My Interview with Stephen Solomita
1. Mr. Solomita, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, DANCER IN THE FLAMES, came out on February 1 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.
Better Late Than Never: Dancer In The Flames
For the most part, I write by the seat of my pants. An idea emerges from the inner depths, usually limited to a premise and couple of major characters, and off I go. Mostly, it works out. When it doesn’t, I discard the material, no matter how far along I’ve come. In fact, in order to avoid the near occasions of sin, I delete the files and recycle the hard copy.
Dancer in the Flames found its way into print by a more circuitous route. The work began about ten years ago as a short story. A New York City detective, Boots Littlewood, interrogates a bookie in the death of the bookie’s sister as they watch the end of a Yankee-Red Sox baseball game in the bookie’s living room. The detective is a fanatical Yankees fan who bets on the games. The bookie, Frankie Drago, who takes his bets, has been a friend since high school.
I never made any great attempt to publish the story and it sat in a drawer for many months while I worked on another project. But it never entirely vanished. Boot’s quirkiness continued to appeal, even months later. Though utterly absorbed in the close, back-and-forth game – The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees are ancient enemies – Boots remains a professional. The game’s tension becomes a weapon he uses to ratchet up the pressure on the hopelessly outmatched Frankie Drago.
Eventually, I returned to the short story and added several chapters. Enough to form the beginnings of a novel, enough to be certain that something was missing. I might have chucked the whole project at that point, but I remained intrigued by my detective. Boots is a model of inconsistency. A detective third grade who labors in an obscure precinct, he believes only that, on this little patch of ground, he might be able to improve the lives of his friends and neighbors. At the same time, he protects the bookie who takes his bets. Yet even here, he’s inconsistent. Boots is willing to overlook Frankie’s bookmaking activities, because it’s in his interests to do so, but he won’t overlook a homicide.
For a second time, Boots and his adventures went into a drawer and I continued on to other projects. Then, perhaps a year later, I happened to watch an American skier named Pikabo Street race in the 2002 Olympics. Specifically, I watched her fly down a nearly vertical slope on a pair of sticks at 70 miles, or 122.6 kilometers, per hour. A gold medal winner in the 1998 Olympics, Ms. Street finished 16th in the 2002 downhill. That’s because she’d tore a ligament and snapped her left femur in two when she came off those sticks in a prior competition.
Not being the brightest star in anyone’s firmament, it only then occurred to me that women participate in all of those danger-junkie activities we generally associate with men, from extreme snowboarding to assaults on Annapurna. But what moved them? I didn’t think they were very much like the women I knew, any more than I was like the men who engage in similar pursuits. Not only couldn’t I imagine myself emulating Pikabo Street, I couldn’t imagine myself standing at the top of the slope without becoming dizzy. For me, making an illegal left turn at five o’clock on a Sunday morning is as risky as it gets.
Male or female, these adrenaline junkies weren’t primarily inspired by money. Of this I was sure. Too many amateurs and too many pursuits, like rock climbing, without a monetary payoff. No, what these risky pursuits had in common was risk. Not the simulated risk associated with roller coasters, but a real possibility that you won’t come through in one piece, or at all. How many times can you challenge fate before you end up in a wheel chair with a ventilator tube protruding from a hole in your throat? Or in a closed coffin?
Being a mystery author, it didn’t take long before I put my risk-taking woman in a police uniform. I wrote six short stories about a cop named Jill Kelly. Dubbed Crazy Jill by her admiring colleagues, she worked the streets of a small, fictional city. Two of these stories were published, the first in a defunct online magazine and the second in the anthology Queens Noir, which is still in print. A third story, Crazy Jill Fights Her Duel, recounts the incident that led her peers to pronounce her crazy. It’s available on my website, http://www.stephensolomita.com.
Jill Kelly possesses a finely-honed skill, like most thrill seekers. A veteran of shooting competitions, including fast draw contests, she only missed qualifying for the Olympics by a hair. She takes this skill to the mean streets in search of the very confrontations most cops dread. When the shooting begins, unlike her panicked colleagues, Jill remains calm, focused and deadly. While others dive for cover, she runs toward the threat, only waiting for the shooter to show himself.
I don’t know why it took me so long to put Crazy Jill and Boots Littlewood together, but when I finally did, Dancer in the Flames wrote itself. Conservative Boots, who still lives in his childhood home, a two-family house owned by his father, and who regularly attends services at a local parish church. Crazy Jill Kelly, who’s tied only to the moment, and who tells Boots, “As far as I’m concerned, the examined life’s not worth living.” These two are thrown together by the powers that be, including Jill’s uncle, the NYPD’s Chief of Detectives. Whether either will survive is an open question.
2. What kind of research did you do for this novel in particular? What about in general for your books?
I’ve been studying the criminal justice system, especially in New York, for the past thirty years. I’ve also interviewed many cops and have a close friend, Robert Knightly, a retired NYPD Lieutenant who became a Legal Aid lawyer after he retired. Having worked in the trenches on both sides of the crime and punishment battlefield, Bob’s advice has proved invaluable. Bob’s also the author of two excellent novels and numerous short stories.
3. What kind of reaction have you received about your novels from the New York Police Department officers?
The reaction to my novels from the few cops who’ve read them has been uniformly positive. Most cops know that most of what they do is simply boring. Any attempt to accurately reproduce their working lives would be equally boring. They know that, too.
4. Why do you write?
Writing, for me, is as much about vocation as talent. I’m tempted to say: I write, therefore I am. But that’s way too grandiose. I will say this, however. I’ve been writing for more than fifty years. If I didn’t have a manuscript in the works, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
I’m going to assume that you mean advice to writers who’ve finished a novel and are now trying to market it. First, I’m tempted to say that query letters are a waste of time. The agent, Donald Maass, reports that he receives more than two hundred query letters each week, but only takes on two or three new authors each year, and then only on the recommendation of a client or another professional. A personal recommendation, thus, becomes the key. New writers need to find an already published author who will urge his/her agent to read the work. Of course, there’s always self-publishing, which presents its own problems, quality control being the most prominent among them.
6. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
I generally write in the mornings and afternoons, perhaps five hours total, and I shoot for a six day work week. As I produce slowly, my books take about seven months to complete. Additionally, as I derive most of my income from ghostwriting and editing, I’m accustomed to putting my own books aside for extended periods.
7. What are your favorite pastimes?
Reading and the New York Yankees.
8. What other books are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been working on a sequel to Dancer in the Flames for the past few months, but have just signed a ghostwriting contract, so it’ll be many months before I return to it.
9. Is this the last we’ll see of Detective Littlewood?
I really like Boots and Crazy Jill, as the enclosed essay demonstrates. They’re not going anywhere.