[Interview] Michael Simon, author of ‘The Last Jew Standing’
Michael Simon is a former actor, playwright, and Texas probation officer. He lives in New York City and has taught at Brooklyn College and New York University.
In 2004, Viking published his first novel, Dirty Sally, which introduced Dan Reles, a half-Jewish, New York Mafia-born Texas homicide detective. Dirty Sally was lauded by The Chicago Tribune as “A bloody and intriguing delight for noir aficionados.” The Seattle Times called it “the finest crime-novel debut since Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War in 1994.”
In 2005, the second book in Simon’s Texas series, Body Scissors, was published, also to critical acclaim. The Rocky Mountain News called it, “Fast paced and suspenseful from start to finish.”
To date, Simon’s works have appeared in Swedish, French, Italian, Japanese, and on audio tape.
In a recent interview, Michael Simon spoke about his writing.
When did you start writing?
I must have been six years old and barely able to form words on a page when I got the idea that any writing assignment my teacher gave should be written as a story, with a beginning, middle and end, and with some kind of punch. It should be entertaining. My writings through school were filled with exaggerations and lies.
My brother and I were writing plays together when I was in my late 20s. He was living in New York and I was living in Texas.
We had long phone conversations about the play and sent drafts back and forth. I’d been studying since childhood to be an actor, but when we started writing, my brother commented that I was a “natural,” that writing suited me. But I had bought a plane ticket for Los Angeles. I was going to go out there for a week, scope out the scene and see if I wanted to move out there to be an actor.
But first I needed to finish our play.
We had completed a draft and gotten lots of feedback on it, most of it negative and/or useless. One friend pointed out that we needed to write a show that could be performed on a single set, so it could be produced for a reasonable amount of money. So I sat down one day, fighting all my fears, to revise. I managed to write for three hours the first day, then four hours the second and five hours the third. By then we had a completely different play, still rough but workable. The fourth day I sold my plane ticket and bought a new computer. I was a writer.
How would you describe your writing?
Crime thrillers with a soul. The first books had more of a political conscience. They were set in Austin, the capital of Texas, during the recession that followed the oil bust of the late 1980s. I showed a fictionalized version of how oil-rich Texans gained power over the state, foreshadowing how they’d later gain control of the federal government. Having said everything I had to say about that in the first three books, the fourth book became more personal. Still the main character was central in an adventure where thousands of lives are at stake, but he does this in the middle of his own struggles with his parents, his wife and his son.
Who is your target audience?
My first audience is probably people who like thrillers or detective stories, but my favorite compliment is “I hate detective stories but I love your books.” I’m writing forward-moving thrillers, where the reader is desperate to find out what happens next. There used to be some notion that this was the province of male readers and male writers. Not so. At least half my readership is female.
In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you most?
Nabokov wrote Lolita in English, which was, I believe, his third or fourth language. Every word is a careful choice, a poet’s choice. I wouldn’t say I’m quite there, but word choice means something, even in the sound and rhythms. I learned this as a playwright, but it carries over into fiction.
How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
After my master’s degree I got a job in law enforcement in Texas, working as a probation officer. (In the U.S., probation is an alternative to jail or prison time. The probationer reports to the officer every month or so, submits to drug tests and other degredations, and pays for the supervision, all for the privelege of staying free.)
I got this job because it was the only one I could apply for in the county employment bulletin that week, that didn’t have a typing requrement. I couldn’t type.
I was introduced to a spectrum of felons and misdemeanants, from drunk drivers to child molesters. Also, my office sat in the Spanish ghetto east of town, so I saw people living much more desperately than they did in the part of town where the white people lived. All this added up to my creating the world of these books.
What are your main concerns as a writer?
First concern: tell a good story. There were political issues I’ve explored in this series, but I never forgot that my first concern was the narrative. I brainstorm first, then outline, then revise the outline several times before I write my first draft. Then I outline what I did and revise that. Most of my struggle and revision is about plot. The plot has to work.
What are the biggest challenges that you face?
Sitting down to work in the morning and staying focused.
Do you write everyday?
Monday to Friday, 10 AM until 4 or 5 or 6. I always keep a pen with me and jot down notes through the evening and weekend.
I wake in the morning, eat, exercise, meditate, shower, shave, type in my notes, check my email, and start with whatever I left off with the previous day. Sometimes I’m brainstorming. Sometimes I’ll have a note to myself. “Read over outline, make notes.”
I put one foot in front of the other and try not to worry about the result.
How many books have you written so far?
In book one, Dirty Sally (Viking 2004), Austin suffers the after effects of the oil bust as Dan, still reeling from his partner’s death, tracks the brutal murder of a prostitute and the violent cover-up that follows. Behind the sordid street crime, he uncovers a bloody trail of financial intrigue that winds all the way up to a power greater than the Mafia: the Texas Elite — wealthy, ambitious, government-sanctioned and twice as deadly.
Book two, Body Scissors (Viking 2005), finds Dan living with Rachel, the beautiful widow of his murdered partner. A botched assassination attempt on a rising black community leader leaves one child dead an another in a coma. In his search for the killer, Dan chases a gunman across Texas , tangles with a Middle-Eastern druglord, and uncovers a mysterious and deadly disease that’s carving a path through college campuses. While Rachel fights to hide her own dark secret, Dan is sure he can break the case open — unless the killer gets to him first.
In Little Faith (Viking 2006), a fallen child star is murdered while, across town, an innocent boy finds himself alone and on the run. Left by the woman he loves, Dan Reles jumps on the case to resurrect his career and redeem his life. Pursued by an unseen enemy, Dan chases a trail from the aftermath of the fires at Waco to the backroom deals of the Texas capitol. But when one of the women in his life turns up murdered and he’s the only suspect, he slips into a nightmare of blackmailers, moneylenders, pimps, and the battle between acts of desire and acts of faith.
The Last Jew Standing (Viking 2007) finds Dan living in his new home with his beautiful wife and their young son. All is well until Dan’s ex-con father shows up on Dan’s doorstep with a runaway Russian prostitute in tow and a psychotic mob boss on his tail. The fiery result is what Thomas Kelly, author of Empire Rising, called “a great rollicking yarn,” adding, “Michael Simon is a literary force to be reckoned with.”
What is your latest book about?
Lieutenant Dan Reles has a new house, a beautiful wife, a son, and a great career as head of Austin Homicide. The past, however, has a way of catching up with you. When Dan’s ex-con father — a Mafia legbreaker who’s spent the last twenty years on the run — shows up on Dan’s doorstep with an escaped prostitute and a stolen car, Dan gets caught on the wrong end of a mob vendetta.
Sam Zelig is the last of the Jewish crime bosses, a giant of a man with boundless rage and a passion for pain — other people’s pain. Zelig chases the old man to Austin to retrieve his stolen girl and extract his pound of flesh. But when Dan’s father won’t hand over the girl, Sam Z. takes the city itself hostage, forcing Dan to run the gauntlet: a trial by fire and water, a hail of bullets, a bridge embankment and one very angry woodchipper.
In the wake of revelations about his New York past and the mother who abandoned him, Dan has to choose between his new family, his father, and the town he’s sworn to protect.
How long did it take you to write it?
A little over a year. I was on contract to produce a book a year, but when I didn’t finish quite on schedule, they waited. I wasn’t submitting the book until it was ready.
How did you chose a publisher for the book?
My first book, Dirty Sally, went to auction in 2003. Viking won the auction, and bought the book and the unwritten sequel, which later became Body Scissors. When those were done, Viking bought two more books in the same series, which became Little Faith and the current book, The Last Jew Standing.
Writing four books in the same series has been a joy. I got to stay in the world I established in book one, and watch it grow and change.
Which aspects of the work that you put into the book did you find most difficult?
Plotting is still the hardest and most important issue. I always want to think that the revision will only involve dialogue or detail, but once the plot has to be changed, revising feels like major surgery. I have to keep in mind that the writer isn’t like a sculptor. He can’t go in with both hands and reshape the work. The keyboard only allows changing one letter at a time.
Which did you enjoy most?
Performing before an audience at a reading. It’s like taking a bow for the work that I’ve done. It’s also the only element of the work that doesn’t take place in isolation.
What sets the book apart from the other things you’ve written?
This book is the first where we only see one character’s point of view. We only see what the detective sees. This would be easier in a straight mystery, where you have a corpse at the beginning and a solution at the end. But in a thriller, the action continues. There are growing threats and disasters. I had to plot these out so that the story continues all over town, but the reader only hears about each event as the detective does. Like the detective, the reader works to keep up.
In what way is it similar?
Same city, same detective, several of the same minor characters. But once you change perspective, you have a different animal.
What will your next book be about?
I’m not being coy. I don’t talk about a work in progress because talking about it kills the impulse to write it.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?
Getting my first book published.
How did you get there?
Six years of brainstorming,outlining, drafting, revising, and starting over. Relentless revision. Never giving up.