Friday, December 11, 2015

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Joseph B. Atkins

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Joseph B. Atkins

We are delighted to welcome author Joseph B. Atkins to Omnimystery News today.

Joseph's latest crime novel is Casey's Last Chance (Sartoris Literary Group; February 2015 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the chance to talk with him more about it.

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Omnimystery News: Give us a summary of Casey's Last Chance in a tweet.

Joseph B. Atkins
Photo provided courtesy of
Joseph B. Atkins

Joseph B. Atkins: Casey's Last Chance is a hardboiled crime novel about a small-time hustler on the run from cops, crime syndicate goons, and himself in the race-torn South of 1960.

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

JBA: The book takes the reader across the South, a region I know quite intimately having been born in the middle of it, grown up on one end of it, and lived on the other end for many years now. I've driven those dark, scary roads my main character, Casey Eubanks, drives in the novel, although I never had cops and goons chasing me! Casey was inspired in part by a ne'er-do-well relative of mine who after a life of crime tried to return home and was rejected by the family, perhaps rightly so since he'd apparently not changed his bad old ways. He died not much later. An inversion of the prodigal son's story! As for Casey, he's got his issues, but is he beyond redemption? There's a woman, Orella, who believes he's not. That's a key question in the book.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

JBA: I began with an idea, and I filled up part of a notebook fleshing out elements of that idea before ever writing the first word of the novel. I would never take it to the very end because the process itself will unveil the end. If I knew everything, including the ending, at the outset, the work would be too boring to even complete. I change my mind often on those first ideas about character and plot. The momentum of the story forces those changes. I've got a 300-to-400-page notebook filled with rough chapter outlines, character sketches, 2 or 3-page bios, photographs of real people past and present who look like what I imagine my characters to look like. The notebook includes my primitive drawings of scenes — hotel rooms, alleyways, roadhouses, crude maps, observations about writing itself, advice to myself, daily progress reports, and pages of historical notes. My novel is set in 1960, so the latter is very important. I'm an old reporter who believes in getting the facts right. I don't want Casey driving down a highway that didn't exist in 1960! Casey comes out of a very strong car culture, so what I say about the characters' cars has to be right on.

OMN: How did you go about researching the specific plot points of the story?

JBA: The Internet is wonderful, of course, although you have to be careful of your source. In the long process of writing this book, I traveled a great deal, following Casey's journey when I could. I collected old maps dating back to the early 1960s, books of facts about those times. The reporter in me truly enjoyed doing interviews for the project. One of my best sources was a veteran FBI agent nearing retirement who remembered the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover. He was a wonderful resource of information that I used in creating my novel's rogue FBI agent Hardy Beecher. My source taught me how the agency would place a bug on someone and set up a listening device in a parked car nearby. He taught me the arcane terms FBI agents used in those days.

OMN: How important is the setting to your book?

JBA: I believe the setting is very important. My novel begins with Casey Eubanks riding a bus into Memphis on a rainy July night. I know Memphis pretty well — my wife and I have had a downtown apartment there for many years. Casey walks down a real Union Avenue, past a real Peabody Hotel, into a real alleyway named November 6 toward a fictional Hotel Paris. When I'm standing at the end of that alley, I see that hotel in my mind even if it's not really there! I actually did once stay in a Hotel Paris in New Orleans back in the 1960s, and it was quite a memorable dump.

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

JBA: I love to travel. My travels have influenced my writing greatly, and not just my roaming around in the South. I hitchhiked from North Carolina to California in the late 1960s, a crazy, adventure-filled trip that inspired my short story "Pickup on Route 66" inAlfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine back in 2009. More recent trips to Singapore and Hong Kong led to those cities becoming settings in a series of connected short stories that I'm now writing.

As a journalist, I've done a lot of work on labor issues, and, of course, that found its way into Casey's Last Chance. The South's segregationist bosses hated labor unions with much the same intensity that they hated civil rights activists back in 1960, and I make that clear in the novel.

I'm a great lover of music and played the guitar in a series of garage bands back in the day. You can hear country, blues and rockabilly coming out of a lot of radios in my short stories as well as my novel.

OMN: The cover has a very noir feel to it. How involved were you with the design?

JBA: I knew my publisher could find a good cover for my book, but I really wanted something special. I wanted a cover like those on the great pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s. I've got a modest collection of those books by forgotten authors like Earl Norman, Edward S. Aarons, Lilla Van Saher, and real early edition classics by Dashiell Hammett, Paul Cain, Erle Stanley Gardner, and William Irish (better known as Cornell Woolrich). Vibrant colors, spooky shadows, exciting action scenes that grab your attention! That's what I wanted, and I found the perfect artist in Eric Summers here in writer-filled Oxford, Mississippi. Eric himself is a fan of 1950s-era pulp artists like Robert McGinnis, and he nailed it with the cover of Casey's Last Chance. My publisher Jim Dickerson also gave wonderful input during the process and was instrumental in the nice feel of the cover as well.

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Joseph B. Atkins was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, and now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee. He is the son of a G.I. and German native who met in Munich, Germany, at the end of World War II. As a youth Atkins worked in the textile mills and tobacco fields that dominated his hometown's economy. A Vietnam veteran, Atkins studied philosophy at East Carolina University and the University of Munich. He received his master's in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C. He worked at newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi and covered Congress and the U.S. South for Gannett New Service in Washington, D.C. In 2011, he was given the "Advocate of the Year Award" by the Mississippi Association for Justice for his reportage on labor and other social justice issues.

For more information about the author, please visit him on Facebook.

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Casey's Last Chance by Joseph B. Atkins

Casey's Last Chance by Joseph B. Atkins

A Crime Novel

Publisher: Sartoris Literary Group Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)iTunes iBook FormatKobo eBook Format

Casey Eubanks, is a small-time North Carolina hustler on the run after angrily firing a shot over the head of his girlfriend Orella during an argument and accidentally killing his cousin. He seeks refuge with a crony, Clyde Point, who steers him to a big operator in Memphis, Max Duren, a shadowy former Nazi with a wide financial network across the South. The story takes place in July 1960.

Duren hires Casey to kill Ala Gadomska, a labor organizer who is stirring up trouble at one of Duren's mills in northern Mississippi. Casey sets up for a sniper shot during a rally, but can't go through with it. She's beautiful, makes sense, and maybe he's developing a conscience.

Now he's on the run again, this time from Duren's goons as well as the cops. Enter Martin Wolfe, a reporter investigating Duren's operation. He tries to talk Casey into joining forces with him and FBI agent Hardy Beecher to bring Duren down.

It's Casey's last chance. The three take off across the South to execute a plan to destroy Duren. Everything works according to plan until the explosive end, at which point no one is able to escape unscathed.

Casey's Last Chance by Joseph B. Atkins


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