Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Steve Liskow.
Liskow is an award-winning novelist who will appear at Books & Boos in Colchester this Saturday afternoon, June 1st, to discuss his latest release, The Night Has 1000 Eyes. (See event details below.) In addition to four previous mysteries, the author has written several short stories. Two won Honorable Mention for the Al Blanchard Award and appear in several anthologies while “Strangeland” appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine after winning the Black Orchid Novella Award for 2009. Further, Lee Child selected “Hot Sugar Blues” for inclusion in the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Vengeance, in the spring of 2012; that story was later nominated for an Edgar Award. Liskow serves as a mentor for MWA and writes the Grammar Guy column for First Draft, the newsletter for the Guppies, a subgroup of Sisters in Crime. He and his wife make their home in central Connecticut.
The Night Has 1000 Eyes (CreateSpace, $15.00) was published earlier this month and marks the author’s fourth novel to feature Connecticut-based PI Zach Barnes. Readers have praised Liskow for his “realistic, well-balanced characters… [dialogue] infused with dark, wry humor…raw, gritty suspense” (Jennifer Waltner on Cherry Bomb), and this newest release is meant to continue that tradition.
From the publisher:
Diane Ramsey has a wealthy husband, a beautiful home, two lovely children — and a blackmailer. She turns to Hartford PI Zach Barnes for help, but the damning photographs keep showing up in her mail. All she can tell Barnes is, “That isn’t me.” Barnes follows a 25-year-old trail of abuse and deceit to the secrets Diane doesn’t even know she keeps, and the monster who still pulls her strings…and will kill to keep it that way.
Now, Steve Liskow gives readers an insider’s perspective…
1) Tell us about your new PI Zach Barnes mystery, THE NIGHT HAS 1000 EYES. What served as your inspiration and how do you feel that this particular book grows the character/story arc?
I was trying to sell a PI series set in Detroit and someone dared me to write a romance while my queries were being rejected. The romance morphed into a story about a romance writer who was getting death threats. Barnes and Beth Shepard (the woman who is half a romance-writing team) were both deliberately over the top because I thought Who Wrote The Book of Death? was a stand-alone spoof. Then reviewers liked the characters and some readers sent messages to my Web site asking for more. If I’d known there would be others, I would have revealed less upfront because it closed down several possibilities for later on.
In The Night Has 1000 Eyes, Barnes tries to help a woman who is being blackmailed and he discovers she has DID, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. At the same time, he and Beth are taking a big step in their relationship by buying a house so they can live together. Beth’s scenes have her reflecting on how she has evolved from an ugly duckling to a teen temptress to a successful genre writer, and all the different names and looks she’s used. Her history is a loose parallel to the woman who doesn’t know about her other persona. It was fun because I wrote several scenes in the POV of different facets of the woman’s personality, and I tried to make them all different.
2) Your mysteries are set in Connecticut. How do the locales enhance your story? Also, what comes first: story or setting?
I like using central Connecticut because there’s so much history going back to before we were even a country. There’s also great ethnic and cultural material that nobody else is really using, and it adds depth and color to the story. I don’t give guided tours, but it helps me inject flavor to the story, like the working-class New Britain where I set a fictional roller derby team and mention the Museum of American Art.
I usually have the story somewhat set in my mind because I’m now working with a series, but I try to use different towns in the Greater Hartford area. I live there and can check out the geography if necessary. Then I can decide if I need a working class town or something more upscale, and I use a few real landmarks. Cherry Bomb was a natural for the Berlin Turnpike because it’s about teen trafficking. I fictionalized everything, but it’s still fairly accurate…unfortunately. People tell me they enjoy being able to identify the places.
3) Your family background resulted in an introduction to reading and writing at a young age. Do you view those hobbies as reciprocal in nature – and what is it about the mystery genre specifically that appeals to you?
I don’t know any decent writer who doesn’t read a lot. Not only do you need to keep abreast of what’s out there in your field, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write unless they love reading. Writing’s too hard to do unless you understand the pleasure it can give other people.
As for mysteries, my parents read a little of everything when I was growing up, and there are several teachers and journalists in my family, so the reading/writing connection is probably in my DNA. My father liked history and science, and my mother liked popular fiction, especially the golden age mystery writers: Christie, Stout, Sayers, Ellery Queen, Gardner. I always saw mystery novels and magazines around the house.
I tried writing more literary stuff when I was younger, but the simple truth is that a lot of great literature already deals with crime: Shakespeare, the Greek tragic poets, Dickens, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, dozens of others. It wasn’t really much of a shift. I think many people read crime or mystery novels now because the good ones get at how people feel and behave, and they make some kind of sense at the end. Life today is complex and feels very random, so it’s comforting to get some kind of logical answer in a book.
4) You are also accomplished in a variety of disciplines related to theater arts. How have these experiences influenced your creative process? Do you find that this helps in terms of character development/motivation and “setting the scene”?
I had already written five really awful—unpublished—books before I started acting, directing, producing, and designing before I eventually studied theater in grad school. It was years before I returned to writing fiction again, but by then the rhythms of a scene and play helped me with structure and pacing. I’ve always had a good ear for dialogue, probably because so many good readers read aloud to me when I was small. But the theater helped me understand what dialogue has to accomplish in a story. It’s not just people sitting around talking. It has to advance the plot, build tension, depict character, and maybe enhance the themes, too. I like to think I understand pacing now, probably from watching so many good directors find the meat in a scene. I do a lot of character background before I start, too. It may not show up in the final version of the book, but I need to know why my villain made the choices he or she did. It helps add both tension to the plot and humanity to the people.
5) As an educator, what are your recommendations for increasing literacy and a love of books/reading in, and outside of, the classroom?
If teaching were still about interacting with students and helping them learn instead of drilling them for standardized tests and covering your ass, I’d still be in the classroom. I can do a six-hour rant on what’s wrong with education today and how to fix it without repeating myself, so let’s cut to the chase.
Get rid of standardized tests. All of them. They’re like cookie cutters, forcing everyone to think and respond to EVERYTHING in the same, quantifiable way, and it’s deadly. No kid is going to be creative or love the experience, especially when you tell teachers that their jobs rely on those kids becoming identical little cookies. The current “reform” movement pretty much guarantees that only a drudge who follows microscopic protocol will go into teaching. All the humanity is being legislated out of what used to be an art. Now an obedient ditch digger will fill the need of the well-meaning but completely wrong-headed legislation.
Give the students a fair number of required texts, but give them a lot more leeway, too. Let them discuss the books more flexibly and openly. Let them learn to enjoy reading again. I think libraries and teachers are crucial, and a bunch of well-meaning bean counters have turned everything into budgets and spread sheets. If you get rid of all those tests, you have more time for the kids to go their own way but still master all the “required” material.
6) What do you view as the role of bookstores in their respective communities? Also, please share your expectations for your upcoming event at Books and Boos?
I know of three or four small book stores in this area that have gone under in the last few years, and it’s tragic. As library and school budgets keep getting slashed, people need other places to go, and neighborhood book stores might be like the no-longer popular idea of the local elementary school. They can know what the people in their area want to read and supply it.
The big box stores are geared to selling large numbers of books at a discount and still making a profit. That means they have to stay with a safe and conservative list of books they can buy in bulk. Smaller independent stores—like Books & Boos—can aim at a specific clientele and help readers find more books they like. It means smaller book stores may concentrate on history, or romance, or SF, or mystery, or YA, but that’s great.
I admire Stacy and Jason for taking a huge gamble on a book store in this economy, especially when the publishing industry seems to be re-inventing itself weekly. They’re doing a great job of giving local authors a place to meet readers and vice versa. I’ve already been to two of their signings to support friends and I’ll be at several more. I’m pushing my own launch on Facebook and inviting people who live in the area because I want them to see this neat little bookstore and help it thrive. Readers and writers and book stores need each other, and Jason and Stacy are doing everything they can to get everyone together.
With thanks to Steve Liskow for his generosity of time and thought.
The author will appear at Books & Books on Saturday, June 1st, from 4 – 6 PM to discuss/sign copies of The Night Has 1000 Eyes. This event is free and open to the public. Books & Boos is located at 514 Winchester Rd. in Colchester.