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Interview: Ace Atkins, Author

(alternate text)Ace Atkins writes stories like he played football: with sweat, determination, and grit. A big believer in hard work and never settling for “good enough,” Ace is always quick to offer realistic advice and suggestions while remaining optimistic and supportive. 

It should be noted that this interview was conducted before the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. New Orleans plays an important role in Atkins’ work and holds a special place in his heart. So we’ll try to do a follow-up interview when schedules permit, but in the meantime, be sure to check out Ted O’Brien’s blog that Ace is hosting. Ted is a displaced New Orleans resident, adjusting to life in Oxford, MS and he has some very eloquent posts about the nature of being away from home.

But back to happier topics, Ace was kind enough to talk to us about keeping a day job, football and literature, and the importance of plot.

Slushpile: So which came first, your love of writing, the blues, or football?

Atkins: Books always came first. From there, it developed into writing and once that started almost everything came second.

Slushpile: I hate to be stereotypical, but how did a big strong lad who’s a great football player get into literature?

Atkins: Well, it’s not that uncommon. After all I’m just following the steps of other Southern football players like Erskine Caldwell and James Dickey. James Dickey was a hell of a big guy and a tremendous athlete at Clemson.

Football was a hobby but writing has always been my main interest.

Although, I will say I had a football coach at Auburn that thought my constant reading was annoying. He called me “The Poet” although I tried to explain to him I’d never written a poem in my life. He was a pretty slow fella.

Slushpile: Did you write during your college football career? Or did sports consume all your time?

Atkins: I wrote half of my first novel in college while playing football. I used to spend my downtime at Auburn’s computer lab, this is in the early ’90s before all kids had their own PCs.

Slushpile: You worked for The Tampa Tribune. Was this your first journalist gig after college?

Atkins: No. I worked for about a year as a correspondent at The St. Petersburg Times. I wrote sports and features and a ton of book reviews. It was good training and opened the door to me working full time at The Tribune.

I believed when I left college that you just get out and started to publish books. Wow, was I wrong. I had no journalism training and just had some short stories to show potential employers–they weren’t impressed. I got into journalism because I figured it would be an apprenticeship to writing. And it was. I wasn’t a writer until I’d been at the paper for a few years.

Slushpile: During this time at The Tampa Tribune, you began writing fiction. Can you tell us how that started?

Atkins: Well, it started before… but that’s when I wrote my first published novel. I wrote Crossroad Blues when I was 26 and 27. The book was just the continuation of the Nick Travers stories I’d been writing since I was 19.

Slushpile: Some authors like a job where they are writing during the day. John Dufresne, for instance, says that teaching writing is a great facilitator to his own writing, because all day long, he’s thinking about fiction. Other writers seem to like to do something completely different, maybe even something more physical, during the day so when they sit down to write, they are mentally fresh. Which opinion do you share? How did writing journalism during the day affect your fiction writing?

Atkins: It’s tough to seriously write while you work. I NEVER advise anyone to quit a job so they can write. I still work sometimes teaching. For me being a reporter worked in several ways. It made me a better, more disciplined writer and also exposed me to worlds that I never knew existed. I always wanted to be a serious crime writer–not a mystery writer. And by becoming the crime reporter for The Tribune, it gave me a glimpse into the lives of criminal and cops that most people would never know first hand.

But it was hard to write. I was writing all day and then coming home to write at night. I spent my weekends writing all the time. I got up early on Saturdays and put in a full day. I did the same on Sunday.

I had no social life. I drank a lot of coffee.

It took scheduling and gritting your teeth and making sure you worked whenever you could.

NO ONE unless you have a trust fund can take time off to write a book. It’s risky and to be honest, somewhat selfish. But if you are disciplined and have a good work ethic, you can use your down time to put down your stories.

Slushpile: While working at the paper, you were nominated for a Pulitzer. What article, or series of articles, earned you this nomination? What was it about?

Atkins: While working the crime beat at the paper, I had a veteran journalist hand me a thick file of old newspaper clips. The clips were on the death of this beautiful woman in 1956. It was an unsolved murder but back then, it was front page news for weeks. It was just huge. I reopened the case and started trying to piece together what happened. I conducted new interviews and published much of the case file. But it was more about what Tampa was back then and people just loved it. It was a seven-part series that ended up being the longest narrative that The Tampa Tribune had ever run.

I’m quite proud of it and it’s at the core of the new novels I’m writing today.

Slushpile: What was the one story that you covered for the newspaper that made you think “this would be a great novel?”

Atkins: That one. I’m working on it now. Its prequel will be out next year.

Slushpile: What was the spark for Crossroads Blues? What was that one thing that happened, or maybe it’s something you thought of for the book, that made you sit down and hammer out this novel?

Atkins: I was in church at a wedding and I was thinking about Robert Johnson and a story I’d heard about his lost recordings. At the time I was deep into Raymond Chandler and was looking for a Southern link to my stories. It just dawned on me that blues and crime fiction had a lot in common. Hardboiled novels and hard, real blues were really the same. So that’s how it was born.

Slushpile: Please tell us the story of how Crossroads Blues got published. Did you find an agent who placed it for you or did you find a publisher yourself?

Atkins: I had my previous novel turned down at St. Martin’s Press but had a personal letter from an editor there praising the book. When I finished my new novel, Crossroad Blues, I sent it to him.

After tons of rejections on my earlier book, I get a call at the newsroom and he wants to see it. A few days later, he buys it.

After years of struggle and rejection, it just happened that fast.

Slushpile: Crossroads Blues and Leavin’ Trunk Blues were published fairly close together. I believe it was about two years in between. How quickly did you start on the second novel after finishing the first?

Atkins: I had a hard time getting into a second book. A second novel is tough. That first book contains a lot of stories you’ve been thinking about for a long time. Also, you try to top yourself.

And I had a hard time not thinking about Crossroad Blues after having it on my mind every day.

But I forced myself to get right back into it. I’d say I took several months off. That was too long.

Slushpile: Your most recent novel, Dirty South, seemed to have more narrators in it than your other books. What was your objective in employing multiple narrators?

Atkins: When you write first-person fiction, you can lose yourself as a writer. I love my protagonist. But I want to write other people, too. That novel isn’t really Nick’s book. It’s a book about a 15-year-old kid from the Calliope housing projects named Tavarius Stovall. Nick helps move the story only.

Slushpile: You have some pretty strong opinions about the idea that some novels are “plotted” while other novels (usually considered more literary) aren’t plotted and focus solely on character. I know that The Catcher in the Rye is a novel that you think has a very solid plot even though it’s considered “literary.” Tell us about your attitude on this subject.

Atkins: How much space do we have?

A sloppy book is a sloppy book.

Not many of us have the genius to play with structure like William Faulkner. But it takes a keen eye to see that The Sound and the Fury does have a structure. He’s just playing with his readers by switching it up. It’s in the plotting–the way he tells the story–that’s disjointed. Not the story itself.

But many writers brag: “I don’t write with a solid plot.” Most of that time that’s because they can’t. It’s laziness.

It’s hard to have a solid plot and solid story while making it seem that you don’t.

There are few of the old-time craftsman writers today. Everyone wants to be a genius but few want to work. Good writing comes from work.

Slushpile: The blues is obviously a major part of your life and is a major component of your books. I know that your advice to aspiring authors is to “write the book you want to read.” Do you think that a good enough writer, with enough passion, could make any topic interesting? For you, it’s the blues. But do you think it’s possible for someone to revolve a mystery around a paper salesman? Could someone make selling paper as interesting as you make the blues? Or is there some intrinsic exotic and mysterious nature to the blues culture that helps?

Atkins: I like blues a lot. But it wasn’t what forced me to write. Blues is a theme and worked very well with the hardboiled lit of my first four novels. But if you are passionate about a subject and have a story, sure you can make that paper salesman interesting as hell.

I love books that take on an off-beat character and story and make it interesting.

Slushpile: What are you working on now?

Atkins: I just finished a non-fiction novel that’s connected to the newspaper series.

It will be out in 2006 from Putnam.

No blues. All truth.

Slushpile: What are your writing habits? Do you write every day, without fail? Or are you more of a binge writer?

Atkins: I write every day and I binge.

I like that, “binge writer.”

But if you are going to be a professional writer, you must remember this is a job. We all want the muse to float through the window. But it doesn’t always happen.

You must set hours and put the words on the page.

Slushpile: At one time, according to published reports, Richard Parks was your agent. Are you still represented by him? If not, are you working with an agent now or are you representing yourself?

Atkins: Richard Pine? That was my previous agent.

I have a new agent now.

I don’t advise anyone working alone.

When I sold my first book, I went out and got an agent to negotiate the deal on Crossroad Blues.

I’d had an agent before that and I’d fired him. After a year and a half, he’d sent the book to four houses. Three of the reads, I’d set up.

A bad agent is worse than no agent.

Slushpile: What are your security blankets or crutches as a writer? What do you use to get started when things are tough? Music seems to be an obvious answer, but maybe there is something else you do? Read your favorite authors or something like that?

Atkins: Drink a lot of coffee. I almost dedicated my last book to coffee.

Slushpile: Do you have any superstitions about your writing? Maybe a lucky charm on your desk, or some talisman or memento.

Atkins: Well, sort of. I keep an old LC Smith on my desk to remind me that this computer is just a damned fancy typewriter and to stay off email.

Email and the internet will kill you.

Slushpile: Many bluesmen keep a particular lick, or turnaround, or riff, in their back pocket, so to speak, to use whenever they get stuck in a solo or need a launching pad. It’s kind of their ace in the hole. What is your literary trick that you pull out at times in need to get the story flowing?

Atkins: If a story isn’t working, you need to think about it more. If you feel you’re stuck, then you need to reexamine what you’re doing.

Slushpile: What do you know that you always pass on to your characters?

Atkins: Not to be too far out but… they often pass on things to me. Mainly because they’re almost always based on real people and by studying them I learn from them.

Slushpile: What is the one thing you own that your characters always own?

Atkins: Nick Travers has a good pair of cowboy boots and a good dog. Both are advised.

Slushpile: Describe your most frustrating time as a writer. What kept you going?

Atkins: To hope that someday I’d be asked that question. Thanks for asking it.

I was working as a pickup writer (correspondent) for the Times, working a full shift at a book store and living in an old studio apartment in Tampa. I barely had enough money to eat and would often count change from my car’s ashtray to buy a Whopper. They were 99 cents.

I was surrounded by people who said they wanted to be writers, too. Most them were complainers and negative and made you start to wonder what the hell are you doing. Will this ever happen or am I one of these people?

You must concentrate on your work and surround yourself with people who believe in your eventual success. That’s one of the reasons I tell people to stay away from local writer’s groups. They often will just shit on your work because they’re frustrated.

Slushpile: You left The Tampa Tribune some years ago and devoted yourself to writing fulltime. And you sometimes teach a reporting class at Ole Miss. What are your long-term career goals? Do you ever see yourself going back to journalism?

Atkins: I’d love to get back to journalism someday. I miss it.

But I can’t do both.

I really don’t have time for teaching but like working with the students.

The new direction of my writing includes a ton of reporting and research and with the heavy demands of a writing schedule, I don’t know when I could take a break.

Slushpile: Speaking of journalism… most people accept journalism programs as a pre-requisite to being a newspaper reporter or television reporter. But so many of those same people will say that creative writing classes are worthless because art can’t be taught and it’s all subjective anyway. What is your response to that claim?

Atkins: See above.

I think a creative writing program can be helpful but only up to a point. I see a lot of folks coming out of creative writing programs that don’t know anything about real life.

But then I see some come out that are genius.

Ron Hansen is one of my favorite writers and he’s out that world.

Of course, Steinbeck and Faulkner never finished college.

A good program can teach you the skills and methods to get out your stories but the rest of it is up to you.

Slushpile: As a follow-up to the question above, what would be your advice to a young writer who gets an advance that allows him to write full-time, but isn’t Stephen King-type money where he’ll never have to work again. Any ideas of how this person could keep up their “day job” skills while writing that book in case they have to go back into an office after a year or so?

Atkins: I would advise anyone, unless good money rolls in, to keep that day job.

Slushpile: For years, it seemed like every interview with Eric Clapton featured him talking about what an inspiration Buddy Guy was. He certainly seemed like he wanted to spread the word about Guy, to use his platform to bring attention to one of the greats. Is there a writer who inspired you that you wish got more attention?

Atkins: It’s no secret that often the best writers don’t get the hype of some bad ones. I know when I was at Morrow some really horrible thriller writers got pushed while someone like James Carlos Blake didn’t get enough attention.

I think his novels are fantastic and up there with Cormac McCarthy. He’s one of many that I know. I’m also very high on a young crime writer from Oakland named Nichelle Tramble. She’s someone to watch.

Slushpile: Writing and how-to books are filled with the same information over and over again. Suggestions like “address your submission to a specific editor” and “be professional.” So often these books offer nothing but insults to anyone with some common sense and a bit of professionalism. What is the one tip about the publishing industry that you would offer to an aspiring author? What do you know now (after publishing four books) that you wish you knew when you were shopping around that first novel?

Atkins: Well, the etiquette is important. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know how to write a business letter or ramble on and on about the book without really telling what it is about. So I think those books can help. They helped me.

And yes, editors do want to see the proper format for submissions.

If every writer who submitted a novel was professional, more books would get read. But I’ve been in my former editor’s office and seen what gets sent in. Yes, there is a slushpile and it’s filled with horrible books. That’s why good books written by good writers get lost. That’s why you have to try multiple times to get through the system.

The system is a swamp.

Slushpile: Young writers have to be infinitely confident in their work. They have to truly believe in their stories. But how can a young writer balance that belief with reality? For example, let’s say a writer really believes in a story and gets good feedback on it, but it’s been rejected ten, twenty, thirty, or forty times? At what point should he retire that story and move on?

Atkins: Well, if the writer knows the story is good, I’d say never. I’ve heard of great novels being rejected more than 100 times. I don’t doubt it.

You have to take criticism but you have to believe in your work, too.

James Lee Burke’s The Lost Get Back Boogie got 110 rejections and some of them downright nasty. But it’s a fantastic novel.

Slushpile: Overall, what is your opinion of the publishing industry today? Some writers are very vociferous in their complaints about the industry and what gets published. Other writers seem to be quite happy with the state of publishing. What is your opinion?

Atkins: The state of publishing is horrible. Never before has more crap been published. And there is a gap between super, thoughtless reads and self-absorbed bullshit.

Solid well-written exciting stories are rare.

Also, with self publishing the glut of books out there is huge.

So, once you get the book published that’s only the start of the fun. Now you must get people to read it.

Slushpile: What changes would you like to see in the way the publishing industry currently does business?

Atkins: I wish we’d see a throw-back to the old days where editors were editors and not people who were just into buying books. There used to be an apprenticeship to the process and in turn, it benefited everyone.

New York is Hollywood. Let’s be clear. They will put out anything if it sells.

Most editors aren’t looking for the next Steinbeck or Chandler, they’re looking for the next DaVinci Code or Nicholas Sparks.

And God help us.

Slushpile: Okay, this just has to be asked… every female I know blushes and says “oh my god” when they see your photo on your book jackets. Are you comfortable with this reaction? Or do you think it belittles your literary skill when people focus on your looks? Does your publisher use your photos to help promote the books?

Atkins: Where are those females? I want details. My wife likes the picture but we all look better on the jacket.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip for aspiring authors?

Atkins: Be a writer and not an author. An author is someone who wants to go to cocktail parties and be interviewed and talk about writing.

Short tale: One man I met on a panel talked about how much he hated writing but that booksignings and promotional stuff made it all worth it. His books were terrible. He hated writing, so we hate the reading.

A writer is a person who works and works and works. And loves the work.

Writing is like anything else. You must work at it and do it a million times to get good at it.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip for aspiring authors struggling to break into print?

Atkins: Tell a good story.

Write it as clearly as possible.

Don’t try to impress and get in the way. Tell the story!

Then, knock down every damned door in New York.