By Daniel Ford
Atkins recently took some time away from promoting his new novel to talk to me about how he became a writer, how he developed his main character Quinn Colson, and how eavesdropping helped him hone his dialogue.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer or was it a desire that built up over time?
Ace Atkins: I always loved books but didn’t seriously want to become a writer until I was about 16 years old. That’s when my love of my books really got serious. I started off reading Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming and never looked back.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
AA: Hemingway and Fleming for sure. But I also got deep into Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. No doubt Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard. Dutch Leonard, to me, wrote the exact kind of book I love to read and wanted to write. I college, I developed a real love for Southern lit. Flannery O’Connor for sure. She was twisted and fantastic.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
AA: I work in an office on the Square in Oxford, Miss., I treat my office like anyone else with a job or a business to run. I’m there Monday through Saturday. I try and take off Sundays. Hemingway was always superstitious about working on Sundays. I do listen to some music to help me get ready to write but rarely listen to anything I’m writing. Although I did listen to a lot of Chris Knight while working on the last few Quinn books. I wanted the books to sound like a Chris Knight song.
DF: How much of yourself ends up in your main character Quinn Colson?
AA: I believe in a lot of the same things as Quinn, and we both have a strong sense of justice. But with Quinn I never want to write an alter ego. That really doesn’t interest me, and I hope my writing ability is better than that. At Quinn’s core, he’s a warrior, a career military man who speaks in few words. He likes to get up early. He likes to hunt. He is wholly adept finding himself deep in the woods (My idea of heaven is room service at a good hotel). I know people like Quinn and respect them a great deal. But he’s no more me than Johnny Stagg or Lillie Virgil is me.
DF: How did the idea for your upcoming novel The Redeemers originate?
AA: I had a friend, a local attorney—who has recently passed away—who let me know about a break-in and its aftermath here in north Mississippi. The unraveling after the job is what interested me. People playing off each other, wanting to pin the crime on each other, the crumbling of relationships and deep lies. For me, the crime is always secondary to the people, the characters. Characters are everything.
DF: Your dialogue in The Redeemers is snappy and downright fun. What is your process like for developing the dialogue between your characters?
AA: Thanks much! I’m a trained journalist and I love to eavesdrop. I love finding characters, listening for their quirks. It may be at a restaurant or a back aisle at Home Depot. I also sometimes ride with our local sheriff’s department and have taken a trip to the Mississippi State pen at Parchman. Characters are everywhere down here. My writing heroes in writing authentic dialogue were Elmore Leonard and George V. Higgins. I am definitely from their school of writing. It has to come from real people.
DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How do you ensure that each novel you develop is original?
AA: What some people don’t seem to get is that a crime novel can be anything. You have to have some type of criminal act take place. But other than that, a good crime novel focuses on the real world. I truly could care less about writing a book about some self-absorbed middle-aged guy pondering his life. Some would call that literary; I’d call it boring and philosophically light. A novel has to be about something. I like crime because it involves so many aspects of society and culture. If you start a novel with a sense of telling a real and authentic story, you won’t be trapped in tropes.
DF: You were selected by the Robert B. Parker Estate to continue the Spenser series (your most recent Kickback came out in May). What has that experience been like and has it changed your writing process at all?
AA: My writing process hasn’t changed, but my writing style has. It’s not easy trying to continue in the voice of such a popular and talented author as Robert B. Parker. I do think my background as a reporter helped a great deal. Parker’s genius was in minimalism. I spend more time subtracting words than adding them. I write in his voice which is a little tricky. For the Quinn books, that’s all me and more natural.
DF: How do you balance writing and marketing your work (i.e. book tours, engaging with readers on social media, etc.)?
AA: I do enjoy social media. I like interacting with readers and other writers. But I hope I know when to turn it off. That stuff can consume your life. And mostly I should be a quiet place working on a new novel!
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
AA: Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. Take criticism, only from people you respect.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
AA: In addition to classic noir films and gritty crime novels, I really enjoyed “The Gilmore Girls.” Don’t tell anyone.