Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Mark Troy

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Mark Troy
with Mark Troy

We are delighted to welcome crime novelist Mark Troy to Omnimystery News today.

Mark's first full-length book to feature PI Ava Rome is The Splintered Paddle (Five Star; June 2014 hardcover); the character was previously seen in a novella and short story.

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Mark to talk about his books.

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Omnimystery News: You've taken Ava Rome though short-form fiction to long-form fiction. What is it about series characters that appeals to you as a writer?

Mark Troy
Photo provided courtesy of
Mark Troy

Mark Troy: I think what makes a good series character is that, after you finish a story, you feel there is more to learn about that character. I'm learning more about Ava as I write and I expect to translate that into future stories. I have some idea of how her character will change over time, but I also expect to be surprised. That element of surprise is what keeps a series fresh and, I hope, will keep readers coming back to the stories.

OMN: Into what subgenre would you place the Ava Rome crime novels? And do you find any advantage to labeling them as such?

MT: My stories are private detective novels. I like to think of them as hardboiled and as crime novels rather than mysteries.

Labels serve to guide readers to new books. Readers of "hardboiled" detective stories should know that's what they'll find here. I know there are some readers who might give the book a pass because of the label, but for everyone who does, there are others who will pick it up because that's what they like to read.

One reviewer recently called The Splintered Paddle "Hawaiian Noir". That's a label I hadn't heard before, but I like it. Maybe it will entice some readers to try something new. Hawaiian Noir: ukuleles, Mai Tais, and bullets.

OMN: Give us a summary of The Splintered Paddle in a tweet.

MT: Revenge and death in the Aloha State. Murder in the part of paradise tourists never see. Ava Rome's mission: protect the defenseless.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

MT: None of the characters or events have any origin in my experience. I make an effort to create my characters entirely out of whole cloth. In fact, I try to make them as unlike me as possible. That's why my main character is a woman. I find that I get lazy when I make the characters like myself or their experiences like my experiences. By making them different than myself, I am forced to think harder about them and their experiences. I have, now and then, taken words or actions from real people and inserted them into my characters, but it has never worked. The words, thoughts, or actions always come across flat and uninteresting.

On the other hand, I like to put my stories in places with which I've had some experience. I lived in Hawaii for ten years, so I'm confident I can get the setting right and that I am familiar enough with it that my characters can come alive in it.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

MT: I compare my process to a road trip in which I know where I'm going before I set out and I have some idea of the stops along the way, but I don't know all of the people I'll meet and I'm willing to take side trips. I make notes about the major points of the story and where it is going and then fill in the other points as I go along. The plot points go onto index cards, which I'm constantly adding to. Sometimes the scenes flow easily and sometimes I have to write out summaries ahead of time. I do interviews of my main character and one or two page biographies of some of the others.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any that have been particularly challenging?

MT: I'm working on a story that involves a World War II cold case murder in a War Relocation Camp. I'm finding a tremendous amount of information on the Japanese-American experience in World War II in internet sites devoted to teaching about that period in our history. I was able to travel to the site of the camp that figures in my story and meet with a National Park Service ranger who gave me a tour of what remains on the site.

I also do a lot of library research. I'm fortunate that my university library is a government documents repository in which I can find information on even the most mundane topics.

For some topics, nothing takes the place of first hand experience. I have a friend who is an historian and collector of weapons. When I need first-hand experience, I call him up. "Art, I need to shoot a Thompson."

This World War II story is turning out to be both the most challenging and most exciting to research. If not for this topic, I would not have spend three days driving through Northern California to the Oregon border and meeting knowledgeable and informative people.

OMN: You mentioned that you lived in Hawaii and the Ava Rome mysteries are set there. How important is the setting to the storylines, and how true are you to it?

MT: The Splintered Paddle theme derives from a major tenet of Hawaiian philosophy that has deep cultural roots — the Law of the Splintered Paddle, Kamehameha the Great's first law to protect the defenseless. While other governments and cultures might provide protection, none adopt it as so integral to their worldview. Every elementary school child in Hawaii can tell you what the law means and how it came about.

I stay as true as I can to the geography and the landmarks. That means spending a lot of time poring over maps and photos. If my character is going from one part of the island to another, I make sure I have the travel time right. If there are landmarks along the way or obstacles that would normally be in her path, I make sure I have them correct.

The other aspect of Hawaii that I try to capture is the dialect. There are a lot of different voices among the people of the state. In particular, one often hears Hawaiian's speaking a unique form of pidgin. I try to capture enough of that to give readers a flavor without overdoing it. I spend a lot of time reading dialogue out loud to get the cadences of the speech right.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a story, where would it be?

MT: Indonesia — Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and East Timor. My next book, the one after the one I'm currently working on, deals with illegal harvesting and smuggling of tropical hardwoods, much of which originates in Indonesia.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

MT: I run and workout with weights as does Ava. For a few years, I did skydiving and one of my stories involves a skydive.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

MT: When I was starting out, I submitted part of a manuscript to a workshop led by Joe R. Lansdale. The story had a main character who was a lot like me and a female partner. Joe hated the story, but he liked the female character. He urged me to keep the story in her point of view. His reasoning was that a writer needs to take risks, to get outside of his or her comfort zone. Later, I read something similar from Ken Kesey, who said, "Don't write what you know. What you know is boring. Write what you don't know." I have been told that no man can write from a woman's point of view. My failures have been pointed out many times. I'm most successful when I don't consciously try to put myself in a woman's point of view, but instead rely on my imagination to understand my characters. My advice to aspiring writers is to echo Lansdale and Kesey. Take risks and write what you don't know.

OMN: What kind of feedback do you most enjoy receiving from your readers?

MT: I like hearing from people who have been to or think they have been to the places in my stories and their reactions to my use of the places.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a crime novelist and thus I am also …".

MT: I am a crime novelist and thus I am also afraid of collapsing at my computer and revealing to my family what's in my first draft.

OMN: Tell us a little more about how The Splintered Paddle came to be titled. And were you involved with the cover design?

MT: The title came from the tag line: Honolulu private eye Ava Rome believes in the Hawaiian law of the splintered paddle, that the defenseless will be protected from harm. She will take on any client who is defenseless, including a prostitute and a troubled teenager, but when a revenge-minded ex-con re-enters her life, her most difficult client is herself.

I called the book The Law of the Splintered Paddle, but my editor thought that sounded too much like a Hardy Boys mystery, so she shortened it. I was afraid the shortened version sounded like a BDSM story or a fraternity initiation gone bad, but I deferred to her.

The publisher did the cover and I thought they did a great job. When Five Star sent the cover, I revealed it on my website. A person I knew from some mystery discussion lists saw it and told me that she had taken that photograph at sunset at Kawaikui Beach on southern Oahu. She sold the photo to a stock photo supplier where the Five Star designer found it.

OMN: Suppose the Ava Rome books were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see playing the key roles?

MT: If Sigourney Weaver were still playing action roles such as Ellen Ripley in Alien, she would be my first choice. In fact, Ava will sometimes identify herself as Ellen Ripley when she does not want to give her real name. Not an actress, but closer to Ava in age, attitude and appearance, is Team USA goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Goalkeeper is the one position in sport that comes closest to Ava's job. Like Hope, Ava stands alone against the opposition when everybody else has messed up.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young? And have any authors or titles influenced how and what you write today?

MT: As a child, I was fascinated with the Hardy Boys. A group of us in elementary school formed a club in which each member took the name of a character from the Hardy Boy books. We would compete to see who could read the most books in the series. The requirement was that you had to read the series in order, which often resulted in races to the library. Later on, I went to Agatha Christie, Earl Stanley Gardner, Leslie Charteris, Ellery Queen and Sax Rohmer. I also read a lot of science fiction and espionage

I took my earliest writing inspiration from MacDonald's Travis McGee series. Trav was cool, adventurous, and he had a guiding, if somewhat peculiar, philosophy that informed his decisions. I want my characters to be guided and elevated by their own philosophy and not pushed around by circumstances. Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Greg Rucka exerted the strongest influences when it came to writing a female protagonist.

OMN: What do you read now for pleasure?

MT: I still read a lot of mysteries, but I'm reading a lot more short stories and novellas. Recently, I picked up a collection of short stories written in the old pulp style. They span a variety of genres. If I had to label them, I'd say they were adventure stories with fantastic plot elements.

OMN: Do you have any favorite series characters?

MT: Travis McGee of course. John le Carré's George Smiley, Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch and Rachel Walling, Greg Rucka's Bridgette Logan, Robert Crais's Carol Starkey, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski, and Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

MT: Top 5 drinks to drink on Oahu:

1. Mai Tai at the Mai Tai Bar, Royal Hawaiian Hotel;
2. Basil Martini at the House Without a Key, Halekulani Hotel;
3. Fruit punch (non-alcoholic) at Helena's Hawaiian Food in Kalihi;
4. Longboard Island Lager at Jameson's By the Sea, Haleiwa; and
5. San Souci Sunset at Hau Tree Lanai, New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel.

OMN: What's next for you?

MT: I'm trying to finish a book set in a WWII Japanese-American Concentration Camp. The story involves a cold-case murder of a Japanese-American Buddhist priest in the camp. I need to finish it soon because that generation is dying rapidly and I want to tell the story before they are gone.

On a personal goal, I recently finished a 180 mile bike ride and I'm hooked on long-distance cycling. I plan to do a lot more of those. Maybe another triathlon.

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Mark is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. He earned a Bachelor's degree from Quincy University in Illinois and a Master's degree from Washington University before going to Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer. He returned to the U.S. to earn a doctorate at the University of Hawaii. Mark and his wife live in College Station, Texas where Mark is on the staff of Texas A&M University.

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

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The Splintered Paddle by Mark Troy

The Splintered Paddle
Mark Troy
An Ava Rome Mystery

Waikiki, Hawaii. Golden sunshine. Waving palm trees. Sparkling blue water.

Private eye Ava Rome's calling is to protect the defenseless. She takes on the cases of Jenny Mordan, a working girl who is being harassed by a police detective, and Cassie Sands, a teenager who is mixed up with a marijuana grower.

Norman Traxler did ten years in San Quentin nurturing his hatred of Ava Rome, the young MP who took him down for assaulting a prostitute.

When Traxler, the detective and the grower join forces against her, Ava's calling, protecting the defenseless, becomes a fight for her life.

Waikiki, Hawaii. Dark clouds of revenge. Twisted motives. A bloody finale. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)


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