WRITERS TELL ALL
Matthew Turbeville: Hi, Alex. I wanted to open by saying I am so delighted I read through all of the Pete series, as rereading the first two, and then reading the latest two came during a really life-changing experience for me. Pete’s personality, both flawed and brave, comforted me in ways I cannot describe. I have to know—how did you come up with Pete’s character, and how long did it take to develop the supporting characters?
Alex Segura: I’m so glad to hear that, Matthew. And thank you for the support and kind words. They mean a lot.
Pete came to me in a pretty well developed state, at least in terms of his life experiences and personality. I wanted someone from Miami, obviously, someone Cuban-American and also younger and not exactly experienced when it came to being a private eye. I always say that Pete, to me, is someone I knew in college – we came up together, but at a certain point lost touch and he went his way and I went mine. He’s changed a lot over the four books, going from a messed-up, fall-down drunk to a man who’s trying to come to terms with his past in order to stabilize and fix his present. I like that we’re on this journey with him, and we’re not meeting him down the line, when things are under control.
The supporting cast has had a longer runway, to be honest, and evolved with each book. When I first started Silent City, I wasn’t sure it was going to be a series. I knew the books I loved – PI novels that oozed place and had these conflicted and human characters, like Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan books or the Dennis Lehane Pat and Angie books – and I knew that I wanted to try and write a novel like those, with Miami as the backdrop. But I wasn’t sure what I was doing beyond writing that first book. So, in Silent City, the supporting cast is a bit of a red herring – you meet Emily, Pete’s long-suffering ex, Mike Carver his best friend and Chaz Bentley, the veteran newspaperman who recruits Pete to look for his missing daughter, Kathy. But, without giving too much away, that dynamic changes drastically by the end of the first book, and by book two, Down the Darkest Street, Pete’s story becomes the story of two people – and Kathy is woven into the cast as his investigative partner. My point is, the supporting cast part is more fluid, and by the time we get to Blackout, the fourth novel, the core cast consists of Pete, Kathy, his partner, retired FBI agent Robert Harras, Dave Mendoza, a mysterious, jovial guy with underworld ties and Jackie Cruz, a lawyer who shares a romantic history with Pete and has pulled his ass out of the fire a number of times. Each character serves as a contrast point to Pete, but also much more – I love writing Kathy, who’s funny, charming and whip-smart. She’s as much a part of the story as Pete, and I very much see her as the co-star of the series. Harras provides Pete with experienced, real-world police advice and Dave and Jackie keep Pete in check for different reasons. I think it’s important to layer in these characters, not just because they’re fun to write, but they serve as a gut check to the main character, who, as you and other readers know, can be prone to making impulsive decisions and is often in need of a savior.
MT: I’m also interested in how you plan on approaching the longevity of this series. Equally brilliant authors like Sara Gran and Laura Lippman have approached their series differently: Gran has a certain number of books planned, with an endgame in sight. Lippman goes between standalones and Tess, and admits that Tess may be her favorite character she’s created. How do you approach the Pete series? Do you have an endgame in sight, and if so is it planned out in a certain number of books, or you just plan on ending the series whenever you feel like Pete’s journey is done?
AS: I think the Pete series is finite, and I do have an endgame in sight. For me, the first four books – Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, Dangerous Ends and Blackout – serve as a ramping up, of sorts. This is Pete’s origin, the story of how he went from complete fuckup to an actual, honest-to-God private investigator. That was the story that interested me the most, the story that I felt I hadn’t seen enough of in crime fiction and, really, the story I was most interested in telling. Each book is a subset of that greater desire – Silent City is the beginning, the real origin of Pete, Down the Darkest Street is a serial killer story with a twist, Dangerous Ends touches on the unique Cuba-Miami dynamic and Blackout is really a story about recovery and coming to terms with your past. So, I think the series leans more toward Claire DeWitt than Tess, in terms of longevity. The next book, Miami Midnight, feels like it could be the end – but never say never, right? If, after that, I feel like there’s more Pete, then I’ll write it. But I never want the series to feel evergreen and episodic in the vein of CSI or Law & Order, or crime fiction series that feature a constant protagonist who doesn’t evolve. Those stories don’t interest me as much as a writer, and to that end, I have to be aware that a continually evolving character who is constantly put in these life-changing situations pushes plausibility at a certain point. I have to be true to Pete and know when it’s time to send him off.
MT: Additionally, I would love to know how you write the Pete series. You come out with these books fairly quickly, which is surprising considering how brilliant and appealing the novels are. How early do you start planning your next novel and how early to you begin writing it in relation to previous novels?
AS: I usually have a strong inkling as to what I want to write about next while I’m revising the current novel, so, for example – I had a rough idea, while rewriting Blackout, for the next one – at least in terms of tone and subject matter. At that point, I’m usually sure of how the current book will end, so I take that status quo and start brainstorming about the next one. The new book will usually dovetail with whatever I’m obsessing over. With Blackout, it was cults, politics, 1990s Miami and the idea of making up for past mistakes – as in, can we do that? Do we ever really balance the scales? I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I do think about it – making up for past mistakes and trying to be better. I know I want the next book to be leaner, darker and have, for lack of a better term, a more classic noir feel. But it’s still very early in the process, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that a book can change a lot on the way to the printer…
MT: I am, of course, dying to know the future of Pete and Kathy. Without giving away too much, this book works more than just filler in series. In ways, it almost feels like a standalone, which is brilliant. It carries Pete and Kathy’s relationship to another level, and without a doubt you come through, fleshing out these characters more and more, as you do with each novel. Can you give the readers any hints about Pete and Kathy? Or do you even know? I know some writers plan as they go, and there’s no shame in that!
AS: I think readers will know, pretty quickly – in the opening chapters of the next book, really – where Pete and Kathy stand, and how they feel about each other. I don’t think it’ll be what people expect, and probably not what they want, but that’s okay. How’s that for a vague teaser?
MT: The setting and environment for the latest Pete novel, Blackout, involves a dangerous hurricane. Other than for intensely exciting issues, how and why did you decide to have the novel—especially the climax—revolve around a hurricane?
AS: It was bizarre and a bit terrifying for me to write about the Blackout storm – Elizabeth – because it was happening just as Irma was heading toward South Florida, so I had the anxiety of watching this massive, monster storm inch toward my home town and home state while also weaving this fictional storm into the Pete narrative. Just one of those weird moments where fiction and reality overlap in strange ways. Hurricanes are such powerful and nightmarish things. Primal and unpredictable, no matter how well you track them. I have so many memories of living through Hurricane Andrew when I was a kid, and it’s impossible to really express the sheer power these things have. So, with Blackout, the storm adds a sense of foreboding and dread in a very Miami way – it’s a sign that things are getting worse, and as we get to the finale of the book, really emphasizes the climax – without giving too much away.
MT: The novels seem to escalate tension more and more with each book. The greatest part of these books—and readers, do pay attention—is that any reader can go back and read the books again and again, finding new details they missed before or simply enjoying the comfort of knowing Pete has things under control. For future or developing writers, what’s your method for developing tension and even escalating it through the novel and the series?
AS: That’s a great question. I try to think about it in terms of various arcs – there’s the arc of the novel itself, what makes this specific story compelling – and then the larger story arc of the series, and how each novel plays into that, and Pete’s arc, too – in terms of the bigger narrative and his own story in each book. For me, each book is about the mystery and its inherent story, but also about Pete, and his journey. I never want Pete to feel the same way on page one vs. the final page, because that, to me, feels static and boring – so I spend a lot of time thinking about how he as a character evolves, and how the people he cares about change. My outlines tend to really just be long, rambling chunks of text that discuss each character, their desires and motivations and what happens to them in that book and beyond, because it all starts with character for me, and cutting them loose to experience the world and circumstances I’ve laid out for them. Often, how they react surprises even me, which is what you want as a writer and reader
MT: To diverge from Blackout for just a moment, would you ever write a standalone novel? If so, could you hint at what it might be about?
AS: I have a few ideas for standalones, yes. The one I’m leaning toward the most is political in nature, and I’m eager to dive into it, but it’ll have to be after I’m done with Miami Midnight.
MT: Were you prepared for the ongoing success of the Pete novels? After four novels published—with so many series barely making it to a second or third novel—you have to feel proud of yourself. Was there ever a time when you began to doubt Pete, or yourself?
AS: I think doubt is just part of the writing process, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by it, because we live in such an immediate and information-heavy world. You’re constantly inundated by social media and what people are experiencing…but at the end of the day, what matters to me is the work and how I feel about it, and how people I admire feel about it, so in that regard I’ve been very blessed. I started writing the first Pete book as an exercise for myself – to see if I could actually finish a crime novel, to see if I could add anything to this daunting pantheon of private eye writers, to add my voice to the chorus, if that makes sense. So, the idea that it’s gone for four novels that have been well-received and gotten some acclaim, that’s amazing and I feel very lucky to have readers that love Pete, his friends and are curious to see what he’s up to. That’s more than I could have ever hoped for. In terms of doubt, or writer’s block, I think you just need to do your best to push past it and get to work. These books won’t write themselves.
MT: When do you tend to write the most? Some authors are night or morning writers. Some work an hour a day, and others work 8 or 12 hours a day! Every author is different, so we’re dying to know how you approach writing?
AS: At night, after dinner, usually. It’s the closest thing I have to quiet time – when my son is sleeping and I have an hour or two to just chip away at whatever the next big project is. Mornings are tougher because I’m prepping for the day and I have a full-time job. I agree with Paul Tremblay’s philosophy on found time – be ready to sprint when you see you have a few minutes to peck away at your work-in-progress, and be ready to run hard and fast, because you can be disrupted or pulled away from it at any point. You can’t be too ceremonial about the writing process because if you are, you’ll never get any work done.
MT: I’m usually not a fan of male writers, and yet I would die for another four more Pete novels. Seriously. My main question is how you, as a male writer, manage to write such complex female characters? It seems tough for some authors—I won’t name names. Do you consider yourself a feminist, given that Kathy has been through so much, and yet she often assists (and sometimes does more than assist) in saving the day with Pete?
AS: I would say I’m a feminist, yes, without a doubt. I’ve had strong women around me as far back as I can remember – whether it’s my mother, my grandmother, my wife, my aunt, my best friends – I have no shortage of amazing women around me, and I try to honor them in my characters by doing my best to write realistic women that don’t fall into tropes or clichés, Kathy being the strongest example of that. She’s experienced loss, she’s been betrayed and she’s been mistreated, but she perseveres, and she’s stronger for it. In many ways, she’s tougher than Pete, which is intentional. Kathy’s in many ways as much of a star in the series as Pete, and she’s smart, capable and complicated, like many women I know. Pete is lucky to know her.
But to more fully answer your question – I just try to be realistic with how my characters act, and the best way to do that is to look at real people and try to evoke that as closely as I can.
MT: What books and authors have inspired you most? What books do you return to, again and again, for comfort and as examples for how and what to write? Or are you like Stephen King, who, other than with authors like Alex Marwood, rarely re-reads books, as he’s stated in interviews before?
AS: I’m not a big re-reader, I have to admit, but there are a handful of novels I got back to, just because they’ve had such an immense effect on my work – even if it’s to just flip through the pages and read specific scenes. Novels like A Firing Offense by George Pelecanos, Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane, Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon, The James Deans by Reed Farrel Coleman, The Chilli by Ross Macdonald, Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks, Laura’s early Tess books, the first Claire DeWitt novel by Sara Gran, Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Moseley, The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block…I guess I do re-read more than I thought I did!
MT:. Who is your favorite character in the Pete series? My guess would be Pete, but you’re welcome to surprise me. I don’t know if I could choose, personally. Do you ever plan on having one of the Pete novels Kathy-centric? How do you think you would make that work, if you decided to do so?
AS: I love Pete, of course – he’s like a frustrating sibling. But Kathy is dear to my heart as well, and I think you’ll see her take up more of the spotlight in the coming book, because I have a story to tell about her and Pete will have a big role in that. It’s not a Pete book without Kathy and vice versa.
MT: I think one of the things that makes Pete so relatable are the struggles, personal and internal, that he faces on a daily basis. Did you base Pete off of anyone, and if so, how do you separate Pete from the real-life persona that inspired his creation? Also, how would you advise young or emerging writers to make their characters fleshed out and interesting?
AS: In terms of keeping your characters fleshed out and interesting – look at real people. Not just fictional versions or fictional stories. Think about people you know or grew up with, or that you interact with a lot – we’re a pile of contradictions and conflicting behaviors. Strive for reality in how you write your characters as opposed to trying to create iconic people that maybe don’t exist. If your characters are relatable and fleshed-out – something that only happens if you really dig deep and explore who these people are – the story will show up.
MT: Returning to advice for young or emerging writers, what advice would you give them in relation to how to succeed in a cut-throat industry like the publishing world? Would you mind sharing your own beginnings and struggles with printing the Pete novels, if there were any?
AS: Do the work. Write, rewrite, edit, revise, what-have-you. Work on your book until you can’t anymore, then give it to someone you trust to be straight with you. Don’t look for praise, look for someone who is going to slice up your work. Then revise again. Only then, when you feel like your work is complete and ready, should you start worrying about query letters, agents or publishers. Put your work first and the other stuff second. That applies to your books in perpetuity, not just the first one. The writing is sacred.
MT: In regards to feminism and Kathy, it’s amazing to see where every major female crime writer has blurbed your novels with incredible praise that is both genuine and full of admiration. Do you think Kathy and all of her layers helps other females, especially these female crime writers, relate to your books more and feel intensely about Pete’s world?
AS: I’d like to think so, but it’s not something that I set out to do in quite such a direct way. I wanted to write a realistic, complex and honest character that wasn’t just a foil to Pete, but was his better in many ways – that’s why Kathy exists and why she’s interesting to write for me, so I’m glad, if you’re right, and people respond to her in that way. I definitely wanted Kathy to be a prominent part of the series – I’m glad you recognize that, and that other writers are drawn to her, too, because she’s an essential part of the series and isn’t mentioned enough!
MT: As for Blackout, and its subjects dealing with cults and so on, how much time did you spend researching and developing a complex, incredible world where all of these very real scenarios can take place? FYI to the reader: cults are always interesting, especially with the talent of Mr. Segura.
AS: I spent some time reading books about cults and talking to friends and professionals who have some expertise in that area, especially as it relates to Miami and actual cult leaders who spent time there. I love research, but I never want it to feel like work – I like to ride that wave of interest and obsession through the “work” of reading books in an effort to support my fiction, so it feels as exciting when it shows up in my writing, instead of just rattling off facts, if that makes sense. I particularly enjoyed Jeff Guinn’s excellent book on Jim Jones, plus his Manson bio. Those two books stood out to me, if I had to point to specific works.
MT: I very rarely say this about male writers, as I think genuinely crime is becoming a woman-dominated genre and I do feel women are able to pull me in more quickly. And yet I, and many people who share such beliefs, have been roped in and taken for a ride in Pete’s world. He is a champion I want to root for. Harkening back to another question, what about your writing do you think ropes readers in? Feel free to expose any vanity in answering these questions—you are a writer not just to enjoy, but to learn from.
AS: Oh, that’s tough, because I’m so embedded in it, you know? I’d like to think I portray people who are really struggling but overcoming – who have flaws and problems but also want to be better, and that’s something anyone can relate to, I hope. Pete’s story is one of overcoming and trying to be better. So is Kathy’s.
MT: Can you, without giving away many spoilers, hint toward what lies ahead for Pete and Kathy, whether they are together or not? How long do you consider carrying on the story of Pete? It’s clear you love each character in your novel, even the villains more times than not. Megan Abbott once taught me to never judge your characters: you bring this philosophy to life with your no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point writing. Essentially, I wonder if you can give away any minor spoilers or clues as to what we are to expect from Pete #5.
AS: (I feel like I answered the Pete/Kathy question a bit above, so here’s my best shot at this)
The Pete and Kathy dynamic will continue to unfold – it just won’t be in a predictable way. I think we’ll find them in a surprising place in the pages of the next book. I’m excited because I don’t fully know where their story is going to go.
Miami Midnight will pick up a bit after the surprising ending of Blackout, and it’s a story of a malicious, lustful obsession and the lengths someone will go to hide their dark side. So far, it’s got a very seething, noir Brian de Palma vibe, which I’m enjoying.
MT: Referring back to Megan Abbott and writing, what is the best advice you’ve received regarding writing, and who has helped you most in your journey to success? Feel free to list as many examples or people as possible.
AS: Finish what you start. Don’t be precious with your work. Read obsessively. Don’t imitate but do honor the writers you admire. Don’t let the decorations get in the way of the work – meaning, don’t get caught up in things that distract from being the best writer you can be.
MT: I want to thank you so much for stopping by taking the time to allow me to pick your brain. You are welcome back any time, what with your genius mind and brilliant series. Pete—and you and your career—are things I plan on following for decades to come.
AS: Matthew, this was an absolute pleasure. I’m so grateful you like these books and that they’ve brought you joy. It means the world to me. Thanks for the insightful and engaging questions.