Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Island Where It Happens

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Nantucket changed my life. Truly. It’s where Jonathan and I met, and my every memory of the place is wrapped in gossamer happiness. So when I heard about Steven Axelrod, who sets his mysteries (from the amazing Poisoned Pen Press) on the island, I was instantly hooked. 

So—welcome Steven! And I laughed and laughed when I heard about his main character--a bad poet! Brilliant.

HANK:  Your protagonist, Henry Kennis, has to be the world's most literate police chief, bar none. How did you decide to create a cop who writes poetry on the side? 

STEVE: First of all, I write poetry myself -- very much like the accessible reality-based verse that Henry composes, which is not really in fashion now. The wife of one of my MFA program professors, a very prominent modern poet, read Nantucket Five-Spot (which was written as my creative thesis) and remarked. "I love the fact that hero is such a bad poet! So charming." I guess I couldn't resist the urge to let some of these "bad" poems see the light of day. 

But it's an appropriate hobby for a detective. Crime solving and poetry require the same leaps of intuition, the same ability to make and recognize odd connections and relationships. Beyond that a poem is a good x-ray of a character's heart and soul. The poems help the reader get to know my Police Chief a little better.  

HANK:  The backdrop of your new book is the backstabbing world of local theater, in this case Nantucket's. The vicious confrontations between the characters who populate this  novel feel quite authentic... Have you yourself participated in local theater and experienced this level of drama?
STEVE: I did a fair amount of community theater acting when I was Henry's age, and I saw my fair share of high drama and low comedy in that milieu. The theater scene on the island seems much more serene these days. But  that's okay -- inventing conflict and setting crazy characters at each others' throats is part of my job description.

HANK:  You spent a portion of your childhood in a Hollywood environment, with your father being the famous writer/director George Axelrod. (Listen to this, reds and readers. His father is  best known for his play, The Seven Year Itch, which was adapted into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his 1961 adaptation of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's and also adapted Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate.  MY total FAVORITE. ) Anyway. So cool! 

STEVE: My Hollywood ties have frayed somewhat over the years though I remain a member of the WGA(w) thanks to a development deal some years ago with a big TV producer. There is currently some interest in the Kennis books as a series from different "content providers" I guess I should call them, to be as vague and cryptic as possible ... but it's hard to tell how serious any of them are. I keep my fingers crossed, though it tends to interfere with my typing.

HANK: I know the feeling!  So--When you prepare for a new novel, do you first outline everything from soup to nuts? Or are you a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy?

STEVE: I'm a combination of the two. I've always envied writers like Stephen King who apparently just charge into a book and let the plot details sort themselves out, with what Nabokov called "the velocity of intuition". 

HANK: Oh, I’ve never heard that. I love it. Is that what you do? 

STEVE: I tend to be more cautious. I need to know the ultimate outcome before I start -- who done it and why, and at least some of the clues red-herrings and detours that will lead Henry to the culprit. You're always telling two or three parallel narratives in a mystery, with several of those scenarios throwing  suspicion on the wrong people. The links between these versions of reality are the clues, which can be interpreted different ways -- the RACHE written on the wall in blood that Gregson and Lestrade assume to be an almost completed name -- Rachel. But Sherlock Holmes knows it's the German word for revenge.

HANK: Oh, we have to talk. More I cannot say. But wait til you read my new book The Murder List. J  But we digress.

STEVE:  So ... within that macro-structure, the big picture of the novel, I attack the story one chunk at a time, carefully outlining the piece I'm working on and usually emerging from it with only the vaguest idea of where I'm going next. So I read through the notes, refresh my memory about the larger story and start outlining the next bit of the plot. 

This gets simpler as the story goes on. Tales narrow down and pick up speed as they approach their climax and the writing becomes easier as more and more decisions have already been made. 

My father always told me, "If you have a problem with act three, the real problem is in act one." He referred to those final blissful writing days that sweep to the end of the story as "picking the daisies" -- flowers you meticulously planted many pages ago. All that being said, the actual content of each scene remains wildly improvisational. Except for a few essentials, I really have no idea what my characters are going to say to each other, or which way their conflicts will go. 

And that makes every writing day fun.

HANK: We are the same! But you are so eloquent about it. I just freak out and cross my fingers. Last question:
With Nantucket being so tiny, is it a challenge to come up with new plot concepts that don't tread on the ground already covered?

STEVE: I wrote a thriller twenty years ago and my agent at the time warned me "You better know what your next couple of thrillers are going to be. I'm branding you as a thriller guy." That scared me. I had literally used every idea, gimmick, action set-piece and plot device I had ever come up with in that book. I had been pebble collecting for it since high school. Now I was supposed to write another one? I had nothing, and told her so. Maybe I should have faked it -- the book never sold. Anyway, it's just the opposite with Nantucket. The little resort island teems with stories, plots, feuds, grudges, history and conflict. I'm always learning new things, from the existence of secret cock fighting clubs (Which I used on the first page of the new book) to the fact that the dump was built on an Wampanoag Indian graveyard. Spooky! The material seems inexhaustible. 

Nantucket is America in miniature, with all the wealth inequality, immigration issues, opioid addiction, gang crime and bureaucratic malfeasance a crime writer would wish for. The island is experiencing massive tectonic social changes. The larger aim of my books is to chronicle those changes  -- and try to make sense of them.

HANK: Yes, yes, this is so thought provoking! Reds and readers, have you ever been to Nantucket? Would you like to? What’s your image of it? Or where’s one place that changed your life?

 

The fifth Henry Kennis mystery takes us into the closed, gossip-riddled, back-stabbing world of Nantucket’s community theater.            
Horst Refn, the widely disliked and resented Artistic Director of the Nantucket Theater Lab, has been found stuffed into the meat freezer in his basement. Most of the actors, all the technical crew, and quite a few of the Theater Lab Board members, whom Refn was scamming and blackmailing, are suspects in his murder. The island’s Police Chief Henry Kennis has to pick his way through a social minefield as he searches for the killer.
At the same time, Henry’s daughter’s new boyfriend, football star Hector Cruz, has been accused of sexting her. Carrie knows the offending pictures didn’t come from him, and Henry has to prove it before the boy gets suspended, which means probing into the family secrets of Hector’s father, a firebrand agitprop playwright, who happens to be a prime suspect in Refn’s murder.
Every story is a fiction, every identity proves false, and every statement a lie. The counterfeit bills found at the scene of the crime are the most obvious symbol of the deceptions and distractions that obscure the investigation. The truth lies buried in the past, in Refn’s earlier crimes and the victims who came to Nantucket seeking revenge.
When the culprit has been revealed, the last masks torn off, and final murder foiled—live, on stage, during the opening night of Who Dun It, the eerily prescient opening drama of the Theater Lab Season—Jane says to Henry, “Is everything counterfeit?” He smiles. “Almost.”


Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA, despite a long absence from Hollywood. His work has been featured on various websites, including the literary e-zine Numéro Cinq, where he is on the masthead; Salon.com; and The Good Men Project; as well as the magazines Pulp Modernand Big Pulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.




39 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Steven . . . “Nantucket Counterfeit” sounds quite intriguing, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I love the idea of a poetry-writing police chief.

    As for Nantucket, no, I’ve been there . . . it’s a popular summer tourist spot, isn’t it?

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    1. Oh it’s gorgeously fabulous and serene!

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    2. It's been a prime destination for the old money, bloodies-on-the deck set for a hundred years. But now new money has found the place (they had to build their own gold club and their own yacht club) ... as well as a huge hub for immigration, thanks to the ongoing building boom. It's a lot to write about.

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  2. Steven, you had me at "I keep my fingers crossed, though it tends to interfere with my typing," although that was just the funny part that I enjoyed. If reading your books is as interesting as reading your piece here, then I don't have a choice but to begin them. Of course, you would come along when I just finished deciding what books I will have time to read the rest of the year and review, what ones I simply must and what ones I'm going to push into whatever time I can find left. A bad poet for a police chief appeals to me so much, and I'm looking forward to reading his bad poetry to see if it really is that bad. I'm a longtime fan of the small community and all its hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, secrets and problems that offer titillating stories. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology are two of my favorite books, first reading them when I was late teens/early twenties. The only danger I see in reading your Henry Kennis mysteries is that I will finally have to take a trip to Nantucket. Thank you for visiting the Reds today, Steven, and congratulations on Nantucket Counterfeit.

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    1. I'm glad I enticed you into reading the books! Take them in order, starting with "Nantucket Sawbuck" and watch Henry's love life improve and his kids grow up. I like Henry's poems! But I may be prejudiced. Sample couplet: "The sound of your voice/Is my drug of choice." Friend me on Facebook, and if you come to the island, let me know.

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    2. Love the couplet. I'm thinking I might become a fan of Henry's poetry, too. I will definitely connect on FB and hope to say hello in person one day.

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  3. Nantucket is gorgeous - we've been there once to visit dear friends who live there for half the year. It did not change my life except to change my opinion of blue fish, which turns out does not taste oily and disgusting if your fish comes fresh off the fishing boat.

    Steven, congratulations on the book. And that's so true that when you get stuck writing act iii it's usually because there's a problem in act i. So discouraging. Corollary: If you THINK there's a problem, there is.

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    1. You've definitely discovered the secret of blufish! As to the writing notes ..Somerset Maugham famously remarked, "If it should occur to you to cut something, do so." He also said "There are three rules to the writing of the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what any of them are." That note about cutting comes close, though. Another favorite Maugham moment: he met my Dad at a party for "The Seven Year Itch" and said, "My dear Mr. Axelrod, I'm told you are the toast of Broadway and the theatre's newest genius. I'm happy to say I'm too old, too rich and too drunk to give a shit." My dad treasured that moment forever.

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  4. I've only been to Nantucket in books which is very enjoyable and I don't have to put up with summer crowds that way, but still. I'd love to go there someday. In the meantime I'll have to read your books!

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    1. Good for you. I think my books offer a more gritty and realistic take on the island. I even have an attempted school shooting in the one I'm working on now.

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  5. Congratulations on your new release!

    We honeymooned on Nantucket and covered every inch of the island on our bicycles. Idyllic. When we returned fifteen years later, the New Yorkers had taken over. With a small residential population and yearly influx of tourists and part-timers, plenty of potential for lurid plots.

    Hallie, the summers I worked at in a Chatham seafood restaurant kitchen, the help had broiled bluefish for dinner every night, fresh from the pier. Delicious.

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    1. Yeah the island is changing drastically, day by day. 300 new foundations going in this fall. That should help the traffic on Old South Road!

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  6. Yes, Nantucket is so beautiful! And yes there are so many tourists! But for good reason, right!

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  7. That’s so funny! My personal indicator of a manuscript problem is when my brain says “no one will notice that. “ Oh dear, that’s exactly what they WILL notice.

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  8. Steven- I'm looking to getting to know Henry Kennis!

    I have never been to Nantucket however since I'm a "beach in the winter" kind of gal, it's on my bucket list to visit there during the off season. Who knows what I'll see when there aren't crowds of people in the way, clouding the view. To quote you (loosely), "fingers crossed!"

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    1. Oh there are tourists—but it’s part of the fun!

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    2. I was just walking at Madequecham, on the south shore ... not a single person for miles. And it's one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. FYI ... it's where Henry has his big epiphany about his role as a police officer, in "Nantucket Sawbuck"

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    3. Also ... if you take the time and explore, you can find an empty beach even on 4th of July Weekend.

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  9. I would love to go to Nantucket! It has always sounded so interesting to me. And I love the idea of a bad-poetry-writing police chief. Are there lots of examples in the books? I will check back later. Leaving the house shortly and will be out of pocket for a few hours.

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    1. I try to include one poem in each book. They do cast a light on Henry's true self, if nothing else.

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  10. Steve, I need to read your books! Forty-two years ago I spent about ten delightful days on Nantucket in May. We walked, we rented bicycles to go farther out from where we were staying, and we loved the island. I’ve looked for mysteries set there, and I don’t know how I missed yours. Now that I have an author’s name I plan to revisit Nantucket through Henry’s eyes!

    DebRo

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    1. Mine have only been coming for five years or so, though I started working on the characters long before that. I try to fill the books with clues that relate directly to life on the island, whether its the fact that it rains in Madaket when the rest of the island has blue skies, or the fact that's there's no reception for NYC sports radio on Orange Street, because of the power lines. I'm honest about the geography, too -- fun for residents and even off-islanders can sense the reality of the place.

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  11. Nantucket is my special book-writing getaway - I've gone at least three times, usually in February when no one except the natives want to be there. I've been when it's more populated, but honestly, I love it best off-season. Steve, do you know my friend Nancy Thayer? got to know her through my agent, Meg Ruley, whose family have been on-island for generations.

    Also, I'm stealing your father's saying and using it every time I teach writing from now on. "If you have a problem with Act III, the real problem is in Act I." Brilliant and succinct.

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    1. Yeah, my dad was a smart one. I don't know Ms. Thayer personally, though I was a loyal customer of hwer husbands record store on the island in the old days, Musicall. I watched it shift from vinyl to casettetes to CDs. Finally streaming music killed the place. I've often tried to get Ms. Ruley to be my agent., but so far she has declined ...

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  12. The book sounds terrific, Steven, I look forward to reading it. I've not been to Nantucket, living on the left coast, it's a far piece.

    Hank: What? New book? When?

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    1. I'm about half way through book #6, Nantucket Penny, finally having reached the traditional tearing-out-the-hair, this-whole-thing-makes-no-sense stage. It happens every book and I'm learning to enjoy it.

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    2. Oh thank you! More to come on that soon, Rick! Xxx

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  13. I've never been to Nantucket, but I would love to visit sometime. These books may be the only way I can make it there. I'm definitely going to look for book 1.

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    1. The books do make an excellent cheap vacation!

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  14. I've never been to Nantucket. I don't feel a pressing desire to go. The image I have of it? Probably just that it is a place where tourists go to annoy the locals.

    Perhaps a bit sadly, I don't know that I have any place that I'd say changed my life.

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  15. This sounds like a great read! Congratulations on your latest book.

    I've never been to Nantucket but have always wanted to go. Someday. :)

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    1. In the meantime the books make a good substitute!

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  16. Well, we have locals and then we have locals -- Ecuadorian stone masons living twelve to a room and billionaire hedge fund operators living in twelve thousand square foot summer cottages and millionaire contractors paying the Ecudorans twelve dollars and hour to build flagstone walls for the billionaires, whose over-fertilized twelve-acre lawns drain into the harbor and ruin the scallop harvest for the twelve fishermen we still have left. Tourists just glimpse it all from the big tour buses and go home. Or maybe they pick up one of my books along the way and read about what they missed.

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  17. I only visited Nantucket once but it was lovely. Your books sound interesting. Has your father even written his autobiography? He sounds as if he had an exciting life. I enjoy autobiographies as well as mysteries.

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  18. I have been to Nantucket and loved it. Wish I could make another visit, guess your books will have to do as I think I've found a new writer to read.

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