Steven Womack ?
- An Interview by Robert L. Hall
A native of
Nashville, Tennessee, Womack is a graduate of Western Reserve Academy and
Tulane University, where an unpublished novel of his was the first novel
ever accepted as an undergraduate honors thesis. In addition to writing,
Womack is a professor of screenwriting at the Watkins Film School in
Nashville. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee
Screenwriting Association, has been a Regional Vice-President of the
Mystery Writers of America and for several years led a fiction writing
workshop at the Tennessee State Prison. He is listed in International
Authors and Writers Who's Who and Contemporary Authors.
he’s won a lot
of awards and nominations for his books.
His Jack Lynch trilogy and Harry James Denton 6-pack of stories are
sure to entertain and please anyone new to his style of writing. His
activities and accolades are listed last here, as space does not permit
and it just plain ‘ticks off’ the rest of us who haven’t won as
many. But never fear: Steven
hasn’t let it go to his head. No
indeed! As a matter of fact,
he will be the first to bemoan the fact that awards do not necessarily
translate into fantastic book sales and mountains of money.
Now, since I can’t
hold back any longer, I’ll just give you the words of Steven Womack.
Only, don’t say that I didn’t warn you about his being
Steven, briefly describe Harry James Denton to our readers. What
I like to think that Harry's an untraditional figure in mystery fiction,
although with the freedoms the genre offers these days, I'm probably
flattering myself. One of the great things about contemporary mystery
fiction is that virtually any type of person can become a protagonist.
In any case, Harry is a highly intelligent ex-investigative reporter who
loses his prestigious, high-paying job and as much out of boredom as
anything else decides to become a private detective and nearly starves in
the process. One of Harry's main character traits (or some would say
"flaw") is that he is highly questioning, even disrespectful, of
authority, pretension, and rank. In fact, Harry's a smart ass whose mouth
gets him in a lot of trouble.
All that was set up in the first book, the debut of the series, DEAD
FOLK'S BLUES, back in 1993. That was the book that won the Edgar and got
the series rolling.
What motivates Harry? Curiosity, stubbornness, a dogged unwillingness to
give up a pursuit of the truth, even when it's in his best interests.
What is the Nashville in your books like? Does research play an important
part in the presentation of the city to your audience?
When you think of cities in America that have a distinctive identity,
which ones come to mind? New York City, San Francisco, Boston, New
Orleans, perhaps a very few others, and Nashville. Nashville is always
included on the list. That's why this is such a great place to set
novels; the city comes alive as a character. What's it like? Mostly, it's
not like what you think it is. Everybody thinks this is a hayseed
town full of country music wannabes who just fell off the turnip truck.
Nothing could be further from the truth;
Nashville is a city of old money, Southern aristocracy, health care
entrepreneur millionaires, flamboyant politicians that rival even those of
Louisiana. Country music is about fifth on the list of things that
characterize this city, and I've spent the last six books trying to
And yes, research is vital. I do tons of it.
I read your comment that there are just too many mysteries written
it is hard to rise above the rest. Besides just good writing, what can be
done to enamor the audience to a book today?
Make a common domesticated household pet your protagonist? Use recipes as
plot devices? (smiling) I'm sorry, I'm being a smart ass, like Harry.
Honestly, I don't know the answer to that question, so in the end good
writing is all any writer can do. Find stories that turn you on, then
write them in ways that turn other people on. You can self-promote and
hustle like hell-which I've done-but in the end the only thing a writer
can control is what he or she writes and how hard he or she works at it.
The rest is luck and no one can control that.
You do screenwriting as well. How is that different from writing a
book, and what resource materials did you study to help you.
Taking up screenwriting back in the late eighties was a pivotal step in my
life as a writer. To begin with, screenplays are entirely visual. You're
forced to write visually and with action and dialogue because you don't
have the liberty of getting inside a character's head. Additionally, films
are the last vestige of traditional dramatic structure in storytelling.
Films follow a classic paradigm of structure that was first outlined by
Aristotle in "The
Poetics" some 2300 years ago. So when I started taking classes in
filmwriting, it changed the way I wrote stories in other media.
As for resources, they're everywhere. The teaching of screenwriting has
become a bigger industry than screenwriting itself. In fact, that's what I
do for a living these days-teach filmwriting in a film school. Start with
David Trottier's THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE and work from there.
You seem unusually outspoken for a Southerner, perhaps because you have
traveled extensively. Does this help you free your inhibitions to develop
characterizations and plotting better?
Gee, I didn't know I was that outspoken (smiling). But having spent four
years of my life riding the AA subway during Manhattan rush hour does tend
to make one expressive. I don't really know how to answer that, though. I
think that how a writer speaks matters less than how you think. It's the
imagination that has to be uninhibited. Once that is freed, anything can
Agents… publishers… and editors. We live in a world where off
times a book only gets published if it fits someone else's agenda. How
does this influence your work?
It doesn't influence the work itself. I can't write novels to fit somebody
else's agenda. If I could, I'd be at the top of the heap. But I will say
that at times it can all be intimidating. I've been a published author
just over ten years and I've been writing for nearly thirty. I think if I
knew then what I know now, I might not have chosen this path. So I'm
grateful for my ignorance. It's amazing what you can do in life if you
don't know what your up against.
What do you see in the future for Harry in the series?
That's a tough one. On one hand, with the exception of DIRTY MONEY (that's
just been published and isn't eligible for anything yet), every
installment of the series has won or been nominated for a major mystery
award. I've won the Edgar, the Shamus, and have been multiply nominated
for those two awards as well as the Anthony. My reviews have been for the
most part great. That's to the good. On the other hand, my sales suck. For
reasons I frankly do not understand, this series has yet to break out of
the mass market paperback ghetto. What has this meant? After thirteen
years of making my living writing novels, combined with freelance work to
fill in the gaps, I decided last year to take an offer of a teaching job.
So now I'm teaching full time, which has really cut into the writing.
Which is too bad, because I've got an incredible idea for the next book.
Tell us briefly about your next project and the process you are
using to go about it.
I've got a 250-page proposal for a suspense/thriller making the rounds of
New York looking for a home. If that lands somewhere, then it may well be
the "breakout" book. In the meantime, I'm working on a
nonfiction book that's been sold, but one that I can't really talk about
You've been writing in the trenches for some time, fighting the
"publication wars" as other writers do. What can you share,
don't give up."
That would be my word of advice. You can examine the career of almost any
best-selling novelist and behind the fame and money and all that is some
poor schlemiel who worked his ass off and risked everything for twenty
years to become an overnight success. But if you're looking for something
else, it's this: never be afraid to shift gears. If you've written a dozen
mysteries and none are published, or they are published and don't sell,
maybe it's time to try something else. No matter what the critics say,
there's no such thing as a novel that isn't genre fiction. ALL fiction
fits into some genre. So switch gears: try suspense, romance, mainstream,
women's fiction. Two of the fastest growing segments in publishing are
Christian millennial fiction and gay/lesbian mysteries. Nobody would have
ever guessed that ten years ago.
Hell, create your own genre! Be the first. There's a great big wide world
out there, and as William Goldman once commented about the movie business
in a claim that is equally true for the publishing world, "nobody
So go for it.
Six of the nine novels published by best-selling author/screenwriter
Steven Womack have received national recognition, including the highest
award presented to writers in the field of mystery and crime fiction.
Dirty Money, the sixth installment in the award-winning Harry James Denton
series, has just been published by Fawcett Books and was called
"irresistible" by the New York Times. Murder Manual-the fifth
installment in the series-was published by Ballantine Books in 1998, and
was nominated for the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award as Best Original
Paperback Novel by the Mystery Writers of America. Murder Manual was
also awarded the 1999 Shamus Award as Best Paperback Original by the
Private Eye Writers of America. The book has also been nominated for The
Anthony Award, given by members of Bouchercon, The World Mystery
Convention. The novel was called a "knock-out performance" by
Womack's third book and the debut of the series, Dead Folks' Blues, was
presented the 1994 Edgar Allan Poe Award as Best Original Paperback Novel
by the Mystery Writers of America. The novel featured bumbling
ex-newspaperman turned private detective Harry James Denton and was called
by the Virginia Pilot And Ledger Star a "virtuoso performance."
The second Harry James Denton mystery, Torch Town Boogie, published in
November, 1993, was also nominated for the Shamus Award, as was the third
installment in the Denton series, Way Past Dead, published in March, 1995.
The New York Times called Way Past Dead "a real hoot," and added
that "Harry has something that cuts him apart from the rest of the
herd." The fourth installment in the series, Chain Of Fools, was
published in May, 1996 and was nominated for both the Shamus and Anthony
Awards, two top honors in the field.
Womack is also the author of the Jack Lynch books, a trilogy
featuring public relations executive/spinmeister Jack Lynch. The first in
that series of novels-Murphy's Fault- was called by The New York Times
"tough and articulate" in naming the book to its 1990 annual
List of Notable Books as one of the top novels of the year, and the only
first crime novel on that year's list.
Publishers Weekly called Murphy's Fault, "a welcome addition to the
genre." First published in hardcover by St. Martin's Press, the
novel was also published in paperback in June, 1991. Smash Cut:, the
sequel to Murphy's Fault, was published in October, 1991 by St. Martin's
Press. The third Jack Lynch novel, The Software Bomb, was published in
July, 1993. Womack co-wrote the screenplay for Proudheart, an
original made-for-cable movie which premiered in August, 1993 on The
Nashville Network. Proudheart was nominated for a CableAce Award. He also
co-wrote the ABC-TV film Volcano: Fire On The Mountain, which first aired
in February, 1997 and was one of the most watched TV movies of the year.
Womack is the former president of Novelists, Inc., an organization of
multi-published professional novelists. He is a member of PEN American
Center , Novelists, Inc., the Mystery Writers of America, and The Writers
Guild of America. A frequent speaker, Womack regularly appears on writers'
panels and at book fairs, including the Southern Book Festival, the North
Carolina Literary Festival, the Kentucky Book Fair, the Southeast Writers
Association and Bouchercon, The World Mystery Convention. He has also been
a guest instructor at the Green River Writers' Workshop, the Sinking Creek
Film Festival, the Young Fugitives Writers Workshop, the Writers
Roundtable, and the Tennessee Mountain Writers Conference.
Money, Fawcett Books, 2000
(short story), to be published in A
Confederacy of Crime (anthology), 2000
Taste of Murder (contributor),
Dell Publishing, 1999
“Like Alpo For
Chocolate” (short story), published in Canine
Crimes (anthology), Ballantine
Ballantine Books, 1998
Homeworks: A Book of Tennessee Writers,
The University of Tennessee Press, Phyllis Tickle, General Editor
(anthology): Excerpted novel-in-progress, Life’s
Little Murder Manual, 1996
Chain Of Fools,
Ballantine Books, 1996
Way Past Dead,
Ballantine Books, 1995
Torch Town Boogie,
Ballantine Books, 1993
Bomb, St. Martin’s Press, 1993
Proposal-a lottery to pay off the national debt”, reprinted essay which
originally appeared in July 16, 1991 edition of USA today.
The Language of Argument,
Harper Collins college Publishers, Daniel McDonald, University of South
Alabama, General Editor (college textbook), 1993
Dead Folks’ Blues,
Ballantine Books, 1993
St. Martin’s Press, 1991
St. Martin’s Press, 1990