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My Interview in the Big Thrill Magazine

by Tim O’Mara

It’s the onset of World War II. President Roosevelt is collecting and burning the currency in Hawaii in case the Japanese invade. Corrupt military officers, gangsters, and police officials are poised to steal as much of that money as they can. A badly wounded Marine Gunnery Sergeant and three other wounded veterans team up to stop them.

Got it? Good. That’s the plot of Steven Walker’s crime thriller, Gunny Mac, Private Detective—Trouble in Chinatown (Seadog Publishing, October 2020.)

This novel clearly took a lot of research. I asked Steven to talk a bit about that.

“I stumbled upon the fact about Roosevelt wanting to burn the money,” he began, “because he felt that the First Marine Division was going to be defeated on Guadalcanal which would leave Hawaii free to be invaded by the Japanese and our resources used against us. I downloaded the actual five-hundred-page official after-action report on what took place during this crucial time. I spent about eighty hours of research online and went through my personal military library. I knew a lot about this time period and noir private detective fiction.”

Steven’s father was a military man. How did that play into the writing process?

“My dad was a terrific storyteller and I grew up laughing all the time. He relayed to me many personal experiences in Hawaii like drinking as much beer as possible, eating French fries, and throwing up all over the street. He was eighteen years old. They trained in Maui and lived in tents to get ready for Iwo Jima. He told me much about the Marines in 1943 through 1947.

“My own years in the Marines shaped me and allowed me to write what I know. I can still feel the jungle heat and humidity, the smell of wet canvas, jungle rot, and, of course, all the good and bad characters, officers and enlisted. All my characters are men I knew, including Padre McCaffery, who drank bourbon like water, smoked cigars like they were free, was brave, and loved God.”

Not being a military man myself, I asked Steven what makes a good Gunnery Sergeant a good P.I.? I could feel his smile.

“Great question!” he said. “In the 1930s and ’40s, Marines who made it to this rank were harder than woodpecker lips. They had fought insurrections, guarded mail trains; the Marine Corps was their family. Like the gunnery sergeants of today, they were the backbone of the Corp: they led men, trained them, and disciplined them. They’re a cagey lot, prone to rebellious streaks, profane, yet profess a love of people. They have a code of honor and won’t break it. They will walk a mile out of their way to take care of bad guys and bend over backward to help a young Marine. They’re smart about the ways of the world (and often kept me out of trouble.)  They will fight until they die, and live life to the fullest. They’re also the funniest people I’ve ever known. Good humor comes from men who are in a bad situation and make fun of it.”

Sounds like someone I’d want watching my six.

Trouble in Chinatown is filled with enough bad guys for two books. What makes a good antagonist and what does he or she bring out in our hero?

“First,” he explained, “I don’t like terrible, horrible villains. I feel they must have some good and not totally dark like today’s modern villains whereby in the third chapter they are cutting hearts out and mailing them to people. I stop reading. My villains are more like Casper Gutman in the Maltese Falcon: fat, sneaky, bad, but with a sense of humor and some good.  Then there’s Johnny Friendly, the gangster in On the Water Front. Lee J. Cobb plays the bad guy who uses other people to bully and kill him. In the beginning, he is the successful gangster, but by the end, the beast within him—the wounded animal—becomes clearly visible, as he’s revealed to be as human and vulnerable as the poor people he exploited.

“Just as our hero is about to turn bad,” Steven continued, “and maybe lose his soul, he is saved by the villain’s cruelness. He has a choice to stay decent or turn bad. Because he has a code of honor, he stays on the right side of being human.”

While reading this novel, it became quite clear to me that Steven was not just a fan, but also a student of noir fiction. I asked the obvious: Who are his major influences?

“Brett Halliday, a pseudonym for Davis Dresser; I love his wisecracking funny detective, Michael Shayne. Mickey Spillane, who wrote about Mike Hammer. Earl Derr Biggers who introduces us to Charlie Chan, the Chinese detective in Honolulu. Samuel Dashiell Hammett—Sam Spade, Nick and Nora Charles, and the Continental Op. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, whose FBI agent, Aloysius Xingu L. Pendergast, is one of my favorite detectives.

“And my dear father, of course, who introduced me to all these great writers and the films they inspired. Thanks, Dad.”

I knew that Steven is, like me, a huge baseball fan. I wanted his opinion on how a good novel is like a good baseball game.

“You and I are on the same wavelength,” he told me. “First of all, it is an American game and noir detective fiction is all-American. Both have deep roots in our culture. Baseball starts slow, sometimes like a novel, and the tension builds until you are eating your fingers to the quick. Your heart is beating a mile a minute and you are standing, waiting for your hero to hit it out of the park. I believe it’s the most dramatic sport in our culture. The same with a novel: conflict and tension build until you must have a satisfying ending with your hero saving the day. When I hear a baseball game over the radio, my heartbeat goes down and a peacefulness comes over me. A good novel leaves me in that same pleasant state of euphoria.”

As for Steven’s personal journey as a writer…

“It took me five years to be a writer,” he said. “I fought it. I didn’t want to put in the work. I was working full time and just played around with my ideas. I didn’t know what I was doing until I found out about the concept and premise. (Thanks Larry Brooks!) When I understood those two ideas, I wrote my novel in nine months.

“(With Trouble in Chinatown) I had fifty-five rewrites and countless edits. I realized I had to stop tweaking it because a writer is never satisfied with what they have written. I have the sequel—Gunny Mac Private Detective Trouble in Cleveland—half complete. Once I had my characters, they wrote the book for me. Someone asked me how I felt about finishing and publishing my novel. Like I feel after finishing an infamous twenty-mile forced hike in the Marine Corps in a little more than three hours—tired, but thankful I didn’t fall out.”

Finally, I asked, “How about your dream panel at ThrillerFest?”

“Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Dean Koontz, Stephen Hunter, Preston and Child, and Nelson Demille. The subject? What makes the quintessential American detective and how does he or she relate to your heroes?”

Interview for Red Headed Book Lover

                              By Aimee Cook

 

1.Thank you for joining us at Red Headed Book Lover! Please tell us more about yourself.

 

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in a Slovak family. My mother never finished the eighth grade to help support her family and my dad did not finish high school because he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942. I won’t go into detail, just say I didn’t have much of a child’s life between G 7 and graduation from high school.

I grew up shy and introverted. I made a vow to myself to live a happy life after I was emancipated.

I joined the Marine Corps and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was nice to be around real men who guided me and helped me flourish and grow into a young man.

I served for two decades and later went on to become a high school teacher, guidance counselor, and teacher evaluator, and head baseball coach. Along the way, I married my college sweetheart and the rest is history as they say.

 

2. Could you please tell us, readers, about your book and what inspired you to write your book.

 

Firstly, I would say there are not enough books out there about the 1940s and 1950s Private Eyes, so I decided to write a series about one. I guess it’s considered old school.

My father worked in a factory on Coit Rd. in Cleveland, Ohio. He would come home at midnight from his shift smelling of the factory floor grease and we would fry balcony sandwiches together, smeared with yellow mustard. We would turn on channel eight and he would introduce me to the gangster and detective movies of the 1940s and 1950s.

The likes of Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorrie, and Richard Widmark. Movies like “Casablanca”, “Where the Side Walk Ends”, the “Maltese Falcon”, “Double Indemnity”, and “To have and have Not”.

Tough,  Private Eyes like Sam Spade, Michael Shayne, Charlie Chan, Mickey Spillane,  and the Continental Ops.

I loved those beautiful movies and characters. I miss my time with my dad.

I simply got tired of reading about the same detectives in modern writing about some guy cutting out eyes and hearts and leaving them as calling cards. Far too much violence and not enough humor and character development.

 

3. What would your advice be to aspiring authors?

 

Wow, this is a tough one! I’m far from an expert but I have learned much in the last five years and I don’t want people to think I’m a know it all but here goes nothing.

Novel writing is like learning to play a musical instrument…it takes time and practice to play somewhat well and simply hundreds of hours practicing to become an expert. Writing is no different.

Grammarly kept a record of my words I wrote and rewrote and it was well over one million, actually 1.2 million to achieve an 89,465-word novel. It amazes me when I hear writers say they have a best seller in them but have not taken the time to learn their craft and just start writing.

Would you have a person build your house without the knowledge to pound a nail or an architect who didn’t understand building codes and how to write up house plans?

How did I do it?

I read over 400 books in my lifetime in just my genre. You must read what you want to write!

  • I took my favorite authors and copied my favorite chapters word for word to get a feel on how to write a scene and chapter. Tough and boring to do that, but I was a Marine grunt. LOL.
  • I went to writer’s conferences, read twenty books on novel construction, dialogue, and plot construction.
  • I joined professional groups in my genre.
  •  I searched the internet for writing gurus.
  • I found them worthless because they gave you just enough information to buy their product which I didn’t do, same with writing podcasts which consisted of them talking about everything except serious writing.
  •  I searched for friends who would criticize my writing and I said thank you for making me a better writer. If you can’t accept criticism, you are in the wrong business.
  • I edited my book 55 times,
  • rewrote whole chapters, and changed scenes.
  • I would look at a scene and say gosh I love it but it is wrong and I would smile and rip it out!

For a novice like me…it costs money to self-publish.

  • Maybe some people can do everything themselves and are extremely talented not me. I hear indie writers ask how can I do this for free or at little cost? 
  • Good luck! Budget at least $5,000.00 to self-publish. 
  • My cover cost $450.00
  • editing $1,000.00
  • formatting $150.00
  • ISBN’s (ten) $445.00
  • Professional organizations $150.00
  • professional books $300.00
  • developmental editing (this saved me) $1,800.00
  • and audiobook…$450.00
  • Book trailer $40.00

. This does not include money to market your book.

Aspiring writers must understand this…you do not need college degrees to write a book…but you must have a passion to learn.

If you lack the money to self-publish… write and learn your craft while you save money from one job…two jobs or three jobs.

Anybody can write a novel but you have to have the guts to finish one.

I laugh when I tell new writers with dreams… it’s not that hard to write a book! There are millions of books by millions of authors!

The world is full of wishers and not enough doer’s Most of all have fun writing and learning!

 

4. In your opinion what is the most important thing about a book?

 

Interesting question…I’ll answer it from my heart.

Character!

I like character-driven plots! Characters that I relate to who are searching for redemption because we are all fallen creatures in some capacity. Characters that possess no superman qualities or abilities, but struggle like me in life.

No magic bullets, that suddenly make their life sweet and nice.

Characters who know they are human above all else yet struggle with everything they possess to be good and not to spiral out of control and destroy everything in their path.

I like characters who chart their course in life based on not being popular but content in the knowledge they are living a good life.

Like a priest told me once… it’s not our job as Christians to leave the world a better place but leave the world a better Christian.

Being a good person entails making tough decisions in life that often leave you standing alone against the crowd.

 

5. What is your writing process like?

 

I write about fifteen hours a week…some days one- hour other days much more. No rhyme or reason. What fits my busy schedule.

I develop my concept and premise first.  I then use logical progression. 

In Catholic school, Sister Rose taught us logic which didn’t make logical sense to me. LOL. Since my novels are character-driven I use their human traits to dictate how they react to events. This can only happen if you know and love your characters.

(look up logic formulas if interested) Without going into logic formulas; it goes like this. (A) happens…logically several things may happen? Pick one… after that happens several things could happen pick one that makes sense. Keep doing that and that will fill in your plot.

I edit each page as I go along and then continue to edit because the direction of my story changes as my characters react to various events they put themselves in. This helps me develop my plot continuously.

I don’t know the ending.  My characters develop my story within my concept and premise.

I don’t believe in writer’s block which gets a lot of writers mad at me.  My opinion is if you know yourself… your story and characters will react in a way that makes you sad or happy!

6. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing a book?

 

A writer friend of mine said, “Write what you know about and have a passion for.” I know the Marine Corp inside and out because I was a Marine and I l loved the history of  WW ll and their exploits. My dad fought in the toughest battles of WW ll and he told me about his time in service.

I researched early WW ll history and found a gem I thought would lead to a great book. Roosevelt deciding to burn all the money in Hawaii so the Japanese could not get our money to finance their fight against us if Guadalcanal fell and replace it with money with Hawaii written across the back of each bill. Worthless to the Japanese if they invaded the islands.

I spent about two more hours researching the Cosa Nostra in the 1930s and 1940s.

My new novel…Gunny Mac Private Detective Trouble in Cleveland was a lot of fun. Once again, I used the information I knew. I grew up in Cleveland, I know the Catholic Church…I know the Polish and Slovenian cultures. I’m having a blast

Also, don’t forget my love of the hard-boiled noir private eye genre of Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Dashiell Hammett!

 

7. Do you have a set schedule for writing or do you write when you feel inspired?

Good question. Being inspired is like getting motivated. I don’t believe in those two words

Inspiration and motivation are temporary, to say the least.

That is why you must have a passion to be a writer! Because I have a passion to write I’m inspired and motivated every day. I can’t wait to get up and write. If I had to wait to get inspired or motivated it would be a cold day in hell before I wrote anything!

Writing is so much a part of me I feel lost without working at my craft. Like I’m not doing what God intended me to do. It’s similar as I felt when I was a Marine on active duty…I couldn’t wait to wear my uniform with pride and do my job.

 

8.Do you read much and if so, who are your favorite authors?

Yes, I read about four books a month. Reading is one of the most pleasurable pastimes I have in my life.

Some of my favorite authors: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Mickey Spillane, Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, Nelson Demille, Preston & Child, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Leon Uris, Michael Connelly just to name a few.

 

9. Lastly, when can we readers expect to read more wonderful books from you?

 

“Gunny Mac Private Detective Trouble in Cleveland”, will in out in three months. I have half-finished a novel, “Between Heaven and Hell”, about the drug war and my time in an intelligence agency.  I’m also working on a novel about the baseball legend Ty Cobb.