I feel incredibly lucky to have snagged Stephen Mack Jones for my November author of the month. A year ago at the Toronto Bouchercon, I sat next to Steve and his wife at the librarian’s tea and discovered an intriguing personality and a new series to enjoy. Please say hello to our current author of the month! And enjoy this fantastic interview…
Stephen Mack Jones is the author of the critically acclaimed Detroit-based thriller novel AUGUST SNOW, published by Soho Press. Mr. Jones, an accomplished playwright (Back in the World, The American Boys, Cadillac Kiss) and published poet, worked in advertising and marketing communications before turning to fiction. The second book in the AUGUST SNOW thriller series will be released January 9, 2019. He and his wife, Mary Kate, have three children and live in Farmington Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Steve. Since you’re already an accomplished playwright, I’m curious about why you chose to write a novel in the thriller genre.
Stephen Mack Jones: I’m not so sure I deliberately chose the genre to write in as the genre chose me. I mean, I’ve always—since childhood—enjoyed reading mysteries! Something alluring and fascinating about a puzzle constructed from prose. The imagistic clues hidden in a word, a sentence, a paragraph. Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading poetry, science-fiction, literary fiction and mysteries—but when it comes right down to it, I always come back to poetry and mysteries or thrillers. Poetry for the way its taught me—and continues to teach me—the individual significance of a word; the weight and color and scent of the right word when it comes to evoking an emotion or place or time. And mysteries because of how they engage me. They’re like jigsaw puzzles where the full picture begs to be revealed! For me, writers like Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammett and Walter Mosely were and are as much poets as they are mystery writers.
J.I.:You mention some very terrific role models in Christie and Hammett and Mosely. Who, if anyone, has specifically served as mentor to you as you’ve developed your writing career?
S.M.J.: The biggest influence on my writing will always be my mother and father. They impressed upon me and my older brother the importance of reading. The value of books and the secrets they both held and revealed. My father was especially adamant about reading; he was a man who didn’t finish high school but loved reading! One day the book in his hands could have been Isaac Bashevis Singer or Studs Terkel, the next day it might be a book about black cowboys of the old west or stock market investment strategies. He had an insatiable appetite for knowledge! Of course, over the years I’ve had some great teachers, but again, my primary influences have been my mother and father.
J. I.: What piece of writing advice has had the most influence on you?
S.M.J.: Wow! That’s a tough question, Janet! Tough because you live long enough, you find there’s as many bits of writing advice as there are stars in the sky! I guess when it comes right down to it, the best advice I’ve ever been given is “Just keep writing!” I forget who said this—maybe Einstein, maybe Groucho Marx—but someone once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!” Well, in a way that’s the perfect definition of a writer! The only difference being sometimes you do get a different result! Sometimes you do get that agent who gets you that publication deal! And only because you kept writing, kept getting stronger, more disciplined and closer to your true unique voice.
J.I.: That’s a piece of advice we all can use. We keep writing, we keep getting better. Tell us, if you will, which of the characters you have created resonates the most with you.
S.M.J.: Yet another hard question to answer! Of course, I feel like I know—or I’m getting closer to knowing—my main character August Snow. And friends have told me that they hear a lot of my voice in his (though not with as much profanity!) The difficulty in answering this question is the fact that I love and have empathy for most of my characters—Tomas and Elena and Skittles and Jimmy Radmon and so on. Even August’s “frenemy” Leo Cowling! And that’s our job as writers, isn’t it? To have at least a modicum of understanding and empathy for even the most loathsome of our characters so as to make them fully dimensional human instead of two-dimensional cut-outs or tropes.
J. I.: How much do you draw on your own experiences for the works you write?
S.M.J.: The only personal experiences I draw on are my experiences with love and loss, disappointment and gratitude, rejection and acceptance. Sometimes those experiences are viewed through the lens of race and ethnicity. Sometimes through the lens of religion. The old saying is “Write what you know.” Well, I don’t know about being a Marine because I’ve never been in the military. And I don’t know about being a cop because—like a lot of mystery and thriller writers—I’ve never been one. That being said, I know what its like to be human and all the pleasure and pain, promise and disappointment therein. Everything else is research.
J.I.: Beautifully said, Steve, and worth remembering in today’s world. And I think your answer leads to my next question. How would you like to be remembered by readers?
S.M.J.: I guess I’d like to be remembered by readers as a skilled entertainer who empathized with their needs to be entertained, informed and emotionally moved. I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for the Mann-Booker Prize, the Nobel or Pulitzer. I’m not concerned with that. I do, however, want that bearded fellow in Lincoln, Nebraska, to be fully engaged and transported with my stories while he’s sipping hot tea and fighting a cold or that single mother catching her breath for a moment in Houghton, Michigan, to laugh out loud or fight back tears while wondering “Who did it?” If you give me a laugh or a tear, I’ve done my job.
J.I.: What advice might you share with aspiring writers?
S.M.J.: Stop saying “I’m going to write a book!” or “I’m going to complete my novel!” Those words—“book” and “novel”—have such terrifying weight, such abysmal gravitas to them! It’s like saying “I’m going to pick up this 750-pound boulder and move it five feet!” Yeah, good luck with that. Instead, just tell yourself a story 1,200-1,400 words at a time. It’s much easier to move 750-pounds of pea gravel one handful at a time.
J.I.: Now, for the fun stuff! Name a favorite food you use to reward yourself.
S.M.J.: Potato chips, cashews or—mmmm!—sushi!
J.I.: If you could be any fictional character, who would you be?
S.M.J.: The Scarlet Pimpernel!
(P.S.: J.I. added the exclamation point. I love the Scarlet Pimpernel.)
Find out more about Stephen Mack Jones and his August Snow books at http://www.sohopress.com/authors/stephen-mack-jones/