Interrogation—Jeffery Hess

Who: Jeffery Hess

What: Author of the novel, BEACHHEAD, and the story collection, COLD WAR CANOE CLUB, as well as the editor of the award-winning HOME OF THE BRAVE anthologies. He served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and holds writing degrees from the University of South Florida and Queens University of Charlotte. He leads the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans.

Where: Florida

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

Congrats on the release of COLD WAR CANOE CLUB. Can you tell us a little about how this short story collection came together?

It was nothing I planned. In fact, I spent my twenties and thirties writing about everything but the Navy. Then, in 2007, I formed a writing workshop for military veterans. In advance of the first meeting, I sent a press release to the (now-defunct) Tampa Tribune hoping they’d list the workshop with my phone number on their calendar of events. Instead, a reporter called with interest in writing a piece about me and the workshop. During the twenty-minute interview, it came up that I didn’t require participants to write their military experiences, but they were welcome to. The reporter asked if I wrote about my own military experiences. When I said “no,” she asked why. That question made me recall the moment more than ten years earlier, when I assumed Tom Clancy had written everything about the Navy that anyone could want. But in the breath or two it took me to reply, I realized my stories would be different.

Needless to say, I wrote dozens of Navy stories in the years that followed. I’m beyond thrilled that sixteen of them made this book almost a decade later. More than half of the stories in the book have been published by journals and magazines like Noir Nation, Plots with Guns, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, O-Dark-Thirty.

The stories in your collection take place between World War II and Desert Storm. What is the significance of those decades? How would the stories differ post-Desert Storm?

I never thought much about it at the time, but when you put it like that: I was born a decade and a half into the Cold War and it was still going on when I served. I enlisted to participate in it. Probably for that reason seven of these stories take place during the time I served. A couple of others involve guys of my generation later in life. While I relate to them all, I also wanted to include my take on events that happened before my time like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the sinking of a US submarine, and a race riot.

As for how the stories would differ if about post-Desert Storm, I’d imagine the characters would find even more trouble for not being politically correct and open to a ton of other conflict brought on by the changes of the era and policies with women serving aboard ships. And there’d be fewer payphones because of the inclusion of the internet and cell phones.

Why do sailors, submarines and warships lend themselves so well to noir?

Danger in the dark recesses, most likely. Accidents happen, but so does intentional damage and injury. Every ship at sea has the potential for one of three outcomes, it can sink; it can blow up with all its armament and fuel and then sink; or it can sail back into its home port. Even in the best case, odds are some sort of damage has been done—while at sea—that’s not visible from the outside. Fires and leaks are easier to contend with than bad feelings and broken hearts. And all this is fueled by the feast and famine of alcohol. All situations that lead to choices that take some people down a darker path.

Your previous novel, BEACHHEAD, featured Navy-prison parolee, Scotland Ross. Why did you choose to write about a reluctant criminal?

I began writing Scotland as a short story character, but couldn’t contain him. I liked him immediately and knew he’d need more room to run. The fact that he’s reluctant to do the things he does in BEACHHEAD, yet he’s forced into those situations, makes him that much more compelling to me. He takes on other motivations in successive books, but I knew he’d be a Navy vet, even though I couldn’t have predicted his Navy-prison past until I got to know him better. But the crime that had led him there wasn’t selfishly motivated. He was loyal, stronger than wise. Shit happens and he had to pay the price. He did what he thought was right no matter what the law said. No matter the personal sacrifice. That kind of guy with his kind of skills made it easy to follow him around.

I love crime stories set in sunny locales. What is the appeal for you to write about Florida? What are the challenges?

The appeal for me is familiarity and infinite possibilities. I grew up on the Gulf Coast and have spent most of my time here. I feel like I know it and remember it well and was here young enough to have had my imagination run wild about the things I couldn’t have understood at one time or another. And if New York City is (or was) the melting pot, Florida is surely the salad bowl. There are infinite combinations of ingredients and each one stands out in unique and often inappropriate ways. That provides a lot of material from which to draw. The challenge is the state’s growing reputation and that truth is often stranger than fiction.

Any favorite Florida authors?

I don’t know if Florida can legally claim him, but Elmore Leonard is a huge influence. And, in my first year of college, I was fresh out of the Navy and a writer had a table set up outside the campus bookstore. It was Randy Wayne White. He was selling books, if I recall. I’d never heard of him (this was 1990) but I told him I wanted to be a writer, too. He was a hell of a nice guy who spent time talking to me and told me I should take classes. I told him that’s what college was all about. He shook that off and told me he meant I should take writing classes. I had no idea that was a possibility. He opened my eyes to a whole new world and field of study. I’ve since met him at an author’s reception and was able to have a drink with him and tell him that story. He was gracious and modest about his influence on me. Then we talked about baseball.

What’s harder to write, short fiction or longer fiction? 

In many ways, all writing is difficult. But each form has its own challenges and excitements. It’s hard to explain, but if you’re into bad analogies—My wife drives a two-door coupe. I drive an SUV. Both are automobiles/conveyances/transportation and are fun to drive, in their different ways, for different purposes. That’s the difference between writing stories and novels.

What other publishing plans do you have for 2017 and beyond?

The sequel to BEACHHEAD is finished and will be out next year. I’m currently a few thousand words into the third in the Scotland Ross trilogy, which I’m really enjoying so far. That will likely be out in 2019. In between, I’ll work on a couple of stories because it’s fun to drive a fast car now and again.

Find Jeffery Hess: Facebook, TwitterWebsite

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S.W. Lauden is up for two Silver Falchion Reader’s Choice Awards! Voting is open to everybody and no registration is required. Please cast a vote for GRIZZLY SEASON (Best Action/Adventure) and CROSSWISE (Best Mystery). Thank you!

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