Alex Segura: Having the Ingredients Ready to Cook Your Book

Today, a guest post from friend, author, editor, and general ne’er-do-well gadfly, Alex Segura, who wants to talk to you about how your brain is cooking? Which I think is a drug metaphor from the 1980s? Whatever. Point is, Alex isn’t cooking his books with drugs, he’s cooking his books with cool influences, so here he is to talk about that. Don’t forget to check out Miami Midnight, out today!

Let’s talk about the ingredients that bury themselves in your brain to cook your book, okay?

As we all know, books are a lot of work. It is HARD to write a novel. Literal months, maybe more, spent clacking away at your keyboard trying to make this amorphous pile of words into something resembling a story. Then reading and tweaking and rewriting to make that story decent. Then good. Then hopefully the best thing you can write.

But the work itself isn’t all that goes into making a book, y’all. As writers, we’re always absorbing things – whether intentionally or not. I wanted to clue you in a bit on my own process – which I call “obsessive research.” Basically, I end up writing about things that I’m obsessing over…genres, themes, or topics that I’m gobbling up because I can’t get enough of it. Whether it’s cults, pre-Castro Cuba, serial killers – they all end up in my novels to varying degrees. The same thing happened with Miami Midnight, my new novel (out today!). The added wrinkle, though, was that this would be my last Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery – I not only had to write a new adventure for my tarnished knight PI, but I had to close out everything that had come before. It was daunting, and kind or whacked out my usual process.

Now, I always knew Pete’s story had an ending. I just didn’t know when. I still don’t know, but this is the closest thing to an ending-ending I’ve ever written. But getting to typing “The End” was hard – harder than anything I’d done before as a writer.

This book almost didn’t happen, honestly. When I finished up work on the previous novel in the series, Blackout, I figured there’d be one more. I mean, I couldn’t leave Pete dead . . . could I? Maybe, I thought. I go through this to some degree with every book—is this the one where I finally kill the guy? But this time it felt a bit different, because there wasn’t anything to immediately replace that thought. There was no new obsession pulling me back into Pete-mode.

And, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, my mind started to seriously flirt with the idea. Maybe this was it. Maybe it was the ending Pete deserved? Most writers, especially those that write series, can relate to this nihilistic feeling. That desire to just chuck the whole thing and move on. It usually fades, replaced by an idea for another book.

I mean, there were certainly desires. Things I wanted to say. Topics I wanted to hit. When preparing to write a novel, I usually immerse myself in research. I call it research, which sounds very formal and professional, but, as I noted, it’s really just me reading whatever I’m obsessing over at a given moment. Obsessions and passions make for good art, I’ve found. In the wake of Blackout, I found myself reading a lot about jazz, the mob, Cuba, and—most importantly—about loss.

So, the pieces were floating around. I knew I wanted Pete to investigate the murder of a fallen jazz musician. I knew I wanted it to deal with Pete’s relationship with his dead father, as all the books do to varying degrees, and I knew I wanted it to leave Pete somewhere, well, conclusive.

And there was the speed bump. This was the end. Or “the end for now.” I’d seen Pete through so much—death, relapse, recovery, romance, careers, exploding houses, and more—that I knew it was time to take a break, if not let him ride off toward Miami Beach for good. I’d never envisioned Pete as an evergreen type. There are many authors who do those kind of characters well, but I’m not one of them. I want each book to serve as a step in my protagonist’s evolution, and I want them to feel different by the end of the book. To have experienced something.

From Silent City through Miami Midnight, I’ve tried my best to have the stories work on two levels—one being the big picture plot, the other more personal. What happens to Pete? Often, the two threads will cross. Ideally, they blend into one. I didn’t have that yet. I didn’t even have a title. I needed the heart of the story. The reason it was a Pete Fernandez Mystery, and not just something that happened to Pete. And it had to count, because it was going to be the last Pete book for a while.

That’s where my head was at around March of last year, when I was a guest at the excellent Virginia Festival of the Book. If you’re ever in the area, make a point of visiting. It’s a spectacular event and heaven for readers (and authors). I was sitting in a giant ballroom, after one of those “speed dating”-style events where you meet a number of readers and pitch your books. These things can either be a lot of fun or painfully awkward, but I remember this one being pretty pleasant, and by the end of it, I got to sit back and listen to Attica Locke speak—something I’d been looking forward to.

I’m a big fan of Attica’s work, and a big fan of her as a person—she’s genuine and thoughtful and an amazing writer. I wish I could sum up what she said, because it was a lovely speech—but my mind went into overdrive when she said a few words. She was talking about the protagonist of her latest novel, the superb Bluebird, Bluebird, and his dynamic with his mother. An alcoholic.

His mother. My mind flipped over to my own work. It was like I’d found a note I’d left for myself years before.

See, when I wrote the first Pete novel, Silent City, I had no idea it’d be a series. I had no idea it’d be published, if we’re being honest. But by the end of it, I hoped I’d at least find the time to write one more. There’s a lot of stuff about Pete’s past in that first book—his dad, his ex, his job—but I purposely danced around any mention of his mom. My gut told me there was a story there. My brain told me I wasn’t ready to tell it. Not yet.

Over time, as the series progressed, I’d hint at Pete’s mother—she’s mentioned briefly in Dangerous Ends, the third novel in the series, for example, but never given a name. As far as Pete knew, his mother had died in childbirth. End of story.

But hearing Attica talk about her own character’s alcoholic mother brought it home to me. Of course Pete’s mom didn’t die in childbirth. She was murdered. And she was an alcoholic—just like him.

That was it. The heart of the book. Everything else, at least in terms of theme and big beats, seemed to appear. As I sped out of that ballroom, my brain buzzing and fingers aching to type, I even got a title, two words that I felt perfectly captured the noir feeling I wanted this book to evoke: Miami Midnight.

What case could be more important to Pete than the murder of his mother?

For some, addiction springs out of the ether—you just get hooked and it goes bad. For many, it’s genetic, a family curse. Your parents drink, so you drink. I figured Pete was part of the latter group. The idea of having him solve the murder of his own, long-lost mother, and—on the way—realize she’d been in the same predicament he’d barely survived proved too good to ignore. So we were off.

So the final piece fell into place – but I’d thankfully been gathering the ingredients to make the meal long before I heard Attica speak. Now, I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve as a person and as a writer. I don’t hide my influences and I am happy to scream from the mountaintops when I like a book or writer. Especially when I like a book and it helps me write my own. When I told Attica the story of her speech and how it influenced me, she said that she felt “all books are in conversation with each other.” I think that’s very beautifully said, and I tend to agree. So, as promised, here are some of the books I was talking to before and during the writing of Miami Midnight, which I hope you’ll consider picking up today.

T.J. English’s cinematic and crisp The Corporation was invaluable to me, as it explored—deeply—Miami’s crime-riddled 1980s, specifically the bolita craze spearheaded by Juan Miguel Battle. I was amazed I hadn’t known his story until reading English’s book, and I became fixated on the idea of an alternate world where Battle lived on into the present day, trying desperately to stay relevant while competing gangs nipped at his heels.

Dead Girls, a masterful essay collection by Alice Bolin, was the perfect prelude to writing about, arguably, the most formative person in Pete’s life. So much of crime fiction is rife with young, virginal, beautiful women beaten and brutalized (often sexually) in the hopes of furthering a given book’s plot, to showcase just how grim and gritty an author’s work can be. I won’t say I wasn’t mindful of this before, but Bolin’s book was the jolt I needed to be extra mindful of it, and to make sure that if this book was going to hinge on the murder of a woman, I’d better damn well bring the readers in and let them know this woman as a fully-formed person, not a statistic. It’d be presumptuous to say I was trying to invert this trope—which has infected TV, movies and any kind of “crime”-themed entertainment—but I sure as hell wanted to sidestep it and be true to the story I wanted to tell. The story of Pete and his mother sending smoke signals to each other through time. To do that, I needed to make people care, instead of grimace from shock or disgust. Breezy and bursting with a modern, fresh sensibility, Dead Girls helped me figure out how I wanted to flip that script.

I spent a lot of time reading memoirs, usually those that involved the author’s searching for connection with a lost parent or friend. I wanted to better understand the emptiness someone feels with such a massive, gutting loss, but I also just found the books compelling and hard to put down. Leah Carroll’s Down City rests atop this list, and does a great job of recounting her youth and her parents’ own misadventures and tragedies. It’s honest, direct and immediate. I felt an instant connection to her from reading the book and I’m lucky to call her a friend. I read it long before I even knew where I wanted to take Miami Midnight, but once I did, I found myself thinking about it often. A few other notable memoirs that were important to me during this period: Piper Weiss’s haunting and jarring You All Grow Up and Leave Me; Carolyn Murnick’s The Hot One; Leslie Jamison’s addiction memoir The Recovering; plus rereads of Domenica Ruta’s underrated With or Without You; Joan Didion’s unforgettable Miami; and James Ellroy’s disturbing, manic, and electric My Dark Places.

Once you read the book, you’ll notice Miami Midnight spends a lot of time in the worlds of jazz and the mob. I’ve always had an obsession with the Mafia, and the book I often go back to is Selwyn Raab’s The Five Families, which tracks the mob’s rise, fall, and inevitable resurgence. I read it during the writing of the previous Pete novel, Blackout, and into the planning stages of this book, so its influence can be felt over the two novels. It’s as comprehensive a tome as you could want, and spotlights all of the Mafia’s key players up until the end of the last century. Equally helpful was Misha Glenny’s exhaustive look at the global criminal underworld in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, McMafia. Now more than a decade old, the book still holds some vital information on how the global underworld capitalized on the world getting a bit smaller.

The jazz thread came more organically—a by-product of my own musical tastes changing. By immersing myself in the music, though, I began to meet these really interesting characters, and a few stood out—pianists Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano, in particular. Evans was a superlative talent felled by his addictions while Tristano faded into obscurity and lived the latter part of his career as a hermit of sorts. I merged elements of both men to create the idea of Javi Mujica, and I wouldn’t have gotten there without the work of Ted Gioia, whose The History of Jazz managed to smartly cover decades of information while still interjecting thoughtful analysis and stylistic insight. It’s a long book, but well worth it. Gioia’s How to Listen to Jazz also proved essential, adding a deeper layer to the musical experience and giving me a stronger sense of how these musical pieces fit together to create the myriad forms of jazz. Also worth noting: David Hajdu’s magnificent Billy Strayhorn biography, Lush Life; Jazz by the incomparable Gary Giddins; and pretty much anything by Nat Hentoff—Jazz Is in particular.

The most important crime fiction influences on Miami Midnight were Philip Kerr’s much-beloved Bernie Gunther novels—of which I devoured the first three, often known as “The Berlin Trilogy.” Gunther is probably the most direct successor to Marlowe since Lew Archer, and, combined with Kerr’s deft scene-setting and crackling characters, make for mesmerizing works of crime fiction. I regret never getting the chance to shake Kerr’s hand to thank him for his amazing work.

The Gunther books, along with the aforementioned Bluebird, Bluebird, proved important guides on the journey to crafting Miami Midnight, but they’re not alone. I wanted Pete’s final (for now, for now) adventure to be coated in a sense of dread—a looming doom, a growling noir. To accomplish that, I found myself pulled toward books like Walter Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, which I’d read years ago but which seemed to land more clearly this time around. A classic in every sense of the word, and the kind of book all P.I. writers dream of writing.

And, well – there you have it. Not only the books and stuff that inspired my novel, but the moment that allowed those elements to really simmer together and help me make a (hopefully) compelling read. It all goes back to the basic idea – writers have to read. A lot. Keep your mind open. Listen to people talking. Absorb as much as you can. Be ready for the inspiration, because it only knocks once.

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Alex Segura is the author of the acclaimed Pete Fernandez Miami Mystery series, which has been twice-nominated for the Anthony Award. The latest – and last – in the series, Miami Midnight, is out today. You can find him at www.alexsegura.com, or on Twitter @alex_segura.