Omni Mystery Interview with James Phoenix - James Phoenix
 
http://www.omnimysterynews.com/2012/11/please-welcome-mystery-author-james-phoenix-1211290800.html 

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2012
Please Welcome Mystery Author James Phoenix

We are thrilled to welcome debut crime novelist James Phoenix to Omnimystery News today.

James's first mystery is Frame Up (Grey Swan Press, September 2012 trade paperback and ebook formats), introducing street-smart Boston private eye Fenway Burke.

We recently had a chance to talk to the author about his new book.

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Omnimystery News: Frame Up is the first in a series. Why did you decide to go with a series character?

James Phoenix: Raymond Chandler, who is best known to us for his long running Philip Marlowe series, was the great hero of Robert B. Parker, who introduced us to his protagonist Spencer and his tough guy side kick Hawk. Parker's central point in his 1970 Ph.D. thesis, "The Violent Hero; Wilderness Heritage and the Urban Reality", was that the old westerns and the hardboiled detective genre were kissing cousins. He was right of course. But what his thesis boiled down to was a 180 page unabashed love letter to his great hero, Raymond Chandler.

The late Robert B. Parker is my great hero. And any Fenway Burke novel I ever write, right up until they shovel the dirt on me, will be my unabashed love letter to Robert B. I expect to be at it for the next twenty years … That's the plan anyway, with at least one book per annum. 

As Chandler was to Parker, so Parker is to Phoenix. I am number three in the succession.

OMN: Chander's Marlowe and Parker's Spenser are probably considered hard-boiled PIs. Is that how you see Fenway Burke?

JP: Yes, but my novels have been updated to reflect the current mores. In the old noir versions, we're introduced to the likes of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and later, the even more extreme Mike Hammer. All of these protagonists were hard drinking, chain-smoking, loners with fedoras pulled tightly down over their eyes to whom all women were nothing more than broads and dames. We see this in Parker's early work as well, most notably his 1973 debut novel, The Godwulf Manuscript. Spencer is drunk most of the time, antagonistic and is sleeping with both his client and unbeknown to her, her daughter as well. He's a real charmer. Spencer is not similar to Chandler's Philip Marlowe, he's identical.

Over time we see Spencer's evolution with his attitudes toward women. He never marries, but becomes involved in an exclusive relationship with a beautiful highly accomplished woman.

I have taken that feminist evolution of the genre a step further. Fenway Burke is the very first happily married man in the history of the genre. His wife is a true partner and they have a beautiful baby girl they dote over. He's still a bona fide tough guy who can punch a hole thought a brick wall with either hand and will never hesitate to use violence when it suits his purpose … But to Fenway Burke, women are people too. That is what makes him stand out from the heroes of yore. Fenway Burke is a true feminist. This will put off some traditional hard core noir fans, but it will also broaden the demographic.

OMN: It's hard to resist asking, but are you Fenway Burke?

JP: I am not Fenway Burke, but I do have a lot of Fenway Burke in me. It's no coincidence that Fenway's a very solid 220, at 6'3" with a close crop full beard complete with gold loop earring. I'm an old guy now of course, coming into the world of letters very late in life. I just turned 65 this past summer. But I run seven days a week anywhere from three to ten miles depending on my schedule, knock off 25 pull ups at a whack, lift insane weight, (I can still do eight plates on the bench, with the bar, that's 405 lbs) and I'm not going all butch on you here, I've never picked a fight or been a bully in my entire life, my own personal childhood bully has to gets a lot of credit for that, but I can introduce you to any number of fellows who will tell you without hesitation, that if you're going to tug on someone's whiskers, I am a very poor choice. 

I smile whenever I see some hardboiled detective writer posing on a jacket cover in a broad brimmed fedora. It's a nine out of ten shot that guy's never broken anybody nose in his life. I have … A number of times.

OMN: How did you go about developing the plot for Frame Up?

JP: In the hardboiled detective genre there's not really many more than a dozen different basic plot lines with each individual writer putting his own personal spin on them, something of great value has gone missing, find it, someone's been falsely accused, see that justice is done, someone's been kidnapped, rescue the victim, someone's in danger, the damsel in distress, etc. They're always told in the first person, are dialog driven with minimal flowery description, with both the characters reveling themselves and the story unfolding by what they say. This formula makes for a very quick, fun read. If it's done properly, it's almost as if you're watching a movie or a stage play rather than reading a book. Any writing coach will tell you that writing clear sharp dialog is a talent, almost impossible to teach.

It's clear that I have that talent … And it's a good thing, cause I can't sing or dance.

I come up with a basic story line and then let events unfold. It's wild, but often times I think I'm going to be going down one road when another thought occurs to me which I think will work better, and the original line turns into a false lead, which of course becomes a plot twist. The reader is often surprised … I've seen this in some of my reviews, but the reader is no more surprised than I am.

OMN: You've set the book in Boston. How true are you to the city?

JP: I'm very close in depicting the local environment. With one glaring exception, Maddie's Sail Loft in Marblehead MA, where the characters spend a good deal of time.

I don't want to bring the Civil War into this, but when I was a college boy, two of my roommates were from Marblehead. They introduced me to Maddie's at the age of 19 and for the longest time it was a real hang out for me. I'm a teetotaler now and have been for a number of years, but I used to toss them back pretty good.

Back in the day, it was a much funkier place, with the old pressed tin ceiling and a rusted pipe over head with an old sneaker hanging off it, wooden booths, and a bar that was battered to hell with a brass rail and little gold colored plaques screwed in with the names of long since dead patrons: 

Bill "Spud" Donovan, 1884-1948, "A round for the boys on me, Mickey." 

Forty odd years ago they put in air conditioning and installed a drop ceiling to hide the air conditioning ducts. They got rid of the booths, and the biggest sin of all, replaced the wooden bar with Formica. They did save the little gold plated plaques. They're on the wall just at the entrance … But I've never forgiven them. It's still a great place with lots of local color, but for me and the other dinosaurs, it's just not the same.

Fenway and all of his pals are quintessentially New Englanders, it just wasn't in me to update my old hang out.

OMN: Your character's local environment is clearly important to you. How do you go about confirming some of the other details in the story?

JP: There really isn't a whole lot of fact checking required, but when it is required, I go right to the Internet. I have only very basic computer skills but I'm getting better. But as I learn I have a built in IT person, my lovely bride, who I often refer to as "the brains of the outfit", I can go to if I'm having trouble finding what I'm looking for. Thank God for her, the Internet will always have all the information I need, but sometimes I'll have a rough time finding it. She's been and continues to be, by far my biggest real asset.

OMN: By the time readers finish Frame Up, they will probably have a mental image of what Fenway Burke looks like. If your book were adapted for TV or film, whom do you see playing the part?

JP: He's not quite tall enough, but that's a minor issue, I'd go with my homeboy and a real favorite of mine, Matt Damon. He's a great actor to begin with, but he wouldn't need to fake a Boston accent, which I'm told is one of the roughest ones to do. I've certainly seen it butchered more than once. He's got the right coloring, is the right age, mid 30s, and he certainly has no problem playing a hard guy. Just look at his Bourne action series. Of course he'd have to grow a beard and get himself a gold loop earring, but I think he could more than likely handle that too.

My wife's pick is George Clooney … But I think she just has a crush on him.

OMN: You mentioned that Robert B. Parker had a great influence on your creating Fenway Burke. Tell us more about that.

JP: Parker has to be given credit for the start of the feminist evolution of the genre and not only that, but the transformation of the hardboiled hero from a guy who I really wouldn't want to spend any time with to a gentleman … Spencer is a gentleman with an edge, who‘s not the least bit afraid to bend the rules and punch some thug's lights out when he needs to, he won't hesitate to kill him if he has to, but over time I've watch Spencer evolve from an angry antisocial drunk to moderate drinker, who knows what wine to order with what dish, is well read, well dressed, witty and knows how to conduct himself in social situations.

If I were in a nice restaurant having dinner with my wife and I saw Spencer walk in, I wouldn't hesitate to wave him over to our table to say hello. With Philip Marlowe and even more so, the Anti-Spencer / Anti-Fenway, Mike Hammer, I'd try to make myself invisible.

It may go perfectly fine with those two old style noir hardboiled heroes … But there's at least a 50-50 shot that one of them would pee in the soup.

OMN: What other authors or books affected how and what you write today?

JP: You will find very few if any hardboiled detective novelists I haven't read complete, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald, John D. McDonald, Mickey Spillane — who I actually find almost impossible to read, contemporary writers like Lawrence Block, James Lee Burke, Lee Childs, Stuart Woods and Jeffery Deaver. I've read all the more obscure people as well, writers like James Cromley and his bar fly hero, C.W. Sughrue.

Not only have I read them all, but I tore their worked apart, making notes in the margins, on style and plot flow. I used them all as textbooks.

OMN: What are your hobbies and interest outside of writing crime fiction? Do any of these activities find their way into your books?

JP: Literary Aficionado picked up on this right away with their over the top screaming review of Frame Up. 

"His own literary apprenticeship certainly seems to fit the subject matter — while he was learning to write well (and he does) he worked as a dishwasher, a waiter, a factory worker, a construction laborer, a stone tender, a weightlifter, and bouncer, a lobsterman, a salesman, and a successful International hi-tech entrepreneur.

Elements of all of these varied jobs appear in his book. And his publicity photo presents the image of a no-nonsense New Englander with an edge."

My very life is in my work.

OMN: How do you engage with current and potential readers? What kinds of questions do you most enjoy or least enjoy from readers?

JP: I'm working with Kelley & Hall and I consider them one of the strongest PR firms in the country. It works just like a Broadway Play. If you get great reviews, you run forever, if they pan you, you close in a week.

The tact is to get as many of these reviews in as we can. That's easier than it sounds. I'm a new writer and the reviewers are besieged with thousands of new books to read and review … My promoters have to hammer away at them to get them to take the time to read my work … Once they do, they're universally 100% on board, but getting them there is no walk in the park.

There is no question from any reader I do not enjoy. I always love to hear from them.

OMN: You mentioned being a fan of a number of crime novelists. Are there any other genres you read?

JP: I read both to educate myself for my work as a hardboiled detective genre writer and for enjoyment. On average I'm good for two to three books a week. My tastes are very eclectic. When I started this fourteen year Grand Adventure of mine in the world of letters, which I've formally dubbed The Phoenix Project, to get myself on the New York Times Best Seller List, I found TV to be a major distraction. So I got rid of it. We haven't had a cable connection in years. At first my wife wasn't wild about the idea, but we seem to be getting long just fine without Snooki & Jersey Shore, The House Wives of Orange County, American Idol, Who's Got Talent and Dancing with the Stars.

Any book the late Robert B. Parker published I grabbed right away. One of my biggest favorites hasn't had one out in a while but I'm always looking for his next one, I'm talking about my pal, Carl Hiaasen.

OMN: Give us a top five list of books to read.

JP: I'm going to surprise you here; none of these top five are crime fiction.

• Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts, 1939;
• The Source by James A. Michener, 1965;
• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960;
• The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1939;
• The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, 2006.

About that last title … One of you earlier questions was: Do any of your outside activities find their way into your work?

Years ago I started reading with a dictionary at my side. Whenever I came upon a word that I wasn't absolutely sure of, I'd look it up and then list in alphabetically on a list I put together along with the definition. 

I've been doing this for years. At this point I have something like six hundred words on that list of mine. I do not have a lot in the way of formal education. This was my primary means of educating myself.

In Frame Up, you'll see my pal Fenway taking the exact same tact. His love interest is a Harvard grad. This approach represents his goal of being more worthy of her.

Of course at this point I find myself going to the dictionary less and less with any book I read. If I have to look up two words in any book, that's a lot.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog sent me to the dictionary twenty-seven times.

One of her words was: autodidact.

I looked it up … Turns out, that's exactly what I am.

OMN: What's next for you?

JP: I plan to be around for a long time. The next installment in the Fenway Burke series, Loose Ends, is complete and has the full imprimatur by my editorial staff as more than ready for prime time. I myself personally see it as even stronger that my first effort.

Kestrel, the third in the series, which is an homage to the late Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, is also complete. 

They drop once a year. If you release more than one novel per year with re-current characters, they all start to taste like beans.

There's a memoir in the works as well, called Relentless. It deals with my fourteen year struggle to get to where I am today with this Phoenix Project of mine, the five hundred-eight rejections, the thousands upon thousands of pages written, all the set backs and disappointments hitting me right between the eyes all the way though, and just how it was possible for me to carry on when for the longest time the wheel didn't seem to be turning at all.

I chalk it all up to my very late life diagnosis with a high-end spectrum, ADD/ADHD.

I always knew I was different, but my late life diagnosis really filled in a lot of blanks. I was diagnosed at sixty and tested off the charts.

The shrink was amazed I could function at all, as most people on my end of the spectrum are extremely scattered.

But there are high end people who subconsciously develop skill sets to deal with their condition. The building I'm in could be burning down around my ears, but I'd never smell the smoke of feel the heat because I'm be totally involved in the task at hand. They call it Hyper Focus. Or in my case: although I doubt a professional would use these exact terms, insane, bonkers, off the wall, crazy, nutso, out of control, beyond oblivious, super duper off the charts hyper focus. 

I see nothing, nothing at all, other than the project I'm focused on at the time.

I can point to instance after instance in my life all the way back to early childhood, where this ability to zoom in on the task at hand with laser like focus while ignoring anything and everything else that could possibly distract me, played a major role in my ultimately succeeding at any major task I ever attempted.

I hooked up with a national non-profit out of Landover, MD, called CHADD, Children & Adults with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder. They do wonderful work. I've pledged both my time and a portion of the royalties from Relentless to that agency.


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James Phoenix spent his literary apprenticeship as a student, a dishwasher, a waiter, a factory hand, a construction worker, a weightlifter, a bouncer, a lobsterman, a salesman and a successful hi-tech entrepreneur. Originally from Boston's North Shore, he and his wife Susan now split their time between South-Coastal Maine and the US Virgin islands.

Learn more about the author on his website, JamesPhoenixNovels.com, where you can read excerpts from all three books in the "Fenway Burke" series.




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