1. Mr. Handler, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, RUNAWAY MAN, came out today. Tell us a bit more about this book.
RUNAWAY MAN is the first novel of a new crime series about Benji Golden, a 25-year-old would-be actor, who works in his family’s struggling mom and pop business over a 24-hour diner on Broadway and W. 103rd Street in New York City. Golden Legal Services was started by Benji’s father Meyer Golden, a hero cop. The business is now run by Benji’s mother, Abby, who used to be the only Jewish pole dancer in New York City, and is staffed by Lovely Rita, an eye-popping computer wizard who’s a former lap dancer.
Golden Legal Services is a private detective agency.
Baby-faced Benji, who is exactly one-quarter inch shy of five feet six, weighs a buck thirty-seven and answers to the nickname of Bunny, specializes in finding missing young people. Runaways who’ve disappeared in the City’s seamy underbelly. When it comes to tracking down teen runaways there is no one in the City better than Benji. The kid is shrewd. The kid is feisty. The kid has been there. He was a runaway himself. He knows what they’re going through, and he knows what can happen to them.
Which explains why Peter Seymour of Bates, Winslow and Seymour, Park Avenue’s classiest law firm, hires Benji to find Bruce Weiner, a senior at prestigious Canterbury College. A client of Seymour’s has bestowed a considerable inheritance on Bruce. But Bruce has gone missing. Seymour wants Benji to find him, and will pay the agency huge bucks if he can.
Benji can. Only when he tracks him to a remote lakeside cottage in the Connecticut woods Bruce Weiner has just been shot dead. In fact, it seems that Benji has led Bruce’s killer right to him. It also seems that Peter Seymour didn’t exactly tell Golden Legal Services the whole story. That’s up to Benji to find out. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be pretty. In fact, it’s going to be a terrifying and downright heartbreaking journey. And before it’s over it’ll take Benji Golden somewhere he’s never been before – right to the highly secretive core of power in the most powerful city on earth.
2. Who is Benji Golden, and how did you go about creating him?
The series protagonists who I’ve created over the years – Stewart Hoag, Mitch Berger, Desiree Mitry and now Benji Golden – always start out as extensions of me. I took acting classes in my youth and I tend to build a character the way an actor would, which is from the inside out.
When I first moved to New York City in the 1970s I was a street-wise and feisty young idealist just like Benji. Benji dreamt of Broadway stardom. I dreamt of literary stardom. My first apartment was an unheated fifth-floor walk up on West 87th Street. A couple of years ago I decided I really wanted to write a new crime series about a young guy who’s very much like the guy who I was back then. Someone who is savvy yet still naïve. Someone who falls in and out of love twenty times a day. Someone who is desperately searching for answers and truths. Someone who comes from a tightly knit Jewish family like I did.
Briefly, I thought about going all in and actually setting it in the Upper West Side of the 1970s. But as I started writing RUNAWAY MAN I changed my mind. This is a novel of the present. It takes place in the New York City of now. And yet, inevitably, it is also very much a novel of the City’s past. That’s because the past continually haunts New York City. You can find it down every street. See it in every face. Hear it in every voice.
3. What kind of research did you do for RUNAWAY MAN?
I spend most of my time these days in Old Lyme, the quaint New England village on the Connecticut shoreline that serves as the setting for the Mitch Berger-Des Mitry mysteries that I’ve been writing for the past ten years.
To prepare myself for writing Runaway Man I spent a lot haunting my old Upper West Side neighborhoods in New York City where much of the novel takes place. So much has changed since I was a graduate student in Journalism at Columbia University in the 1970s. I used to live on a very rough block in Morningside Heights. And when I moved downtown to West 87th Street I still lived on a very rough block. Two of the tenants in my brownstone were heroin addicts who prowled the hallways at night in desperate search of money. Drugs and prostitutes were openly for sale on Broadway above West 86th Street all night, every night.
At first, my old neighborhoods seemed so civilized that I barely recognized them. And yet I did recognize them once I started doing what I did when I first moved to New York City: I walked the streets with my hands in my pockets and my eyes and ears open. I roamed from neighborhood to neighborhood, reconnecting to the streets and the people who live on them. Also reconnecting to the guy who I was in those days. Someone who tingled with youthful excitement. Someone who was certain that something new and wonderful was waiting for me right around the next corner.
Honestly? I really haven’t changed that much. I’m still that same person who goes barreling around corners tingling with excitement. I can still feel the City’s energy surge through me as I go charging around. And the city hasn’t changed much either. Or I should say the more it changes the more it stays the same amazingly wonderful place. Runaway Man takes place all over the City – from Inwood Hill Park at its northernmost top, to the luxury palaces of Fifth Avenue to the West Village to Little Italy. To research the locations I’d chosen I spent days and days riding the subway up and downtown, looking at the people, listening to them talk. It was the most fun I’ve had in ages. The subway is a show unlike any other. Honestly? Researching Runaway Man reminded me why I moved to New York City in the first place.
4. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
I’m an early riser and I’m very methodical. I write five days a week from about 7:00 am until about 1:00 or 2:00 pm, depending on how much gas I have in my tank. I spend the rest of the workday on journalistic research to make sure what I’m doing is accurate and on running my business, which means doing things like you and I are doing right now. The first book in a new series usually takes me about a year to write. Sometimes a bit longer if I make a lot of wrong turns. Once I’ve established the series I can usually write them in about eight to ten months.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
When I was a young journalist in New York City I was fortunate enough to have a chance to interview the great Ray Bradbury for a couple of hours. He gave me the single greatest piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard: Write what you love to read. What I love to read are nuanced, deftly plotted crime stories that are observant and sharply written and feature smart, funny characters who are people I’d want to know. So that’s what I try to write. It’s as simple – and difficult – as that.
6. Why do your write?
I started writing when I went to work on my high school newspaper at the age of fifteen. It was the first thing that I’d stumbled upon in life that I truly loved to do. And that love has never gone away.
7. What are your favorite pastimes?
When I’m not writing I like to get far, far away from the computer. I leave near the beach and walk on the beach a lot. I practice yoga. I garden. I cook. And I live in a 200-year-old carriage house that requires a great deal of tender loving care.
8. What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
That unheated fifth-floor walk-up of mine on West 87th Street that I was speaking of earlier? Well, it was a half-block from a famous pocket-sized bookshop called Murder Ink. It was there that I discovered the stylish, perceptive and wise writers who would become my heroes – giants like Ross Thomas, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Stewart Kaminsky and Elmore Leonard. I still like to read them. In fact, I probably re-read the entire Parker series that Westlake wrote under the name of Richard Stark every two years. Among contemporary writers my current favorite is Alan Furst, who writes wonderfully moody and atmospheric thrillers set in Europe in the days leading up to World War II. Right now I’m reading THE WORLD AT NIGHT.
9. What other book(s) are you working on?
I’ve just completed my tenth Berger-Mitry novel, THE COAL BLACK ASPHALT TOMB, which will be published by Minotaur in March of 2014. I’ve had a huge amount of fun with the Berger-Mitry series, which is my own somewhat twisted take on the traditional village cozy genre. My heroes are total opposites, a mismatched romantic duo who tote around a ton of emotional baggage. Mitch Berger, a Jewish film critic from New York City, is a widower. Desiree Mitry, a black Connecticut State Trooper, has just gone through a bitter divorce. The two of them meet when Mitch finds the body of his landlady’s estranged husband buried in his vegetable garden. The sparks start flying as soon as they encounter each other and ten books later those sparks are still flying.
10. What can readers expect to find in RUNAWAY MAN?
RUNAWAY MAN has all of the elements readers would expect of a vintage hard-boiled private eye novel – because that’s exactly what it is. Except I’ve brought an entirely fresh spin to it with my young hero, Benji Golden, all 137 pounds of him. Readers can expect to find a book that is both laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking. It’s not a spoof. I don’t write spoofs. Like I said, I write the kind of books that I love to read!