A Conversation with Mystery Author Kenneth Wishnia
March 14th, 2014
We are delighted to welcome mystery author Kenneth Wishnia to Omnimystery News today. Ken's fourth mystery with ex-cop and new PI Filomena Buscarsela, Red House, is being re-issued this month in trade paperback and ebook formats by PM Press. We recently had the chance to talk with Ken about his series character and the mysteries in which she finds herself.
— ♦ —
Omnimystery News: How has Filomena Buscarsela changed over the course of four books?
Kenneth Wishnia: I can't imagine writing one of those series in which the character never ages or changes (she's a human being, for God's sake, not Superwoman). So my character, Filomena Buscarsela, goes from a wild and crazy female cop in the first novel, 23 Shades of Black (set during the Reagan era), to an ex-cop and single mom in Soft Money (George H. W. Bush era). She's unemployed and desperate in The Glass Factory (Clinton era), and in Red House, she's working for a private investigator (and some guy named George W. Bush is president).
OMN: Into which mystery genre would you place the series?
KW: Fairly hardboiled and political, but tempered with lots of cynical humor. It's not a terribly crowded niche, so I'm fine with that.
OMN: Tell us something about this book that isn't mentioned in the publisher's synopsis.
KW: Red House was the first novel I wrote after going through the sheer hell of graduate school in Comparative Literature (my dissertation was on 20th century Ecuadorian literature). By that point, I found writing academic prose almost physically painful, and as a result Red House has this incredible energy running through it: It's like I'm rediscovering the thrill of being able to kick the crap out of a scene. In academic prose, you have to painstakingly qualify everything. In crime fiction, you get to smash the amps and leave the stage a smoking ruin. Woohoo!
OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?
KW: Tons of it.
OMN: Describe your writing process for us.
KW: I gather the notes for five novels, then I write one. It's very labor intensive, but I'd rather do that than write one those lame, formulaic crime novels that are nothing more than a set-up and a conclusion with tons of dead air in between because the author clearly doesn't have enough material for a novel. Whenever I hear a writer complain that they're having trouble with "the middle," all I can think is, Well, then you shouldn't be writing a novel, because it sounds more like a short story.
OMN: How do you go about fact-checking the plot points of your books? KW: I do tons of research, including expert interviews and location scouting. But none of that matters if you can't get the story off the ground. In Red House, Filomena is an overworked single mom who's dealing with the lack of affordable housing and the poor treatment of immigrants. Women have come up to me and said, "This is my life. How did you know this?" Because it's my life, too. (On another note, it took me a long time to find the voice for my last novel, The Fifth Servant, which is set in Prague's Jewish ghetto in 1592. When it finally came out, a number of readers said, "Well, you're obviously a Talmudic scholar." No, I'm a writer: it's not my job to be a Talmudic scholar, it's my job to make you believe I am one. And if I did, then all that research paid off.)
OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?
KW: I use real settings, but often fictionalize them. You have to be careful, though, because people are funny: You can invent "The Schneerson Building" at 72nd and Broadway, and everybody accepts that you're making up a building, but God help you if you say "72nd and Broadway, east of Park Avenue," because everyone will tell you that 72nd and Broadway is west of Park Avenue and that they no longer trust anything you say.
OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research a setting, where would it be?
KW: Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, because that's the setting of my next novel. But so far all my attempts at time travel have proved fruitless. Darn laws of physics …
OMN: Do any of your outside interests or hobbies find their way into your books? KW: Everything finds its way into my books. So watch what you say to me.
OMN: What advice might you offer aspiring writers?
KW: The basic rules for good writing haven't changed since the Roman poet Horace laid them out in the Art of Poetry around 10 BC: Have some talent, read the masters, and revise your work over and over before sending it out. Then hire a publicist.
OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also …".
KW: I am also a Professor of English at Suffolk Community College on Long Island. Don't quit your day job, people.
OMN: Red House was first published in 2001 and is being reissued by PM Press. How involved were you with the new cover design? And does the title have any special meaning?
KW: I love the covers that PM Press is doing for this series. They're unique, immediately identifiable as part of a series, and unlike anything else out there. Just like my writing. And yes, there was a lot of back-and-forth about the cover designs. The title Red House has many meanings in the story: there's a house that's painted red, a house full of "reds" (anarchist squatters), a house that's "red hot" (due to toxic chemicals), and a house that goes up in flames. It's also the title of one of Jimi Hendrix's classic blues songs, which turns up in the pages of the novel.
OMN: What kinds of feedback have you received from readers about the book?
KW: That they actually read it and liked it enough to tell me so — see the "This is my life" comment above — or better yet, they told somebody else to read it.
OMN: If this series were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the part of Filomena?
KW: Obviously, she'd have to be a latina. Why, you know somebody?
OMN: What kinds of books did you read as a child?
KW: My brain took a while to develop that capacity. I read kids' mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown, the tales of Judge Ooka, Hitchcock's Three Investigators, Basil of Baker Street, and Rod Serling's Twilight Zone stories. But I could barely get through three pages of the crappy novels we were assigned in 5th and 6th grade. Then suddenly in 7th grade something clicked: we read Tom Sawyer, A Christmas Carol, and The Crucible (in 7th grade!) and I finally experienced what it was like to immerse yourself in a compelling, more literary style of storytelling. (Thank you, Mrs. Putre!) I had read the complete Sherlock Holmes canon by 8th grade. Then it was on to Raymond Chandler.
OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?
KW: Everything — with a definite biias towards crime fiction, literary fiction, and non-fiction of all kinds. I once heard a radio interview with jazz great Charles Mingus in which the host, a college student, asked Mingus whom he thought the "young jazz musician of today" should be listening to. Mingus answered: "Start with Bach, and listen to everything else since then." I'd adapt this advice for the aspiring writer of today: Start with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and read everything else since then.
OMN: What's next for you?
KW: Researching my next novel. Unless Hollywood calls.
— ♦ —
Kenneth Wishnia's novels include 23 Shades of Black, an Edgar Award and Anthony Award finalist; Soft Money, a Library Journal Best Mystery of the Year; and The Fifth Servant, an Indie Notable selection, winner of a Premio Letterario ADEI-WIZO, and a finalist for the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery Award (Macavity Awards). His short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Queens Noir, Long Island Noir, Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail and elsewhere. He teaches writing, literature and other deviant forms of thought at Suffolk Community College on Long Island.
For more information about the author and his work, please visit his website at KennethWishnia.com.