Thursday, June 2, 2016

An Interview with Jeff Schober

I'm pleased to welcome Jeff Schober to the blog today. Jeff writes a crime fiction series. Faces and Fingertips, the third book in the series was released earlier this year.

Kathy: You write nonfiction, including true crime, and fictional mysteries. What do you see as the main differences between writing fiction and non-fiction?

JS: The same concept of good storytelling applies to each. But with fiction, I think the writer has more creativity and control of direction. With non-fiction, the path to tell the story may be chronological or thematic. Either way, facts dictate the structure. I have a journalism degree and worked in that profession early in my career, so for me, non-fiction is easier to write because I have more experience.

Kathy: Your crime fiction series is set in the 1980s. Why did you choose this time frame?

JS: My first crime novel, Broken and Profane, was inspired by the .22-Caliber Killer who terrorized Western New York in the fall of 1980. So although my story is a fictionalized version of a serial killer, I decided to maintain the actual year. But I also wanted the challenge of writing a period piece. I lived through the 1980s, so it made sense on several levels.

Kathy: Like me, you also have a background in theatre. You have also taught Shakespeare. What makes the Bard so special and how is his work still impacting writers today?

JS: I’ve heard it said that 90% of our cultural references come from Shakespeare and the Bible. What’s not to like about Shakespeare? You name a conflict, and he explored it, better than most other writers. That’s not to say all his plays are gems. I think he mixed a few dogs in there. But when he was on, he was really on.

Kathy: Do you have a favorite Shakespearian play? What about a favorite adaptation?

JS: I’ve always loved the dark undertones of Othello. Iago is such a wonderful villain, and we never truly learn what motivates his evil. At the end of the play, Othello says “Demand that demi-devil why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body.” And Iago replies: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” Then Iago closes his mouth and doesn’t talk again.
As far as an adaptation, years ago I saw a stage version of Othello with two live actors and the remaining cast as puppets. It was an interesting concept meant to explore the falsehood of external appearances. But at the same time, it felt like a gimmick, and Shakespeare’s script is strong enough that a gimmick isn’t needed. The movie version I love is from 1995 with Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Branagh has acted and directed several Shakespeare movies, and he’s done great work.

Kathy: What first drew you to mysteries?

JS: Probably reading the Hardy Boys series as a kid. There was a short-lived TV show in the 1970s about the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, starring teen heartthrobs Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson. I began watching the show, then made it a point to read all the books. I believe there were 57 of them back when I was a kid. An internet search revealed there are even more now.
It was my dad who helped nurture my love of reading. When I was 8, I was saving allowance money to buy Hardy Boys mysteries (each hardcover was $2.50 at the plaza near my house), and dad made me a standing offer: he would buy any book I wanted, provided that I promised to read it. It was an incredible offer, and I’m still amazed and humbled by it 40 years later.

Kathy: Do you write in any other genres?

JS: I like to think my strength as a writer lies in versatility. I’ve written a sports biography (Growing Up Gronk), a sports history (Sabres — 26 Seasons in Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium), true crime (Bike Path Rapist), a literary novel (Undercurrent), and several lighthearted plays. I also write features semi-regularly for The Buffalo News. I always say that I’m interested in good stories, regardless of genre. I’m considering tackling an American history project in the future.

Kathy: Tell us about your series.

JS: It’s gritty crime fiction, set in and around Buffalo in the early 1980s. The first book, Broken and Profane, is aptly titled. The characters are all troubled. The plot is driven by a white serial killer who is targeting black people for no other reason besides their race. Two detectives, Mark Bennett and Ken Connell, are chasing leads to stop the bloodshed, and Bennett is sleeping with Connell’s soon-to-be ex-wife. There is a clear triangle of tension among the two cops and the killer.
The second novel, Boneshaker, picks up nearly two years later, in the summer of 1982, and follows Mark Bennett and a new partner as they try to solve the case of a missing nurse who was last seen leaving work at Sisters‘ Hospital in Buffalo. This book is more straight ahead action. Readers have told me it’s accessible and a page turner.
Faces and Fingertips is the newest book, set in 1983, and the focus returns to Ken Connell, who is approached to investigate the death of an anonymous baby.

Kathy: Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

JS: Characters are like kids. You love them all in different ways. Ken Connell is on my mind because Faces and Fingertips features him. He’s interesting because he once had it all: good looks, respect as a great detective, and a beautiful wife. This novel explores what happens to a man when everything he values is taken away.

Kathy: Did you have a specific inspiration for your series?

JS: Not really. I just want to tell a compelling story. I didn’t set out to write a series. Broken and Profane was to be a stand alone novel. But near the end, I wrote a raw, crude scene featuring Ken Connell that didn’t fit that story but was too good to just toss away. That got me thinking that maybe there was more to explore. I tried to squeeze that chapter into Boneshaker, but it didn’t fit there either, because Connell doesn’t appear in that novel. So this scene hung out there in limbo for six years. It is now chapter one of Faces and Fingertips.

Kathy: What made you decide to publish your work?

JS: Simply, I believed it was good enough to share. When I first started writing fiction, in my early 20s, I knew I didn’t have the skills to be taken seriously. I had to write poorly before I learned to write well. I wrote three novels that were labored and clunky. Thank God they never saw daylight. When I began Undercurrent, in 2004, it felt different. It felt like I had grown and that my narrative voice had control. I believed the material would stand up to scrutiny.

Kathy: If you could have a dinner party and invite 4 authors, living or dead, in any genre, who would you invite?

JS: This is a great question. I’ve had dinner with Dennis Lehane, and he’s the coolest guy in any room he occupies. My main focus was to chew my food well and not mutter something stupid in his presence.

I’m going to limit my choices to deceased writers; I may have a chance to dine with contemporary authors and I don’t want this answer to haunt me!
I truly wish I could invite more than four, but this is your question, Kathy. Shakespeare, of course. Besides the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, so I’m choosing him as well. I would also invite J.D. Salinger, because what an exclusive that would be! And for the fourth I’m leaning toward a hard-boiled detective writer... probably Dashiell Hammett. He helped establish the genre. But he might clean me out of booze...

Kathy: What are you currently reading?

JS: I read plenty of American history, and last winter I read The Brothers Karamazov. It took a while, but I’d never experienced Tolstoy. Michael Connelly, John Sandford, and Henning Mankell are favorites. I’ve also recently rediscovered a pair of authors I read back in high school and I’m enjoying them through the eyes of an adult. Gregory Mcdonald wrote the Fletch series. Everyone of an age knows the movie version with Chevy Chase (who can forget him singing “Moon River”?) but the books are well-plotted, move quickly, and have an irreverence that I find charming. The other is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. It’s well-written, thoughtful, and introspective, although his treatment of women feels outdated and paternal. I can understand females being offended, and I share those concerns.

Kathy: Will you share any of your hobbies or interests with us?

JS: I enjoy spending time with my wife and her boys. She’s the finest person I know, so I’m lucky she loves me. I love to read and play hockey. Once a month I play poker (poorly). I love the progressive rock band Yes, so I listen to their epic songs often and plan to catch some of their concerts this summer, even if I have to drive a few hours to do it. I also hope to do some home repairs and build bookshelves for our living room. I’m rarely bored.

Kathy: Name 4 items you always have in your fridge or pantry.

JS: My wife does the shopping, and she’s adamant that we have clean and healthy foods. So there are protein shakes, vegetables, fruit, and seeds. I’ve become much healthier since we married!

Kathy: Do you have plans for future books either in your current series or a new series?

JS: I’m planning one more book to wrap the series. It’s more than half written. I’ll finish a draft this summer and hopefully publish in fall 2017. The tentative title is Chased by Thunder, set in 1984, and it finds Mark Bennett investigating a cold case from the 1950s. Ken Connell returns, and the scenes with Bennett and Connell together again just crackle.

Kathy: What's your favorite thing about being an author?

JS: Writing is such a solitary endeavor. Mostly it’s me at a desk, trying to craft a scene or shape a story. I’m a control freak, so writing allows me to indulge that . But I also enjoy interacting with readers as a speaker. I’ve spoken at book clubs and libraries and senior centers. I’d encourage your readers to check out my website at My contact info is there. With so many reading choices available, it’s humbling when someone chooses a book I wrote. I feel honored.

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