SAM REAVES: COLD BLACK EARTH GREW FROM A SINGLE VIVID IMAGE
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Sam Reaves’s Cold Black Earth was selected among Kindle First Choice’s books for July. The novel stepped up solidly in Amazon Top 10 ranks few weeks before the official release, set for August 1. Our next guest is a very interesting person. He loves to travel around the world and is capable to translate from several languages. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you Mr. Sam Reaves.
– Sam, what is your next book Cold Black Earth about?
– It’s a mystery set in western Illinois farm country. My elevator pitch is “A Thousand Acres meets Psycho.” A deranged killer escapes from prison and farmers start dying. It’s a crime novel but also a story about farm people and their problems in the 21st century.
– How did you decide to write the story?
– Unusually for me, the story idea grew from a single vivid image. I was visiting my brother, who lives out in the country in Illinois, and I stepped outside one evening just before bedtime to marvel at a clear night sky. While I was out there, I was struck not only with the absence of light pollution, but also with how far distinct sounds can carry in cold air without urban noise pollution to mask them. And it struck me, “What if you heard something sinister, like somebody using a chainsaw late at night?” And then I had to make up a story to go around that image.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
I had grown up in farm country, but I didn’t come from a farm family myself. Also, I had been away for a long time, and a lot of what I thought I knew about farming was no longer valid. I had to go back and get in touch with old friends and spend a few days talking to them and observing their operations to get up to speed on what modern farming is all about.
– Tell us something more about your main character Rachel? Is she close to someone from your real life?
– Nobody in the book is closely modeled on any real person. I was very careful about this, because I was writing about an area in which I still have friends, and I didn’t want anybody taking offense, feeling violated, or speculating about what I might be suggesting. All the characters are entirely made up. Having said that, some elements are obviously drawn from my experience. Rachel gets interested in foreign languages through her high school French teacher and winds up in the Foreign Service; this reflects my own experience with an excellent Spanish teacher who got a number of kids at this little country high school interested in studying languages. But Rachel is completely fictional. I made her female because I wanted to make it as hard as possible on her as she went out to conquer the world, facing multiple obstacles as she set her sights high. As the book opens she is confronting personal and professional failure, and she is about to be tested even more. But she’s a tough, capable farm girl, and she’s not going to wilt.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and to publish it?
– This was one of my easier books to write. I finished it in less than a year, from conception to completion. Once I had worked out the story and done the research, the writing went very smoothly. Publication was a different story; after getting very close with one editor right off the bat, only to have her finally reject it because she said it “didn’t have enough of a hook,” the book then languished for three years before my agent was able to sell it to Thomas and Mercer last year. But all’s well that ends well; they have given me terrific support.
– Would you tell us more about your novel Homicide 69?
– Homicide 69 is, superficially, a police procedural. It’s the story of a homicide investigation carried out by a Chicago detective over the summer of 1969. Along the way we see him juggling many other cases and a number of personal travails, all against the background of the last and most eventful year of the sixties, the high-water mark of the Vietnam war, domestic protests, cultural upheaval and, not least, the power of organized crime in Chicago. A young woman is apparently the victim of a sex killing, but she was a mobster’s girlfriend and it soon becomes apparent that her death is related to intrigue deep inside the mob. It’s a long novel, more than 500 pages, and it’s not really a mystery. It’s a novel about a man who happens to be a homicide detective at a crucial point in Chicago and American history. It’s a portrayal of a decent man in a brutal, taxing job. It’s about his personal and professional crises and the way the world he knows is changing fast. People seem either to like it or to hate it; if you’re looking for a whodunnit or a quick read, you should probably look elsewhere. But people who are patient with the book tend to rave about it. I’d like to think it’s a well-realized historical novel in the guise of a crime story.
– What will readers find in the books of your Cooper MacLeish series?
– These were my first four books, written in the early nineties. I wrote a novel about a Chicago taxi driver who is drawn into the investigation of the murder of a woman he once loved; I intended it to be a stand-alone. When Putnam bought the book, they asked if I could make it a series. Of course, I said yes. So then I was faced with the problem of devising plausible ways to get this cab driver involved in a succession of murder investigations. It’s really what you might call a hard-boiled amateur sleuth series. Fortunately, readers are usually fairly tolerant of that kind of implausibility, if they like the character. And people seemed to like Cooper, a tough, jaded, but good-hearted Vietnam veteran with a philosophical bent. I re-read the books recently, and, while I winced occasionally at things I would do better now, I think they stand up reasonably well as crime stories.
– Who are you?
– I’m a small-town kid who has lived all of his adult life in Chicago, when not living abroad. I have lived and traveled widely in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. I’m a free-lance translator who can handle French, Spanish, German and Arabic. I’m a compulsive reader of all kinds of fiction and non-fiction, I’m a sports fan, and I love music, classical and flamenco.
– What are your writing habits?
– When I had a job working afternoons and evenings I wrote very regularly, five mornings a week. That was when I was most productive. Now that I am a free-lancer with work coming in at irregular intervals, my day is less predictable and more often disrupted. I have had to learn to write at odd times, sometimes in the late afternoon or at night. That’s harder, but I find that if I am just persistent, if I just keep hacking and don’t quit, the books get written. You just have to keep sitting down at the computer, day after day.
– Are you satisfied by the sales of your books?
– Is anybody? Of course I’d like to sell more books and make more money. I don’t need six-figure advances; it would be nice just to be able to make a modest living. I’m not greedy. But it’s gotten harder to make a living writing novels. We can complain all we want, but we just have to keep writing, keep getting better and keep exploring ways to find an audience.
– What are you doing to promote your book by the best possible way?
I’m just trying to be reasonably active on social media and open to whatever the publisher wants me to do. It’s all online now; guest blog posts reach a lot more people than bookstore appearances. I’ve never been especially smart or energetic about promotion, and I know I have to elevate my game. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reach your readers.
– When we will see your next novel and would you unveil something more about it?
– I’m working on another novel set in the Midwest. It’s about a young woman from New York who is hired to teach mathematics at a small college in west central Indiana. A little dubious about moving from Manhattan to a midwest backwater, she happens to become an eyewitness in a murder case soon after arriving, and is drawn farther than she anticipated into the life of the community. Like Cold Black Earth, it is a story about how small-town America is changing in the 21st century. I hope to have it done by the end of the year.
– You work as a translator. What is the most important thing when you translate a literary work in order to show the best of the novel on the other language?
– Most of my translation work is legal or technical. My experience in literary translation is limited to one novel, The World Through the Eyes of Angels, by the Iraqi novelist Mahmoud Saeed, and some of his short stories. On that basis, here’s what I’d say: The most important thing is to get a polished, appealing, readable text in the target language. So you have to take liberties with the original sometimes. You can’t be too literal, or it grates on the ear. Arabic rhetorical style does not translate well into English; it comes across as too florid. So I found myself toning down Mahmoud’s style so as not to alienate English-attuned readers. You could quibble with some of my choices; some would argue that it’s more important to be as faithful as possible to the author’s word choices even if the effect is a little alien. There’s a trade-off between literalness and readability.
– If you may ask yourself one question in the interview what it will be?
– You wrote three books under the name Dominic Martell. Tell us about that? In 1995 my editor at Putnam told me, “Your last couple of books haven’t done as well. Why don’t you send us something different?” So I wrote a suspense novel set in Barcelona, a city I love, about an ex-terrorist trying to go straight. When I submitted it to Putnam, the reply was, “This is too different from what you’ve done before.” So I sent it to my British publisher, and he liked it and asked for more. I wrote three books in that series about Pascual March, a member of the European left-wing terrorist underground of the eighties who repents, defects to the CIA and then goes underground and tries to escape his past. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and people from his past keep coming after him, providing enough trouble for three books. I think they’re pretty good thrillers, and they’re available now as e-books through Open Road.
Take a look at his books: