Tell us about your latest book, A Shadow on the Wall:
In this third outing of the series, Zack Taylor’s new life in Maine is crumbling. His fledgling Portland business is in jeopardy, he’s been dumped by his lady love, and a murderous gang leader is bent on revenge. A shattered Zack is enticed onto a movie shoot to provide martial arts expertise and security, when a sudden murder raises the stakes. Zack must deal with his own demons, as well as a host of shadowy tricksters with secrets to hide. Death is at hand, and Zack must figure out who to trust in a world of illusion built on money and power.
What inspired you to write the book?
A number of things. I love mysteries and Maine, and combine these in the Zack Taylor series. Since I’m a big fan of John D. MacDonald’s, this series was influenced by his work, especially the Travis McGee series. McGee was not a professional lawman, but a man with certain skills who helped out people troubled by dangerous predators.
The Maine setting is fresh to most mystery readers (though the Maine Crime Writers readership will be quite familiar with it), and I wanted to showcase Maine’s beauty and differences.
I also wanted to show a mystery hero who doesn’t whip out a firearm to easily solve his problems and magically get out of danger. Zack doesn’t like guns, though he runs into people who use them. So he starts with a big disadvantage. And since many of us are smacked by life, I want to show people that they can persevere, and often things will get better.
Tell us about your Maine background and why it’s so important in this series.
I grew up in the County, picking potatoes from the age of 7, and went to college at U Maine Orono, where I had Stephen King as my writing instructor. I’ve lived in many towns across the state, and love the Yankee streak of self-reliance and make-do spirit. There’s things that go on in Maine that happen nowhere else. My character in the series comes to Maine from angst-ridden living in big cities, and finds he can heal in Maine, and make a new life. So the setting is critical to understand his internal process and how he changes.
Why do you like to write mysteries as a genre?
There are no limitations on what you can do, including making a genre more literary. Our life is all mystery! A mystery novel is an exploration of resetting the world to order, a study of the human condition, of who we are and what we value. And yet it entertains so well and takes the reader on a journey they will enjoy.
Talk about the writing process. Do you have a writing routine? Do you do any research?
With a family and a full-time job, there’s no set schedule, it’s whenever I can steal some time. I applaud those who can do it on a set schedule. I may begin with a character, an idea, a scene, a snippet of dialogue, or a title. I write scenes and snippets, and eventually get enough to start a spreadsheet that shows the timeline and action of each chapter, filling in as it develops. Most of the setting research was simply living in and around Portland for years. I’m involved in 3 different mystery book clubs, and we study and report on 4 books a months, so I see what fans are looking for and what they don’t like.
What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book?
First, an entertaining read, which seems to be the reactions of most. An appreciation that entertaining genre work can have deeper meanings found in “serious” literature. A sense of the mystery of Maine itself, and perhaps a desire to explore it or find out more on their own. More empathy for the struggles of others, and an understanding of how to cope with the heavy load that life sometimes gives us.
Work that showcases a high quality of writing, and layers within each book that have many meanings for the careful reader.
One example is that the titles are taken from important literary works in our culture, and echo the theme of that book. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Bible, Plato, Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, and others will have their titles in the series. So there’s something more than just another shoot-’em-up; there are references to a broader spectrum of knowledge and culture.
Do you have beta readers and/or editors?
Oh yes. My works get vetted through a hard-nosed writing group that points out anything that doesn’t ring true for them. After edits and rewrites, I give the work to a few writers who carefully edit the work. Then more rewrites and revisions, then off to the publisher, who will edit it again.
You also write short stories. How is that different from novels?
Yes, I’ve 6 story collections, in addition to the novels. A story must get to the point quickly, and have no extraneous material and plotlines. You’ve got to stick to one thing and deliver. Not everyone can do both novels and short stories well, but it’s great storytelling training.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
My critique group gives the toughest criticism, so when a piece of writing gets by them, it’s good.
In a good way, people have told me my work has touched their hearts, made them cry, and made them think about the writing for weeks afterward. A remark like that keeps me high for weeks.
Who are your favorite authors?
So many– a number of them are detailed (with comments) at http://www.daletphillips.com. My list on Goodreads shows some of my tastes. My standards are usually high, and I’ll read anything good,no matter the genre or author, or whether the book is old or new.
Why have you published with small presses instead of going with a larger house?
I love the creative control of using small presses– it’s heady and empowering. I get the cover and content I want, and on the schedule I need. I can get books when and where I need them, and get them published as soon as they’re ready. Larger houses take more time, and aren’t as flexible.
The greatest challenge of small presses is trying to find time to get new readers while continuing to write. When publicity is all up to you, it’s time-consuming.
What advice would you give aspiring writers ?Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Learn and study the craft, expect to write a million words before you’re good (per John D. MacDonald), learn the business side as well, commit yourself to excellence, figure out your best path, and have tenacity to continue in the face of adversity. And develop a thick skin that’s tougher than a rhino, because no matter how good you get, someone’s not going to like it.There are many resources– too many to mention here. Check out my website writer pages for a listing of a number of these: www.daletphillips.com.
What do you think the future holds for writers?
Exciting times for those who can adapt and keep writing. Things are changing, but the human race needs and lives on good stories.
Dale T. Phillips studied writing with Stephen King at the University of Maine at Orono, and has published three novels, over 25 short stories, collections, articles, jokes, and poetry. For over 20 years, he’s worked as a Technical Writer in a number of major industries. He has appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film, Throg. He co-wrote and acted in a short political satire film, The Nine. He competed on two nationally televised quiz shows, Jeopardy and Think Twice, and lost spectacularly both times.
Dale has had a number of colorful and interesting jobs: farm laborer, entrepreneurial bait salesman, yard worker, golf pro shop assistant, factory assembler, holiday Santa, construction worker, hotel worker, office assistant, theater apprentice, busboy, waiter, bartender, wine steward, assistant maitre’d, website designer, lab experiment subject, and blackjack dealer. He was born in New England, spent his formative years in Maine, and has lived and worked in a number of different places. He and has traveled to all 50 states and a number of countries, spanning half the globe, from Hawaii to Greece.
Thanks for another author to put on my t-b-r list. Dee
Way to go ,Dale ! You make us proud .
Way to go Dale ! You do us proud.
Zack is the eternal optimist.
Thanks for hosting me here, and for all the kind words! Great to meet the Maine audience. Just got my books into Mainely Murders in Kennebunk this last weekend.
Looking forward to reading this, Dale! Loved the first two books in the series.
Enjoyed your interview, Dale — thanks for joining us!
Thank you, Vicki. I met you at the big New England Mobile Bookfair signing last winter. I’ll be doing one there on October 24th, with Vlad Vaslyn, a fellow writer, for a night of mystery and horror!
“There are no limitations on what you can do.” Perfect quote.