Featured Crime Author Interview with Tim Maleeny

This month we are featuring author Tim Maleeny! After Tim Maleen released his first novel in early 2009 (Stealing the Dragon) the first book in his Cape Weathers Mystery series, it was quickly apparent that his style of combining real life humor and bad guy thrills n’ chills would have people devouring any of his new books. 

About Author Tim Maleeny:

Tim Maleeny is the author of the award-winning Cape Weathers series of mysteries and the bestselling comedic thriller JUMP, which The Boston Globe called “hilarious” and Publishers Weekly described as “a perfectly blended cocktail of escapism.” His short fiction appears in several major anthologies and has won the prestigious Macavity Award for best story of the year. Booklist says, “The Cape Weathers mysteries are smart, snappily written, energetic mysteries starring an engaging hero.”

The second son of an organic chemist and a registered nurse, Tim grew up in New Jersey surrounded by his parents’ books, shelves crowded with pulp adventures and paperback mysteries from the thirties and forties. He started writing crime fiction when he moved to San Francisco near Chinatown, a city with a great noir tradition and a neighborhood that inspired many of his early stories.

Tim currently lives at an undisclosed location in New York City with his remarkable wife, Kathryn, and their two kickass daughters, Clare and Helen. When he’s not procrastinating by doing excessive research on exotic poisons, famous art heists or deadly sea creatures, Tim is working on his next novel, a screenplay, and a book for young readers.

Tim Maleeny Interview photo.

Can you help us welcome Tim Maleeny for an Author Interview? 

Can you share your journey to becoming an author? What inspired you to pursue a writing career? What authors inspired you?

Thanks to my parents, I grew up surrounded by books. Dad was a chemist and Mom was a nurse, and both worked long hours, but every night before bed they would be reading. Whenever we moved, the first thing my brother and I would do is help build bookcases to hold all the old paperbacks, and one of my favorite pastimes as a kid was getting lost in the dusty aisles of the local used bookstores. From pulp adventures of the thirties to Greek myths and historical novels, I read everything. High school was mostly science fiction and fantasy, along with every comic book I could afford, and then after college my tastes turned to mysteries.

I had moved to Manhattan by this time, and stories in the noir tradition became the films running in my head as I rode the subways and buses through neighborhoods where I still felt like an outsider. Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and Donald Westlake got me hooked, and later Elmore Leonard, Loren Estleman, and Robert Crais opened everything up, mixing crime and humor, driving narratives through dialogue as much as action, and keeping the pages turning.

Once I moved to San Francisco, a new city to explore inspired me to write stories of my own.

I began with short stories, which I would recommend to anyone because in many ways it’s harder to write a great short story than a good novel. There’s absolutely no room for fat, and if a single piece doesn’t fit, the rest of the story falls apart.

I wrote a story called, “Death Do Us Part” and submitted it for an anthology the Mystery Writers of America was pulling together, and it not only got selected, it became the title story for a collection edited by Harlan Coben. That gave me a huge confidence boost to finish the novel that became the basis for my series, including my latest, Hanging The Devil.

The mystery writing community is a tightly-knit group, and without the early encouragement of authors I met through organizations like MWA and Sisters in Crime, I would’ve wasted years second-guessing what I was doing. Authors such as Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Deborah Crombie, Thomas Perry, and Gregg Hurwitz have been incredibly supportive over the years and continue to raise the bar for all of us writing crime fiction.

For anyone serious about writing, seek out other writers, you’ll learn something new from every conversation and find the inspiration you need to get those voices out of your head and onto the page.

Are you a planner or a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants)? How do you approach structuring your stories?

When you ask mystery and thriller authors how they write a novel, it’s a fifty-fifty split between planners—those who work from a story outline—and “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants. I fall into the latter camp when I start my first chapter, but as the story progresses I blend the two approaches to bring more structure into what comes next.

About a third of the way into any novel I’ll build a retroactive outline that maps the sequence of character appearances up to that point, an opening line and closing line for each chapter. My books are written in third-person, close perspective, so there are a lot of characters, all converging by the end of the story. Building a reverse-outline gets the rhythm of the characters’ voices clear, harmonizing the notes in a melody. My chapters are short and fast, so getting the pattern down helps determine the pacing.

As for writing habits, I lack the discipline of my friends who sit behind the keyboard every day, working through the outline for their next book, so a lot of my “writing time” is spent not writing. Daydreaming online at the grocery store, reading and doing research, walking around neighborhoods, or looking at photographs of places where my story will take place. I’m fairly prolific once I sit behind a keyboard, so I’d describe myself as a binge writer.

Writing a novel is telling yourself a story, and because I don’t start with an outline, I’m as excited to find out what happens next as my readers.

Are there specific themes or recurring motifs that you find yourself exploring in your writing?

Crime fiction is about finding your moral compass in a morally ambiguous world.

Hitchcock took this beyond cops and robbers by putting ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances in films like North By Northwest and Rear Window. We all think we know ourselves and how we’d react to any situation, but crime fiction puts that to the test.

Though all my novels have an undercurrent of humor built into the narrative, there are echoes of the noir tradition in my descriptions of San Francisco, a clear-eyed view of what’s below the surface in a city often portrayed as a picture postcard. That contrast is the source of tension behind any mystery, whether domestic suspense, urban noir, or global thriller. That respectable museum director is a true art lover, a pillar of the community, but his costly divorce and bad investments led him to sell his masterpieces on the black market and replace them with forgeries. A slippery slope that begins with one misstep—by someone who never sees themselves as the villain—is often the seed of a great story.

The Faustian bargains people make are never on my mind when I sit down to write, but the theme invariably emerges as characters develop and their motivations become clear. And since fictional characters are all too human, all it takes to set a plot in motion is for one character to lose their way. 

Do you have a favorite character that you’ve created? What makes this character particularly special to you?

Sally Mei is a former assassin, orphaned at age five and raised by the Triads in Hong Kong, who has become a fan favorite among readers and easily the most engaging and fun character for me to write.

When I started the Cape Weathers series with Stealing The Dragon, I decided to bend the genre archetypes a bit. Cape is a private investigator, but he’s more impulsive than methodical, relying on speed rather than analytical reasoning to get results, more likely to get into trouble and blow things up than quietly deduce in his study. His friend and ally in the police, Inspector Beauregard Jones, is a physically imposing presence but the gentlest soul in the stories. Cape’s partner, Sally, is only five feet tall and easily the most dangerous character in the mix, the polar opposite of Cape when it comes to the moral math in a life-or-death situation.

I didn’t want Sally to be simply a sidekick, and I’ve always thought of my novels as having two protagonists, with Cape and Sally counter-balancing each other. An odd couple with a shared agenda. That only works if Sally feels real, fully three-dimensional and not a comic book version of a badass, so I make sure her backstory underpins her every move. The choice she makes in Hanging The Devil to protect a young girl who reminds her of herself is directly tied to Sally’s memories and motivations, true to a character who’s as much a part of my San Francisco as the streets of Chinatown where she lives.

Writing a character like Sally is a thrill and a challenge, she’s so unlike anyone else yet totally relatable in her tenacity and grit—she never quits. Anytime I’m writing a chapter from her point of view, I reread her past appearances to make sure I’m writing as her, not me, because if I get it wrong Sally would be the first to tell me, and it’s never a good idea to disappoint a trained assassin.

Can you recall a specific moment or accomplishment in your writing career that made you particularly proud?

I once did a book signing in Texas and a woman came with her mom and daughter, and it turns out all three had read and loved the book. A story I told myself months before turned into a novel that entertained three generations of this family, bringing them together around their shared love of mysteries. How nice is that? Getting a killer review is great, but the reason any author writes is to be read, and as someone for whom reading is still my favorite pastime, that encounter made all my head-scratching, neurotic second-guessing and staring at the blank page worthwhile. There is no better motivation for a writer than meeting your readers.

Do you prefer coffee or tea? What kinds, or specific ways to enjoy these drinks? 

I’m a tea drinker, an addiction that begins when I wake up and continues until my last drink before bed. Gallons a day. I’m easily distracted, so the slow caffeine drip of a constant intake of tea probably helps me focus. In my case, it’s usually iced tea, often green, but on the road, any kind of tea does the trick, hot or cold, green or black. I love the idea of coffee, and the smell of it, but as someone who’s always drinking something, I find coffee makes me too rough around the edges if I drink it all day. As it is, it’s hard to type fast enough to keep up with my characters, so if my hands were shaking from too much coffee I think the typos would get out of control.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting their writing journey?

Writers read, so keep reading! Read anything that grabs you, ask why a favorite story resonated with you, then deconstruct the plot. Did a chapter open in the middle of the action; was the dialogue authentic or sound too much like exposition; is the action clear enough to visualize the scene in your head? How hard did it hit, emotionally, and which characters stayed with you long after you finished the book.

As a general rule, you’re going to cut about the third of the words you write, so give yourself permission to write messy; just get the story on the page, then edit as if someone else wrote it. This is a stamina game, and with enough practice, anyone can learn how to sculpt that ball of clay into a story, if you’re willing to put in the hours.

If you’re an avid reader and you’ve written a story that you would want to read, odds are other people will want to read it, too.

Can you share a funny or heartwarming anecdote related to your writing journey?

When I first started writing, some of my fictional notions became real, at times because I stumbled over something that was right in front of me, other times as an eerie coincidence. For example, I wrote about underground tunnels in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to discover during my research that they actually existed. One of my characters was a mayoral candidate in league with the mobsters who funded his campaign, a model citizen secretly engaged in arms dealing and human trafficking. Shortly after that story got published, a mayoral candidate in San Francisco got busted for exactly those crimes. (Needless to say, this made me paranoid, and I started to wonder if I should try writing about world peace instead of murder and mayhem.) My latest novel, Hanging The Devil, is loosely based on actual events surrounding the organized theft of priceless art, a story that also involves the weaponization of emerging technology like gene splicing and surveillance systems. It’ll be fascinating to see how much of my cautionary tale predicts the future this time around.   

What do you hope your literary legacy will be? How would you like to be remembered as an author?

Reading has always been a lifeline for me—an armchair adventure, a way to decompress at the end of a long week, or the perfect companion on a transatlantic flight. Writing my own stories, in a way, is a thank you to all the writers who came before. If my books can be a much-needed escape or inspiration for another reader, that’s good enough for me.

Are there any exciting projects or new directions you’re planning to explore in your upcoming works?

There has been some recent TV and film interest in my series, and as a cinephile that’s an incredibly exciting prospect, and there are so many storytelling opportunities today, from graphic novels to emerging digital platforms. A lifelong comic book collector, I’d love to adapt a character like Sally into an illustrated story. And as for the immediate future—after I finish the next book in my series—I want to take a run at a book for young readers. I’m a huge fan of what Chris Grabenstein has done over the years mixing suspense and humor, Rick Riordan is a genius, and I still remember the way my daughters’ faces would light up when reading stories at that age.

If you could have dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

Around the dinner table at the perfect gathering would be Sherlock Holmes—and Watson, of course—along with John Clayton, also known as Tarzan, sitting next to Gandalf, who’d be sitting just to the right of Sam Spade, and depending on the size of the table, we’d also want to make room for Elvis Cole, Professor McGonagall, Jack Reacher, Count Dracula, Arkady Renko, Conan the Barbarian, and Snoopy. I suspect we’ll all have a lot in common, even if we don’t agree on what’s for dinner.

How has the act of writing itself changed you as a person, if at all?

Mystery writers are the nicest people you’ll ever meet because they get all their dark impulses out of their system and into their stories. Writing a novel is hard, sometimes frustrating, but also cathartic. There’s an endorphin release that occurs when your words hit the page. I am definitely easier to live with when I’m writing, as my family can attest.

Check out Tim Maleeny’s New Book Hanging the Devil, the fifth book in his Cape Weathers Mystery series.

It was supposed to be a simple job: steal the paintings, leave the forgeries…

When a helicopter crashes through the skylight of the Asian Art Museum, an audacious heist turns into a tragedy. The only witness to the crash is eleven-year-old Grace, who watches in horror as her uncle is killed and a priceless statue stolen by two men and a―ghost? At least that’s how the eerie, smoke-like figure with parchment skin and floating hair appears to Grace. Scared almost to death, she flees into the night and seeks refuge in the back alleys of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Grace is found by Sally Mei, self-appointed guardian of Chinatown. While Sally trains Grace in basic survival skills, her erstwhile partner Cape Weathers, private detective and public nuisance, searches for the mysterious crew behind the robbery before they strike the museum a second time. As the clock winds down, Cape enlists aid from some unlikely allies to lay a trap for a ghost who has no intention of being caught―nor of leaving any witnesses alive to tell the tale.

For More “Get to Know the Author” posts check out our Author Interviews section.

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