Alex Segura: The Moments That Keep You Going As A Writer
Alex Segura is a good dude, but don’t tell him I said that, or he’ll get all OOH CHUCK LIKES ME about it, then he’ll want to have brunch and start a book club and ain’t nobody got time for that. He’s not only one of the architects behind the many comic properties at Archie, but he’s also a damn fine novelist. He wanted to talk a little bit about what it is that keeps you going as a writer.
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Breaking news: writing is hard. It’s loaded with insecurity, rejection and silence. There are less painful, more lucrative careers that probably require less work. But, at the end of the day, those of us that stick it out and choose to peck at our keyboards daily do it because we love it. Because we’re passionate about the stories we want to tell.
But before I get too close to the Bummertown city limits, let me also say that writing creates some amazing moments. Moments where you think back and say, ‘Damn, I will never forget that.’ Like the first time you get to hold a printed copy of your book, or the first time you signed a copy for a fan or when you found out a teacher that inspired you as a kid is actually a fan of your work. That kind of stuff is rare, and spread out. But it matters. And it feels pretty good.
I had one such moment on a day where things were, well, not great. It was sometime in October, 2013. I’d just gotten news that, while not surprising, derailed my professional life. My current job was moving from New York City – where I lived – to the west coast, where I didn’t live. I could follow my job to California, sure. But I didn’t think that was possible. It just wasn’t in the cards for me and my family then. That meant I would either be jobless or I had to try and find a job. Not ideal, especially because I dug my job. And jobs give you money which allows you to live.
On the bright side, my first novel – Silent City – had just come out. Like, that same day. It introduced the world to Pete Fernandez, a washed-up journalist with a drinking problem who finds himself embroiled in the search for a former coworker, which pulls him into a complex Miami criminal conspiracy. But, because the book had been published by a very, very, very small publisher, copies weren’t available to purchase online yet (this was the first printing of the book – it was later reprinted/repackaged by Polis Books, my current publisher, to coincide with the release of my second book, Down the Darkest Street…). There was an unexpected lag on Amazon and while I was hopeful it’d get fixed, it added another rain cloud to the day. Sure, #firstworldproblems, but still. My book was “out” but no one had copies yet. That’s some kind of top-level writer torture right there.
With all that, I left my midtown office into a pouring rainstorm, sans umbrella. As I stood outside the building, water pelting my flimsy raincoat I debated what to do. Go home and sulk? Or, as planned, hit up a reading discussion by crime writer (and TV writer for shows like The Wire and Treme, to name a few) George Pelecanos at the always-great Center for Fiction a few blocks away? I chose the latter. I’m not a good sulker.
Let me backtrack for a hot second: There would be no Silent City or Pete Fernandez without the work of George Pelecanos. Full stop. I’ve always loved mystery and crime fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to gangster tales to crime classics by Chandler, Hammett and so on. But there’s a handful of books that made me think about giving it a try myself. Those are special books for a writer, as you can probably guess. The list isn’t long: Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand, Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, James Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere and, the book that kicked the door down for the entire batch: George Pelecanos’s A Firing Offense.
Nick Stefanos, the protagonist of Pelecanos’s first three books, is a fuck up. He works as the ad guy at Nutty Nathan’s, an appliance store in Washington, DC. He smokes too much pot, drinks a lot and goes to plenty of shows. He’s directionless and young. He likes loud, melodic and defiant music. He makes mistakes. I could relate to the guy. The books were sloppy, energetic and fearless. Reading the novels, you not only get a sense for Nick as a character, but for DC as a place, and you realize pretty fast that these books could only happen in this spot. I wondered if I could do the same for Miami. Eventually, my own PI, washed-up journalist Pete Fernandez was born. The early Pelecanos novels showed me what I wanted to do with my own work.
So, yeah, Pelecanos is an important writer to me. We all have one or two. The authors that made us decide we wanted to take a stab at this writing thing ourselves. The authors who wrote books that got us so jazzed about the work, so inspired, we decided to try it ourselves.
It seemed like the perfect antidote to what I was feeling – insecurity, fear, stress and confusion.
I’d seen Pelecanos speak a few times but never gotten the courage up to chat with him, beyond stammering a few things as he signed my book. At the Center for Fiction, he read from his new novel and took some questions from the audience. As his presentation was ending and the tables were set up for his signing, I slinked toward the exit. It was time to go. As great as the event was, maybe I did want to go home and sulk. Or at least think about The Future and What’s Next. But, as I cut through the signing area, I was intercepted by my friend, writer Jonathan Santlofer, who runs the Center for Fiction. He congratulated me on my book (though, he did note his copy hadn’t arrived – cringe!) and asked if I wanted to come upstairs to sit with George and a few of the Center’s students for a low-key conversation. I said sure. My brain screamed “HELL YES.” What happened next was more than I’d expected, as I and a handful of students got to listen to George hold court about writing, his career and his latest book, starring a new series character named Spero Lucas. It was a small group, no more than twelve, and the setting was intimate and quiet. It was like we were kicking back after a nice meal with friends. George (can i call him that?) was affable, relaxed and humble. This was a guy who’d worked hard, every day, until he got his break – then he worked harder. The guy sitting before us had written nineteen novels, worked on TV shows and films, but still put in the hours every day like he was a hungry newcomer. Inspirational was an understatement.
I asked a question – about music in fiction – and likened his early work to the great post-punk albums I loved in my own college years, like the Replacements. I said his early books had the same verve and energy you’d find on records like Let It Be or Hootenanry. He smiled knowingly. I felt like we had a connection. Like I’d tapped into a secret, pirate radio station. I was speaking his language. His eyes lit up for a moment. He was flattered, it seemed, and he talked a little bit about the boldness of youth and how much fun he’d had writing those books. In that brief moment, he seemed glad I got it. I got what his books were going for. Or maybe I was just reading too much into a polite exchange. I’ll stick to the former. Soon, the questions fizzled out and it was time to go.
As the students packed their stuff and wandered off, some taking a minute to shake George’s hand in thanks, I hung back and waited. When it seemed like I had an opening, I sheepishly went up to him and let him know that his words – just then and years before, on the printed page – had meant a lot to me, and that his work motivated to write my own. He seemed genuinely touched, in the way people are when something intense cuts into a fairly routine situation. He thanked me and seemed to think that was it, and started to turn away. Before he could, I pulled out a copy of Silent City. My only copy of the book. Like I said, my publisher was a pretty small outfit and there’d been some shipping delays. I didn’t have author or review copies yet. I just had this one, tattered book I’d been clinging to like a talisman: proof of concept. Concrete evidence that I’d gone from theoretical writer to real writer. So this one copy — that was it. It was the only proof I had that I’d written a novel. But that didn’t matter to me in the moment. This was an opportunity. A sign. A moment that had to be seized.
As writers, we don’t get a lot of moments like these. Moments where things line up and we get to look back and appreciate what we’ve done, and turn around and look at the future with some optimism. A lot of the day-to-day is loaded with stress, rejection, please-love-me posturing and loneliness. It is not a profession I would suggest to someone who doesn’t take criticism well, that’s for sure. But that’s what makes the good times so meaningful. The times when you realize why you do this, why you sit alone for hours pecking away at your keyboard in the dark, telling a story first for yourself, then for everyone else. We do this stuff because we have to, and I’d probably write books for myself alone if that was the extent of my audience. But it’s nice, hell, it’s essential, to sometimes feel like you’re pushing that boulder up the hill for a reason.
I don’t remember exactly what I blurted out. It probably ran parallel with what I’ve written here, except shorter, less eloquent and littered with plenty of ums and uhs. But the gist was there: your writing inspired mine, and here’s the proof.
I handed him the copy and, without even thinking to sign it, said he could have it. That I wanted him to have it. What happened next is seared into my memory, and I hope I never forget it. I watched him hold the book and nod approvingly—hell, maybe politely, but it was positive nonetheless. The book, despite being novel-length, was slim, the pages packed tight in terms of design. The design gave the entire novel a cramped, impacted feeling. You could maybe fit the book in your coat pocket if you jammed it in. He held it up to the light and smiled. “Short and sweet. Pulpy. Just the way I like it.” We shook hands. I didn’t tell him it was my only copy. I felt like that might sully the moment. Might make it seem more forced when it really wasn’t.
I thanked Jonathan and walked out into that cold, rainy New York City evening. I didn’t have a copy of the book I’d just published anymore, even though a few months before it felt like something I’d cling to forever. I also had no idea where my career was going, which would normally send me into a spiral of panic and stress. But I’ll tell you what: it felt like I was walking on air.
Alex Segura is a crime novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series, which includes Silent City, Down the Darkest Street and the newly-released Dangerous Ends, published by Polis Books. You can find him on Twitter at @alex_segura or at his website.