This week's A Cup of Conversation is with the enigmatic Joe Congel. One of Joe's tweets caught my attention a few months ago and I decided to rather cheekily comment about the book he was tweeting about. Well, little did I know I'd met my match and he enticed me to read his book, Dead is Forever...his debut novel held me hostage in the pages of the story for 4 days and nights...totally unputdownable. If you like crime fiction, with "real" people and a fabulous raw edge to the writing then Joe is the author to look out for.
I'm glad we crossed paths and here he is today sharing his author life with us...so grab your cuppas and let's see what he has to say about all things writing and books.
1. When did you start writing creatively?
I caught the writing bug in the early ‘90s. Before that, I thought I wanted to be a professional cartoonist. I adore newspaper comic strips. They were an important part of my life for a long time. I grew up in upstate NY and was only about three hours away from where the Museum of Cartoon Art was located at that time. I travelled the three hours every first Sunday of the month so that I could catch the Museum’s First Sunday Cartoonist Lecture Series. They would feature a working professional cartoonist every month that would talk about cartooning and how they got into the profession, the tools they used, and the business in general. And of course, it always included plenty of up close observation and teaching of the technical part of drawing cartoon characters by that month’s featured artist. It was entertaining and informative, and helped keep my cartooning dream alive for many years. I drew a lot of comic strips that never saw the light of day, but I also did have a smidgeon of success. The Syracuse New Times, a local weekly paper where I grew up, did publish a comic strip of mine… once. At the time they had a weekly revolving spot that local cartoonists were invited to fill, and I got one of those coveted spots. Later on, I drew comic characters for an advertising campaign for a local video store. Those spots ran every week in the New Times for a year or so. This was all in the late ‘80s.
Then, in 1991, a friend of mine was writing a book called ‘Housetraining Your VCR: A Help Manual for Humans’, and he needed someone to draw the cover art and some spot illustrations throughout the book. He asked me since it was a light hearted book, and he wanted the cover and illustrations to be cartoons to match the light, humorous vibe of the contents. So I did the book with him, and it was during that project that I actually caught the creative writing bug. I got a first-hand look at the publishing business, and with encouragement from my friend, decided that I’d try my hand at writing. His was a non-fiction book, but I thought I was better suited to give fiction a whirl. I began ‘Dead is Forever’ shortly after that. I wrote that book during the mid-nineties. I even found an agent that shopped the book around for me. But it was one of those, you pay us for the printing and postage to package your manuscript, type of agencies. I was so happy that someone, anyone, wanted to help me sell the book that I agreed. Luckily, I had only signed on for six months, and of course, we never sold the manuscript. Later, I realized that a real agency does not charge for those services, but instead is paid when the book sells. Lesson learned. After that, I shelved the book for twenty-years while I helped raise two wonderful kids. The creative writing bug returned with a vengeance in 2016 and I took ‘Dead is Forever’ off the shelf and began to update and revise the storyline. I finally took the plunge into self-publishing in 2017, and I’ve been writing creatively ever since.
2. You have written a number of novels as well as short stories. How does your process for writing each differ?
Well, I thought that if I was really gonna give this writing thing a chance, I needed to learn more about the actual craft of writing a story. I took a creative writing course which focused on short stories, and learned a lot about how to structure a beginning, a middle, and an end, without a lot of extras, yet keep it a satisfying reading experience. When I’m writing a short story, I have to put myself in a frame of mind that allows me to cut out all the extra fluff. I pack in a lot of fluff (smiling here), when writing the full length stuff. For the shorts, I have to tell a complete story in as few words as possible. As you can probably tell by the length of my answers to this interview, that’s hard for me. I like to talk and my writing reflects that.
I love writing short stories. So I started a little experiment to help me when writing a short story for publication. I began stretching myself a little bit on my blog. I’ve posted a couple of oddball short stories (odd for me, anyway), and it’s given me a way to exercise that part of my brain and work out the kinks. It’s something that is needed to help me keep the so called fluff out of my short stories. They are also written in a genre I don’t normally write in, which pushes me to think differently.
I tend to take more time labouring over writing a short story than when working on a full length novel. I will sometimes spend hours changing sentences or words to make the story as concise and complete as possible. One of the biggest challenges I have is simply ending the story.
As I said, I like to talk a lot. So the longer form of the novel is where I probably belong. I think I am at my best when writing a full length book. I have several more ideas for Tony Razzolito stories, which will keep me busy for a while. So other than on my blog, I don’t know how many other published short stories you’ll see from me. Except for one – I’m participating in a short story anthology book that will be out, I believe, in April of next year. I can’t say anything else about that right now, other than it’s a fun project and the proceeds are going to be donated to a good cause.
3. How do you carry out your research to ensure the police procedures are correct in your detective novels?
The internet is my friend. I use it for almost all of my research. I’ve also been able to draw on the experience of a couple of my relatives. I have a cousin that was a Police Officer, who now in retirement, works security jobs for a casino and other venues around the central NY area. I also have a brother-in-law who worked as a Correctional Officer for the New York State prison system for thirty years. Just listening to the stories told by both of these guys over the years has given me a unique perspective on how police detectives interact with each other, which has helped me create believable law enforcement characters.
4. Tell us a little about your next release Dirty Air.
‘Dirty Air’ is the third full novel in the ‘The Razzman Files’ series, starring PI Tony Razzolito. It is the fourth book overall, counting the short story collection.
First off, let me explain where the title, ‘Dirty Air’ comes from. It’s a racing term which is used to explain when the turbulent air currents caused by a fast-moving car (usually the lead car in a race) can compromise the aerodynamics of the car following behind, causing it to lose control. Essentially, it is the effect that air passing over the top of the lead car has on the car behind it.
A question authors are often asked is… Where do your ideas come from? What inspired you to write that book? Well, in the case of where the idea for writing a story of murder in the world of NASCAR and street racing came from, inspiration hit when I came across the term, Dirty Air, while researching something totally unrelated on line. I had actually already started another storyline for the third book which I was building around a minor league baseball team and an old mob guy who disappeared years ago after turning informant. I was looking up some information for this, when I came across the Dirty Air definition. I can’t even explain it, but the plot of the NASCAR story just came into my head and started to write itself. I immediately changed gears, shelved the other idea and started over. So in this case, the story was inspired by and built around the title, rather than writing the book and then trying to figure out what to call it.
The story mixes the world of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) with the world of illegal street racing. Tony’s PI firm becomes involved when a young, up and coming NASCAR race car driver is murdered during Speed Street, which is a 3-day festival that takes place in Charlotte before the Memorial Day weekend race event.
The driver’s widow employs Tony and his partner, Scott to find out why and who killed her husband. She needs the service and discretion of a private detective agency because she’s afraid that the investigation will uncover secrets she doesn’t want the police, their fans, or the media to find out about—namely that her husband was moonlighting as an illegal street racer. She’s certain that is why he was murdered and needs Tony to prove it, yet keep her husband’s reputation from being ruined in the process. A juggling act that Tony and his team are not sure they can or should worry about while trying to find the killer.
Stock car racing is not in Tony’s wheelhouse, but luckily for him, his partner is a big fan. Between the two of them, and with a little help from Vinnie, a locally connected hood wannabe, they dig deep into both worlds, uncovering that there’s still a big link between the two worlds, going all the way back to NASCAR’s moonshine running roots.
Within the main plot, I try to blend enough of the central character’s back story that if you’ve not read any of the other books, you still get a good idea of what makes them tick. For instance: In the short story collection, ‘The Judge’ which is the third story, I began a story arc where we find out that Scott’s father is sick and he goes back home to be with him. In ‘Deadly Passion’, we learn more about that situation and about Scott’s relationship with his father. In ‘Dirty Air’ I continue that arc. It’s the same with Tony. From the first book, through the short stories, the second book, and now into the third, we get to see how he’s grown from a self-centered person into a man who can handle his chosen profession and a mature adult relationship. Not always perfectly, but with all the flaws, which (hopefully) makes you appreciate the progression of character building and development throughout the series. That being said, it’s important that the books can be read out of order and not lose anything or feel like the reader missed something just because they discovered the series with book three. But it still needs to be balanced just right to encourage the reader to like it well enough to want to go back to the beginning and catch up.
As I am the only one I answer to regarding when I release my books, I want to make certain that I’ve got this one buttoned up right. I live in the middle of NASCAR country, so it’s important to get the details perfect. That being said, I had hoped to release it at the end of October. Some personal life stuff derailed me and I am now looking at an end of December or a January release date, still to be determined. But rest assured, no longer than that!
5. How has your main character evolved as more books have been added to the series?
Tony Razzolito was an out-of-work retail appliance salesman. The first book, ‘Dead is Forever’, introduces Tony as a lazy, self-centered, borderline ass, not trying real hard to find a job. The store he was working at went out of business and he felt it was an excuse to try his hand at something new. He wanted to be a private detective, but had no formal training to do so. That is, except for a TV gameshow where the contestants had to try to solve a fictional crime. He was obsessed with the show and felt that based on that, and that alone, he could be a pretty good PI. He gets his chance in a very unusual way—his wife is murdered and he and his best friend, who just happens to be a police homicide detective, work together on solving the murder. Through trial and error, and some self-reflection, he grows quite a bit during the course of the book. But in order to turn him into a viable PI that readers would care about, I relocated him from his hometown and advanced the timeline in book two, ‘Deadly Passion’, by about five years. Now he is a PI that knows his business and he and his partner, Scott McHenry, run a Private Investigation Agency in Charlotte, NC. So, to answer any questions a reader of book one might have after reading book two, I devised a short story trilogy that bridges the time gap and learning curve for Tony’s advancement into the professional PI business. I encourage my readers to read ‘The Razzman Chronicles: A Trio of Tony Razzolito PI Stories’, to fill in any gaps in the series timeline. It’s not absolutely necessary to read the short story collection as book one and two will stand on their own as a series, but I believe reading it in-between the two full length novels will make the overall series more enjoyable.
6. Which of your secondary characters is your favourite and why would your readers like them?
Wow! That’s like asking me which of my children I like the best. But I am partial to the two homicide detectives that made their first appearance in the second Tony Razzolito book, ‘Deadly Passion’. Detective John Cahill and Detective Lucy Havens are partners and have a great chemistry which has made their scenes very easy to write. The interaction between the two are reminiscent of the buddy cop relationships you see nowadays on TV or in the movies. I actually looked forward to writing the chapters where they appear. It also doesn’t hurt that Cahill and Tony rub each other the wrong way. The interaction between the two men is a constant dick measuring contest, which also makes for a fun writing experience.
I liked writing about Cahill and Havens so much that they will definitely be in future Razzman books. I’ve also been kicking around an idea for a storyline that will feature them in their own series.
7. How do you ensure your books are ready for release?
My first draft writing process is fairly slow. I’m not one that can just write quickly and leave all the editing for later. I have a bad habit of editing as I go along. But once I’ve got the first draft completed, it makes the rest of the process go by a bit faster. I then send it out to my four trusted beta readers. All four are on the lookout for different things, and they give me their input and make suggestions. I then send each one’s suggestions to another one of the four. This gives me a sort of cross-pollination effect. We keep the suggestions that we all agree on and throw out any where there is not a unanimous positive vibe. It’s kind of like pushing it all through a funnel with a strainer where it all goes in the top, and the good stuff comes out the bottom leaving all the crap behind.
8. What was the last book you read and what lasting message did it leave?
Lately, I’ve been reading nothing but indie books. Most of them have left a lasting message or impression on me, mainly because a book written by an indie author seems to have been crafted with more passion than most traditionally published books. They’re just good writing. I even made it the subject of a recent blogpost. I listed the last five books I’d read that left a lasting impression on me. In the interest of space, I will talk about one of them here and direct you and your readers to my blog to read what I would consider the true answer to this question. And since you are conducting this interview, I’m happy to say that your book, ‘Broken Pieces of Tomorrow’ was the first book I mentioned in that blogpost. Your book left an impression on me for a couple of reasons. It was obviously very personal to you, which made it more than just a woman’s coming of age story. It was based on your coming of age story, and that made it special for your readers. I really could feel that you put your heart and soul into writing it. The message for me was that no matter what life throws at you, we all have the inner strength to persevere and have a successful outcome. It might not be the outcome we originally envisioned, but the path we all walk on has many twists and turns on it and quite often that path divides into two distinctly different directions—one that may be familiar yet destructive, and one that is unproven… unknown. Having the courage to choose the unfamiliar, taking you in that unknown direction can be scary. But if we believe in ourselves, we can and will find a satisfying life... and maybe even happiness. Anyway, that was the lasting message I took from your book.
9. Is there any aspect of the writer's life you least enjoy? Why?
You probably hear this quite often, but the promoting or advertising part is my least favorite part of the writer’s life. I know it is very necessary if I want to sell any books, but it’s a whole separate profession in and of itself.
Trying to balance a regular day job along with fitting in time to write, leaves nothing left to devote to promotion. So I have to carve a chunk out of my writing time just to promote and advertise my work. I’m getting better at fitting it all in, but I’d rather just create the work and leave the selling to someone else. But such is the life of an indie author.
10. If you were able to meet any author, alive or dead, who would you choose and why?
Hmm, well it would have to be Robert B. Parker. He was undoubtedly the biggest influence on why I write PI Detective novels. I discovered his Spenser, PI series during a dark time in my life. I was going through some serious marital difficulties, and reading was what kept my mind occupied during that period. I picked up “Promised Land’, the fourth book in the series, on a whim. This was in the late ‘80s. The book was originally published in 1976. I loved it and went back to the first in the series and read the entire series in order up to that point, which was something like fifteen books. He wrote thirty-nine Spenser novels before he passed in 2010. When I decided that I wanted to write, I reread all of his books, and studied his style of writing. He was a mentor to me even though he obviously never knew that. I would like to meet him so that I could simply thank him
11. Are you a planner or a pantser?
Total pantser! The only real planning I do is jotting a few notes at the bottom of the WIP word doc so that I can refer to them as I go along. But most of the time, the notes become obsolete since I really allow the characters to write the story. Although it can be a little bit of a pain when the characters take a left turn in the story’s direction that I didn’t see coming. That usually requires that I have to go back somewhere earlier in the text to insert a clue or add a passage so that the left turn makes sense. I never wait for a revision to change or add what’s needed when that happens for fear that I’ll forget or miss it later. It’s worked for me so far, so I don’t see myself changing the way I do things anytime soon.
12. What's on your current to-do list?
Well, right now, it’s finishing up ‘Dirty Air’. Life pretty much got in the way these past few months, putting me behind schedule. The good thing? It’s my own self-imposed deadline, so I have the luxury of re-evaluating and changing my release dates… within reason. I certainly don’t want to put it off too far from my original date. Readers have short memories, even if they like your work. If they come back for more, and there’s nothing next for them to go to, they move on and maybe never return.
Like I mentioned earlier - I’m also writing a story to be included in a short story anthology coming out next year.
If you would like to connect with Joe or buy any of his books then please follow him on any of the links listed below. Thank you for joining us and I hope to see you again soon!
In the meantime, Happy Reading, Happy Writing, Happy You.
Lots of love, Soulla x
Amazon link to books: amazon.com/author/joecongel