Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Jeffery Hess

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Jeffery Hess

We are delighted to welcome author Jeffery Hess to Omnimystery News today.

Jeffery's debut crime novel is Beachhead (Down & Out Books; March 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to catch up with him to talk more about it.

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Omnimystery News: Introduce us to the lead character of Beachhead. What is it about him that appeals to you as a writer?

Jeffery Hess
Photo provided courtesy of
Jeffery Hess

Jeffery Hess: Twenty-eight year-old Scotland Ross is a Navy-prison parolee determined to rise above the baggage of the past to be a better man. Part of his virtue is his loyalty, which drags him into the life of crime he had hoped to avoid.

I think Scotland's virtue is what I like most about him. It's such a contrast to his physical strength because the things that get him in trouble are done for the right reasons, but that doesn't work out well for him. Seemingly, ever.

OMN: Suppose Scotland were to meet you in person. What would be the first thing he says to you?

JH: I'm convinced Scotland Ross would walk up to me, get within an inch of my face and yell, "What the fuck, man?"

I couldn't blame him. I took everything — his infant son, his marriage, his Navy career, his sister (and by extension, his nieces) which left him little option but to engage in a life he hoped to avoid. Despite that, he manages to keep a tenuous grip on his sense of virtue as well as guilt when he doesn't.

OMN: Into which fiction category would you place Beachhead?

JH: The books I like most are tough to categorize. Maybe that accounts for the way my writing has been called everything from crime, noir, military writing, or Florida Glare — as Adam Gopnik described in a New Yorker article in 2013 states:

But another line of crime fiction, at the other peninsular end of the country, may have supplanted the L.A.-noir tradition as a paperback mirror of American manners — the fiction of Florida glare. In this genre, as Dave Barry, a late-arriving practitioner, puts it, a bunch of "South Florida wackos" — all heavily armed, all loquacious, all barely aware of one another's existence — blunder through petty crime, discover themselves engaged in actual murder, and then move in unconscious unison toward the black comedy of a violent climax.

I'm not sure that's the best definition for what I do, or if any definition can be exact without being reductive. Sure, I often write about the military, about crime, set in Florida, but I don't know exactly what to call myself, in that regard. I'll let readers, reviewers, and bookstore employees make that decision if they are so compelled.

OMN: How would you tweet a summary of Beachhead.

JH: Beachhead is set a quarter century before Twitter launched, back when telephones, cards and letters, and CB radios were the height of communication. That said, since I'm living in these modern times, I'd Tweet: "Navy-prison parolee delays new life to try & save his sister from redneck gangster who stops at nothing to get what he wants. #BEACHHEAD".

Don't be surprised to see that posted verbatim. No sense wasting it!

OMN: Tell us a little more about your writing process.

JH: I hate to sound glib, but each book (or story, or essay, or poem) is different. Beachhead began as a short story based on an idea given to me by a bartender on St. Pete Beach. I kind of just ran with it in the beginning because it was just a story, but then, I kept wondering what happened before and after the time of that original story draft. It progressed like that old saying about driving cross country by seeing only as far as your headlights allow.

OMN: Where do you most often find yourself writing?

JH: I write, primarily, on a laptop. First thing in the morning, I sit at the dining room table. At night, I sit on my back porch. So I end up being immersed in the story last thing at night when the phone doesn't ring and almost no one texts or emails me; and first thing in the morning when the fog of sleep prevents me from being too judgmental and before the outside world has had a chance to burden my mind.

OMN: Beachhead starts out on the Gulf Coast — a setting we're most familiar with! — and moves across the state to Daytona Beach. How important is the setting to the story?

JH: I wouldn't go so far as to say that setting is a character in this book, but the diversity and the disparity of the Florida landscape is integral. I'm very familiar with it and I always try to honor accuracy. Of course, liberties must be taken from time to time, but all in the name of story and, often, emotional truth.

OMN: How did Beachhead come to be titled?

JH: I generally struggle with titles. Ask my wife and friends Tracy and Jim and they'll tell you that I typically run about thirty to fifty title ideas past them before I decide on one. With Beachhead, I tried probably more than that. The short story draft was originally titled "Scotland: Not the Country" but that didn't last long. As Daytona Beach figured prominently in the story, I called it simply Daytona for a while. A major locale in the book is an apartment complex called the Gulf Breeze, so I had Gunshots in the Gulf as a title for a while, too, until Pinckney Benedict suggested that might lead readers to assume it was in reference to the Persian Gulf. I looked for other words and lines directly from the text, consulted two books of quotations, a thesaurus or two, and then stumbled upon the value of an online "reverse look up" dictionary, where I typed in various aspects of the novel. As soon as I saw Beachhead, I knew that was the winner. Not only does it refer to Scotland's state of mind in his desire to get to Daytona, but it also refers to the battleground aspect of the story where he must dig in and fight.

OMN: The striking cover depicts a scene from the book. How involved were you with its design?

JH: After the book was accepted and the contract signed, I met with Down & Out Books publisher Eric Campbell, who asked if I had any ideas in mind. I had one that was marginal at best. He shared that with cover designer, Eric Beetner, who had the wisdom to ignore that and focus on a scene in the book to create a cover that completely blew me away. The images of the helicopter and falling girl intrigued me and I found the colors unique and arresting.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

JH: I grew up in North Fort Myers, Florida, at a time when the book mobile traveled to our neighborhood. This magical vessel was essentially a shelf-lined bus or RV and I would be the first one on and the last one off. I honestly don't remember all the books I looked at or checked out, but I do recall the excitement every time it came. For whatever reason, I always read above my grade level, but I was a less than stellar student. It was in high school that I had a class where the teacher allowed us to pick any novels we wanted to read and write book reports about. The first one I read for that class was Steven King's Christine and it floored me. Perhaps it was because I could relate to the characters, who were high school students, and Arnie Cunningham was hunting for his first car — a major event in my life back then — or the creepy shit that happened and was overcome. Whatever it was, I knew from that moment I wanted to write novels, too. The next book I read for that class was John Irving's The World According to Garp which was clearly different than Christine but also affecting in a similar way because I related to the wrestling scenes (though it was at college instead of high school). It kept me shocked and curious and in the presence of danger, also. Between the two books, I had learned that my experiences and imagination had value and that was all it took.

OMN: Have any specific authors influenced how and what you write today?

JH: My infatuation with crime in general and noir in particular started with Jim Thompson and James M. Cain, which led to Donald Westlake, especially when he wrote as Richard Stark. Their books set the noir hook. I kept looking for more and more and along the way I've discovered great writers like Daniel Woodrell, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Hogan, Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Lange, Frank Bill, and Josh Stallings, to name a few. I read a lot of Elmore Leonard too, and Larry Brown and Harry Crews. Add Cormac McCarthy to that list, and Benjamin Percy, too. Not everything I read is strictly noir, or necessarily considered crime, but they have something that draws me in and everything I write is in pursuit of that something.

OMN: What's next for you?

JH: I'm working on the sequel to Beachhead now — what I envision to be the second of a trilogy. It picks up four months after Beachhead ends. I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just say that Scotland's virtue remains strong while his resolve to stay away from danger does not.

Aside from that, I will continue the writing workshop and return to a consistent pattern of writing on the back porch at night and at the dining room table first thing in the morning.

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Born in New York and raised on Florida's Gulf coast, Jeffery Hess served six years aboard the Navy's oldest and newest ships and has held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. He is the editor of the award-winning anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53). He's an alum of the University of South Florida and holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. His writing has appeared widely in print and online. He lives in Tampa, where he leads the DD-214 Writers' Workshop for military veterans.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at JefferyHess.com and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Beachhead by Jeffery Hess

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess

A Crime Novel

Publisher: Down & Out Books

Amazon.com Print/Kindle Format(s)BN.com Print/Nook Format(s)Kobo eBook Format

It's 1980 on Florida's Gulf coast. Sun, drugs, gambling debts, and dirty deals push Navy-prison parolee, Scotland Ross, deeper into the life of crime he never wanted.

His sister's life, a potential newfound love, and his own freedom are all on the line as he tangles with a redneck gangster intent on becoming the state's next governor.

Will Scotland make the right choice or the one that keeps him alive?

Beachhead by Jeffery Hess. Click here to take a Look Inside the book.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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