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Interview: January 13, 2006

January 13, 2006's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Richard Hawke about his debut work of suspense, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL. Hawke reveals how the novel's plot naturally progressed from a humorous writing exercise and discusses his characters' roots as literary archetypes with contemporary twists. Read on to learn more about Hawke's influences, the ways in which he challenges himself with open-ended storylines, and the future of this very promising series. The opening scene of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is one of the best openers we've read. We never will watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade the same way again. Did you have this plot in mind from the start, or did it evolve as you started writing?

Richard Hawke: I'll tell you how this whole thing got rolling. I was frustrated with the half-dozen false starts I'd made. I was feeling very constricted in the way I was writing, way too controlling. So just to let off steam, I scribbled down a sentence about a gunman taking aim at Mother Goose. I can't explain where the image came from, and for the next several days the sentence sat there in my notebook as a joke sentence. Finally I came to my senses and realized that the joke sentence qualified as "an inspiration." Then began the real work. Who was doing the shooting? Why was he aiming at Mother Goose? And who was the witness to the shooting who was reporting it to the reader? Omniscient or a first-person narrator? Initially, I envisioned a father with his children or an uncle with his nieces....

But when I realized that I'd want my protagonist to chase after the gunman and surely a father or uncle wouldn't leave the kids crying on a crazed sidewalk like that, I ditched the kids. And once I put the scene into a first-person narrator's voice, the guy was so clearly a New York City detective that I quite honestly had no more choice in the matter. And so, with those kernels in place (the shooting, the detective), I settled in to do the grunt work: devising the plot.

BRC: Malone is a very complex character, the depths of whom we're only beginning to see in SPEAK OF THE DEVIL. How much of Malone is drawn from your own personality and background?

RH: Essentially, zero. Well, maybe that's a partial fib. My family background, while different in detail from Malone's, does involve some missing parents and half-siblings and the like. To the extent that the conditions of our early lives leave lasting imprints and influence the way we look at the world, I suppose it could be argued that Fritz and I have some components in common. (did I just say "components in common"?)

BRC: Fritz Malone, Margo and Charlie are well-rounded, appealing characters. Were these characters each inspired by someone in particular?

RH: Absolutely not. To a large extent, they're might even say, classic types. I find that I enjoy pitching a contemporary story so that at the same time it reads somewhat retro. In that regard, Fritz, Margo and Charlie are all of an earlier era. But I don't want to simply dabble in clichés, so I work to mix the components of the characters up a little. They have one foot in the romanticized fictional past and one foot in the present. But as to whether they're actually based on people I know or have met? Nope.

BRC: One of the impressive elements of SPEAK OF THE DEVIL is the manner in which you sprinkled future unresolved plot lines throughout the narrative. There are the whereabouts of Malone's father, Malone's past relationship with Jenny Gray, Jig's background, and many others. Have you already sorted out how you're going to resolve these and other issues that you raise in SPEAK OF THE DEVIL? At this time how many books do you envision for the series?

RH: I haven't sorted out any of it. One of my objectives was to avoid giving the book the feel of the first book in a series. I didn't want a "And Now, Introducing Fritz Malone" feel to the book. So in sprinkling some of those unresolved bits in there, I'm hoping that people will feel that they've stumbled upon a character already in progress. Additionally, I've learned that it helps me as a writer to throw down challenges to myself. Essentially, that's what the very first line or the very first scene of a book is --- a challenge to me to come up with some answers. Issues like, 'what was up with Fritz and Jenny Gray?', and 'what exactly did happen to Fritz's father?' are questions that I enjoy having on file in my head.

When you read the follow-up to SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, you're going to discover (as I did when I was writing it) that Fritz's mother has a decidedly different take on what might have become of Fritz's father. To the degree that I am saying 'stay tuned' to the reader, I'm saying the same thing to myself. As for how many books I envision in the set number. Both the marketplace and my own ability --- and willingness --- to keep Fritz and company fresh will determine the answer.

BRC: What special challenges, if any, did you encounter while researching and writing a crime novel set in post-9/11 NY, particularly a novel focusing on a (fictional) mayor?

RH: I'll probably take some flak for this, but in all honesty, the events of 9/11 did not loom in my head while I was writing the book. Actually, I risk the flak by saying that I didn't feel any particular responsibility to ladle the events and issues of 9/11 and post-9/11 into my book. I live in New York City, and from my kitchen window I could see the smoke rising from the buildings. Of course, it was a jolting experience to go through. But the New York City of my book is a blend of the real and the imagined. My mayor, who you mention, is certainly not based on a real mayor. My job isn't to report, it's to entertain. 9/11 is something I feel no need to shy away from, nor an obligation to include. Believe me, I have strong feelings on the topic. But I'm pretty sure that my feelings on the topic would make for lousy entertainment, so I leave them out of my books.

BRC: You have indicated elsewhere that one of the earliest influences on your writing was Batman. This might seem surprising until one remembers that Batman is also known as "The Darknight Detective," a fitting description for Fritz Malone as well. Could you tell us some of your other literary influences? And what authors do you presently read for pleasure?

RH: In the crime fiction world, the perfect book remains Michael Malone's TIME'S WITNESS --- a fantastic sense of place (the North Carolina Piedmont), funny, infuriating, wonderful characters, and a story that is gripping and beautifully told, beautifully written. If I could have written that book, and maybe PRESUMED INNOCENT, I could probably go to my crime writer's grave a happy man. As for influences, I'd have to say, particularly concerning urban crime writers, I like to think that if you were to put Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block and Robert Parker in a blender and hit the on-switch, you'd have the perfect Hawketail.

Concerning non-crime fiction, I'm all over the map. Richard Russo has never let me down. Philip Roth's THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA is the best book I've read in years. I could easily string together a list of favorite books and you'd probably see scant similarities between them as well as no direct connection to what I do as a crime writer. I also dip into nonfiction whenever I can, often getting hung up on yet another book about Colonial and Revolutionary-era America, the founding fathers and that whole crowd.

BRC: One of the similarities we noted between SPEAK OF THE DEVIL and the Batman mythos is the proliferation of quirky, unusual characters who surround Fritz Malone. While not as odd as, say, The Penguin or The Joker, such characters as Charlie Burke, Jenny Gray, and the inimitable Jigs Dugan all have mysterious pasts and stories to tell. Will we be seeing more of these characters in future novels? And do you have additional characters who you are waiting to introduce?

RH: Oh sure, Jigs shows up in the second book. He's pretty much Fritz's dirty work guy. I've got a thing about keeping Fritz from behaving overly nasty, so Jigs is convenient in that regard. Plus, harking back to an earlier question, I'm very psyched to investigate the history of Jigs and Fritz. I suspect they were into some pretty hairy and scary stuff together in the Hell's Kitchen youth. Charlie? He'll be back. Jenny Gray? You'll have to check with Margo about that one. As for additional characters, I don't have any particular ones in mind, but I know full well that Fritz's crowd will grow. I don't intend to jam them all into each book, but will let the story determine who gets to play.

BRC: SPEAK OF THE DEVIL provides an impressive, and panoramic, view of New York City, with Malone not confining himself to any particular area. What is your favorite part of the city?

RH: No one who lives in New York for any period of time can have a single favorite part of the city. If you allow yourself, a visit to any particular neighborhood or area can invoke a completely singular mood. I was walking in the West Village during the recent subway and bus strike, drinking in the 'romance' of the tree-lined streets and the wonderful brick buildings...when I came across the building where the Weather Underground accidentally exploded a bomb they were working on back in the '60s (I believe). The rebuilt version of the building stands out among the others on the block. There was a Christmas tree in its bay window. A crazy history like that, and there it was, all ready for kids to open gifts on Christmas morning. Of course a person can play that imagination game anywhere...but for my money, the variety of locations and environments provided by this city is a real treasure trove.

BRC: While you have resided in New York City for a number of years, you were born and raised in the South. Do you plan on using a southern city, such as Birmingham or Atlanta, as a settling for a future novel involving Fritz Malone or someone else?

RH: As far as I can answer this one is to say that I'm remaining open to storylines that would allow Fritz to get out of town once in a while (all New Yorkers need to get out of town once in a while). As to where he'd go, north, south, east, west, time will tell.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

RH: I'm finishing up work on the second Fritz Malone book. While Fritz still keeps his humor, I have to say that the book is a touch more grim, a touch more menacing than SPEAK OF THE DEVIL. I thought it would be wise to take Fritz out of his comfort zone a little and to see how he fared. Also, a secondary character wandered into the book and threatened to take over. That character and Fritz end up on a parallel track (of sorts). There's a little more 'demon facing' in the new book. Look for it this time next year.