By Tim O’Mara
In the opening scene of Steven Max Russo’s new thriller, THE DEAD DON’T SLEEP, we meet Frank, a Vietnam veteran who’s trying to enjoy a day of trap shooting with his nephew. Oddly, they meet a man who claims to have known Frank during the war, and that night, a murderous plan is put into place. Frank must fight for his life as he prepares for the violent reckoning that takes him back to the war he’s never been able to escape.
Russo seems a bit young to have fought in the Vietnam War, so where did the idea for Frank’s character come from? “The inspiration for the character and the story came from an afternoon I spent shooting trap with a friend. His uncle was visiting from Maine and joined us unexpectedly that day. He had served in Vietnam—I believe he was in the Air Force, and supposedly involved in intelligence. My friend and his family always wondered what exactly his uncle did in the war and because his uncle didn’t speak much about it, there was much speculation.”
Where did Frank’s experiences in Vietnam come from?
“The characters in this novel evolved as I began writing. I had no idea who or what they’d turn out to be until the words hit the page. Regarding Frank, I am always quick to point out that I never served in the military, and this is obviously a work of fiction. But I inserted some of my memories to hopefully give parts of the story a feel of authenticity.
“There is a scene near the beginning of the novel where Frank talks about getting drunk with his old man and hearing his father’s war stories, which usually involved drinking beer with his buddies and chasing girls in his dress uniform. But as he gets more inebriated, the stories move from the fun he had to the horror of combat. My dad served in the Korean War, and he and I got drunk together one night when I was about 19. What Frank experiences in the book is what I experienced with my dad. My father wasn’t a drinker and as the night progressed, these horrible, repressed memories kept coming out. It was perhaps one of the saddest and most shocking experiences of my life. I never brought it up again with my dad and actually hadn’t thought about that night in years—until I started writing that scene.”
Russo believes that by inserting his relationship with his father into his fiction, it will evoke emotion in readers.
“A wonderful author who was kind enough to blurb my book told me that he had the same type of experience with his father who served in Vietnam,” Russo says. “When he read the scene in THE DEAD DON’T SLEEP, he said he could hear his own father’s voice. That is one of the comments about my writing that I treasure most.”
For an ad executive with no military experience, Russo includes a lot of weaponry in the book. Where did he get his knowledge about weapons?
“When I was younger, I tried to find an activity that would bring me closer to my father, something we could do together. Since my dad was a veteran and had a mild interest in guns, we joined a rifle club. We went target shooting one night a week, which got him out of the house and allowed him to make friends with some of the oldtimers at the club. Then a few years ago, a friend of mine introduced me to trap shooting, and I bought a shotgun.
“That’s about the extent of my knowledge of firearms. For THE DEAD DON’T SLEEP, I did most of my research online, but if you’re writing about firearms, I think it’s good to have at least some experience in handling one.”
Maine plays a big part in the book. Does Russo have a special relationship with the Pine Tree State?
“Actually, no. I’ve only been to Maine once in my life, for a weekend when I was in college. Out of boredom, a buddy of mine and I drove up on a whim to visit a girl who worked as a waitress at a lodge in Kennebunkport.
“My friend’s uncle—the inspiration for the story—lives in Maine, and I felt the terrain, the remoteness, and the unpredictable weather seemed to suit the story. The town of Boland is fictitious, though I did look at a map to include some real roads near the area where Boland would be.”
One major theme of the novel is how a person’s past can come back to haunt him. Russo explains why he focused on this topic.
“I believe that each of us has things that we’ve done or experienced in the past that we now regret. It could be something we did or something we failed to do but wish we had. Maybe we regret it a little, maybe a lot. Something that can seem inconsequential to one person might deeply affect another.
“These regrets sometimes gnaw at your gut, maybe at night when you can’t sleep or when a sound or smell or oddly familiar face triggers a memory, and you get a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach. A feeling like payback is due. It’s something you can’t control.
“I think the fact that almost everyone can relate to feelings of regret and justice at some level helps make a story like this one all the more engaging.”
Russo has some Vietnam vets doing some evil stuff in the story. Did he have any concerns about adding to the stereotype of the crazed war vet?
“I guess this may seem a bit naïve, but to be honest, the thought never crossed my mind. This story was inspired by a chance meeting I had at a trap range with a ‘mysterious’ Vietnam veteran. That encounter stayed with me and then one day, I just sat down and began writing. The story seemed to grow organically. I guess the story would have turned out quite differently if my buddy’s uncle was a retired FBI agent, U2 spy plane pilot, prizefighter, or cowpoke. Then some folks might have been concerned about my disparaging law enforcement, national security agencies, pugilism, or cowboy folklore.”
Is Russo setting readers up for a sequel?
“I haven’t gone there yet. I’m working on a few ideas now for my next two books, which will be standalone novels. I guess I’ll wait and see how successful THE DEAD DON’T SLEEP turns out to be. But I did leave the door open.”
Finally, if Russo could put together his dream panel for ThrillerFest—authors alive or dead—who would he pick and why? What would the topics be?
“That’s a tough one. There are so many wonderful writers out there right now, and each day is an opportunity to discover someone new. I guess I’d choose a few of my classic favorites: Elmore Leonard (I love his writing style and dialogue); James Lee Burke (his words flow like poetry); John Sandford (his pacing is wonderful), and Stephen King (you just can’t beat his imagination).
“As for topic, I’d ask each to talk about their strengths and weaknesses as writers. I don’t think you could go wrong with that list.”
Steven Max Russo has spent most of his professional career as an advertising copywriter and agency owner. He got interested in writing fiction after one of his short stories was accepted by an online literary journal in 2013. After that, he caught the bug and began writing seriously. His first novel, Thieves, has garnered praise from renowned crime and thriller authors from around the globe. Steve is proud to call New Jersey his home.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.