Oh, what a sorry sight we must have looked, two New York writers of Irish descent, staggering from bar to bar along Seventh Avenue on a cold night in January. But it was the first night of the NFL playoffs and the Patriots versus Ravens had every bar with a television packed. Tim O’Mara and I finally found a relatively quiet table in the back of one of those fine establishments and ordered something medicinal—we were both fighting colds. Tim is the author of three mysteries featuring ex-cop turned public school teacher, Raymond Dunne. Sacrifice Fly, which introduced the series, was nominated for the Barry Award, followed by Crooked Numbers, and his latest, DEAD RED, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January. The New York Times has called his work “authentically gritty.”
Tim, the police are New York’s finest, the firefighter’s, the bravest. What are the public school teachers? The toughest?
I love working with kids. I started out as a camp counselor and still feel a bit like one now.
But, twenty-seven years in the New York school system? You’ve been a mainline middle school teacher, a Special Ed teacher, a dean, and now you work in an Upper West Side school. How do you think this has molded you?
I’ve seen so many changes. It’s the things that remain the same, though, that blow my mind. We still have folks who’ve never stood in front of a group of teenagers, but have the whatever to try to teach my colleagues and me the best way to do it. I have a pretty simple philosophy about that: the farther you work from an actual classroom with real live kids, the less you know what you’re talking about. And the kids—they’re great. Sure there’ve been societal and technological changes since 1987, but the kids are amazing. They never bore me, they occasionally crack me up, and they are a constant source of inspiration for my writing. Which I will deny if I’m ever sued.
There’s more than a bit of you in Raymond. You made what I think is a great choice to have him be an ex-cop from a cop family—his uncle is the Chief of Detectives. It gives him immediate credibility—both with readers and with other characters. Where does that come from? Are you from a police family?
Yes and no. Not the same, at any rate. My brother is a Sargent with the Nassau County Police out on Long Island. But he’s the only one of us to go in that direction. But you’re right, Raymond is a combination of the two of us.
The old process question. Are you a plotter? I hate the term “pantser”. How do you work?
I have a very linear approach. Openings are very important to me. The first line of DEAD RED was in my head long before the plot took shape.
What happens next?
Once I get the idea for the first line, I work backwards and start asking questions. Why is Ray in that cab at two in the morning with his old cop friend who he’s only seen once since the guy returned from a tour of duty in the Middle East? Who wanted Ricky dead and how did they know where he’d be at that hour? I love the questioning process. It’s a big part of how I teach sixth grade Math, as well.
(A roar from the crowd at the bar as the Patriots began their big comeback interrupted us momentarily).
We’re both baseball fans, but you’ve got me beat. Your titles all come from baseball jargon. I know what a “sacrifice fly” is, but what about the others?
“Crooked Numbers” is when you put more than one run on the board in an inning. When a team “hangs a crooked number,” it’s a good thing. Not so much for the opposing pitcher. “Dead Red,” comes from the term used when a batter is waiting on a fastball, gets it, and crushes it. “He was sitting dead red on that pitch.” The best hitters watch the seams of the baseball—which are red.
Ray is a Yankees fan.
I am also a lifelong Yankees fan. This means I’m spoiled, I know. Each book, by the way, has characters named after Yankees players from the past.
Any writer who uses dialogue to keep the plot moving and who can tell a story in a compressed time frame is good with me. I re-read The Maltese Falcon every couple of years and The Friends of Eddie Coyle once a year just to remind myself how dialogue is done by a master. (George V. Higgins). Robert B. Parker is the writer who got me interested in writing detective fiction. I know, I’m not the only crime writer to ever say that, right?
Same here. Another similarity is the fact that we both feature important characters who are on the Autism Spectrum. Readers definitely respond to them. Tell me a little bit about Edgar. Where did he come from?
Every scene I write with Edgar is a complete joy. He’s based on the brother of an old landlord of mine—an underemployed technophile. It took me until I was a few chapters into my second book to realize that Edgar was an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s extremely intelligent, except when it comes to dealing with people. He’s a cop junkie—every cop bar has a cop wannabe—and he’s latched on to Ray because he is nice to him. Sometimes, Ray treats him like a partner—which thrills him. Other times, Ray’s teacher side comes out and he tries to help Edgar navigate the social world of the cop bar they both love.
Last question. Your bio says you live in Hell’s Kitchen, which every Gucci-wearing realtor will tell you is now called Clinton. What gives?
New York is all about change. Change and diversity. My twelve-year-old daughter gets to grow up with all this variety in her world. I’m envious. And then, of course, there’s all the craft beer bars.
We ordered another medicinal round.
Michael Sears’ first novel, the best-seller BLACK FRIDAYS, a thriller with a financial twist, took the Shamus award and was short-listed for four other major awards, including the Edgar. MORTAL BONDS, the critically-acclaimed second novel in the Jason Stafford series, won the Silver Falchion at Killer Nashville last year. Continuing the series, LONG WAY DOWN, has just been released by Putnam. Mr. Sears lives near salt water in Sea Cliff, NY with the artist and poet, Barbara Segal, aka “Ruby.”
To learn more about Michael, please visit his website.
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