My guest today is author Bernard Schaffer. I’ve known Bernard for a long time, and we’ve collaborated with each other, and edited each other’s work for years. Not only is Bernard an author, he is a full-time police detective, and father of two kids.
A career spanning twenty years has seen him become a decorated criminal investigator, narcotics expert and child forensic interviewer. Since I have known him, Bernard has been a formidable champion of independent publishing. His experience working the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA is present in much of his work.
It’s that real-life experience that makes his novel, The Thief Of All Light, so vivid and realistic (it’s released by Kensington Publications in Summer 2018). I was fortunate enough to be a beta (and early editor) on that book, and can tell you that it’s no surprise to me that Kensington wanted to publish it. Not only that, but they signed Bernard for a sequel, too. I’ve always been a fan of his work, but The Thief Of All Light is truly his best yet. After years of duking it out in the Wild West of Indie publishing, his best work is about to reach the kind of audience it deserves, and I couldn’t be happier for him.
Q: Welcome once again, Bernard. For anyone out there who hasn’t read your work yet, I would tell them to go seek out your Superbia novels. What can they expect from Superbia?
A: An unsatisfying experience. Maybe that’s just my own dissatisfaction with them talking. I look back on those books with a great deal of discomfort. They were the product of the worst years of my police career, really, and I was in the middle of my divorce. Everything was upside down, and Superbia was this howl from the pit. Me shaking my fist saying, “You bastards didn’t finish me off yet!” They certainly kept trying though. I got kicked out of detectives after the first book and went back to answering barking dog calls for a little while. Thankfully, everything eventually worked out. The important thing is, I kept writing and pushing myself forward. I am not the same author who wrote Superbia. At times, I am tempted to go back and redo it, to make it a professional work instead of an enormous middle finger to an establishment that doesn’t exist anymore, but time is kind of limited right now.
The Superbia books are me learning how to write both a novel and series.
In Superbia 1, I did not have an exact sense of how to construct a novel. I tried to shoehorn in too much symbolism. It was enormously successful for me though, and as a result, I rushed S2. The second book has a good story, but is way too short, and again, too much forced symbolism. By S3, I had a much better grip on novels as a whole, and on my own writing.
Q: As well as books like Superbia, you’ve also written (and published!) across the board. Off the top of my head, there’s Whitechapel (Sherlock Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper), Grendel Unit (intergalactic badasses on an epic quest to fight evil), The Guns of Seneca 6 (think of your favourite Western stories, but set on a hostile alien planet), and there’s The Girl From Tenerife.
Now, I love all those books, but I do have a soft spot for The Girl From Tenerife. What can you tell readers about it, and the inspiration behind it?
A: I’ve never really spoken about it, but TGFT was based on a real experience. The young woman involved had a significant impact on my life and work at the time. I never saw her again, and we did not stay in touch. It’s been several years, and I’m still not happy about the situation.
Q: Ernest Hemingway features prominently in The Girl From Tenerife. Why is that?
A: I tend to think of EH as a living presence in my life. It’s completely imaginary, of course, but he pushes me and keeps me in line. It’s almost like when you are married and can hear your wife’s voice in your head. You know what she would say. You can carry on a complete conversation, even if you are just driving in your car alone.
I have read, and continue to read, massive amounts of EH’s letters, essays, articles, and fiction. Granted, my version of him is an approximation. An ideal Hemingway, if you will.
But it’s an approximation that motivates me to try hard and work harder. They say that Robert E. Howard saw his character Conan standing next to his desk, holding a large sword, forcing him to write or face being decapitated. Mine is not quite so extreme. When I am lazy, Hemingway sits next to me, polishing his heavyweight belt, saying, “You won’t get this sitting on your ass, kid. I thought you might have what it took to face me.”
When I am doing my job, he sits at my side, nodding in approval, telling me, “That’s it, punch as hard as you can. Drive them into the corner and don’t let up.”
Q: We’ve often spoken about what we’re reading. Books that are making waves. Things like that. And you frequently tell me that you’re increasingly drawn to writers like Hemingway. Give us a little insight as to why that is. And what might writers have to learn by turning their attention to the greats of yesteryear?
A: I’m drawn most to authors who lived the writer’s life. Trying to use it as a blueprint for my own, I suppose. Their work, their failures, their successes, their truth. For instance, Stephen King. I am a much bigger fan of Stephen King as a man who has walked The Path than I am of his complete bibliography. I love and admire several of his books, but his books are not what I love best about him. I once called King my Musashi, and I still find that to be true.
Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman of his era, grew weary of fighting and went into the hills of Japan to write down everything he knew about the way of the sword. His writings were so insightful, so true, that to this day, the Book of Five Rings influences modern business strategy.
King’s On Writing, and much of his other work, had that same effect on me. I return to On Writing periodically, because it means different things to me as I grow and advance in the literary world.
As far as style and technique go, I am a traditionalist. My editors, and that includes you, T., are always yelling at me to use more italics, ellipses, em dashes, etc. I rarely do, though. Readers looking for a cornucopia of fancy punctuation and flourishes are going to walk away sorely disappointed. Maybe it’s ego. I write so pretty I don’t want my work uglied up by a bunch of damn dots.
Q: Something I’ve not mentioned yet is your book, Way Of The Warrior. Tell us about it, and how it came to be. It’s taught to students, isn’t it?
A: It’s very odd. I’ll get emails from college students asking me where the book was published so they can write a proper citation. There are professors out there making students read my book and write papers on it.
I initially wrote WOTW because I had something to say about the spirit of law enforcement, aside from all the chest-thumping and sabre-rattling. A voice opposing the Us vs Them mentality. I am glad so many people have found truth in it. God knows the American public needs to hear as many voices of reason from law enforcement as possible, right now.
One thing about police is that when one of us screws up, the rest of us pay. A bad cop can do something horrific in Texas, and cops in New York City are facing hordes of pissed off rioters the next day.
I have always approached it as my responsibility to represent the profession as well as I can, in my personal and public life. If I’m able to influence younger cops in a way that helps, it’s better for all of us as a society.
Q: As I understand it, Way Of The Warrior is due to be an audiobook, too. How did that come about?
A: I met the owner of Blunderwoman Productions at Thrillerfest this year, and a few days after the conference, they contacted me with an offer. I always thought it would do well as an audiobook, I just never had the time to pursue it. I’m excited to hear the finished product.
Q: This will drive your Constant Readers mad with envy, but I’ve also read another one of your books that hasn’t seen the light of day yet. It’s a very different novel to anything else you’ve written. It’s also brilliant. What can you tell your readers about it? And when they can expect to be able to read it?
A: The major difference between mainstream publishing and indie publishing is the length of time it all takes. In the indie world, you knock out projects left and right, as fast as you can, all to gobble up as much space on someone’s digital bookshelf as possible. In the mainstream world, you put out about one book a year. And it had better be a good one.
I would imagine no one will read this particular book for at least another three to four years.
It sounds disappointing, but the analogy I like to use is Prince and his vault. Prince railed for years that Warner Bros was not releasing his music fast enough. When he eventually broke free of his contract, and could release anything he wanted, a lot of his output fell flat. That’s no knock against Prince. I love him dearly. But I bought Emancipation the day it came out, the three cd-set proclaiming his newfound freedom, and you know what? A lot of the songs sucked. And a lot of the stuff he put out in the following years sucked too. It makes you wonder if artists maybe need someone holding the reins a little. We need someone to put a bit of sand inside the shell to polish the pearl.
I don’t mind moving slower. The books are only going to get bigger and stronger as a result.
Q: We will come to The Thief Of All Light shortly, but first I’d like to delve into a few things that might be of interest to other writers out there. How did you get started writing? I know that your first novel, Whitechapel, was undertaken at a very turbulent time in your life. Was that the first time you completed something, or did you dabble from an early age?
A: I dabbled. Before the digital publishing revolution I was slowly building a traditional resume. Short stories in small press publications and the like. Nothing noteworthy, though.
Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes was my first completed novel. What an experience that was.
I spent a year researching the book, all holed up in this tiny little apartment, making maps and calendars of the Ripper murders, searching Sherlock Holmes encyclopedias for minute details on Doyle’s characters. The book was my attempt to tell a Sherlock Holmes story using the real events of the Whitechapel murders. In doing that, I had to morph Doyle’s characters into much darker versions of what people are used to. Holy shit, did that cause problems among the traditional Sherlockians. They were ready to string me up by the ankles.
The book is one of the most important in my career, though. Aside from the traditional research, I also studied other serial killers to try and figure out what would drive someone to commit such horrific deeds. I called the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit to talk to a profiler. This guy was the real deal. He’d worked the BTK killings and had conducted interviews with him after he got caught.
In many ways, Whitechapel laid the foundation for what I’m working on now. People who read Whitechapel and the Superbia series after Thief of All Light will be able to see the direction I was going in, long before I had any idea of it.
Q: What’s your routine like? How do you fit it in around work, and the kids?
A: The kids, luckily, are incredibly self-sufficient. Always have been, really. The routine varies depending how much else is going on, but I have no set times for when I write. I eat, I breathe, I write. When I’m not writing, I feel guilty about it. I’ve ended relationships because they were imposing on the attention I need to pay to writing. My work is a jealous mistress and won’t tolerate me stepping out for long.
Q: Every writer has that dream project they’d like to do some day—what’s yours?
A: I only dream about the next one. But there are a few things I want to try. For instance, I would love to do a comic book run on a lesser character, similar to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Gaiman’s Sandman, or Mike Grell’s Green Arrow. Somebody the movie people won’t mind me monkeying around with.
Q: Given your experience in Independent Publishing and now, embarking on this new publishing adventure with Kensington, what advice would you give to writers starting out?
A: Nothing has changed since Stephen King said, “Read a lot, write a lot.” I would only add that if you are coming into the professional arena, you will be facing people like me, and I live this life, for real. I study it. I dream about it. I work day and night at it. If you come up against me, I am going to try and decimate you, the same way I try and decimate everyone else, so you’d better be serious about it. Too many people talk about writing, post crap on Twitter about writing, blog about writing. There’s a lot of forum warriors out there, telling everyone else how it should be done, but they don’t have the work to back it up. And it doesn’t come down to sales, either. Any nitwit can accidentally strike gold by leaping onto the right bandwagon. They will have great sales, for a little while. They’ll make money, for a little while. But they will never have class. They will never be worthy of standing beside J.K., and Cormac, and Ernest, and Harper.
If you don’t live, love, and exist for this, if you won’t bust your ass and take a beating only to come back stronger for this, you will never be anyone I respect.
Q: How did you arrive at the story for The Thief Of All Light?
A: I wanted to take everything I’d learned about writing a novel and put it to use. In a lot of ways, TOAL is my first complete work. I felt like I finally figured the whole thing out. All of the themes from my earlier works are in it, but this is a more refined distillation if them. The book itself is about what happens to you when you come up against real, living evil, and the price you pay.
Q: Your real-life experience in law enforcement is evident in the pages of The Thief Of All Light. It’s very easy, as a writer, to make huge leaps in logic when you’re working on a book, simply because you know what happens next. How did you use your knowledge and experience to ensure that didn’t happen?
A: The main difference between my work and many other contemporary thriller authors is that I have the luxury of just working the case. The nuts and bolts of any investigation you read my characters undertaking are essentially me, sitting back, figuring out how I would handle it. The reason you don’t ever see any technological forensic doodads in my work is that I never have access to that stuff in real life. A typical thriller protagonist has a criminal forensics lab with better equipment than any federal agency I have ever seen. My guys get a pen, a pad of paper, an uncooperative witness, and that’s about it. Because that is real life for me. DNA results take about sixteen months, on average, and nothing ever works the way it is supposed to, out in the field. I approach my stories using those same rules, and would not know how to tell a story any other way.
Q: I believe that with every book I write, I should try to explore something new. Whether that’s a philosophical thing, a political view, a moral quandary, or something that relates to me on a personal level. In my latest book, Storm’s Edge, it’s political corruption, and personal sacrifice in pursuit of what’s right.
What do you want your readers to take away from The Thief Of All Light? And how does that relate to you on a personal level?
A: They’ll take away a better understanding of the impact dealing with horrors has on a criminal investigator. The cops out there working child porn. The cops working sex crimes. Homicides. The ones who have to constantly enter the minds truly sick people. It can weigh on you. Mess with you. Change you as a person.
Q: The people at Kensington seem great. What was it like visiting them this summer at their offices?
A: It was great. They are the best, and the office was incredible. I got off on the wrong floor at first, and found myself in this typical Manhattan filing room area, piled to the ceiling with cabinets and folders and whatnot. Just a dreary, unstaffed, unmarked hallway, and it took me a minute to realize I wasn’t in the right place. When I finally got to the correct floor, I was shocked by how elegant the Kensington offices looked. I felt so relieved. An incredible staff of people, all dedicated to publishing great books, and the founder’s art collection. They have a Frederic Remington cowboy sculpture right in the front lobby. Kensington is the number one publisher of westerns, and they were publishing them back when everyone else bailed on the genre. Now, you know I love westerns, and that warmed my heart. I’m going to write Steve Zacharius, the Kensington president, a western someday.
Q: I know you attended Thrillerfest this year. How was it? Who did you get to meet?
A: Thrillerfest was fantastic, with a ton of successful and influential authors and industry people. I highly recommend it, and can’t wait to go back next year. The most important people I got to meet were Sharon Pelletier, my agent, and Michaela Hamilton, my editor at Kensington. Getting the chance to sit down with someone who has changed your life, to look them in the eye, tell them what they mean to you, that is a rare and special thing, indeed.
Q: What are your hopes for The Thief Of All Light? I know a sequel is in the works. Your two main characters, Carrie and Jacob, are so well-drawn and believable. They bounce off one another, and their relationship feels true. Would you like to explore these characters in more books down the line?
A: The hope is just that enough people find the book and buy it to justify the chance Kensington has taken on me. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to them. I am the kind of person who puts loyalty ahead of everything else. They stepped up for me, and I will not let them down.
Well, as you know, I’m a huge fan of the book. I’m so proud to have been able to offer my perspective on it early on, before anyone else read it. People are going to go nuts for the book, and it’s going to be a huge hit. Now for the Quick Fire round . . .
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Q: Favourite novels you think deserve a wider readership?
A: Anything by George Pellecanos or Carlos Ruis Zafon. Both are well-respected and certainly not unknown, but they should be bigger names.
Q: Favourite album?
A: Either Purple Rain, or Metamodern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson.
Q: Most underappreciated movie, in your opinion?
A: Tough question. It’s hard for a good movie to go unappreciated nowadays. There is a fan base for nearly anything, even the garbage. Let’s see.
Angel Heart, with Mickey Rourke. It got overshadowed by some of its content, but a solid film with a lot of atmosphere and Mickey Rourke at the height of his powers. The guy could have been the next Brando.
Q: Is there a TV series you’ve been impressed with lately?
A: Rick and Morty is great. People of Earth. Game of Thrones. Westworld. Samurai Jack. Stranger Things. And I still love Big Bang Theory.
Q: Who is your literary hero?
A: Ernest Hemingway tops the list, obviously. I already spoke about King. Others would be J.K. Rowling, Gene Wolfe, Harper Lee, Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Alan Moore, Charles Bukowski, oh man, the list goes on and on.
I envision a pantheon of great authors assembled before me. Some of them living, some of them dead, and someday I’m going to go before them and present my work. They’ll judge me and see if I’m fit to be among them.
But seriously, no pressure.
Q: Last, but not least, give us a link to your favourite Youtube video . . .
A: I’m going to give you five. These first four are absolute genius. If someone doesn’t like these four videos, not only can we not be friends, but they are likely bad people.
The fifth is what I watch when I need a reminder about how winning is done.
The Thief Of All Light is out Summer 2018!
I’d like to thank Bernard for agreeing to this interview, and wish them every success with The Thief Of All Light.
You can find out more about Bernard Schaffer at his website, http://www.BernardSchaffer.com and you can also connect with him on Twitter: @BernardSchaffer and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BernardSchafferAuthor/