Interrogation: Terrence McCauley

McCauley2Who: Terrence McCauley

What: His first thriller, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, will be published by Polis Books in July 2015. In 2008, Terrence won the TruTV ‘Search for the Next Great Crime Writer’. In 2014, he won three New Pulp Awards for Best Short Story, Best Novel and Best Author. He has also had short stories featured in Thuglit, Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol. 1 and 2, Atomic Noir and Big Pulp among other places. He recently assisted with the compilation of GRAND CENTRAL NOIR, an anthology where 100% of the proceeds go directly to a non-profit called God’s Love We Deliver.

Where: New York

Interview conducted by email. Some questions/answers have been edited.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL FINAL COVERIt looks like 2015 is shaping up to be a really big year for you. How many years in the making was your overnight success?

I’ve been pawing at writing since I graduated college in 1996, but didn’t start to get serious about it until 2000. I was working on a book I’d called TENETS OF POWER, a business thriller where I took the dry toast of corporate finance and tried to make it compelling. People in my workshops generally liked it but, in hindsight, it was too long and elaborate for popular consumption. In hindsight, my style was too detailed and tough to read.

That’s when I decided to try my hand at the one genre I’d always loved to read: crime fiction. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in researching CSI procedures that a modern-day story would need to have, so I decided to blend my love of New York history with the crime genre. The result was a gangster tale told from the perspective of an enforcer for the Irish mob who had to use his brains as well as his brawn to find out who was undermining his boss’s criminal empire.

PROHIBITION was the result and eventually won TruTV’s Search for the Next Great Crime Writer award in 2008. I thought that would be the start of my writing career, but fate had different plans. Borders Book Stores was going to publish the book and feature it prominently in their store. We all know what happened with them soon after and, when they disappeared, so did my publishing hopes.

PROHIBITION coverFor a long time, I struggled to find a publisher because everyone told me that no one reads period fiction anymore. This was right before MAD MEN and other properties became big. However, I was fortunate enough to find a home for it with the good folks at Airship 27, who published PROHIBITION with original art from Rob Moran. The book didn’t get wide release, but their belief in my work kept me going. I’ll always be grateful to Ron Fortier and Rob Davis for their faith in my work.

Since then, I’ve gone back and forth between novels, novellas and short stories. Todd Robinson over at Thuglit has been especially supportive and his edits have really helped my work. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found an audience for my brand of storytelling.

I just read your upcoming Polis Books novel SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and I thought it was great. What was the inspiration for this novel?

The inspiration for the novel came from the gritty spy thrillers of the 1970s that depended on character and plot development. Movies like ‘Three Days of the Condor’ were gripping because they felt real to me, even when I was a kid. I don’t get that same feeling from modern-day spy tales that rely on gadgets and SWAT team raids and jump-cut fight sequences and the disavowed spy trying to clear his/her name. I certainly enjoy those kinds of stories, but they’re not the kind I wanted to tell.

And, as with PROHIBITION, I didn’t want to spend time researching the actual inner workings of the intelligence field. That’s why I created my own entity – The University – and based its actions on plausible, but entirely fictional, accounts. I wanted plot points that the audience would recognize, but I didn’t want to be so wedded to the facts that an ex-intelligence official would pop up and challenge the details of the plot. Basing it all in fictional world gave me a little more room with which to work. My writing teacher Wesley Gibson once told me, “You’re telling a story, not writing a textbook.” I always keep that in mind when working on something.

Prior to writing SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL you were best known as an award-winning crime writer. What made you want to take the leap into writing thrillers?

I’m always looking for a way to challenge myself. I love writing about the 1930s and hope to write about Terry Quinn (PROHIBITION) and Charlie Doherty (SLOW BURN) for years to come, but I also like SLOW BURN coverbranching out into new genres. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL was a lot of fun to write. The first draft of its sequel, A MURDER OF CROWS, was even more of a blast. I’m also writing a western called THE DEVIL’S CUT and have begun a sci-fi novella series with Pro Se Press called THE GATEKEEPER CHRONICLES. Changing up genres helps keep me fresh and keeps the ideas flowing.

What are some of the challenges of writing a thriller that differ from writing crime fiction? How are they alike?

For me, it’s less about the genre and more about the voice I’m writing in. For example, my Quinn stories/novels are told in the third person and tend to be more violent. I keep the narrative style clipped to build pace and atmosphere and add to Quinn’s terse persona. Doherty’s stories/novels are told from the first person perspective, so while there’s action, I also make sure Doherty’s inner dialogue is explaining the story as it unfolds.

In SYMPATHY, I’m writing about the near-reality of modern surveillance techniques and the people who employ them. That writing has to be a bit more explanative without turning into a text-book. I’ve written James Hicks as a relatable, capable character in a world the reader may not know, but can hopefully understand through my technique.

I also wanted The University to be an independent agency that operates by influencing events from the shadows, rather than being a proper government entity. I wanted to avoid the ‘meeting with the President’ or having someone say the ‘White House is breathing down my neck’ or, God help me, ‘the press will have a field day if this gets out’. I wanted to avoid cliché and predictability. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Who are some of your favorite crime writers? Who are some of your favorite thriller writers?

My biggest influences are Donald Westlake/Richard Stark, Robert B. Parker, Richard Matheson and James Ellroy. For thrillers, it’s James Grady, Charles McCarry and John LeCarre.

I admired Parker and Matheson because they ventured into different genres, particularly westerns, and excelled at it. All of the writers I admire can relate a story in a unique way that moves the plot.

Polis Books will also be re-issuing your crime novels PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN. In looking at those re-issues, how do you feel your writing has evolved?

I’m more daring now than I used to be. I’d once been content to stay in the 1930s and write about Quinn and Doherty exclusively. I’ve still got lots of ground to cover with those guys, but there are plenty of other types of stories I’d like to tell. I may be successful. I may fall flat on my face. I won’t know until I try, but I already know I’ll have a lot of fun doing it.

Gatekeeper McCauleyNow that you have also published your first science fiction novella, THE GATEKEEPER CHRONICLES: ESCAPE FROM PRISON BASE LUNAI think it’s safe to say that you are officially a genre hopper. What are your feelings about genre in general?

I think the genre lines today are more blurred than they’ve ever been. That’s not a bad thing. I think there’s plenty of room in the market place for any brand of fiction you’d like to write. Military thrillers featuring zombie attacks, dystopian futures with a noir angle, etc. I love genre hopping. It keeps my creativity fresh and, hopefully, expands my reader base. I’ve just finished writing a war novella featuring one of my established characters that should be published later this year.

I’ve also written an old-fashioned adventure story for an anthology that I hope to expand into a full length novel. I also hope to have the opportunity to continue developing the characters I’ve already created in the near future.

You have also written and published several short stories. How does your approach to short fiction differ from your longer works? Do you prefer one over the other?

I like writing short stories on a regular basis because it helps me hone my story-telling skills. A novel offers more room in which to lay out the plot and develop characters. A short story doesn’t give the writer that kind of time. The writer has to lay down a foundation and get to the point fast or else the piece turns into a novella. Nothing wrong with a novella if that’s what you’re going for, but short stories are just that. Even when I write a story about a character I’ve established, I know I’m starting from scratch because the reader probably hasn’t read some of my earlier work. I enjoy that challenge. I get a different kind of rush from writing both, so I can’t say I prefer one over the other.

Thuglit 1In your opinion, what makes for a great short story? What makes for a great novel?

I think a great short story hooks the reader in early, either through plot or through style. First lines are important, especially in an anthology, because you want the reader to stick with your story and not skip to another one in the collection. The best short stories are those that relay a lot of information without a lot of verbiage. For my money, Eric Beetner is one of the best in the business at doing this. When I read one of his stories, I feel like I’ve just read a novel but it’s only been a few pages.

A great novel keeps the action moving. Flashbacks kill momentum and I use them sparingly. I don’t want the reader to watch my character roaming the wilderness of the past, even if the past has some bearing on the plot. People who read crime fiction or thrillers tend to be more forgiving of a bit of mystery in their protagonist as long as the plot doesn’t suffer. That’s why I try to keep the plot moving by peppering my work with interesting, unique characters. I particularly do that in SYMPATHY where I have the types of characters one wouldn’t expect to see in a techno-thriller. That’s what made it so much fun to write. I only hope the readers will agree.

What other publishing plans do you have for 2015?

I’ve got a war novella, a continuation of The Gate Keeper Chronicles trilogy and three short stories scheduled to hit the market this year in various places. Behind the scenes, I’ve been working on finishing up my western and have completed initial drafts of the sequels to SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL (A MURDER OF CROWS) PROHIBITION (THE LONG ROAD BACK) and SLOW BURN (THE FAIRFAX INCIDENT).

rsz_screen_shot_2015-04-26_at_41529_pm_2

As somebody who has a published a lot, what advice do you have for new writers? 

Write the stories or books you want to write. Don’t worry about hitting the market because the market may be completely different by the time your work sees the light of day. Read a lot and surround yourself with people who will give you constructive criticism. Be able to take said constructive criticism and reject frivolous critique. One will help you. The other will just sap your confidence. Don’t worry about what others are writing, or about the success they’re enjoying, or the struggles they’re having. Stay focused and keep working. The rest will take care of itself.

Find Terrence McCauley: Website, Amazon, Twitter and Facebook

Previous Interrogations: Craig T. McNeelyJ. David Osborne and Eryk Pruitt

S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015 and 2016.

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