If you haven’t become aware of it already, my latest column for Kirkus Reviews is devoted entirely to an interview with New Jerseyan Wallace Stroby, author of the brand-new thriller Shoot the Woman First (Minotaur Books), the third of his novels to feature professional thief Crissa Stone. You’ll find that Kirkus piece here.
Stroby was very generous in answering--via e-mail, and rather quickly--my almost two-dozen questions about his history and his present fiction-writing efforts. Even as I was composing the queries to send his way, though, I knew they’d generate more words than Kirkus would accept.
Not being one to effortlessly trash leftovers, I’ve posted below the parts that didn’t fit into the original article. It’s best to read Part I first, since it provides background to my questions about Shoot the Woman First, and then scroll down in Part II to find out about Stroby’s youthful writing escapades, his newspaper-editing past, the real world of career crooks, and the minor error in his new novel that he will unfortunately have to live with--at least until a paperback edition of Shoot the Woman First is published.
J. Kingston Pierce: At what point in your life did you first realize that you wanted to be a full-time writer? And was it always fiction you eventually wanted to be writing?
Wallace Stroby: Ever since I was a child, I was always drawn toward writing in one form or another. When I was 10, I edited and published a mimeographed fanzine about horror films. I advertised it in Famous Monsters
of Filmland magazine and, before I knew it, I had a couple hundred subscribers. Only published about seven issues, but it was fun while it lasted.
Being an avid reader from an early age, I always knew I wanted to write fiction. Journalism helped me gain some of the skills to do that.
JKP: That’s right, you spent 13 years as an editor at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. How did that experience, as
well as the years you put in before that covering the police beat for the Asbury Park Press, help prepare you to become a fiction author?
WS: There are a lot of skills you learn in daily journalism that prepare you for fiction
writing, or long-form writing of any sort. You learn how to write on deadline, how to organize your thoughts quickly, how to give and take criticism and generally how to be a professional. Because, even if you’re making art--to quote Tom Waits--you’ve still got to get behind the mule every morning and plow.
JKP: The Star-Ledger is still the largest-circulation newspaper in the Garden State. But I’m sure things have changed there considerably over the last decade or so. Is there anything you miss from your newspapering days? And what do you think the future holds for
broadsheets such as the Star-Ledger?
WS: I miss the people and the buzz of the newsroom, but not so much the business, which is changing and reshaping itself in ways that are often depressing. A lot of really talented and experienced people I know have lost their jobs in recent years. Others have been working without raises and with reduced benefits, and are still plagued by the constant worry their own jobs might be in jeopardy soon. When I left The Star-Ledger in 2008, it was via a wide-scale buyout offer made by the owners and accompanied by the threat that, if enough people didn’t leave of their own accord, the paper would be closed and everyone summarily fired. Nearly half the newsroom staff took
that buyout. I was one of them.
JKP: Prior to Shoot the Woman First, you had written stories partly from the perspective of a career criminal. But was there additional research necessary in order to create a series told mostly from that viewpoint? And how did you go about doing the research?
WS: That kind of research can be a tricky thing. Generally, people who live that sort of life don’t talk about it much, especially not to outsiders. And when they do, they’re not always truthful. Any number of first-person mob memoirs over the last few decades have been filled with exaggerations and self-aggrandizing. At least two former mobsters have written books in which they take credit for killing Jimmy Hoffa, both under totally different circumstances.
Newspapers are often a better source for that type of research, especially stories written by reporters who really know their beats. The Star-Ledger at one point had three veteran organized-crime reporters, all of whom had written non-fiction books. They were an invaluable resource to me.
JKP: You’ve described your series protagonist, Crissa Stone, as someone who commits crimes for money, but is not personally greedy. Why did you decide to make those important elements of her character? And how do we see such choices demonstrated in her life?
WS: I wanted to write about someone who was a professional criminal, but do it from a woman’s viewpoint. Because, unlike the traditional lone-wolf male protagonist, a woman will operate differently. She’ll have relationships, make alliances and avoid violence, if possible. Those choices also help steer the story farther away from cliché, and open it up to lots of interesting sidelights worth exploring.
JKP: Are there, comparatively speaking, many more male career criminals than female ones? I notice that when Crissa puts together a team to carry out jobs, she usually hires a predominance of men.
WS: Yes. As James Brown put it, “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world.” She’ll probably come up against another female criminal before too long, when I figure out a way to make that work. In an earlier draft of Shoot the Woman First, I had Crissa briefly encounter Sara Cross, the Florida sheriff’s deputy from [2010’s] Gone ’Til November. But I eventually tossed the scene, as it didn’t really serve the narrative.
JKP: Not to give too much of your story away, but Shoot the Woman First kicks off with a theft of drug money that goes terribly wrong. In the aftermath, Crissa decides to take the proceeds owed to one of her late associates, and deliver them to his estranged wife and daughter, Haley. Crissa’s quick-developing attachment to young Haley, and her determination to protect the girl, leads your protagonist into a still more dangerous confrontation. Are we to assume that Crissa’s willingness to put her own life on the line for Haley and the girl’s mother stems from the guilt Crissa feels for having left her own daughter, Maddie, in the care of a relative, her cousin
Leah? Does the girl simply remind Crissa of herself as a youngster? Or is there something else going on there?
WS: All three. They’re both outsiders, growing up in bad environments. Crissa knows she can’t really do anything for Haley on a lasting basis--as she reminds herself, Haley’s already got a mother. But she does want to do as much as she can. And she does.
JKP: I always find it interesting, in the Crissa Stone books, how--despite the fact that most of your characters are “bad guys”--you find ways to make some characters truly despicable, without turning them into outright crazies or sadists. The latest example is former cop Frank Burke, in Shoot the Woman First, who takes on the task of finding Crissa and the drug money with which she’s made off. How do you create credible “bad guys” in a fictional world where almost no one can be considered “good”?
WS: Every villain is the hero of their own story. Everybody has their reasons. It’s not too difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, almost as an actor does. All my villains have gripes that motivate them, many of them legitimate.
JKP: Although you’re working in these books with a female protagonist, do you think the
stories you tell--which can be violent--really appeal to women readers?
WS: I’d hope so. My editor, agent and first reader on all the books have been women. But who knows? It’s not for me to say. I’d hope anyone who likes that type of novel would respond to it, regardless of gender.
JKP: I hate to even point this out, and maybe my math is screwed up, but on page 55 of Shoot the Woman First you say that the haul from the drug-money theft was $325,000. Minus the $5,000 “off the top” that went to Crissa, that leaves $320,000. And yet, you write that the dough--split four ways--would
leave each criminal participant $90,000. Shouldn’t that be $80,000?
WS: Probably. But no one caught it along the way, and now it is, alas, too late.
JKP: Finally, if you could have written one novel--any novel--that does not already feature your byline, what would it be?
WS: That’s an endless list. Just a few: Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone. Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. George V. Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Gerald
Seymour’s Harry’s Game. Just about any novel that I liked a lot, I wish I’d written.
One female character I wish I’d created: Jane Tennison from the Granada Television series Prime Suspect. A beautifully written, nuanced, and not always sympathetic character. Given, of course, extraordinary on-screen life by Helen Mirren.