Whenever there’s an unsettling stretch of silence on my favorite morning radio station, I always wonder if someone accidentally turned the microphone off or the station lost its power signal. Could it also be that my radio just needs a new battery? Now that Cliff Protzman’s debut mystery novel, Dead Air, is out, I have another possibility to consider: maybe there’s been a murder.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: After a long career in banking and finance, what compelled you to wake up one day and decide to try your hand at crime(writing)?
A: It wasn’t a snap of the fingers moment. Like all writers, I was an avid reader. The first book I recall was Pride of the Yankees: the Lou Gehrig story. I was amazed to be so engrossed by a story. I began writing for my high school newspaper, finding a passion for writing. I originally planned to major in journalism in college, but eventually choose a more practical course. Several times I began to pen a novel, but let distractions put it aside.
My brother had some modest success with playwriting and graphic stories. He passed away several years ago. At the funeral, my daughter, a news reporter and editor commented, “I know how to write, but I have no stories.” My reply was, “I have stories.” That’s the moment I choose to pursue my passion.
Q: Dead Air is all about mystery and dark suspense. What particularly appeals to you about this genre?
A: I contend all stories are mysteries. Will star-crossed lovers live happily ever after? Will the empire survive? Will the hero hit the game winning home run? These mysteries keep readers turning pages because they want the answer.
A murder mystery provides the reader a look into the darker side of human behavior. The investigator is compelled to solve the crime because it is the right thing to do. A murder investigation forces seemingly innocent people to hide their deep, dark secrets. The sleuth must deal with lying witnesses, hidden agendas, deep emotional conflicts, and the murderer.
With all that happening, the protagonist must struggle with their own inner conflicts as he follows the clues. We share the suspense as he solves one challenge, only to face a bigger one ahead. Throughout the story, keep in mind the PI is chasing someone who has already killed once.
Q: Who are some of the authors you admire in this genre?
A: I admire many authors. Two of my favorites are Max Allen Collins and Troy Soos.
Collins, A Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, wrote a series featuring PI Nathan Heller. He investigated the “Crimes of the Century” from the Lindberg kidnapping to the assassination of President Kennedy. Heller bills himself as PI to the Stars. His cases lead him to conversations with Al Capone, Governor Huey Lewis, Senator Joe McCarthy, the Rosenbergs, and even Robert Kennedy. Collins creates a thoroughly believable scene. Collins has a unique ability to make these scenes seem so realistic.
Soos, a physics teacher, wrote a series featuring a fictional journeyman baseball player in the early twentieth century. As Mickey Rawlings (no one by that name ever played major league baseball) is traded from town to town, he finds himself drawn into a murder investigation. Rawlings is confronted by the issues of the times; unionization, the Klu Klux Klan, World War I, gambling in baseball. Soos allows the reader to feel what it’s like to ride a trolley through Brooklyn, the smell of the Chicago stockyards, or the sounds of auto manufacturers in Detroit. Rawlings’ investigations find him talking to Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and other greats of the time.
Q: For this—your first novel—did you work from a formal outline or listen to your muse as you went along?
A: Outlines work well for research and opinion pieces. I had no idea how to outline a fiction novel. I started with a victim, a killer and an investigator. My plot was only vaguely formed. I began to write the story. I let the characters move the story. When I reached a road block, I found myself telling the story, not Beck.
This may seem like a disjointed method. However, Beck proved the killer I had in mind was indeed innocent. I let my characters tell the story. I had not planned the scene at the hunting cabin until Beck and Irene took me there. I believe that’s why Dead Air is a compelling thriller.
Q: Did your characters ever do or say anything that surprised you?
A: I think if the characters are going to surprise the reader, the writer was probably surprised as well. Irene constantly surprised me. She had a knack of being witty, intelligent, or vulnerable at just the right time.
If I disclosed the person who surprised me the most, it would be a spoiler. Beck knew better, however.
Q: Unlike the structure of a 9-5 job that involves deadlines and interactions with others, writing is a solitary craft that requires you to spend a lot of time with the voices in your head. What were/are some of the things you did/do to stay motivated and on task?
A: Although writing may not seem be a structured task, time management is critical. Planning effectively requires a person to allow time for dealing with interruptions or delays. For me, the key was to set small goals and allow time to complete them. This kept my motivation high and procrastination at a minimum. I wasn’t necessarily looking to complete the book in one sitting. I simple completed one scene at a time. I rewarded myself and moved willing to the next small task.
Q: Was there anything that slowed down the process for you or created distractions? If so, how did you deal with it?
A: Writing may be a lifestyle. However, I am a husband, father to six, and grandfather to four. My time with them is precious. Therefore, time management is essential. I flexibly schedule my days to include time for writing, marketing, and social.
Of course, creativity has no on/off switch. That is why I attempt to achieve small tasks, and the larger ones are more manageable. If this sounds perfect, it’s not. It does help to have a template.
Q: How did you manage to network within the writing community?
A: I don’t believe writing is a solitary craft. The best writers are social beings, they interact with the world, not just electronically.
My first step was to join a writing group, not one focused solely on mysteries. I experienced not only differing styles, voices, and techniques, but also how they work within different genres. This helped me fashion the techniques into a mystery. It should be noted the group is comprised of accomplished writers.
Writers conferences are an excellent opportunity to meet the writing community. In additions to informative workshops, valuable information about the business is available. Of course, you can learn as much at happy hour as you can in classes. Most conferences have the opportunity to pitch an agent or have manuscript evaluated. I owe authors Julie Hyzy, Matthew Clements, and Jess Loughery for their valuable contributions.
Q: Dead Air features a male protagonist with a strong female collaborator. Where did these characters come from?
A: Beck, as a male, was easy for me to create. Irene, a combination of two women, was more challenging. I desired a woman that was a trusted resource for Beck. He eventually realized how much more she meant to him.
I wanted the sexual tension between the two as a subplot. She had to be strong in order to refocus Beck when his arrogance started to take control. Their interaction helped move the plot and created titillation for the readers. Several reviewers have been very complimentary when mentioning her. I am very proud of Irene, she will continue to have a prominent role in future books.
Q: If Hollywood came calling for a TV series, who would play your two lead characters?
A: Michael Keaton is the only choice for Beck. Dead Air is set in Pittsburgh, the hometown of Keaton. He has shown the ability to display the toughness of Beck, as well as his humor. I believe he could convey the many emotional conflicts Beck faces. In his favor, Keaton was the best Batman.
Tea Leoni is perfect for Irene. She is not only an actor, but also a producer. She projects the beauty and strength the exemplifies Irene. I think she could add a personal touch to the character that audiences will enjoy. Leoni could easily handle the professionalism and humanity of the character.
Q: Like many of today’s writers, you chose to go the self-publishing route. What governed that choice and what have you learned from it?
A: It really wasn’t much of a choice. At my age, I did not want to wait several years to attract an agent or publisher. I believe the book was good and could be marketed. I choose self-publishing as an expedient entry to the market, to see what I could accomplish. I realized that it would require a lot of my time to market, but traditional publishing requires quite a bit of time as well.
I have learned and continue to learn how difficult it is for a debut author to be seen. I am looking at the process as my own form of an advanced degree.
Q: What are you doing to market the book and which strategies have been successful for you?
A: As a debut author, there was no template for me to follow. My plan was to utilize social media to drive brand awareness. The most effective reach has been blog tours. The tours generated reviews and to my delight highly positive reviews.
Q: Now that Dead Air is released, have you achieved what you expected?
A: Yes and no. I had two goals. Naturally sales. The second was critical acceptance.
I wanted simply to break even on my investment. That goal is within sight. I knew that immediate acceptance would be difficult for a debut author. I hired a publicist to reach unknown markets. That has provided some outreach to social media that I may not have had otherwise. I learned a valuable lesson, I started too late. However, sales are starting to improve.
I have been amazed by the reviews and rating from readers. The comments range from well written and plotted, to exciting character development. One reviewer termed it a modern noir, which I find exciting. Dead Air has received one literary award. I am pleased to have created a story that readers enjoy.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: Readers would not be the least bit surprised to discover I love baseball. As a child, very few games were televised, so we listened to the game on radio. I lived in a city neighborhood. In the summer folks sat on the front porch with a radio tuned to the game. We played in the streets and listened to baseball since the sound echoed throughout the neighborhood. When the game was on the West Coast starting at 10:30, Mom let us take a transistor radio to bed with us. We listened until we fell asleep or the batteries died.
I like to write with a game on. The TV is behind me and I write during the game. Unfortunately, today’s announcers are not as eloquent as their radio counterpoints of the past. A past radio announcer would describe a runner was out by a gnat’s eyelash, meaning it was a close play. Today the call would be the runner’s out, we’ll wait for the replay.
Q: If you were hosting a murder mystery dinner and could invite any five mystery authors or fictional sleuths, who would comprise your guest list, what would happen, and who would solve the case by the time dessert was served?
A: The setting would have to be a remote Victorian mansion on a dark and stormy night. Mystery authors create fictional sleuths, so fiction it is. Phillip Marlowe (Raymond Chandler) would be the first to arrive. Someone has to belt down the scotch and offer a wisecrack. Hercules Poirot (Agatha Christie) would provide a continental approach to the crime. Lieutenant (Frank) Columbo (Levinson and Link) would arrive raincoat wrinkled and drenched in rain. After all, when it comes to murder there is always “just one more thing.” Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) to analyze the pattern of dust particles circling the dead body. Lastly Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) because men never get it right.
With such great minds, the case would have to be a previously unsolved murder. Perhaps a fictional version of Jack the Ripper, the Kennedy assassination, or Nicole Brown Simpson. What a great dialogue would ensue. Columbo and Holmes discuss a fine point of evidence. Poirot and Marlowe sharing analysis of the motive. Millhone throwing in common sense and intuition. What a great adventure. I have no idea who wins.
Q: What’s your next project?
A: I have written a Christmas short story featuring Beck and his granddaughter. I plan to offer this as an add-on to Dead Air this year. This is leading to release of the second book in the Glenn Beckert Mysteries.
In the second installment, Beck dismisses a missing person case that turns into murder the week before his wedding. The victim, a software engineer, was developing an artificial intelligence application for the military. The deceased had a past gay liaison that ended badly. The clues lead Beck to chase alternating motives. Amidst the confusion, beck learns a secret from Irene’s past that threatens to destroy their relationship. The planned release is early 2019.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: In the competitive world of selling books, Christina Hamlett is a bright light advocating the craft of writing. Although I was included in her anthology Unfinished Chapters, there was no obligation for her to follow me. Yet she did. I will never forget her support and encouragement. It is what we writers do. Thank you, Christina.