Friday, October 17, 2014

Interview with Donald Levin, author of The Baker's Men (Mystery / Police Procedural)

An award-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of The Baker’s Men, the second book in the Martin Preuss mystery series; Crimes of Love, the first Martin Preuss mystery; The House of Grins, a mainstream novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine.

Widely published as a poet and with twenty-five years’ experience as a professional writer, he is dean of the faculty and professor of English at Marygrove College in Detroit. He lives in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for his Martin Preuss mysteries.

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About The Book

Title: The Baker's Men
Author: Donald Levin
Publisher: Poison Toe Press 
Publication Date: April 20, 2014
Pages: 338
ISBN: 978-0615968568
Genre: Mystery / Crime Fiction / Police Procedural
Format: Paperback, eBook, PDF

Easter, 2009. The nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. Ferndale Police detective Martin Preuss is spending a quiet evening with his son when he’s called out to investigate a savage after-hours shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. Was it a random burglary gone bad? A cold-blooded execution linked to Detroit’s drug trade? Most frightening of all, is there a terrorist connection with the Iraqi War vets who work at the store? Struggling with these questions, frustrated by the dizzying uncertainties of the case and hindered by the treachery of his own colleagues who scheme against him, Preuss is drawn into a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge that spans generations across metropolitan Detroit.

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Can you tell us what your book is about?

Let me first say what a pleasure it is for me to be here to talk about The Baker’s Men, the second book in my Martin Preuss series of police procedurals. (The first one was Crimes of Love.) The novel is about Preuss’s investigation of a savage shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. His efforts to piece together information about the case take him geographically across the entire metropolitan Detroit area and backwards in time to come to grips with an unsolved crime from the past. He enters a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge as he attempts to uncover all the mysteries surrounding what happened to “the baker’s men.”

Why did you write your book?

That’s a tough question . . . I guess the most honest answer is, Because it was in me and I wanted to get it out! It emerged from two stories that I had been carrying around with me for a few years. The first was from an article I had read in one of the local alternative newspapers about a crime at a small family-owned bakery in Detroit. The article was actually about the devastation the bakery owners suffered, but the details of the crime caught my imagination. I'm always on the lookout for ideas for my books and poems, so I cut the article out of the paper and filed it away for a few years until I started writing this book, and then it became the inciting incident. I changed all the details about the crime (its location, the owners and their situation, the motive, and the victims) and repopulated it to suit my purposes.

The other source for the plot came from a tale that my parents had told me years ago about something that happened to one of their friends. I can't say much more about it because I'll give away too much of the mystery of the book . . . but like the article in the newspaper, I carried this story in my head for years because I knew it would wind up in a novel someday. And it finally did.

Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

The main characters in the book are continuing characters from the first book in the series. The central character is Martin Preuss, a widower with two sons; his elder son Jason disappeared years before after blaming Preuss for the automobile accident that killed Preuss’s wife six years prior to the book’s beginning. The younger son, Toby, is a 16-year-old with profound multiple handicaps who lives in a group home near where Preuss himself lives. Preuss spends as much time with Toby as he can, and loves the boy deeply and fiercely. I took great pains to make Martin Preuss realistic and recognizable and not a “superdetective.” Determined and resourceful, he is nevertheless a flawed man trying his best to improve his world by helping people who find themselves in incredibly difficult circumstances.

The other main characters are his colleagues in the police department, mainly Janey Cahill, the department’s youth officer, and Reg Trombley, the youngest detective in the department who once looked up to Preuss as his mentor but who, in this book, seems to have a serious conflict with the older detective that Preuss cannot figure out.

Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

It’s a little of both. Like an actor, I usually work inwards after starting with a physical sense of the character, and I typically base their appearance on real people I’ve seen. But the internal lives of the characters are mostly invented.

I have to say, though, that Toby is a loving and I hope precisely drawn portrait of my own grandson Jamie, from how he looks and acts to how he sounds. Jamie died three years ago after spending a year in a vegetative state. I wrote Crimes of Love before Jamie died but I had always planned to build into the book some of the amazing lessons I learned from him in his twenty-five years on earth. And now the books serve as a way for me to remember that remarkable young man. All this isn’t necessary to understand Toby as a character, but it helps to enlarge your understanding of where the character comes from.

Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel or do you discover it as you write?

I’ve heard that some writers (Joyce Carol Oates, for instance) can outline the entire novel before they start writing. For me that would never work. I start out with a very general idea of the overall arc of the story, make some notes about plot and character, and then start in writing. It’s in the writing where the story comes to life. One of the things I most love about writing longer works is discovering the story as I work through the draft . . . it winds up being an almost mystical process of entering into the story and the lives of the characters and letting the story—the individual scenes as well as the entire plot—emerge. After I’ve written the first draft, then I go back and craft and shape it all over and over again until I’m satisfied with the story, the pacing, and all the other elements of the novel. I rewrite and revise constantly.

Does the setting play a major part in the development of the story?

Very much so, not only in terms of the physical location, but also the point in time at which the story is set. The location is Ferndale, Michigan, which is an actual city outside Detroit (and also is where I live), and if you wanted to you could take my books and follow the action up and down the streets of Ferndale and Detroit. Ferndale is a city of about 20,000 people, roughly the size of the town of Ystad where Henning Mankell’s Wallander lives and works, and I use Ferndale in much the same way . . . as a location for me to express my concerns as an author: the failure of love; the cascading consequences of greed and violence, the cruelty and brutality we inflict on others consciously or unconsciously.

The Baker’s Men is also set in 2009, while the nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. This winds up being important to the story because many of the same problems that caused the nation’s financial crisis also set the novel in motion.

Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

I don’t really suffer from writer’s block anymore. I was a professional writer for almost twenty-five years before I went into teaching, and when you’re a professional you don’t have the luxury of having writer’s block. My jobs ranged from speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City to freelance industrial video scriptwriter on projects for clients like IBM and General Electric. As a writer I developed very disciplined work habits that I draw upon every time I sit down to write something. I learned early on not to rely on the fluctuations of inspiration when I needed to write something; I learned how to staple my butt to the chair and get it done.

Several years ago, though, I suffered through a prolonged period where I didn’t write fiction because I despaired of getting published. I was having no success in placing anything, and just got discouraged. I’m not sure it was writer’s block (which suggests you want to write but can’t) as much as having lost my interest in being a fiction writer. Finally I came to terms with what “success” means . . . it’s not fame and riches but knowing that you are doing the best, most honest work you can. Once I realized that, it freed me up and I was able once again to let my creative drive find an outlet in writing fiction.

What do you like most about being an author?

Honestly, everything about writing for me is a total pleasure, so I love everything about it. I love to spin out a fictional world where the characters, the events, and the setting all come together to invite the reader in for an experience that engages them and leaves them changed by the end of the book. I love building houses in what Fay Weldon calls “the City of Invention.” I love using language. I love the psychomotor activity of putting words on a page, either with a pen or on a word processor. I’m not wild about rejection, but that comes with the territory; you have to focus on the joys and not the agonies.

What is the most pivotal point of a writer’s life?

I think that depends on the writer. For some people it’s when they discover their voice as a fiction writer, or a poet, or an essayist, or a dramatist. For some people it’s when they make their first sale, or when they place a poem in a journal, that moment when they are validated as the thing they’ve always wanted to be. For some people, like myself as I was explaining a moment ago, it’s when they give themselves permission to write regardless of what happens to their creations. So I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all pivotal point, and I also don’t think there’s just one pivotal point in a writer’s life . . . since creative artists are always growing and changing, there can be many pivotal points in the life of a writer.

What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors?

Again, there are many different forms of advice depending on what a writer needs at any particular moment. In general I’d echo the usual advice writers give to other writers: never stop reading, never stop writing, and never stop growing. Many thanks for allowing me to speak with your readers!

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