Monday, May 8, 2017


Full disclosure up front. Stephen Mojo Mertz and I have been friends since our early days of mystery fanzines. We both broke into professional fiction writing in the mid-eighties, both in (different) men’s adventure series paperbacks published under pseudonyms. Since those days, we’ve continued our friendship through years of publishing successes under our own names, mystery conventions, and marathon used bookstore crawls. We’ve also been through the proverbial hell and high water of being poorly treated as mid-list writers by the major New York legacy publishers who were once the gatekeepers of bestsellerdom. We’ve also been part of the e-book revolution breaking free from those legacy publishers and working with the new breed of smaller independent publishers.
What information would be on your author’s job application?
Good upbringing. Military Service. Free thinker. Devilishly handsome. Unbelievably intelligent. Not to be trifled with.
Before we dig into your writing, what should we know about the history of Mojo Mertz the musician?
I've played in bars, clubs, and taverns from the Mississippi west and from Canada down to Mexico. A lot of one-nighters, a lot of time on the road, but a long time ago. Never made it to the big time. Once I realized I could make money sitting at a keyboard, typing, it made more sense than bad food, bad lodgings and social disease. So I made the switch from music to writing.
What came first, the treble clef or the word stacking?
Well, if we were to drop in on a 16-year-old Stephen Mertz, he would probably be spending all of his free time either listening to The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, and Bo Diddley or reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
How has music influenced your writing?
The energy level! For years when I was writing pulp fiction, I didn't have pictures of great novelists on the wall. Directly over my desk I had a photograph of Chuck Berry doing the duck walk because I was trying to get the energy and the vibrancy of his music into what I was writing. Now I think about it, these days I have a picture of Howlin’ Wolf rockin’ out over my desk. So, I guess I still try to draw from the same cross pollination when I write.
Your new novel, Jimi After Dark, is not so much a sequel to Hank and Muddy as a loosely connected companion piece. What can you reveal about the book and what it means to you as a writer?
Jimi After Dark is my ‘60s novel. I guess every writer of my generation has at least one in him or her. It’s a look at my generation at a time when the world was opening before us, people in our 20s. But there was a war going on. About half of the guys in my generation were hanging out, on the job or on college campuses, smoking pot and listening to Jimi Hendrix. An equal number of young men of the same age were in Viet Nam smoking pot, listening to Jimi Hendrix, and killing or being killed. That is a pretty dramatic divide. 
Yes, this is one of a sequence of books I hope to write which looks at the American Experience through the lens of the people of who were making the popular music of the time. Hank and Muddy offered me the opportunity to get into everything from the blues to country western music to racism to sexual mores, and it is the same with Jimi After Dark
I was in London three times as a US Serviceman on leave between 1967–1968, and I soaked up my share of impressions that went into the book. Hell, I lost my cherry on one of those trips! I managed to spend most of the rest of my time prowling bookshops and nightclubs and hearing bands like Ten Years After and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac when they were still playing the clubs scene. A lot of those impressions went into the book.  
Will there be another companion novel to form a trilogy of musically based stories?
You also have a new thriller, The Moses Deception, making its debut. How is it different from Jimi After Dark? 
Jimi After Dark and The Moses Deception are quite different novels, which I'm proud of as they showcase my range. Jimi would make a great tight little kick-ass black and white or stylish crime film while the Moses book is a widescreen 70mm thriller.
Was the writing process or mindset different between the two books and, if so, how?
The Jimi book is largely written in first person, so the dramatic effect is more centralized, being channeled through this one guy’s perspective. It’s why first person is so often used in suspense fiction—and Young Adult novels, for that matter. You really get to know the protagonist with first person. The hero of Jimi After Dark is a tough guy known only as Soldier, and he had no problem dominating the story he’s telling.
The Moses Deception, on the other hand, is painted on a far broader canvas with many characters...including Moses, I might add. With so many characters and perspectives contributing to the big picture, it would have been unfair to focus on just one, so it’s written in third person in order to convey the full scope.
What is your process when beginning a new book? Is it different for different books?
The process is pretty much the same. A lot of walking around and thinking and making notes. Having people call me Easy Money when I am working my ass off because it looks like I am just staring at the clouds. After about a month of that, I open the flood gates and let it come out. Once the writing begins, I shoot for one thousand words a day. By the time the book is going off to the publisher, it has probably been through 3-4 drafts.
What was the last novel to make you laugh?
You know, I forget the title. It was a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, a clever guy. I grinned on almost every page.
What was the last novel to make you cry?
I save my tears for real life and the occasional country song.
What makes books important to you?
Unless you remember the cigarette ads they were putting in paperbacks back in the day, books don't have commercials! They give you the story and the characters, but they leave it to you to experience both. It seems so less passive than visual mediums. I love movies, but with a book, you are off in a corner by yourself in your little part of the world and no one is messing with you. In a book and you can be in any universe of your choice, experiencing any adventure you want to experience, gaining any knowledge and wisdom you may care to gain. Books rule!
You are a collector and a first class bookstore scavenger. Who are the authors you love to read and who you do you keep on your personal bookshelves?
Don't get me started! It’s really hard to hone in on anyone. I just love to read. Sooner or later I always go back and read Louis L’Amour. I always go back and read Dashiell Hammett. I always go back and read Mickey Spillane. But, as you say, I have been scavenging and reading for a long time. With so many friends who are writers, I try to keep up with their work, keep up with those who are defining today's taste on the bestseller lists, and of course those old favorites who I go back and revisit. 
You are often asked to talk about writing to many different groups. What advice do you share and what do you think has the most impact?
Some of the advice I give, they get everywhere from everyone: Just do it. Write one page a day. Read a lot to see how it is done. The best advice I think I have been able to give, that has resonated, is to try in your writing to get rid of any division between your life—who you are and what you are doing day-by-day—and what you are writing about. By that I mean, you might be writing about people on Mars, or you might be writing about people in the 11th Century, but they are people. They have all the elements and aspects of human nature we have internally, shaped by whatever society or culture they are in. But inside they have the same conversations rambling endlessly between their ears—regrets, goals, and so on—we have in our lives. Unpublished writers of fiction often tend to think the world they’re writing about is somehow different than the world they’re living in. I try to get them to realize when it comes to characterization, there is no difference.
When you decide to write a novel, do you take the market into consideration or do you follow the muse?
I very much considered markets in the beginning to get a toe hold in the business. It’s why so many new writers grab onto genres. I did. Earning while you learn by writing stories with recognizable tropes and markets is a time tested way of getting started. But after a while—well, for the past two decades—I’ve just written stories I felt should be told. I write the book and then try to sell it. So far, so good. Happily, I love the western field and the thriller field, so there’s been a market for everything I’ve written…so far! I only write novels I feel need to be written. The trick, of course, is adhering to the recognizable tropes of a genre while striving to craft scenes which appear to never have been written before.
Thx to Steve for braving the lights of the interrogation room and sharing his experienced perspective on books, music, and his writing process...Be sure to check out his current releases—the rockin’ Jimi After Dark, and his high-concept thriller, The Moses Deception...


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