Alex Segura is a writer at Archie Comics, best known for the epic crossover between the Riverdale Gang and KISS. He's not a name you'd associate with hardboiled mystery thrillers, but it's going to happen. He's got a new book out next month, the second in the Pete Fernandez series, from Polis Books, and it's something special.
Set in a gritty, sun-drenched Miami, the newest Pete Fernandez mystery, Down the Darkest Street, is a compelling page turner. Fernandez himself is a former reporter at the Miami Times who can't quite keep screwing his life up or involving himself in intricate mysteries. This newest book sees him tracking down a serial killer before more victims are lost and before his personal life can implode completely. It's smartly written book that offers an insider's view of Miami and weaves a fascinating mystery that we only hope Pete can get to the bottom of.
The book is out next month and to commemorate the release, we talked to Alex about it.
Bryan Young: You work for Archie Comics by day and still find time to write at night, tell me about the balance between your two lives.
Alex Segura: I had the chance to interview Cory Doctorow next month and asked him a similar question. He said he didn't inject ceremony into writing because it slowed down the process for him. I loved that answer and I wholeheartedly agree. My writing is all about maximizing found time: a few minutes before bed, an idea jotted down in the car before heading to work, sometime over the weekend. If the stars have to align a certain way or if I have to be sitting in a special chair with the sun in a specific position, I'll never get anything done. The goal is always to get some words on paper each day. My day job is busy and challenging but also fun, creative and fulfilling, so I feel like my professional and creative pursuits really play into each other well, and I consider myself very lucky.
Bryan Young: You grew up in Miami and it shows in the work, what drew you to the setting and do you think it's a fair representation of the city?
Alex Segura: I did! Born and raised there. I moved to New York about a decade ago, but I visit frequently as I still have friends and family there. When I first thought of writing a story - the one that eventually became Silent City, the first Pete Fernandez novel - I didn't feel like I knew enough about New York to set it there. I also wanted to represent my hometown a bit, and create the kind of books I liked to read. Novels that showcased flawed protagonists in vibrant and complex settings, like Nick Stefanos and Washington, DC in George Pelecanos's early novels, or Tess Monaghan and Baltimore in Laura Lippman's excellent series, to name a few. There are a lot of sayings that have become cliche in terms of writing, like "write what you know" or "write the book you want to read," but I think they're cliche because there's some truth in them. They definitely fit when describing Silent City and Pete.
I think my take on Miami is the Miami I remember from living there - a place that's constantly updated in my head when I visit and explore how the city's change. I trust my gut and I try to talk about places I know or have been to, and I don't let my ego get in the way of research. Living somewhere 25 years doesn't give you a free pass when writing about it. I also try to keep up with Miami news as much as I reasonably can. I've tried my best to be mindful of the city and how it's evolved, because it's not the same place I left. That said, I do take some liberties in terms of some of the bars Pete visits, because some of those places don't exist anymore or are completely new. But I imagine people will forgive that as long as the story's entertaining enough. So, to answer your question: Yes, I think it's a fair representation because it's my Miami. I try to be true to what it is now, but it's also a work of fiction, so I don't feel like I can't tinker with things to help the story.
Bryan Young: Tell me about the genesis of Pete Fernandez. He's a guy who seems to have his heart in the right place, but constantly makes the worst choices in his personal life.
Alex Segura: Pete's a smart, curious guy who means well but often jumps into things too fast. He's learning as he goes, which comes with some occupational hazards. He gets beat up a lot, for sure. He's also not without personal problems: he drinks too much, he has a lot of baggage and resentments and feels like the world is speeding by him. That said, he's great at finding things out - when we meet him in Silent City, we learn that he's a bit of a fallen journalistic star, having put together a decent track record as a sports reporter in New Jersey before having to return home to Miami after his father's death. We meet him at his "bottom" so to speak: his dad's died, his fiancé has left him for someone else, he hates his job and he's drunk much more often than not. When a coworker asks for help finding his missing daughter, that reenergizes Pete in a way, but it doesn't solve his problems - and while he survives his first case, he doesn't come through unscathed. So, by the time we meet him in the second book, Down the Darkest Street, the hope is that things have gotten better - but in many ways, they've gotten worse. Pete's journey isn't just that of the detective solving the case - he has a lot of his own stuff to resolve, and that's really interesting to me.
Pete didn't appear in my head fully-formed, but it was close. When I first started noodling with the idea of a recurring character, I knew two things: that I wanted him to be someone that I could relate to and feel some kind of affinity toward and that I wanted him to evolve from book to book. Pete strikes me as someone I could have known growing up in Miami. Maybe we drifted apart, but he's a product of the same environment: son of Cuban parents, journalism background, a bit of a music nerd - we do overlap a bit. But there are striking differences, too. I also didn't want him to be static or evergreen. I didn't want each book to feel interchangeable. The Pete we see at the beginning of Silent City is very different from the one we meet at the beginning of Down the Darkest Street and they feed into each other. People evolve, their situations and habits change and they pick up more experiences and lessons - some good, some bad. I wanted to reflect that as much as I could in these books. It keeps it interesting for me and I hope it keeps readers on their toes.
Bryan Young: Where did the seed of an idea come from for the serial killer plot of this second book?
Alex Segura: I was talking on the phone with my best friend Andrea a few years ago and I mentioned that I was thinking the second book would feature a serial murderer and that I wanted the book as a whole to be a lot darker than the first - which I think is saying a lot. But, as I told her, I didn't want it to feel like your typical serial killer book - I wanted to delve into not only the killer's head, but also get to know his victims. I didn't want to rack up a faceless body count to just show how evil the killer could be. She mentioned something that kind of turned my whole idea around. I can't give it away because it's a central plot point to the book, but it changed my perspective enough that I was able to dive in and start writing. Before that conversation I'd done a lot of research on certain killers, like Richard Ramirez - the Night Stalker. The late Philip Carlo wrote a really disturbing book about the Ramirez case and did a great job giving time to the victims, showing them as people and making you feel for their loss. It was really impressive and disturbing. So all that stuff stewed in my head for a while and came together to form the idea for Down the Darkest Street.
Bryan Young: You put out your first book a while ago, and then came to a new publisher and are putting it out again with the sequel, tell me about the whys and hows of that process.
Alex Segura: The first printing of Silent City was in 2013 - Codorus Press, a literary house that has done a wide variety of stuff, from poetry to nonfiction to sci-fi - published it. My good friend Wayne Lockwood, the head guy at Codorus, really liked the book and at that point I wanted to get it out there and see what the response would be. The feedback, from authors, readers and the press was very good, so I really wanted to make sure the second book, Down the Darkest Street, was not only able to capitalize on that, but have an expanded platform to grow and build an audience. Enter Polis Books, which was founded and is run by Jason Pinter, an extremely smart and savvy guy who just knows the industry inside and out - as a writer, publicist, editor, you name it. He knows how books work. I'm constantly impressed by him. Polis has a killer lineup of crime writers, too. People like Dave White, Jason Starr, Patti Abbott, Rob Hart and Todd Robinson, to name a few. So, I instantly felt at home and like I was part of a team of people working toward something. From the get-go, Jason wanted to not only print the second book, but reissue the first - which would allow people who maybe couldn't find the first printing or whatever, to hop on board the series from page 1. The book build nerd in me also loves that the series has a unified cover and interior design and Polis is giving these books a reach the first one never had. I'm grateful Codorus gave Pete a shot to get out there, and I'm really honored Polis is carving out such a nice space for the first two books and beyond.
Bryan Young: What do you read for inspiration to work on books like this?
Alex Segura: It varies. I read a lot of true crime and, obviously, crime fiction. I also work in comics so graphic novels play a part in how I see things. I try to visualize the novel as much as I can. I've found that I usually find a great nonfiction book that gets my wheels turning and I start outlining, then I try to read books that are tonally in the space I want to play in. But not too close, because you don't want to write a cover song, you want to make your own. A lot of times I'll just shift genres completely - like read a sci-fi series while in the midst of the heavy lifting of writing. But it depends. I try not to have too many hard and fast rules about it, because as long as I'm reading and jazzed about it, that helps the writing, too.
While writing Down the Darkest Street, though, I read a lot of Kelly Braffet, Megan Abbott's last few books - especially Dare Me and The Fever - were particularly inspiring, Marisha Pessl's great second novel Night Film, Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, Reed Farrel Coleman's excellent Moe Prager PI series, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark and Sean Phillips's Scene of the Crime, Greg Ruka's Stumptown, Duane Swierczynski's The Blonde and The Wheelman and James Ellroy's Killer on the Road, to name a few off the top of my head. In terms of nonfiction, the Ramirez book was particularly useful, even if it cost me a few nights of sleep. And, for me, the holy grail of Miami crime fiction is Vicki Hendricks's Miami Purity, to which I humbly pay homage in one scene of "Down the Darkest Street." I think the book also owes a lot to the work of Pelecanos, Lippman and Dennis Lehane, but I think that also applies to anything I write.
Bryan Young: When can we expect a third book?
Alex Segura: Dangerous Ends will be coming out at some point in 2017 from Polis Books. It's as big a departure from the second novel as Down the Darkest Street was from Silent City. I don't want to say much, since it's so early, but it definitely has a more widescreen vibe to it. I'm revising the draft now, so I'll stay mum until I feel like it's close to final.
Down the Darkest Street comes out next month wherever books are sold.
Bryan Young is the author of "A Children's Illustrated History of Presidential Assassination" and "The Aeronaut," the editor-in-chief of the nerd news and review site Big Shiny Robot!, and is the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, "Full of Sith."
Follow Bryan Young on Twitter: www.twitter.com/swankmotron