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What’s Happening with 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A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Womack is a graduate of Western Reserve Academy and Tulane University, where an unpublished novel of his was the first novel ever accepted as an undergraduate honors thesis.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.

And folks, 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 entertaining!

Scribe: Steven, briefly describe Harry James Denton to our readers. What motivates Harry?

Steven: 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.

Scribe: What is the Nashville in your books like? Does research play an important part in the presentation of the city to your audience?

Steven: 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
demonstrate that.

And yes, research is vital. I do tons of it.

Scribe:  I read your comment that there are just too many mysteries written today, so it is hard to rise above the rest. Besides just good writing, what can be done to enamor the audience to a book today?

Steven: 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.

Scribe: You do screenwriting as well. How is that different from writing a book, and what resource materials did you study to help you.

Steven: 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.

Scribe: 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?

Steven: 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 happen.

Scribe:  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?

Steven: 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.

Scribe:  What do you see in the future for Harry in the series?

Steven: 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.

Scribe:  Tell us briefly about your next project and the process you are using to go about it.

Steven: 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 just yet.

Scribe:  You've been writing in the trenches for some time, fighting the
"publication wars" as other writers do. What can you share, except "just
don't give up."

Steven: 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 knows anything."

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 MLB News.

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. 

Steven Womack's Bibliography

Dirty Money, Fawcett Books, 2000 

www.deadbitch.com” (short story), to be published in A Confederacy of Crime (anthology), 2000 

A Taste of Murder (contributor), Dell Publishing, 1999 

“Like Alpo For Chocolate” (short story), published in Canine Crimes (anthology),            Ballantine Books, 1998 

Murder Manual, 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 

The Software Bomb, St. Martin’s Press, 1993 

“An Immodest 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 

Smash Cut, St. Martin’s Press, 1991 

Murphy’s Fault, St. Martin’s Press, 1990