Michael W. Sherer, whose latest Emerson Ward thriller Death on a Budget is due out from Five Star Publishing, is interviewed by ITW Contributing Editor John T. Cullen.
Mike Sherer’s publishing career keeps gathering praise from leading reviewers and top-selling fellow novelists. Please see synopses of all seven Emerson Ward novels, and the mainstream thriller Island Life, along with a short biography, below after the interview.
Booklist praises his complex characters and clever plotting.
The Chicago Sun-Times calls his writing ‘taut, full of muscular action, and suspenseful’.
The Chicago Tribune favorably compares Emerson Ward with Travis McGee, and calls MikeSherer ‘the next John D. MacDonald’.
Library Journal says of Forever Death: “A slick narrative, quirky suspects, a fast-moving plot, and likable protagonist combine…in this winner for series fans.”
Mike, who is Emerson Ward? Is there a character development arc over the course of these novels? You say this about him: “Chicago freelance writer Emerson Ward isn’t clever, crafty or quick, but a little righteous indignation goes a long way when it comes to helping friends. It also tends to get him into a lot of hot water.”
As the series has progressed, Emerson has not only grown older and a little wiser, he’s also acquired a family. All that has conspired to slow him down, both physically and before choosing to get involved, especially in other people’s troubles. He has more to lose now, and therefore is more troubled by his own motivation and seeming compulsion to right wrongs.
Describe the family he gradually acquires. Who is Emerson Ward’s enduring love? We read that one of his lovers, Jessica Pearson, was killed in an early novel (#2, An Option on Death). How does this track over his years, and how does he recover–does he end up with a steady girlfriend or wife who stays with him over time? Or is he an outsider, a loner, never meant to find a safe harbor for heart and soul?
A self-professed bachelor, Emerson is a romantic at heart, a throwback to more chivalrous times. He’s unlucky in love over the course of the first three books, but in the fourth book of the series (A Forever Death), he falls hard for Nell Reilly. By the end of the fifth book (Death Is No Bargain) they have a child, and their relationship is explored further in this new novel, too. Emerson has found the love of his life in Nell, but his dangerous avocation becomes a sore point between them.
Would you characterize yourself as a character-driven plotter? From what I have read of your work, you develop flesh-and-blood characters, which nevertheless are pulled into maelstroms of danger and suspense.
My later books are much more character-driven than earlier works. The first three books in the Emerson Ward series I would characterize as plot-driven. With A Forever Death I found myself more interested in why my characters acted the way they did, and the plots from that point onward tended to revolve around situations the characters found themselves in rather than me throwing them into situations and seeing how they reacted.
Would we be right in guessing that a series with the word ‘death’ in every title should give us a clue that the stakes are as high as they go?
Absolutely, though I think Emerson believes losing Nell or his daughter Emily would be worse than death.
Your autobiographical sketch begins “Unlike his alter ego Emerson Ward, Mike started out as a restaurant manager, not a stock broker.” How much of Emerson Ward is autobiographical? Or not?
Emerson was born from my inability to suspend disbelief in 1970s TV detective shows. Jim Rockford was always so cool when walking into a room and discovering a guy with his brains blown out. Frank Cannon (short and stout, if you recall) once turned the tables on two guys built like linemen. Disguised as cops, they’d ambushed him, but he managed to knock them both out and handcuff them to their car. I didn’t buy it. If it were me, I’d throw up in the first case, and get the crap beat out of me in the second.
Emerson isn’t me, of course. I’m not brave or crazy enough to go looking for people who would gladly kill me, nor am I the sort to go looking for a fight. I think Emerson in many ways is a guy I’d like to be. And in many ways he’s like me, but I’ll never tell which.
What’s vitally important to you about your writing? About the Emerson Ward books? What is your driving passion in life, in writing, in anything?
What drives me is the desire to make each book better than the last. With each book I try to become a better writer and a better storyteller. I read so many books with writing that transports me, inspires me, and I think, “I’ll never be that good.” But I’m sure going to try.
Do you think you’ll ever write a novel set in the world in which you are an expert–the food and drink industry, including food safety? There have been clever series written, over the past few generations, about murderous chefs, deadly roasts, and mysterious muffins. Have you ever given this any thought? I’m serious. There must be some tasty thrillers in there someplace.
I once came up with an idea for a series that featured a forty-something single mother of two adult boys who runs a supper club in Wisconsin. I developed a proposal with a description of the first three books in the series, a detailed synopsis of the first book and the first few chapters. I wasn’t able to sell it at the time and didn’t have the time to research it. I may go back to it someday.
Do you have a certain way of developing your stories? Do you do a detailed plot, or let it all come together as you get to learn the characters?
Each book starts with an idea that germinates and grows by asking “What if…?” I need a road map, so I develop an outline of at least major plot points that take me through the story. But there are often surprises along the way–new characters crop up, and existing characters end up doing things I didn’t plan.
Speaking of characters, you must know Emerson Ward about as well as anyone on earth. What about the other characters? Do you dream them up ahead of time, or do you get to know them in that classic sense whereby authors say their characters somehow come to life, during the typing, and take over?
Funny you should mention that. Actually, I discovered I didn’t know Emerson well at all until I started writing Death On A Budget. When I sat down to outline the book I realized that it would have to take place in the town where he grew up. But I didn’t know where that was, who his family members were, where he went to school, none of that.
The first thing I did was reread the first five books in the series to get clues. Emerson references his “brothers” in one book, for example, so I knew he had more than one. I found other clues, and then set about learning Emerson’s back story. I wrote pages and pages of notes about his parents and siblings, his home town, his friends, the house in which he grew up, and more. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book.
So, I do think about characters ahead of time, but I don’t always know what they’re going to do or say until they show me or tell me.
Where are you taking your writing in the future? Should we expect more character-rich, suspenseful Emerson Ward novels, or do you plan more stand-alones in the manner of Island Life? How do you feel about Island Life–writing it, and its reception in the world? Do you prefer series or stand-alones?
I’ve finished two books in a new thriller series set in Seattle, featuring Blake Edwards, a disgraced former public affairs consultant who tries to put his life back together when his marriage disintegrates and he loses his job after his son commits suicide. I’m currently working on the third in the series. And I recently came up with a really cool premise for another mystery series that I’d like to write for teens.
I like writing series because I get invested in characters and want to know more about them (and hope readers do, too). But sometimes an idea for a stand-alone comes along that just screams to get out, as was the case with Island Life. I just wish I could write faster.
Blake Edwards sounds like a terrific lead–really gripping backstory, right off the bat–I think you’re living up to your premise of growing with your characters. Is there a question I should have asked, but didn’t think of it? Feel free to tell us the things we want to know but were afraid (or not imaginative enough) to ask. And thanks very much for taking the time to chat with us–it’s been great, very fun and informative.
You mean, like, why do we do it (labor in solitude when we could have a “normal” career, that is)? For me, I can’t not write books. Believe me, I’ve tried. Now, if only more people would buy them…
More About Michael W. Sherer:
Unlike his alter ego Emerson Ward, Mike Sherer started out as a restaurant manager, not a stock broker. After stints as a bartender, commercial photography assistant, trade magazine editor and public relations account executive, Mike bravely struck out on his own in 1988, the year his first novel was published. He says he has no regrets about leaving the corporate world behind– the pay is lousy, but the hours are great. “Writing books,” he says, “is actually the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most rewarding.”
Mike Sherer grew up on a farm in northern Illinois. After graduating from college, he lived in Chicago for 20 years. He now lives in Mercer Island, Washington. He is an expert on the food and beverage industry, and serves as a consultant to restaurants and the wholesale industry. One of his specialties is food safety.
Mike Sherer has published five novels in the Emerson Ward series, plus two mainstream thrillers. Some were originally released in hardcover. While those editions may be out of print, all of Mike Sherer’s books are available online or for order at your local bookstore.
Death on a Budget: (Five Star Publishing, 2010). An Emerson Ward novel (#6). Ask anyone. Chicago really has only two seasons–winter and construction. Spring in Chicago is bad enough without an old flame asking you to find out who might have blown away her husband with a shotgun. It gets even worse when one of Emerson Ward’s childhood friends commits suicide. When his friend’s sister asks him to return home after 25 years, Emerson enters a season of deconstruction as a major con game and a decades-old secret threaten to turn his world upside down — and maybe end his life.
Death Is No Bargain (Five Star, 2006) An Emerson Ward novel (#5). Larry Forrester demands to know where his daughter is. Forrester is sure that Emerson Ward knows–and threatens to kill Ward for the information. Emerson doesn’t have a clue, but when the girl’s mother asks him–nicely–to help find the daughter, Ward walks into a storm of evil and deadly danger that threatens to destroy him and everyone else involved. “The fifth Emerson Ward caper is an unusual mix of straight-ahead and thoughtful discourse on hot-button social issues. The characters are as complex as the issues with which they wrestle, and the mystery is cleverly presented and resolved.” (Wes Lukowsky, Booklist). “Think Travis McGee in Chicago, with an Alfa Romeo coupe instead of a moored houseboat, and you have a terrific series.” (Jeremiah Healy, author of Spiral and The Only Good Lawyer). “Michael Sherer gets better with each book. I hope he continues the trend for as long as I keep reading. Top drawer.” (John Lutz, author of The Night Spider). “Get ready to turn some pages, fast.” (Sam Reaves, author of Dooley’s Back). “… Quite amazing storytelling that kept me turning the pages.” (Mystery News). “… Never slows down as the sleuth follows a meandering trail that climaxes with a fabulous final spin. Fans will appreciate this solid murder mystery.” (Harriet Klausner). “Sherer is a great storyteller.” (Cynthia Lea Clark, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine).
A Forever Death: (Five Star, 2001) An Emerson Ward novel (#4). Professional photographer Brady Barnes takes Ward aside at a party–to ask for help in finding out who stole a client’s priceless gem collection. Too soon for follow-up, Brady is killed in an apparently random shooting. As Emerson investigates, he finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into deadly vortex of blackmail and family greed. The dangerous web includes the Barnes clan, dirty Chicago politicians, and a killer who will stop at nothing to keep certain secrets safe. “Chicago freelancer Ward is at the top of his form as a reluctant but quixotic hero, a sleuth of the new breed, one with weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his own as he struggles to unmask the killer.” (From the cover of A Forever Death). “A slick narrative, quirky suspects, a fast-moving plot, and likable protagonist combine in this winner for series fans.” (Library Journal). “This is a novel for which the word serviceable springs nimbly to mind: it’s by-the-numbers genre fare but capably written and perfectly enjoyable.” (David Pitt, Booklist).
Death Came Dressed in White: (HarperCollins, 1992) An Emerson Ward novel (#3). When your life is at an all-time low, how can it get any worse? Emerson Ward finds out one steamy August morning when the phone starts ringing too early to be anything but bad news. It doesn’t stop ringing while surprises piles up. A good friend is missing, another is hospitalized after a brutal beating, Ward’s phone is tapped, and the woman he loves is leaving him. That’s just for starters. Now Emerson Ward must solve everyone else’s problems while trying to stay alive.–“Death Came Dressed in White weaves a tight and irresistible spell. Sherer is a top-notch talent.”(John Lutz, author of SWF Seeks Same and Hot). “Emerson Ward is a modern-day knight errant …a rousing adventure.” (Barbara D’Amato, author of Hardball).
Little Use for Death: (HarperCollins, 1992) An Emerson Ward novel (#2). Emerson Ward is teaching at a small upstate New York college, when the body of a student is found hanging from a tree in the nearby woods. Days before he died, Bob Marter tried to tell Emerson about something evil going on at the school. Emerson is convinced that this was no suicide…someone wanted Bob dead. Nosing around gets Emerson more than he bargained for, and as the body count rises, he finds himself one step behind the killer…one step away from being the next victim. “Equally adept at describing physical action and cerebral action, there are true moments of grace in his writing.” (Drood Review).
An Option on Death: (Dodd, Mead & Co., 1988, hardcover) An Emerson Ward novel (#1). After ten years of drifting in and out of Emerson Ward’s life, it looked as though Jessica Pearson was there to stay. But only a few hours after her arrival, a bullet crashing through a window kills her…and Emerson’s dreams as well. An accident, the police say, but Emerson knows better. Someone wanted Jessica dead; now he wants to find out who, and why. The place to start? Jessica’s suitcase, stuffed with cash and stock transaction receipts. “An Option on Death includes all the hallmarks of the McGee series …the next John D. MacDonald.” (Chicago Tribune). “Tautly written, full of muscular action, and suspenseful …” (Chicago Sun-Times)
A Primer on Death: (Red Herring, 1998) An Emerson Ward story. In a small, sleepy northern Wisconsin town, it’s up to Emerson to find the killer before he strikes again.
Island Life: (Five Star, 2008) When Jack Holm’s wife doesn’t come home one day, he isn’t sure whether to be worried or relieved. Their troubled relationship is beginning to wear on him and his two children. But when she’s been gone for four days with no word, Jack reports her missing to the police. When she’s found dead, raped and strangled, Jack suddenly finds himself the prime suspect. The authorities want him in prison, and his children taken away. Abandoned by clients, shunned by friends, sued by his mother-in-law, Jack goes on a dangerous quest to find the real killer, solve the crime, and absolve himself. He is desperate to salvage what’s left of his life, and keep his children. A mainstream novel wrapped around a mystery, Island Life is the story of a man’s struggle to take control of a life ravaged by loss through the redemptive power of love.