Friday, December 4, 2009

In the Ring with Tom Schreck

As promised, I have a very special interview to share with you today, and it isn't just because I'm sharing with you my very first video interview either. It's a very special interview because I am here today with Tom Schreck, who I admire both as a writer and a person. It's been a great joy to get to know him better, and I'm excited to share that with you today. I'm going to start off with the email part of our interview and then at the end you can view the video that we recorded in Milwaukee last month.

This was so much fun for me, so I hope it's a lot of fun for you all as well. Definitely let me know what you think, and if you have more questions for Tom share them in the comments. I'm sure he'll be by but if he isn't, I'll go drag him over so he can answer them for you.

Also don't forget today is the last day to enter the contest to win an entire set of Tom's Duffy Dombrowski books, including the brand new one OUT COLD. And they are all signed. Click here and fill out the form to be entered to win.

O.k., enough Jen chatter, let's get started. Ladies and gentlemen...Mr. Tom Schreck!

Q. Tom, you write the Duffy Dombrowski mystery series about a counselor who is also a professional boxer. This bears some resemblance to your own personal resume. So, in what ways would you say Duffy is like you and in what ways is he different?

Tom: Well, I like to say that Duff is a comic book version of me. I’ve been an addictions counselor for 25 years, though now I just teach college courses. I used to drive big old Cadillacs, but switched to Lincolns when the Caddies got smaller.

I still box, but unlike Duffy I try to find older, smaller, weaker and less experienced fighters to spar with.

I work in professional boxing as a judge. (Sometimes you’ll see me on HBO doing title fights.) And, of course I have basset hounds and bloodhounds.

I also believe Elvis Presley was the most culturally influential person of the last

I don’t get violent but I image righting wrongs and kicking bad guy asses all the time. I do believe that 90% of social work is bullshit, and I hated the paperwork and all the other administrative crap.
Q. Since Duffy does have these similarities, does he ever do anything on the page that totally catches you off guard? Anything that makes you say, “hey! Where did that come from?” Or does he pretty much just act and react the way you would in a similar situation? Any other characters ever catch you off guard? Or do you manage to keep control over them pretty well?


In my first book Duffy beats a guy to death without remorse. A lot of my first readers found that out of character but I didn’t. In a short story Duffy nearly chokes a guy to death for stealing a helpless woman’s Elvis scarf. When Duffy did that even I kind of raised my eyebrows.

Now, the Foursome and Trina I have far less control over. When a tipsy Trina seduces Duffy I got a little flushed because I had no idea she had that in her.

The four guys in the bar are as predictable as the four guys I regularly have a cocktail with. I’m not quite sure what they’re going to talk about or where it is going to go.

I think if I had better control over the characters the books would suck.

Q. As a reader, undoubtedly the most important element in a book to me is character. If characters fall flat, it doesn’t matter how great the plot is. It can’t compensate. As I mentioned in my review, I keep looking for Duffy and the Fearsome Foursome on the street. They are so real, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them walk off the page and show up in my day-to-day dealings. How do you make sure you maintain that dimension and reality in the characters?

Tom: I don’t know if it comes from studying psychology or just a real interest in what makes every person unique. I HATE clichés—in fact it’s why I set out to write this series. I wanted a hero that wasn’t a genius, a gourmet, wealthy or a super stud. I wanted someone who was sort of like the man on the street but every now and then he harnesses something else.

I look at other characters and I try to tweak everything. What if an FBI agent wasn’t a pretentious jerk? What if a boxing corner man went to Dartmouth and practiced yoga and wasn’t just a streetwise philosopher? What if the screwball guy you drank with also happened to be a computer genius that was independently wealthy?

People are never one thing. My favorite parts of books are the descriptions of every day life or the descriptions of the things that run through your head that you’re not even aware of. When Robert B. Parker has Spenser in jail and he sets his all time favorite baseball team to pass time—I love that. When Travis McGee describes how his last romantic fling ended and why he drinks Boodles and not Plymouth—I love that.

More than anything I want people to read my books and get into the characters. I love James Patterson and Harlan Coben but I really don’t care if my plots get as intricate as theirs. I want people to want to have a beer with my guys or even yell at them.
Q. One of the elements that I just love about the Duffy Dombrowski series is how you slide in what might be considered an “outcast” group in society: addicts, ex-cons, people with mental disabilities. And then you challenge the reader to examine his/her beliefs – or even prejudices. Hopefully, I’m not over-analyzing this. You can tell me if I am. I don’t see any preachiness at all, but rather just a challenge to look at things from a new perspective. Is that challenging to write? I’d probably have a tendency to jump on my soapbox, but you don’t come across that way at all. And ultimately, what would you like your readers to walk away with when they finish a Duffy Dombrowski novel?

Tom: I am absolutely thrilled that this is what you picked up! Without getting preachy I want people to see what it's like to be in the underclass. When you call someone a “Crack Head,” “A Hooker” or “White Trash” you’ve dehumanized them. I want people to get to know those folks.

That includes showing the realistic, screwed up parts of them. People don’t get addicted to crack because of oppression—they get addicted because of the choices they make. However, many times those choices makes sense given their context. I don’t portray my “outcasts” as victims but I do show the full picture. It’s not the Rush Limbaugh view or the Oprah view. It’s what you might come to learn from working in human services for thirty years.

I want my readers to be entertained with suspense and to laugh. I also want them to think. I really, really want them to think.
Q. That last question makes it sound like the Duffy Dombrowski series is very heavy material, but you balance it out with masterful humor. I’m just in awe of people who have this wit, but you take so much of everyday “stuff” and show how absurdly funny it can be. A lot of times when we’re right in the midst of it, we can’t see the humor. But stepping back, being observers, you remind us how hysterical common, everyday events can be. Does that humor come naturally or is it something you have to work at and refine and edit a lot?

Tom: Let’s get real deep and Freudian for a little bit. (This semester I’m teaching a Psychotherapy course.) I’m the youngest of a family of five at the tail end of the baby boom. My dad was a hero in WWII and was wounded four different times. He quit high school in the 10th grade to work during the depression because his dad had died in 1919 from the flu. There were seven of us in a three-bed room house with one bathroom.

I learned early on the advantages of making people laugh. If dad was in a bad mood or sad, I prided myself on getting him to laugh. My brother Peter is the funniest guy I know and he would just observe everyday stuff and twist it around until it was hysterical. In life, if you can get people to laugh they like you more.

So maybe I’m still trying to make Dad laugh or not feel sad. Maybe because I want him to feel better, maybe because I don’t want him to be mad at me or maybe just so everyone can have more fun.

(That's actually more Adler than Freud.)

Writing funny is hard and you have to be in the mood. It’s different than being funny in person. Rhythm is crucial. Economy is vital and it has to surprise the reader a bit. I try to think about what could make something more funny than it is without going over the top.

I once read that if you try to do surgery on humor the patient usually dies on the table. It is very hard to describe what makes something funny.
Q. OUT COLD is book number three in the Duffy Dombrowski series. Tell us about this one and maybe a little about how this particular plot came to fruition.

Tom: This is probably the darkest of my books so far. Duffy gets a head injury from sparring and right around the same time he gets a new schizophrenic client just back from Iraq. Karl is paranoid and believes in every conspiracy ever. He starts to make crazy predictions about future conspiracy-type terrorist acts and they start to come true.

That’s when Duffy gets involved and decides to join Karl to try to thwart the terrorism. Their travels take them to the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game and ultimately to a basset hound puppy mill.

Everyone in town thinks Duffy’s nuts and everything that’s important to him is threatened while he follows a mentally ill client. I hope I give the readers things to think about in terms of our government, the military, how we treat soldiers and some new spins on some old conspiracies.
Q. I jumped right into questions about Duffy, but let’s back pedal a little here. You have a graduate degree in psychology and you worked as the director of a drug clinic. What brought you to writing? Was it always a goal that you wanted to be a published author? And why crime fiction? Are there any authors that you feel have influenced your style?

Tom: I wrote some treatment workbooks that got published when I was in the drug and alcohol business and noticed I loved doing it. Eventually I discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and fell in love with them. I then read all of Parker’s Spenser’s books, Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and some others.

I love the first person musings of the characters. In fact, sometimes I’d lose the plot line but keep reading because I was so into what the characters had to say. I wanted Duffy to be one of those guys without being perfect or overly macho or overly cool. I wanted an every man with something deep inside that he could call on when he had to.
Q. You are a world championship boxing official; were you also, like Duffy, a professional boxer at one time? And what drew you into the sport? Now Duffy took some serious knots on his noggin in OUT COLD. Are his days in the ring numbered or can a boxer recover and return from injuries like that?

Tom: I, like Duffy, got into boxing after training in karate. I have a black belt and used to teach karate at Notre Dame. I even won a couple of tournaments but when I tried boxing I kept getting beat up. So I dropped karate and got into boxing.
Boxing is a martial art and I approach it that way probably because of my karate background. I absolutely love the science and psychology of fighting. I think it is inside all of us, all the time, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

I believe people sublimate the need for power and control at work or in their relationships while fighters work it out in the ring. Fighters don’t need to dominate a business meeting because they see the silliness of it.

I started judging amateur boxing and was lucky enough to get into the pros. Now I get to judge the top fighters in the word. I’ve judged in Las Vegas and in Madison Square Garden and have had the HBO announcers say I’m an idiot and all the stuff that goes with it. Boxing at the highest level is unbelievable to witness. The word “awesome” is over used but top notch boxing truly fills me with awe.

Duffy gets concussed in OUT COLD and that happens to fighters all the time. He’ll deny it and deal with it and have to make some decisions at some point. It’s what aging fighters do (or don’t do) all the time.

Boxing is such a great metaphor and it opens up so much for fiction.
Q. Another characteristic you share with Duffy is a love of everything Elvis. So how did your love of the King’s music come about? And do you still listen to him on 8-track? And if you had to pick one song as Duffy’s “theme song,” which would it be?

Tom: Like I said earlier, I believe Elvis was the most culturally important person of the last century. His charisma was electric and what he did and the importance of it gets lost today. A poor white man from the rural south, singing poor white people’s music and poor black people’s music and making it main stream changed our country. It was very threatening to the status quo to have teenage white girls up north getting into what Elvis was doing in the mid 50’s. It shook the world and it was very important.

I listen to Elvis music almost exclusively. Duffy can have his 8-tracks—I’m an iPod guy (with over 1100 Elvis songs.)

“If I Can Dream” would be Duffy’s theme and it was in the first book until I realized what I was going to have to pay for permission to use it. It came out a month or two after Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Q. Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE animals. So of course, I’m a sucker for Al, and you'll be forced to answer several questions about the hounds. How did you come to be such a lover of basset hounds? And tell us a little about the three that are presently part of your family. Are you the “alpha” in the family?

Tom: I never had animals growing up but I married a cat person. Her folks run a humane society and showed up with a basset hound named Buddy one day. I said “No Buddy!” for about a week and the house got very, very quiet. Mostly because my wife stopped talking to me.

I decided I’d say “Look, I don’t want the dog but if it means that much to you, you can have him.” My strategy was that she wouldn’t get the dog but I’d get back in with her for offering.

She bolted out of the house and in a half an hour Buddy was on my spot on the couch drooling on my pillow.

I loved Buddy and will always be embarrassed that I said no to him at first. He became a therapy dog and visited kids with autism and old folks in nursing homes. He died too early and I miss him a lot.

Today, we have Wilbur the basset, Roxie the bloodhound and Riley the half bloodhound/half basset. They all sleep with us, they get whatever they want and never do anything they’re told.

Alpha? Are you nuts! In this house my influence is right behind my wife, the three dogs and the three cats.
Q. You do a lot with the basset rescue organizations. How did you get started there and what’s a highlight or two from those events you’ve participated in?

Tom: Buddy was a rescue and Riley is a rescue. These rescue people do God’s work. They are unbelievably committed. If I can sell my crappy books and give them money, that’s the least I can do.

This October we were in Illinois for a hound event. They had a rescued hound there with two paralyzed back legs. He had wheels set up so he could walk. He was running all over the place wagging his tail and licking everyone in sight.

You know where they rescued him from?

Taipai, China.

He was in a shelter and, aside from being paralyzed, he had black markings. The Chinese consider that unlucky. The Guardian Angel Basset Rescue got him, paid for his medical care and trained him how to use the wheels. Some terrific family adopted him and a couple of years ago they made him king of the parade.

Just try not to cry when you see that stuff.

We sold $2,000 worth of books at their event this year. We went to six or seven events last year and sold books and auctioned off characters. We give it all to the rescue efforts and are coming up on $15,000 raised for the hounds.

The New York rescue group ABC is right now getting hounds out of puppy mills in three different states down south and driving them to New York to take care of them.

These people will do anything to help a hound. They blow me away.

Michael Vick ought to be grateful he wasn’t mean to a basset hound. Getting to play football again would’ve been the least of his worries.
Q. Al was being trained as a search and rescue dog with the Nation of Islam, but sadly he flunked out. First, where did that idea come from? I know that bassets have traditionally been used in hunting; are they commonly trained for search and rescue as well?

Tom: I’m fascinated with the Nation of Islam. They have a security force that is used quite a bit outside of the Muslim community.

I though a basset hound would be a great contrast to their discipline. Bassets aren’t used for security but they are great man trailers, just like bloodhounds. I think more often than not they’re not used because they’re so hard to train in terms of obedience in other areas.

They could find anyone—if they wanted to. But they probably wouldn’t do all the other obedience stuff that law enforcement wants. It’s the same with bloodhounds and why you see so many German Shepherds working. Shepherds do what they are told.
They tell me Labs do what they're told, too, but my two seemed to have missed that memo!

Q. One of the things that I see happen far too often with dogs as pets is that people see a dog in a movie or a book or TV, whatever. They think the dog is cute in the setting it’s been presented in and they immediately want one. They don’t take the time to research the animal and see if it would be a good fit for their living situation, their lifestyle, their family, etc. Then the dog ends up in a shelter, or worse, because it doesn’t live up to the unrealistic expectation of the person who adopted it. Whew. Yes, there is a question coming. What’s the best environment for the basset hound? What kind of family does this breed match up best with?

Tom: Bassets are incredibly cute as puppies. People love to adopt them.

Then people find out they score the lowest in obedience and are the hardest to housebreak. That’s why they wind up in shelters so much. They also howl a lot.

A family with some patience and an understanding of what they’re getting is essential. The payoff—the most lovable, silly, funny and kind dogs a person could share their life with. Great with kids, totally without aggression and comical as anything.
Q. OUT COLD is officially out in December (NOW!). What’s next? Are we going to see Duffy again soon? Are there other project ideas on the burner? Tell us what we can eagerly anticipate to see from Tom Schreck.

Tom: Duffy and the gang are heading to Vegas. A big shot Russian heavyweight needs a sparring partner. Somebody’s murdering Mexican street workers, there’s a white supremacy group, some Mexican fighters who befriend Duffy and maybe a Latin love interest for our hero. Did I mention Duffy is staying in a brothel? Or that there’s an evil Elvis impersonator Duffy has to deal with? Or that Duffy pisses off the Russian mob? Stay tuned.

I also have a non-Duffy mystery that I’m working on right now and hope to finish in the next couple of months.

I also have a new website starting soon that is going to feature a lot of my magazine stuff that I hope people enjoy. That will take over my old site but still be at (*note* in the interim between when Tom wrote this and today, the new site has gone up. Be sure to check it out!)

People can find me on Facebook and I hope they’ll join the Duffy Dombrowski Fight Club where we argue and discuss all sorts of philosophical things about psychology, crime, fighting, basset hounds, drinking, Elvis and everything else that’s important in the world.

O.k., Drum roll please! Here it is; my very first video interview! All right, for those of you who are sitting there saying, "what else could you have possibly asked the poor man?" I found plenty more to ask. Tom is fascinating. I did have to keep it under 10 minutes, though, so YouTube would let me store it there.

I apologize up front; I didn't have anything to prop my little tripod on, so I had to hold the camera. It's a little shakey at times, but Tom is well worth tolerating my lack of camera skills for. This was so much fun for me. I hope you enjoy it, too.

If you happen to be in the area of Albany, New York on December 12th, you can stop by The Book House for Tom's book signing between 5 and 7:30.

Many thanks to Tom for all the time he took to help me put this interview together, both answering email questions and to do the video. I was thrilled to get to know him and I hope you were, too. And don't forget to enter to win the Duffy books!

Happy Reading everyone!


Jamie Freveletti December 4, 2009 at 8:38 AM  

Hey Jen! Great Interview. Just wanted to know which brand of Bourbon is his favorite!

Naomi Johnson December 4, 2009 at 9:33 AM  

Your best interview yet. This one has helped me make up my mind to give the books a try.

Anonymous December 4, 2009 at 1:03 PM  

Great interview, Jen!

I think you gave us a peek at the iceberg below the surface. Tom Schreck lightly encourages us to look at some social issues with a ninja-like mind trick rather than a Foreman-esque right-straight.
The Duffy books are hilarious and oh-so relatable but somehow I got questioning some of my callousness and prejudice.

He just may be smarter than he looks. Who knew!

If anyone is on the fence- ck out the FREE short stories on Tom's site to get a taste of Duffy's world. In addition to the suspense and fast-moving action, I even enjoyed getting a little misty reading the aforementioned Elvis's scarf tale. (twas probably the wind in my eye, though!)
After reading the shorts I went straight to B&N & Amazon to scoop up the novels. I can't say enough about them.
-Bily D

Kelli Stanley December 4, 2009 at 1:24 PM  

Fabulous interview, Jen!! And next time I'm watching HBO boxing with my Dad--a family tradition--I'm gonna look for Tom in the judges booth. :)

Go, Dombrowski! ;)


Pop Culture Nerd December 4, 2009 at 5:19 PM  

Jen, Tom's adorable! He's a black belt, funny, well-versed in psychotherapy AND helps rescue dogs? I'm doing my arm warmups so I can shove him down the stairs. Hard.

Crossing my fingers and clutching my rabbit's foot, hoping to win his books. Oh please, oh please...

Congrats on your first video interview. Hope you'll do many more.

Anonymous December 4, 2009 at 5:26 PM  

Terrific interview! Thanks.

le0pard13 December 4, 2009 at 6:14 PM  

This was an absolutely great interview. The mix of text and video really made it quite easy to connect with the author (and your questions helped bring that out). And, I wholeheartedly agree with Naomi's comment. Thanks much, Jen.

Jen Forbus December 4, 2009 at 6:34 PM  

Hi everyone! Thanks so much for stopping and for your wonderful comments. I know you can't see but I've got a huge cheesy smile. Your comments are the greatest compliments I could hope to hear. I can't take much credit, though; Tom's just one of those people who make an interview super easy. I do take full credit for the shakey filming, though.

Thanks everyone! Enjoy Duffy!!

Corey Wilde December 4, 2009 at 11:05 PM  

Everyone else has already said it: Great interview, maybe your best yet and that's saying something. Anytime now I expect (and hope) BookTV will call on you - they could use a regular 30-60 segment on crime fiction to liven things up. Imagine the guests who would line up for you...

Lesa December 5, 2009 at 8:01 AM  

Jen, I totally agree with Corey. As much as I love BookTV, they need some crime fiction segments. You would be perfect. Great voice for the interviews, too. Terrific interview, but, for me, it was nice to hear your voice! Nice job, Jen! Terrific addition to the blog.

TS December 5, 2009 at 8:18 AM  

In case anyone really doubts it...Jen has a very sweet smile.

She has been awfully, awfully nice to me.

Jen Forbus December 5, 2009 at 8:56 AM  

Corey and Lesa - from your keyboards to God's eyes! I'd be in heaven. My colleague at work always laughs at me because she'll ask me a question about my blog or books or an event I've gone to and then then say, "there she goes, lighting up as soon as she starts talking about it." So, I'd be lit up constantly, I guess. It's funny you say that about my voice, Lesa. The hardest part of editing the video for me...or even watching it now, is hearing my own voice.

And Tom, you're making me blush! You're wonderful; thank you so much for your time, willingness and enthusiasm. This year, I have an extra special reason to be grateful.

Hugs everyone!

Shane Gericke December 5, 2009 at 11:07 AM  

Nicely done, Jen! You have a great voice for interviewing, by the way. It's a charming sound and we need to hear more!

Jen Forbus December 5, 2009 at 6:53 PM  

Awww, thanks Shane. In this particular interview I talked a can ask Tom. But I had to keep the video under 10 minutes and by cutting my blabbing out, it made it under 10, just barely.

It was fun and I hope to do more!

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