Steve Hockensmith is a great writer. Forget all of the awards he’s been nomiated for or won for his work (the Edgar Award, Shamus Award for Best Short Story, the Anthony and Barry Awards, and the Audie Award), forget all the great reviews and books he’s had published (Holmes On The Range, Black Dove, Naughty and Dawn Of The Dreadfuls, among others), simply read some of his work. He was discovered simultaneously by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (EQMM) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (AHMM) as he developed his voice, a plain-spoken narrative that spins excellent detective fiction. I find him to be a fetching cocktail, made of equal parts Vonnegut, Twain and some hidden ingredient that is uniquely fresh. All together, drinking down Hockensmith’s writing is a delectable, enjoyable, and it’s an excellent way to expand your mind, without the hangover.
Today he’s writing scathing symbolic political satire, in the form of a zombie President, in his new e-book, Cadaver In Chief. While American zombie Presidents are no stretch of the imagination, we’ve had them for years, this creative story takes the concept a bit farther, as the President, you know, may or may not be chomping living flesh of donors and voters. I won’t spoil the book, but I’ll say it’s well worth the read. Now let’s catch up with Steve and pick his brain on writing, on the industry, on where it’s headed and what he’s doing, before one of his zombie characters comes to life and devours his gray matter with some favre beans and a nice Chianti!
Litmocracy: I guess we’ll start with the boring questions, the ones that you’ve been asked a thousand times, and then we’ll get to the good ones.
Steve: Actually, I don’t think there’s a question I’ve ever answered a thousand times, except maybe ‘which way to the bathroom?’
Litmocracy: Have a lot of bathrooms in your house? Okay, How did you get your start?
Steve: Well, that’s a good question. When I get asked that question I’m always wondering how far back I have to go to give an answer. Do I start at the beginning, give a life journey, or cut to the chase?
Litmocracy: We can skip the fingerpaintings if that makes it easier.
Steve: Okay then, I guess I’ll start when I was in my twenties and I decided I wanted to be a writer of fiction. I always knew that writing was something that I enjoyed. When it came time to choose a career path, I chose journalism. After a while, I found that my job did not allow me to be as creative in my writing as I wanted to be, and then I thought, well, what else is there, aside from journalism? So I started to write fiction. At first I was afraid to try, afraid of failure. I got over my fear of failure by deciding to start small, starting with science fiction. My thought was, that by writing short stories, for which there was a market, I would be able to gauge my progress. If your story is accepted in a magazine like, say, Asimov’s, that’s a good indication that you can write. So after two or three years of submitting and not getting the response I was expecting (I sold a few stories, but not many), I started to think to myself ‘well, here’s something I suck at. I can’t write’. I didn’t even really ask myself why I had picked science fiction, or if there was anything else out there I could try my hand at.
Litmocracy: What did you think of that? I mean, this wasn’t exactly a failure because you sold a few stories, but how did you react? Did you take a step back?
Steve: Well, I got very lucky. Just when I had almost decided that I wasn’t very good at this, I stumbled upon something that opened a whole new door for me. It was ‘The Big Sleep’, by Raymond Chandler. I had never been a big mystery fan, had never read it. I liked old mystery movies, I liked Sherlock Holmes, my dad was a big Sherlock Holmes fan. I will never forget the impact the first paragraph of ‘The Big Sleep’ had on me. The voice got to me. And I realized that as much as I enjoy science fiction fantasy, the style of most science fiction is not a style that appeals to me creatively. What I realized reading Chandler is that his style was something that I could see myself writing in the informal voice, the irony and the humor, that appealed to me immediately.
My favorite writer, as a kid and today, is Kurt Vonnegut, and if you look at science fiction, no one writes like him. In retrospect, I wasn’t using my own voice and you can’t do that. But here I found that I could bring my voice into the mystery genre, because in mysteries you’re in the real world, describing real things. So long story short, once I read ‘The Big Sleep’, I read everything else Chandler wrote and started looking at the mystery fiction market. So I started looking at Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and instead of toiling away for two or three years, I wrote three or four really bad stories before they started getting good. I sold a good one to Alfred Hitchcock, and then I sold one to Ellery Queen, and then another to EQ and another to AH. The first story I sold to AHMM was called ‘Erie’s Last Day’ and it won the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award. My first story to EQMM was ‘I Killed Santa Claus’, which was the debut of my Christmas Mystery collection for them. Not only did this give me external validation, but it also told me that I had found my genre home. To my surprise, that genre was mystery. From there, my plan was to continue writing short fiction until I felt ready to write a novel. I still very much had a fear of failure and I didn’t want to jump into a novel before I felt I was ready to take that on. Eventually I wrote my first novel – this was before I had kids, and my wife was working, so it was the perfect set up. So I wrote my first novel, which did not sell or land me an agent or anything.
Litmocracy: Which novel was that?
Steve: That was a novel called ‘King of the Jungle’, which has never been published, and which I still need to pull out and rewrite some day because I love the concept of it. With hindsight, I can clearly see everything I did wrong with it. So I really want to eventually go back to it and rewrite that sucker and do it right. I was lucky that this first unpublished book did not lead to a second and third unpublished book. The second book I wrote was ‘Holmes On The Range’.
Litmocracy: So how did the Amlingmeier stories start? How did Old Red and Big Red come to life?
Steve: Well, I started selling to EQMM and AHMM on a regular basis. The one thing that was nice about Alfred Hitchcock was that I was writing a series for them, about this guy Erie, and what I wanted to do was establish a series in Ellery Queen. So I was trying to be clever (occasionally that works out well for me), and I knew that EQMM ran theme issues, one of which was Sherlock Holmes. Being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, I thought, okay, well, I can do this. What I really did not want to do was write an Arthur Conan Doyle story. I didn’t want to try and copy someone else’s style, I wanted to write in my style. My very ‘loosy-goosy American’ voice, so I had to find characters that would tie in to Sherlock Holmes. I wanted an American narrator for whom Sherlock Holmes was a novelty, so I started thinking about what was going on in the late 19th century in America. And I realized, wow, well there we go, the days of the Wild West were going on right at the same time so conceivably you could have cowboys reading Sherlock Holmes stories. So I thought up cowboy characters and wrote about them, and set up their story, and it sold. I wrote another one about Old Red and Big Red and that one also sold. So after I had written three Amlingmeier stories and was starting to think about writing a second novel, I thought I’d take it easy on myself and make my short stories grow into a novel. And as it turns out, I think I did pretty well with the brothers in my novels.
Litmocracy: I thought Sherlock Holmes worked really well in a cowboy setting.
Steve: What Sherlock Holmes offered to the world was a way of looking at things that is available to you whether you’re educated or not, as long as you have some intelligence. I guess I wanted to show that your level of education doesn’t necessarily reflect how intelligent you are. It might be a reflection of how lucky you are, but you can be truly intelligent and simply not have the opportunity for education. There’s all sorts of things you can do no matter what your background is.
Litmocracy: Do you start with a story first and then have your characters work their way through it, or…
Steve: That is a great question because obviously every writer does it differently, but I think you make a very good and perceptive point about writing when you’re asking about story and characters. If you read my stuff, I think that one thing that comes across in all of my novels is that the plot is taken deadly seriously. Not to say that the plot is dark and grueling, but what I mean to say is that I have thought long and hard about the mechanics of that plot. I always start with plot planning and I never start writing a book before I have the whole story thought out and I have an entire chapter by chapter breakdown. For me, it is the plot that drives everything, and what is layered on top of that can be a lot of fun, colorful language that can take you to a lot of funny places, but there are very few instances you can point to in my books where I’ll veer off somewhere for the point of a joke. Everything I write is in service of the story, and I hope that at the same time it’s entertaining and funny. I always have this clock ticking in my head that’s telling me to keep the plot moving.
Litmocracy: How fast do you write?
Steve: Sometimes I ask myself if I’m a fast writer or a slow writer, and I think deep down I’m a very slow writer. Compared to a literary writer I think I’m very fast, but I think compared to crime fiction writers, I’m very slow, and it’s partially because I agonize over every single word as I write my first draft. I actually do very little editing when I’m done. Funny is hard. Funny is VERY hard. I’ll come to a point in my writing when I think it’s time for a wisecrack, and I can sit there for twenty minutes thinking I have to write something funny, but what? I think that writers who don’t agonize like that, nine times out of ten, you can smell it. I think that writers who take time to craft something worthwhile, even if it’s a fart joke, instead of writing the first funny thing that pops in their head, take pride in their workmanship, do a lot better than those who don’t.
Litmocracy: Looks like you’ve been dallying in some zombies lately.
Steve: Yeah, I thought I was done with zombies…but then I found myself with a little time on my hands. I turned in a project and I was waiting to see how it was going to go, and while I was waiting I had been watching with great curiosity, the whole e-publishing revolution that’s going on. I really like the idea of writers having as much control and as direct a connection to their readers as possible, and I really want to learn how to do this. I haven’t written anything original just to publish as an e-book and I decided that it’s time that I did. So I tried to be smart again – it remains to be seen how smart I actually was – I asked myself what the advantages were of writing for an e-book market. And one of the advantages I found was length. I think most novels are way too long because they are dictated by a margin of profitability. With e-books, a writer can deliver a story that is complete at 40k words and that’s great! The turnaround time with e-books is also ridiculously shorter than with traditional books. Traditional books go through your agent, then your publisher, and a year later it gets to your readers. If I write a book for the e-book market, I can write it and have a few people look at it and it can be ready in a matter of weeks. E-publishing is a whole new, beautiful world for both writers and readers.
Litmocracy: That’s interesting. I always thought that publishers were looking for books between 40k and 60k words.
Steve: Well, that was back in the day. These days, a hardcover costs you, what, $25.99? How do you justify charging someone 26 bucks for a collection of paper? I love books, but I will not pay $26 for one. I’ll get it from the library, or wait until it’s in paperback, or buy it used. Thinner books, smaller books, will not sell for that amount of money. And printing costs don’t vary that much, so if you are hoping to sell a little book that will cost a lot in printing but not bring a lot of money to your publisher, good luck. Publishers like big, thick, hardcover books because they make more money. They like charging people 26 bucks for a book. The first Holmes On The Range novel was 82 thousand words. The contract that I signed stipulated that all those novels had to be at least 80 thousand words, which is pretty reasonable. Those novels are the length they are, and I hope that they work at the length they do. I didn’t know if I could tell a Holmes On The Range story in 50 thousand words. I would have to structure the plot differently and it would have a quicker pace, which I think perhaps could be done and offer readers a satisfying story, but that wasn’t going to fly with a traditional publisher anyway.
Litmocracy: So going back to zombies…
Steve: I had time and I wanted an original story, and e-publishing was handy, so I set things in motion. I thought to myself: ‘well, we have an election going on, and I’ve got a few things I’d like to say about that, and golly, I read some zombie books, people seem to like those, so how can I bring all that together?’ So I sat down with my notebook and my pen and voilà, I came up with something.
Litmocracy: Did you take the idea of a ‘Cadaver in Chief’ because of the current political situation or did you just think that it was a good idea in general?
Steve: I was trying to find a way to combine zombies and politics. And the phrase ‘Cadaver in Chief’ just popped into my head. And I realized I had a title, and that is the first time that the story didn’t come first. The title came first. Once I had the title, I could totally see the cover. That is the opposite of how I usually work. Usually the story comes first, and as you write the story you think of the perfect title and the title helps you to write the book and then when it’s done, you hand it over to the publisher and they handle the marketing. So I tried to be smart. I liked the title. I could see the cover in my mind’s eye, and I wrote a story that justified the cover and the title. I’m extremely pleased that it worked well in that order and am really happy with how it turned out. I think when readers see that title, they may expect a different story than what it is. I mean it’s not like it’s a bait and switch. There’s zombies, and there’s the President. I’ve gone through what, seven novels, through publishers, and that is hands down my favorite cover of all my books.
Litmocracy: I thought you covered the politics well enough. I think if you’d gone more in detail with the politics it wouldn’t have been what I had been expecting, which was some form of mystery story. It didn’t disappoint.
Steve: You know, by now I am so much a mystery writer that when I set out to write a book about zombies it ended up being basically a mystery anyway. And I don’t know why, maybe that’s just how my brain works. I have to say this about zombies, and I do hope the zombie community doesn’t take issue with me, but there’s not a lot there. If a zombie story is just a story where dead people chase people…well, what’s that? If you say my story is just about dead people chasing people, you don’t have a story. The zombie tales that I tend to enjoy all have something else in play. Like in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, which is my favorite old school zombie film, there’s that whole element of social satire that takes it to another level. It’s not just people on the run chased by dead people. It says something and it’s funny. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ is by far my favorite zombie movie. It brings something else entirely to the table which is satirical genius. It takes the characters absolutely seriously, and it wouldn’t work if it didn’t. Add to that the personal stories and the romantic stories, and you’ve got something that works because the audience cares. So when I started writing a zombie theme, I knew there had to be something else in there. It couldn’t just be people running around. I wanted to add a mystery plot to the story. And I think it turned out all right.
Litmocracy: Your main character in there is an investigative reporter, so she kind of has to find something.
Steve: Yeah, exactly. And when you have a book called ‘Cadaver in Chief’, there’s two ways it can go. You either start off with the zombies or the president. And that’s where it’s almost like a sitcom. So you’ve got this zombie and AAAAHHH he’s eating the Prime Minister again, oh no! You know, which could be kind of funny for a Saturday Night Live skit, but how do you make that into a novel, how do you make that go anywhere? So instead of looking at it like you’ve got this zombie president, have the question work: ‘IS the president a zombie?’ And then you’ve got places to go. The wonderful thing about a mystery plot in a fantasy world is that you’ve got an alternate reality to play with. It gives you an excuse to go all over the place and meet all the characters and explore all the funny corners of that fantasy world. It’s almost like a quest, and on that quest you go and explore and meet people and see places that are part of a fantasy world. With a mystery plot, you always have permission to question, driving that plot, and that was a lot of fun to play with in a zombie world scenario.
Litmocracy: Like you said, all the best zombie tales are either symbolic or allegoric, and with this one you took a pretty good shot at politics.
Steve: It remains to be seen how this is going to be received. I mean it works at a plot level, it all makes sense and it drives to a nice climax. At the same time, I said what I wanted to say, it can all be read at a metaphorical level. What I’m interested to see is how people of different stripes read the book.
Litmocracy: Well you were fair, you took shots at both sides.
Steve: Well I am an equal opportunity offender because I am an equal opportunity cynic. I am a very liberal guy, but I’m not a die-hard adherent to a certain political party. I am deeply skeptical about the whole bunch. And I think that’s something all Americans can agree with right now. We’re all skeptical and cynical right now. So I certainly hope there isn’t that one diatribe from one perspective in the book. I’m hoping that it means that readers of all political persuasions will be able to enjoy it and chuckle, even when it’s ‘their side’ that’s being ripped. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are very offended.
Litmocracy: To the very end, I was still wondering if you were rightist or leftist. I couldn’t really tell. Finally I decided you were simply making fun of the system itself, which I found was ingenious.
Steve: Well thanks, and yes, that was certainly my driving force throughout the book, that politics offer a sort of eye-rolling weariness, which I think is a thing that pretty much every American adult can relate to right now, no matter where they might fall in the political spectrum. Had you not come to that conclusion after reading the book, I think I would have failed in the message I was trying to deliver, so I’m glad to see that the point came across the way I intended it to.
Litmocracy: Without giving out any spoilers, I have to say that I thought the news clippings in between the chapters were hilarious.
Steve: Oh yes, thank you! That was a way for me to flex an old muscle, seeing as I was a journalist in the past. That kind of let me put on my reporter hat again. The book is absolutely about politics but it is also about media, and of course the two are completely intertwined, and as cynical as I am about politics, I am just as cynical about the media. My main character is a reporter, and I like her and I can totally relate to her; there are parts of me in her and I certainly know people who are much like her. I look at the world and I try not to become a shut-in, but I find that I can’t watch broadcast television for more than five minutes at a time. I get insulted so quickly, the idiocy is so overwhelming… Sometimes I stop and ask myself if I’ve become this old crabby guy, but you know what, I got older but I’m not crabby yet. We’re not getting dumber but the media certainly is, and worse, it’s tricking people into thinking they’re dumber. That’s something that turns my stomach, so it was nice to be able to throw a few rocks at that in ‘Cadaver in Chief’.
Litmocracy: Were you a journalist in DC? Because you seem to know the area pretty well.
Steve: Oh I’m so glad to hear that! I know the area a little bit because my brother lived there and I have family there. I lived there very briefly, like for a couple of months once upon a time. I used Google to get some details but you have to be careful with Google, especially Google Maps. When I was describing how long it took to go from one place to the next, or what a neighborhood looked like, that was all Google and Google Maps. But I have a lot of friends still in the journalism business and I was able to draw a lot of detail from their experience, as well.
Litmocracy: So what’s on the horizon? Are you working on anything at the moment, or planning to?
Steve: That’s an interesting question for me right now, because this experiment with ‘Cadaver in Chief’ is a big thing for me at the moment. I am at a crossroads and I have a feeling I’m not the only writer at this particular crossroad right now. For someone who has had some success but hasn’t peaked, the business is rough these days. I have work that I’m happy with but I’m really on the fence about what to do with a new novel because the industry is in such turmoil. I think for a while I’m going to be watching how this self-published e-book does very carefully. I think I’ve given it a pretty good first chance at life: it’s marketable, there’s an audience for it, but I have to find that audience. So I’ll watch and see, and that might be the direction I go in next if it has the success that I hope it will have, and that’s great because it’ll open some new options. If it doesn’t work as I hope it will, it’ll be a sign that I need to hunker down and stick to the old ways. I do have a new novel on the go, another mystery, that will hopefully see the light of day soon. In the meantime, I’m looking at another e-book project. While I’m pretty confident that the Holmes On The Range series is pretty much wrapped-up with my old publisher, Minautor, I think I’m going to carry on with the series. I still believe there’s an audience for it out there. I’m also quite fond of those characters and I see no reason why they shouldn’t keep going. Let’s just say I’m thinking really really hard about Holmes On The Range number six. I’m not so cynical that I can’t hope that things will change for the better in the publishing industry.
Litmocracy: So are you thinking of publishing the next novel yourself?
Steve: Control has a lot to do with it. If I did another Holmes on the Range novel, I think it would be a tough sell to a new publisher, because Minautor did it, yet I know that I could write a good Holmes on the Range novel at 50 thousand words instead of 80 thousand words, and that would mean as good a book for half the price. That’s huge to me. The other thing is, and not to knock anyone down because I know it’s a challenge, but I never really cared for the covers of the Holmes On The Range books. What bothers me the most is that Minautor never found a consistent look. If I published it myself, I know that I could find a designer to handle the book covers and give them a look and feel that I can control, and that will look better than a lot of books out of New York. Knowing that I can package the whole thing better myself, AND that it would be a tough sell to a New York publisher, why wouldn’t I handle it myself? The beautiful thing about the e-book revolution is that I now have the option of doing it myself if I choose to.
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That concludes our chat with Steve Hockensmith, who, like many authors in this digital age, is at a crossroads in his career. Having read Cadaver In Chief, and I thoroughly recommend it, I’m betting that we see some more e-books. Wherever Steve is headed, along with his intriguing characters, I’m along for the ride, especially if Big Red and Old Red head back out on the range to do some more ‘deducifying’.