Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interview: Michael A. Black (author of DARK HAVEN and SLEEPING DRAGONS)

Mike Black has been a friend of mine for twenty-five years.
He recently retired from the Matteson, Illinois, PD, after thirty years of service. As a police officer, he has received multiple commendations and decorations, including the Cook County Medal of Merit awarded to him in 2010.
During that time, he also found time to author over twenty novels and 100-plus short stories. Now that he has retired from a full-time gig in "the real world", readers can only expect (and look forward to) an increased output.
As evidence of this, he has had two novels --- DARK HAVEN and SLEEPING DRAGONS --- just released. To learn more about the man behind the byline, in his own words, I urge you to check out the following Q&A that I recently conducted with Mike:

WD:  You worked for over thirty years as a police officer in various capacities. Care to recap or comment on some of the more memorable experiences from that career?

MB:  I was a Military Policeman in the army and developed an appreciation for police work during my service time. I subsequently went into civilian law enforcement with the hope that I could help people. I know that probably sounds naïve and idealistic, but that’s what motivated me the most. I was very fortunate to come through a lot of situations that were both dirty and dangerous. I arrested a lot of bad guys, got in a ton of physical confrontations, was shot at a few times, and worked with some great men and women. But the most satisfying times I look back on are the ones when I was able to help someone, even if it was just being there for them in their time of need at something as simple as a traffic accident. There were serious things as well. I remember talking a despondent guy out of committing suicide one lonely Christmas, and wrestling with a 300 pound mental patient holding a razor blade in a small washroom of a half-way house. I remember catching a car-load of armed robbers after we’d shot out the tires, and almost getting dumped over a second story banister fighting with this big ex-con who didn’t want to go back to jail.

WD:  I believe all or most of your police career was spent with the Matteson force, a southern suburb of Chicago. Like most people who live outside the Chicago sprawl, I have a hard time differentiating between the city proper and its numerous suburbs --- to me, it's all "Chicago". But I expect it's quite a different matter for residents, perhaps especially for police officers. Can you comment on the accuracy of that perception --- the difference between being a suburban cop vs. a Chicago one?

MB:  My buddy, Dave Case, is a lieutenant in the 18th District in Chicago and we meet once a week to talk about writing and police work. The city of Chicago is so immense that it offers a much greater variety of neighborhoods and activities for a police officer. It also depends a lot of the area in Chicago where a cop works. My buddy started out working in the 2nd District, which had a lot of public housing projects. Those areas contained some of the worst crime in the city. I had to go up there a few times to arrest people on warrants and it was like another world. On the other hand, due to the much smaller size of my department, I got the opportunity to work a variety of assignments. A lot of the criminals we dealt with were from the city so we got there on numerous occasions. Plus, both Chicago proper and the outlying suburbs are all within the same county, so we deal with the same court system and jail.

WD:  I've often referred to you as someone who worked harder at the craft of writing than anyone I've ever known. While working a full time job with the police, writing at every spare moment, and training/fighting as a kick boxer, you also made time to earn a BA in English from Northern Illinois University and a MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. I've always maintained that writing courses are certainly valuable for teaching mechanics and discipline, but unless someone already has a writer "inside" them, it's unlikely the courses alone will turn them into one. Your thoughts on that?

MB:  You’ve made it sound much more impressive than it was. I managed to get my English degree way before I became a cop. I went into the military after that, and then came back and became a cop. The martial arts have been part of my life since I was eleven years old. I never fought as a pro, but used to spar with my buddy, Mike McNamara, who was a world-class, professional, champion kickboxer. Keeping in shape was a necessity for me as a cop. And going back to school for my masters was more the result of trying to get on a permanent night shift schedule so I could avoid an intolerable boss. (I owe it all to him.) I certainly agree that you have to have the desire to learn and work if you want to develop as a writer. A lot of people think it’s simple, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I doubt that it can be taught unless the person has the accompanying desire and drive to write and rewrite.

WD:  Speaking of your kick boxing background, you also made that part of the back story for your PI character, Ron Shade. Inasmuch as Shade made his debut in the pages of Hardboiled back when I was still its editor/publisher, I have a certain affinity for him (and, as is well known, for PIs in general). But we haven't seen much of Shade lately. Any plans for him to be showing up again in the future?

MB:  That’s right, you published my first short story in Hardboiled and gave me my start. For that, I’ll always be grateful. You’ll never know what a thrill it was for me to meet you and later get accepted into Hardboiled. Even before we met, I was a big fan of your work and thought Joe Hannibal was one of the best PIs in the business. Shade has kind of been in limbo for a while now. I have released Dead Ringer, the fourth Shade novel that I wrote with Julie Hyzy, as an e-book through Crossroad Press, and Windy City Knights was released as an audio book by Books in Motion. I hope to get the rest of the backlist novels available as e-books soon. I also started a new Shade novel, but had to put it on the back burner for the moment.

WD:  While you've been giving Shade a rest, your other writing in the meantime has become very diverse --- the Doc Atlas adventures; the Leal and Hart police procedurals; the Thin Man/Nick and Nora Charles-inspired mysteries featuring Vince and Laura Pope; a pair of books written with actor/comedian Richard Belzer; and several stand-alones. Do you enjoy this diversity? Is there any of these series or characters you enjoy writing more than the others?

MB:  My first two novels featured Ron Shade, then I purposely wrote a stand-alone (The Heist) so I wouldn’t feel locked in to writing about one set of characters. I do enjoy the diversity of writing different characters and different novels. Sometimes I get an idea that I want to explore that wouldn’t be right for Shade. The Doc Atlas stories, as well as the ones about Vince and Laura, are set in the 1940s. Leal and Hart are contemporary, but they’re cops and thus wouldn’t get along with Shade very well. I like writing about all of them. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

WD:  You've done a fair amount of co-writing with other authors --- Ray Lovato, Julie Hyzy, and the aforementioned Mr. Belzer. Do you enjoy that? Do you expect to be doing more in the future?

MB:  I’m certainly available if the Belz wants to do another one. He’s a joy to work with, as are Ray and Julie. Writing with someone else has its own set of challenges, and sometimes it can be a bit tricky. The chemistry has to be right for both the authors and the project and you have to be able to communicate on a special level with the other writer. I love a challenge, though, and I’m always open to new projects if they sound interesting.

WD:  Finally, I know that, in addition to DARK HAVEN, you've written another just-released novel (SLEEPING DRAGONS) in the immensely popular Mack Bolan/Executioner series. I assume you're probably a Bolan fan from way back. How satisfying was that experience? I believe you are committed to at least one more --- do you see yourself doing more beyond that?

MB:  Yeah, I do remember being a fan of the Executioner back in the day. I remember being in the barracks at Fort Polk, Louisiana during basic training and seeing some guy reading one of the novels. I asked him if I could read it when he’d finished and he gave it to me. I can’t remember the title, but it was one of the more pleasant memories of that time period. The series has been going strong all this time and has morphed and changed into what you could term the American James Bond series. When the opportunity arose for me to write an Executioner novel I jumped at the chance. I was honored to be a part of it and wanted to show my respect for Don Pendleton and the characters he created. I vowed to make it my best effort. The publisher (Harlequin) liked Sleeping Dragons so much they offered me a contract for three more novels in the series. I’m currently working on the third one in that contract. I hope to do more.

WD:  Thanks for your time and for all the enjoyment from your writing, Mike. If there's anything I failed to cover but you would like to comment on, please feel free to add something further if you wish.

MB: I think you’ve covered it all, and then some, big guy. But let me once again say thanks for giving me my start in writing fiction, and I’m looking forward to reading the next Hannibal novel.


Thomas Pluck said...

It was great listening to two of my favorite writers have a chat! Can't wait to check out what Michael's done with the Executioner.

Andrew Vachss said...

A high-skilled interrogator would walk off the job if he had to get Mike Black to talk, Big Wayne. I'll bet it was harder than wrestling that bear. Mike isn't some "undiscovered gem" of a crime writer -- his idea of a fashion statement is camouflage. He's some piece of work -- as was your interview!

wayne d. dundee said...

Thank you for the comments, Andrew and Thomas. I'm glad to help focus more attention on Mike and his writing, he is very deserving. And I think he represented himself well with his open and honest answers

Tom Johnson said...

I enjoyed the interview with Mike. Let's face it, you don't work 30 years as a Chicago cop unless you're tough, and Mike is certainly that. Plus, he's a darn topnotch writer too!