1. Mr. Ramsay, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, HOLY SMOKE, came out on February 5, 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.
HOLY SMOKE is not, strictly speaking, a thriller. It is the second in a planned trilogy of mysteries set in the city of Jerusalem during the early first century—at the time of Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry. It is not about him, however, he is a presence in the background that has an indirect effect on one or more of the characters but the story/mystery lies elsewhere.
The protagonist is Gamaliel (the elder) who appears in The Acts of the Apostles and who was the Rabban (the chief rabbi) of the Sanhedrin. What we know of him was he represented (for that time) a more liberal view of Judaism and the application of the Law. In the series, he plays a Sherlockian character who works with his friend, Loukas, a Hellenized Jew and healer and who serves as his Watson.
The first book in the trilogy, THE EIGHTH VEIL, is set in Herod’s palace, HOLY SMOKE, in the temple and the third will be set in the Antonia Fortress, Jerusalem’s three major landmarks at the time.
HOLY SMOKE aside from the murder which is complex enough (a body found in the Holy of Holies) raises some questions about faith and the depth it can go, the importance of ritual, friendship, and the effects drugs can have on a society. That sounds like tall order. It is not. I write (relatively) gentle mysteries intended to amuse, entertain, and beguile, I leave philosophy, political commentary, and all that heavy stuff to pundits, politicians, and other fakes.
2. What kind of research did you do for the Jerusalem mysteries series? Why were you drawn at that particular period of time?
I took a course of study at St George’s College, Jerusalem in 1991. I got fascinated with the history of the place and kept up that interest through five subsequent trips to Israel. The fact is that little is known about the era aside from the Gospel narratives. And you understand that the writers of those missives had no particular interest in time or practice, or even history. Anything you glean from them about everyday life in the first century Jerusalem requires that you make an unequal measure of information and speculation. I sometimes envy those writing about Rome in the same era. They have so much more to work with. For the backwater of the Empire, the Palestine, except for what Josephus tells us, there is precious little to draw on.
Nevertheless, whether one is a believer, a skeptic, agnostic, or atheist of any degree of depth or intensity, one must agree the second decade of the first century in this corner of the world represents a critical moment in the history of the world. The more we know of it, the better we can gauge our own place in the story it begins.
3. Why do you write?
I am tempted to offer something cute, like: “why do you breathe.” But the truth is I write because I want to, because I enjoy telling stories, because it is an ego trip to have someone buy and publish your book, because it is something I can do, because it is a gentle challenge, because … well you get the idea.
The instant all the above is no longer true, I will stop writing and take up something else or I will be dead.
4. How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
There is no really easy answer to that. Research can be easy or difficult depending on the presumptions made in the plot. Most of the Jerusalem research was done decades ago when I spent some time in Israel and now I mostly confirm what I think I remember.
How long is also depends on the book. For example, IMPULSE was based largely on my personal growing up as to place and events. It was an easy write and took no time at all—maybe three months from inception to final (edited) draft). Other books I slog through as the characters keep wandering off the mark.
5. What is your typical writing day?
I do not have a typical anything. I am retired and do whatever the hell I want. So, some days I write, some days I don’t. In the morning, evening, midnight … whenever the mood strikes.
However, when I am on deadline (which occasionally happens) I write in the late afternoon and late at night. I edit (rewrite) in the morning. Research, if required in the late morning and early afternoon. (this sounds a whole lot more organized than it is, I promise you.)
6. How are you able to juggle your full-time ministry and writing successful novels?
First, I am no longer in full-time ministry. I finally learned to say no. I do help out when I can, but it is sporadic and I don’t seek it out.
“Successful novels” needs a definition.
7. A word of advice for new writers?
Never sell yourself short. With the new found ease at becoming a “published author” by signing on with any of the now dozens of self publishing cartels, there is a temptation to quit too soon and just get the book out there. But writing has two critical facets: the story, and the craft. If you have a story that needs to be told, you can master the craft to write it. If your story is not of that sort, just publishing it anyway which way does not add to the world’s gifts. Take the time to learn and be patient. Every author of any book of significance (and many of no significance at all) took time. Time to write, time to rewrite.
Master your craft. I learned to write on JUDAS, THE GOSPEL OF BETRAYAL. It went through 22 rewrites, probably fifty rejections, and seven or eight years before it found a home.
So, be patient
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
At the moment I am involved in the City of Surprise (AZ) Arts and Culture Commission, Some church work and some veterans’ groups. I can’t say they are favorites. I am, at heart, a lazy person who does stuff to stay alive. Left to my own devices I would take naps and drift off to never-never land and an early death with a smile.
9. What do you like to read and what are you reading now?
I read the “competition” you could say. Right now I am plowing through a list of my colleagues at the Poisoned Pen Press. I have one of John Talton’s David Mapstone mysteries and Pricilla Royal’s latest on my desk.
I will read anything Lee Child writes. I generally prefer mysteries and puzzle books to straight literary fiction although I have lately been reading my way through some of the classics (Auden, Fennimore Cooper, Conrad, Fitzgerald, etc.) and some nonfiction.
10. What other books are you working on at the moment?
I have at least two going at all times. It is the way I deal with “writer’s block” whatever that is. If I get stuck on one, I shift to the other. Usually time will resolve the blockage as one’s subconscious sorts out the problem. So, while that process is going on, work on something else.
Currently I have a few chapters for the next Botswana mystery, about 100 pages each for a standalone and the next Ike Schwartz book. Also roughing in the general structure of the sequel to HOLY SMOKE, and some other ideas.