An Interview with Tom Coffey

Tom Coffey was born and raised in Staten Island.  He graduated from the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, and embarked on a career in journalism. He has worked as a writer and editor at some of America’s leading newspapers, the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and New York Newsday. Tom has been a staff editor at The New York Times since 1997. His first novel, “The Serpent Club,” was published in 1999, and his second book, “Miami Twilight,” came out in 2001. Tom lives in Lower Manhattan with his wife, Jill, and daughter, Skyler.

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BMH:    What’s a common and accepted practice for Americans nowadays that you think we’ll look back on with regret?

TC:    The love affair with the automobile. Cars are brutal for the environment, and they’ve led to our oil addiction. That, in turn, means we have to pay enormous attention to the Middle East, a region of the world that has defied every attempt at rational problem-solving for millennia. The dependence on the automobile has also isolated and alienated millions of Americans in atomized and banal suburbs and exurbs. Plus it’s led to the horrible scarring of large swaths of the American landscape. My wife, daughter and I just returned from a trip to Nashville and Memphis. We drove hundreds of miles, and we were appalled at the physical ugliness of roadside America. Does anybody have anything good to say about strip malls?

BMH:    Describe a few pet peeves of yours.

TC:    I live in Manhattan, and I have one great pet peeve above all others – people who stand at the sidewalk entrance to subway stations, and do not move. THAT IS A HORRIBLE PLACE TO STAND! HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE NEED TO GET IN AND OUT OF THAT STATION! MOVE YOUR BUTTS OVER A FEW FEET WHILE YOU FIGURE OUT WHAT TO DO NEXT! DO NOT STAND THERE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! (If you mention this fact to the offenders, by the way, they accuse you of being a rude New Yorker.)

BMH:    What do you know now that you wished someone had told you ten years ago?

TC:    That you have to sell yourself, and your books, as if you’re one of those over-the-top pitchmen on late-night TV.

BMH:    Do you blog? If so, why and what do you usually blog about?

TC:    I’ve tried to blog, but there are only so many hours in the day, and whenever I blog I have this guilty feeling that I should really be writing. I do try to post to Facebook at least once a day.

BMH:    Have you ever done a blog book tour? What was that like and would you do it again?

TC:    I haven’t, but I have a feeling I’ll be doing one quite soon. If I can go off-topic a bit – my last book came out in hardcover in 2008. In doing the promotion for my new book, I’ve been struck by the radical difference in the marketing schemes between now and then. Today it’s all about social media and going viral, and nobody thinks about the legacy media anymore.

BMH:    Do you enjoy doing promotion?

TC:    I have mixed feelings about it. I’m a writer, not a marketer, and I’d rather be writing. On the other hand, it’s great to meet people who are interested in your work, and to connect with them. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, but you can spend only so many hours by yourself in front of a computer screen before you turn into Norman Bates.

BMH:    What’s the oddest thing you’ve ever done to promote your work?

TC:    For my last book, I made long car trips around the Northeast to promote the novel in front of tiny gatherings at small bookstores in towns I had a hard time finding on the map.

BMH:    What’s the strangest fan question/request you’ve ever gotten?

TC:    Once, when I was in Florida promoting my second book, MIAMI TWILIGHT, a man in the audience asked me an extremely detailed question about my first book, THE SERPENT CLUB. I don’t remember the question exactly, but I do recall just staring blankly at him and thinking, “This guy knows my book way better than I do.”

Respond to these pairings and tell why you respond the way you do:

a.    Series or stand-alone books
TC:    Stand-alone. I get bored with the same characters and I want to move on to something different.

b.    Outliner or A-Seat-of-a-Pantser
TC:    More of a Seat-of-the-Pantser, although I always have a good idea of how the book will end.  I compare my writing technique to driving through a thick fog. I know where I’m going, but I have trouble seeing past the next fifty feet.

c.    Lots of research or make it all up
TC:    Research. I love doing research. Way more fun that writing. Although it’s always great when the research intersects with your imagination.

d.    Neat or sloppy
TC:    Neat. I can’t stand a mess. You can talk to my wife and my daughter about this.

e.    NY or DC
TC:    NY. I’m a native New Yorker. There’s more to do, and it’s more cosmopolitan. Although I have nothing against DC, except that Congress is there.

f.    Carnivore or vegetarian
TC:    Carnivore. Denis Leary said it best: “Vegetarianism is a choice. Eating meat is an instinct.” (For the record, chicken is the lynchpin of my diet.)

BMH:    How have you grown as a writer?

TC:    When I was younger I wanted to show off how smart I thought I was. Now that I’m older, and I’m acutely aware of how much I don’t know, I’m much more sympathetic to my characters, no matter how flawed they are. I’m interested in telling stories and depicting characters, not in making points.

BMH:    What has gotten better?

TC:    I’m a lot better at the craft of writing. I know what it takes, and how to approach it, so there are fewer false starts and a lot less flailing about.

BMH:    What things have you dropped along the way?

TC:    Pretension. I’ve come around to Elmore Leonard’s way of thinking – if it seems like “writing,” cut it out.

BMH:     What helped most in your growth as a writer?

TC:    Any growth I’ve had as a writer has gone hand in hand with my growth as a human being. To that end, being a husband and a father have really shaped me over the years. So have the vicissitudes of life – dealing with aging parents, living in Lower Manhattan through 9/11 and its aftermath, and just the daily grind of making a living.

BMH:    What is the worst and best advice you’ve received about writing?

TC:    The best advice is this: Carve out time in your schedule, and write every day. (I write for about 60-90 minutes in the mornings; I wish I had more time.) I hope that I’ve forgotten the worst advice I ever got, although I still recoil whenever I get the feeling that somebody wants me to write the way they write, rather than the way I do.

BMH:    What surprised you most about your writing journey?

TC:    That it’s work, and you have to regard it that way. You can sit around and wait for creative sparks and inspiration, but if you do it that way, you won’t get much done. (Thomas Edison’s remark about genius being one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration was right on the mark.)

BMH:    Why did you choose to write suspense fiction?

TC:    When suspense fiction is done well, it really draws in the reader and keeps him or her going. On a broader level, I like plots, and suspense plots in particular can be riveting. (As an aside … it may sound weird to say, “I like plots,” but current literary theory likes to debunk plots as contrivance and artifice. There is a small, valid point there, but the larger point is this: the ancient art of storytelling is how human beings make sense of the world.)

BMH:    Who are your favorite authors?

TC:    John le Carre, Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. I’ll reread Chandler every once in a while just to remind myself of how a good mystery should be done. I’m also an extravagant admirer of Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. “Wolf Hall,” in particular, was the best novel I’ve read in years.

BMH:    What do think about the new faces of publishing?

TC:    It has made publishing more challenging, but also more open. My latest book, BRIGHT MORNING STAR, comes out this spring, and it’s being done by an independent publisher in California. I’ve learned a lot about the new methods of publishing, and I’m confident that I’d navigate these new waters better in the future if I decide to go that route.
That being said, there are still things to like about the old-fashioned mainstream publishers. Like advances, for instance.

BMH:    What is a typical writing day for like?

TC:    I work nights as an editor on the Sports desk at The New York Times. So I usually wake up fairly late, and these days both my daughter and my wife have left for school and work, respectively. It takes me about an hour to eat a light breakfast, drink my coffee, read the paper, and so on. Then I write for about 60-90 minutes. It’s my favorite time of the day. After writing, I go through emails and do all the other things the business of writing requires. That usually takes about 30 minutes, although with a book launch coming up, these days it’s consuming much more time. Then I eat lunch and go the gym. After the gym, I go to the job that pays my bills.

Would you rather…

……live without music or live without TV?
TC:    Without music. One of the great developments in the last 15-20 years has been the proliferation of great television shows. Right now I’m watching both the “Wolf Hall” adaptation and the final season of “Mad Men.” Plus … sports!
As for music … I like music, and since my daughter is a teenager who takes music lessons, I hear a lot of it at home. While I was growing up, I always swore I’d never disparage the music my kids listened to (my parents, particularly my father, HATED rock ’n’ roll) …. But when I listen to contemporary pop music, I become extremely aware of how ‘produced’ it sounds. I once asked my daughter, “Can Katy Perry really sing?” And she replied, “That’s not the point, Dad.”

……be gossiped about or never talked about at all?
TC:    Be gossiped about. Because it means people are thinking about you.

BMH;    What are you working on now?

TC:    In my next book, I’m returning to my roots as a noirish crime/mystery writer. It’s a murder mystery set in New York in both the 1970s and today.

BMH:    Where can we find your books?

TC:    Amazon. The great thing about ebooks is that you’re never out of print.

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