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We love these summer months and the gorgeous weather, but sometimes it's nice to seek the refuge of air conditioning and settle down with a good book. This month we interview two debut novelists who are introducing new series. Both first novels are set in undeniably hot locations: Terry Shames' A Killing at Cotton Hill, the first Samuel Craddock mystery, takes place in the fictional town of Jarrett Creek, Texas and John Florio's Sugar Pop Moon, the first Jersey Leo novel, is set in Prohibition-era Hell's Kitchen, New York.
A Killing at Cotton Hill introduces retired police chief Samuel Craddock, "a man readers are going to love," according to author Bill Crider. "[You'll] want to visit him and Jarrett Creek often." In this first mystery, Craddock steps in for the current chief of police (who doubles as the town drunk) when his old friend Dora Lee Parjeter is murdered. He discovers that a lot of people may have had it in for Dora Lee. As Craddock digs to find the identity of the killer, the human foibles of Jarrett Creek's small-town residents are also revealed.
Sugar Pop Moon's protagonist, Jersey Leo, is the quintessential outsider-an albino of mixed race. Known as "Snowball" on the street, he makes a living as the bartender at a mob-run speakeasy in Hell's Kitchen. So when he inadvertently purchases counterfeit moonshine with his boss's money--a potentially fatal mistake--he must go undercover to track down the bootlegger who took him in. In a starred review, Library Journal calls this unique and gritty series opener "absolutely riveting."
Q&A with Terry Shames,
Author of A Killing at Cotton Hill:
A Samuel Craddock Novel
'Zine: Why did you choose to set A Killing at Cotton Hill in the fictional town of Jarrett Creek, Texas, which is based on the town where your grandparents lived?
Terry Shames: I wrote my first Jarrett Creek story in 1979 when I was in graduate school. It was a literary story, published in the college magazine. Even from that early time the small town where my grandparents lived had a hold on my imagination. I wrote several stories based there. So many of the stories' characters were drawn from real life, that I shied away from naming the real town. Oddly, the characters I write now don't refer to real people, but I'm used to Jarrett Creek and can move freely there, moving sites around and imagining ones that don't exist to suit my fictional purposes.
Your protagonist is Samuel Craddock, Jarrett Creek's retired chief of police. Why did you decide to focus on him rather than a current chief of police?
As a result of a workshop I took, I decided to write a book from the heart rather than from the head. And my grandfather had a hold on my heart. When I was a child I witnessed an incident in which a poor black man came to my grandfather and told him he had been hired to do some work and when he finished, the man who hired him refused to pay him. My grandfather said he'd go and talk to the employer and get it straightened out. I asked my mother why the man had come to my grandfather. She told me that my grandfather had once been mayor of the town and people still came to him because he was considered fair and honest. I wanted that man, my grandfather, as my protagonist. However, I didn't think an ex-mayor would be very interesting. As a crime writer, it seemed more useful to me to make him an ex-chief of police. By the way, my grandfather's name was Sam.
You grew up in Texas. Is there anything autobiographical in the book?
Author Photo ©
Margaretta K. Mitchel
It isn't personally autobiographical. By that I mean that none of the things in the book happened to me, or to anyone I know. But it has the depth of truth because the setting and characters are so real to me. All the residents of Jarrett Creek are people who one way or another have flitted through my life. The actual buildings and landscape in Jarrett Creek and the neighboring towns have been fictionally rebuilt to serve my purposes, and yet I could walk into one of them and tell you where the original was and how I've changed it.
Only one character in the book is based completely on a real person, and I'll never tell who it is. The others are all mixtures of people I've known. The plot is completely fabricated; and yet it could easily have happened.
What do you hope to accomplish in this series with regard to small town life? What is the overarching theme of the series?
Small town are great microcosms for exploring how people interconnect with each other. I'm interested in what people forgive each other for--and what is unforgivable. Even murder can be forgivable if you understand what drove the perpetrator to such desperation. That doesn't mean the person shouldn't be punished, but punishment is meted out by society. Forgiveness, or at least understanding, is individual. It seems to me that people will not forgive someone who acts only from self-interest. I want to know what that self-interest springs from--disappointment, childhood mistreatment, fear, to name a few.
Another thing that interests me is how people in small towns keep secrets. Some are "open" secrets, but other secrets reside with only one or two people. In both books I've written, Samuel becomes privy to deep secrets. That's because he is trustworthy. So maybe part of my theme is what makes someone worthy of other people's trust.
Murder is a serious business and yet there's a lot of humor in A Killing at Cotton Hill. How do you balance humor with the serious subject of murder?
The people I write about have everyday lives that go on despite the drama of the murder at the center of the book. In real life people do odd things all the time. The opportunity for humor lies in poking fun at people who fall down on the job of being human. I don't like mean humor. I like to poke gentle fun at people who take themselves too seriously or who are a bit clueless. But I pull out all the stops to make buffoons of characters who are mean-spirited, greedy or careless of the wants and needs of others. I like my character Jenny Sandstone. She does not suffer fools gladly and I find humor in her dry assessment of others.
Q&A with John Florio,
Author of Sugar Pop Moon:
A Jersey Leo Novel
'Zine: Let's talk about the protagonist of Sugar Pop Moon,
Jersey Leo. How is he shaped by his albinism?
The story of Jersey Leo, or as he's called on the street, "Snowball," is the story of an outsider. He doesn't fit in. He's a kind of Casper the Friendly Ghost. As hard as he tries, he's not accepted. He has albinism. He's biracial. This all makes him vulnerable; it also feeds his romantic side, he often envisions how his life would change if he could shed his albinism. I like to think of him as the voice of the outsider: he speaks for every skinny kid who has ever looked at a muscle magazine, every eight-year-old boy who wants to play centerfield in the big leagues, every average Joe who dreams of becoming the big man in town.
Why set your novel in a Hell's Kitchen speakeasy? Why Prohibition?
Well, the easy answer is that I love old movies; I'm fascinated by the imagery from that era. You've got the Depression, Prohibition, gangsters. But I think the answer is a bit deeper than that. In my case, it may come down to "writing what you know." I grew up in Queens and was a teenager in the '70s. My friends and I found an alternate society, a subculture, in bars. I don't think it's a huge leap from that barroom to a Prohibition speakeasy. We were too young to be drinking, we were breaking the law just by walking into the place-and that's what Jersey's doing as soon as he grabs his shaker. As for Hell's Kitchen, I picked a place I understood. I know New York City. And the area has such a rich history.
Your father was a cop, yet the police in the novel are cast as the enemy. Coincidence?
I had a great relationship with my dad. I had a lot of respect for him-and his job-growing up. So yes, I think it's a coincidence that the cops are the bad guys in Sugar Pop Moon. I was just writing in Jersey's point-of-view. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the cops have the power to run Jersey's world-that's the house in which I grew up, at least until my teen years when my dad became terminally ill. At that point, I found the bars--I discovered that alternate society and used it to take the edge off reality, much like Jersey does at the Pour House. I don't recommend it, but it got me through those tough times.
What were your biggest influences in creating this series?
Oh, there are so many. Dust this book and you'll find the fingerprints of every noir author I've ever read. Raymond Chandler, Budd Schulberg, some Mickey Spillane. You'll also find traces of Humphrey Bogart, a little Jimmy Cagney, some old film directors like Howard Hawks. They're all in there, yet I hope I've created something fresh, a new voice, a new look at some very human issues. I'll check in with you in a few months to see if your readers think I've done what I set out to do.
Any advice to young writers?
Read. Read a lot. Read as many hours as you write. I don't know how it helps, but it does. I've heard Stephen King reads constantly, even when out and about on his daily chores. I believe it. If your manuscript is ready, take the time to find an agent; they know what they're doing. Once you've got an agent take the same amount of time to find a good editor, one that's a good fit for your work. But first and foremost, read. Read a lot.
A Killing at Cotton Hill
"A Killing at Cotton Hill enchants with memorable
characters and a Texas backdrop as authentic as
bluebonnets and scrub cedars. A splendid debut by
a gifted writer who knows the human heart."
-Carolyn Hart, Author of Escape from Paris
"An amazing read. The poetic, literary quality
of the writing draws you into a small town and its
interesting, secret-carrying residents."
-RT Book Reviews (4 stars) (Compelling - Page-Turner)
Order your copy today!
Sugar Pop Moon
"This is a hard-boiled, Prohibition-era novel and Jersey Leo
is a well-developed, engaging character. The story moves fast, the violence is appropriate to the times, and there are laugh-out-loud moments amid the mayhem. Sure to appeal to fans of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, and...
Robert Fate's edgy Baby Shark series."
"John Florio's powerful use of historical detail slams you
into the gritty world of 1930s bootleggers, where his hero,
albino Jersey Leo, holds you down for the count. Harsh
as a slug of 190-proof moonshine."
-Rebecca Cantrell, New York Times-bestselling
author of A City of Broken Glass
Order your copy today!
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