For the Artists Who Like to Remain Strictly Out of the Box
Austin S. Camacho is the author of five novels in the Hannibal Jones Mystery Series and three in the Stark and O’Brien adventure series. His short stories have been featured in four anthologies from Wolfmont Press and two others, and he is featured in the Edgar nominated African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study by Frankie Y. Bailey.
Today he handles media relations and writes articles for military newspapers and magazines. He also teaches writing classes at AnneArundelCommunity College and is deeply involved with the writing culture. He is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, American Independent Writers, the Maryland Writers Association and the Virginia Writers Club where he currently serves as first vice president.
1.) When did you know that writing is what you were called to do?
When I was in 7th grade I started writing short stories patterned after the comic books I loved. My friends always starred in my stories and when I saw how eager they were to see the next installment I realized that this was what I wanted to do… entertain with words.
2.) What is it about being a writer that you love the most?
I don’t think there’s one thing. First, I love building a puzzle in my mysteries. But I also love being able to elicit an emotional reaction from people. And I love being able to create a world of my own, escape into it and at the same time control it. I get to control the universe that my characters inhabit.
3.) I know that you wrote a little in high school and that your writing really began to take shape while you were enlisted in the Army but what made you want to take your writing from the status of being a hobby to being your career?
I read so many so-so novels and at one point, halfway thru a mystery novel I felt like I knew everything that would happen in the rest of the book. I said to myself, “I can do better than that!” But as the novels began to stack up I became more and more eager to entertain a broader audience. I wanted someone other than my friends and family to read my work.
4.) You work in media relations, write articles for military newspapers and magazines, you teach writing course at AnneArundelCommunity College, and you’re involved in several writing communities; not to mention the speaking engagements and other events that you do. Where exactly do you find the time to actually sit down and write? What is your writing process and how do you balance your time?
Time is always the dearest and rarest resource. My writing usually happens very early in the morning (I rise at 5am every day) during a lunch hour or on weekends. On the other hand, all those other things you mentioned support my writing. I’ve observed that the major publishers expect their authors to spend about a third of their time marketing and promoting their work, a third of their time actually writing, and a third working through the editing process. If that’s what they want Jeffery Deaver and James Patterson to do, it’s a good pattern for me to follow as well.
5.) Of all the genres in writing, what about writing mysteries drew you in? Do you see yourself testing the waters with any other genre of writing anytime in the near future?
I think every author should write what they love to read and I am a life-long mystery fan. As I said I love building an intricate puzzle for others to work through. Also, mysteries are all about human motivation… what drove one person to kill or rob another. I love exploring my characters’ motives and really getting into their inner selves.
I am also a lover of action thrillers and have written a few of them. As much as I love creating tension and suspense in my mysteries, I find I am able to turn that up even more in the thrillers. If I can elicit an emotional response and take my readers on a roller-coaster ride, that’s a thrill for me. I have thought of trying other genre of fiction… but there’s that time thing.
6.) You not only have a degree in broadcast journalism but you also studied psychology as well. How beneficial do you find your knowledge of psychology in your writing? Do you think that having that particular knowledge of psychology helps to create more depth with your characters?
I’m sure my formal study of psychology informs my writing, but even more it taught me to observe people in a different way. Regardless of genre, fiction is about people, and fictional characters need to move, think and behave just like real people we know.
7.) Ok, I have a certain romanticism about the city of New York, regardless of the fact that I’ve never been there. I’ve always been told that it is the place to be if you really want to dive into the career of being a writer. Being born and raised in New York do you find that that is an accurate depiction of New York in relation to writers? Does living in New York help a person’s budding writing career as much as people say it does?
I think that was certainly true at one time but no more. New York IS where the major publishers and agents are. But less and less of this business is face-to-face. Manuscripts pass electronically and conferences are done by phone or Skype.
Besides, it’s next to impossible to get into the offices of any of the important publishers, editors or agents in NYC. I think it’s much more important for budding writers to meet important figures in the business at conferences that are held around the country. At Bouchercon, Malice Domestic, Balticon, RomCon, and our own Creatures, Crimes & Creativity Con, writers can walk up to those New York big wigs and big name authors, pitch their ideas, ask advice or just share a drink.
8.) You’ve lived in Missouri, California, Maryland, Georgia, or course New York, and Belgium. In addition, because of your times in the Army you’ve done a lot of traveling. Does traveling make you a better writer? Do you think a writer needs that experience of traveling in order to be made into a better, more knowledgeable writer?
If a writer wants to be able to describe exotic, far-away places, then he or she needs to SEE some exotic, far-away places. However, I don’t think that traveling automatically makes one a better writer except perhaps indirectly. It’s more accurate to say that experience makes one a better writer. The more varied and extreme the experiences, the more emotional depth a writer’s work can have.
So, I’m not sure that just living in those different places improved my writing. But time spent as a retail manager, grinder on turbine shells, insurance salesman, time management specialist, media specialist, news broadcaster, a soldier (deployed in war and in peace) and college instructor, those experiences DID make me a better writer.
9.) Do you believe that there is ever a point in life where it’s too late for an aspiring writer to become successful in this industry? Do you feel a late start would hinder their chances?
When we depended on mainstream publishers for success I would have said yes. The major publishers only want you if they think they can milk you for a few years. Today, thanks to small presses and self-publishing, it is never too late to be a success in the industry. And how shall we define success, anyway? If you’re 70 before you really have something to say, then getting some people to read what you have to say may be all the success you’re after.
10.)What is your idea of the perfect writer’s retreat? Where would it be and why would you choose that place?
I picture the splendid isolation that Georgia O’Keefe sought, with no distractions, perfect quiet except for the sound of birds or perhaps the surf outside my window. A cottage on a tropical beach with perfect weather, room service and the world’s best computer (and internet connection) would prompt me to churn out a bottomless flow of my best prose. However, it would need to be a collection of such cottages, because at least once a day (maybe during a meal) I would crave the company of other writers – preferably fiction writers, to discuss my day’s production, to encourage and be encouraged.
11.) What’s the first book you ever read that really touched you emotionally and moved you? What’s the first book you read that made you know that you could do this for a career? What book are you currently reading?
Lots of stuff excited or engaged me in junior high and high school, but the first book that really moved me was Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It showed me how much a reader can care about a fictional character, and how we can use fiction (in this case science fiction) to incite both deep emotion and deep thought. I remember thinking, “That’s not what I want to write, but that’s what I want to do. Make people think and make people FEEL, but with a vehicle that people will want to read because it appears to be just for fun.
12.)Who is your favorite author to read? Do you like reading your own work once it’s already published and in the stores or do you let it go once it’s at the publishers?
My favorite authors are still classic crime writers – I still love Raymond Chandler’s sweet prose, Ross MacDonald’s perfect mystery plots, John D. McDonald’s idealistic hero Travis McGee, Elmore Leonard’s familiar yet complex characters. Among contemporary writers I have to check Walter Moseley of course (who keeps changing his style) and Dennis Lehane who is the Ray Chandler of the 21st Century.
I hate to admit it, but I DO like to read my own stuff even after it’s published. Sometimes when I begin to doubt if I’m any good at this I’ll pick up one of my past novels and leaf thru. When I find a passage that makes me smile I return to the keyboard and say, “Let’s see if I can do that again.” I know what that says about my ego, but I think every writer has to have a big one.
13.) You’ve written and published a total of 8 novels as well as many other works that you’ve had published. What’s next? What, if anything, are you working on at this very moment?
Aside from helping to run Intrigue Publishing and present the Creatures, Crimes and Creativity conference in September, I’m promoting the release of my next Stark & O’Brien mystery, “The Ice Woman Assignment” on March 1, and working on the next Hannibal Jones mystery which you should see next year. Hannibal and I are such old friends that I can’t leave him unoccupied for too long.
14.)What words of advice would you give to writers who aspire to have the same level of success with their work as you have had with yours?
Write every day. Attend conferences and surround yourself with other writers. Seriously consider every bit of criticism and advice you get and decide firmly whether it might help or is useless. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Create your own definition of success and aim for that. And for goodness sake don’t put off getting that book written.
15.)I feel like so many of us writers, us artists in general, are made to conform to other people’s idea of what we should be. I think we creative types should be unafraid to be whoever it is that we feel we have the right to be. So what is your write 2 be? What unique quality is there about you, about your art, that you feel represents your authenticity?
Oddly, I find myself unintentionally pressing against the odd preconception that black writers should only write for black audiences. On the one hand, I write in a genre that seems to be devoid of black authors – action thrillers. The partners in that book, one black and one white, hardly ever mention racial issues. I think I bring a slightly different perspective to the thriller genre just by virtue of having a black lead character.
On the other hand, I do not bend to pressure to market Hannibal Jones series only to a black audience. Despite the fact that Hannibal and most of the characters are black, white readers seem to accept him easily. I think black readers do relate to the character and his world, but white audiences may learn something important by visiting that world.
So maybe I just feel the right 2 be racially neutral, and explore those themes that all humans can understand and relate to.
For more information on Austin S. Camacho check out his website http://www.ascamacho.com/