Please join me in welcoming award-winning New York based crime novelist Rich Zahradnik to the blog. Occasionally, we at Murder Books will interview a favorite author in order to help get the word out about a great new book. And it just so happens that Rich’s latest thriller, The Bone Records, was released on November 1st. Having had the honor of reading an advanced copy, I can tell you it is fabulous.
Rich spent twenty-seven years as a journalist. During that time, he worked as a reporter and an editor—both online and in print media—holding editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, AOL, and The Hollywood Reporter. Rich uses those twenty-seven years to inform his award-winning novels. Currently, Rich provides guidance to the Pelham Examiner, the first community newspaper in the State of New York managed, edited, reported, and written by people under the age of eighteen!
In addition to winning the prestigious Shamus Award for Best Paperback Private Eye Novel for Lights Out Summer, Rich has also received three independent press awards for the first three books in his Coleridge Taylor mystery series. A Black Sail was named best mystery in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Drop Dead Punk received the gold medal for mystery ebook in the 2016 IPPY Awards. And Last Words won the bronze medal for mystery ebook in the 2015 IPPYs, and an honorable mention for mystery in the Foreword Reviews competition.
First off, Rich, congratulations on your latest release, and welcome to the blog.
Thank you for having me, Bruce!
- One of the things I really enjoyed about The Bone Records was the setting. What inspired you to set your mystery novel in and around Coney Island?
The idea for the book started with the bone records, which were bootlegs of American rock ‘n’ roll songs cut from X-rays in the Soviet Union from 1945-1963. I loved the idea of including bone records in a story, but I didn’t want to set the book in the Soviet Union in, say, 1962. In Brooklyn, several neighborhoods are called Little Odessa because of the large proportion of Russian immigrants that live there. Older immigrants living in these neighborhoods—Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Gravesend—would know about the discs, so I set the novel there. It helped that I’m a huge Coney Island fan, with many visits over the years.
- I very much enjoyed your protagonist, Grigg Orlov. Where did the inspiration for Orlov originate?
I wanted an outsider in an insular community. Grigg’s father came from Russia and his mother Jamaica, which pretty much does the trick with the Russians in his neighborhood, given the racism in that community. He tried to become cop, but his knee was permanently injured when he was jumped by white supremacists at the police academy. That gives him just enough knowledge of police procedure to make him dangerous, but also shows—I hope—that seeking justice—rather than vengeance—is a part of him before his father is murdered.
- Coming as you have from a long and storied career in the field of reporting and editing, did you find the transition to fiction author difficult?
Yes, I did. My first failed manuscript failed because I tried to be too accurate, to be a journalist rather than a storyteller. There’s a huge difference between accuracy and the truth. You and I have talked about how this idea applied when you became a novelist after your career as a detective sergeant. You have to use what you know to create the world, but at some point, you have to diverge from how things actually work to create a page-turner of a story. It’s dicey.
- Prior to The Bone Records you wrote an award-winning four book series. Is The Bone Records strictly a standalone or might this be the start of a new series?
I started out thinking it was a standalone because I wanted one of those on my resume. But I really started to like Grigg Orlov and can see a way to continue his career as some kind of private investigator if the book does well enough.
- After writing Coleridge Taylor for four books, did you find it difficult to acclimate to an entirely new cast of characters?
By about the third book in the Taylor series, I knew so much about my main characters that the writing then did become easier—though never easy—because I’d made so many decisions about those people. So yes, creating the new cast and making decisions about each character for the first time was more work than my last couple of Taylor novels.
- Every novel presents its own unique challenges (at least mine have). Were there any obstacles you faced when writing The Bone Records?
I’m not sure your blog’s server is big enough for this list. More seriously, switching from a newspaper reporter as protagonist to, in essence, an amateur—the son of the victim though one who may soon be the next victim—required I work a lot harder on motivation for his actions. Keeping him believably in the game when it’s not his job as it would be with a reporter—and with the NYPD and FBI involved with far more capability to solve a crime—required thinking, planning, writing and rewriting. Grigg knows a lot less than he should to take on the case and so I had to find ways to give him assistance that made sense in the story.
Another challenge was the novel’s timing. It takes place in the six weeks before the 2016 election. I have a subplot about that, and my characters can’t help but notice news of what’s going on in one of the wildest presidential campaigns in history. The key for me was to make this work in the story without it seeming a political thriller. The Bone Records is a hard-boiled mystery that takes place in that place and time.
- Do you have any words of wisdom to share with others who might be thinking about wading into the deep end of the literary pool?
Writers write. Don’t say, “I have an idea for a story.” Sit down and write. As much time as you can afford as many days as you can afford. Writers revise. Some of what I consider the best decisions I’ve made in my books came during revision. They call it a first draft for a reason. Writers read. Read in the genre you’re writing in and read outside it. Read read read.
- Is there anything you did early on in your novel writing career that, now armed with hindsight, you would have done differently?
As I mentioned above, had I been thinking more about what’s true, rather than creating an accurate depiction of the journalism business, I might have gotten going further faster with a first novel that worked. Because after that, I lost years in workshops trying to become a literary novelist—which I am not. About 120,000 words worth of false starts until Last Words, the first Coleridge Taylor book, came along.
- Which authors would you credit with having had the greatest influence on your writing?
Michael Connelly (for everything), Derek Raymond (for really bringing the black to noir) and Tony Hillerman (for making setting a character in each of his books in a way that is intrinsic to the mood).
- I’ve read many different mystery/thriller series over the years and, for me, keeping the characters fresh and interesting over the long haul seems to be a major consideration in maintaining readership. What’s your secret?
I think the main characters need to change in ways that fit with who they are, and more importantly, by learning from life’s experiences. If a character is going to change her mind or attitude about something, you need to either build up to that by planting little things earlier in the story or have a believable life shock cause an emotional reaction and a cognitive rethink. I’ve changed life experiences in my series—Taylor’s newspaper goes out of business in book two—used some romance, which can have ups and downs, though at least in that series, I kept him with the same person from book two on. For me, anyone aside from the hero can die—except the dog, readers won’t forgive you—and that brings change, which I hope keeps it interesting.
- You’ve had success as a novelist, a reporter, and an editor. Is there one career that has brought you the most joy? Or do you find them equally gratifying?
Definitely novelist. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting scoops and still do when the Pelham Examiner wins them, but at my core I am a teller of stories who just took some time to get here.
- What can readers expect to see next? Are you working on any other projects? Is there a movie in the works?
I’ve started a new novel called Ghost Paper. I wanted to write a story that dealt with the 2,500 newspapers that have gone under since 2004 in America. I’m telling that story through the murder of one newspaper. It’s also a conventional murder mystery, of course. People die too.
Rich, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with our readers. Best of luck with your new book, The Bone Records!
Rich Zahradnik is a member of Mystery Writers of America and International Thriller Writers.
To learn more about Rich, visit his web site at http://www.richzahradnik.com.
Rich Zahradnik was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.