Friday, March 31, 2006

Pro-File: Steve Hockensmith

Though the town elders of Louisville KY have yet to acknowledge it with so much as a single commemorative plaque, Steve Hockensmith was born in the Derby City on August 17, 1968.  The first two decades of his life passed uneventfully, the only notable highlight being a short stint as an intern at People magazine, an experience that allowed Hockensmith to realize his lifelong dream – crank-calling Crispin Glover.

Despite (or perhaps because of) such lapses in his professionalism, Hockensmith eventually found work as an entertainment journalist: He’s covered pop culture and the film industry for The Hollywood Reporter, The Chicago Tribune, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Newsday, Total Movie and other publications.  He spent a year as editor of The X-Files Official Magazine (thus explaining his morbid fear of David Duchovny) and more than three years as editor of Cinescape, a nationally distributed bimonthly magazine devoted to movies in which things explode (i.e., science fiction or action films or anything produced by Jerry Bruckheimer).

In 1999, traumatized by multiple viewings of STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE, Hockensmith set out to write something that would under no circumstances require the use of the phrase “Jar Jar Binks.”  He settled on mysteries, soon becoming a regular contributor to both Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  His first published mystery story, “Erie’s Last Day,” won the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s Derringer Award and appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2001.  More recently, Hockensmith’s story “Tricks” (a sequel to “Erie’s Last Day”) was nominated for a Shamus award, while his story “The Big Road” (yet another “Erie” follow-up) was nominated for a Barry.

Hockensmith is also the creator of mystery-solving cowboys Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer.  The Amlingmeyer brothers first appeared in Ellery Queen in the story “Dear Mr. Holmes,” which was voted the fifth most-popular story of 2003 by the magazine’s readers.  The Sherlock Holmes-worshipping drovers returned to Ellery Queen’s pages in the February 2005 and February 2006 issues.  In addition, Hockensmith has completed one novel about their adventures (Holmes on the Range, to be published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Minotaur) and is currently finishing a second.

Hockensmith gets to combine his love of mysteries and his journalism background thanks to “Reel Crime,” a column about mystery TV shows and movies that appears in each issue of Alfred Hitchcock.  Hockensmith promises that this time there will be no crank phone calls.

Though he considers himself a Midwesterner at heart, Hockensmith currently lives in California’s Bay Area.  He says he’s adjusted to life on the West Coast, but confesses that he still misses thunderstorms, snow and Long John Silver’s Seafood Shoppes.  He shares his home with the perfect wife, the perfect daughter and a slightly imperfect cat.


1.  Tell us about your current novel.

My “current” also happens to be my first -- a tip of the Stetson to Arthur Conan Doyle called Holmes on the Range.  It’s about an 1890s cowboy who sets out to solve a mystery using the methods of his hero, Sherlock Holmes.  He’s at a slight disadvantage, however: He can’t read or write.  So he drafts his younger brother to be his Watson.

The book plays with the Holmes mythos, but it’s not a pastiche.  There’s a lot of humor in it, but it’s not a comedy.  It’s set in the West, but it’s not really a Western.  It seems to be pretty unique!

2.  Can you give us a sense of what you’re working on now?

Nothing but these questions, thank god.  I just finished the sequel to Holmes this week, so I’m taking a short (as in three or four week) break from novels to work on articles and short stories and promotional stuff.  The book I just wrapped up, On the Wrong Track, took me a year to write, so I need a little vacation.  It takes place on a train traveling over the Sierra Nevada mountains – if I were a screenwriter, I’d describe it as MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS meets BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.  But I’m not a screenwriter, so I’ll just say it’s another mystery starring my cowboy heroes, Big Red and Old Red, and I’m both really happy with it and really, really happy to be done with it!

3.  What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

What I’m doing at this very moment: sitting in a quiet room all by myself thinking and putting words together.  Paradise.  I’m not a hermit or a misanthrope or anything, yet I truly love locking myself away in solitary confinement for half the day.  I spend the rest of the day taking care of my 2-year-old daughter, which is wonderful in its own way but certainly a far cry from “quiet” and “solitary”!

4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?

It’s all still so new to me, I feel like I can hardly judge yet.  I quit my day job in early 2005, and the last year has been simply wonderful.  The thing that’ll probably start to weigh on me as my career progresses – or doesn’t – is being at the mercy of forces beyond my control.  If Barnes & Noble isn’t stocking my books or reviewers aren’t writing about them or people just plain aren’t buying them, there’s only so much I can do about it.  Which isn’t being a passive defeatist about it all: I know it’s my job to get out there and promote promote promote.  Yet I can’t escape the feeling that there’s an arbitrariness to it all.  Worthy books (and writers) fail, and sometimes it’s hard to see why.  I hope that doesn’t eat at me too much in the years ahead.

5.  If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Here’s my Joe Konrath answer: Buy Holmes on the Range and tell all your friends and family to do the same!

Here’s my *me* answer: I have no advice to give.  I’m so new to this whole thing, it’d be like a batboy giving advice to Hank Aaron.  The thing that scares me most about the publishing world is the blockbuster mentality and the death of the mid-list, so I guess I wouldn’t advise so much as beg: “Please, guys! Give us a decent shot here, huh?”

6.  Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you’d like to see in print again?

A reviewer compared Holmes on the Range to the Lobo Blacke books by William DeAndrea, so I tried to track them down.  (I’d never heard of them before.)  It was actually pretty tough.  I finally found one on Amazon or eBay or Half.com, I don’t remember which, and I ordered it.  It’s called Fatal Elixir, I’m half-way through it now, and it’s pretty darned good.  In some ways, Deandrea was doing with Nero Wolfe what I’m doing with (or *to*, depending on your outlook) Sherlock Holmes, so I can understand the comparisons.

It depresses me that it was so hard to dig up one of DeAndrea’s books, though.  There but for the grace of god and all that.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most of the Nero Wolfe books out of print?  That’s just plain nuts.  I know used copies are easy to find, but it seems like someone ought to be repackaging those suckers and putting them out again.  Rex Stout’s stuff was funny, fast and engaging – very modern in its tone.  I think it would still appeal to today’s mystery fans.  I know it still appeals to me.

7.  Tell us about selling your first novel.  Most writers never forget that moment.

I’d better not have forgotten – it was only a year and a half ago!  I was fairly confident *something* was going to happen, because I have a lot of faith in my agent.  There’s a moment toward the end of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL when the strings swell and trumpets blast and King Arthur wearily declares, “Our quest is at an end.”  That’s how it felt when my agent officially signed me on as a client.  It had been such a long, hard slog, but finally there I was.  Of course, in HOLY GRAIL, someone immediately dumps a bucket of dung over Arthur’s head.

Fortunately, things worked out better for me.  My agent sent the book out to about a dozen editors at once, and two weeks later we had competing bids.  When I heard what they were and who they were from, I literally clicked my heels – I’m not too horribly decrepit just yet, so I can still manage to jump up and actually do it when occasion warrants.  After some frantic back and forth phone calls, we zeroed in on one of the publishers and banged out a final deal within a couple of hours.  Then I called my wife.  Then I called my mom and dad.  Then I had to go to my day job ... but I knew I’d be quitting in a few months, so for once I didn’t mind!

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