My guest today is author Josh Pachter!
About the Author: Josh Pachter’s crime fiction appears regularly in magazines and anthologies. The Tree of Life, a collection of his Mahboob Chaudri stories, was published by Wildside Press last summer, and Styx, a zombie cop novel on which he collaborated with a Belgian colleague, was published by Simon & Schuster in November. He is the assistant dean for communication studies and theater at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun Campus, and lives not far from Washington DC with his wife Laurie and their dog Tessa.
- Welcome Josh! Tell us a little about your background
Thanks ROCCO! I’m a native New Yorker, and I got my undergrad and graduate degrees in communication studies from the University of Michigan. (Go Blue!) In 1976, I went to Holland and bought a motorcycle, planning to spend six months tooling around Italy and Greece. I wound up staying for 15 years, and spent most of that time teaching for the University of Maryland University College on American Army, Navy and Air Force bases in a dozen countries in Europe and the Middle East. In 1991, just a few months after German Unification, I returned to the US. After 15 years in Cleveland, I came back to the East Coast and ultimately settled in northern Virginia. My wife Laurie is a writer/editor for a government agency in DC, my daughter Becca is a county prosecutor in Arizona, and I am the assistant dean for communication studies and theater at Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun Campus.
- Tell us a bit about your Mahboob Chaudri stories. Where did the idea come from?
I’ve been writing for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine since 1968, when — at the age of 16 — I sold a short story to their “Department of First Stories.” In ’82, UMUC sent me to Bahrain to teach at the US Navy base there. I was supposed to be in the emirate for four months but stuck around for almost a year. Bahrain is — or at least was at that time — such a fascinating place that I decided to set a story there. Because of the tension between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, most of the police force in the country was imported from Pakistan, and I decided to make my main character a Pakistani cop on Bahrain’s Public Security Force. When I finished the story (“The Dilmun Exchange”), EQMM editor Eleanor Sullivan bought it and asked me to turn the protagonist — Mahboob Chaudri — into a series character. I continued writing about Mahboob for a few years after moving from Bahrain to what was then West Germany, and Eleanor bought five more stories about him. There was another one she liked, but it was too long for EQMM and ultimately wound up in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. In addition to those seven, I wrote three more that were published in other magazines. So there were a total of 10 stories, all written between 1982 and 1991. Author/critic Bill Pronzini called Mahboob “one of crime fiction’s most delightful new detectives,” and several of the stories were reprinted in Ed Hoch’s annual Year’s Best Mystery and Suspense Stories. Fast forward a quarter of a century to last year, when publisher John Betancourt of Wildside Press asked me if I’d be willing for him to collect the whole series into a single volume, and I jumped at the chance to share Mahboob with a generation of readers who probably hadn’t previously met him. I wrote an introduction, and afterwords for each of the 10 stories, and Wildside published the collection in paperback as The Tree of Life and as an e-book titled The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery MEGAPACK.
- How do you “get to know” your characters
When I first decided to write a story about a Pakistani policeman in Bahrain, I was living right next door to the police barracks in Juffair, where about a hundred Pakistani cops were housed. I strolled over to the barracks and asked a group of the officers if I could talk with them. We sat in a circle on the ground, and I started firing hypotheticals at them: “If I was going to write a story about a Pakistani policeman in Bahrain, what would his name be? Where would he originally have come from in Pakistan? Would he be married? What would his wife’s name be? Would he have children?” Their responses came so quickly it seemed like they weren’t even pausing to think about them, and I finally realized that they were answering my hypothetical questions with true statements about their own names and histories and families and lives. So I took the first name of one of them and the last name of another, the wife’s name of a third and the home town of a fourth and so on, and cobbled together the character who became Mahboob Chaudri. Of the 100 or so stories I’ve written over the years, he is definitely the character I most feel like I “know.” Otherwise, I pretty much just make the people in my fiction up….
- How do you construct your plots? Do you outline or do you write “by the seat of your pants”?
Ah, yes, the “plotter or pantser?” question. I guess I’m really more of a “titler.” Almost always — and unlike anyone else I know — I usually begin with a title. I hear a phrase and think, Hmm, that’s a title for a story. And then I start thinking about what story could have that title, and I go from there. For example, for Christmas of 2014 my in-laws gave me a lovely little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World, by Ella Frances Sanders (Ten Speed Press). As I was leafing through it, I found the phrase “pisan zapra,” which Sanders identifies as a noun in the Malay language, meaning “the amount of time it takes to eat a banana.” I saw that and a little bell in my head went ding, there’s a title! It seemed obvious that the story had to be set in Malaysia, and it had to begin with a character taking the first bite of a banana and end with the same character taking the last bite of the same banana — and in between first bit and last bite, something criminal had to happen. The something criminal turned out to be a murder, and the story will be in AHMM later this year.
- Which do you consider more important, plot or character?
That really depends on the story. More often than not, though, I think the three key elements for me are location, location, location. I’ve done a lot of traveling, lived outside the US for 15 years, and I often tend to make the settings of my stories every bit as important as their plot and characters.
- What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer and what inspires you and keeps you motivated?
Oscar Wilde once said that he wrote novels when he didn’t have enough time to write short stories. That was very witty — and it may even have been true for him. For me, though, the idea of writing a novel is absolutely terrifying. I’m a community-college teacher and administrator, a husband, a dad, a dog owner, an inveterate traveler, a voracious reader, a translator of fiction and nonfiction from Dutch into English, and all of those things are more important to me by far than writing. So I don’t really think of myself as a writer. I’m just a guy who sometimes writes stuff, and who has been fortunate enough to sell most of what he’s written. In fact, I’ve “retired” from writing twice now, first in the mid-‘70s and then again in 1986 when my daughter was born. What pulled me out of retirement the first time was being dumped down in Bahrain, where, as interesting as the place was, there really wasn’t an awful lot for me to do. Then, the second time, my daughter said to me one day, “Boy, Dad, I bet it must have been fun to be able to write professionally. Too bad you can’t do that any more.” Of course, after that I had to prove to her that I still can, and for about 10 years after she thus double-dog-dared me, I wrote maybe one new story every other year. But then last year The Tree of Life came out, and I also got invited to collaborate on Styx, a zombie cop novel, with Belgian writer Bavo Dhooge, and those two things happening pretty much simultaneously seems to have gotten me fired up again: so far this year, I have two of my own stories and three translations coming out in EQMM, “Pisan Zapra” in AHMM, and another new story in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.
- What are you working on now and what are your future writing plans?
I’ve got two new stories in the works right now. One of them came out of an email exchange I had recently with my old friend Bill Pronzini, and the other one is a story I hope will appear in the December 2018 issue of EQMM, exactly 50 years after my first appearance there. In that one, which I’m calling “50,” the main character from my first story returns, half a century older, to solve a murder he failed to solve exactly 50 years previously. I’m also putting together a second story collection for Wildside Press. Right around the same time I was writing the Chaudri stories, I had an idea for an anthology I wanted to call Partners in Crime. The concept was that the book would include 15-20 stories, each written by two people working together — and in each case one of the two “partners” would be me. I was living in Germany at the time, and this was pre anybody other than the Defense Department having access to the internet, so all of the work had to be done via transatlantic snail mail. I wound up writing about 15 collaborative stories — with Ed Hoch, John Lutz, Dan Marlowe, Patricia McGerr, Stanley Cohen, Jon Breen, Mike Nevins, Michael Avallone, several other people — and most of them were published individually in various magazines and collections, but the Partners in Crime book never happened. Twenty years later, my daughter Becca and I wrote a story together, which Janet Hutchings published in EQMM’s “Department of First Stories” — making me the only person ever to appear in that section of the magazine twice, first in 1968 and again 41 years later! — and last year Laurie and I wrote a story that was published in The Saturday Evening Post and recently reprinted online in a California e-magazine called Kings River Life. So now I’m working on a couple more new collaborations — with Dutch author René Appel, with my northern Virginia neighbors and friends Art Taylor and Kathryn O’Sullivan — and I hope to at long last have Partners in Crime ready to appear in print sometime late this year or early in 2017. I’m also eager to work again with Bavo Dhooge, and with several other Belgian novelist friends, including Bob Van Laerhoven and Dirk Vanderlinden.
- What is a typical workday for you and how many hours a day (or week) do you devote to writing?
I don’t have such a thing as a “typical” writing workday or a set number of hours per day or week that I write. Sometimes a month goes by and I haven’t written a word of fiction. When an idea strikes, though, I’ll pound the keys six hours a day for a week until I get the thing drafted.
- If you could take only three books with your for a year-long writing retreat in a gorgeous setting with no library, which three would you take?
Do they have to be books that actually exist? I’d take the collected works of Ellery Queen (including the four Drury Lane novels), the collected works of P.G. Wodehouse, and a one-volume edition of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books. And then I’d probably spend most of the year enjoying the gorgeous setting and wouldn’t do much reading or writing at all….
- What advice do you have to offer to an aspiring author?
- What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?
That’s not a question I’m willing to answer electronically. You’ll have to buy me three beers and sit with me while I drink them. About halfway through the third one, I’ll tell you. (The cliché is “but then I’ll have to kill you.” I’m prepared, however, to promise that I won’t kill you — but, once I tell you, you may want to kill me. You’ve been warned.)
- What’s one thing your readers would be surprised to find out about you?
I generally mention Laurie’s and my dog Tessa at some point during interviews, so I suppose readers would be surprised to find out that I am deathly, take-me-to-the-emergency-room-and-hook-me-up-to-a-nebulizer allergic to dogs. If this piques your curiosity, click here. Woof!
- What question do you wish interviewers would ask? (And what’s the answer?)
“Would you mind, Josh, if I gave you this extra million dollars I happen to have lying around?” (And the answer is — cue Jeopardy theme music — “Why, no, not at all!”)
- Where can we learn more about you and your work?
The best way to learn about any writer’s work, IMHO, is by reading it. And I’m firmly convinced that you’ll learn more if you buy it than if you check it out of the library or download it illegally. You can buy The Tree of Life here and Styx here. To learn more about me, explore my website or look me up and buy me those beers….
Just for Fun:
Night or Day? You are the one. Only you beneath the moon or under the sun.
Dog or Cat? (answer carefully) Dog. My dog. Her name is Tessa. I am allergic to every single other dog on the planet — and all cats. I can’t even look at cat videos on the internet without breaking out in hives.
Beach or Pool? That’s so situational. Where exactly are we talking about? What time of year is it? Is it a sandy beach or a rocky beach? How clean is the water adjoining the beach? How warm? Are there sharks? How much chlorine is in the pool? All things being to my liking, I’ll take the beach. But if the water’s polluted and freezing cold and the sharks are equipped with flatware and have napkins tied around their necks, let’s go with the pool.
Steak or salad? Can I have a steak salad? Or a steak and a side salad? Or a steak and then, for dessert, a fruit salad?
Favorite Drink? Goombay smash. That’s coconut rum with equal parts pineapple juice and fresh orange juice. Preferably on the beach. In the Bahamas. With no sharks.
Favorite Book? That’s a silly question. You really think I can pick one book?
Favorite TV Series? Easier, but still. How can I choose between Seinfeld and M*A*S*H and The Twilight Zone and Sky King and The Soupy Sales Show and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and Northern Exposure and The Newsroom and Warehouse 13 and Ally McBeal and LA Law and Andy’s Gang? Please don’t put me in that position.
Favorite Movie? I teach film appreciation, so now you’re really being annoying. Can I just say that it isn’t Eraserhead? Or Zulu?
Favorite Actor: Donald Trump.
Favorite Actress: Sarah Palin.
Dirty Martini or Pina Colada? Piña colada. With a tilde. But no sharks.
Hawaii or Alaska? Both.
Finish this sentence: If I could meet anyone in the world, past or present, it would be a really cool superpower to have. Are you able to confer this ability upon me?
If I had just one wish, it would be tempting to wish for more wishes, but that way lies madness.
If I could trade places with anyone in the world, it would be an offer I could easily refuse. I like my place, thanks.
Thanks for a great interview, Josh!
Here are all the places you can find him:
Walking my dog Tessa in Herndon, Virginia.
Walking my dog Tessa in Herndon, Virginia.
In my office at NOVA-Loudoun.
On the beach, trying to decide between a goombay smash and a piña colada while looking out for sharks.
Wildside Press will give the e-book version of The Mahboob Chaudri Mystery Megapack to the first three people who email me with the name on the POW/MIA bracelet worn by Seaman First Class “Bear” Jensen in the Mahboob Chaudri story “The Ivory Beast.” (Hint: You can find the answer on my website, as well as an email link.)
Don’t forget to check out Josh’s website for the giveaway! www.joshpachter.com