Want a ghost story/crime story/police procedural/Shakespeare lesson all twisted — really twisted — into one page-turner? See The Sleeping and the Dead (Minotaur Books/St. Martin's Press) from local author Jeff Crook. See to it too that you've got the stomach for it, preferably of the cast-iron variety. The story's got scenes that are plenty perverse and scenes to serve as a road map to Memphis' leading theaters, where a lot of the bloodshed is staged. It's also got former MPD vice detective Jackie Lyons in the lead role with a camera that sees ghosts and with a real mess on her hands. Not the least of it: a nasty drug habit she's maybe kicked and a nastier serial killer making mincemeat of his victims.
Here's Jeff Crook, by phone and by email, on The Sleeping and the Dead and on the path to winning an agent and a publishing contract, with side steps into the martial arts and the writer's mean rack of ribs:
You want to start at the beginning: how, as a first-time crime novelist, you got a two-book deal with a major publishing house?
Jeff Crook: I think it was back in November 2007. I'd had some luck with books assigned to me to write in the "Dragonlance" fantasy series, but that's a different setup. Books still come out the other end but not in the same way as in traditional publishing. And I did find some success with "Dragonlance." But I wanted to know if I could do it on my own.
With The Sleeping and the Dead, I thought I had a good thing and sent out five agent query letters and got responses to all five. That had never happened to me before. All the agents thought the book was pretty good but said it needed work. And all declined on it. So I kept revising it over the course of a year.
Minotaur Books has been a great publisher. My editor there sent me a tin of delicious homemade oatmeal raisin cookies for Christmas!
Originally, the book was going to be trade paperback, but at some point, they changed it to hardcover, which is great. I never thought I would get a hardcover for my first book, but the publisher's very positive about its potential and the future of Jackie Lyons.
We'll be meeting her again, right?
Yes, it's a two-book contract, and the next time, Jackie is in the suburbs, in a gated community, in a fictional county bordering Shelby County. She's been off heroin for a while, but she's still got that rage monster inside, still rough around the edges.
How'd you go from writing fantasy to crime?
It was just an idea I had, and it started with a photograph actually. My brother in law has a professional camera, and he'd posted pictures on his online photo account. I was going through them, looking for pictures of my kids, and I came across a series of pictures. In two of them, there's something moving through the frame behind my youngest son. Then I took the pictures to work and talked to co-workers. I thought — flash! — a haunted camera. I thought there's a story here.
And the story features a down-and-out, former drug addict who makes a living photographing murder scenes: Jackie Lyons.
I kind of had the hard-boiled detective in mind, but a lot of the story just developed as I was writing it. I'd read Hammett and Chandler, but I'd never read anything like them until I started this book. I thought I'd better read those guys. Then I heard Drake, of Drake and Zeke's radio show in Memphis, talking about James Lee Burke, so I picked up one of his books. I liked his style. I read seven or eight of his titles.
You have what sounds like firsthand knowledge of the Memphis theater scene. You must have some theater background.
Not really. I had a theater course in college, and that's about as close as I got. But I have read a lot of Shakespeare. And I got pointers from the Flyer's theater critic, Chris Davis, whom I've known for years. I'd send him questions. He does have a background in theater!
Did you worry that the police details in the book may not strictly follow standard operating procedure?
A lot of writers will follow the police around. I didn't. But I did do a lot of reading. I did a lot of thinking: If I had to do such-and-such, how would I do it?
I was a little worried writing from the first person point of view of a female character, though. But everybody said that was the least of their worries about the book.
I was more worried about getting Memphis right, because I'm somewhat a perfectionist when it comes to details. Writing the book was almost like doing a location shoot. I'd drive around town thinking that would be good place for this or that scene. I was worried somebody in Memphis was gonna read my book and think this is nothing like the city.
You're also a technical writer for the U.S. Postal Service. Has that had any influence on your own writing?
It's made me a better self-editor. I used to hate to edit myself. Now I over-edit, especially first chapters. I can't get anything finished!
Anything you'd like your readers to know about your writing background, outside interests?
I originally got into writing when I was a student at Ole Miss. My first creative writing instructor was Barry Hannah. I'm sorry he's not around to see this book. I think he'd like Jackie Lyons. I also studied creative writing at the University of Memphis under Tom Russell, John Bensko, and Gordon Osing.
I've published short fiction in just about every genre you can think of, including mystery and noir, ghost stories, etc. But my first publications were game modules for the Dungeons & Dragons game.
Outside interests? I love gardening and cooking. Yes, I make a mean rack of ribs and pork shoulder, using my own dry rub recipe and sauce recipe. Also: sour dough pizza — my sour dough starter is over three years old now. Other things: I'm a first-degree black belt in taekwondo and working toward my second degree. I'm also studying traditional Okinawan kobudo.
You mind my saying there are crime scenes in your book that are hard to stomach?
I have to give credit to the killer. As I was writing, I was reading a lot on serial killers. Like they say: If you stare too long into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.
But the version that's published is nowhere near as bad as the first draft. Even my agent encouraged me to tone it down. My wife actually couldn't finish the first draft. I'd talked about the story so much, when she was reading it, she knew what was coming. She'd get to a certain point and say, "I can't keep going."
I did keep going. But your book: It's way over the top.
Yes, it is.
For more on Jeff Crook, follow his blog at http://jeffcrook.blogspot.com. His Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jeff-Crook-Author-of-Yalls-Destruction.
And FYI: If you missed Jeff Crook's booksigning at Burke's Book Store on July 9th, he's scheduled to sign copies of The Sleeping and the Dead at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on August 28th.