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In your newest book, The Buffalo Butcher, you take us into the world of Gilded Age vice and prostitution. How real is all that?


I will say that as far as historical context goes, there’s nothing in Butcher that I can’t document. The methods used by Gilded Age procurers and pimps haven’t changed much, either, in a century. In most cases women (and some men) are lured into prostitution by a process of grooming that is both brutal and cruel—the step-by-step dismantling of a person’s will and sense of self-worth. But what makes Butcher different, though, is that I see it as a story in which the victims find ways to exercise their will and regain their self-worth. I won’t claim that parts of the book aren’t difficult to read, but they are very real indeed and do, I think, lay a foundation for a kind of triumph.


In a couple of your books, Theodore Roosevelt seems to come in for a heaping of scorn. Do you not like Teddy?


I need to say at the outset that if I find my personal views creeping into my writing, I stop—I am not about to tell my own story, but the stories of my characters within, as best as I am able, their authentic milieu. As to Roosevelt, he was as complex a figure as one is likely to discover in history, but what I found and still find fascinating in my research is that today’s somewhat heroic conception of him doesn’t reflect the reality of how he was viewed at the time. Modern people tend to think of him as an early environmentalist, trustbuster, rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ outdoorsman and soldier, and Progressive Era icon. Maybe that’s all true, to a greater or lesser degree, but it’s a retrospective view. In his day, ‘TR’ was an enormously controversial, polarizing figure and far from universally beloved. Since I am writing in another period, I feel my job is to highlight both the similarities and the differences from our own time.


What is it about the Gilded Age that fascinates you?


We could be here all day if I really started in on that one! I suppose at the most general level it’s my perception that the period is so utterly strange compared to our own, and yet eerily similar in many ways. And if ‘history repeats itself’, or as someone said, ‘rhymes’ (never understood that, frankly), the late Gilded Age offers a rather unsettling forecast for our next few decades.


Which of your characters do you like best?


That’s probably like asking a parent ‘which of your children do you love most?’ (And while many parents probably could give an answer, they certainly aren’t going to without sodium pentothal.) But I would say that from the start of this little project to the present, Alicia Miller has been my muse and guide. And I would eagerly shack up with her for six months, if offered the opportunity.


Do you write a story from beginning to end?


No, but not for any ‘good’ reason or superior process. It’s simply that when I begin a story, I don’t know where it will go. I have a distinct sense (mystical shit trigger warning) that I am ‘following’ a story as it unfolds before me, rather than ‘directing’ or ‘inventing’ it. As I’ve said more than a few times, I don’t sit down to write anything until I can see, hear, and smell it—so for me an outline would be impossible to create. That said, when I get enough scenes written (in more or less random order, as they come to me) then I do fashion an outline of what I have. That makes it easier to reorder material as the book comes together—moving things around in a manuscript is an absolute nightmare for continuity.


What’s your feeling about the publishing industry?


Whew. Look, I’m fortunate to be repped by a small and very dedicated ‘imprint’ (publisher), who have been incredibly generous with me. I had an opportunity to sign with one of the big publishers, but turned them away because big companies are good if you’re big, and not so good if you’re small. I felt I would be a very small fish in a very large pond. Now, maybe one day I’ll be big, but even then I wouldn’t switch, because what matters to me is quality and remaining an individual and not a cog in the machine. Now with all that said, large or small a publishing business is just that—a business, and people are in it to make money. And as is true of the entire entertainment industry, oftentimes the artist/performer/creator is ironically at the bottom of the pile. Everyone gets paid before a writer does: retailers, distributors, printers, publishers, advertisers, agents—but that’s the way it is and if you want your work to find an audience, you’d better suck it up. At the end of the day, I’m delighted that someone is willing to do all of the very hard work of transforming my manuscripts into books, and they’re entitled to be paid for it.


Are your characters based on real people?


Short answer is that some are, and some aren’t.  But in no case do I attempt to write biography … I’m a fiction writer, and so when things appear about a person who existed in history, my take on him or her is a fictional one. Fortunately, while today’s human beings may have different ways of processing information, expressing themselves, or behaving, their deep-down motivations are age-old and unchanging. The waves on the ocean’s surface may be large or small, but at the depths things are always quiet and calm. My job is to get under the chop and see what’s below.


Where do you get your ideas?


I honestly don’t know. I do know that I study the period I’m writing about, visit the places where my books are set, and wait for my characters to tell me what to write.


How many books will there be in the Avenging Angel Detective Agency Mysteries?


As many as Alicia Miller and Sarah Payne want me to write.


Alicia and Sarah are real people, then?


They are to me!  But also ... I predict as you get to know them, they'll become very real to you as well.


Which of your characters would you most like to know in real life? Hang out with?


Phew, that’s hard. I love them all in different ways, and I’d love to sit and talk with any of them. But I guess I’d have to say that Alicia Miller is the person I’d most want to spend 48 hours with. I’ll leave it at that.  If you get to know her, you'll learn a lot about me.


How long does it take you to write one of your novels?


About six months of steady work. I find that when I’m clicking along, I can write 1,500 words a day comfortably. I’ve written more and I’ve written less. As few as a few hundred in a slow day and as many as 7,000. But those 7,000 word days are rare, thank heavens.


Why do you say ‘thank heavens’?


Writing is surprisingly fatiguing. I suppose it’s probably most like Method Acting, having to stay in multiple characters and voices for hours and hours at a time. I usually write a couple hours in the morning and four or five in the afternoon. After that, I’m shot and have to put it away until the next day.


What do you do to wind down after a day of writing?


I take out my steno pad and, over a glass or two of wine, make notes about what I want to write the next day. That takes a half-hour or so. Then I forget about it.


What else do you like to do with your time?


I like to spend time with my wife. I enjoy tinkering with mechanical things, physical fitness, occasional travel. I’ve done so much travel in my life that it doesn’t hold as much fascination for me as it did. I think for many years I was collecting or gathering experiences, and now I am sharing them. For a while I felt like the Dead Sea, so much coming in and nothing coming out, and I don’t anymore.  Nowadays travel for research is what I enjoy -- I just returned from a blockbuster visit to Mississippi for the fourth novel (to come).


Have you really experienced everything you write about? Is your writing autobiographical? Is there a character that represents you?


Imagination is no substitute for experience.  I couldn’t describe things I haven’t seen, done, or seen done. My writing is not expressly autobiographical, although I don’t quite know how an author can separate himself entirely from the work. I will tell you that if I discover my personal views creeping into my writing, I stop and regroup. I do not want to write my story. I want to write the stories of my characters.  And no, there’s no character yet who is really anything like the real-life me. I find that refreshing.

Why Buffalo and not, say, New York City or Chicago?


Believe me, I’ve done a lot of reading and research about New York and Chicago, and in the Gilded Age they were both vibrant and important places (and are still). But over the years I’ve concluded that—in view of so many books written about or set in those two cities—I don’t have much to add, except around the margins. (Say for example about the so-called ‘palace hotels’ of the day; you’ll see a few of those in The Unsealing, where I tease out some details that aren’t easy to find elsewhere.)  Buffalo, by contrast, is a city that relatively few people know, or think they know, as well as the others—and thus is fertile ground for people’s imaginations to take root. (Most people today, when they think of Buffalo at all, think of three things: the Buffalo Bills, chicken wings, and snow. But there was and is so much more to the place, and that provides me tremendous creative latitude.)


You’re from Buffalo, New York. What do you like best about the city? Least?


I am indeed, born on the night of a full moon at Buffalo General Hospital! I like/love so many things about Buffalo. Buffalonians, for one—a generally affable and down-to-earth bunch who love their city, warts and all, and who are easy to get to know and get to like. The sense that history is always just within reach, even (or especially) amidst a degree of decay and neglect. The physical beauty of the lakeshore and the surrounding country. And at the risk of sounding like a cliché, the food: pizza, wings, Ted’s Hot Dogs, Paula’s Donuts … though I will freely confess that beef on weck, another Buffalo tradition, isn’t much to my taste because I pick the caraway seeds off the bun, which kind of defeats the whole purpose. As to what I like least … let’s just say that Buffalo has endured than a hundred years of shortsighted leadership, and at their feet lies an outsized share of the blame for the city’s decline from its glory days.


What about the Gilded Age isn’t understandable?


I used to live in France, and went to school there for a time. I'm a certified Francophile -- but I’m not a Frenchman, and never can be. There’s too much about culture that must be lived. And since I can’t go back and live in 1900, I have only echoes to go on, and even those are interpreted from my own point of view. It’s regrettable, perhaps, but we are all creatures of our time and place, as much as we might like to think we otherwise. It’s been said – well said -- that ‘the past is a foreign country’. I think that comes as close to it as it’s possible to come.

The hardest (indeed impossible) thing is to free my mind from its post-Freudian, post- World Wars, post-military/industrial complex, post-whatever-you-fancy views. I'm a creature of the twentieth century, for good or ill, and I think the utter insanity of great segments of the twentieth century killed off a species of hope – an almost Utopian sense of promise that people in 1900 felt very deeply – that the world would be a kinder and saner place a hundred years hence.

In those days, most believed that technology and science – as well as developments in the understanding of the human mind -- would fundamentally transform society for the better. Then came 1914 and the horrible knowledge that science and technology could be perhaps more easily applied to killing at an industrial scale. 

So there’s no way we today can un-know what happened to humanity – at human hands -- from 1914 on. Not, of course, that ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ began then, but perhaps it was the industrialization of inhumanity that did.

With that all said, the Gilded Age wasn’t Utopia, not even close. Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner knew it when they coined the term itself. It was solid gold laid over something much baser. But ... it did have a sheen. I wonder whether 120 years from now future generations will say the same about our time.


Your books contain some rather enthusiastic sex scenes and occasionally salty language. How real is that?


Twenty-first century people seem to think that nothing existed before them – notably, that they invented slang and sex-for-the-hell-of-it. They didn’t. As for sex ... the Edwardians were just as randy as anyone.  When electric motors became common, and small enough, one of their most successful consumer applications was the ‘handheld personal massager’. ‘Nuff said.


Are your books suitable for young adults?


Throughout most of the recent past, I would have said they were suitable for 18+. In 2022, I’d say kids will hear worse in preschool. But they're intended for adult readers, not young people.


Have you always wanted to be a novelist?


Pretty much. I’ve done a lot of other things, mainly to make a living or because it’s what I thought I should be doing. And I didn’t hate most of them. But I love writing and always have, so it’s nice to be able to do it as my day-job.


What would you like people to get out of your novels?


That they can disappear into them, wander around safely, and then come back out when they like. I hope that they will develop a bond with my characters – not that they have to like them all or like what they do, but rather to see them as fully featured human beings that they care about. If the characters become real enough to a reader, the greatest compliment I can be paid is that they will start imagining what Sarah or Alicia or Arthur, et al, might do in a certain situation that is not in one of the books. That means they’ve become as real to the reader as they are to me.


Does a reader need to read the Avenging Angel Mysteries in order?


Absolutely not! The stories are all independent and very different one from another. Some of the characters overlap, so there is always a benefit in reading them in order if you wish to understand the prior history of a given character, but it is by no means required. I write them so that readers can choose whichever story or stories sound most interesting to them.


What authors do you read?


I rarely read fiction, except browsing in Shakespeare, Melville, and the Brontës. In fact, I actively avoid reading modern fiction authors because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else’s style, word selection, or anything else. And because I’m competitive. I did read a lot of fiction when I was much younger, and I think that’s essential – to read, absorb, and then forget. After a while, all those authors’ words become so much loam.

Before bed I do like to read H. P. Lovecraft because his writing bears no resemblance to anything I can or would aspire to do. I enjoy (but often do not understand!) poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson and Jim Morrison (one of the world's most underrated poets, in my opinion). But mostly I enjoy non-fiction about esoteric topics that inspire me to dream up things I want to write about. And I read old newspapers.


Why newspapers?


Prior to starting on my novels, I read every issue of several Buffalo newspapers from 1899-1903, including the want ads. And enjoyed it. After having steeped myself in the daily doings and vernacular of the period, I was much better prepared to write about the Gilded Age. That said, I don’t think I can understand it fully. 


Do you find it difficult to write from a woman’s perspective?


I don’t know that there is a single, uniform ‘woman’s perspective’ or a ‘man’s perspective’. Certainly men and women approach the world differently, but I’m not interested in generalizations. I write about specific people and it’s their perspectives I try to understand, whether they are men or women.


Weren’t Victorians a bunch of stuffy prudes?


If they had been, none of us would exist today. Victorian and Edwardian society had rules and a kind of reserve that we don’t possess anymore. I’m not sure that made them stuffy. In fact, sometimes restraint made them all the sexier  People had to use their imaginations. And unlike today, the social rules they had to follow made it easier, not harder, to know how to behave properly in any given situation. Nowadays we have to figure everything out on the fly, and never know if we’re offending someone.


What scenes do you most enjoy writing?


I enjoy writing anything that I can clearly see or hear, when the keyhole is opened and I can peer through. Then I feel as though I’m more or less taking notes as I watch and listen. If it starts to feel like I’m ‘figuring out’ what comes next, or how this person or that ‘should’ act, I stop. It’s not real then and I never like the result. My motto is ‘don’t make shit up’.


Do you work from an outline? Do you know the whole story when you begin?


My writing is like raindrops on pavement. Just a drop here and there, at first, and then more and more of them, until the pavement is wet. When I can see how the individual drops connect one to another, I will then write out an outline and fill in the blanks from there. And emphatically no to the second question – I don’t know the whole story when I begin. The story is revealed to me in bits and pieces as I go, and as I open myself up to listen. It's more a process of discovery than creation.


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