Monday, January 29, 2018

A Conversation with Ace Atkins


Ace Atkins is the New York Times Bestselling author of twenty-one novels, including The Fallen and Robert B. Parker's Little White Lies, both out from G.P. Putnam's Sons.

One of the best crime writers working today, Ace has been nominated for every major award in crime fiction, including the Edgar twice for novels about former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson. A former newspaper reporter and SEC football player, Ace also writes essays and investigative pieces for several national magazines including Outside and Garden & Gun.

He lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family, where he's friend to many dogs and several bartenders.

Find out more about Ace and his novels on his official website:
aceatkins.com, on Facebook Ace Atkins, and on Twitter @aceatkins.

  

First things first, an explanation and unadulterated admiration. Some may scratch their heads wondering why I sought a crime-writer for a Western fiction interview, but I think open minds easily see the Quinn Colson novels as Down South Contemporary Westerns. We’ve got a conflicted small-town sheriff, good men facing bad men, hell, we’ve got a dog named Hondo, the Colson novels are as iconic as they get.

I gotta ask, is there an appreciation for the genre, or have I read too much into this? Either way, I love Colson, so I win no matter your answer.



You definitely didn't read too much into the Colson books. They are Westerns. The genesis of the novels was to write a Western based in modern-day north Mississippi. In fact, that's pretty much what I told my editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, when we were kicking around the idea for a new series. I could switch the pickup trucks to horses and make Quinn a Civil War vet -- instead of one from modern times -- and it wouldn't change much at all.  Mississippi continues to be a place for outlaws and disorder. From the thieves to the politicians.



Did you have any Western influences percolating when creating the Colson character? I mean at the very least the dog’s name is an obvious Louis L ’Amour or at least John Wayne film reference.



Absolutely! Perhaps too many to name. I thought a lot about High Noon, The Searchers, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (a story that influenced my second Colson novel, The Lost Ones,) and even Support Your Local Sheriff. If I ever get lost finding Quinn's voice, I go back to James Garner. At his most basic, Quinn is Cooper, or Garner, the classic town sheriff. Hondo and the lever-action Winchester are definitely homages to the film with John Wayne. 



You’ve got a tight laconic style allowing sparse phrasing to the job to set mood and move the action along. This is from The Broken Places:

Bones lay next to him, as snug and tight as cheap corpses buried two for one, as Dickie slid a thick metal sheet over them and left them in darkness.”

That is tight craft. Evocative, quick, and gets the job done. Is your tight style an influence from your journalism days, or something else?



I've had so many influences over the years, from Hammett and Chandler to Hemingway to the wonderful Westerns of Elmore Leonard. Not to mention working as a reporter. In the newspaper business, you learn to choose your words carefully and make every one count. I wouldn't trade that experience for any other.

 

Your Colson novels are not the only work that I see these Western parallels in. Many historians see the age of the 1930s Dust Bowl gangsters as the end point of the Wild West. After all, we have a Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, bringing down Bonnie and Clyde. Your novel Infamous allows us to follow the hapless George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

Your research here is impeccable. How important is to you to get the balance between “Here’s how it was” and the fictional narrative thrust just right?

Amongst all the 1930s gangsters, what was it about Kelly that attracted you?



Oh, man. Thanks for asking about Infamous. That's probably my favorite project and perhaps the least read. I spent a tremendous amount of time researching that novel and I have to admit about ninety percent is pretty much spot-on. I didn't have to play with the facts, because the facts were so great. It was pretty much the only true crime novel that I wrote where there was a definite beginning, middle, and end to the factual story. I chose Kelly because he had never had his own book or a good movie. He was wide open territory to explore. But I quickly found out why he hadn't been touched -- he never killed anyone, or fired that machine gun, and was pretty much bossed around by his wife. To me, that made him even more fun. I really loved that guy and loved telling his story. His story is a comedy whether George Kelly liked it or not.



If you were to have another go at a 1930s gangster, who might get your creative juices flowing?

No doubt Alvin Karpis. Someday I'll write that book. I've already started a little research in my little spare time.

You come to fiction from a past life as a crime reporter. As a matter of fact, I believe you were in the running for a Pulitzer Prize for your work on an unsolved Tampa murder which you subsequently turned into the fine novel White Shadow. Would you tell us a little about that trajectory from real-life sleuthing to the fictional page?

I came to reporting knowing that I ultimately wanted to be a novelist. Hemingway was pretty clear about any serious novelist had to spend time in the newsroom. And I was damned fortunate to be in the last old days of the profession when the printing presses actually ran. I learned a lot about people, researching, and tracking down great details. I think it took me about four novels to come around and take what I'd learned as a journalist and inject it into my work. White Shadow, about the 1950s in Tampa, was the first. 



Your novel Wicked City is about as Western as it gets. Bad town, good man is needed to clean up that town. Here, we have the added weight that you are dealing with the real-events of a truly wicked city, Phenix City, Alabama. Can I ask what drew your attention to this project?



 I definitely wanted this novel to feel like a 1950s Western. The time it's set -- 1954 -- was the zenith of the American Western in pop culture. Wicked City was a story that I'd been wanting to tell for years. I used to live about thirty miles from Phenix City and was well versed in its history. My grandfather had worked for legendary Alabama governor "Big Jim" Folsom and was no stranger to that town's underworld. My other grandfather was a bootlegger in western Alabama. I knew these people and the terrain. It was a natural story for me with echoes back to the Old West.

Another of your terrific “ripped from the historical headlines” novels is Devils’ Garden which puts real-life detective and hardboiled icon Dashiell Hammett on the Fatty Arbuckle case. Some may not realize it but this era of Hollywood is where the West went to fade. We’ve got Wyatt Earp doing a bit of film consultant work and hanging around movie sets. The cowboy detective Charlie Siringo was an overlapping contemporary with Hammett. Again, what drew you to this story?

Outside the South, I'm probably most drawn to writing about San Francisco. It was a city my father knew and loved very much. I lived there as a kid when he was coaching for the 49ers. Some or my earliest memories are wandering around The City. On a visit some years ago, I came across references to Arbuckle and a footnote that Hammett had worked the case as a Pinkerton. I was shocked no one had told that story. I pretty much dove right into that world. I was immersed in 1921 and one of the great 20th Century tragedies.

Are there any other historical works in the pipeline for you?

I never want to completely leave the True Crime Novel. I feel this is where I blend my work as a journalist, researcher, and fiction writer. The only issue is that they take so damn long to research and write! At the moment, I'm under contract for many more Quinn Colson and Spenser novels and don't have time for anything else. But I know someday that's where I'll return. That's my home. I feel like those four novels I wrote were unique and so different, blending the work of a reporter and a novelist. I definitely want to write more and have more stories in mind.



Many of your works are set in the Deep South, there is such a strong sense of place and it is clear that you are a resident and know it well. I love this quip from you where you said that your main influences were William Faulkner and Burt Reynolds. With that said, what is it about the South that keeps you coming back?

The rugged country and the dysfunction. There's no where else like it. It's also where I was born and continue to live. And right now, there is no better place in America to talk about. So many issues that I thought we'd addressed long go have raised up their ugly heads. Racism, corruption, hypocrisy. Time has turned back. The ugliness has returned but with lots of good folks who want to fight it. I think the Colson books are now more relevant than ever to discuss race, religion and politics. Nowhere else is it more divisive.

I also have to ask, what is your favorite good ol’boy Burt Reynolds flick?

Probably White Lightning. Closely followed by Deliverance and Smokey and the Bandit



You have also taken over the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. Parker also wrote a couple of fine Westerns towards the end of his life currently being continued by another author. Any chance of you taking a whack at these?



Parker famously said his Spenser novels were simply the evolution of the American Western. He said all PI novels were about the gunmen from the West moving into contemporary times and the big city. I think at the very end of his career, Bob was more interested in the Westerns than anything he was writing. I know he loved going back to the source of his work for the inspiration and the wonderful simplicity. My buddy Robert Knott, who wrote the film Appaloosa, has taken on those stories and I hope he continues for a long while. He does a wonderful job.



Prior to Colson we had another series character, also based in the Deep South in the form of Nick Travers. Tell us a little about the inspiration for Nick.

Well, Nick was greatly inspired by the work of Robert B. Parker. I see so much Spenser in those early books and perhaps that's what made my transition to taking over the series easier. But I also came from a place where the classic hardboiled detective novel met blues music. I found a common ground for Hammett and Chandler with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. When I realized blues was just another hardboiled art form, I pretty much had Nick and his world in New Orleans. Those stories are finding new life as graphic novels. The first, Last Fair Deal Gone Downcame out two years ago, with Crossroad Blues coming out this spring.



Any chance of Nick making a comeback? 

As a new novel? You never know. I would love to write another one someday. But I'd have to find the right story. I owe that guy a lot. He got my career started nearly twenty years ago!



The Travers novels are full of blues lore. You clearly know what you’re talking about here. I’m also a huuge blues fan. If you met someone who said, “I’ve never heard the blues, what’s it all about?” any top artists or works that you would point to and say, “Listen to this! That’s the blues.”

 Muddy Waters, "Hard Again" album. If Muddy and Johnny Winters shouting on "Mannish Boy" doesn't move you, nothing will.



Let’s get Western specific. Are there any Western authors or particular works that moved you as Ace Atkins the reader? To be honest, I’m simply asking, “What are your top-picks” in the hopes I find some untapped gold.

From the golden age, I loved The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg. Both the novel and the film. In fact, that story was the basis for my fourth Colson book, The Forsaken. It's one of most important and relevant Westerns we have. I'm also a huge fan of Elmore Leonard. He's the very definition of the journey from the old west to contemporary crime. He was a personal friend, a hero to me, and continues to be an inspiration. And I have to mention, True Grit by Charles Portis. One of the great novels of the 20th Century.



What’s next in the pipeline for Ace Atkins?

I just finished my seventh Spenser novel, Old Black Magic, that will be out in May. At the moment, I'm working on the eighth Colson novel, The Sinners, that will be out later this summer. And then back to both Spenser and Quinn for 2019. 



Ace, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to have this conversation. All the best to you and much success on your upcoming work.

A real pleasure! Always glad to talk about the Old West and its continued influence in pop culture. It is one of the greatest American art forms.

1 comment:

  1. I first became aware of Ace Atkins because of his blues novels. I wish he would return to them because I've read enough Robert Parker novels. Enough Spenser...

    ReplyDelete

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