Interview: Dan O’Shea, author of Penance

Dan O’Shea is the author of numerous short stories and his brand new book, Penance, will be out on April 30th from Exhibit A Books! Please welcome Dan to the blog!

DanOshea1Your upcoming novel, Penance (Exhibit A Books, April 30th), is getting great buzz! Will you tell us a bit about it, and what inspired you to write it?
The original idea that led to Penance actually started in a theology class back in high school better than 30 years ago. Out of the blue, the priest teaching the class asked “If you were going to die unexpectedly, say you were going to be murdered, when would be the best time for that to happen?” I was leaning toward never, but he informed us we should hope to be murdered coming out of the confessional, when we would be in a state of grace and thus be ensured entrance to heaven. My first reaction was that that sort of thinking solidified my growing discomfort with the whole religion thing. But that idea kept coming back to me as the seed for a story. That’s all I had when I started Penance, a man with a twisted religious motivation for murder. The rest of the story grew from there.

While Penance is your debut novel, you have a short story collection out called Old School, and have also contributed to anthologies such as Both Barrels, Lost Children: Protectors, Noir at the Bar, and Discount Noir.Will you tell us a bit about yourself? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
For as long as I can remember wanting to be something, I’ve wanted to be a writer, and I’ve been a writer all my adult life, one way or another. Business writer, tax and financial copy primarily, usually for accounting firms, law firms sometimes. Of course that’s not what I was dreaming of when I was a kid. I wanted to write stories, novels. But I married young, had kids, responsibilities. Kept telling myself I couldn’t waste time on that stuff. Pissed on my own dreams basically. I got older, people died, realized that there were no second chances, so about five years ago, I got serious about fiction.

Penance-300dpi (2)I have to ask… How did you celebrate when you found out Penance had sold to Exhibit A?
I was thrilled, of course, but I didn’t really do anything special to mark the occasion, besides spend a little more than usual on my next bottle of bourbon. There was a lot going on in my personal life at the time. And the publication date still seemed so far off. Maybe when the book is actually published it will hit me and I’ll feel compelled to do something memorable. Any suggestions?

I love the cover of Penance! Do you think it captures the essence of the book?
I was stunned when I first saw the cover. Not only did I love it, but I recognized the intersection immediately – Wacker and Dearborn in downtown Chicago, right on the river. I had freelance clients in the building on the left, been in and out of there dozens of times. And it’s close to so much Chicago history. Lincoln was nominated in the Wigwam at Lake and Wacker, just a few blocks west. The Iroquois theater fire was at Dearborn and Randolf, two blocks south. The Eastland sank in the Chicago river close enough that you would have heard the screams of the dying. Chicago’s history plays a key role in Penance. I couldn’t have asked for a better cover.

What do you enjoy most about writing crime fiction?
When I was younger I wanted to be Saul Bellow or John Updike, but soon realized I don’t have the chops for that kind of literary fiction. It is so often driven entirely by subtle personal events and motivations. When I try to write something of that nature, I get lost, bogged down. I need a skeleton of plot to build a story off of. With crime fiction that’s built in. Which is ironic because I hate novels that are just plot, just story, with interchangeable cardboard stereotypes for characters, nothing but events. Done right though, and I’m thinking of James Lee Burke, John Le Carre, writers like that, you can build a rich, deeply human story on that skeleton. I hope I’ve managed that.

In crime, or “noir”, do you consider any subject off limits?
You always have to be free to go where the story takes you, so no. Now, I’m not really in the “noir” camp, at least not in my novels, but I do think sometimes writers get caught up in this one-upsmanship of violence. My guy shot somebody. Oh yeah? Well my guy gutted somebody with a machete. Oh yeah? Well my guy shoved a chainsaw up some dude’s ass. Seem to think they have to find some new extreme of depravity to make the point of how dark the world they are trying to portray is. But the darkness isn’t in what the characters do. It’s in why they do it. When I’m reading a story and I feel like the writer is resorting to shock tactics without the necessary underlying work on character and motivation, I get turned off. Then it’s just violence porn.

Obviously, in your writing, you deal with some pretty scary situations. What’s something that truly frightens you?
The horrors people will commit in the name of god. And, as a Cubs fan, Carlos Marmol coming to the mound with less than a five-run lead.

thehumanfactorAre there any authors or novels that have especially influenced your writing?
I think everything I’ve ever read probably influences me in some way, but I hope I’m past any direct imitation. The Human Factor by Graham Greene played a key role because here was this “serious” writer that I deeply loved (still do) writing an espionage novel. That sort of gave me permission to check out genre fiction. Le Carre and Burke I’ve mentioned. Elmore Leonard of course. John Sanford. Ross Thomas. Scott Phillips. There’s often this sort of hipster tendency to only mention obscure writers that’s haven’t sold that well, but some people sell well for a reason – because they’re really damn good.

There’s also a whole community of contemporary writers that are not only damn good, but who have also been tremendously supportive. Chris Holm, Hilary Davidson, Joelle Charbonneau, Frank Bill, Chuck Wendig – I hate doing this because I know I’m forgetting a whole mess of people. Writing is an inherently solitary activity, but it helps to know you’ve got friends out their toiling away in their own private word mines.

What piece of advice would you give to a struggling writer?
If they are writing, even if they are struggling, they are probably doing better than I did. For so many years I just didn’t bother. You gotta write, that’s the whole deal.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
I don’t have much free time. If I’m not working, dealing with family stuff or writing, I’m probably reading. Or drinking. Or reading and drinking. I’m hoping to travel more. Never really had the chance.

What’s next for you?
Finishing up work on my second novel, Mammon, which is another contemporary Chicago thriller featuring many of the same characters from Penance. I’m also working on a series of historical mysteries set in Elizabethan England – more on that to come.

As to my immediate future, it’s late. Some bourbon and a bath with Hilary Davidson’s latest. Nothing like a nice hot bath with Hilary to take the edge off.

Keep up with Dan: Website | Twitter

Born and raised in Chicago, Detective John Lynch might just be about to die there too.

Because one dark secret might be about to tear a whole city apart.

A pious old woman steps out of the Sacred Heart confessional and is shot dead by a sniper with what at first appears to be a miraculous and impossible shot.

Colonel Tech Weaver dispatches a team from Langley to put the shooter—and anyone else who gets in the way—in a body bag before a half-century of national secrets are revealed.

Detective John Lynch, the son of a murdered Chicago cop, finds himself cast into an underworld of political corruption and guilty secrets, as he tries to uncover the truth about what’s really going on – before another innocent citizen gets killed.

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