Q&A with Alex Segura, Author of Blackout
By Alex SeguraMay 8, 2018
Alex Segura is the critically acclaimed author of the Pete Fernandez mystery series, which includes the titles Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends. The fourth entry, Blackout, has been named one of the most anticipated genre titles of the season by LitHub, BookBub, and Mystery People. Segura has also written a number of well-received comic books, including the Archie Meets Kiss storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story, and the upcoming Archie Meets Ramones. A native of Miami, he now makes his home in New York with his family.
Recently, the author entertained questions pertaining to balancing standalone plots with an overall series story arc, heightening suspense by utilizing alternating time periods, creating an authentic sense of time and place, the role music plays in his creative process, and how the writing of novels and comics inform one another. Segura also teased what comes next—and how Blackout is a game changer for Pete Fernandez & Co.
Blackout is described as a book that will leave protagonist Pete Fernandez “completely changed.” How does this particular story propel the overall series arc forward, and what have you found to be the key(s) to balancing immediacy with backstory for new readers?
Blackout is a turning point for Pete, his partner Kathy Bentley, and the entire series. As a reader, I’ve always been a fan of series that progress—that push their characters into new situations and give them room to evolve. The evergreen, more serialized crime series doesn’t appeal to me as much. So, with Pete, I try to make each book an event—a must-read moment for fans. This is where the important moments happen.
But even with that in mind, Blackout takes things to another level in terms of what happens to Pete and his new status quo at the end of the book. From the beginning, the Pete books have been about Pete’s evolution from burnt-out journalist to full-fledged private investigator, but on a parallel track, it’s also been about his quest for recovery. When we meet him in Silent City, the first book in the series, he’s passed out in his bedroom in the wake of another bender, spiraling toward his bottom. By the time readers get to Blackout, he’s managed to get his life in order … somewhat. He’s sober, he’s an officially licensed PI, and he’s got a few major cases under his belt. But still, problems remain. When we catch up with Pete in Blackout, he’s in exile in New York, trying to avoid the remains of a drug gang he took down from catching up with him. He’s also alienated the few people that he remains close to—like Kathy, retired FBI agent Robert Harras, and his ex-con pal, Dave Mendoza.
My point being, Pete still has a lot of work to do. When he discovers a shred of evidence that points to a cold case he failed to solve during his darkest time, Pete risks it all and returns home to Miami to try and put one of his biggest demons to rest. But can he do it without putting everything he cares for at risk?
Blackout is a story of redemption and trying to make peace with your past, and that applies to Pete, obviously, but also to Miami—as the book deals with the return of a deadly, murderous cult and spotlights how the organization’s long tentacles reach into every corner of the city. So when I say the book is a turning point for Pete and the series, it isn’t hyperbole—Pete has to decide who he wants to be after this novel. Does he choose to live and embrace the life he’s wandered into, or is he unable to face the challenges of life, sober or not? Heady stuff, I guess, but also soaked in hardboiled action, surprises, and political intrigue. I’m really proud of this one.
I’m glad you asked about writing a series because, as a reader, I always read from the first book on. I rarely hop into series in the middle. But I do know that some readers do, and I write with that in mind. I try to craft each novel as a standalone, meaning they can be read by anyone independent of the other books. That said, I do try to take some time to recap and weave everything together so the people who have stuck around since the first installment feel like they’re part of an ongoing narrative. But the current book trumps all, basically—meaning I do my best to make the current book the strongest, and my responsibility is to that, not to slowing things down with recaps or background. I do just enough to bring new readers up to speed and refresh the memories of returning fans.
Pete is endeavoring to rectify his past with his present. In what ways do you both embrace and eschew cliché in terms of personal/professional conflict, and how does this story’s cold case premise amplify suspense?
The Pete books have always felt the weight of the past while weaving back and forth between time periods—whether it’s Pete’s dad and his time as a homicide detective in Miami or the early days of Castro’s Cuba. It adds context to the current mystery, I think, and allows me as a writer to stretch my muscles a bit and write different kinds of scenes and stories. I feel like that added color and context really helps propel the main storyline forward and gives the readers a nugget of information our heroes might not yet have, which makes the experience more engaging.
For Blackout, though, I wanted the experience to be very personal to Pete—the cold case involves a high school classmate of Pete’s, Patty Morales, who disappears near the end of their senior year. Some time later, Pete is hired to find her but botches the job badly due to his inability to manage his life—he’s drinking heavily and falling into a pit of self-pity and bad behavior. When the opportunity arises to fix the mistake and find out the truth about what happened to Patty, Pete jumps at the chance—it’s a microcosm for the whole series to this point: can Pete fix what he broke before in order to keep living? The cold case aspect plays into that perfectly, and I had a nice time trying to figure out how to weave something that seems like a simple murder into a bigger, more tangled problem involving a cult, a Florida politician’s gubernatorial aspirations, and Pete’s own personal journey.
The books play out against the backdrop of Miami. In what ways does setting enhance story, and how do your own roots there influence the telling?
The books I loved when I was getting into crime fiction featured setting prominently. Whether it was Chandler’s Los Angeles, Block’s New York, Lippman’s Baltimore, or Lehane’s Dorchester—each series featured a city as a key piece of the puzzle. You couldn’t have those stories happen anywhere else; they were embedded in the narrative.
When I set out to write my own PI novels, I kept that in mind—the idea that I wanted to write about a flawed proto-private eye moving toward his goal of becoming a detective in Miami.
The city, where I was born and raised (and visit with regularity), is not the place we see on TV. It’s much more than fruity drinks on the beach and buzzing neon signs. It’s a huge sprawl of land, diverse, complicated, and rife with story potential. I wanted to show readers the Miami I know and grew up in—the suburbs, the city’s unique characteristics, and the many different kinds of people you’ll run into there. Miami is a melting pot and a hotbed for crime and corruption. It’s the perfect noir setting, I think—that contrast of sunny and tropical with darkness and murder.
You write to a soundtrack. How does music inspire your creative process, and what songs have been integral in capturing Miami’s unique energy? (Bonus points if you mention Gloria Estefan!)
There’s actually a major, major turning point in the book that is preceded by a Gloria Estefan track! No lie. And it fits, so I’m particularly proud of that. It’s not a Miami book without some Gloria, you know?
I actually don’t write with music on—I can’t. But I do think about music a lot while thinking about my books—soundtracks to certain scenes, artists that inspire me, and that kind of thing. I have playlists for each book, and they’re all different in interesting ways.
In terms of capturing Miami’s energy, that’s tough. The variety and diversity of music are so large, so I selfishly just try to use songs I like that fit while also using music that’s relevant to what I’m writing about and tied to Miami, like Gloria. With the third Pete novel, Dangerous Ends, I included some traditional Cuban ballads because the book dealt with flashbacks to the early days of Communist Cuba. It’s really more a creative exercise for me when it comes to creating the playlists, but music is also a big thing in the books—Pete’s journey is loaded with hat tips and musical references. They’re often inspired by whatever I happen to be listening to at the time.
You write comic books as well. Tell us about the different tools this requires from your creative toolkit. Also, what skills have you found to be transferable between disciplines?
Comics and novels are different in many major ways. Comics are collaborative—you’re the writer, but your role is akin to a screenwriter, with the artist serving as the director. They set the visual tone for the comic. So, there’s a lot of letting go involved—you’re not in charge of every aspect. Also, comics are much more immediate. You write the script, and a few days later, you can start seeing it come to life via the artist. Novels are solitary and slow-going for most of us, and you only tend to get feedback at the end after you’ve crafted this novel-length opus.
I’ve learned a lot from both mediums, though, and they’ve helped feed my work in both. Comics have taught me to be concise in dialogue and descriptions—to make each word count. It adds some punch to my prose that maybe wasn’t there before. Comics are also supremely visual, so working on them and writing for them has helped me think of my novels in more visual ways, and hopefully, it comes across in the work.
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
In terms of what I’m working on—I’m diving into the next Pete Fernandez novel, Miami Midnight, and a few other projects that haven’t been announced yet. It’ll be a busy year!
In terms of a teaser, my only suggestion to Blackout readers would be … don’t get attached to any characters.