Please welcome Kevin Michaels, author of Still Black Remains
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I don’t want to lose my tough guy cred, but the best parts of my day begin and end with me spending significant time with the woman who I’m deeply in love with….
I share a desk with my wife, Helen – actually it’s a large, over-sized old country table that we repurposed as a desk so we can sit across from each other while we work. I write every day. I need that kind of discipline, and even if much of what I write changes or gets thrown away, I am constantly working …staring at a blank page is working in my world if I can justify it as part of the creative process.
‘A perfect day of writing would have a lot of similarities to surfing – some times when you’re surfing you find that perfect wave and take it to shore – the combination of the sun, the waves, and the ride gives you an incredible rush. In writing, we all want that day where the characters take on a life of their own, the dialogue and action flow effortlessly, and the momentum carries the story past the outline into a new and exciting direction that is totally unexpected but better than you might have imagined.
At the end of the day there’s nothing better than sharing a glass or two of wine and sitting on the deck, watching the sun set.
Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?
No signature accessories, colors,meals, or fragrances…although phrases and expressions are a different story. Much of my conversation tends revolve around excessive cursing (sometimes I get on a roll and sound like Samuel L Jackson). Hang out with me long enough and much of the conversation will sound like the dialogue from “Still Black Remains”……
Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?
Crime fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Wallace Stroby have had and continue to have the biggest influence on my writing. Each of them have that sparse, clean economy of words. Their descriptions are vivid and powerful, and they don’t use a lot of words to create images that are impactful (the same way Hemingway and Mailer did years ago). No list would be complete without some of my other favorites like Sam Shepherd, Stephen King, James Ellroy, Pete Dexter, and Don Winslow.
The book that made a difference was Prince of Tides. There’s a certain beauty in the writing of Pat Conroy that is awe-inspiring – there is a certain flow to the way he weaves his way through stories incredible images with everything he ever wrote. Prince of Tides and South of Broad both took away my breath – not only the beauty of his words, but the grace and style of the imagery in everything he wrote. There are times when you sit back as a writer, admire what someone else has written, and just say, “Damn….I wish I could write like that”.
I also think Bruce Springsteen is a great story teller – and if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel for his body of work, you have to recognize the talent in the stories Springsteen writes. There is tremendous feeling in his songs about everyday life (the pain, sorrow, heart break as well as what it means to get up every day, get dressed, go to work, and provide for your family – even at the cost of your dreams). When I was younger I loved Kerouac for his sense of adventure and Jack London.
Do you listen to music when you write?
I don’t work in complete silence –it’s impossible because of the variety of dogs, cats, children, and neighborhood distractions around me – but as I start to get deeper into revisions and rewrites I’m able to block them out. Music helps through all stages – everything I write tends to have its own soundtrack, even if it’s only in my head. I’ll choose music that it is appropriate to the story – artists and songs that would fill the worlds my characters live and work in. While I was writing Still Black Remains, I immersed myself in music by Notorious BIG, Ice –T, and Killer Mike, although every once in a while I snuck in a song or two from Bruce Springsteen just to break it up a little.
If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Still Black Remains would most likely be dark chocolate – probably Ghirardelli Intense Dark because it has a rich, deep flavor and a little bit of a kick.
What made you interested in writing this particular story?
I originally wanted to write a simple crime story about life in a gritty, violent neighborhood where violence is justified as being “part of the game”. One that explored the dynamic of a black street gang fighting against an older entrenched Mafia gang, but I quickly realized there was a whole dynamic of urban life in the inner cities that I wanted to explore, the same way David Simon did in “The Wire”. I wanted to tell the story from the POV of one character who grew up in the Skulls. How his life had evolved. What being part of a gang meant, and how it impacted his life.
One of the most powerful books I ever read was Dawn by Elie Wiesel. In the book, Elisha, the protagonist, lost his family in the concentration camps and in the aftermath of WWII joins the armed struggle for the foundation of a Jewish state, hoping to be part of the creation of a new homeland. At the same time finds comfort and trust, as well as a sense of family, in his friends. Everything changes when he is ordered to shoot a British hostage. Elisha survived the terror of Nazi concentration camps only to be ordered to become an executioner himself. Dawn addresses how someone can be haunted and ultimately changed by trauma; it looks at the philosophical questions of when killing becomes murder and exactly how murder (or the possibility of being a murderer) changes a person.
I liked that question of “does the end justify the means,” even it involves the death of someone else. Twist faces a number of morality issues in the story. His conflict is more personal than his gang’s conflict – it’s about using Michael Valentine’s kidnapping to get Malik back, or at least find out information about where he’s being held. What’s at stake for Twist is his soul – he’s forced to wrestle with the question of whether or not he can pull the trigger to kill Valentine and if he does, live with those consequences the same way Elisha struggled with being the executioner.
What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
My intention when I started Still Black Remains was to write about the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible. The characters have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want – they have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems. Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game”. That’s a common theme in much of my writing.
New Jersey is a tremendous source of inspiration in my writing and shows up as a setting quite often – the state has a landscape filled with a wide variety of people, backgrounds, life styles, and cultures mixed together. Living in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia gives most of us who grew up in New Jersey a little bit of an “attitude,” and that’s the kind of characteristic that sneaks into my characters’ actions and my stories. Life in the New Jersey neighborhood where Still Black Remains takes place is equally gritty, violent, and harsh. There was no way to soften the writing without losing the legitimacy of the story – New Jersey is as much a part of the book as the plot and characters.
Tell us about your main character.
Twist was born in an inner city. He grew up in a gang culture with brothers who were involved in the Skulls, and part of his early development was selling drugs as a corner boy. But he’s smarter than the others and has dreams of getting out of the “game” and becoming a businessman. He’s insightful enough to see that his future on the street is limited, and there are only two career paths – either dead or in jail. More than anything, he wants normalcy which is something he has never known his entire life. In a world where actions happen without deep thought or much personal reflection, he is more thoughtful and less reactionary than the guys in the Skulls. He takes things more personally which is both a strength and a weakness (unlike Bone and Cuba- his two contemporaries, he is unable to be cold and distanced).
I think Twist is smart, compassionate, and purposeful — he cares deeply for Malik, and wanted him to stay out of the Skulls and find a better life than the one he could have had in the Skulls. He recognizes Malik’s strengths and tried looking out for him, and Malik’s kidnapping is personal for Twist. Finding Malik (or at least learning what happened to him) drives him and is the undercurrent in his relationship with Michael Valentine. He cares for Maria too, but he can’t show her the kind of love she expects because he’s focused on Malik. The fact that Twist is engaged in some pretty heinous criminal behavior doesn’t make him a bad person – he has some qualities that readers will find heroic and hopefully have them rooting for him.
If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
In keeping with the mystery theme, I’d want:
Robert B Parker
And Norman Mailer ….not because he really writes mystery, but having him there would definitely keep the energy level high, although he might wind up throwing a punch or two…..
What’s next for you?
I have two other novels in the pipeline – the first that I’m finishing is one entitled All Those Yesterdays which is about domestic violence crossing three generations of a family. Domestic violence is a subject that I’ve actively written about over the past few years, and this book allows me to not only explore the topic in detail but to feature a strong female character at the heart of the story. In my other books I haven’t had the opportunity to do that, and it’s been exciting creating that kind of character will giving voice to an epidemic that affects individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. The second is tentatively entitled A Steady Rain and falls within the more traditional crime fiction category (“Breaking Bad” meets “Justified” with a touch of Winter’s Bone and A Simple Plan).
I also run a community based organization called Story Tellers that develops literacy through the art of writing. We started a few years ago in Asbury Park, New Jersey and within the past eighteen months have expanded into Georgia. Using reading, group exercises, and one on one mentoring, Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers and young adults the opportunity to write their own stories which can inspire them to discover the strength and power of their own voices. The goal of the program is to develop literacy, self-expression, and self-esteem.
Synopsis: Still Black Remains is an original work of fiction. It tells the story of Twist, one of the leaders of an inner city gang named the Skulls, and the architect of his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-ditch attempt to end a violent turf war. The war started when the Skulls tried taking a bigger piece of the drug business in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood from the organized crime family who had once been their partners. Like most great ideas, the plan doesn’t turn out as expected. Negotiations between the gangs deteriorate, words fail, the violence escalates, and the only recourse left is the inevitable execution of the hostage. Chosen to be the one to execute the prisoner, the story covers Twist’s ability to pull the trigger, the consequences of that action, and his internal struggle. As the volatile situation grows more explosive by the hour, the lines between right and wrong blur; resolution comes with a price and Twist has to decide if pulling the trigger will get him what he wants, and if he can live with that cost.
Kevin Michaels is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel LOST EXIT, as well as two entries in the FIGHT CARD BOOKS series: Hard Road and Can’t Miss Contender. He also released a collection of short stories entitled Nine in the Morning. His short stories and flash fiction have also appeared in a number of magazines and indie zines, and in 2011 he was nominated for two separate Pushcart Prize awards for his short stories. Other shorts have been included in the anthologies for Six Sentences (volumes II and III) and Actiion: Puls Pounding Tales (2).
In April 2017 his latest novel Still Black Remains will be published by Literary Wanderlust LLC.
He has also published a number non-fiction articles and stories in print publications ranging from the NYTimes.com and the Life/Style section of The Boston Globe to The Bergen News and Press Journal and raged in print at places like the triCity News, NY Daily News, and The Press.
He is the Founder and Creative Director of Story Tellers which is a community-based organization that develops and promotes literacy through writing. Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers, young adults, and women from distressed situations the opportunity to discover the strength and power of their own voices (self-empowerment through self-expression).
Originally from New Jersey, he carries the attitude, edginess, and love of all things Bruce Springsteen common in his home state, although he left the Garden State to live and work in the foothills of the Appalachians (Georgia) with his wife, Helen and an assortment of children and pets.