Monday, December 3, 2018

TBR: Suitcase Charlie by John Guzlowski

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

One day in 1956, a suitcase with a chopped-up, blood-drained little boy is found on a street corner in Chicago.  Then another is found on another street, and then a third and a fourth and on and on.  Two Chicago Police Department detectives – guys with their own personal traumas – are assigned to solve these crimes. 

Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?

The characters I enjoyed the most are the two cops: Hank Purcell and Marvin Bondarowicz.  I loved reading gritty, noir detective novels like Mickey Spillane when I was a kid and James Ellroy’s take on that genre when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I tried to pack as much of that into the novel as I could with a twist.  It’s no longer 1960 or 1980, so I tried to give a 21st century spin to 50s noir.  My main cop is Hank Purcell who is not only hard-boiled to the max, he’s also a loving father, a terrific husband, and a WWII vet walking around with all those PTSD memories.  There’s an emotionality and a gloom to him that mixes nicely, I think, with the noir world he inhabits.  I also like Marvin.  He’s ultimate noir.  Although Jewish, he doesn’t respect Jewish people or anybody else he runs across whether they’re black, white, Puerto Rican, straight or gay.  Mixed with this meanness of his is a tendency to be very, very funny.  The recent Kirkus review of the book highlighted this aspect. 

The most trouble?  The villain.  The guy who butchers these kids.  The book is loosely based on a series of actual murders that occurred in Chicago in 1956 and 1957.  I was around 9 when these took place, and they taught me that the world was a place to fear.  Writing about the villain brought back a lot of those memories of when I was a kid and I would be sitting on a stoop in my old neighborhood with my pals and we would start talking about Suitcase Charlie.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

The low?  The book was accepted by a small publisher who at first did a great job of promoting the book.  Sales were good, reviews were good, amazon reviews were good.  Then I gave the publisher the second Hank and Marvin mystery, Little School Boys.  The publisher was having trouble at that point with sales and eliminated promotion.  I didn’t know this when I signed the contract.  There was no promotion of any kind.  I shouldn’t tell you this but the novel sold about a dozen copies.  There were no reviews. Nothing.

When I complained, the publisher said, if you don’t like it buy yourself out of the contract for the two novels.  I did. 

The happy ending to this is that I almost immediately found another publisher, Kasva Press.  The press is very hands on, very committed to making the republishing of Suitcase Charlie a great experience for me and my readers.  Kasva has also committed itself to the publicaiton for the next two Hank and Marvin mysteries:  Little Altar Boys and Murder Town.  And they’ve also agreed to publish my novel about two German lovers in WWII, Road of Bones.  I had this novel with another small publisher also.  The publisher kept putting the novel off from one year to another.  Originally it was supposed to appear in 2012.  And it never got published although I was under contract.  Ugh.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’ve got two pieces of advice:
  1. Always be writing.
  2. You don’t need any stinking writing advice.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

For me the novel was a fantastic time machine.  Suitcase Charlie is mainly set in the neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago, the Humboldt Park area where I lived from 1954 to 1975.  Writing the novel allowed me to go back in time and visit people I knew and loved as a kid and places that meant so much to me, the park, the schools, the street corners where I played. 

How did you find the title of your book?

That was the easy part.  That’s what we called the serial killer who was killing kids in Chicago and dumping their bodies in the parks when I was a kid.  We pictured him walking with a suitcase down the street at night and just dropping it here or there.  A lot of times, we’d be sitting on a stoop at night talking or joking or singing, and one of the boys or girls would look down the street and see somebody carrying a bag or a suitcase, and say Suitcase Charlie, and we would know fear.

By the way, the guy who did a number of these murders was finally captured but it wasn’t until the early 1990s.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes* I might share?)

There is a discussion of czarnina, a traditional Polish duck’s blood soup in one of the early chapters.  A suspect has some in his refrigerator, and it makes him look really really suspicious to my two cops.  I would give you the recipe, but the soup is just too disgusting.  It requires about 4 cups of duck’s blood. 




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.