Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chit-chatting with Steve Hockensmith

O.k. this interview is mega overdue. Steve was so prompt about getting it back to me and I've just run into one delay after another. But I'm determined not to leave my computer tonight until it is all ready for you guys to enjoy.

Regular readers know that Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Holmes on the Range mystery series. I've reviewed many of Steve's books in this series as well as some of his short story collections. All of his work is smart, funny and enjoyable. Since the Amlingmeyer Brothers had their last hoorah with Minotaur books in The World's Greatest Sleuth, Steve's been up to some other fun writing. He wrote a couple of Jane Austen zombie stories (Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After)--and landed on the New York Times bestseller list, wrote a handful of kids books (the Nick & Tesla series)--the fourth of which comes out October 7th, and now he's dipping into the tarot world with the Tarot Mystery series.

Awhile back I reviewed (and loved) Steve's first book in the Tarot Mystery series, The White Magic Five and Dime. The whole concept of the tarot cards was fascinating to me, and especially the view the book takes. So, I had to ask questions. I think it's in my DNA.

Q. Why tarot? What initiated the idea to integrate it into your new series?
Steve: White Magic Five & Dime has travelled a long and very winding road. Seven or eight years ago, my friend Lisa Falco – who’s a very talented amateur tarot reader – told me about an idea she had for a book. It would be about a professional tarot reader and her relationships with her clients and how the cards affect their lives. I immediately said, “Make it a mystery and you’ve got yourself a cozy series!” A few years later, Jason Rekulak, the publisher of Quirk Books, asked me if I had any ideas I wanted to pitch him. I always have lots of ideas, so I pulled together a list for him. I think I had nine originally, and being a guy who likes nice round numbers I thought 10 would be even better. So I went to Lisa and said, “Do you ever think you’d do anything with that tarot idea? Because if not, maybe we could do it together.” Lisa said sure, I threw the idea on the list and of course that was the one Jason liked best. Once Jason and I started kicking the premise around, it gained a lot of new flavor – that’s how the back story about con artists got pulled in – and the book took on a slightly grittier, less-cozy vibe. Quirk is really strong on design and packaging, so it was clear that the cards themselves would be integrated into the look of the book somehow. Everyone was super-excited about the concept. Then…well, “creative differences,” as they say. Jason and I reached an impasse. After a lot of back and forth, we accepted that we couldn’t get around it, and Quirk cancelled the contract. Which left me and Lisa with a high-concept, design-heavy, cozy-ish but not really cozy, occult-ish but not really occult mystery. Tough sell. I kind of drifted around with the project for a while, and at one point I was even thinking of self-publishing it. But then Terri Bischoff at Midnight Ink rode to the rescue, and this summer the book was finally published looking and feeling exactly like what I’d envisioned.

(My aside: what Steve comments on here--"high-concept, design-heavy, cozy-ish but not really cozy, occult-ish but not really occult mystery"--is part of what made it so appealing to me. It may not be easily packaged and labeled, but it's different. It's not the same old-same old. And for me, as a read, that's fun!)

Q. Have you had a tarot reading done yourself?
Steve: Back in the day (meaning “when I was young” – sigh), I would go to tarot readers from time to time as a gag. It was a fun thing to do in New Orleans, which I used to visit a lot. The readers were usually flamboyant people who said ridiculous things with the utmost sincerity, which can be a pretty entertaining combination. I only did one reading in Chicago, where I lived at the time, but it was an eye-opening experience. Some friends and I went into this dinky, dark little fortune-telling place on Belmont Avenue, and the vibe was totally different than what I’d experienced in New Orleans. The woman who ran the place was just obviously, unabashedly evil. One by one, she took us to the back room and gave us each the same reading. Your girlfriend’s not to be trusted. You’re going to have money problems. You need to come back and let me guide you through the dark times ahead. Oh – and don’t tell your friends what I said. This is just between you and me. So for a long time, it’s safe to say, I didn’t have the highest opinion of tarot reading. But Lisa changed that. She’s the furthest thing you could get from a flighty or manipulative person. She’s very down to earth, very genuine, very intelligent. I’d known her for years before I had any idea she did tarot readings. Because she is who she is, when she first offered to read for me I said yes with an open mind. And thanks to that – and Lisa – I’ve developed a new respect for the tarot. Or its potential in the right hands, anyway. I’m a skeptical, scientifically minded person by nature, but ...well, there’s something there.

Q. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from the fictional Infinite Roads to Knowing. There’s a combination of humor and wisdom in those sections. Do they reflect your own beliefs about tarot?
Steve: Absolutely. In those parts of the book you see the collision that’s happening not just in the story but in my mind: spiritualism and cynicism smashing into each other.

Here's an example of the opening of a chapter. The Magician card opens the second chapter:

It reads:

"'He's called the Magician,' you say, 'but what the heck is he doing? Where's the rabbit coming out of the hat? Where's the MAGIC?' Hey, just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there. Are powers surrounding you right now, influencing and perhaps even controlling you, that YOU can't see? Well, duh."

Q. What’s the most fascinating thing you learned about tarot in the process of writing the book?
Steve: The most fascinating and surprising thing I learned is that tarot cards actually aren’t that old. They’ve only been used for fortune telling for something like 300 years. Certain folks seem to assume (or like to pretend) that the cards are tied into some kind of ancient mystical tradition, but that’s not the case. The cards have been used to play pinochle longer than they’ve been used for divination.

Q.  You are also writing a female protagonist in this series. Have you had to make adjustments for that or do you feel it’s no different from writing male characters?
Steve: This was a big part of my disagreement with Jason, actually. He thought that the first-person narration in the book didn’t feel female enough. It was too sardonic and jokey. To him, it just sounded like a variation on me. Which was fair, because it is a variation on me. A female variation. I know that there are world-weary, wise-cracking women out there, because I’ve met a bunch and they’ve been some of my favorite people in the world. When I was trying to find another publisher for the book, I was told more than once that the narrator wasn’t likable enough. But to be honest, whenever someone said “likable,” in my head I heard “bland.” Alanis is an edgy broad. Hurrah for edgy broads!

(Again, my aside: of course I'm not a professional acquiring editor, but I completely disagreed with the notion that Alanis wasn't likable enough. I adored Alanis, felt she was a fresh face in mystery. I also thought she was very authentic. Had she been different, she would have been a harder sell for me. Maybe not impossible, but as I learned her back story, I couldn't imagine her being anything else.)

Q. You have a co-writer for this series—Lisa Falco—and you’re also co-writing a middle grade series with Bob Pflugfelder. How do the two experiences compare?
Steve: On the surface, the collaborations seem similar. In both cases, my partner provides the expertise – on tarot reading in Lisa’s case and on building homemade gadgets in Science Bob’s case – while I’ve done all the writing. But the process for the two series is actually quite different because the projects Science Bob comes up with determine the flow of the plot while the tarot readings Lisa supplies don’t. There’s a ton of back and forth with Science Bob (and our editor, Rick Chillot) while I’m trying to map out a new Nick and Tesla book. It can be an immensely frustrating process because it’s so hard to identify strong gadget ideas that can be woven gracefully (or even not-so-gracefully) into a storyline. With The White Magic Five & Dime, I just outlined a mystery (which is challenging enough already), then told Lisa about the readings in the book and what I needed them to reflect. Easy! There’s been an interesting shift, however, in that Lisa’s taken over more of the writing on the second tarot novel and she’s going to do even more on the third. I’ll have to watch out, because if I let that trend continue I’m going to make myself redundant!

Q. And building on that question, how does writing with someone else compare to writing solo?
Steve: It’s funny. I’m suddenly doing all these tag-team series – there’s yet another that’s being pitched at the moment that might or might not see the light of day – but in the past I always swore I wouldn’t do a collaboration. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. And to be completely honest, it doesn’t always make things easier. But it has made some really fun projects possible, so I’m happy to stick with it for now. A part of me is really itching to do something solo again, though….

Q. Shifting gears a bit here to your middle grade books, Nick and Tesla, how has the experience been writing for kids?
Steve: Great! Once we get beyond planning the books and I can simply write them, they’re a blast. I’m really lucky, because the series simply fell into my lap one day. A few months after Quirk cancelled the contract for The White Magic Five & Dime, Jason Rekulak came back to me and said, “We’ve got an idea for a series of kids’ books, and I think you’d be the perfect writer for it.” Which was one of the nicest, most gracious things anyone’s ever done for me in this crazy biz. I’d taken a few stabs at writing middle-grade novels before that, but the results hadn’t been very satisfying. Once I started writing Nick and Tesla, though, it was just easy breezy cream-cheesy all the way.

Q. And whereto from here? More Alanis, correct?
Steve: Indeedy! The sequel to The White Magic Five & Dime, Fool Me Once, should be out next summer. Then there’ll be a third book a year after that. I’m also wrapping up a fifth Nick and Tesla book, and there might be more. Plus there’s that other project in development – it’s another series for kids – and I’m also anxious to write a sixth Holmes on the Range novel (which I’ll probably self publish) and I want to play around with some short stories, too. I’ve never been so busy. I keep trying to squeeze in a nervous breakdown, but I just don’t have the time anymore.

Many thanks to Steve for taking time to answer my questions and quell my curiosity. I know he's super busy these days, so his time is at a premium. I hope you've enjoyed today's chat and if you haven't read Steve's work yet, make haste. You have plenty to choose from and they're all superb.

Oh and a quick reminder, this is Banned Books Week. Show your support and speak out against banning and challenging books.

Happy reading, my friends!

**Steve's author photo taken by Cecily Hunt


Steve Hockensmith September 25, 2014 at 12:59 AM  

Thanks for all the positivity, Jen! Writing's a pretty tough racket most days, but folks like you make it all worthwhile.

Wallace Hettle September 25, 2014 at 12:38 PM  

I was skeptical about a book involving tarot cards. I bought it because I like Steve's sense of ironry, and I enjoyed it immensely.

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