Spotlight: Vincent Zandri

In the spotlight this week: Vincent Zandri. His latest release, The Remains, an Amazon No. 1 bestseller (paperback due out in November) is fresh on the heels of his thriller The Innocent. Zandri is an award-winning and bestselling novelist, essayist, freelance photojournalist, and drummer for the Albany-based punk band The Blisterz.

Q) Where do we begin? International man (of mystery, award-winner, best-seller, essayist, journalist) Vincent, how would you describe yourself, and what’s on your desk—what projects have you moved to completion, and what might be in your trash can?

A) International man of mystery. I like that! Ha!. It’s true I travel a lot, both on assignment or just to travel and find a secluded place to write. I go to Florence, Italy for the month of November every year to recharge my batteries and be alone with my writing projects. It’s nice writing in the same town with Dante’s ghost peering over my shoulder. Spooky in a way. But in all reality, I try to live a well-rounded life. That is, I’m a dad, a drummer, a weight lifter, a runner, a drinker (I love seedy bars), an eater, a cook, a dreamer. I even have a girlfriend!

This might sound altogether pretentious and it’s really not meant to be, but there are times my heart breaks for the men I see who are my age, and trudging off to work in the mornings, their faces down to the floor. I often run into them when I get my coffee at the corner store or later in the afternoon when I grab a beer at the local watering hole. Many of them have the big house, the cars, the kids, the country club, the private school tuitions, the inflated credit card bills, and they are just hating the life. They are trapped. So, I guess I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do, and get paid for it. And of course, I enjoy the freedom that comes with it. And I don’t own a house! My Jeep? It’s paid for.

As for projects, here’s the rundown: I’m working on a new novel called The Dead Souls (I’m sure that will change), based on the true story of a local axe murderer who hacked up his parents. Also, I’ve resurrected a project I started 7 years ago about a video game designer who plans real-life kill games which my publisher would like to bring out as an EBook exclusive. Third, I’m working on developing a sequel to Moonlight Falls. It’s called, Moonlight Rises, naturally!

My new thriller The Remains is an Amazon No. 1 bestseller!!! The republication of my novel As Catch Can has just been published by StoneGate Ink as The Innocent. And my forthcoming novel, The Concrete Pearl, starring a sexy, brassy, construction business owner who is also an amateur detective (She carries a framing hammer instead of a gun!), will also be published by StoneGate in the Spring!

Q) What would be the most off-the-wall fact about you or your work and why would this be unusual to us? Also, how does your personality shape your characters?

A) I was raised to be a construction worker. I’m third generation construction business bred, and the last thing myself or my family would have ever guessed was that I would turn out to be a writer. In my family, “other people” are writers. People of their generation like Mailer and Hemingway. Certainly not their little Catholic school bred Vincent. Huh????

Everything was against me when I started out professionally and even when I went on to writing school. I was working in my dad’s construction firm, still expected to lead the business into the 21st century. I had a wife who’d frighten Hannibal Lector with her temper, two toddlers, a country club, massive debt and more misery than can be packed into a crashing jetliner.

Still, I knew in my bones that I was a writer. I gave up everything, just like the song goes. Gave up the house, the car, bought a one-way ticket to Vermont College’s MFA in Writing, and never looked back. My wife divorced me of course (Trust me, I’m still running!!!!), the boys came to live with me, and my extended family are now not only big supporters of my work, they are fans. And my 75 year old dad, bless his soul, is still running the family biz fulltime.

So how’s this little strange but true fact shape my work? My main characters are always up against impossible odds. I’m also concerned with their humanity. Often, they will break the law in order to do what’s right. Here’s an excerpt from the just released The Innocent:

I got out of the Impala and walked along the sidewalk toward the corner of North Water Street. I moved on past the old buildings, some of them covered in wood-slat siding, others covered in rust-colored asphalt shingles made more for roofs than facades. Along the river, the tug pushed the barge past the glowing yellow light from the lighthouse.

I pushed and shoved my way in toward the front door of the Stevens House. I saw her then, in the very second that I broke through the crowd—Chris Collins reporting live via satellite for Newscenter 13. The same cameraman I’d seen inside Mastriano’s room at Newburgh General now supported a shoulder-mounted video camera and aimed it in the direction of Collins’s face. The camera was the only reason she did not get a look at me right off. She stood only a few feet away from me, with her back to the Stevens House entrance. The glow from the camera-mounted spotlight made Collins’s wide black eyes light up like big black marbles. Her hair was parted just to the left of center and hung down stylishly, curling below the ears, barely touching her narrow shoulders. She wore a bright red suit with matching blazer and miniskirt. Intent eyes stared into the camera, away from me, directly at her viewers.

Collins held the aluminum-tipped microphone to her mouth. The black head touched her red lips. I stepped back into the crowd before she had a chance to spot me. At the same time, the cameraman lifted his right hand, palm up. Like opening a switchblade, he snapped his index finger into position. He brought his arm down fast, pointed directly at Collins. Her legs went rigid, high heels pressed together, left leg bobbing just a little at the knee. Then everything about her went absolutely tight, absolutely rigid.

On the air.

“A significant portion of the mystery is solved this Thursday afternoon,” she spoke, a slight smile growing on her strong, confident face. “Eduard Vasquez, convicted cop-killer and recent Green Haven escapee, has finally been found, but not alive. The slain body of Vasquez was discovered only moments ago by a group of law enforcement officials who’d received a tip from an anonymous caller who, it is alleged, recognized a suspicious, as of yet unidentified man driving the streets of Athens in a red Toyota 4-Runner.”

A team of paramedics hauled a stretcher out the front door of the Stevens House. One man at the feet, another at the head, two on each side. Vasquez’s body was on the stretcher, a dark red blood stain on the white sheet where it covered the face. You could see the imprint of his nose, lips, and sunken eyes. Cops in uniform followed the stretcher out the door.

“Vasquez appears to have taken a bullet at close range,” Collins went on, “with a heavy caliber firearm, sources told me just moments ago. But for now, that’s all the vital information police officials will offer. However, when asked to confirm rumors about whether or not Jack ‘Keeper’ Marconi met the description of the ‘suspicious man driving the streets of Athens,’ Martin Schillinger—the detective in charge of the Vasquez apprehension operation —refused to comment. What he was able to tell us is that Marconi does indeed own a red Toyota 4-Runner that fits the anonymous man’s description.”

I pictured Schillinger’s chubby white face. Then I saw the real thing following the uniformed state troopers out of the Stevens House. I took another step back, pressing against the wood-slat exterior wall of the bed-and-breakfast so that I was no longer in Schillinger’s line of sight.

“There is also speculation that Keeper Marconi was spotted by more than one witness walking side by side with Cassandra Wolf, Eduard Vasquez’s long-time girlfriend. Although nothing is official, such allegations make Marconi and Wolf prime suspects in the shooting death of the deceased cop-killer. The thirty-two-year-old Wolf, who had been sharing a room with Vasquez here in the Stevens House bed-and-breakfast under the assumed name of Hewlet, also fled the scene at approximately the same time that Marconi was purportedly seen.”

I looked away from Collins, beyond the crowd, out toward the tugboat and the barge it pushed. In my mind I sprinted through the crowd, dove head first into the river water, swam to the barge, stowed away to New York, and made my way south to Mexico. I’d change my name, grow a beard, grow my hair, blend in, drop out.

I felt sick to my stomach and deprived of oxygen.

“This is Chris Collins reporting live from Athens.”

She relaxed her arm, let the mike drop against her thigh, and took a deep breath. The cameraman had already moved away from her and shifted his focus to the EMTs who had loaded Vasquez’s body into the back of a black Chevrolet Suburban with tinted windows. The same kind of truck that took Fran away one year ago. The crowd grew so quiet that you could hear the small waves breaking on the western shore of the Hudson, the tugboat and barge having cut a heavy wake when they pushed through.

The townspeople of Athens fixed their eyes on the final scene—with the red, white, and blue lights from the cop cruisers flashing off the rear windows of the Chevy Suburban after the heavy double doors had been closed and secured. Call it shock, call it another panic attack, but I must have fallen into a semiconscious state. Because when Henry Snow, the gas station attendant, stepped out of the crowd in his light blue uniform, raised his oil-slicked right hand, and shouted out my name, it didn’t quite register, didn’t quite sink in. Until I heard the distinct sound of shoe leather slapping against concrete.

It happened fast.

I heard the order shouted by Marty Schillinger to apprehend the man in the dark blazer. But just before that, I made an all-out dash for the Impala, gaining maybe ten or twelve steps on the cops.

With cowboy boots slapping hard on the pavement and air shooting out of my chest and mouth, it was like the Impala was in one of those dreams where you reach out for something that isn’t there. The closer I came to the car, the farther away it appeared. Cops shouted, threatened to shoot. A distinct, all-at-once high-pitch cry from the crowd told me that weapons had been drawn.

At the Impala, I searched through the pockets of my blazer for the small key ring with the yellow plastic attachment shaped like a little number “1” and the word Hertz printed on it in bold black letters.

The cops worked their way closer, service revolvers drawn.

My brothers, my fraternal order.

I looked over my shoulder, once. The crowd was on the ground, men and women on their stomachs, some of them lying on top of their children.

I could see them all now—Chris Collins alongside Schillinger, microphone in hand, cameraman behind her, filming the scene for history, posterity. “Warden Gunned Down after Jumping Bail.” What a story it would make. Uniformed cops on their knees behind their black-and-whites, using the cars to shield their bodies. Shield them from what? All side-arms drawn, aimed at me.

The sharp crack of the revolver echoed off the walls of the buildings along North Water Street. So did the shots that followed.

Who had given the order to shoot?

Someone had to have given the order.

Maybe someone thought I’d gone for my gun. But I hadn’t gone for my gun. I was going for the keys to the rented Impala. I searched until I found them, finally, in the right-hand pocket of my blue jeans. But not before a slug blew a hole in the windshield.

“Shoot the tires!” one cop screamed. “Go for the tires!”

He was right. That’s what I would have done. Shot out the rear tires. But no one shot out the tires. No one shot at me as I managed to get back into the car. I turned over the engine, threw it in reverse, fishtailed and hit a Volkswagen Beetle on its driver’s-side panel, then sideswiped the tail end of a red pickup on the right. The rear windshield exploded the second I threw the floor-mounted automatic transmission into drive.

Don’t look back, Keeper. Never look back.

Bastards had no idea what they were doing.

My fraternal order. Just what the hell did they know about the truth?

I could have gone for my gun, returned their fire, called it self-defense. But what good would it have done? In the end, going for my gun would have been the foolish thing to do. Not a smart move at all, not with my right foot putting the pedal to the metal, not with the rented Impala veering dangerously to the right side of the road, not with the unmistakable feel of a cold pistol barrel pressed up against the back of my head.

Q) In ten years, we will reign in 2020. With your 20-20 (hindsight) what would you tell a young Vincent about his career, and what would the future Vincent be up to? How do you think this writer’s knowledge would benefit others along their creative path?

A) Funny you should ask because my 16 year old son Harrison wants to be writer so badly he actually asked me if he could quit school to go off and write his novel. He’s actually got a 90 page novella completed! So here’s the 2020, 50-something, Vincent Zandri offering my son and the rest of the world’s would-be novelists some writerly advice:

1. Stay in school. No writer who has to work three jobs as a dishwasher just to pay his rent ever managed to write the great American novel. Course I could be wrong here.

2. Read everything you can, starting with the classics, the Hemingways, the Faulkners, the Fitzgeralds, the Mailers, the Conrads, the Tolstoys…Skip the Dickens except for Tale of Two Cities. Especially read novels in your favorite genre. If you love noir, read all the Parker, Hammett, Spillane, Huston, and Zandri you can get your hands on. Then read some more.

3. Write like crazy, even if its just character sketches. Learn to pack the biggest punch using the least amount of words possible. And always keep a notebook with you at all times.

4. Be a newspaper reporter first. Write for an editor who demands timely, terse, 100-300 words pieces twice a day. Pieces that require a beginning, a middle and a resolution in the smallest amount of space possible. The job should be extremely low paying, and extremely high pressure. But do it anyway. Not only will you build up clips, but you will learn to work under pressure, when you don’t feel like it, when you’re hung over, when you’ve just found out your girlfriend is sleeping with your best friend behind your back, when an asteroid is approaching planet earth… Trust me, even Hemingway will tell you there is no better training for a would-be novelist.

5. Don’t be a newspaper reporter for too long. 3 to 5 years max. Then become a freelance writer and split your creative time between articles for magazines and newspapers, both online and paper (by 2020 it will be all online), and writing fiction. Write some short stories and try and get them published. Then start your novel. Don’t stop writing the novel until you have a complete draft, even if it’s crap. You can always edit or start another one.

6. Don’t get married or have children. You won’t be able to afford it.

7. Share an apartment with friends if you can and don’t buy a new car. By a beater.

8. Get a passport and travel to as many destinations as you can. Never stay home for more than a couple of months at a time.

9. Live in Europe for a year. Europeans are different from Americans. They don’t place as a high value on making money the way we do.

10. Persevere, even when the dream seems impossible. Never give up!  

Thanks, Vincent, for taking some time to share your work with us!

Read more on Vincent Zandri’s website: www.vincentzandri.com

Tweet with him on Twitter: http://twitter.com/VincentZandri

Friend him on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/vincent.zandri

Track him on MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/vincentzandri

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