“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle,” wrote Mickey Spillane. “They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
It’s a formula for success that Arizona author Steven Wyner has taken to heart with the debut of his Herb Nash series, Murder on Camelback Mountain. Wyner artfully couples his passion for the Southwestern landscape with his extensive knowledge of how lawyers and private eyes operate in investigating crimes and bringing wrongdoers to justice.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Prior to penning your Murder on Camelback Mountain, you spent 20 years doing ghostwriting for lawyers. How did you fall into that particular profession and what did the work entail?
A: I owned a bus tour company during the Reagan years that ran turnaround gambling trips to Las Vegas. This was before Las Vegas reinvented itself, and way before Indian casinos had proliferated the Phoenix area. Competition amongst tour operators was fierce and nasty. My company was sued by a larger competitor. I spent two years fighting them and fighting with my own attorney who liked to say I had a propensity for the law. The case was finally dismissed but I had lost my zeal for the bus tour business and went back to (night) school. As I was about to complete my paralegal studies people began asking me to help them represent themselves in family law and guardianship cases. The self-help craze was sweeping the nation, but people still needed help completing complicated court paperwork. It wasn’t long before I was being solicited by lawyers looking for ways to save money on fulltime payroll. They hired on a contract basis to legal ghostwrite for them and the next thing I knew I was in demand as a legal ghostwriter.
Q: Is truth really stranger than fiction?
A: I’ve found that to be true in the legal world. That’s why you may often hear workers in law offices say I ought a write a book.
Q: What are some of the challenges you encountered as a wordsmithing “silent partner”?
A: Lawyers don’t really burn midnight oil, at least not since the advent of the computer age . . . and the light bulb. They’ve become increasingly dependent on others to do their legal research and writing, while they’re in court or out looking for more clients. Skilled legal ghostwriters anticipate what needs to be written or not written, as the case may be, even before a lawyer orders up a project. One even learns to write in that particular lawyer’s voice. It gets real scary sometimes when that happens. There are two main challenges to deal with. First, take nothing for granted. I’ll vouch for about 85% of what I write, but I insist the lawyer take the time to double check my work to make sure they’re comfortable with what I have researched and written. Many lawyers like to cap off what I write with something I may not have been privy to. But sometimes they sign off without reading what they have just signed. Yes, that’s what I said. Maybe it’s because they trust my abilities more than they should, or maybe because they’re just lazy or in a hurry. Sometimes, that can come back to bite them in the ass . . . usually in open court. Lawyers are only people, even though they’re held to a higher standard. So my second challenge, even though it shouldn’t be, is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Q: How did you make the segue from ghostwriting for attorneys to becoming a published author?
A: You mean how did I go from writing legal fiction to writing real fiction? A few years back I was involved in another (yes, frivolous) lawsuit. This time I did all the legal ghostwriting for the attorney who was representing us. The case was dismissed in our favor halfway through a two week jury trial that followed three years of litigation. It was my mother who said, “You ought a write a book.” I had no interest in recounting the horrible events of that case, so I tried to fictionalize them. The characters literally jumped out of the keyboard and begged me to tell their story. But I didn’t know who the hell they were. I felt like I was conducting an intake interview in a law firm. After a year of writing, I had a novel called Zepka’s War which originated during WWII. It’s about Saul Zepka, a demolitions expert who wrongly believes he killed some American soldiers in the hedgerows of Normandy and then discovers 40 years later that he’s a hero. I had totally forgotten about writing the book about the lawsuit. Then I spent a year or so writing query letters to literary agents and trying to perfect the art of being rejected. They’d say things like “I’m too busy this year” or “Zepka’s War is not a good fit for this agency.”
Q: So what is Murder on Camelback Mountain all about? Inquiring minds want to know.
A: Herb Nash is on his way back to Phoenix from a lost weekend in Los Angeles. It’s really been his first chance to be alone since his recent divorce after 25 years. On his way to a business appointment at friend’s law office to discuss working on a new probate case, he discovers he and the lawyer, Lamar Madison, are about to be questioned by a homicide detective who suspects them both of brutally murdering a small time con-artist and only son of one of the city’s wealthiest widows.
The dead man’s dismembered body parts were discovered earlier that morning splayed around a storm drain in the heart of an exclusive Camelback Mountain neighborhood. All because their business cards were found tucked inside the dead man’s shirt pocket, they’re “persons of interest” and potential suspects in the murder investigation.
The only thing Herb Nash has ever used his PI license for was for skip-tracing deadbeat dads and credit criminals. Lamar convinces him to use it to open doors in search of more likely persons of interest to keep the police busy and off their backs. In the process Herb Nash cheats death, takes down a psychopathic killer, and discovers a startling secret about him.
Q: What was your inspiration to write it?
A: During my Zepka’s War experience I found that many literary agents were looking for detective novels. I had read everything by Michael Connelly, John Grisham, Lee Child, Joseph Wambaugh and many other lesser known published authors. I was familiar with the style and convinced myself that I could write something along those lines. I knew it would not be a Michael Connelly or a John Grisham, but maybe it would be a Steve Wyner. Since I was in the legal support business with significant experience on the legal side and exposure to the detective side and 20 years of case files to use as my inspiration, I decided my protagonist, Herb Nash would be created as a private detective who dabbles in paralegal work on the side, or the other way around, as the case may be. He becomes a go to guy indispensible to lawyers. Particularly, lawyers who often find themselves in ethically challenged situations. I’ve found lawyers in these cases are looking for a non-lawyer possessing legal knowledge to help them through their ethical dilemma, even while they snobbishly try to knock the guy down a peg or two on the socio economic scale.
Q: Did you work from an outline or simply listen to your muse as you went along?
A: The title came to me from I don’t know where, and then I just started writing on the basis of people I’ve known and what I always thought should happen to them, or would not have been surprised to discover what did happened to them.
Q: Tell us about your protagonist Herb Nash and what makes him unique in the world of sleuthing.
A: First, he’ not a super hero, which means the reader only has to suspend disbelief once in awhile. Unlike a Jack Reacher, where you have to do that cover to cover, which is obviously fine, I know there are a lot of readers who also enjoy reading about a guy like Herb Nash. Second, he’s in the mid age range of baby boomers. He’s dealing with no longer being 30 or even 40. Mentally, he’s okay, but physically he’s starting to feel his age. Third, carries no gun after a lifetime doing sedentary PI work, tracking down basically non-violent offenders of one kind or the other. He does own a gun, but it’s not a sexy Glock or Beretta. Herb’s 38 snub nose is a hat tip to Raymond Chandler, and it’s used for target practice and nothing more. In the real world where Herb Nash dwells, PIs don’t usually carry guns. He’s carved out a niche for himself and as I said earlier, he’s built a reputation among local lawyers as a go to guy. They may love him or hate him, but not because he can shoot and hit anything that moves.
Q: What made you choose Arizona as the backdrop for your story?
A: I’ve lived here for over 30 years. It made more sense than Debuque.
Q: How much research was involved to get all of the investigative/procedural information right?
A: Much of it is from personal knowledge from cases I’ve been involved in, and some of it came from a Phoenix cop moonlighting as a security guard at Starbucks.
Q: Did your characters “talk” to you during the development of the story? Did you listen to them?
A: Not so much as they did in Zepka’s War. Herb Nash looks to me for just about everything. He and the rest of them do pretty much what I tell them to do without too much complaining.
Q: From start to finish, how long did the book take to write?
A: Probably about 6 months stretched out over a year.
Q: Did you allow anyone to see your chapters in progress or did you make them wait until you were completely finished?
A: Occasionally, I’d test ideas and partial paragraphs on a lawyer I work with. My mother helped proofing.
Q: Did you envision Herb Nash to be a recurring character in a mystery series at the start of the book or was it a case of simply not being able to let go of him after you typed “The End”?
A: I knew he would be a recurring character the minute he woke up at that truck stop in Monterey Park on page 1.
Q: Let’s say that Hollywood comes enthusiastically knocking on your door and wants to turn Murder on Camelback Mountain into a feature film. Who would comprise your dream cast for it and why?
A: William H. Macy . . . he’s the right age and has the mix of average guy softness around the edges, quirkiness, and go for the jugular cunning I imagined. I’d settle for John Malkovich for the same reasons.
Q: If you could go to lunch with a contemporary mystery writer, who would it be and what one question would you most want to ask him/her about their life, their books or the publishing industry?
A: Michael Connelly. We’d be having Moo Shoo chicken at the Friends of China Restaurant, in Los Angeles, a place I’ve actually eaten at to confirm Harry Bosch’s opinion of the food quality. I’d ask Mr. Connelly how he can stay focused cranking out at least one best seller a year for the last 20 years without having to take out the garbage, or fix a leaky faucet . . . at least in the beginning, before he hit the big time.
Q: Like a lot of authors today, you’ve gone the route of self-publishing. What were some of the considerations that went into your decision to ultimately choose Create Space?
A: My age and my ability to make something from nothing. I’m too old to wait a lifetime for some snarky literary agent to tell me I just hit the query letter jackpot. I tried that but enough is enough already. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit and what with the self-publishing industry maturing the way it has, it was full speed ahead. I’m comfortable with Create Space’s model and it’s user friendly.
Q: What do you know about the publishing world now that you didn’t know when you began?
A: I know how to write a great query letter, my walls are papered with them. But seriously, tastes in writing are clearly subjective. So getting published for an unknown author is more a numbers game played by literary agents and publishers that is not always necessarily based on quality or skill, although that is essential. Imagine my surprise when I find a typo in a John Grisham novel. Anyway, I guess I always thought that a book is published, therefore, it was meant to be. But now I believe many books are being published that should not have been and many are not published that should be. And that getting published is all based on the whims and biases of literary agents and publishers. It would be nice to be discovered by one of them and see Herb Nash depicted on the silver screen by William H. Macy, but in the mean time I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: That I tried to heal myself by getting on the highway and listening to Elvis, and dangerously ignored the damage to my psyche?
Q: So what’s next on your plate?
A: Keep an eye out for the next Herb Nash thriller The Crossword Killings and the paperback and Kindle editions of Zepka’s War on Amazon.com. Also on Amazon.com is a book called Four Quirky Short Story Compilation: Lifetime Guarantee Series & Money Grows on Trees, inspired by endless nights of watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Netflix. And I’m working with a couple of attorneys to ghostwrite AZ Primer on DUIs.
If anyone wants to know where I stand on the issues of the day, they can catch me on FB anytime and feel free to request that I be their friend.