JH: Well, isn’t this my lucky day! I’m interviewing the incomparable Shane Gericke, who is the Local Guest of Honor for Love Is Murder 2014.
Good morning, Shane!
Let’s get the basics out of the way first:
Your last name is pronounced YER-kee. In a former life you were a Chicago Sun-Times editor and reporter. Now, you’re a successful author with three rip-roaring, action-packed thrillers—Blown Away, Cut to the Bone and Torn Apart—to your name. You’ve worked hard, learned your craft, hit bestseller lists, and run the ThrillerFest literary festival in New York City. On top of that, you’re an all-around great guy! How do you do it? (You don’t have to answer that one!)
SG: Thank you, Julie, for the very kind words. And, likewise. You’ve had tremendous success with your lines of mysteries, and I’m smiling ear to ear to be interviewed by a New York Times-bestselling author.
JH: I know you’ve been asked all the standard questions, like: How did you get started writing? Why did you pick Naperville? Why a female protagonist? Why thrillers? Where do you get your ideas? etc. I also imagine that your wise and witty answers to these questions can be easily found online. So let’s skip those for today, okay?
SG: Whatever you like, as long as we don’t have to talk about my undies. ‘Cause I’m, you know, a shy guy who much prefers cringing in the shadows to talking about myself and my books and . . . wait . . . can’t . . . keep straight face . . .
JH: Here we go:
Think back, Shane, to that typewriter you got for Christmas back when you were seven. Between that day and now, what’s the single most important decision you’ve made in your career as a writer?
SG: The single most important decision I made in my four decades as a writer (not for nothin’ do I have all that silver hair) was to decide to be a writer. That occurred the year I got that little plastic typewriter. I was in second grade in a small town in farm country south of Chicago: Lincoln Estates, a 300-person hamlet near Frankfort, along the Lincoln Highway, for those familiar with the south suburbs. When I grew up in the Fifties and Sixties, it was a small, rural town, and Chicago was a million miles away.
My second-grade teacher Mrs. Feely (isn’t that a terrific name?) passed out mimeographs to the class one day. I asked what this smelly purple paper was. She said it’s a newspaper. I noticed kids’ names across the tops of stories. I asked why. She said the eighth-graders learned about a news item, wrote the story, and the school put it in the newspaper with their byline across the top. Intrigued, I asked if I could do that. She said yes, then added a bunch of stuff about thoroughly learning English and avoiding dangling participles and other Eat Your Vegetables advice. I was hooked—that was the moment I knew I’d be a writer. I have pursued it every day since as a sportswriter, news reporter, editorial writer, magazine writer and now novelist, and in August 2013, I celebrated the 40th anniversary of day my first paid story appeared in the town weekly. (That was 1973. I got the princely sum of $30 a month to cover high school sports for the Frankfort Herald. I was in Heaven.)
JH: I’m sure you expected this follow-up: What’s the worst decision you’ve made? Or, to put it more gently: What would you change?
SG: The worst decision was to give up my newspaper career to pursue crime fiction. It was also my best decision other than becoming a writer in the first place.
I was a journalist for twenty-five years, primarily at the Sun-Times. Around year twenty, I started itching to write the crime thrillers I’d always loved reading, from the Hardy Boys to Tom Swift to Mickey Spillane to now. I tried my hand at my first novel while still working full-time. Big mistake. I worked ten hours a day at the paper, and spent a couple hours a day on top of that chairing the reporters’ union. By the time I got home at night, my eyes were so bleary that the thought of writing another word was pure torture. So I didn’t get very far. At year twenty-five, I said, Gotta go for it, not getting any younger. So I quit the paper and started writing books full-time. Which eliminated more than half our family income! Yikes! My wife, bless her heart, was and remains a huge supporter of my decision, and I literally couldn’t have made this move without her backing. But we were hit hard financially, because it took years to sell my first book. Now, the books are doing well, and the income stream is flowing. But for a while, I seriously considered going back to the day job, just for the money. Glad I didn’t.
It was also a great decision because it gave me the chance to write-write-write. Which led to my first two manuscripts that didn’t sell, which taught me enough to write my third manuscript, which did, and became a bestseller in print and No. 1 in Kindle e-books. (To my great shock and pleasure.) If I’d stayed at the paper, none of that would have happened . . . and I’d still be working nights on the news desk instead of sitting on my deck with a cup of coffee and a laptop, creating new worlds.
JH: Most authors (I include myself) usually hit a teeth-gnashing, hair-tearing moment at some point in their manuscripts, the point where they’re convinced everything written thus far stinks and that they should simply give up. Does this happen to you? And when it does, how do you pull yourself out of the trench of angst to finish the story?
SG: Oh, no, that never happens to me. Every word I write glows on the digital page as if a nuclear reactor. [Sound of derisive laughter.] All right, all right, yes. I hit that wall every time in my first three books. It’s usually about halfway through, after the adrenaline of the opening scene is gone and I’m slugging through the high weeds toward the (hopefully) pulse-pounding ending. To conquer the blahs and hair-tearing, I just keep writing, even though I know it sucks. Eventually, my mind finds the doorway out and I come into the light. And, coffee. That helps too. Funny thing, though. I didn’t hit that patch of swamp in my new book. Maybe I’ve hit the right combination of story and coffee consumption? We’ll find out in book five, whatever that might be.
JH: I know you’re a bit of an expert when it comes to guns. Do you have a favorite?
SG: One of the things that I did between leaving the paper and getting my first book contract was to write for firearms magazines. It was a terrific experience, and I learned a ton about handguns, rifles, and shotguns. Which is good; when you write crime fiction, there is inevitably a gun or six floating around. Guns are an enormous part of our American culture and an invaluable tool for our characters to use, and so all writers should familiarize themselves as much as possible. Plus, it’s fun sending bullets downrange. Anyone who hasn’t should try.
My single favorite gun is the Glock. It’s compact, lightweight, simple to operate and maintain (it’s the only gun I can fix myself), holds a lot of cartridges, and goes “bang” every time you pull the trigger. It’s made of plastic and steel, so you can roll around in the mud while training and not harm it a bit. Cops and soldiers around the planet carry them, so readers are familiar with the name. After that, I like Smith & Wesson revolvers—the old-timey “snubnose” .38s you see on detective shows—the Heckler & Koch USP pistol, the Remington 870 pump shotgun, and the H&K MP5, a compact sub-machinegun that’s a hoot to shoot.
JH: Do you do most of your writing at home?
SG: About half. The rest I do in coffee shops, forest preserves, and other public places. I like the buzz I get from being around people. Writing is a solitary profession, just me and my keyboard. But I love being around people. With modern technology and my Apple MacBook Pro, I can write literally anywhere in the world. So I go where my muse takes me. It often includes coffee, as my muse likes its caffeine.
JH: You might not have expected this question:
(<grin>, couldn’t resist) Let me rephrase: Any pets?
SG: Ha! I was prepared for the inevitable undies question and you cleverly twisted away as if a high diver doing a twisting gainer!
Nope, no pets; we travel a lot and that’s not fair to a pet. But I dearly, dearly love beagles, followed by hounds of most any kind.
JH: Back to the books: You’re known for creating exceptional thrillers. Are there any other genres that pique your interest?
SG: I love nonfiction of all sorts, since real life is often stranger than fiction. I love general fiction a la Jodi Picoult and John Irving. (If you haven’t read his A Prayer for Owen Meany, do yourself a favor and get it. You’ll thank me later.) In other words, I like literary work that’s approachable and simply written. I’m not a fan of traditional “literary” fiction, as it’s often obtuse and pretentious. I mean, really, Mr. Joyce in Ulysses, a sentence that runs five thousand words with more clauses than the tax code? That’s writerly narcissism, and not at all about the reader who has to use a machete to find the hidden meaning.
JH: If you could sit on the shoulder of a writer for one day, which writer would you choose, and why?
SG: Well, you, first, because you serve tasty drinks and snacks. After that, hmm, let’s see . . . Lee Child. He’s a brilliant writer, and I’d love to watch him construct a scene for his Jack Reacher series. I’m also dying to see his writing apartment in Manhattan. (He keeps one for living with his family, another for writing.) The writing one is entirely white, from paint to floors to appliances. Lee likes the clean-ness and calm that white exudes, and I think it’d be fun to hang out with him there. Plus, it’s in Manhattan, which is a really fun and buzzy place to be.
JH: If you get that chance, take me with you, okay? I’d love to see that space and watch him work. Speaking of working, what’s your go-to snack when you’re on deadline?
SG: Did I mention coffee? Yes? Decaf after the first couple cups so it doesn’t keep me awake at night more than obsessing about my book ending does. Beef jerky. Yogurt with berries, for health reasons. Bananas, ditto. Chocolate chips by the handful ‘cause they’re yummy. And cold pizza. I love me some chilly sausage and cheese.
JH: What are you working on now?
SG: Glad you asked! I just sent my agent my newest book. It’s called The Fury. It’s a global thriller that takes place present-day, but has flashbacks to World War Two and the Cold War to show the development of the “doomsday weapon” that’s the inanimate star of the book. (The human star is a Chicago undercover cop.) It’s not in my Emily Thompson series, and will be either a stand-alone or the start of a new series, depending upon what my publisher might wish to do.
Also, I’m thinking of brushing off those first two manuscripts that didn’t sell, rewrite them for a modern audience (remember, I wrote them in the mid-1990s, well before September 11 changed the world for terrorism) and put those out, too. I hate to let good writing go to waste. I even hate to let mine go to waste.
JH: Lastly: When did you attend your very first Love is Murder? Is there anything from that first experience with the conference you’d care to share? Anything that makes being named as one of the Guests of Honor all that much sweeter?
SG: That would be 2006, four months before the launch of my debut novel, Blown Away. I helped create the ThrillerFest thriller authors’ conference in New York as part of my work with International Thriller Writers, and I love it to pieces. But Love Is Murder is my favorite conference as a thriller and mystery reader, which I was long before I put my first word to paper. LIM is a labor of love for the volunteers who run it—Hanley, Luisa, and the rest of the board—and I know how much work it is to pull it off successfully.
And more personally, I am a virgin. That’s right—I’ve never been a Guest of Honor or headliner at any literary conference. That LIM does me the honor of being my first is something I will cherish forever. That’s not just playing nice with the folks who asked—I really am tickled to be here. A Chicago boy headlining the premier Chicago mystery conference . . . man, that’s something. Just be gentle with me . . .
And Julie, thanks so much for conducting this interview. See you in February!
Anthony and Barry Award winner Julie Hyzy is the New York Times bestselling author of the White House Chef Mystery series featuring the intrepid Olivia (Ollie) Paras, and the Manor House Mystery series featuring mansion curator Grace Wheaton. The next White House Chef Mystery is Home of the Braised, coming in January 2014; the most recent Manor House Mystery is Grace Takes Off, released in July 2013.