I picked up Steve Ulfelder’s first crime novel Purgatory Chasm shortly after it was published in 2011. Apart from being a fantastic hard-boiled mystery novel, it shed light on many issues, including those between father and son, and moral vs. legal pursuits of justice. Since then, Ulfelder has written three more novels with the protagonist Conway Sax, each exploring complex human relationships through riveting plots in the mystery genre. His most recent novel Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage will be out May 6. I interviewed Ulfelder recently to discuss his novels and the writing process, and discovered in his answers as many unexpected twists as I found in his novels.
ER: Your first published novel, Purgatory Chasm, was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel. That must have been very satisfying. Was it the first novel you ever wrote?
SU: It was actually my fourth novel, and my third Conway Sax book. Long ago, I wrote a bad Elmore Leonard-style crime novel. This was in the early 1990s, pre-World Wide Web, so I wasn’t sure what to do with my bad book—there wasn’t as much info available. I sent a few half-hearted queries, but that was about it. Did I mention that it was bad?
Now fast-forward 15 years. I had this idea for a mystery series built around a hardcore AA group, and I decided to take another shot. I took a night class on writing novels. That class resulted in the first Conway Sax book, which was good enough to land me an agent—the amazing Janet Reid—but not good enough to get published. Everybody passed on the second Conway Sax novel, too. Purgatory Chasm was my last shot at selling a book from that series.
ER: How long did it take from idea to manuscript to published novel — how long did that process take?
SU: It took 9 months, which is about how long all my books take. I figured out early on that I needed to write like the type of writer I wanted to be; for me, that means a mystery every year.
ER: You worked as a business and technology journalist for years, co-founded a company that builds, rents, sells and services race cars, and have driven race cars. Amid all this, when did the “bug” to write novels hit you?
SU: A professional mystery novelist is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be. Seriously. Everything else was just marking time. The bug bit at age 8 when I read my first Hardy Boys book, and though life presented me my share of twists and turns, the desire to write crime books for money never went away.
ER: What part of you does writing novels fulfill that, say, car racing or building a car or your other pursuits simply can’t fulfill?
SU: When I’m writing a novel, I’m doing the thing I was always destined to do and the thing that makes me happiest. Any other kind of writing almost feels—I want to say shameful, isn’t that an odd word? I guess I had my fill of short-form stuff in my journalism days. Unlike many crime novelists, I don’t even do short stories.
ER: You clearly have a love of old hard-boiled noir classics, with a favorite being John D. MacDonald. What do you enjoy so much about these works and how have those writers influenced your own writing?
SU: Ah, John D. MacDonald, my hero! Part of the answer lies in my mindset when I discovered his Travis McGee series, which was, is, and always will be my favorite. I was newly sober, a very vulnerable time, and I came across Cinnamon Skin, the next-to-last McGee novel. It was new at the time, so I’m dating myself—this was in 1985! I immediately fell in love with the series, and I set about buying each book and reading them in order.
The other thing I admire about JDM, Ross Macdonald, Westlake/Stark, and that whole crew is that they were pros, writing reasonably quickly for money. Write it, revise it, polish it once, and move on to the next book. And if not every one is a timeless classic? Tough luck, baby. In fact, I’m just finishing up a JDM stand-alone that’s a real stinker: 1958’s Deadly Welcome. Feel free to skip that one.
ER: When did it become clear to you that Conway Sax would be a series of novels, or did you have that in mind all along? Was writing a novel in this vein your original intent or did you have other kinds novels in mind, too?
SU: Going back to those Hardy Boys, I’ve always been a series guy. Travis McGee reinforced this, as did Robert Parker’s Spenser, as did Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole, and on and on. I always knew my series hero would be an amateur sleuth who sometimes (most of the time!) operated outside the law. When the idea hit me that he could solve cases for AA buddies, I knew I had hit the jackpot. With an amateur sleuth, your hero can’t just sit in an office waiting for a case to walk in; you need a machine that feeds him those cases, and you need a rationale for why he would risk life and limb solving them. The AA bit seemed to address both needs.
ER: Conway Sax, the lead character in your series, is a complex man. He’s at once the iconic, lone tough-guy who struggles with relationships yet follows his own moral code. But he is also a wholly singular character, an alcoholic who feels an almost pathological loyalty to folks in his underground Barnburner AA meetings who’ve helped to keep him sober. In each novel, Sax sets off to help a fellow Barnburner in a jam, and it could be argued the Barnburners are his family and spiritual buoy. You’ve been sober for 29 years, a marvelous and inspiring way to live. The complex, hard truths you write so well about the disease and living with it shape and inform the novels. Was there ever a doubt that when you set out to write novels that alcoholism would be an anchoring theme. Or was exploring alcoholism perhaps part of what fueled your need to write?
SU: When I sobered up and began hitting AA meetings, one of my thoughts was that if the general public had any idea how entertaining the meetings were, everybody would stop watching TV and go to a local church basement instead. Drop in on any meeting and you’ll laugh your ass off, weep, and shake your head at the speakers’ courage—all within an hour. Given that, and yeah, also the inevitability that I would explore my own addiction in a roundabout way, I guess it was inevitable that I would write about drunks and addicts.
ER: Conway is often a violent man too, sometimes because that’s what the predicament demands. Sometimes, it’s more gray than that. In your new novel Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage, readers will feel an overall shift in the series arc and Sax’s character concerning violence. Several times it’s mentioned that he once enjoyed the violence, the power and control it gave him over others. Now, violence leaves him cold and he harbors immediate regrets about it. Are arcs like this pleasant discoveries as you write, or do you have a sense much earlier of how arcs will go?
SU: Hmmm, I would say a little of both. To some extent, Conway’s relative mellowness in Wolverine Bros.—or his regrets over the violence, anyway—stem from my own reaction to the previous book, Shotgun Lullaby. In that book, Conway made some really tough choices and did some really tough things, things it’s hard to forgive, frankly. Maybe I wanted my series hero to be a better guy this time around!
For me, it’s important to have all my characters, especially Conway, evolve. That’s not the only way to write a series, and in fact it may be risky; after all, readers who fall in love with a series typically want more of what they love. But I was always going to create long-term arcs for my characters.
ER: You write a novel a year now. A dream for many novelists, but not without its pressures, one would think. How do you feel you’ve developed as a novelist, and how have those publishing pressures affected your writing and the way you think and go about it?
SU: Boy, it’s scary to cash an advance check and then have to write a novel! It is indeed a whole ’nother kind of pressure. Fortunately for me, the series detective novel, first-person, hard-boiled, is a well-established form, one I know like the back of my hand. So my process and approach haven’t had to change much. Having said that, I do believe my storytelling continues to improve. As it should. I sometimes wonder what it’s like for a true veteran like the late JDM or Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard—do you ever write a book and know it’s your best one, that you’ll never top it? I hope not.
ER: Your writing could be described in oft overused terms as lean and mean, spare, muscular, hard boiled. But it’s more than that. Each line is stark, compressed down to its essence, but contains a great deal more beneath the surface. It feels like if you nicked the page with an Exacto knife, the book would explode from the release of the pressure. Did this style come naturally to you, or is it something you hone and work at?
SU: That compliment means a lot to me, because I do indeed work hard on my prose style. When I was getting serious about doing a series, my two biggest influences were Andrew Vachss and James Ellroy. We’re talking serious rat-a-tat prose. No commas, no adverbs. In fact, in the early, unsold books, editors said I was going too heavy on the staccato. So the Conway you read now is actually dialed back significantly!
ER: Marlowe had Los Angeles. Spade had San Francisco. Hammer had New York. And McGee had the Florida beaches. Big cities. Exotic locales. Conway Sax has Framingham, Massachusetts. Why Framingham?
SU: Boston was taken! As the 1990s rolled along you had Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, William G. Tapply, Linda Barnes, and others writing great Boston PI series. I used to joke that if you threw a rock on Boston Common, you couldn’t help but hit a fictitious private eye. Add that to the fact that I live in Framingham, and it was an easy decision. But I guess it’s also true that Conway Sax, like me, is not a city dweller by nature. He’d rather be driving his pickup truck than riding a train. He belongs where cars are king.
ER: That said, your writing brings Framingham to life and reveals a part of America often neglected by fiction. It’s the type a place everyone knows but doesn’t really think about or absorb. Your fiction stops and takes a look and says: There’s some good stuff here. And some bad, too. It’s a reflection on America and its troubles and anxieties. How do you decide what details you’ll use to make an Everyday America setting vital and fresh?
SU: One of the lamest and most enduring clichés of our time is that the suburbs are soulless bins of misery. As if anybody in, say, Cambridge or Brooklyn is automatically deeper and more complex than anybody in Westborough, Massachusetts, or Shaker Heights, Ohio. What a crock of shit. I take great pleasure in pricking this balloon, which, I’m sad to say, flies high in publishing circles. The woman swinging her minivan into a strip-mall Staples is no less precious, no less intelligent, no less fulfilled, no less worthy of study than her urban counterpart. I hope my characters—such as Ruthie Luciani, town clerk of Bryar, Massachusetts—reflect this.
ER: Do you envision other works, stand-alone novels?
SU: Yes! In fact, I’m taking a break from Conway right now and writing a stand-alone. It’s first-person, but it’s otherwise completely different—it’s not even a crime story.
ER: Just how much fun is it to write this series? Because above and beyond your superb chops and serious undercurrents and themes, these novels are also damn entertaining reads.
SU: It is damn fun. Conway’s voice is second nature to me now, and all the primary characters feel like family. When I start on a new story, I get the same comfortable feeling you get when you read the latest book in a series you love. I assume that’s a good thing!
ER: Any advice for aspiring writers not yet published?
SU: First, write what you love; tell the story you’re dying to tell. If you do anything else, your lack of passion will show on every page.
Second, and this is where I see a lot of people mess up: You will learn more from writing your next novel than from playing around with your current one. Pay attention to the Stephen Kings, the John D. MacDonalds: write it, revise it, polish it, and move on. When unpublished novelists talk about rewriting their current book in a different POV, or changing it from first person to third, alarms go off in my head. Let it go. Move along.
ER: What is next for Conway?
SU: Well, I mentioned he’s on hiatus right now. I’m pretty hard on the guy physically. I hope he’s in a hammock somewhere, healing up.
ER: And for you?
SU: Every morning I write 1500 to 2000 words of fiction, which is what I’ve wanted to do all my life. In the afternoon, I mess around with race cars. My entire life is a vacation!
Steve Ulfelder is the acclaimed writer of the Conway Sax mystery novel series. His first novel, 2011’s Purgatory Chasm was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Since, then he’s written three more novels, each more successful, and gripping, than the last. His latest novel in the series is Wolverine Bros. Freight & Storage is due out May 6.