Please welcome Steve Liskow, author of Blood on the Tracks and five other novels, as well as many short stories.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I like to drink my coffee and read the paper, then write a little, even if it’s only a few paragraphs. That usually gets my mind out of first gear. If I can’t think of what to write next, I go to the health club and sweat. The mindless physical activity usually helps me figure out where the scene goes from there. I rewrite constantly, so even a terrible first draft is fine because I can fix it. When I finish writing for the day, I’ll read, play guitar, or listen to music and spend some time with our cats. Preferably all of the above. I don’t have a set word limit for writing, but I have to accomplish something concrete. Maybe I’ll figure out a plot point that’s been bothering me or do more character work. Or maybe I’ll polish something for a writing workshop. I still do fiction and playwriting workshops as much as I can because I was an English teacher for years and loved it. My only solid rule is that I have to complete a scene if I start it that day because rhythm matters.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My wife is an excellent cook, but I know about two recipes, one of which is coffee.
Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
June Roethke was the sister of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke, and I’ve never had to think much about grammar since her ninth grade English class. Sharon Hunter, my tenth grade English teacher, helped me find my own voice and process, even though I didn’t know then that I would eventually write. In grad school, John Hawkins (acting) and Bill Francisco (directing) showed me that less is more, especially when you’re trying to make fiction look true.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Not when I’m actually writing, but I listen to all kinds of music a lot. I’ve played rock and blues guitar since the Beatles invaded America, and my parents loved swing. I played violin for a while and wanted to play piano, so I have a basic familiarity with the classics, especially Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven. Almost all my short stories and novels use song titles because I thought the book that just came out in September (and which I started ten years ago) would be the start of a series about a PI who also plays guitar.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kid would it be and why?
Dark with lots of nuts. My characters are quirky and not always nice.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Years ago, I went to my high school reunion and discovered that one of my classmates—whom I didn’t know back then—was now a session musician in Detroit. In fact, her escort that night was Bob Seger’s former drummer. She had played with many Detroit icons, including Meat Loaf and Dick Wagner (who wrote many of Alice Cooper’s hits) and we had time to chat. A few years later, I turned back to writing after a long hiatus and that meeting gave me the idea that eventually developed into Blood On The Tracks. She and I now exchange emails regularly and she gave me technical background about playing in studios and the dynamics of being a woman in a mostly male profession. If I’d met her in high school, I never would have been ready for her. Amazing woman.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I’ve always been drawn to intelligent, capable women. Female empowerment shows up in my stories a lot. I tend to depict women who finally decide enough is enough, often after fairly graphic abuse. The Whammer Jammers uses roller derby for a context, and I interviewed several skaters who told me they feel much more confident and assertive since taking up the sport. They have a large support group now (there are over 900 roller derby leagues in 38 countries), and it’s helped all aspects of their lives: work, marriage (or romance), parenting, you name it. Another novel concerns teen trafficking, and a major activist in the area helped me with research and actually blurbed the book.
Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Zach Barnes, who stars in the books set in Connecticut, was a cop in a happy marriage until his pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. He developed his own drinking problem and was fired from the police force after a shooting incident. He’s now been sober for several years but still has a need to protect women to atone for his failure to protect his wife and child. He met Elizabeth Shepard—who is half of a romance novel writing team—when he was guarding her in the first book. She was raped in college and never told anyone, but they spotted the mutual pain and have been nurturing each other through three books so far.
My new book introduces Elwood Christopher Guthrie (people call him Woody, but he prefers to go by Chris). He has always been competitive, but he was too short to be the starting point guard. He became a Detroit police officer. Six months after he reached the rank of detective, his wife left him to take a job teaching at a more prestigious college. A few days after she filed for divorce, he and his partner got caught in an ambush and his partner was killed. He was badly wounded and was forced to resign with a disability. But he’s always wanted to help people, so he became a PI. He played lots of guitar while he was recuperating from the surgery.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise you’d include?
Elmore Leonard, who passed away in August. I grew up in Michigan and his rhythms and humor are very much like mine. I love how he came up with characters who were both sleazy and sympathetic.
Laura Lippman, who may be one of the most daring crime writers today because she’s willing to teeter on the cusp of literary and constantly take new risks. Her short story collection of a few years ago was amazing. Every story had a different voice and persona, and they all worked.
Robert Crais keeps taking chances, too. His newest book has chapters written in the POV of a German Shepherd, and they work because he stays very basic and doesn’t try to be cute. He has always done everything—character, plot, dialogue, humor, twists—well.
James Crumley was maybe the best hardcore noir writer ever. Great dark humor, too.
S.J. Rozan’s Absent Friends is one of the best semi-literary crime/mystery/suspense novels I’ve read in years, and I’m stealing her structure technique for the book coming out next winter. I love how she takes two people from completely different cultures and backgrounds and makes them work in her series, especially since she alternates the narrator in each book.
The last spot will have to be a duel to the death between Tess Gerritsen, Don Winslow, Carol O’Connell, Tana French, Lynne Heitman, Linda Barnes, Carl Hiaasen, Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain.
Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
When I was first writing the unsold Detroit series (now opening with Blood On The Tracks), I saw John Cusack as the embodiment of the PI now named Chris Guthrie. Zach Barnes has a lot of the same attitude. Barnes is very handsome (that idea started out as a parody and ran away from me) and probably has pieces of both Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
What’s next for you?
One good thing about self-pubbing is you can set your own deadlines.I have a stand-alone coming out early in 2014. My cover artist and I have been discussing the images and possible taglines. I’ve just finished the first draft of the fourth Zach Barnes book, too. It needs lots of revision, but I’m happy with what it’s turning into. I originally hoped to have that ready for early next summer, but that’s no longer realistic. It will probably be out about a year from now. If Blood On The Tracks does well, I have substantial notes and ideas for the next two books in that series, too.
When I’m not writing, I’m still doing a little theater and playing guitar in an acoustic group that meets two or three times a month. I find ways to stay busy.
Steve Liskow serves as a mentor for Mystery Writers of America and writes the Grammar Guy column for First Draft, the online newsletter for the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime. His short stories have won an Edgar Nomination, the Black Orchid Novella Award, and two Honorable Mentions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by MWA. A former English teacher, he has also produced, directed, acted, designed, or played guitar for nearly 100 theatrical productions. His first five novels are set in central Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Barbara and two rescued cats. Novel number six, Blood On The Tracks, introduces Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, and was inspired by a chance meeting at his high school reunion.