Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Down These Mean Streets: Grant Bywaters on his PWA Best First PI Novel, THE RED STORM

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have a soft spot of writing contest winners, having gotten my start with the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery award. So I was excited to hear about this year's winner of the PWA Best First Private Eye novel, Grant Bywaters. Grant used his own background as a PI (get your questions ready, NaNoMoWri authors!) and his passion for "the sweet science" - boxing - to create William Fletcher, an ex-boxer, PI and black man trying to get by in 1938 New Orleans. Here's what Publisher's Weekly has to say about THE RED STORM

Former heavyweight boxer William Fletcher, the narrator of Bywaters’s promising debut, winner of the PWA Best First Private Eye Novel competition, is scraping by as a PI in 1938 New Orleans when Bill Storm, a criminal acquaintance, asks Fletcher to find his estranged daughter, the beautiful but hate-filled Zella Storm. Fletcher winds up becoming Zella’s protector after Bill’s murder. Because Sal Mallon, a psychopathic mobster whom Bill mutilated years before, now craves revenge, Fletcher finds himself negotiating with rival gangsters, hiding Zella and her aunt in a cabin in the swamp, and collaborating—nervously, since he’s black—with the corrupt, racist New Orleans police. Staying alive is difficult; resisting various temptations to back away is even more so—but Fletcher slogs ahead through a hail of bullets. Bywaters edges near Hammett territory with this unassuming hero who stoically accepts that, even though the odds are heavily stacked against him, he still needs to go on doing the best he can.

I would first like to thank the ladies of Jungle Red Writers for allowing me to be here. I have been asked to briefly talk about my work as a private investigator. Most of the work I took part in was workers’ compensation fraud. The lead investigator I worked under while getting hours towards my license was an expert at it. Many of the videos he got ended up on news programs: people who claimed their backs were broken, yet were teaching a rock climbing course on the weekend, or throwing 75 pound hay bales into the back of their truck. 

A lot of the private investigation work also involves meticulous research, which is something I have always enjoyed doing. Luckily, because I had to do a lot of it for THE RED STORM! The basic concept for my novel came about while I was taking a history class for college at the same time I was finishing my investigator's license. We were covering African American history and it got me thinking on how difficult it would have been for an African American to be a private investigator during the days of Jim Crow.

First black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson losing to the last of many
 "Great White Hope" challengers, Jess Willard, in 1915. After this, no black
boxer was allowed to compete for the world title until Joe Lewis broke the
color line in 1937.

A major backdrop in THE RED STORM is boxing, a sport that has been a passion of mine for a long time. Few people outside of hardcore fans these days realize the rich history the sport has and how woven into American culture it is. People use boxing terms and analogies in everyday life and don’t even know it. That is because at one time, being the heavyweight champion of the world was the greatest prize in all of sports. It was also something the main character in my book, William Fletcher, was robbed of ever getting a chance to win due to racial tensions of the period.

Sonny Liston
I modeled a lot of my sleuth’s physical appearance on heavyweight champion Charles L. "Sonny" Liston. Liston was a physical freak of nature. At six foot, he had a 84 inch reach, and fists that measured at 15 inches -- too large to fit into standard boxing gloves. Sports Illustrated editor Gilbert Rogin described Sonny as having "arms like fence posts, thighs like silos."

Many older fight fans remember vividly when a then Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. They, along with most of the nation, believed the younger Clay was going to die in the ring. Of course he didn’t, and after the fight become the boxing legend that is Muhammad Ali. Yet talking to fight fans, you can still hear their fear for the underdog Cassius Clay against the powerful Liston, as if they were describing the fight after it had just happened. 

This kind of vivid recollection of the moment, the combatants, and the fans' emotions does not just apply to boxing, but all sports. Even non-sports fans can recall an important moment - maybe the Olympics or the Nationals, the World Series or the Superbowl - and tell where they were and how they were feeling. 

So what are the moments in sports you remember most?

You can find out more about Grant and friend him on Facebook. You can read an excerpt of THE RED STORM and get info on Grant's appearances at Macmillan.com.


  1. Moments in sports? For the most part, unless it's figure skating, I have a tendency to be rather clueless about it. However, in the course of keeping a promise, we did end up being in Atlanta to watch the women's gymnastic team win their gold medal at the 1996 summer olympics [which I thought was a pretty darned amazing thing to be there to see] . . . .

  2. USA! USA! USA! When that so very young hockey team beat Russia in the 1980 Olympics. Russian men hadn't been beaten since 1960.

    Love New Orleans, my dad was a boxing fan--congrats on YOUR win!

  3. Ah yes, figure skating... For me when Tonya Harding attacked Nancy Kerrigan with a hammer. Or is that an apres-sports event? Shoulda known I'd be a crime fiction writer.

  4. Welcome, Grant! What a great insight into your writing. "Thighs like silos..." — fantastic image.

    I am going to say figure skating, too. Any/all of Michelle Kwan's programs were amazing. I adore Johnny Weir, first as a skater, now as a commentator.

    As far as skating moments go -- the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding/Oskana Baiul showdown at the Olympics.

  5. Welcome Grant! Joan, we were at the Atlanta Olympics too, but didnt get to see the women's gymnastics.

    I do remember those wonderful figure skating competitions. But also some amazing tennis matches between Martina Navratolova and Chris Everett. And golf--mostly I remember moments where guys in the lead melted down--and even their competitors cringed. Thinking Greg Norman losing to Nick Faldo at the Masters' in 1996, and Jean Van de Velde choking at the British Open in 1999. All this tension pointed me to my golf lovers mystery series, so I learned something from their mistakes!

  6. What a great premise. A black PI in 1938 New Orleans. I bet the culture was so rich.

    My sports moment? Well, there was watching Scott Norwood's potential game-winning kick sail "wide right" in 1991. And "No Goal" in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning watching that game, saw the replay, and couldn't believe the goal stood up.

    Probably the closest any Buffalo team has ever (and sometimes I think will ever) get to a championship. Ah well.

  7. My memorable sports moment? It's not particularly well-known to the outside world, but when my Eldest sprained her ankle on a cross-country course and continued running for a mile, that left quite an impression (especially the next three weeks of limping around....)

    Thanks for coming on the blog, Grant; can't wait to read the book!

  8. Your book sounds fascinating. How wonderful to weave the facts of life that were part of Jim Crow with a black PI who has to work in and around them to accomplish his goals. Perfect story conflict.

    My favorite moment in sports...watching from the stands to see Cigar win the 1995 Gulfstream Park Handicap with Jerry Bailey in the irons. Watching the two of them together was amazing.

  9. This sounds fabulous! I'm instantly getting it for Jonathan.
    My most memorable moment in sports?
    When Malcolm Butler made the interception in the Super Bowl, of course! I still stand and applaud every time I see that.
    And who are those figure skaters who danced to Bolero? Was it Torvill and Dean, my editor says? That was such a shifting moment in the sport.

  10. Hank, it was Torvill and Dean for me, too. I still pull that up on You tube and watch it every so often.

    But before that, Secretariat winning the Triple Crown. I even kept newspaper clipping and made a scrapbook. That was pure magic.

    Grant, the history and atmosphere in your book sound terrific. Can't wait to read it, and congrats on your award!

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  12. Thank you all for your comments. I think a lot of people are going to remember Ronda Rousey losing to Holly Holm last week. People are comparing it to the than invincible Mike Tyson losing to Buster Douglas. I remember when that happened, it was like watching Superman getting beat up

  13. Yikes! Hard to forget that moment when the USA ice hockey team took the blue in the 1980 Olympics. I had a houseful of cheering teenagers grabbing each other and jumping up and down! It's a great memory.

  14. Al Michaels, "Do you beleive in miracles!"

  15. The boy next door never making the Little League Majors or Minors. Only the Farm team. Horrible thing to do to a kid.