Interview with Alex Segura

In Blackout, Alex Segura’s latest book to feature Pete Fernandez has the PI operating in New York, but brought back to his Miami home to find the missing son of a business man politician, mainly because he resembles a young man who went missing when he was last seen with Pete’s high school crush before she was murdered. Alex will be joining us for a discussion and signing of Blackout on May 18th, but we got in touch with him ahead of time for an early grilling.
MP: Blackout has a great hook of a premise with Pete hired to track down a missing person who is tied to a murder of an old crush. It gives you both a promise in plot and emotion. How did the initial idea come about?
AS: That’s a good question – I really want the mystery to harken back to not only Pete’s drinking days, but his youth – to give readers a longer glimpse at him in his formative years. In past books, we’ve explored cases that had some roots in the past, either cases Pete’s homicide detective father didn’t get to resolve or stuff that dates further back, but I wanted this book to completely center on Pete, and to really impact him emotionally. I wanted it to be the case that always haunted him. Growing up in Miami, there were a handful of crimes that just felt ever-present – missing students or kids, constantly being discussed on the news, missing for years, so those two ideas came together, and I made the victim someone that Pete knew and felt an emotional connection with. I also wanted to give him the added baggage of having failed at it once – when he was a mess, drinking heavily and of no use to anyone. So he felt like he’d already struck out twice trying to solve this case. So, when a chance to fix that arises, he jumps in fully, despite the risks involved in returning home, and the damaged relationships he’d have to repair. It’s the crux of the entire book – can you come to terms with your past in order to live out your future?MP: The mystery of Blackout forces Pete to deal with the past, something he has been trying to avoid. What did you want to explore with that idea?

AS: I’ve always liked the idea of telling a story about recovery, as opposed to just spotlighting a hard drinking PI. I wanted to show the steps and stumbles he takes toward getting better. When we find Pete at the beginning of Blackout, he’s not desperate for a drink – in fact, he seems to be in good standing with AA and living a pretty functional life. But that’s on the surface. He hasn’t really dug back into his past and cleared the wreckage. He’s still haunted, and that’s driven a wedge between him and his friends – like his partner, Kathy Bentley, and other supporting characters. So, to answer your question, I wanted to show that Pete’s journey is an ongoing one – he’ll never be completely fixed. No one is. But this book is a big step for him because he’s given an opportunity to make something right, and that, in turn, might allow him to move on, to not be clouded by this guilt and shame, and to maybe embrace being alive. Unfortunately, he has some obstacles to overcome before that can happen – like a deadly cult with its sights set on Pete for meddling in their affairs.

MP:  Usually with modern PI novels the author usually goes an action route that sacrifices emotion and character or a character approach that remains mainly internal. In Blackout you strike a perfect balance of both. How aware of the balancing act are you when writing?AS: Thanks for saying that. It is something I try to be mindful of. For me, it all springs out of character – where do we meet them and where are they at the end of the book? That helps define the journey of the novel. I knew I wanted Pete to reach a turning point at the end of the book that would forever change him and his status quo, so it became a matter of crafting action that pushes him down that path. From my perspective, Blackout is pretty intense – there are few slow scenes, but I try to coat those moments with some emotion and introspection. You get a sense of how these intense scenarios are affecting Pete and Kathy. I never want it to feel clean or without consequence. I like the Pete books when they wallow in the gray areas of life, which feels more real to me – complicated, conflicting, messy. That’s where you get the most genuine stuff.


MP: You’ve mentioned one of my favorite private eye authors, Ross Macdonald, in some of your other interviews. Is there anything from reading his work, you’ve applied to yours?
 

AS: I love Macdonald, so I’m glad you bring him up. I revisited all the Lew Archer books before writing Blackout. And while it wasn’t intentional research, I felt like a lot of that managed to sneak into the writing of the new book. He was a superb plotter, which, to contrast a bit, wasn’t Chandler’s strong suit. And while Lew Archer is unlike Pete in that he doesn’t really experience major, seismic changes from book to book, when you zoom out on the series, you do notice some things, especially when Macdonald plays with themes like the humanity of evil, the environment, or what have you. Those books helped me drill deep and create more compelling “bad guys.” The best villains don’t think they’re villains at all.And, like I said, the Archer books are so tightly plotted. That aspect is often ignored because Macdonald was such a great wordsmith – you can very easily get lost in his language and descriptions. But the books always move at a good clip. Nothing ever feels wasted or like filler. That must have subconsciously nudged me in that direction with Blackout.

MP:  As someone who has friends that have dealt both successfully and unsuccessfully with alcoholism, I thought you portrayed that aspect of Pete in a realistic way. What do you keep in mind about that part of him when you’re writing the books?

AS: I try to be honest. Recovery isn’t a linear process, and it doesn’t stick with everyone. I think a lot of people just assume that once you get into AA or some kind of rehab, you’re okay. It’s silly to type that, but I’ve met people who think it’s like going to a doctor. It’s not. It’s a journey fraught with pitfalls and detours and, for many, relapse. So, I wanted to showcase Pete’s quest to get better with that in mind. Just because he’s not drinking doesn’t mean he’s not thinking about it, or thinking about his past as a drinker. He’s a haunted character, and that applies to many people who deal with addiction. It’s a lifelong struggle.

MP:  You’ve more or less stated that your putting Pete to rest at least for a while after the next book. Do you already have other stories or another series character in mind?

AS: I have at least one more Pete novel in me, which I’m starting on now – Miami Midnight. I’m having fun with that and might find myself at the end wanting another Pete. But as I see things now, I think I’ll at least give him a break. I don’t know if I’ll dive into another series just yet, though I do have an idea for a character. The two strongest ideas sound like standalone to me, though, and touch on subjects I haven’t gotten to explore with Pete.

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