An interview with Sam Hawken, author of The Night Charter

Sam Hawken’s new thriller The Night Charter is out today, and he kindly stopped by to answer a few of my questions about the book, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about The Night Charter and what inspired you to write it?

The Night Charter is actually the natural extension of four novellas I wrote in the winter/spring of 2012/2013. I had been toying with the idea of stepping away from the hardcore crime fiction I’d been writing for a few years at that point, and trying something new. It’s not that I disliked the work I was doing, but I found that the more of those books I wrote, the more depressed I got. You can’t really wallow in the nastiness of the human condition every day without it starting to rub off on you.

When I was a (much) younger man, I’d tried and failed to write a book about a secret agent named Alyson Brant, because I’ve long had a fascination with tough, complex female characters. I conceived of Camaro Espinoza in a sort of frenzy, as she popped out of my head ready to do battle, and I raced through those first stories. After that it made complete sense to me that I write a novel-length thriller with her at the center, and this very quickly became The Night Charter, which does double duty both as a continuation of the existing story and as a jumping-on point for people who’ve never read about Camaro before.

Specific points of inspiration for the novel included Miami Vice, a show I love to pieces and have been reviewing episode by episode on my blog since 2014 and, perhaps oddly enough, my fascination with women’s mixed martial arts. I have a particular fondness for Miesha Tate, currently ranked the second-best bantamweight women’s MMA fighter in the world. Often when I’m thinking of Camaro, I see Tate in my head, and it’s that grit and physicality and controlled violence that informs the character.

What makes Camaro Espinoza and Parker Story such compelling characters? Why do you think readers will root for them?

I find Camaro endlessly engaging because even I only understand her a little bit. Until I started writing her stories, I had never experienced a situation where a character took on a life of their own and started acting and talking of their own accord, heedless of my plot requirements. And the more I write about her, the more layers I uncover, so if I can surprise myself like this, I expect she will likewise captivate readers coming to her from the other side of the writing process. She’s an action heroine, and as such has something in common with similar (male) characters like Shane or Jack Reacher, but she’s also full of hidden depths, hurts and personal struggles they don’t have. She is very real to me, and I think this why people have connected to her, because she feels real to them, as well.

Parker is something of a sad case. I’ll admit there’s a lot of myself in him. I’ve never been to prison, nor have I been a single parent, but I know what it’s like to struggle with money, with family, with poisonous relationships, and that builds his character. You can see in The Night Charter that he is simultaneously attracted to and frightened by Camaro, and to a certain extent that’s my own reaction. He is a man looking for a lifeline, and anyone who’s found themselves fighting just to stay afloat and hoping someone will put out their hand can identify with his journey. That he finds an unlikely ally in this woman who really only wants to be left alone is part of what makes him recognizable to readers as a human being. We feel sorry for him, but we also feel hopeful, while at the same time we’re wary of exactly how this new relationship will progress.

What kind of research did you do for the book, and what is your writing process like?

I pulled together a lot of information from books, films, the internet and just osmosis over the past thirty years of my life. When I was much younger, I was fascinated by the Kennedy assassination, and it was through my research into what I still believe was a conspiracy that I first encountered these hardcore Cuban paramilitary groups like Alpha 66, who appear in The Night Charter. Much later I ran across an article about Alpha 66’s terrorist activities, including the bombing of a civilian airliner, and how the American government turned a blind eye because of their congruent goal of unseating Castro’s communist regime in Cuba. This in turn reminded me of an episode of Miami Vice called “Cuba Libre,” where an Alpha 66 stand-in called Gamma 37 is involved in various criminal activities with the tacit approval of people in power. This prompted me to dig deeper.

There’s a wealth of information on Alpha 66 and the Cuban paramilitary movement online, and Alpha 66 even has a Facebook page(!) where they continue to rally the faithful. I almost had too much stuff to work with and could have included much more than I did.

As for my writing process, I take things in four stages. First I come up with a concept that can be put across in one or two sentences. I then expand this idea into a bare-bones skeleton of an outline that basically just delineates what the major plot points will be. After this I do a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline with everything in it that I can think of, from plot information to bits of dialogue and action. This runs around 10,000-20,000 words. With all that material at my fingertips, all that’s left for me to do is hammer out the details in a manuscript, and I do that five days a week, four hours at a stretch, to the tune of about 4,000-6,000 words a session.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?

When I was a kid I didn’t have much talent for doing things with my hands, so stuff like art and carpentry, which were the creative skills of my parents, were sort of out of reach. In second grade I was asked to write a (very) short story. I put a lot of effort into it, and got probably too much praise for it, which made me think I could work with words. I then went on to write lots of bits and pieces of things for many years, finally writing a complete novel when I was 23. It was terrible, as were the three I wrote subsequently, and I quit writing altogether for ten years, returning in my mid-thirties having somehow learned to be a better writer in the interim, despite having written nothing during that time. It took five years of hard work with my agent to get my first break, but after that things have gone very well.

My background is not particularly interesting. I’m trained as an historian and spent some time as a researcher in my field of Holocaust study, intending to go into public history. In 2000, though, my son was born and it turned out he had special needs, so I set aside any scholarly ambitions to stay home with him. This turned out to be a healthy thing for both of us, as I had been struggling for years with undiagnosed Bipolar II and was fairly unstable to the point where my marriage and even my freedom were on the line by the end. Thankfully I’m in treatment now, and working steadily in my new career. My son is prospering and all is as well as I could hope.

What’s one of the first things that you can remember writing?

The first thing I wrote was a story about dinosaurs robbing a bank, so I guess you could say I was in the crime/thriller business right from the very start. I painstakingly researched which dinosaurs would be likeliest to be found together in the fossil record, then created my little gang of thieves. There was a car chase and they were caught. The end. My teacher loved it, or at least she said she did, and the rest is history.

Why crime/suspense? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, in the genre?

Oddly enough, I don’t read much in the genre. I am far more likely to read something from the trashy men’s adventure field than I am any of my contemporaries, though I have some familiarity with the classics. I was so ignorant of what was fresh and new in the thriller field that when the first Camaro novella went on sale and a few reviews mentioned Jack Reacher that I had to go find a Jack Reacher book to read, because I hadn’t read one. I don’t think the characters are all that similar, but reader interpretation is more important than authorial intent in the long run, so I’ll bow to others’ judgment.

I mentioned before that I found the experience of writing hardcore crime fiction to be difficult, because the oppressive atmosphere sort of reflected back on me while I worked. In some cases, like my first book, The Dead Women of Juárez, the bleak outlook I had toward life in general saturates every page, but it was written before I had treatment for my Bipolar II. As my disposition improved, the tone of my writing shifted to the point where I felt the darkness was influencing me negatively. Writing Camaro sort of lifted the clouds, because she’s an upright character doing good in the world. The concept is inherently optimistic, no matter how bad the bad guys might be, and that’s very freeing to me as a writer today.

What are some of your favorite authors? Is there anyone that has particularly influenced you?

Every year I reread Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. This has been the most influential book I’ve read in the last ten years. Much of what I try to do in my own work was done (better) by McCarthy in that book. He figured out how to strip prose down to its bare essentials while still remaining compelling, and I’ve been trying to find that same level of simplicity in my own work. I’m also quite fond of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch series, because I like his method of giving us nothing interior from his characters and showing everything. There’s not an ounce of telling in those books, and they’re terrific reads.

As far as the classics go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ernest Hemingway. He was my first literary love, and if you read my work with his story, “Big Two-Hearted River” in mind, you might catch glimpses of me trying to capture his magic.

If you’re interested in a more detailed look at my thoughts on this subject, I did a blog entry earlier this year that expands on what I’ve told you here. It’s just longer and more boring!

If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?

Definitely No Country for Old Men. That book affected me profoundly. It was so different from any McCarthy that had come before (or since), and it showed me the possibilities inherent in writing genre fiction devoid of the indulgences of so much of that fiction. I still marvel at it when I read it, but it’s not the same as reading it for the first time.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading Russell Blake’s JET: Legacy. I know it’s not highbrow fiction, but it’s in the tradition of the now-defunct Mack Bolan series I loved as a teenager – and as an adult, I must confess – and it has a kick-ass heroine as the protagonist, so…

What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Next out of the gate for me is Walk Away, the second Camaro Espinoza novel. This one takes Camaro cross-country to northern California to deal with a problem only she can resolve. It’s all about family ties and personal obligations and it’s different enough from The Night Charter, while still retaining a similar feel, that I think readers will really appreciate how broad the spectrum of stories that can be told about Camaro really is.

In the meanwhile, I’m working on a detective novel that also takes a ground-level view of the last days of Saigon in 1975. It’s proving to be one of the more difficult books I’ve ever written, not least because of the pains I’m taking to get every last historical detail exactly right. I have no idea if or when the book will ever be available to the public, but it’s something I felt I had to write.

Before I say goodbye, I’d just like to wish everyone happy reading. I hope you find Camaro just as compelling as I do. I’m her biggest fan, and I plan to keep on writing about her for years to come.

Keep up with Sam: Website | Twitter

About The Night Charter:
Exactly one year ago, Camaro Espinoza killed five bad men in New York City and fled town. Now she’s keeping a low profile in Miami, running night charter catch-and-release fishing trips off the coast. It’s a simple life for a former combat medic. But it wasn’t easy to come by. Camaro plans to do everything she can to hold onto it.

Trouble comes knocking in the form of Parker Story, a man in over his head with all the wrong people. Parker wants to book Camaro’s boat to run a small errand off the coast of Cuba. Camaro knows she shouldn’t get involved. But Parker’s got a teenaged daughter named Lauren, and Parker’s associates have threatened to harm her if the mission doesn’t go off without a hitch. Camaro has never met the girl. Barely seen her picture. But that doesn’t mean she can ignore her plight.

Camaro’s used to being wanted–by men good and bad, by soldiers wounded on the field of battle, by the long arm of the law. But she’s never been needed before. Not the way Lauren needs her. Joining forces with Parker, Camaro soon finds herself in the midst of double crosses, international intrigue, broken promises and scattered bullets. Even a skilled warrior like herself may not be able to escape unscathed.

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