Vincent Zandri is not only a bestselling and award-winning novelist and essayist, he travels the world as a photojournalist. His novel, As Catch Can was called "brilliant" by the New York Post as well as "The most arresting first crime novel to break into print this season" by the Boston Herald. The novel was recently republished as The Innocent.
Vincent, why the large cross with neon letters on your website?
The Big Cross. That’s from a piece I did for RT (Russia Today satellite news network) about New York state going broke. Eleven months ago, the governor warned the public that in two or three week’s time the state would be bankrupt. I had just flown in from an assignment in Moscow and Italy, and promptly drove down to the local mission in Albany, and took that shot. I liked it so much I put it up on my website. Very noir, especially at night. BTW: the mission was built by my dad, a local Albany contractor. So he was probably responsible for purchasing and installing that big illuminated cross! He probably picked it out!
Tell us about your noir novel, The Innocent.
The Innocent came about when I was working on a nonfiction biography about New York State’s first black maximum security prison warden by the name of David Harris. Story goes that he was personally investigated for failure to properly do his job when a cop killer managed to escape. He was eventually exonerated but that kind of thing sticks with you and can make you bitter. No one likes to be falsely accused of anything! While the non-fiction didn’t sell, I came up with the idea of a prison warden who not only is blamed for the prison break of a cop killer but who is also brought up on charges of murder one when said cop killer shows up murdered. I wanted it to be a paranoid thriller in the vein of Hitchcock, and I hope I succeeded. It was originally published by Delacorte Press under the title As Catch Can, and numerous foreign translations were sold also. For some reason, Delacorte couldn’t really make it do anything even after laying a ton of money on me. But now that it’s been re-released, it’s an Amazon Hard-Boiled bestseller in hard-boiled fiction, which really pleases me.
How did the transition from journalism to fiction come about?
The transition is never ending in that every day I work on journalism assignments and write fiction. These days, having signed two more contracts for two more books with StoneGate Ink (a new noir imprint from StoneHouse Ink), it’s getting harder and harder to balance my time. I’m also an obsessed marketer of my work! But I learned long ago not to place all your eggs--golden, rotten, or otherwise—into the same basket. I did that once before and was out of work for more than a year. I don’t ever expect to give up journalism, but if my books continue to sell as well as they have, I will be able to choose only the stories I want to write. Stories that really interest me.
How do you support your novel writing habit?
Lately, it’s been lots of journalism and some pretty good royalties from my releases this year alone: Moonlight Falls, and The Remains, which has been a bestseller for months in both hard-boiled and romantic-suspense fiction. But while I was building my career backup my dad was pretty generous about helping me out. I used to work for him, and he knows how hard this business can be. There’s been some movie interest in my Moonlight Falls novel, so fingers crossed there.
Do you outline your novels or have a vague idea of what you’re going to write when you sit down at the computer?
I try and think about the story in my head for a good long time before I begin to write. I used to begin the story long before it was meant to be written and it would result in the worst frustrations. Nowadays, I might take a month or more to make notes and think about my characters. Only when that’s completed will I draw up a prelim outline that’s loose enough to allow the story to form organically. When I finish the first draft, which I usually do by hand, that will serve as my formal outline. I’ll let that sit for a while before going back to it. At any one time, I might be working on three different novels. In this the day and age of Kindles and EBooks, readers want and expect more work from their favorite authors than they used to. So I plan on putting out two books per year for the rest of my life. Plus a bunch of digital shorts, like my noir short, Pathological.
You’ve traveled to China, Russia, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, England, Africa and a lot of other interesting places. Which country do you most enjoy writing about and why?
The country I enjoy the most is Italy. I spend a month there every year just working, thinking, eating and drinking. But the country I most loved to photograph and write about is Africa. I was on an assignment there for RT last year and I wrote about 10 pieces and took hundreds of photos. I was stationed on a hospital ship off the coast of Benin, West Africa, during the peak time of piracy. I spent time in the surgery and off-ship in the bush. It was an incredible experience not to mention dangerous. You feel pretty vulnerable when the Land Cruiser you’re driving over a dirt road is suddenly flagged down by a soldier standing in the middle of the road waving an AK-47 at you. They demand papers but what they really want is money. You give them money and the first thought that crosses your mind is, “If he kills me, no way anyone is going to find my body.” I actually had to bribe my way out of the country. My idea of fun!
How difficult was it to acquire an agent?
Curiously, I’ve never had any trouble luring agents to my cause. And I’ve had a bunch of them, from Suzanne Gluck at WMA to my present one, Janet Benrey. What’s difficult is finding an agent who wants to remain in the business. And, frankly, a lot of them are sort of crazy. My first big agent, Jimmy Vines, is missing in action, on the lam, or some such thing. Following him, I signed with a string of agents who for one reason or another up and quit the business just like that. Their actions literally cost me years and tons of sales. But agents looking for a new line of work seems to be one of the growing trends in the business. In fact, I’ve been in and out of this commercial fiction thing for more than ten years now, and not a single person I started out with---agent, editor, chief editor, publicist, etc.—is still working in the publishing business. Well, that’s not entirely true, since Jacob Hoye, the editor who first bought me (and Harlan Coben by the way), heads up MTV’s Pop Culture books division. But hey, I don’t write pop culture, whatever that is.
Advice to aspiring writers?
Finish school, learn to live on little while living large. Travel, gain experiences, pay attention to what people say and how they say it. Read all the greats from Hemingway to Robert B. Parker to the great Charlie Huston. Then write as much as you can and rewrite some more. Don’t be dismayed when the people you graduated high school and college with are pulling ahead financially. You will catch up eventually so long as you stick to your guns. This is a business about persevering as much as it is about writing well. Oh, and don’t get married. For the first ten years of your working life, the writing will be both spouse and mistress. Hope this helps! If anyone has more questions, feel free to email me at Vanzandri@aol.com.
(Excerpted from The Mystery Writers, where you can also read Vincent's article, "Renewing my Writing Vows" as well as interviews and articles by more than fifty writers.