By Sean Tuohy
As I’ve said before, South Florida is a sunny place for shady people. Author Alex Segura explores the Magic City and its seedy side with his main character Pete Fernandez. Much like the city he lives in, Pete is on the edge. He’s a burned out reporter with a drinking problem. Segura uses this broken but compelling character to explore the culture of South Florida.
The Miami native took a few minutes to talk to me about his writing process, his love for the city, and what his main hero is up to next.
Sean Tuohy: Which authors influenced you?
Alex Segura: Too many to list. But I regularly go back to the work of George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, Lawrence Block, Reed Farrel Coleman, Megan Abbott, Ross Macdonald, Margaret Millar, Charles Willeford, Vicki Hendricks, Duane Swierczynski, Henning Mankell, Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, James Ellroy, and Don Winslow, each for different reasons. I value stories with strong settings and protagonists that are far from perfect. I also appreciate vivid language, and all of these writers have that in spades.
ST: What is your writing process like? Do you outline or just vomit up a first draft?
AS: I start with an idea, and then I proceed. Sometimes that involves writing a few chapters to get a feel for the story followed by a bare bones outline, other times it means jumping into a structural doc if the story is more complicated. I’m trying to move away from planning too far ahead, so I’ve settled into this gray area between writing and outlining, where I give myself a few crumbs to follow, but I also leave a lot of breathing room to let the characters and story take me where they want to go.
ST: Does your writing process change between novels and comic books?
AS: A bit. Comics are much more collaborative—you’re the screenwriter writing for the artist, who’s in many ways the director and sets the visual tone for the story. So, you have to be open and willing to lose some things and gain others because you’re working together. With a novel, even though you do get some guidance and feedback, it’s all you. You’re sitting alone in the dark pecking away at your keyboard. You’re also creating from nothing, where in comics, you may be writing pre-existing characters that come with rules and existing issues. For me, prose is more liberating and comics are akin to putting a puzzle together, especially in terms of making sure you complement the art, don’t over-dialogue and hit the right beats.
ST: For the most part, Miami is rarely visited in detective fiction world. What attracts you to the city? What makes the Magic City a great landscape for fiction?
AS: I’m from there, born and raised, so there’s a lot of knowledge about the city and its history that I carry with me. It’s always struck me as a great setting. You have this beautiful, tropical veneer that masks something darker. Miami is no stranger to scandal, crime, and weird mysteries. It’s also a big place—sprawling, with lots of nooks and crannies that have their own personalities. It’s diverse, complicated and lovely. It’s like a femme fatale in metropolitan form, if that makes any sense. I never get tired of writing about it.
ST: How much of you ends up in your main character Pete Fernandez?
AS: A bit. I like to describe Pete as a guy I knew growing up. We went to similar schools, had similar experiences, but at a certain point, he went one way and I went the other. He also has great taste in music!
ST: Pete is a flawed character but the readers continue to root for him. As a writer, how do you balance keeping him imperfect, but not so much that you lose your reader?
AS: It’s tough. I want the stories to feel realistic but I also know Pete is the hero and you want readers to root for him. His problems are twofold—he’s an alcoholic and he’s also put himself in this position, where he’s investigating these terrible crimes with minimal experience. So the reader sees him try to succeed at not only solving the crime, but being a better person. Success with one does not guarantee success with the other. But, like you said, you don’t want to be completely doom and gloom. I try to show some character progression from book to book, otherwise I’m just writing a bunch of static standalones, which doesn’t interest me. I want to feel like he’s moving forward, that his world is evolving and he’s becoming better at his job and at his life. But for every step or two forward, we’ll see him stumble. Because that’s life.
ST: The third Pete Fernandez comes out in April. What can we expect from Pete’s new adventure?
AS: When we see Pete in Dangerous Ends, he’s established himself more and moved past the wreckage of his last adventure, Down the Darkest Street. He’s trying to make it as a PI, he’s trying to live a simpler, cleaner life. But that all goes out the window pretty fast. His partner, Kathy Bentley, wants Pete to help her reopen an old cold case. A saga that’s been a true crime staple for Miami residents for a decade—the saga of former Miami cop Gaspar Varela, who’s doing life in prison for the murder of his wife. Varela’s daughter, Maya, has hired Kathy and Pete to hopefully find some lost piece of evidence that would exonerate her father. Hesitant at first, Pete finds himself hooked by the case. But the deeper he goes, the more dangerous it becomes, and he finds himself in the sights of a deadly Miami street gang known as Los Enfermos and an even older case that dates back to the early days of Castro’s regime in Cuba. It’s a bigger, more ambitious book—dealing with more stuff and adding a lot of history and texture to not only Pete, but his world. I hope people enjoy it.
ST: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?
AS: It sounds simple, but it’s true: you have to read a lot to write well, and you have to write a lot to hope to write well. Get into a routine. Write every day or as close to that as you can manage. Finish stuff. Then revise. Then start something new. If you don’t treat the craft of writing seriously, you can’t get upset when people don’t treat your work seriously.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
AS: I have a cat named David Byrne.