Interview with Rick Skwiot
In my new muckraking urban mystery, Fail, disgraced African-American Police Lieutenant Carlo Gabriel strives to redeem himself by locating the vanished husband of the mayor’s comely press secretary. However, instead he unwittingly and unwillingly unearths a morass of corruption, educational malpractice and greed that consigns thousands of at-risk black youths to the mean streets of America’s former murder capital, St. Louis. The novel chronicles Gabriel’s missing-person search for Jonathan Stone, recently dismissed from his job teaching remedial grammar at the state university and newly aware of his wife’s affair with her boss, St. Louis mayor Angelo Cira—a former police officer with whom Gabriel shares a dark secret: Cira’s murder of an unarmed black suspect. While hoping only to regain his place in the police headquarters hierarchy (lost after his beating a prisoner who had killed a cop), Gabriel discovers information that could get a guy killed.
What formats is the book available in?
Fail is available in paperback and digital formats—mobi for Kindle, epub and pdf.
What's the best thing about being a writer?
The best thing about being a writer, and by that I mean creative writer, is to be able to do your own work, to follow your heart and to create something that never before existed, a new world where others can visit and take sustenance and enjoyment. Of course, like most creative writers, I have to supplement my creative writing with other work—that of a freelance writer and journalist, which has enabled me to interview hundreds of accomplished people in all walks of life and learn much from them. Nonetheless, however interesting that bread-and-butter work may be—and at times it’s even pleasurable—it cannot compare to the great sense of fulfilment that comes from raw creation. And of course all that comes to fruition when people read your work and validate that you have made a flesh-and-blood world worthy of their attention.
Where can people find out more about you and your writing?
You can visit my website, www.RickSkwiot.com, where I have links to my books, essays, book reviews, feature writing and more. You can also check out my GoodReads page to find my reviews and what I’ve been reading. Also, you can ask me questions about my books and my work through my GoodReads author page.
Who is you favorite character in your book and why?
My point-of-view character, the sardonic cop Carlo Gabriel, appeals to me a lot. He’s a tough cop yet vulnerable, experienced yet fallible, principled yet corruptible. That is, he is very human, which I like. And he is a sensualist with some intellectual curiosity—both of which I can identify with. Further, like most Americans, he’s a conflicted mix—Mexican-American and African-American (he calls himself “Halfrican”)—but decidedly American in his values, tastes, mores and language. Importantly, he has a breezy demeanor and a cynical sense of humor, always wisecracking and looking for the absurdity in his situation, but at heart a loner. He’s a guy I would trust (to an extent) and would like to have a drink with. Further, if there was trouble, I’d want him on my side.
Why do you think readers are going to enjoy your book?
With all due modesty, it’s a page-turning mystery with heart—and a heart-stopping surprise ending. There’s lots of snappy and funny dialogue leavening a very serious story of corruption and educational malpractice, which plagues our inner-city schools. On top of that readers get to know two very compelling main characters—the rogue (in both senses of the word) cop Carlo Gabriel and the crusading English teacher Jonathan Stone—as well as two powerful female characters. Also, I think readers will learn a lot about what’s contributing to the crisis in our urban schools and on the streets across America while being thoroughly engaged with the characters and entertained.
Twenty years, in a fashion. The experience that was the seed to this book occurred two decades ago when I agreed to teach a remedial grammar course to incoming freshmen at St. Louis’ inner city community college, Forest Park. There I was handed a class of 18 African American high school graduates who could not consistently write—or speak—a grammatically correct sentence despite their 12 years of “education” in St. Louis Public Schools. I was stunned. After two other writers—at a ten-year interval—told me I should write about that experience, I finally began making notes for what would become Fail. Over the ensuing two years it went through many drafts. It took another year before I found the right publisher for it, who over the past six months has had me reworking the manuscript and adding some new scenes. So, it has been a long process.
Did you learn anything from writing your book that was unexpected?
I think I learned a lot that was unexpected—or at least came to understand the deeper implications of facts that I had never much scrutinized. One thing is how pervasive the ongoing corruption is in St. Louis—not that that makes it unique among Rust Belt cities. But as I began investigating the educational malpractice there, I saw how intimately related it is to all the inner-city social ills. The fact that in most big cities half the kids drop out and never finish high school has significant implications re crime, gang activity, drugs, dependency and other societal ills. Some 70 percent of state prison inmates never finished high school. As my book’s epigraph, from Mark Twain, states: “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.” Today the schools are being stopped from doing their jobs. As to who and what is causing that stoppage and how to fix it—that’s another question that many dedicated educators and countless parents of school-age kids nationwide are trying to answer.
Where can a reader purchase your book?
Readers everywhere can purchase Fail in paperback and digital editions through all online retailers—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, BAM, etc.—or order it from their local bookstore. Readers in St. Louis will find Fail at Subterranean Books, Main Street Books, Left Bank Books, STL Books, The Book House and other area bookstores after October 27, 2014.
How do you research your books?
This book, Fail, required extensive research—I delved deeply into the sorry state of urban public schools nationwide; ongoing St. Louis governmental corruption; the organization, procedures and equipment of the St. Louis Police Department; the works of Mark Twain; critical moments in regional American history; area topography; and more. Luckily, the Internet was able to provide me with a lot of the answers. In the pre-Web days, I would often put off doing research until later—so as not to interrupt my writing flow and to make sure that those elements were likely going to remain in the book before I spent hours at the library or making phone calls to pin down details and get it right. Now, however, when a detail surfaces as I am writing, I often stop and Google what I’m looking for, and usually find it—whether it’s an architectural term, what the weather was like on a certain date in a certain place, or what the intersection of two streets in a city I’ve never visited looks like. However, for some inside information—like specific police operational details—I still need to talk to someone in the know. Usually that starts with an email to a PR person in the organization, who is generally happy to hook me up with the right expert.