Crime In Conversation: Alex Segura and William Boyle | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Crime In Conversation: Alex Segura and William Boyle

Two crime writers discuss their passion for music and film, and how it plays out in their upcoming novels

Apr 02, 2018 Alex Segura
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Crime fiction is fraught with dark corners, menacing villains, shady double-crosses and twisty plots — usually with unique and memorable backdrops and conflicted, morally ambiguous protagonists. Authors William Boyle and Alex Segura are no strangers to the space, both prepping to unleash their latest works on the world. Blackout, the fourth in Segura’s acclaimed Miami-based Pete Fernandez PI series (May 8, Polis Books), finds the recovering alcoholic ex-journalist getting pulled back into a crime he’d failed to solve years before, which also happens to be entangled in the tentacles of a dormant and deadly Miami cult. Boyle’s second novel, The Lonely Witness (May 1, Pegasus), tells the story of Amy Falconetti, an ex-party girl now living a solitary life helping the house-bound receive communion in Brooklyn’s Gravesend neighborhood. While following the son of one of her elderly friend’s caretakers, she stumbles into a deadly crime that she feels compelled to solve—but completely unprepared to face.

Both novels, though they walk different paths, share a passion for some of the best elements of noir—obsession, betrayal and regret, making them two of the most anticipated crime fiction releases of the spring. With that in mind, we put the two authors together and asked them to talk about their books and the movies, music and television that inspire them.

Alex Segura: Bill, this sounds silly - but I think I first realized we were on the same wavelength creatively based on the articles you share on social media. They’d either be things I’d just read and flagged as great articles or profiles of writers, actors and bands that I adore. That’s a long-winded way of saying we have similar tastes, and I know I’ve said we’re of the same mind many times. So, I wanted to talk a bit about how those tastes in music, movies and literature influence our own work. Can you share a bit about your new book, and what played a part in the writing of it?

William Boyle: Thanks, Alex. Yeah, that’s definitely true. I think most days we wind up sharing a lot of the same things without even knowing that the other person’s sharing it at the same time. My new book, The Lonely Witness, is deeply rooted in what I was watching, listening to, and reading when I was writing it. When I’m working on a book, it feels especially important to curate that stuff. I want to be influenced by things that have achieved something I really want to achieve, either tonally or tension-wise or whatever. I think in a lot of ways I wanted The Lonely Witness to feel like a crime novel with a Sharon Van Etten and Angel Olsen soundtrack. Sophia Takal’s great film Always Shine was at the front of my mind. I was watching a lot of Fassbinder and rewatching (as always) a lot of David Lynch and John Cassavetes. The short film Thunder Road really got to me around then—I love when all the tension in a scene just comes from a person talking or breaking down. Nick Cave’s One More Time with Feeling really inspired me in all the best ways, especially on the shifting natures of identity. Kate Plays Christine is another film I watched around then and thought a lot about—I was really taken with the actress in that, Kate Lyn Shiel, and I kind of imagined her into the book. I loved what that film had to say about performance, and I was haunted by Shiel.

What about you? Where did Blackout start? Do you start with a soundtrack? Since it’s part of a series, do you have a bunch of influences that remain the same or are they shifting as you get into new stuff?

AS: I think it varies, book to book. There are constants - in terms of crime fiction, I’m always tapping into the classics like Patricia Highsmith, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and Charles Willeford, to name a few, and modern masters like James Ellroy, Lawrence Block, Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, George Pelecanos, Reed Farrel Coleman and Dennis Lehane. For my new book, Blackout, which is the fourth in my Pete Fernandez Miami series and deals with a defunct Miami cult resurfacing and getting tangled with Pete and his friends, I found myself doing a lot of cult research - Jim Jones, mostly, with some other stuff sprinkled in. I also read a lot of massive conspiracy theory books, like Jim Marrs’s Crossfire, which is a comprehensive and disturbing look at the JFK assassination. A lot of books about obsession, really, and how it can drive people to do strange and deadly things, because emotionally, that’s the crux of the book - how do we overcome our obsessions or our own past to become something else, hopefully better? Pete’s a recovering alcoholic and a lot of the books have touched on his quest to get his shit together - in the first novel, Silent City, he’s a mess. In Down the Darkest Street, the second book, he relapses, and by book three, Dangerous Ends, he seems to have cobbled together a life, but it’s not exactly, well, vibrant…so, with Blackout, I wanted to meld his personal journey with the case he’s investigating and make it one big narrative - Pete coming to terms with his past in order to not just survive, but have a chance at thriving. A lot of my research and entertainment consumption sprang from that. It sounds really targeted and literal now, in retrospect, but research and absorbing influences are much more organic things for me - I tend to read about stuff that I’m curious about or obsessing over, and those things then end up feeding the next book. In terms of TV, I was really into the bleakness of shows like The Americans, Bloodline and Ozark, not to mention the second season of Fargo and true crime documentaries like The Keepers. Shows that were really strong when it came to setting but also had really flawed and morally gray protagonists and memorable, conflicted characters. I love movies but it’s been much harder to get to the cinema lately with a toddler, as you know all too well. It might have something to do with this toddler we have running around our apartment. But I found myself spending a lot of time with movies like Gene Hackman’s Night Moves and Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I also binged on a lot of Brian De Palma - Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Body Double - movies that really evoke a sense of lust, danger and fear, which goes well with the whole cults thing. In terms of music, I’m constantly playing music while thinking about writing, or a project, but when I’m actually working, I need silence. I tend to put together playlists for each novel, and the Blackout list features a lot of artists that tap into the noir, dark vibe I was going for with the book itself - Neil Young, Waylon Jennings, St. Vincent, Bauhaus, Neko Case, Spoon, Nick Cave, Jason Isbell, Speedy Ortiz, and, believe it or not, Taylor Swift.

Do you think of your prose visually? I mean, do you cast your characters with actors or try to visualize your story in a more literal way?

WB: Man, you’ve been reading my mail. You managed to list so many of my favorites in that response. And, strangely enough, I’ve been thinking of obsession a lot lately too, trying to work on a piece about the nature of obsession because I’m obsessed with… is a phrase I throw around so much. I’m obsessed with this new Courtney Marie Andrews record. I’m obsessed with Bette Davis movies. Whatever. Anyhow, that’s a great answer and it gives me a ton of insight into Pete, who’s such a terrific character. You manage to keep him and the series so fresh, and I think it’s because you’ve got this wide range of influences and inspirations. To me, a series gets stale when a writer stops learning and growing.

As for your question, I do think visually. I’m so influenced by cinema that it’s hard not to imagine some movie version of something I’m writing. I very often—and especially with The Lonely Witness, which is inspired by the paranoid yearning of Hitchcock’s Vertigo—see colors and angles and feel like there’s a track in my brain and the camera’s moving and I’m trying to keep up with it. I sometimes see actors and actresses and sometimes real people and sometimes their faces meld and bend and bleed together. The main character in The Lonely Witness is Amy Falconetti, a minor character from my previous novel, Gravesend. She’s, in some ways, a woman in hiding. She’s thrown away her previous identity and is trying on a new one. When she witnesses a murder, who she was and who she is kind of come crashing together. Several actresses and actors flitted through my mind as I wrote the book—Fay Grim-era Parker Posey and Kate Lyn Shiel for Amy especially. And I think I’m always writing parts for Edie Falco and Marisa Tomei. I see James Gandolfini a lot—I’ve imagined him into a very small role here, as a cabdriver, but he’s very often at the front of my mind. Beyond that, I certainly get to daydreaming about who would play who in the movie, about who’d direct, and what would be on the soundtrack. What about you? Do you have a dream cast in mind for the Pete books?

AS: Ha, I’m glad you asked - because I posed that question with my own answers in mind! I actually keep a running document of actors paired with different characters. I haven’t really shared it with many people, but, for example, I see Ed Harris as Pete’s grizzled ally, retired FBI agent Robert Harras. For Pete’s partner, Kathy Bentley, I’ve cast a bunch of different people in my head - Eliza Coupe and Rhea Seehorn come to mind. Pete started out as a Hispanic Casey Affleck, which is a choice that hasn’t really aged well. Did you ever watch Bloodline? Enrique Murciano, who plays Linda Cardellini’s cop boyfriend, is the closest an actor has come to visualizing Pete for me. Doing that - casting people in “roles” as I write - helps. It creates these visual anchors and lets me really dive into making the writing more cinematic. I’m glad I’m not completely alone in this.

This was fun, man. I’m so excited for people to read your book - it’s one of my favorites of the year and it hasn’t even come out yet. Did we miss anything you wanted to cover?

WB: Oh man, that’s perfect. I watched and enjoyed the first season of Bloodline—I need to get back to it. That’s a hell of a dream cast. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks so much for doing this! It was a lot of fun—I think we covered everything, though I’m sure we could keep going endlessly. I’d like to talk more about cults, but we’ll save that for next time we’re at a bar. Congrats on Blackout! It’s my favorite Pete book yet and one of my favorites of the year. (PS: What a year for books! I’ve already read and been blown away by your book, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, Willy Vlautin’s Don’t Skip Out On Me, Chris Offutt’s Country Dark, Michael Kardos’s Bluff, Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, and Michael Farris Smith’s The Fighter. And we’ve still got new ones from Megan Abbott, Ace Atkins, and Sara Gran to look forward to. Never mind my to-read pile, which is full of writers I admire.)

AS: My pleasure, man. Always a treat. And let me second your love for Sunburn and If I Die Tonight. Also really loved Christine Mangan’s Tangerine and Rob Hart’s upcoming Potter’s Field, and so excited to read the new Offutt, Atkins and Megan’s latest and greatest, too, of course. Did you say there’s a new Sara Gran? Wow. Sign me up. I adore her Claire DeWitt books so much. I think that’s all I’ve got to share, too. Hope we can catch up in person soon.




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