Monday, September 22, 2014

Author Interview - Wayne Zurl

I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to mystery author, Wayne Zurl, awhile back and finally had the time to put it all together. Like me, Wayne spent his formative years as a police officer back east. He worked for the Suffolk County Police Department for twenty years and also served with the United States Army. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Me: You’re a pretty prolific writer, with something like twenty books under your belt.  As I understand, they all center around a main protagonist named Sam Jenkins. So for the uninitiated, describe your debut novel, A New Prospect, for my readers in 25 words or less.

Wayne Zurl (WZ): How about 28? What it would be like if Andy Sipowitz was hired as sheriff in Mayberry? A NEW PROSPECT is like an episode of NYPD Blue in the Smoky Mountains.

Me: Like me, you’re a former cop from New York. So how on earth did you ever get dragged into the seedy world of being a professional writer?

WZ: After I retired and left Long island, I volunteered at a Tennessee state park. One of my jobs was to help the rangers keep the French & Indian War re-enactors from bayoneting each other during the battle scenarios, but more often, I wrote publicity for the living history program. That led to selling non-fiction magazine articles—twenty-six in ten years. I thought getting paid to write was cool, but when I couldn’t dream up anything new and thrilling to say about 18th century Tennessee, I hung up my spurs. Then I needed a creative outlet and I decided to try fiction. How difficult could it be? Ha! That leads me to the next question.

Me: So Sam Jenkins made the move from New York to Tennessee, where did the idea come from to have him fight crime in the not so sleepy little town of Prospect, Tennessee?

WZ: Around the time I was contemplating a foray into the world of fiction—or making model airplanes or oil paintings—I read Robert B. Parker’s NIGHT PASSAGE, his first Jesse Stone novel. I liked the premise. Stone was a former LAPD detective who took a chief’s job in a small Massachusetts town. I asked myself: Why couldn’t I write about a retired New York detective who began a second career as the chief of a small Tennessee department? I’d been a cop and Parker wasn’t. I knew all the technicalities and details and would simply recycle old cases that I investigated or supervised and transplant them from NY to the fictional small city of Prospect. (Just for clarification and comparison, some cities in Tennessee are smaller than incorporated villages in New York.) At that time I knew nothing about the publishing business, but I was enthused, so I grabbed a pen and pad and started to write. 

Me: As a fellow policeman turned writer, I know how hard it is to accurately portray the day to day ops of a department. How did you capture the small town department environment?  Did you have any inside help from local guys when you were creating the background story?

WZ: On Long Island, we had a few small town and village departments that we assisted (especially with felonies) occasionally. I had a basic idea about the differences between large PDs with many specialized bureaus and sections and the small departments that were basically uniformed service providers. But with my protagonist coming from a big place to a small one, I’d give him an ego just slightly smaller than South Dakota and let him insist on doing his own felony investigations. In Tennessee that’s not done, so I need a little suspension of disbelief here. Prospect PD is typical of the area, twelve officers and the chief with no detectives. In my last command, when we were busy and up to strength, I had twenty-eight detectives, two secretaries, and a community service aide to work with. I wanted Sam to share this background and with his move, share in my culture shock. When I need an injection of local atmosphere or procedure, I call on a friend who works as a crime scene investigator for the county sheriff. He also provides up to date scientific and forensic information that I relay to my dinosaur friend at prospect PD.

Me: Mystery writers are an odd bunch. Alcoholic beverages aside, what, or who, would you say has influenced your work the most?

WZ: I’ve got a few favorites who I take inspiration from. Robert B. Parker for his spare and snappy minimalist style and easy going dialogue. James Lee Burke as inspiration in descriptions of people, places, and events that he often turns into sheer poetry. Joseph Wambaugh, the reigning king of police procedurals, for his style of taking seemingly unrelated police incidents and eventually meld them into a coherent storyline with a common ending. And that other guy from Long Island who writes mysteries, Nelson DeMille, who seems to have an endless supply of quality smartass dialogue coming from his protagonist, retired Detective John Corey.

Me: Most people pick up a book and don’t realize just how much WORK actually goes into writing. What would you say was the hardest part in writing?

WZ: When I have the inspiration and the ideas are flowing, writing is fun. It’s after the last word is on paper, after you finish what you consider your final edit and you’re happy with the end product that the hard work begins. If you have no idea who might want your story or book, plan on a time consuming search for a publisher. I was lucky to have tied up with a couple of publishers who handled my full-length novels and the shorter novelettes. So, for a few years, I haven’t had to worry about selling what I wrote.

That brings me to a job I detest—the post-publication marketing and promotions. I had envisioned getting published and then my only other obligation would be show up at some local bookshop, smile for the customers, and sign a few books, with the publisher’s marketing people doing what they know best, and about which I am mostly ignorant. Another misconception. The last time I worked on computers, (1967) they were seven-feet tall. Today, I’m about a step above clueless with my PC. I didn’t know a blogspot from a sunspot and Twitter was another word for a stupid person. Out of necessity, I learned and I persevere—almost daily, and under protest.

Me: When you wrote A New Prospect, did you envision it being a onetime deal, or did you have an idea that you were going to do a series of books?

WZ: I was naive when I envisioned Sam’s career at Prospect PD. I not only wanted a bunch of books, but a long running TV series or a bunch of annual TV movies. Just kidding.

Like any cop who worked a crowded and busy area, I retired with a large collection of war stories. I wanted to chronicle them all and that would call for numerous books. I ended up compositing two or more actual incidents which, with a minimum of manipulation, fit together in a more readable and interesting story. This has worked for four novels and more than twenty novelettes.

We all know that police work is not always a thrill a minute, so fictionalizing and embellishing the real stuff takes them from potentially mundane semi-autobiographical sketches that might sound like a police report to what I hope comes across as good fiction.

Me: When I was writing my first novel, I had this vision of ‘and they lived happily ever after’ playing out in my mind. That didn’t work out quite so well. Did your original idea for the ending actually survive until the end or did you alter it along the way?

WZ: When I finished my first draft of A NEW PROSPECT, I hired a “book doctor” to evaluate the manuscript. He gave me good news and bad news. He liked my style and voice. He liked the characters and natural dialogue. Then he said, “In 1985 this would have been a quick sell. In 2006, it won’t fly.” He went on to explain what 21st century publishers (and readers) want to see.

So, I jumped through hoops to turn the story inside out—bury the backstory—start off with a shocker—adapt an “arrive late, leave early” style for the scenes and chapters. By the time I held what I considered a finished product, I had read and revised that thing so many times, I hated the sight of it. Then I sent it back for a second opinion. And he drew my attention to another area of seemingly necessary alteration.

In fictionalizing these actual incidents and having no obligation to remain absolutely truthful, I thought it was a great opportunity to take all the little things that didn’t go right and fix them—all the points I missed, things that could have quickly cleared the case, could be seen after Jenkins gets divine enlightenment from who knows what. He could say all the clever things I didn’t think of until after I walked away from the scene and sat drinking coffee in my car or the office. In short, I’d make Sam’s cases pieces of investigative artwork—the kind of fiction I’d like to read. Book Doctor helped me come down from “cloud nine” with a simple statement, “Perfect is boring.” He suggested a somewhat flawed character; someone who doesn’t always do the right thing; someone who might cause a reader to say, “Oh, Sam, you’re a good cop, you know better.” So, I revised yet again.

Eventually, I found a publisher willing to take a chance on Sam and me. In the end, all that work was worth it. The book won two awards and came in as a finalist in two more contests

Me: Your latest book, Pigeon River Blues, just came out last May. Are you planning any new releases before the end of the year?

WZ: After the release of PIGEON RIVER BLUES, my publisher announced that he was going out of the traditional publishing business. That left me sitting with two finished novels and no one to publish them. I had intended to participate in a couple of virtual book tours for PIGEON RIVER BLUES and then get serious about finding a new press, but as fate would have it, someone introduced me to a pair of agents who liked the first fifty pages of A TOUCH OF MORNING CALM, a story about Korean organize crime. When the agents requested the full manuscript, I spent time sprucing up the draft.  After reading it, they asked if I had anything else completed so they could try and sell a publisher on a two or three book contract deal. I just finished my final edits on A CAN OF WORMS, in which I composite two old cases and tell the story of a police officer being accused of a prior rape. I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping they have success when the acquisitions editors return from their traditional August vacations.

Earlier this summer I signed a contract with a publisher who wants to take five previously unpublished novelettes and create an anthology in print and eBook called FROM NEW YORK TO THE SMOKIES: A Collection of Sam Jenkins Mysteries. These stories, of about 10,000 words each, span a time frame from 1963 to 2010. It’s expected out in April or May of 2015

Me: Do you ever get writers block? And if so, how do you deal with it?

WZ: Sure, there are times when I can’t dream up a nifty connection or a believable red herring to save my life. To get past that, I usually uncork a better than average bottle of wine, grab two glasses, and invite my wife to help solve my problem. She’s pretty good.  

Me: Where do you get your ideas for your books? Are they ripped from the Smoky Mountain headlines, or are you like me and let your head conjure up some truly nefarious ideas?

WZ: As I mentioned in question 3, I use actual cases and incidents and people as a basis for the stories I embellish. More recently, just like an episode of Law & Order, I’ve ripped a few local headlines apart and integrated them with my cast of regular characters and associated vignettes from the old days. I’m always honest and admit I have more of a memory than an imagination. I only have to get creative when it comes to manipulating these stories from the northeast to the mid-south. Sometimes I have to alter the dialect from NU Yawk to Tenn-uh-see.

Me: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers?

WZ: I’d like to thank you for inviting me to your blog and giving me an opportunity to meet your fans. I’m glad to meet more living proof that there is life after the PD. I wish you good luck with all your books.

Me: Wayne, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview. If you’re a fan of mystery / suspense genre, then I recommend you check out all of Wayne’s books. You can find them and more about the author at the links below.

Links to connect with Wayne Zurl:

Author website: 
Mind Wings Audio author page:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Small Town Secrets (Print Version)

Just wanted to let everyone know that the print version of Small Town Secrets is now available. You can obtain it, along with all my other books, directly through Createspace