What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I didn’t think of it as a literary pilgrimage when I did it, but a 2007 trip to visit Michigan at the invitation of a friend of mine who worked for the State of Michigan truly changed my life. My friend invited me to come see the other side of the story about Michigan, and Detroit in particular, that was not being talked about in the media. At that time, Michigan and Detroit were really struggling.
My friend took me all around the state and introduced me to a bunch of people who were doing amazing work, most of it small and very underfunded, but they did it out of a profound sense of love for their communities. This struck me because I realized that as long as there were people like these, then places like Detroit would never truly fail. Love and an emotional connection to our places was the secret ingredient that no one was talking about, or writing about. The genesis of my first book, which introduced the central thesis of all my nonfiction work, began from that trip. And that trip was my first step towards being a writer.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Mostly it energizes me. Because I am the very first reader, I get to see what my characters are doing, so many times I get excited about where they lead me. Stephen King has said that his process is to create a situation for his characters and then let them figure it out from there. I am not that skilled, so I have to think about it a lot more, but when we do figure things out, and the clouds part and you see that pathway forward, that is an amazing and energizing experience. And then you want to do it again and again!
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I actually did because I am fairly well established as a non-fiction writer and speaker. I have become known as the “City Love Guy” which is great because in the discrete field of urbanism and community and economic development, having an identity is fantastic. I thought perhaps that fiction might dilute or muddy that identity. Perhaps it will, but overall I’d like to believe that my books, my speaking and consulting has built up a pool of goodwill that will cross over into this new venture.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I think readers of fiction want a good story and characters they can cheer for and relate to and be scared for – and if we can offer them a few twists and turns they have not seen before, that is great. True originality is very rare, so most of us are mashing up familiar tropes, with some new angles and additions to make something that is BOTH new enough and familiar enough to keep us turning the pages.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
For me, I did not realize that I wanted to build a body of work until I finished the first novel. I had so enjoyed writing the main characters that I knew I had to continue their stories. Some stories have a definitive end and stand very much on their own. Perhaps some day I’ll write one of those, but in the meantime, I’m totally excited about the many adventures I have seen in my characters’ futures.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Hiring a professional line editor was a revelation. I had thought the manuscript of my first novel, Hunters Point, was fairly clean after I had gone through it, as well as my publisher, my publicist, my story editor and two passes by my wife who is incredibly meticulous. Still when the manuscript came back with hundreds of corrections, I was shocked and forever sold on hiring that outside set of professional eyes!
Where do you prefer to write?
I am a coffee shop guy. Even though I put in my noise canceling headphones, there is still enough background noise and distraction. Some may be surprised that I listen to music while writing, but not just any music. I have a specially created playlist called “Writing” and all the songs on there are ones that I am always happy to hear. The key to the playlist is that I never have to skip over a song or an artist, which could break the flow of what I am doing at the moment.
The only place I find that I can write at home is on our balcony and usually at night. We live in Florida and during the day it is either too hot or too bright, or both so I find myself gravitating out there in the evenings.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I am a huge fan of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Stark was the pseudonym for crime writer Donald Westlake. The books are pulp, crime fiction. They are formulaic and very much products of their time – the 1960’s onward. But the prose is tight and spare like the character of Parker himself. They are a guilty pleasure that I find myself returning to year after year.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
The two main characters of my novel Hunters Point are directly based upon my mother and father. So for me, writing about them is a way to honor them. For my father in particular, I have found that this series of books has been and continues to be a way for me to have a conversation with him, even though he passed away over twenty years ago. As for the other folks I have based characters upon, my friends specifically, I think ‘don’t embarrass them’. For example, there are a pair of characters in Hunters Point that are directly based on two of my good friends here in St. Petersburg, where I live. They start out and you think they are bad guys and maybe even a little stupid, but they turn out to be decent, resourceful, funny and a necessary part of the story.
Some of the other characters that are actual historic figures, raise a different set of ethical questions.
What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
I think it depends on how close to bone you write the story. For example, you can be outrageous like in the book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, which I think is fantastically creative. No one is likely to take issue or be offended because it is so far out there. But if you take a well-known figure, such as Bruce Lee as Quentin Tarantino did in the movie and novelization of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and have a controversial scene with him, you may draw some ire.
When I included Jimmy Stewart as a character in Hunters Point, I tried to base his actions on research and extrapolation of what is popularly known about the man. If you are going to include a figure that is well known, I think readers expect that character to act the way they would expect. It would be much easier and more convincing to create a new, unique character to do something that would be seen as wildly out of character for an historical figure such as Jimmy Stewart.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
None yet, but give me time. I suppose it is likely to happen but I’ll do my best to not run down too many unproductive roads.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Because I am an urbanist at heart, someone who studies cities, it felt very important that San Francisco, the location of my debut novel, Hunters Point, feel authentic. Even though the story is set in the late 50’s, there is still something about walking the streets, seeing the actual places that you write about, that makes them feel more real. Of course the other great tool in the writer’s arsenal, is Wikipedia! I am constantly amazed how researching one question leads me down a rabbit hole that leads to a whole new and amazing set of facts. I also highly recommend Google Street View as a way to put yourself in a place that maybe you can’t readily travel to. Those images give you a sense of place that can be translated into authentic descriptions and narration.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Kats Takemoto is named after my father’s two best friends; Masa Taketoshi and Peter Matsumoto. Takemoto. I took the nickname Kats, short for Katsuhiro, because it sounds cool and also because in Daniel James Brown’s outstanding book, Facing the Mountain, he chronicles the Japanese American experience during World War II. One of the more memorable figures was named ‘Kats Miho’ a soldier with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Kats was an amazing example of bravery, loyalty and love of his country and his comrades. And like I said, ‘Kats’ sounds cool!
The character Molly Hayes is named after my mother, Molly Hazen. She too was a red-headed Irish woman from Ohio. Some of the other names that appear in the book and the coming sequel, are friends and people from my past. Sometimes it is just a name but other times, I am using real backstory and characteristics. As for what is fact and what is fiction, well I will leave that for the readers to guess.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I don’t want to jinx myself, but I have been pretty lucky in all the books I have written, the main draft has come quickly. Six months seems to be about the time frame, give or take travel, family commitments and football season. I will say that I started in on the sequel to Hunters Point within a few weeks of completing the first book, and if I could clear the decks more thoroughly, I know my productivity would increase. But such is life.
The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
I love this question because it is not one that writers (or urbanists) get asked. I am a huge rock music nerd, mostly classic rock so this is one of those questions music folks love to grind on. But my answer is actually related to my work as a writer. I love them both but I am a Beatles guy. For all the typical reasons but also because they were incredible STORYTELLERS. Yes, storytellers. Songs like “A Day In The Life”, “Yesterday”, “Penny Lane” and “Eleanor Rigby” are masterful short stories set to timeless melodies. If you listen to them with this in mind, you will see what I mean.