Interview with Steven Max Russo author of The Dead Don’t Sleep, Thieves

Tell us about your book (what’s the sales pitch?)

The Dead Don’t Sleep is a gritty, crime thriller about Frank Thompson, a recent widower and aging Vietnam veteran who is down from Maine visiting his nephew, Bill, and his family in New Jersey.

While at a trap range, he and his nephew have a chance encounter with a strange man who claims to remember Frank from the war.

That night, the windows in Bill’s home are shattered along with the quiet peaceful lives the two men had been living.

Three veterans from a special combat unit directed by the CIA during the Vietnam War have gathered to discuss what they are going to do about a man they claim killed one of their own over forty years ago.

Jasper, Birdie and Pogo were part of a team that called themselves the National League All Stars. They were a squad of psychopathic killers trained by Special Forces to cause death and mayhem during the war. Now, they have banded together to hunt down and kill the professional soldier who led them all those years ago.

Drawing on his military training and a resurgent bloodlust from his tortured past, Frank prepares for a final, violent reckoning that will bring him full circle with the war that never left him.

If you could be a character in the book who would you be and why?

Well, the truth is I was lucky enough (or maybe not so lucky) to have already been all the main characters in my book. You see, when I write, I sometimes feel that I take on the personality of the character I am writing about. A lot of the characters in my book(s) are rather unsavory and downright dangerous, so I don’t know what that says about me, but in order to get the dialogue right, I have to understand the character. I have to know his/her back-story (even if I don’t share that with my readers), I need to understand what he/she feels or doesn’t feel and why, I need to comprehend and accept (sometimes even embrace) my character’s motivations. It’s usually a fun, though sometimes draining (and surreal) experience.

The truth is, I have not written a book yet with a character that I would actually want to be. Geez, now that I think about it, that’s pretty scary!

What did you learn about writing by writing this book?

What I learned is that you can’t rush the process. Like most authors I guess, I hit a few dead ends while writing this story.  I’d get to a point where I’d say, “Okay, what happens next?” and not have an answer. I was once asked whether I’m a plotter or a “pantser”. That is, do I plot out or outline the story in advance, or just write by the seat of my pants. Unfortunately, I am a “pantser”. The story just flows, or sometimes sputters out. I have actually panicked a few times while writing my novels not knowing where to take the story next.

But I’ve learned that if I keep my head down and just keep writing, I seem to find a way.

Do you have a set writing process, if so what is it?

No, I don’t. My writing usually begins with a single thought that gets stuck in my brain – a memory, an experience, or maybe an observation. For The Dead Don’t Sleep, it was the memory of an afternoon I spent shooting trap with a good friend and his uncle from Maine, who happened to be a Vietnam vet. That pleasant afternoon morphed into a deadly and graphic story.

When I’m writing a novel, I try to write a set amount of words each time I sit in front of my computer. I read somewhere that Stephen King shoots for 1500 words. If that’s good enough for him, it’s certainly good enough for me. So that’s my goal. Sometimes I only write 300, sometimes I write 6,000, but the trick is to sit down and write something.

What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but has never been asked of you?

One question that I was asked once was if I had any police experience. It was in reference to my novel, Thieves. In the book, I go into some detail about breaking into a house and how my characters go about searching for valuables. The answer is no, I have no policing experience.

The question that was never asked was whether I’ve had any experience breaking into other people’s homes. Some questions are better left unanswered!

What made you choose to write your book as a crime thriller?

I didn’t consciously choose to write the book as any genre, I just started writing. As I wrote, the story evolved into a thriller.

How much research did you do before writing the book and how did you go about it?

I didn’t do any research before I began writing. But as the story progressed, I wanted to add some measure of realism to it. I did a little research online about the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War and was, quite frankly, horrified. It was a CIA operation that was responsible for some horrendous atrocities. The situations in the book are all fiction, but some of the things I learned that were actually done during the war inspired some of the action described. In addition, though I have some basic knowledge of firearms, I had to again go online to help me choose and describe some of the weapons described in the book.

Do you remember the first story you told? What was it?

The story that first got me serious about writing was a short story I penned called Putting in the Work. It’s about a young, white-collar criminal who is coerced into helping orchestrate and commit a murder. The bulk of the story is the actual crime and what this young man finds is that he not only has an aptitude for murder – he actually enjoys it.

The story was published by an online literary journal called The Rag. They actually paid me and that is what gave me the confidence to think I might have the talent to start writing seriously.

What are you reading? Who do you think we should be reading (apart from you!)?

I’m just finishing Don Winslow’s Broken. It’s a book of short stories of his and I’m really enjoying them. As for whom I think others should read, I like to advise people to try and look at someone new. I think people (myself included) sometimes get into the habit of reading the same authors over and over.

In one sentence what’s your best piece of advice for writers?

If you truly believe in yourself and your writing – never give up.


Published by suttope

Pete W Sutton is a writer and editor. His two short story collections – A Tiding of Magpies and The Museum for Forgetting – were shortlisted for Best Collection in the British Fantasy Awards in 2017 & 2022 respectively. His novel – Seven Deadly Swords – was published by Grimbold Books. He has edited several short story anthologies and is the editor for the British Fantasy Society Horizons fiction magazine.

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