Jack visited us from his home near Chicago to celebrate the release of his third Dek Elstrom book, Hunting Sweetie Rose. He is working on #4 and #5 in the series, so you'll have more opportunities to get to know him and his character. Unfortunately, #1 and #2 are out of print. It's the goofy way of the publishing world now that books go out of print faster than weeds sprout in your lawn or grey hairs on your head.
What made Jack run from productivity consulting and commercial furnishings, areas he was good in and of which he was an acknowledged expert? Anger.
One day after an especially trying encounter at work, he barricaded himself behind an IBM Selectric and banged out a story. Actually, the word "story" implies some sort of plan. There was no plan. Jack just wrote and wrote and wrote. And added his trademark quirky sense of humor.
This is what he was meant to do, he thought. He began to take writing classes. A short story he wrote for a class garnered this praise from one of his fellow students, "[It was the] best story in the whole class, but I have no idea what it's about." During another class, he asked Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, when an author knows he's funny. Russo leaned over him and, sotto voce, told him, "When you laugh."
In fact, Jack sits at his computer (no longer the IBM Selectric) and "giggles and cackles like a bluejay." Despite the writing classes, Jack doesn't really plot his books. "Where I've thought about it, it's come back to bite me," he says. He just lets his imagination take over.
He interweaves his story of learning to write with funny, self-deprecating one-liners. On receiving a Shamus nomination for his first book, A Safe Place for Dying, he says, "I figured they screwed up." To create his praise-worthy protagonist, he thought of his favorite mystery characters, like John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. Instead of Travis' boat, he chose an unfinished castle turret for Elstrom's abode, one of Jack's many charming touches.
Underlying the charming touches and quirky continuing characters are serious stories that are tied to and have arisen from the politics and sociology of Illinois. "I had a successful bootlegger grandfather," he said, and his parents innocently introduced him to big-name gangsters. (Jackie Cerone, one of those big-name Chicago gangsters, made spaghetti for his mother's bridge group.) Speaking of the storied history of corruption and "crookedness" of the Chicago area, he said, "In some perverted way, I think Chicagoans are proud of it."
His initial success in publishing a short story in Ellery Queen Magazine scared him. He thought, "What does this mean?" As in, now what? He was "writing to become a better reader," but now he was a genuine published writer. He now had to think bigger.
Once he worked out the kinks in his novel, Jack eventually found his way to the Maui Conference, an event attended by editors and agents. Jack went from "Let me see five pages" to "Let me see the manuscript" to "Do you have any more?" Based on John D. MacDonald's A Purple Place for Dying, Jack titled his work, A Safe Place for Dying, and his first book was s-o-l-d.
After a lifetime of reading and being a fan of mystery books -- Harrison Ford's father, while he was a temporary bookseller, tricked young Jack into reading a lot of books as he waited for the next James Bond (the arrival of which was always just around the corner, according to Mr. Ford) -- Jack can now say he, too, is a writer.
"I've got a lot to be modest about," he says. We take that to mean he's had a lot of success. And now you know him, too.