With a name like Ace, is there any chance you’re NOT going to be famous? A college football star, Pulitzer-Prize nominated journalist, New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of twenty-three novels including THE SINNERS, which just released. Ace Atkins is as down-to-earth, funny, and smart as he is talented. I caught up with him as he was about to head out on the road to visit stores and readers across the country on a whirlwind book tour. And then it took us a month to finish this latest chat!
Lisa Unger: So, we’ve been actual pen pals for — a long time. When I got my first publishing contract, back in the olden days (2001), I was over the moon — absolutely goofy with excitement. I went through the St. Martin’s catalog and saw that you were local to the Tampa Bay area, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist for The Tampa Tribune. Your critically acclaimed first novels CROSSROAD BLUES and LEAVIN’ TRUNK BLUES were hugely successful, and THE DARK END OF THE STREET was just about to come out. So, cheeky girl that I am, I wrote you a note introducing myself and asking if you might like to get together! Do you have any memory of this encounter? Can you speak a little to your journey to that place, and where you were in your career at that time?
Ace Atkins: I do recall that famous first meeting! They really should put up a plaque. My only problem is I don’t remember where we ate? I know it was somewhere in Clearwater I remember us talking a lot about writing and promotion. You’d just left publishing PR and I warned you not to get into the writing side. It will make you nuts! Lots of good that did.
Hmm. Where was I back then? Not very far. I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm but didn’t really have a clue on where I was headed as a writer. Like you, I’d just decided to a make a huge leap to leave my job as a reporter — not a bad choice at the dawn of online journalism — and jump head first into writing books. I had only published two novels with SMP and was about to publish my third with HarperCollins.
At the time, I thought I had it all figured out. Did I come across that way? Because let’s be honest here, I didn’t know shit. I had an editor, at the time, giving me broad and fuzzy advice. And an agent who tried to give notes on subject matter they didn’t understand. It would be another three years before I was fortunate enough to come under the guidance of legendary editor Neil Nyren. If I had any advice to a young me, it would be to quote Han Solo: “Don’t get cocky, kid.” It sometimes takes years to develop the right team to help you and your work.
It’s one thing to write a book. It’s another thing altogether to make a career of writing fiction. That’s a tough road. Aren’t you glad no one told us the odds?
Lisa Unger: I think you’re right; there should definitely be a plaque! I don’t remember where we ate either, though. Somewhere near The Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading (stay tuned for more about our Books & Bourbon tradition!) — which has become our yearly meeting place since then. But, yes, of course you seemed to have it all together. And, yes, you were pretty much like — are you sure you know what you’re doing? This writing thing — how do you know you can hack it?
I can’t even claim ignorance, because I’d spent the last ten years working in publishing, doing publicity. My advance from St. Martin’s Press was essentially a nickel and a cheese sandwich, so I had an inkling as to how much they were going to do for the book. I was also aware that it was WAY harder to succeed as a published writer than it was to get published in the first place — which was pretty damn hard. So, I figured that it was time to check my ego at the door, roll up my sleeves, and get to work if I wanted to survive. And that’s what I did. The good thing about starting at the bottom is that unless you have a jackhammer there is only one way to go — hopefully.
I think most debut writers (not all!) are pretty shocked by how hard it all is. They think that publishing is the end of something, a windfall, after which only accolades and successes follow. But most of us who have made a career out of writing know that there are dizzying highs and crushing lows, and in between we get up in the morning and do the thing we do because there’s nothing else we want to do as much. We live with the characters and the stories in our heads, and — for me — there’s nothing quite as exciting as the blank page. So yeah, “Never tell me the odds, kid!” Because if you’re writing for any other reason than the sheer love of it, you might not have what it takes for the long game. It takes years of writing, trying to get better, digging deeper, finding the right team and never, ever, giving up — even and especially when it hurts.
Your new novel, THE SINNERS, is the eighth novel featuring Army Ranger Quinn Colson. I have strong relationships with my characters, especially those that continue on from book to book. They grow and evolve, often feel utterly separate from me. Do you have that experience with your long-running characters? What is your relationship to Quinn? And how has it changed over the years?
Ace Atkins: You got a nickel and a cheese sandwich? Damn. You did better than me!
You are so spot on about this business. I agree. New writers think they’ve made it but don’t understand this is actually only the beginning. Now it’s time to get serious and down to work. That never ends. And the reason you and I get to share a bourbon every year and talk about what we’ve done! We love the work.
The blank page? Yep, that’s the best part. I’ve seen a lot of people try — and occasionally succeed — in this business who want to be authors but aren’t serious about the writing. You really have to love it. I mean let’s get serious. There are a lot of better ways to make money. Writing isn’t something that you and I want to do, it’s something we have to do. It’s really an obsession, a compulsion, to tell a story.
And yes, when you revisit characters through several stories, you do grow very close to them. That’s the part of the work that is a little crazy. But true. I have spent nearly a decade with Quinn and the Colson family. With each book, characters get older, some die, and people grow and change for either the good or the bad. You must have empathy for your people. If you only look at them as chess pieces then it’s not really writing. It’s just making people walk and talk and anyone can do that. Writing is about true immersion of you into the world you create.
Something you do so damn well! Claudia and Zoey in The Red Hunter were so fantastic. I never doubted them or their motivation for a second! Where did they come from? What was the genesis of that novel?
Lisa Unger: The germ for THE RED HUNTER took hold a weirdly long time ago — like almost twenty years. I was in a pretty dark place in my life — bad relationship, wrong job, all my writing dreams laying fallow. And I started studying the martial arts. Kung Fu introduced me to a whole new version of myself — someone more able, more powerful than I had previously imagined myself to be. I studied it for the next eight years — during that time I finished my first novel, met my husband, quit my big corporate job, published my first novel, and got married!
Fast forward five years … enter Ocean, my daughter, and exit Kung Fu!
Then a couple of years ago, when Ocean turned ten, I took up kickboxing with a trainer. All the fighting spirit came back to me. That’s when I started thinking about Zoey — who turns to the martial arts to repair her broken spirit, after a tragedy, and finds a power there that she uses to a darker purpose. Claudia is almost her opposite, light where she is dark, white knuckling her way toward forgiveness, where Zoey wants revenge. From those seeds, the relationship evolved with each of them on the page. That’s how it happens with all of my characters; I get to know them day to day, almost in the same way my readers will. And, oh yes, empathy is key. If you don’t have it, your characters don’t reveal themselves fully, or at all. Then you’re just making it up, and that’s not the same thing as full immersion in the story world.
I always have this very clear picture in my head of my characters; they’re very nearly alive. So, it’s been so fascinating to work with Marco Magallanes, brilliant graphic novel artist, on CRAZY LOVE YOU. His interpretation of my story and characters is totally blowing my mind! And this is a relationship that you facilitated after I gushed over the amazing graphic novel that you two created together for CROSSROAD BLUES. Thank you! Tell me about your experience with Marco. How did you two being working together? What was the process like? And how was it for you to watch his vision evolve from your story?
Ace Atkins: You know, we all complain about social media. Sometimes it can be a real time suck. But other times, it can really pay off like when I met Marco. Marco reached out to me on twitter as a fan and brought up us possibly working on a project together. He ended up putting together an amazing proposal for my 1920s opus Devil’s Garden that ultimately didn’t work because of rights, agents, etc. But I was so fascinated by what he’d done, I was able to clear the way easier with my first creation, Nick Travers. For those who don’t know the Nick Travers books, they are hardboiled detective novels set in the world of blues music and New Orleans. Marco took the first short story I ever wrote for Nick — Last Fair Deal Gone Down — and absolutely brought it to life. He captured Nick’s look and the stark feel of New Orleans and the French Quarter. I didn’t really have much involvement other than sitting back and enjoying this incredible black-and-white world. He ended up following up with my first novel, Crossroad Blues, and we hope that we’ll work on some more Nick stories soon. The last was picked up by comic powerhouse, Image, for distribution. So, I hear Marco is working CRAZY LOVE YOU now … where do you guys stand with that? Can’t wait to see that on the page!
Lisa Unger: Ha, it’s funny you should say that! Because I’m usually pretty down on social media — time suck, the death of creativity, unstitching the fabric of society, etc. But it was because I was gushing online (when I probably should have been writing) about the fantastic graphic novel work that you and Marco did together that he and I connected. I asked him about your project, and he said that he basically stalked you until you agreed to work with him! He’s not proud of the stalking, but immensely proud of the work you did together. So, I guess social media has its place! And now, yes, Marco and I are developing CRAZY LOVE YOU. I’m just blown away by his talent, about how much work goes into each moment and frame. It’s so magical to see the art develop, to watch the story I wrote inspire Marco to create something totally unique. It’s one of my favorite projects! We’re still in the early stages of development, but I’m super excited.
I’m also super excited for our upcoming events! I know you’ll be down for Bouchercon World Mystery Convention on September 6-9 at the Vinoy Hotel in St. Pete, and, of course, we’ll have our appearance together at The Tampa Bay Festival of Reading. I think the only question now is Bourbon or Tequila? “Books and Bourbon” or “Tequila and Tomes?”
Ace Atkins is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty-two novels, including THE SINNERS. For more about Ace Atkins and his stellar crime fiction, visit aceatkins.com. And read what Colette Bancroft of the Tampa Bay Times has to say about THE SINNERS in her review.