Alex Segura Crimespree Interview By Dave White
I hate hot weather. Give me winter and snow any day over the humid, sweaty nonsense that comes in the months of June-August. But, when it comes to crime fiction, the mean streets of Miami—away from the glitz and glamor of the beach—catch my eye. Why? Because Alex Segura and his Private Investigator protagonist, Pete Fernandez, mine those streets for the all the danger, action, and crime you expect in hardboiled fiction.
Alex and I sat down at our respective computers and talked about writing process, Pete, and his upcoming novel DANGEROUS ENDS, coming in April from Polis Books.
Dave White: At the end of DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, Pete has moved on to being a full time Private Investigator. Because of that, how will he grow in DANGEROUS ENDS?
Alex Segura: When we run into Pete in the early pages of DANGEROUS ENDS, he’s more established than when we left him at the end of DOWN THE DARKEST STREET. We see – and he’s already realized – that being a PI isn’t all fireworks and major cases. And, after what he’s been through in SILENT CITY and DOWN THE DARKEST STREET that’s okay.
DANGEROUS ENDS is very much about Pete trying to establish and maintain his new life – personal and professional – after two really chaotic and dangerous years. So, when he is faced with a new, potentially dangerous case, he hesitates. Is this what he really wants? To put his life and his friends’ lives at risk again? SILENT CITY was about introducing Pete to the world and presenting an origin story, which is oddly rare in PI fiction. DOWN THE DARKEST STREET really brought Pete to his knees and scorched his life. DANGEROUS ENDS shows Pete that there’s a glimmer of hope for him, and that he might have a shot at redemption – but that doesn’t come risk-free. He has to step up and be the person he’s always hoped he was.
DW: I think that’s an interesting answer. In the first two books, Pete really goes through hell. I like that he has some self-awareness. But tell me, after putting Pete through his paces in SILENT CITY and DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, how did you feel about pushing Pete to the limit again? Are the stakes as high for Pete in DANGEROUS ENDS?
AS: I felt bad for the guy, to be honest! I’ve grown to like Pete. He reminds me a lot of my friends from college and people I grew up with. The stakes are actually higher for Pete in DANGEROUS ENDS because, at a certain point, especially toward the end of DOWN THE DARKEST STREETS, Pete was completely alone. He had nothing left to lose except his own life. In DANGEROUS ENDS, he’s built a new life, albeit a shaky one that can topple over very easily. In each of the books, I try to tell two stories – the overall mystery, which has to be worthy of the book and Pete’s own, personal struggle. When we meet Pete, he’s a loner. He has some friends, some connections to regular life, but he’s really hit bottom. He’s an almost-hopeless case.
SILENT CITY ends with a glimmer of hope for Pete on both fronts, but whatever attempt he makes at controlling his drinking is derailed in DOWN THE DARKEST STREET, and whatever strides he made toward being a better detective go out the window when he realizes he’s in completely over his head. In DANGEROUS ENDS, Pete has tried to get his life in order, tried to build a network of people he can rely on and to get some actual experience in this new job he’s decided to take on. But has he done enough? Especially with the looming challenge? Let’s hope so, because he has much more to lose.
DW: As a writer of a private eye series myself, I know one of the trickiest bits is to make sure your PI stands out from the crowd and stays fresh over the course of the series. So, have at it, what makes Pete stand out from other PIs? And does that aspect keep the series fresh for you and readers, or do you have other plans?
AS: I think you’re very good at it! Donne – and, in the new book, BLIND TO SIN, Herrick – are both really unique and compelling protagonists. It’s not easy. Especially because PI fiction has such a long, varied history. I think Pete is unique in a few ways. I think his lack of experience is refreshing, and it allows for more avenues of story to open up. You’re never really sure if this is going to be it for Pete, and you can genuinely believe he’s at risk, as opposed to a more seasoned PI who should know better at a certain point.
I think the best PI series are firmly entrenched in a setting, and Miami provides that for Pete. Though there’ve been a few great crime novels and the Hoke Mosely books, set in Miami, it still felt like really fertile territory when I started writing the Pete books. I also feel like Pete pushes back on some of the PI cliches, or at least brings them into the light a bit. He’s hard-drinking when we meet him, but there are consequences – it isn’t just romantic and cool. He falls for the wrong kind of people, but he doesn’t leave those situations unscathed or with a desire to keep making the same mistakes he made before. I like that Pete evolves, and we have to keep up with him. Each book is a different year in his life, and I need him to change by the end. Hell, I usually like his situation to be different when a new book opens, too. It keeps me interested in what’s next and hopefully keeps the readers guessing and eager for more. What’s your secret with the Donne/Herrick novesl?
DW: You’re right. It is tricky. I think Donne works best when he has a mirror held up to him. Whether it’s his former partner Bill Martin or Matt Herrick, someone to show him both his flaws and his strengths. Donne and Herrick are opposite sides of the PI coin, and I think the deeper you dig into who they are, they more they stand apart from the other PIs out there. But for me the key to keeping them separate is always to put them in a place where the status quo is changing. Where they are at the end of a book isn’t the same place they were at the beginning. It gives me a way to plan the series ahead and keep it fresh, but at the same time play fast and loose with the some of the genre traditions. What about you? How far in advance do you plan the Pete Fernandez series?
AS: I like that you mention Martin and Herrick, because Pete does have a mirror of sorts in his partner, Kathy Bentley. She’s not a PI, per se, but she helps on his cases and is often the driving force behind them. I love to have them go at each other. Writing their banter is fun and she’s a great sounding board for Pete – she tells it like it is. I think every good PI needs some kind of counterbalance to showcase them a bit, and it helps when that character is as interesting as the protagonist.
I have rough ideas for about two books ahead, basically. I knew DOWN THE DARKEST STREET would be a serial killer book and DANGEROUS ENDS would touch on Cuba and Pete’s roots by the time I finished SILENT CITY. The first three books were much clearer in my mind, because I knew where I wanted Pete to go as a character. To be honest, it becomes more challenging the further along we go with Pete, because he’s not a static character. It’s not like Law & Order, where it’s about the story and not about the characters and their lives as much. Pete’s life changes, his motivations evolve and his world morphs, too.
So I think the road narrows a bit and it’s more about what brings him back in to do this again, realistically. That said, I’ve got strong ideas for a fourth and fifth Pete book. Though, I always treat the book I’m writing as potentially the last, and I think DANGEROUS ENDS could be an ending if that’s how things shake down. I hope not, though.
How about you, in terms of planning?
DW: It’s tough BLIND TO SIN has been in the works for a long, long time. Since NOT EVEN PAST, the first Polis Books Jackson Donne novel, I knew I was heading in this direction. So there has always been a loose element of planning in my books. But a lot of time that goes off the rails–the end of Not Even Past didn’t come to me until the third draft, I think.
Speaking of drafts and process, what’s yours? Not so much do you outline or anything like that, but your day to day writing? Is it “get done what you can” or do you have set word counts? Basically, Alex, how do you write?
AS: I don’t do set word counts, no. My process has changed a lot since we had a kid, and not in a bad way, honestly. I write with more discipline now, because I don’t have the luxury of cramming or doing a lot when I need to. I have to write consistently to hit the milestones I used to rush toward if the deadline was looming. I do rely a lot on “found time,” for sure. If I can steal an hour here or there, I will. The bulk of my writing happens at night, when the kid is asleep and if I’m not too wiped from work or life in general. You’re a parent, too, Dave – what do you do?
DW: Personally, I’m a word count guy. I shoot for 1000 words a day Monday-Friday. That’s about what I can handle now that I have a kid. In the summer, I work when he’s at camp and during the school year, I work right after school when he’s in aftercare. It keeps me mostly consistent and I get the job done. Usually, I’m building toward something. It might not be the end of the book, but there’s usually a scene I’m dying to write and I keep that as the carrot on the stick.
When you write, do you have big moments you’re looking forward to getting to? Or do you take it as it comes and get surprised?
AS: I’m a moments guy, too. I like to stop before I get to the next thing, unless I’m on a really good tear. That way I have something to look forward to. What’s the Elmore Leonard quote? Don’t write the boring parts? I try to keep writing as long as I’m jazzed about what’s happening, with the understanding that – at least in my view – you have to treat writing as a job. If you’re coming at it like a fan, and just want the perks then…you’re in it for the wrong reasons. But that said, you should do it while you’re engaged, because if you’re not into it, you can bet the editor or reader isn’t going to be into it, either.
What books made you want to write, Dave? Are there authors you look to and say ‘wow, if I could write half as well as they do…’?
DW: There are so many books that made me want to write. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone series made me fall in love with the PI genre. James Patterson’s KISS THE GIRLS showed me how much I loved fast paced books. Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Dennis Lehane were all hitting their stride when I was really getting into the genre. These days Don Winslow and Laura Lippman are two writers who consistently blow me away and make me want to improve with each and every book.
And fair is fair, Alex. Same question to you.
AS: Totally fair! We have some overlap – definitely George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly spring to mind immediately. Classics like Chandler, Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Magaret Millar, Patricia Highsmih and more modern masters, including Megan Abbott, Reed Farrel Coleman, Don Winslow and Henning Mankell. I’ll buy everything they write and I’m blown away 90 percent of the time.
Should we close out with a tease? What’s next for you?
DW: I’m sad to see this interview go, Alex. This was fun! After all this talk about keeping our protagonists fresh, I feel like it’s time to give Jackson Donne and Matt Herrick a bit of a rest. So, I’ve been working on a standalone that’s kind of a North by Northwest Hitchcockian thriller, with a hook that I think is great… but I’m not ready to share it yet. But hopefully you will hear about it soon!
What about you?
AS: Yes, sad to end this conversation. Lots of fun. I’m working on Pete Book 4, tentatively titled Relics, and on a horror/crime standalone. I also have a rough idea for another crime standalone I’m really excited about, but I need to temper that a bit while I work on the more pressing stuff. Also picking at a few short stories – one featuring Pete – that will be hitting soon. Plus comics: I’m co-writing The Archies one-shot with Matthew Rosenberg, featuring art by Joe Eisma. Also have a few pitches in various stages, too. Thanks for chatting, Dave! Hope everyone picks up Blind to Sin. It’s your best yet.
Thanks, Alex, for playing along!
Check out DANGEROUS ENDS and BLIND TO SIN out now from Polis Books!