By Ian Walkley
J. L. Abramo was born in Brooklyn on Raymond Chandler’s fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo earned a BA in Sociology at the City College of New York and a master’s degree in social psychology at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Catching Water in a Net (2001), winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; and the subsequent Jake Diamond mysteries Clutching at Straws and Counting to Infinity.
In CIRCLING THE RUNWAY, an Assistant District Attorney is murdered in his high-rise apartment building and Detective Sergeant Roxton (Rocky) Johnson suspects his lieutenant may have something to do with it. He can think of no one to turn to for help—no one he can trust—except Jake Diamond. If the mismatched duo can avoid stepping on each other’s toes long enough, they may be able to stop circling the runway and land on the villain’s doorstep.
Jake Diamond is back after a ten-year hiatus and his reappearance was well worth the wait. Why the wait, and why bring him back?
Before Jake Diamond popped up, I had been working on a novel set in Brooklyn. The attempt at writing a mystery novel was instigated by something I had stumbled across on the Internet, a contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press and the Private Eye Writers of America appropriately called the Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. I set the novel in San Francisco and Los Angeles, inspired by those atmospheric locations so well employed by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Catching Water in a Net won the contest and was published by St. Martin’s.
I was advised by other writers I was fortunate to meet on the mystery fiction road that my publisher would be expecting a follow up to the Diamond book, so I wrote Clutching at Straws and Counting to Infinity. The Brooklyn book tugged at me and I decided it was time to get back to it. Since Jake and his gang were in California, I needed to find other characters to populate Gravesend. Jake took a holiday, which was extended when I had the urge to learn more about Jimmy Pigeon—Diamond’s friend and mentor who I had killed off before the first book began. I needed to turn the clock back and bring Jimmy back to life to write Chasing Charlie Chan, in which Jake Diamond has a cameo role. Over the course of Diamond’s sabbatical,I received many inquiries from fans asking if and when Jake would return. It was time to revisit Jake’s world, though I was admittedly worried I may have lost familiarity with Diamond and the other regulars. In writing CIRCLING THE RUNWAY I found I was still very comfortable with the characters—it was like a reunion with old friends.
Tell us about the characters Jack and Rocky. I understand they’ve had something of a checkered relationship?
Jake has always had less than amiable relationships with police, as is often the case with private investigators. Lieutenant Laura Lopez and Sergeant Rocky Johnson had been present in the first three books of the series. If Jake was not considered a suspect by the SFPD, he was considered a nuisance. In Jake’s own words:
“Lieutenant Laura Lopez could read me like a comic book, and treated me with all of the reverence she might afford a cartoon character. Sergeant Johnson and I got along like Stalin and Churchill.”
Diamond and Johnson had a history of verbal conflicts that had at times escalated to physical altercation. My idea with CIRCLING THE RUNWAY was to create a situation that would force these two combatants to team up in a common cause. Reluctant partners, an odd couple. I had a great time working it out.
Do you believe it is important to plot out a mystery in the early stages, or are you more into reverse engineering?
How a new work of fiction begins is as important to the writer as to the reader. For the writer, the opening pages are the seeds that will hopefully grow into a personally satisfying and coherent literary journey. They are the cornerstone. For the reader, the opening pages are the hook that will hopefully inspire the fellow traveler to continue on that journey.
When I face the blank first page I approach it as a quest—conscious or unconscious—and try in time to reach some hidden treasure by the end of the excursion—with many detours and side steps along the way. I do not know the final destination when I begin—the characters are developed through a composite of people I have known and by human reactions to events. The plot develops as a consequence of how these characters react, and is secondary to the characters since it is the people in a story that have always interested me most as a reader—and I get to know these characters more and more clearly as they move through the story.
Plotting is extremely challenging, but when the theme of the work finally dawns on me, when I finally realize what it is I am really writing about, it offers direction. When I finally understand where the story is headed, I often need to back up to find the path I need to be on to get there. But at the start, when I begin, my books have always been initiated with a scene—one that will hopefully be recalled throughout the book, by myself and by the reader, as the circumstance that launched the expedition.
You were born on Raymond Chandler’s fiftieth birthday? What influences have been important on your writing – people, periods in history, events? Is there a hankering for the past among readers?
I use that coincidental fact in my bio not to compare myself to Chandler but to indicate that although I am not a spring chicken, I am not that old.
I lived my formative years in the sixties and, although I do not specifically write about that period, the experience of that historic, exciting, turbulent, and creative decade certainly influences my way of looking at things. As does the writers we were reading then—Vonnegut, Kesey, Mailer, Harper Lee, J. D. Salinger. I often find myself making reference to persons or events that not every reader will get, but I have heard from those who found these nods happily nostalgic, and I would be pleased if they inspired younger readers to be intrigued enough to do a little homework.
What cities/locales have you lived in, and how have your personal experiences impacted on your setting descriptions?
I have lived in San Francisco and decided it was a colorful location for a private eye. The office sitting above an Italian salumeria in North Beach and Diamond’s escapades in the other very different California city offer many opportunities for incorporating location into the proceedings. Jake is always reading a classic novel that ties into the present circumstance. In Catching Water in a Net he is reading A Tale of Two Cities, echoing his own adventures in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in place of Paris and London. With Gravesend, it was a desire or need to take a look back at the neighborhood where I grew up, and I learned a lot. As T. S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Your résumé points to journalism, acting, and directing, and you have a master’s degree in social psychology. What work do you do now apart from writing?
Lately I have been busy writing guest blogs and doing interviews. Promoting a new book is perhaps more challenging than writing it. Otherwise I read a lot, cook, travel, and am looking into teaching some classes in theater and creative writing. It is difficult to find the time to do theater, but the urge always nags me—I hope to direct a show again before too long. My background in social psychology comes into play in almost everything I do.
On your website you discuss the evolution of a novel’s title and also its cover design? What should writers be aware of?
Simply stated, the book title and front cover artwork are the first things a prospective reader sees and, for those not already familiar with and partial to your work, can be the impetus to open the door and venture inside, so to speak.
Where does mystery writing fit into this curiosity you have about what makes people tick?
I have often been asked why I chose mystery and crime fiction as my literary genre. It might be more accurate to say that the genre chose me; and to add that a particular genre is simply the vehicle in which the writer journeys through the landscape he or she is compelled to explore. In my experience as a reader it is the theme and not the plot of a novel that carries universal and lasting impact; making the particular genre secondary to the thoughts and feelings which the writer is consciously or unconsciously driven to express. Crime and Punishment, Les Misreables, and The Count of Monte Cristo are, on the surface, crime novels; classic literary works that greatly influenced generations of readers and future writers; not as a consequence of their genre, but for their examination of the trials and tribulations of the human experience.
Similarly, the same holds for visual art and music. A timeless painting or a lasting musical composition is one that leaves a profound impression on the viewer or the listener; be it renaissance, religious, impressionist, avant-garde, symbolic, dada, classical, folk, country, blues, jazz, or rock and roll.
Do you want your novels to communicate your philosophies about life or what drives people/life, or are you just about having fun and entertaining readers?
We write, we paint, we sing because we need to. The need to express our feeling and thoughts is the driving force of creative endeavor. That being said, I do not consciously attempt or intend to pontificate. As I mentioned earlier, the theme is usually unknown to me at the start. The importance of having fun in what we do, and in entertaining readers, cannot be overemphasized—but that is a hopeful result rather than a motivation.
J. L. Abramo was born in Brooklyn on Raymond Chandler’s fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo earned a BA in Sociology at the City College of New York and a Masters in Social Psychology at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of Catching Water in a Net (2001), winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; and the subsequent Jake Diamond mysteries Clutching at Straws and Counting to Infinity. Abramo’s stand-alone thriller, Gravesend, was released by Down and Out Books in trade paper and eBook on September 25, 2012. Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series, was released in September 2013.
To learn more about J. L. Abramo, please visit his website.