueprint for me, in what I hoped to accomplish once I started working on SMOKE KINGS. Another for me is Attica Locke's PLEASANTVILLE. Politics and murder --- what a winning combination.

Q: The state of the book publishing industry in the 2020s continues to morph into new shapes and boundaries. What do you miss most about the way the business operated in past decades? And what is the biggest boon you see in the past 5-10 years?

JM: I'm fond of saying "reader first, writer second," which offers some insight into how I feel about this publishing journey I'm on. I think from a reader's perspective, the way we discover books we'd like to read has changed dramatically. Writers are sort of quasi-performers now to capture readers. I can't imagine Walter Mosley or George Pelecanos doing TikTok videos to grab my curiosity back in the ’90s when I first discovered their work. Nonetheless, I do enjoy engaging on my social media accounts. I think this need to get out in front of readers in more tangible mediums will only continue. And, honestly, I'm not upset about it because I love learning about the writers behind the books I love.

Q: Looking back on some of the past masters of the crime fiction world from the previous century, whose career would you most like to emulate over the next 25 years?

JM: Agatha Christie is, I believe, the best-selling novelist of all time. I write a very different kind of book, for sure, but you can't argue with how ubiquitous her work is. Who wouldn't want to emulate that kind of success? But in all seriousness, she was a master at plotting. And her books were sort of a time capsule of the moment. I would love for readers to be able to take a pulse of the times by reading a Jahmal Mayfield novel.

Q: A story as dramatic as the one you tell in SMOKE KINGS would appear to be a natural for adaptation into either a film or a miniseries. As a longtime aficionado of the form, which noir or crime novel would you argue was best served in the adaptation process?

JM: I'll answer this not necessarily based solely on merit, but more so on emotional resonance. I remember reading Walter Mosley's DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS and just falling in love with Easy Rawlins, Mouse and all of the other fantastic characters who populate a Mosley novel.

When the movie came out five years later, it didn't really matter to me if it was any good. I was sold. Fortunately, I love Carl Franklin as a director. And then you throw in Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, Tom Sizemore and Jennifer Beals. That's a winning formula.