Monday, March 26, 2018

Interview with novelist Charles Salzberg

Novelist Charles Salzberg joins me today and we’re chatting about his new literary crime suspense, Second Story Man.

Charles Salzberg is a novelist, journalist, and acclaimed writing instructor. He is the author of the Henry Swann detective series, including Swann’s Last Song which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel and Devil in the Hole, which was named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine. He has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, the Writer’s Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, Esquire, New York Magazine, and GQ. He lives in New York City.

Welcome, Charles. Please tell us about your current release.
"I am a thief. Not just a run-of-the-mill, knock you over the head and steal your wallet thief, but the best damn thief in the whole goddamn world," is how the infamous Francis Hoyt describes himself. He doesn't leave a trailpaper or otherwiseand he always thinks ten steps ahead of the authorities and his sketchy business associates. He smirks in the face of apprehension, taking on more intricate and dangerous jobs just to prove how great he is at his work. He breaks into the homes of the wealthy and divests them of their valuables. Following the money, he works in Florida during fall winter, and the northeast in spring and summer. The arrogant, brilliant, athletic, unscrupulous Hoyt often steals things from right under the noses of the authorities. Manny Perez, a Cuban-American Miami police detective, who has recently been suspended from the Miami PD as a result of his nemesis, is obsessed with bringing Hoyt to justice. and so, he teams up with Charlie Floyd, a recently retired Connecticut State investigator who’s floundering, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Floyd, also arrogant, intelligent and a master at what he does, is very much Hoyt’s doppelganger. Second Story Man is a cat-and-mouse tale of Perez and Floyd trying to catch Hoyt in the act, as the master thief keeps upping the stakes in order to prove just how good he is. Told from the perspective of the three men, the novel is really a commentary on the American obsession to be the best, to win at any cost.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was looking for something to write that would address our country’s need to always be first, to always win, to always be the best. And so, I created a character, Francis Hoyt, a master thief, a burglar who’s the best at what he does. Then, I added two other characters to the mix: Charlie Floyd, a recently retired Connecticut State Investigator, and Manny Perez, a Cuban/American detective with the Miami Police Department. Both these men are also the best at what they do. What interests me is the lengths people will go to in order to win, in order to be the best, and what the consequences of that obsession might be.

Excerpt from Second Story Man:
As I slowly edged my way back around the house, keeping one hand on the house as I felt my way in the dark, I spotted a small window by the by the back, chest-high, that had been left partially open. No more than an inch or two, but that was enough. Could they have made it any easier for me? I wouldn’t even have to break a sweat prying my way in or risk someone hearing when I broke a pane of glass. I stood on my tiptoes and peered inside, using my small flashlight to see what was in what looked like a small room. Coats hanging from a rack on the wall and a washer/dryer tucked against the back wall, gave it away. It was the mudroom, a perfect place to land. If I did leave any residue from outside it would mix with what was already there. It was far enough from the upstairs bedrooms that I wouldn’t have to worry about any noise I might make. If there was a downstairs bedroom that was occupied, it wouldn’t be anywhere near the mudroom.

I wrapped my keychain in the wad of toilet paper so they wouldn’t jingle and give me away, then jammed them into the front pocket of my jeans. I pulled out a couple pats of tinfoil wrapped butter squares from my back pocket. They were soft, almost liquid, from my body heat. I squeezed them out on either side of the middle of the window frame so the window would slide open easily, without making noise. I carefully pushed up the window until there was an opening of about twelve inches, more than enough for me to squeeze through. I hoisted myself up on the windowsill, then went in head first. At the point at which my waist was resting on the windowsill I shimmied the rest of the way down until my hands touched the floor, at which point I pulled in the rest of my body until I was practically standing on my hands. Slowly, I leaned forward so my legs were touching the closest wall, then carefully walked them down the side of the wall until I was standing upright.

I was in. A jolt of electricity shot through my body ending up in my brain. It was a familiar feeling, a feeling I live for. I was Frankenstein’s monster suddenly given the gift of life.

I was now in someone else’s space, an uninvited guest. I was a ghost who could walk through that house with no one knowing I’m there. This is what I live for.

For that brief moment of time I am part of someone else’s family. I am the eccentric uncle. The prodigal son. The perfect father. The trusted family friend. I am whoever and whatever I want to be. I am taking something from them, something they will never get back. Not their most treasured valuables. Their privacy. They have been violated and their lives will never be the same.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on the fifth Henry Swann novel. I thought I’d stop at four, but after a year I kind of missed the character and I came up with an idea, so I started writing Swann’s Down. But before that, due out in September is the second edition of Triple Shot, a collection of three crime novellas by me, Ross Klavan and Tim O’Mara. This edition will be called, Strike Three, and my contribution is called, “The Maybrick Affair,” an historical mystery that takes place in New England, just before our entry into World War II.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Probably when I was 12 and I wrote my first novel. Or part of a novel. It was a roman clef about summer camp. I actually found it when I moved apartments a few years ago, but I haven’t had the nerve yet to read it. What if it’s better than anything I’ve written today? But as far as an adult, I remember being loathe to identify myself as a writer until I actually sold something. A friend of mine disabused me of that notion when he said, “you write, so you’re a writer. It has nothing to do with selling anything.” In that case, I guess around 20, when I graduated college and started my first real novel.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’m a full-time writer, though I don’t write full time. What I mean is, on a good day I might get an hour or so of actual writing done. But as another writer friend pointed out, we’re really never off duty. In a way, we’re writing all the time, it just doesn’t mean it gets down on paper. Thinking about it counts. But I also teach writing, right now, three nights a week. My students are terrific. Many of them get published, which thrills me more than my getting published. And some of them are way more famous than I am. Years ago, a young woman walked into my class, blonde, very pretty, sent to me by a friend of mine, a magazine editor. The first thing she handed in was an essay about her first day at work. She called it, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Yes, that was Lauren Weisberger. She studied with me for about a year and a half, until I convinced her she really did have a book there.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Goethe kept rotten apples in a desk drawer. The aroma evidently stimulated his creativity. Some people have other quirky rituals. Me, my only ritual is to avoid writing until I actually have to do it. Oh, and I can’t write in public. I wish I could do what friends do, go to coffee shops to work. Me, I’d spend all the time watching people rather than writing. Besides, I don’t drink coffee.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I know this sounds ridiculous, but I really did want to be a writer. Probably because I was a shy kid and read all the time. I thought, how fun would that be to spend my life writing stories. Little did I know it isn’t really fun (having written is fun, writing can be a little torturous) and it’s really, really tough to make a living.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Only that I hope you enjoy what I write and if you do, let me know. Writers love getting feedback from readers. In fact, even if you don’t like it, you can let me know. I just love getting mail or email from strangers.

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Thank you for joining me today, Charles.

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