Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Writing Life with Mystery Author Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins is a native North Carolinian who worked on tobacco farms and in textile mills in his youth, served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and studied philosophy in Munich, Germany. A veteran journalist, he worked at several newspapers in the South and as a congressional correspondent in Washington, D.C., before becoming a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Atkins is author of Covering for the Bosses, a book about the Southern labor movement and journalists’ failure to tell its story. His fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Hardboiled, and his novella, Crossed Roads, was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Awards in New Orleans.

What’s inside the mind of a crime novel author?

I think of my novel as more than a crime novel, but that’s a genre that fits as much as anything else. You write because you have a story to tell and characters you’d like to introduce to the world. I had written an earlier, unpublished novel that included several characters who are very important in this now-published novel. It’s so wonderful to be able to have other people get to know them like I have. I encountered a reader recently who must have not only read but studied the novel, and he probed me about little details, the whys and the wherefores. I told him, “You’re a writer’s dream.”

What is so great about being an author?

I answered this in part in the last question, but I’ll add that it’s a special moment when you’ve crafted a scene or shaped a character and somehow know it’s right, that you’ve written something that, as someone once said, “needed to have been written.” An author wants to be able to add to the human experience, to leave something worthy using whatever skills or gifts he or she may have. That’s what we all want, whether we write for a living or make chairs.

When do you hate it?

I don’t know that I ever hate it, but making yourself sit down and actually get started is often the toughest. You find a thousand excuses to get back up out of your chair and do this, tidy that, and so on. That’s why I record the time I start and when I finish each day. It’s like punching the clock. Once it’s punched, you’re on the boss’s time!

What is a regular writing day like for you?

When I’m into a writing project, I want to write everyday. Mornings are best. I’m freshest and have the most energy. I’ll write a couple hours, or more on a good day, then come back in the afternoon to do some editing, fixing this or that. I have written many evenings with a glass of bourbon nearby. The next morning, however, I’m usually having to undo the damage I did the night before!

Do you think authors have big egos? Do you?

Gosh, you’ve got to have some ego to withstand the slings and arrows of editors, publishers, and rejection slips! Yes, I happen to think I’m a damned good writer, and, of course, I want others to agree and I’m disappointed if they don’t! I’ve been knocked down on the floor countless times and had to pick myself up, dust myself off, and go at it again. It seems I’ve had to fight and scrap every step of the way, and it takes a certain amount of ego not to give up and to keep at it.

How do you handle negative reviews?

I try to learn from them if there’s something there to learn. I’ve had some excellent reviews, and I’ve had some that cut deep. One reviewer of a past book of mine wrote as if she’d simply wished I’d have written another book. I dismissed that review without a thought or worry. I wrote the book I wanted, had, to write. Let her write the book she wants written!

How do you handle positive reviews?

Who doesn’t love to read nice things about yourself? Of course, don’t let it go to your head. Hemingway once wrote that the writer “grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates.” Praise can be damning after a while, so enjoy it but don’t marry it and end up being miserable.

What is the usual response when you tell a new acquaintance that you’re an author?

I don’t bring it up or talk about it usually unless someone asks. I don’t go around saying, “I’m a writer.” Let others discover that, and when they do, they’re generally interested to know more. Many, perhaps most, people want to be a writer—what’s the cliché? “We all have a book in us”? (I believe we actually do)—it’s just that most don’t want to do what sportswriter Red Smith once said you have to do, “Sit down in front of your typewriter and open a vein.”

What do you do on those days you don’t feel like writing? Do you force it or take a break?

Sometimes it’s good to step back and refuel. I think a writer needs to write every day, but some days things just aren’t going to click and if you force it you’re not going to accomplish much. Stepping back from your desk can be a good thing. Often you’ll come back with a vengeance that next day (or next week).

Any writing quirks?

I like to be organized, to treat it like it’s a day job, and I’ve got my tasks to accomplish. I keep a writing journal, jotting down faithfully the date, when I start, and when I finish. I also keep a calendar on the wall next to my desk, and I mark in a red-colored square how many hours I wrote on that particular day. When I get to the end of the month, I can look at that calendar and see how diligent I’ve been those last 30 days. Lots of red, I feel good. Not lots of red, I feel bad.

What would you do if people around you didn’t take your writing seriously or see it as
a hobby?

Any writer wants readers, wants appreciation, respect. All of us humans want those last two. Still, you’ve got to be in touch with your inner self, your soul, know yourself, and take yourself seriously. If you do, others sooner or later pick up on that and follow suit.

Some authors seem to have a love-hate relationship to writing. Can you relate? 

Writers love to gripe and grown. I read once that it’s better to have written than to write. If you are a writer, you don’t really have much of a choice. You have to write. Not writing is not an option. It’s your work, your mission, your ministry, your calling or whatever you want to call it. And like with everything else, you’ll love it but maybe not everything about it.

Do you think success as an author must be linked to money?

I’m of the European mindset that art cannot be reduced to the bottom line. Is that un-American? The musician, photographer, and author Tav Falco, an Arkansan now living in Vienna, Austria, told me recently that one thing he loves about Europe is that “money and profits are not the defining criteria” of art, whether that art is music, painting or writing. I’m not eschewing the importance of money. Wish I had more! However, I don’t obsess about it either.

What had writing taught you?

Humility! In all seriousness, you’ve got to work at this thing. It takes a lot of spit and polish. We all need editors—we’re too much in the thick of things often to see the trees for the forest—and we can’t let rejection or just plain bad luck or simple unfairness sidetrack us or keep us down. I know when something’s worthy when I send it off. I just have that feeling. It’s something I’ve learned. In earlier times, I would send off a story, thinking with a little luck, maybe this will slip through. No way. I would never do that now. I don’t send anything off now unless I know I’ve done everything I possibly could to make this story the best I can make it. I can’t take it any further. Let another pair of eyes now see it and tell me how it can be even better.

Leave us with some words of wisdom.

Gosh, I’ve shared so much wisdom already! What can I add? Well, I’ll add this. After the writing’s done, and lo and behold, you got that little gem published, guess what? Your work is not done. Now fight for that baby you’ve given birth to. Fight to make it survive and thrive in this cruel world. I’ve published three books thus far, and I fought like a mother bear for all three of them, wrestling with publishers to do their best by them, with bookstores, newspapers, magazines, and other venues to get the word out and let people know. I’ve reached into my rolodexes and phone lists and made use of contacts, friends, connections, mild acquaintances to get them on board if I can, trying not to be a pest, but also not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to do something good for my baby!


Title: Casey’s Last Chance
Genre: crime novel
Author: Joseph B. Atkins
Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group
Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Casey's Last Chance takes the reader into a treacherous, race-torn South that’s ready to explode with civil rights workers challenging an organized resistance itching for combat. The central character, Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after an argument with his girlfriend Orella leaves his cousin dead. A crony steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network. Duren hires Casey to do a hit on labor organizer Ala Gadomska, who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren’s mills. Things go wrong, and Casey’s on the run again, this time from Duren’s goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a freelance reporter investigating Duren’s operation. He tries to solicit Casey to help him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher bring Duren down. Casey dumps Wolfe, steals his car, and returns home to Orella. A bloody shootout with a Duren goon, however, convinces Casey to join Wolfe and Beecher. It’s Casey’s last chance. The three take off back across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works until the explosive end, when no one can escape unscathed.

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