Thursday, May 24, 2007

Michael A. Black on Learning the Martial Arts, Taking the Stairs, and Being a Cop

Hi, Mike! Thanks for talking with me.
My pleasure, Julia.

First, I have some questions about your website. ( Along with some cool book covers and synopses, there are some photos of you looking –shall we say—intimidating. In one you are apparently kicking a man’s throat out, and in another you are shooting the biggest gun I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the one that shows off your substantial muscle. Is being tough a necessity for a cop?
It helps, but being tough isn’t really about muscle as much as it is mental strength. It’s about being able to make those tough choices and do the right thing, even when you don’t want to. You see a lot of things as a police officer that’ll break your heart. You’ve got to develop an emotional toughness or it’ll destroy you by inches. I’ve never thought of myself as particularly tough or intimidating. I’m just your average guy. By the way, in that picture of me kicking I was breaking a board at a martial arts demonstration.

Cool. Have you ever had to beat someone up? I would think all that training would come in very handy if someone tried to mug you or something.

I was bullied quite a bit when I was a kid. I was a bit younger than the rest of my classmates, and very shy, too. There were several punks who got their supplemental income by beating me up and stealing my lunch money. This continued until my dad, who’d boxed in the navy, taught me the rudiments of the sweet science and then enrolled me in judo classes. My parents also bought me a set of weights for my grammar school graduation. The bullying tapered off, but continued a bit when I entered high school. Finally, at the end of my freshman year, a big upper classman picked a fight with me. It was like all the anger and humiliation I’d suffered through my entire life suddenly burst through. I beat the holy hell out of him. After that, no one ever tried to pick on me again.

As far as adulthood, between being an MP in the army and being in police work for most of my adult life, I’ve been in a lot of physical confrontations. The worst one that comes to mind was with this big ex-con who’d just gotten out of the joint and decided he didn’t want to go back. I was by myself, trying to take him into custody and the battle was on. We were fighting on the upper level of a shopping mall. I was in plainclothes, so the security guys didn’t know I was a cop. I was on the offender’s back trying to get a chokehold on him, and he rammed me into the banister trying to knock me off. Luckily, I managed to hold on and took him down a few seconds later. As I held him on the floor, I remember seeing the security guys talking on their radios, afraid to move in. When I finally saw the uniformed officers running down the corridor to assist me, I felt one of the settlers in the old western movie holding off the Indians: the cavalry has arrived!

I have knocked people out in the ring, and a few times out of the ring, but I take no pleasure in hurting others. I used to spar with my buddy, Mike McNamara, who’s also a copper in Park Forest. He was a world-class professional kickboxer. Sparring with him was always a reminder that it was better to leave the rough stuff to Ron Shade.

Good point. Okay, okay, I’ll stop asking tough guy questions. Let’s chat about your books. What came first: you the writer or you the police officer?
Well, I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote my first short story in sixth grade. The hero was a private detective, and the villain was a crooked cop. Kind of ironic how that turned out, isn’t it? As far as being a published writer, I endured fifteen years of rejection slips before that happened, so I guess the cop came first.

What’s a reality about being a Chicago cop that people might not know?
I’m actually a cop in Matteson, a suburb of Chicago. I entered police work because I wanted to help people. To make a difference in someone’s life, even if it’s only being there to show them some compassion in a moment of crisis for them, is very rewarding. There were times when I’d walk out the back door of the station after a hard shift feeling ten feet tall. It’s still all about helping people. I think most cops feel this way.

Two of your books, Freeze Me Tender and A Killing Frost, have wintry titles. Is this a recurring theme in your fiction?
Actually, spring is my favorite season. I got the title for A Killing Frost from Shakespeare. “The third day comes a frost, a killing frost.” King Henry VIII, act 3, scene 2. That book, which is going to be released in mass market paperback in October from Leisure Books, is actually set in the fall (my least favorite season). Freeze Me, Tender is set in Vegas in August. You can’t get much hotter than that. The title is an allusion to the theme of the story: what if the king of rock and roll had been cryogenically frozen after his death. What if he really didn’t die. The protagonist, a reporter, journeys to Sin City to find out if it’s really Colton Purcell (my name for the King) suspended in that vat of liquid nitrogen. My second Ron Shade book, Windy City Knights, is set during the winter, though.

You and I both like those Shakespearean allusions. In your first book you introduce Chicago private detective Ron Shade. He’s in a slump, and to boost his spirits he buys a Camaro Z-28. Do you recommend that I do this when I need to boost my spirits?
The gas prices have been going up; you and Shade might be better off with a couple of those new hybrids.

Sad, but true. Ron Shade, with his loneliness, his tough assignments, and his former lovers, reminds me of Philip Marlowe. Were you influenced by Chandler?
I read Chandler when I was in college and was struck by what a good writer he was. He made the smooth narrative style seem effortless. I certainly would list him among my major influences. He was a master prose craftsman. I should also mention Joseph Wambaugh. I was facing the draft back in 1971 and read his first novel, The New Centurions, about the LAPD. It influenced me to go into the Military Police and into civilian law enforcement after my discharge. I got a signed copy of his latest book, Hollywood Station, for a Christmas gift. I can’t wait to start it.

What other mystery writers are heroes to you?
Wow, there are so many good writers in the mystery field it would be hard to list them all. Dashiell Hammett, certainly influenced me a lot, as well as Ross MacDonald and Stephen Marlowe, who was gracious enough to give me a blurb for Windy City Knights. John D. MacDonald perhaps influenced me the most of any writer. Sara Paretsky has been very nice to me, and gave me a lot of great pointers when I was starting out. My personal hero and great friend is my “brother,” Andrew Vachss. Knowing Andrew is like being in the presence of American royalty. He does in real life what the rest of us only dream about doing. There are so many other fine writers, I can’t list them all here. The only exception I will make is including my writing partner, Julie Hyzy. She’s the best writer I know.

Julie is a class act, too. What are you reading now?
Let’s see . . . I just picked up Elmore Leonard’s newest book, Up in Honey’s Room. I can’t wait to start it. I also have my buddy, Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood, on my to-read list, and Sam Reaves' new one, Homicide 69. Prior to that I’ve read so far this year are Andrew’s Mask Market, James Reasoner’s Texas Wind, Sue Grafton’s S is for Silence, Robert B. Parker’s Hundred Dollar Baby, Marcus Sakey’s The Blade Itself, Mark Winegardner’s The Godfather Returns, Tom Keevers What the Hyena Knows,, Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and Julie Hyzy’s Deadly Interest. I wish I had more time to read. It’s one of the greatest pleasures in life.

You have lots of neat photos on your site, including a series of The Loop in Chicago. Is photography a hobby? When do you find the time to do all that you do?

I used to take pictures all the time. I still do a lot of photography. I try to research the locations I write about, and it helps if you have a few things captured on film to jog your memory. When I was writing The Heist I spent quite a few days walking and driving around Chi-town. I actually discovered the culvert that goes under the railroad tracks by the old Wisconsin Steel works that I used in the climax.

There are pictures of stairs on your home page. Is this symbolic? Are we supposed to question the nature of ascending and descending and determine that it’s all an illusion? Or do you just like stairs?
Well, in my Shade series, Ron has an aversion to elevators and always considers it great leg training to take the stairs instead. I’ve always enjoyed running up flights of stairs, too. When I was a kid delivering packages in the Loop, I walked everywhere and always took the stairs instead of waiting for elevators, if I could manage it. I suppose, in a way the stairs symbolize the ups and downs of Shade’s life, which I put in the first book.

Cool. You write short stories as well. Which form comes more naturally to you: the novel or the short story?
I started out writing short stories, then gradually expanded to novels. What many people don’t realize is both are completely separate art forms. I’ve heard it said that writers who start out writing short fiction can make the transition to novels, but those who start out writing novels often have difficulty writing short stories. For me, which form to use is more intrinsic. There are certain ideas that I get which would be better as a short story, and others that would be more suited to the novel length. Incidentally, Julie just won the Derringer Award for her short story in These Guns for Hire, an anthology about hitmen. I had a story in that one called “The Black Rose.” I also have “Chasing the Blues” in the upcoming Chicago Blues anthology edited by Libby Fischer Hellman. It’ll debut in October and we’ll be doing a bunch of appearances.

We'll watch for that. What are you writing now?
Honestly, I just finished a novella called “The Falcon’s Granddaughter” for a contest. I have to write a Hercules short story for a buddy of mine, which will round out an anthology of mythological heroes. I just finished polishing the second novel in my police procedural series, and Julie Hyzy and I just completed a collaborative novel featuring Ron Shade and her character, Alex St. James. We had a blast.

That is a great idea. What’s the next big conference where readers might get a chance to meet you?
I hit just about every conference there was last year, so this year in was in resting mode. I have a couple booksignings scheduled. I’ll be at Printer’s Row in Chicago in June. I haven’t committed to any other ones except Magna Cum Murder in Muncie, Indiana in October. My buddy, Dave Case, and I will be doing a two-day crime scene presentation at a library near Cleveland this summer, but the dates aren’t set yet. Hopefully, the Midwest Authors’ Fair will be in Aurora again this year. That’s always a great conference.

If Steven Spielberg said he would make one of your books into a movie, but you could choose which one, which would you choose? Is that like asking you to have a favorite child, or would one make a better movie than the others?
I’d have to go with Freeze Me, Tender. But I’d only let Mr. Spielberg do it if I could play Lance Fabray, one of the beefy Colton Purcell imitators. Of course, if he’d let me play Doc Atlas, he could film Melody of Vengeance as well. He’d have to stretch his Dreamworks CGI to turn me into leading man material, though.

All you need is intensity, and you're leading man material.

How can readers find out more about you and your books?

Well, as you so kindly mentioned, my website is My website expert, Beth Tindall at Cincinnati, does a great job keeping it updated and all my books are featured on it. I also have a couple of short stories on the site that people can read for free. And when A Killing Frost comes out in October, it’ll be everywhere--- Book stores, airports, drug stores . . .

I hope it sells like hotcakes. Thanks, Michael!
You’re welcome. Thank you, Julia for this opportunity. Take care.

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