Please welcome Frank Wheeler Jr. to the blog! Frank is the author of the brand new noir thriller The Wowzer and was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Also, don’t forget to snag a copy of the book (details below)!
Frank, your first novel, The Wowzer, just came out at the beginning of May! Congrats! Did you always want to be a writer? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
Thanks, Kristin, I’ve been consciously working toward publishing a novel for something like fifteen years. But I’ve always been a storyteller. For as long as I could write, I wrote short stories. When I got into college, I started thinking more seriously about writing. Fortunately, when I returned to school some years later, I met the right people, who gave me enough criticism, but allowed me enough leash, and I was able to complete a draft of a novel.
How did you celebrate when you found out The Wowzer would be published?
I was very excited when we got Thomas & Mercer’s offer to publish. My wife, I remember, literally jumped up and down for a second. I think we had dinner some place nice that week. Mostly, the feeling you get from that knowledge of impending publication is the celebration. It offers something that is so hard for writers to come by: independent verification. Someone else sees the quality in your work. You produce the best work you can, and hopefully, you believe in your own work. A lot of people aren’t going to get it. But when someone does, it feels great.
The Wowzer has been described as “hardboiled, country noir.” Would you tell us a little bit about it?
“Noir” is a funny word. It’s a mood, rather than a genre. I’d agree that the book is “hardboiled country noir,” but that “noir” part almost doesn’t seem appropriate for Jerry, the main character. I asked my agent once if we could market the story as featuring a “lighthearted, murdering protagonist.” Not sure how many people would know what that is, though. Here, context is what makes the novel “noir.” THE WOWZER is about a little fish in a big, polluted (read: corrupted) pond. He doesn’t mind that it’s polluted. It wouldn’t occur to him to prefer otherwise. He has no overarching sense of Justice, or Right and Wrong, he only knows that he must be aware of these things because they are important to others. Really, he just wants to enjoy himself, make a little money, get in some good bowling, keep close to his girlfriend, and not rock the boat. If that means murdering some folks here and there to keep his little world safe, well, no sense crying over spilled milk, right?
When it comes to the violence in your writing, do you consider anything “off-limits”?
No. Well, ultimately no. Again, context is important. If the level or type of violence doesn’t fit with the scene or story, then I’ll rewrite the violent content.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
I’ll go from broader influence down to specific. Stephen King taught me how to develop characters. Ernest Hemingway has this amazing, rough-edged minimalist prose that’ll leave rope burns on you. James Lee Burke’s usual protagonists (Robicheaux and Holland) are mirror opposites of THE WOWZER’s, but his minor characters gave me insight into reptilian-brained criminal mentality. And Patricia Highsmith helped me find ways of realistically, yet sympathetically, portraying a sociopathic protagonist.
I read that you’re also a college teacher. Was it hard to find time to write while also juggling a teaching schedule?
Sure. And when I wrote the first draft of THE WOWZER, I was in grad school. So add classes on top of that. Fortunately, I had the ability to carve out the time I needed. And it’s helpful, too, if you can’t sit down and write it from beginning to end. You need time between writing sessions to work the story over. Let it steep some in the pot.
Is there anything in particular that helps you write, gets the creative juices flowing?
Coffee. Listening to music. I took piano lessons, or rather, was made to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I didn’t keep up practicing (much to my regret now), but it instilled in me a deep love of classical music. I don’t often listen to music with lyrics when I write, but sometimes I’ll cherry-pick a certain song for a certain mood I want to convey. In the novel I’ve been working on recently, I listened to Hank Williams’ (Sr.) “Cold, Cold Heart” over and over because it lent just the right melancholy and earnestness. Sometimes I just have to get up and go for a walk to work something out in my head, though.
When you’re not busy writing or teaching, how do you like to spend your free time?
Free time? Oh, right, I remember what that is. When I come across the rare nugget of free time, I try to find a balance. My wife and I are both avid movie fans, and also enjoy relaxing with a good book. But I always make sure to carve out time to work on my fiction.
You’ve lived in Minnesota, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Maryland, and Nebraska (whew!). If you could pack your bags and go anywhere tomorrow, where would you go?
And don’t forget my birthplace, Memphis, Tennessee. That’s what it can be like for a preacher’s family. Actually, my wife and I have been trying to move to where her family is settled, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So I guess we’ll add that to the list, too.
Do you have any advice for struggling writers?
I’m not the best person to take advice from. Most of the advice I’ve followed has been very specific to my situation in a given moment. Probably the best single piece I heard, that I’ve carried with me through every writing project, is that at first, you can’t see mistakes in your own work (and I don’t mean just typos). You need others to read your work so you can get an objective view of it. So that means you need to find a trusted reader, someone whose opinion you completely respect. And not someone who just gives compliments. Taking criticism is a very important part of the process. It’s about finding your blind spots. That was tough for me to learn, but it’s made a lot of difference.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!!)?
I’ve got another novel that’s in the final stages of revision. It’s in a similar genre to THE WOWZER, but the setting is very near where I grew up in Nebraska. The dialect is plain-spoken Midwestern. Other than that, I’ve got short stories and reviews popping up every now and then.
About The Wowzer:
Deep in the Ozarks, county sheriff’s deputy Jerry cracks heads on behalf of both local law enforcement and local drug traffickers. Sometimes people get hurt; sometimes they get dead — either way, Jerry gets the job done. The roles of deputy and enforcer would seem contradictory, but the sheriff himself is in charge of both operations, so Jerry isn’t troubled by such moral dilemmas. That is, until he starts thinking about getting out — then things get complicated fast. His girl Maggie flees the state after discovering the secrets of Jerry’s past, and Sheriff Tom Haskell starts dragging his feet about paying Jerry his cut of the drug money. Is Haskell reluctant to lose his top muscle, or is he plotting to take out the man who knows his dirtiest secrets? As a turf war between traffickers builds, Jerry decides it’s time to settle things once and for all, and damn the body count.
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