Author Wayne Zurl is a retired police commander and a Vietnam veteran who writes witty and very realistic police stories, Sam Jenkins mysteries—like an episode of NYPD Blue in the Smoky Mountains. Wayne honors us with an interview today.
You have led a very interesting life. But first, please tell us about your current home.
I live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, East Tennessee, only a few miles from the most visited national park in the United States. It’s also “jest a hoot an’ a holler” from the small fictional city of Prospect where my protagonist, Sam Jenkins, became police chief. The Smokies are full of history and the natives are part of a fiercely independent and hardy group. The landscape is beautiful, the communities unique, and the region deserves character status—just as Raymond Chandler gave to Los Angeles in his Philip Marlowe stories and books, James Lee Burke gives Dave Robicheaux’s Cajun country of southern Louisiana, and Loren D. Estleman gave to Amos Walker’s Detroit.
Your beautiful home sure deserves one! And Sam is quite a character. Now, for thirteen years you were a New York police commander who supervised investigators. Please share with us what you do there.
I spent more than half of my police career serving as the CO of a specialized unit. The nature of these sections makes a supervisor’s life easier than for those who lead the line organizations of any agency. Everyone I worked with was chosen from a pool of volunteers. Everyone wanted to be there, doing that specific job. They were all self-motivated, experienced cops who wanted to investigate complicated and specialized cases. I dealt with the cream from a good crop. All I had to do was coordinate our efforts, offer some advice, check over reports, and make sure morale stayed high. I liked the people I worked with . . . then there was management.
You sure downplay your role, but how lovely to work with such people! You deserved that after serving in Vietnam and in the Reserves. Would you like to talk about Vietnam?
Young people should never be subjected to war. During the Vietnam conflict, the average age of the soldiers I saw serving in that country was between eighteen and nineteen years old. I was an old man—almost twenty-three when I got there on April Fool’s Day of 1969.
I served in a special warfare unit manned by career soldiers and volunteers. Our motto was ‘De Oppresso Libre.’ In English:‘Liberate the Oppressed.’ Unfortunately, most of the Vietnamese people didn’t want us in their country. They didn’t ask to be liberated or see their land occupied by a bunch of foreign soldiers who believed in the domino theory of Communist oppression and domination.
Discussing the ramifications of the Vietnam War could take me more time than I have left on earth.
I returned to the U.S. after my time in Vietnam and a second “hard tour” in South Korea. I landed at McCord Air Base in Washington. The rhododendrons were in bloom. The pines reached way up into the sky and the Seattle-Tacoma region was experiencing a rare period of clear blue skies and sunshine—a beautiful homecoming. I walked from the Air Force facility to the civilian SEA-TAC airport where I would hop on an Army bus and ride to nearby Fort Lewis and the mustering out station. I wore a set of custom-made khakis, spit-shined jump boots, a jaunty beret, and all the appropriate ribbon bars and silver badges. I thought I looked like the cat’s ass. While marching over the highly buffed terminal floor, I encountered the first two hippie panhandlers I’d ever seen. The male was tall and fat and bearded. The female would have been attractive had she been scrubbed with a push broom. He put down his guitar, lifted his T-shirt, and flashed a hairy stomach at me. She shook her tambourine, gave me the finger, and called me a baby killer. Welcome home, kid.
Here’s an excerpt from A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT and what Sam Jenkins said about his homecoming from the Vietnam War:
…I felt similar to how I did after returning from overseas many years before. I spent two hard-tours in East Asia for the Army, one in Vietnam and one in South Korea. Upon my return to the U. S., I possessed little tolerance for the street punk or college student who somehow escaped national service and behaved like they knew something of the world. I believed that only I, and those of my ilk, owned the right to feel worldly or world-weary. We had seen it all and done most everything, or so we thought. But as I grew older, I learned most everyone gets to see and do just a little more.
Before all that, you worked in the fledgling business of computers—when they were seven feet tall. What happened there?
When I started college in 1965, a counselor bamboozled me into taking several courses in computer programming and data processing. He claimed that Sperry-Rand’s UNIVAC machines had been eclipsed by IBM and recommended I get into the business as advancements emerged. Back then, you wrote programs on paper worksheets and key punch operators transcribed each line onto a punch card to become one element of a total program. The older and simpler plug-board accounting machines were programmed by a series of wires telling the machine what to do. Both depended much on logic to instruct the computer. The programming methods I learned linked that logic with orderly common sense. I did well and during school scored a couple of part-time jobs to help provide tuition and gas and pizza money. After I graduated and got married, I found a cushy job at a major university. I wrote programs, but when a system runs well and no one asks to improve what works, there were no programs to write. So, I helped the machine operators run the computers and generate reports, payroll checks, billing statements, and whatever paperwork makes a business go around. That’s where my problems broke water. Operating a data processing machine is boring. My mind wandered. Inevitably, I pushed the wrong button or crossed hands and fed the wrong sequence of cards into the hopper. I was a disaster.
In retrospect, I realize the local draft board breathing down my neck saved me from getting sacked. Uncle Sam sent me a “greetings” letter, but I opted to speed up the inevitable by going into the Army three months early. I left the university a local hero.
I can envision some of that! When I started work in 1986, I wrote numerical programs and typed them into black and green screen of a fat computer. Then the operators run the programs at night time on seven-feet-tall mainframe computers, storing the data in big reels and giving us boxes of velocity rolls or seismic sections in the morning. And now it’s almost paperless! So, you were disenchanted with the IBM/data processing business then. You scrapped reentry into that world after returning from your stint with the Army overseas. You collected unemployment insurance until you were offered the only job compatible with your military background. Would you like to tell us more?
Almost five years later (there were aspects of the Army I liked and stayed a bit longer than my obligatory two years), I separated from active duty and became one of the unemployed masses. A woman at the New York State Division of Employment asked if I wanted to return to the world of computers. Remembering the seven-foot-tall processing units, eighteen inch “RAMAC” discs, and massive reel-to-reel data drives clicking and ticking away in frigid air-conditioned dust-free rooms and the frantic month-end closing days of reports, reports, and more reports, I mumbled some excuse for not pursuing that career path.
“Well,” she said, “based on what you did in the Army, you have no marketable civilian skills, but your military salary allows us to pay you the maximum unemployment benefit of $104.00 a week. Keep a record of the job interviews you go to and report in every Monday.”
I faced choices in life. Go back into the Army? I kinda liked the idea, but my wife hated it. To make a few extra bucks to help offset the high cost of New York life, I opted to go into the active reserves. Go back to school on the G.I. Bill? I didn’t know in which direction to go with further education. I decided to follow many indecisive young men from New York when looking for a job: Go into civil service. I could be a cop, a fire fighter, or a garbage man. Smoke gave me a headache and I didn’t want to spend twenty years smelling other people’s refuse. That left being a policeman. I liked the idea of the paramilitary structure, the chances for advancement, and the benefits. So, I took the entrance exams for the three major departments in the Metro New York area.
The results of the test I took on February 24th were published first. I placed number 24 on the list and was hired in the first academy class on April 24th. I found a bookie and played that number in all combinations.
Hahahahaha! You are witty like your character Sam 🙂 Speaking of your many writings, you sure are a very busy and a very happy retiree. Would you be so kind to give readers a one-sentence synopsis of each book? Please share your favourite paragraph in each book.
After helping her friend Chief Sam Jenkins with a fraud investigation, a beautiful TV reporter is abducted in Prospect by a deranged fan.
I rose up on my knees and unzipped my field jacket. I took it off slowly and dropped it on the floor. In doing so, he saw the holstered Glock hanging on my right hip.
“You have a gun?” He rose up, too, and snapped his pistol directly at my head. “You wanted to kill me.”
He sounded disappointed in me.
Records show that a long-term employee at Prospect city hall doesn’t really exist, and then the man is found dead in a Smoky Mountain creek bed, killed assassination style.
I think about the little guy often. Murray McGuire looked like a leprechaun. He played darts like a pub champion and drank stout like a soccer star. If you worked for the city of Prospect and found problems with a piece of office equipment, Murray would work tirelessly to remedy your troubles. But after I interviewed him for thirty minutes, I could have cheerfully strangled the little bastard.
A retired New York detective finds a job as police chief in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, investigates a grisly homicide with less than a week on the job, and encounters more political corruption than he ever wanted to see.
Few people believe me when I speak about my life altering experience at the checkout in Wal-Mart.
How long did it take you to write each of them?
I began writing my first novel, A NEW PROSPECT, in the summer of 2006 with no formal education in creative writing. It took a long time and served as a learning process not only on how to write fiction, but the publishing business in general. When I thought I’d finished, I hired a “book doctor” to evaluate the manuscript and received good news and bad news. The retired editor and author of nine novels told me he liked my main character, the story, and my writing voice, but . . . “It would have been a hit in 1985, but it doesn’t conform to the structure today’s publisher demands.”
So, I jumped through hoops to move chapters around, trim lots of fat, add some necessities, and got it ready to submit.
After a blessing from Dr. Book, I began sending query letters to literary agents. As the answers came trickling back and the rejections piled up, I began to wonder if my deodorant had failed. Then one of those pedantic power brokers who must have had a free afternoon sent a scribbled note saying, “I like the way you write, but a 60-year-old retired NY detective in Tennessee just isn’t trendy. Consider changing your character from a middle-aged police chief to a teen-aged private eye from Orange County.”
I gave up on the agent idea and began writing to any publisher willing to accept submissions directly from an author and accepted the first reasonable contract offered. A NEW PROSPECT was traditionally published in January 2011.
The next two novels came along quicker. I wrote them faster and a new publisher found me posting chapters at an on-line writer’s workshop and offered contracts. A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT was published in April 2012 and HEROES & LOVERS followed in August that year.
Interesting! How real are your characters?
I tell everyone I have more memory than imagination. Most of my characters are based on people I know/knew well. Sometimes they’re composites of multiple personalities. Some are caricatures of brief acquaintances. But they’re all real people. Being able to see these players makes writing dialogue easier. I can hear them—their voices and delivery, so duplicating their speech comes naturally.
I noticed that attention to speech 🙂 Now, how did you come up with the titles?
My first book began life as Murder in the Smokies. Reflecting on that, I didn’t want readers to think this was just another story of a murder investigation. I wanted the book to be more character driven and didn’t want a body by page 3. I woke up at 3 a.m. one morning and said, “A NEW PROSPECT.” A double meaning. A new prospect in life for former Detective Lieutenant Sam Jenkins and a new [city of] Prospect for the residents, gaining an honest and professional cop as their chief. Will Prospect ever be the same?
The second book’s main antagonist is a little redheaded guy named Murray McGuire. He claims parental ties to Ireland, but turns out to have no past and meets a horrible future. A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT seemed appropriate.
I first called HEROES & LOVERS Christmas in the Smokies, which sounded terribly bland. It took me until the end of the book to dream up something I liked better. The final title also has something of an ambiguous and double meaning.
What inspires you the most?
Remember what I said about more memory than imagination? All my novels and all but two novelettes are based on actual incidents—either cases I investigated, supervised, or just knew a lot about. I’m never sure when or why I’ll get an idea or inspiration for something new, but these old memories surface and with luck I figure out how to twist things a little and transplant them from New York to Tennessee. In GRACELAND ON WHEELS (a soon to be published novelette) I took the New York murder of an old alcoholic who everyone thought to be wealthy and turned it into the killing of an Elvis Presley impersonator. Who knows where that transition came from?
And with your life experiences you have so much more memories to write about! When did you first know you just had to write?
I had been writing non-fiction magazine articles for ten years and woke up one morning feeling burnt out. Around the same time, I started reading Robert B. Parker’s NIGHT PASSAGE, the first Jesse Stone mystery. Parker’s premise was an ex-LAPD detective who became chief in a small Massachusetts town. A mental light bulb popped on. I had been a cop and Parker hadn’t. Why couldn’t I write about a retired New York detective who moved to Tennessee and found a chief’s job? How hard could it be? Refer back to Question #10 and that business about agents.
You’ve achieved so much since then. Who would you say have been the most influential authors in your life? What is it that really strikes you about their work?
I could make a long list of favorite authors, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll choose a few people who give me good reason to hold them in esteem.
Someone gave me a copy of James Lee Burke’s BLACK CHERRY BLUES and started me reading mysteries. I’ll always place Burke on my list of favorites and admit I’ll never be as technically as good as he, because my mind doesn’t work in the directions his does. Burke can describe people, places and events with pure poetry. He can also take you into a character’s head in psychological and philosophical ways that I admire.
I mentioned Robert B. Parker before. I like everything he wrote—Spenser, Jesse Stone, Sonny Randal, and the other non-series novels. His strong point is an easy-going, minimalist style. From him, I’ve gotten the urge to tell my stories in the fewest possible words. He did that quite well. I’m working on it.
I’ve read every piece of fiction and several of the non-fiction books from Joseph Wambaugh. He’s excellent with police procedurals because he’s an ex-cop. He gets the details right and doesn’t pander to expected formulas. His books aren’t for the action junkie who likes the unrealistic, over-the-top, fantasy police novels some best-selling authors peddle. Joe writes interesting, compelling, and real police stories.
Who gives you the most encouragement?
No doubt about this—my wife. She offers plenty of encouragement, compliments, and a true touch of honesty and reality by saying, “I’d never want you to embarrass yourself. After I read something, I’ll tell you the truth.”
Tell us about your audio books and your experience producing them.
While I was trying to peddle A NEW PROSPECT to a publisher, I wrote shorter novelettes (the accepted definition of a novelette is between 7,500 and 17,500 words) for practice, but encountered problems trying to sell long stories to mainstream mystery magazines who typically want pieces between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Then I ran across a relatively new company called Mind Wings Audio who was looking for stories between 8 and 11 thousand words to produce as audio books (read by professional actors) and simultaneously publish as eBooks. They called them “commuter audio books” or something to listen to other than the same old am/fm station on trips to and from work. They duplicate the old-fashioned one-hour radio programs I remember from the 1940s and 50s. They sell very well and Mind Wings pays royalties faithfully. MP3 downloads far exceed compact discs and eBooks outsell them all. So far they’ve bought nineteen of these short Sam Jenkins mysteries.
Any writing tips?
What you write should not only be grammatically correct and have all the elements of a well structured story but they should sound good. ALWAYS read your finished product aloud to yourself. It should flow smoothly, have rhythm. If you hit an awkward bump—reword it until it sings to you.
What are you working on right now? Tell us your latest news.
A new full-length novel is under contract and the publisher is doing the first round of edits. Here’s my proposed dust jacket summary for PIGEON RIVER BLUES:
Winter in the Smokies can be a tranquil time of year—unless Sam Jenkins sticks his thumb into the sweet potato pie.
The retired New York detective turned Tennessee police chief is minding his own business one quiet day in February when Mayor Ronnie Shields asks him to act as a bodyguard for a famous country and western star.
C.J. Profitt’s return to her hometown of Prospect receives lots of publicity . . . and threats from a rightwing group calling themselves The Coalition for American Family Values.
The beautiful, publicity seeking Ms. Proffit never fails to capitalize on her abrasive personality by flaunting her alternative lifestyle—a way of living the Coalition hates.
Reluctantly, Jenkins accepts the assignment of keeping C.J. safe while she performs at a charity benefit. But Sam’s job becomes more difficult when the object of his protection refuses to cooperate.
During this misadventure, Sam hires a down-on-his-luck ex-New York detective and finds himself thrown back in time, meeting old Army acquaintances who factor into a complicated plot of attempted murder, the destruction of a Dollywood music hall, and other general insurrection on the “peaceful side of the Smokies.”
Mind Wings has four novelettes on the coming soon list: NOTHING FITZ, THE SWAN TATTOO, ALVIS IS IN THE BUILDING, and GRACELAND ON WHEELS.
And I’m working on revisions of A TOUCH OF MORNING CALM, a novel about Korean organized crime in Tennessee.
How much do you have in common with your protag?
Reality and authenticity of detail mean a lot to me in mysteries or police procedurals. Allowing a reasonable amount of suspension of disbelief is good for any story, but too many bestselling authors insult our intelligence with what they write. I promise, I’ll never expect you to believe that in real life Sam Jenkins would shoot a steel cable from his wristwatch so he can “slide for life” across the gap between two tall buildings and chase a suspect over the rooftops of beautiful downtown Prospect, Tennessee. That’s pure hogwash. So, to bring this much needed authenticity to my stories (and make my writing life easier) I decided that my protagonist would act a lot like me. I can look back on twenty years of being a cop in a busy place and allow Sam to do what I would do and say what I might say. Initially, I thought it would be a chance to take that extra time often not available to a street cop, reason out a foolproof plan, and make everything come out perfect. But that’s not reality and perfect is boring. Sam occasionally acts impulsively and makes mistakes. We share the trait of sometimes lacking the patience necessary to do things safely. I hope readers grit their teeth, say, “Oh, Jenkins, you know better,” and feel the tension.
What are your hobbies apart from writing?
My wife and I travel a lot. With travel comes photography, and it’s a lot more enjoyable to take nature and landscape photos than to capture the nuances of a crime scene or dead body. A couple of years ago, we rekindled an old interest in fishing that had been on hiatus for more than thirty years. And like my protagonist, I have a keen interest in old British sports cars. Sam’s 1967 Austin-Healey 3000 is not a work of fiction.
Tell us a bit about who or what matters to you.
I’ve always had a small family and not many of us are left. So, living a healthy and tranquil life sits high on my priority list. From a writer’s standpoint, before I fall off the perch, I wanted to bring readers a series of police stories full of interest, authenticity, humor, and quirky characters. My protagonist is not your average police/detective hero—he’s middle-aged, not an alcoholic, he regards police work as fun, and remains steadfast in the philosophy that politicians should not try to influence a cop. If nothing else, I hope readers finish a Sam Jenkins mystery and say, “Score one for the old guy.”
What one thing is important for your readers to know about you? Why?
I care how the public looks at the police. I believe that society has the right to expect more from the cops they hire than they might expect from themselves. No civil servant likes to hear a complainant say, “Hey, I pay your salary.” But that statement is true and the paying public deserves 100% professionalism and talent from a good cop. I do my best to make Sam Jenkins adhere to those standards. My stories come from real experience not something I learned after a two hour lecture at a writer’s conference. A combination of two Twitter messages I often use tells people what they can expect: He’s not just another fictional cop. Mysteries told in minimalist style. No BS. Meet Sam Jenkins.
Thank you so much for your time and the very interesting chat, Wayne. Happy writing and best wishes!
Now, here comes my mini review of Wayne’s novellete, Heaven’s Gate
Author: Wayne Zurl
Sam Jenkins is the Police Chief of quaint little town Prospect, which is peopled by real and quirky characters of friendly police officers, obnoxious Mayor Ronnie Shields, news-hungry journalists, and obtuse crooks. In Heaven’s Gate, Chief Jenkins goes undercover to buy automatic illegal weapons from a gun show hustler, with the money supplied by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The story opens with illegal-firearm trading by Patriots at the Gate, a neo-fascist militia group of genuinely patriotic but sadly misinformed men. Members of this group arm themselves with automatic weapons and military munition in order to defend their American ideals. They must prevent the minorities, women, and Democrats from forcing their ways on society.
Heaven’s Gate is a short men fiction, which even female readers will be interested in. Here we learn about real police procedural with the right details but Wayne’s minimalist style prevent these details from bogging down the plot. An interesting look into the minds of gun lovers and black-market firearms, in a country where the number of the annual gun casualties is extremely high.