We don’t often get the chance to support a great cause and get a great read at the same time, but the opportunity is here in DOWN TO THE RIVER, an anthology edited by Tim O’Mara.
DOWN TO THE RIVER collects 20 crime stories written by some of the best in the business, and they all take place on, or near, American rivers. Rivers, it seems, are not simply sources of life—they prove to be scenes of revenge and murder in these stories.
There are a lot of worthy causes to champion, and O’Mara is involved in a few, such as bringing literacy to incarcerated youth and working with kids with special needs. But he knows that none of them will mean much if we continue to screw with Mother Nature.
“I love rivers,” O’Mara says. “I live a short walk from the Hudson in NYC and spend a good chunk of my summer in Missouri and kayak the creeks out there. Rivers literally connect us all. I can get into a kayak up in Minnesota where the Mississippi River starts and, with enough stamina and supplies, make it all the way into the Gulf of Mexico and then the Atlantic. The United States would not be the great country it is without its fabulous waterways.”
Proceeds from the anthology will support the work of American Rivers, an organization that educates people about our rivers and advocates for them. How did O’Mara get so many great writers to contribute stories? He feels it was a no-brainer for just about every writer he asked to participate.
“It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a favorite river,” O’Mara says. “I was completely awed by the generosity of these authors, donating their art to a good cause. Awed, but not surprised. You know as well as I do that the writing community is made up of so many generous folks.”
True indeed. Asked why he contributed, Reed Farrel Coleman says, “In a world full of denial about how we are destroying our climate, oceans, and rivers, it seemed like the very least I could do. As to the story itself, I love creating short stories because they help me be a better writer. They give me an opportunity to stretch and to try new ideas in a way my novels don’t allow.”
Another contributor, Tom Lowe, has long been a proponent of clean rivers in America. “Years ago, I produced a PBS national documentary called River into the New World,” Lowe says. “It focused on the 310-mile St. Johns River in Florida. The St. Johns was the first river in the ‘New World’ to have a European colony, and it happened 62 years before Jamestown or Plymouth. I believe efforts like the river anthology can continue to bring awareness of our rivers and what is needed to protect them.”
Tim approached author Jessie Chandler at Bouchercon, and asked if she would be interested in contributing a story. “I loved the idea behind the anthology,” Chandler says, “and thought it was a great cause. How could I say no? Anything that brings awareness to our natural resources and how important they are is critical, especially in this moment in time.”
These authors all had different styles and approaches. The stories are diverse, and O’Mara says that was by design.
“I could have produced an anthology of 22 white writers from the East Coast,” O’Mara admits, “but I didn’t want the book to look like the literary version of a Woody Allen movie, or an episode of Friends. So, I went out of my way to ask a diverse group of writers and had some suggested to me by other writers whose judgment I trust.”
Where did these varied story ideas come from?
Bruce DeSilva says, “One day, I turned to my wife and said, ‘I’ve got this crazy idea that the river speaks.’ And she said, ‘I’m a poet. Of course the river speaks.’ With that, we were off, writing ‘Blue Song, Edged with Woe’ together.”
According to Clea Simon, “The idea for ‘Dirty Water’ came from my years hanging out at the Rat In Kenmore Square, back when Boston was a dirtier, meaner city. I didn’t have a car then so I’d often walk through those underpasses on my way to and from the clubs, by the little sewer that was the Muddy River, and I would wonder what was going on in the shadows. Sometimes, you knew. Sometimes…”
And then there was Dana King’s story: “My Penns River series of novels is set in a small Western Pennsylvania town on the banks of the Allegheny River. I like to show the kind of things small-town cops get involved in that can distract them from the larger cases they’re working, and a potential bridge jumper would be a serious distraction. I’ve crossed the bridge in the story literally hundreds of times, maybe a thousand. It was a natural fit.”
O’Mara admits that editing many different writing voices and styles was more of a challenge than he anticipated. Luckily, he was working with pros. “Every single author was extremely professional when discussing the editing process,” O’Mara says. “I think as a teacher for 30 years in the NYC public school system, I’ve developed a bit of a knack for making people believe I truly want to see their best work. It was a blast. And, by editing the works of some really good writers, I learned a lot more about the craft of writing. It was like being a teacher and a student at the same time.”
Obviously the setting was important in this case. Every story had to take place on or near an American river. Beyond that, it was up to each writer to decide if they wanted a more character-driven story or to focus more on the plot. The result?
“There’s a great mix of both in the collection,” O’Mara says. “There are a few where the setting takes over and those are the ones that approach poetry as far as I’m concerned. An unexpected thrill was that a few of the writers said that their stories were going to be expanded into novels. How cool is that? Some guy in Hell’s Kitchen asks you write a short story—for free—and you come up with an idea for a novel.”
Tim O’Mara is best known for his Raymond Donne mysteries about an ex-cop who now teaches in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood he once policed. His short story “The Tip” is featured in the 2016 anthology Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, and his novella Smoked appears in Triple Shot, both from Down & Out Books. O’Mara taught special education for 30 years in the public middle schools of New York City, where he now teaches adult writers and still lives.
To learn more about Tim and his work, please visit his website.