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Between the Pages, past
A Mystery Column
By Dennis Collins

An Interview with Michael Black

      I'd like to introduce Michael Black, author of A Killing Frost and Windy City Knights.

      Michael A. Black graduated from Columbia College , Chicago in 2000 with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiction Writing. He previously earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Northern Illinois University . A former Army Military Policeman, he entered civilian law enforcement after his discharge, and for the past twenty-five years has been a police officer in the south suburbs of Chicago . The author of over forty articles on subjects ranging from police work to popular fiction, several of his short stories have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Ellery Queen , Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine , and Detective Mystery Stories . . His first novel, A Killing Frost , featuring private investigator Ron Shade, was published by Five Star in September 2002 and received excellent reviews. A trade paperback version was released September 2003. Windy City Knights , the second novel in the series, came out in April of 2004. He has also written two nonfiction books for young readers, The M1A1 Abrams Tank and Volunteering to Help Kids , which were published by Rosen Press. He has worked in various capacities in police work including patrol supervisor, tactical squad, investigations, raid team member, and SWAT team leader. He is currently a sergeant on the Matteson, Illinois Police Department. His hobbies include weightlifting, running, the martial arts, and bird watching. It is rumored he has five cats.


Dennis: How long have you been writing?

Michael: Actually, I've been writing just about my whole life. I wrote my first short story in sixth grade, after months of trying to persuade my teacher, Miss Rehak, to let me give it a try. Naturally, it was a PI story. I don't remember much more, except that the private dick shot the villain a crooked cop, with a spear-gun. After I read it, there was hushed silence in the classroom, and Miss Rahak looked down her nose at me, through these incredibly thick glasses, and said, “Michael, don't you ever try anything like that again.”


Dennis: How long did it take you to get your first book published?

Michael: It took many, many years. So many, in fact that my first book, that is the first one I wrote, never did get published. My first published novel, A Killing Frost , was actually the third full-length manuscript I wrote. I can remember when I sat down at the keyboard, after so many rejections I lost count, and made a vow to myself that I was going to write this book, and make it the very best I could, regardless if I was the only other person who ever got to read it.


Dennis: Are you a structured writer, using outlines or do you just start writing?

Michael: I guess I would characterize myself as a little bit of both. When I first started I used outlines, but for the last couple I've kind of used a free-flowing system, where I just have a general idea about where the story is going, what needs to be said, and how to proceed. No matter which method I use, I seem to always seek some kind of written structure, just to keep things straight, plot-wise.


Dennis: Do you have a daily or weekly quota for writing?

Michael: My quota is to try and write something every day. I don't always succeed, and then I have to make up for it. On a good day, I can usually get about ten or twelve pages written before I have to stop. I know it's time to quit when I find myself rushing and making these “Quantum leaps” in the plotting. My personal best was writing twenty-seven pages on New Year's Day two years ago to finish off my upcoming novel, Freeze Me, Tender . I was on a roll.


Dennis: Was there an author who inspired you to write?

Michael: There have been many, and some I regard as my mentors. Sara Paretsky has been very supportive and nice to me throughout my career. Rob Kantner, who faded from sight a few years back, but is now making a comeback, helped me revise my first published short story. Mr. Andrew Vachss is my good friend, and has inspired me not only by being a great writer, but also by the kind of man he is in real life. I grew up reading the masters, Hammett, Chandler , and John D. MacDonald. There are many more I don't have the space to mention.


Dennis: In your novel “A Killing Frost,” you introduce the reader to Ron Shade. Who is Ron Shade, is he based on someone you know or is he pure fiction?

Michael: When I first started writing about him, Ron and I were about the same age, but as the years passed, and the rejections mounted, he tended not to age, while I got older. He's pure fiction, as are most all the private dicks in the mystery genre. But I feel like I know him.


Dennis: Will there be more Ron Shade novels?

Michael: Actually, there already are. The second novel in the series, Windy City Knights, came out in hardcover in 2004, and is just being released in trade paperback. I've finished a third novel in the series called A Final Judgment, which I hope will please all of Ron's fans.


Dennis: Will any of your other characters be returning?

Michael: Well, my old pulp-style hero, Doc Atlas and his crew have been making a comeback. These stories, which are set in the 1940s and 50s, never get dated because they're already set in the past, and I had the advantage of writing with a retrospective hindsight. Doc's in “Gorilla Killer,” which is currently in the anthology, Tales of Masks and Mayhem, Vol 1 . Volume 2 is due out soon with another Doc story, “Arctic Terror.” Both of next two on tap, The Heist and Freeze Me, Tender , are stand-alones. I've got a police procedural series with reoccurring characters waiting in the wings.


Dennis: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Michael: The best advice I can give is what was once given to me: Learn the basics, write what you like to read, and never, never, never quit.


Dennis: You've had a lengthy career as a police officer. How much help has that been in your writing?


Michael: It's helped me meet all kinds of people, see things that I probably never would have seen, and do things I only dreamed of doing as a kid playing cops and robbers. Writing about the dark side is easy for me because I've seen it. Some things, however, would not be appropriate to depict.


Dennis: Are you planning any books based on your police experience?


Michael: Police work's been my life, but I have too much respect and compassion for the victims of crime to write about anything I've directly worked on. I don't think I'd ever want to do a true crime book for that reason, unless it had the complete blessings of the victim's family.


Dennis: Do you have a family?

Michael: Sure, but I make it a rule never to talk about things too personal.


Dennis: How about hobbies?

Michael: Well, I've studied the martial arts since I was eleven years old, and I've been in a ton of street fights over the years. Police work has always given me an incentive to keep in shape, so that's my main hobby. I love running, lifting weights, punching the bags, and just about any physical exercise. I also like listening to music (Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Elvis, Shania Twain) and reading. I spend a lot of time taking care of my animals, too. (Several cats and a very spoiled dog.)


Dennis: This is your space to say anything you want . . .

Michael: Four score and seven years ago . . . No, wait, that's already been said! Some people out there will probably think I've said too much already, but I just want to add, support our troops overseas, and never forget their sacrifices. Like the old bumper sticker says: If you're reading this, thank a teacher. If you're reading this in English, thank a veteran.” Thank you, take care, and God bless.

2005 Past Columns

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