Harley Mazuk was born in Cleveland, and majored in English literature at Hiram College in Ohio, and Elphinstone College, Bombay U. Harley worked as a record salesman (vinyl) and later served the U.S. Government as a computer programmer and in communications, where he honed his writing style as an editor and content provider for official web sites.
Retired now, he likes to write pulp fiction, mostly private eye stories, several of which have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
Harley’s other passions are reading, his wife Anastasia, their two children, peace, running, Italian cars, and California wine.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, White with Fish, Red with Murder. To begin with, can you gives us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: White with Fish, Red with Murder is the story of private eye Frank Swiver, who accepts an invitation to a wine tasting on a private rail car, and brings along his secretary and lover, Vera Peregrino. They’re two thirds of a love triangle. The host, Frank’s client, General Thursby, wants him to find proof that a friend whose death was ruled accidental was in fact murdered. Thursby suspects Cicilia O’Callaghan, widow of his late friend, an old flame of Frank’s, and the third leg of that triangle. But Thursby takes two slugs through the pump, and the cops arrest Vera for his killing. Frank spends his nights with Cici, and his days trying to find Thursby’s killer and spring Vera. But soon he realizes he must change his way of thinking, or risk losing both women . . . and maybe his life.
I felt compelled to write this story because I had read all of Raymond Chandler’s fiction, and most of Dashiell Hammett’s. I loved it, and I wanted more, even if I had to write it myself. I tried to reproduce the feel of their stories in characters, atmosphere, dialogue, and plot so that readers who liked Hammett and Chandler will feel as much at home with Frank Swiver as they would with Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe.
Q: What do you think makes a good mystery? Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: Character, plot, and pace. A good private eye story is not about the eye, but about the characters –the client, the femme fatale, the villain or antagonist. The characters must be believable, well-rounded, and distinct from one another. They must be driven by desires they are powerless to resist. Character is revealed in action. The plot must be credible; it has to be of a certain magnitude to hang a novel on it. And it’s good to have a couple different things going on in the plot. The best way for a writer to conceal a mystery is by interesting the reader in solving some other mystery. Finally, pace. You don’t necessarily have to write a thriller, but it needs to be a page turner. You want the reader to wonder, what happens next. A fourth element, close behind these three, is setting, environment, or a sense of place.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I’m certainly in favor of knowing where you’re going when you set out. I was working towards a certain ending that I had in mind, but in this novel, the characters revealed to me how to get there and what to do along the way as the book progressed. For example, no one saw the murder, but private eye Frank Swiver questioned the seven suspects present, each of whom had a story, a version of the truth. By studying everyone’s comings and goings, their desires, and their versions of the truth, Frank gathered the clues he needed to put the whole mystery together. By following along with Frank, I learned what I needed to know to write my way to the ending.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: Because of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Frank Swiver is a pacifist, unusual in the tough, fists and blackjacks world of private eyes. He was a conscientious objector during WW II. As it happens, I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, so I didn’t need to interview Frank. We shared the same values.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: The villain goes back to some of the most basic ideas I learned reading Edgar Allan Poe’s first detective story, and to the idea of the duality of human nature. In some ways the antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist, Frank. He’s the animalistic side of Frank’s nature, and the dark side.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: Well, Raymond Chandler says, “When in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” I didn’t do that, but I kept the spirit of this excellent advice in mind. Consider variations on that theme—even a car chase, for instance. Also, I try to think of my book as a series of dramatic scenes that will tell the story. A novel’s a big piece of work, so it helps me to get my arms around it by breaking it down into scenes. I think, how will I move the plot along in this scene? How will I reveal character?
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: What I tried to do in White with Fish was create a story world–a noir-ish version of 1948 San Francisco. I used descriptions of specific locations and objects, details, and stylized dialogue to give the novel verisimilitude, and try to give the book the feel of a more human, less technological world than the one we live in.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: Themes! Ah! I think I have a sense of the themes of my work inside my subconscious when I start writing. But I can only articulate the themes after the first draft is complete. Some of the themes in my writing have been recurring—non-violence, the duality of human nature, the breakdown of civil order, and classic noir themes, like love, lust, greed, lying dames, violence, double-crosses, and murder.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: I for one, can’t imagine always hitting the mark on the first or only creative thrust. I believe editing and revision are a part of art, maybe 60 percent or more. Just don’t throw out what is good and true and right about that initial draft when you’re editing. Fix the structure to support the plot and the theme; develop and strengthen what is good and what could be better, and cut what doesn’t work so well.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Perseverance is necessary. This is especially true in marketing your manuscripts—pitching your novel to an agent or a publisher, or submitting shorter fiction to the right journal or magazine. Nearly 35 publishers declined my novelette, “Pearl’s Valley.” But it will be released as a standalone book in April by Dark Passages [ https://darkpassagespublishing.com/ ]
Discipline—To me, discipline means to write every day. The surest way to improve your skills and grow as a writer is to write. Write every day. If you write 500 words a day—a page and a half—you’ll have a first draft of a novel faster than you ever expected.
Creativity—Creativity is the fun part of making a successful novelist. You can start with the tropes of your subgenre—like I use tropes from hard-boiled fiction and from noir fiction. But you take them and make them your own—that’s the creativity part.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I don’t know. As another person (who should be famous), said, “If you’re doing what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Though I may have dreaded homework when I was in school, I love my writing, now, and I think I will for the rest of my life.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: You should keep a handful of reference books, such as Strunk and White and a dictionary on hand. Stephen King On Writing tells you everything else you need to know to write good narrative prose, and it’s a good example of the craft, presented in a fun, entertaining style. I also use Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, and Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft when I need examples of different techniques, such as third person limited omniscience point of view. I’ve taken online writing classes from Stanford that have been excellent, and I’ve participated in classroom workshops at a place in Bethesda, Maryland called the Writer’s Center. If you’re a genre writer, like me, consider joining a group of like-minded writers for different kinds of support. For example, I’m in Private Eye Writers of America, and in the local chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: Well, classes and workshops can be great and can give you a good foundation in the craft. But I truly believe there are two keys to being a writer. 1.) Read good writing. Reading is learning to write by osmosis. See how the great writers tackled a particular problem, or learn how contemporary writers in your genre handle a specific sort of scene. And 2.) write. Everything you write is practice and experience. There will be good stuff even in your earliest writing that you can build upon.
I’m always happy to help if I can, and I’d enjoy hearing from other writers, and my readers. Harley.firstname.lastname@example.org
Harley Mazuk [http://www.harleymazuk.com/] is a mystery writer living in Maryland. His first novel, White with Fish, Red with Murder [http://www.drivenpress.net/white-with-fish-red-with-murder] is out now, from Driven Press. [http://www.drivenpress.net/]