Tim O’Mara took his background as a New York high school teacher and used it to create Ray Donne, an ex-cop turned teacher who’s out to locate and save one of his missing students in O’Mara’s debut, Sacrifice Fly. The book has a wonderful sense of both place and people and deals with ideas of community. We recently had a chance to talk to Tim about his book, both of his professions, and his home.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What prompted you to use the story of Sacrifice Fly for your first book?
TIM O’MARA: Sacrifice Fly was inspired by a home visit I was making to the Roberto Clemente Houses to check on a student. It occurred to me that this would be a good opening for a crime novel if I were just a little bit cooler/edgier. So I channeled my brother—Sgt. Mike O’Mara of the Nassau County Police Dept.–and came up with Raymond Donne. I started with the home visit and that led me to the discovery of the murder victim and I let the story and characters take over from there.
MP: Did you draw from any influences?
TO: My writing influences are largely from the mystery/crime genre. I grew up reading Ellery Queen and Encyclopedia Brown. Later in life, I discovered Robert Parker, John D. McDonald, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and the like. Lately, I’ve been impressed most by Marcus Sakey and Don Winslow. When I started the novel, I also read Blackboard Jungle by Evan Hunter. I read Hammett’s Maltese Falcon—arguably the most under-rated novel in American literature because it’s a mystery—and Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle once a year to remind myself of how it’s done.
MP: One of the things I loved about the book was Ray’s relationship with his community. What does Brooklyn mean to you?
TO: Brooklyn is defined by it’s neighborhoods. When people hear the name Williamsburg, they think about the hip, gentrified place named by many as “the coolest place on Earth.” There’s also the part where I taught: low-income, black and Hispanic, schools surrounded by housing projects, etc. This is the Williamsburg where my book takes place (and a rather cool place on it’s own.) I’m not sure I could write authentically about the other part. What makes the entire Williamsburg section fascinating to me is the way these disparate parts often intersect.
MP: Your hero shares the same profession as you. What did you want to get across to the reader about being a high school teacher?
TO: As a middle school teacher, I wanted people to know that the single biggest influence on a student’s success is what happens in the home. I wanted to show that influence in the book and also show how teachers can have an effect on the families of their students. Ray obviously goes further than a school teacher should. I also hope that I showed how much fun the teaching profession can be when done right. Ray shares many moments of humor with his kids, as I do with mine.
MP: While you deal with a lot of dark matters, many of your characters are partly defined by their sense of humor. How important is humor in your work?
TO: Humor is the main element of my teaching career. I teach middle school kids for many reasons, but one big one is they get my jokes. School is a chore for many kids and when you can teach and entertain at the same time, I believe they are more likely to take in the information being presented to them.
MP: Can you tell us any future plans you have for Ray?
TO: I’m currently involved in rewriting the second Raymond novel, Crooked Numbers. I’m also sketching out the details for a third, as well. I find Ray and his friends—especially Edgar—a lot of fun to hang around with. I hope that readers and the publishing world—and great independent bookstores—agree. I’m also hoping that Ray has a screen-life in his future. Sacrifice Fly is currently being looked at by “people in the biz.”