Detroit based crime writer Stephen Mack Jones has almost as many awards to his name as he does books, which says a lot. Winner of the Hammett Award, the Nero Prize, and short-listed for the CWA-UK "Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award," his latest novel, Dead of Winter, was released via Soho Crime on May 4, 2021 and furthers the adventures of ex-cop August Snow who, like Jones himself, knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of Detroit.
We spoke to the author about his latest editorial achievement, the inspiration for August Snow, and how a former advertising executive transitioned into a truly admirable writing career.
Murder & Mayhem: Your ratio of number of awards versus number of books is very impressive. How does it feel to successfully do the thing that most writers only tell themselves they're gonna do "someday?"
Stephen Mack Jones: I’m proud of the awards and honors I’ve won, but frankly it’s an embarrassment of riches just for the privilege of telling stories, which is all I ever wanted to do. I think anyone who writes with the goal of making lots of money and winning all manner of awards is likely to be disappointed. The real honor is having readers enjoy your work and hope for more. When I sat down to write August Snow, the furthest thing from my mind was racking up awards. My motivation was simply to tell myself a story. To entertain and inform and emotionally move myself. Honestly, one of my saddest days was when my son, at the age of seven or eight, said he wanted to read books himself. That was the end of me making up character voices and embellishing scenes from his small but growing book collection. So here I was—no audience and needing “Story Hour.” So, years later, I decided to tell myself a story and before you know it, I had some 68,000 words of a story tentatively titled August Snow. And then an agent (Stephany Evans-Ayesha Pande Literary Agency) and—lo and behold!—a publisher who was willing to pay me for a story I wrote to entertain myself! Wow! So, yeah—I love and am honored by the awards I’ve received, however awards and honors are not my motivation for writing. Good, solid storytelling is.
What is your standard writing routine? Do you wait until you're "in the zone?" Or do you force yourself to just sit down and get to it?
A bit of both, actually. Writing for me often requires a challenging discipline, a focused routine. Both of which I’m still working to be true to. Being “in the zone” comes from doing the work even if you don’t feel particularly inspired, or had a bad day, or haven’t a clue as to where a piece is going. Being in the zone means being in the chair, writing. It means being physically, mentally, spiritually present for the achievement of your goal. Right now, my goal is 1,500 words before day’s end.
Having a background in automotive advertising, which is a very Detroit occupation to have, what were the steps you took to switch over to focusing on your writing full time?
Actually, Detroit’s advertising/marketing communications scene is really pretty diversified. I never thought I’d find myself defending an industry I came to lose respect for, but honestly—it’s far more than automotive advertising in Detroit. That’s the stereotype. The reality is, high-tech is booming in both the city and the suburbs—enterprise mainframe and client/server software development, corporate and consumer apps development, medical software and much more. While I was working in the advertising/marketing communications world, I was writing full-time at night. For me, it wasn’t a matter of committing to one or the other. It was juggling career and aspiration. The great Elmore “Dutch” Leonard worked as a copywriter at Campbell-Ewald and completed a couple of his early Western novels during that time. I wrote my first play, Back in the World, while I was working on a Ford account at an agency. And I wrote my second play, The American Boys, while I was writing copy for a large healthcare company. Both plays were produced in Detroit, Chicago, Boston and way Off-Broadway (it may as well have been Jersey!) in New York.
In your latest book, Dead of Winter, what, if any, changes in the book's main character, August Snow, can readers of your first two books expect to see?
In Dead of Winter, I felt I had to up the stakes for August. Increase the risks and challenges. You simply can’t have a character who is a former Marine who fought “in the sand” (Afghanistan) and not address any Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues. Compound that with the generational-PTSD issues a massive number of people-of-color suffer from and you’ve got considerable challenges that both reveal and hide the true person. I wanted to have a deeper understanding of who August was—what motivated him and what haunted him. And I wanted that experience for the reader. Heroics leaves scars, and every scar has its own unique history, its own story.
What was your inspiration for the character August Snow? Do you see yourself in him at all?
My inspiration for August comes from a number of sources. I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers—from Agatha Christie through to Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker. But my inspiration for August Snow came not from what I read or saw. It essentially came from what I couldn’t find to read. What I didn’t see. And that was a person-of-color in the foreground, not in the background. Someone who led the story and who was more than a bit of color, so to speak. Heroes come in all sizes, shapes, colors, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Two of my heroes are my mother and my late father. I wanted to imbue August with some of their noble qualities—selflessness, generosity, bravery and commitment.
What would August Snow think of all the craziness that's unfurled in the last handful of years in terms of "Karen culture" and the COVID-19 pandemic?
Occasionally, I’ve been asked if, in my stories, I sometimes stretch credulity to the breaking point. Personally, credulity was broken and all bets on reasonable reality were off when we as a nation elected a monosyllabic game-show host/rapist/white supremacist as President. Could you have ever imagined us as a nation locking children in cages? Or an angry, seditious mob breaking into our nation’s capital? And two-years ago the thought of a global pandemic was the stuff of science-fiction. What would August think? He might think, with everything careening off the rails, “I’ve got to take care of the people, the neighborhood, I live in.” If we don’t take care of each other, then we are all truly lost.
Keep an eye on Stephen Mack Jones via his website, and buy his three August Snow books below.