An Interview with Ace Atkins

Gerald So: You’ve seemed up to the task of continuing Spenser from your first day on the job. Do you feel more comfortable having written four Spensers, or do you feel more pressure to keep challenging the characters and engaging readers?

Ace Atkins:
It definitely feels more comfortable writing a Spenser novel now. At the very first, with LULLABY, it was mainly a question of how do I keep this going and how do I let readers know I “get” this world and this iconic character. But now, as I’m getting to work on my fifth Spenser, there is more thought about doing more than just writing one book, the series as a whole. What sharp readers might note is there are some longer story arcs in place about changing Boston. Reed Coleman,
longtime Parker editor Chris Pepe, and I have had great fun talking about how a new criminal order in the city and Mass might shake up readers’ expectations.

Gerald: Your talking with Reed and Chris Pepe has me imagining a crossover novel where you write the Spenser portion and Reed writes the Jesse Stone portion. Do your contracts allow for such a thing? If not, I can dream…

Ace: I’ve discussed the idea with Chris and Reed. I don’t know if this will happen. That’s up to the estate. But I think it could be a lot of fun. Reed is a great pal and I’d love to work with him on a joint project.

Gerald: Aside from getting to write new adventures for Spenser and friends, what’s been the coolest perk of the Spenser continuation job?

Ace: By far the best perk is having to spend a lot of time in Boston. Like Parker, my job is to know the city and all of its mean streets. I just had the pleasure and privilege of spending several days with the Boston Fire Department for an upcoming story. It’s a terrific city and a small town in many ways. I’ve gotten to know many great Boston folks, including close friends of Bob and the late Joan Parker. To say Boston has been welcoming to me is a an understatement.

Gerald: At a signing of your second Spenser, WONDERLAND, you mentioned you were writing a Spenser TV pilot Lullabyscript. Any update on its status?

The Parker Estate decided not to use it. But I had great fun writing it. And I’m now working on a feature script based on my [first Quinn Colson] novel THE RANGER. THE RANGER was recently optioned by a terrific director producer — Jeremiah Chechik — who shares the same vision and passion for gritty realism.

Gerald: I recall reading that you felt your fiction reached a new level when you blended it with true crime. Was KICKBACK inspired by true crime as well?

Ace: Yes! I think there was always a heavy dose of realism in Parker’s best novels. Not only with a sense of place, but with the times they were written. I’m always looking for the very best stories for Spenser. It’s not only keeping the character alive, but having a hell of a story to tell. Parker created great characters to work with, but they fall flat without an exciting crime story. Anybody can make Parker’s characters talk and walk in a simulated way. But that’s not making a great novel. KICKBACK is based on a true story of a couple of crooked judges in Pennsylvania. They were sending teens to private prisons in a “kids for cash” scheme that made a lot of papers and was the focus of an amazing documentary called KIDS FOR CASH. It’s on Amazon now and is highly recommended. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the perfect social-evil vehicle for Spenser.

Gerald: Speaking of the papers, I was glad to see an old reporter friend of Spenser’s in KICKBACK. You mentioned developing a new criminal element for Spenser to face, but who’s next on your list of old Spenser friends or enemies you’ve wanted to revisit and haven’t had the chance yet?

Ace: Fast Eddie Lee, Tony Marcus, RBP also once mentioned a bad dude named “Mr. Milo.” I like the sound of him.

Gerald: Spenser is a very competent character, yet the best of Robert Parker’s books — and each of yours so far — seem to provide challenges worthy of him. WONDERLAND, for example, had him working with the less-experienced Sixkill instead of Hawk and Susan. What particular challenges do you see for him in KICKBACK?

Ace: KICKBACK is very much an old-fashioned, throwback Spenser novel. Sixkill is away on other business. There’s only Spenser and Hawk to take on the bad guys. What I hope sharp readers will see is an older, wiser Spenser keeping up with the times. Joe Broz (who was always Whitey Bulger to me) is dead. Another major player is about to be wiped from the grid — but I can’t tell you right now. That’s Reed Coleman’s job!

The bad guys Spenser has befriended are being replaced by newer, tougher and younger Boston thugs. The challenge for Spenser is the challenge for me — stay hip, cool, and fresh as the city and times evolve.

Gerald: Parker seemed to write a very natural continuity, letting most of Spenser’s life play out on the page as he went along. Are you taking the same approach to continuity?

Ace: Parker kept a lot of this intact until about the 25th novel. That book — Sudden Mischief — seems to be a milestone for the series in many ways. I think about this time Spenser stopped aging or changing. I believe my task has been to press the PLAY button again and have him continue to evolve. For the series to continue, to be viable, we must have a real man working in real times. Readers deserve more than just an imitation of past stories. They want the realism and the grit that
Parker made famous. Be on the lookout for some big changes in Boston. Spenser still has a lot of life in him.

Gerald: In our previous interview, you mentioned listening to Parker’s favorite jazz helped set the tone for writing Spenser. Is that still part of your process? Do you go back to the same songs whenever you write Spenser, or has the soundtrack changed for each book? What were some songs you listened to while writing KICKBACK?

Ace: It’s always classic Jazz. Not always the same songs. But I listen to Bob’s favorite artists: Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McCrae, Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton and Boston pianist Dave McKenna. McKenna should have scored Spenser: For Hire. I listened to him a lot when working on KICKBACK. He sounds like Boston.

Gerald: The Spenser books have apparently gone away from literary references for titles. The last one I remember is HUGGER MUGGER. If you could use any literary reference as a new Spenser title, what would it be?

Ace: I don’t think the folks at Putnam would let me ever [use a title along the lines of] THE WIDENING GYRE. But if it had a nice crossover feel, like SMALL VICES or SUDDEN MISCHIEF [did], they might listen. I thought about suggesting a more literary title for the one I’m writing now but nothing sounded natural or appropriate.

Gerald: Thank you very much and continued success, Ace.