Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Featured Author: George R. Hopkins

George R. Hopkins' mystery novel, Letters from the Dead, is a 2013 Readers Favorite International Book Contest Award Winner and 2013-2014 Reader View Literary Award Winner. Dr. Oliva Dsouza, of Readers' Favorite, says, “A thriller that entangles you in the web of intermingling story tracks and keeps you guessing till the end.” Michel Violante of Reader Views says the book is “An intriguing thriller that kept me glued to the pages. I was not able to put it down thanks to the combination of interesting characters, pacing and suspense, along with the humor.” George is here today with an excerpt and to chat about writing, himself, and his books.

About the book:    

What do you do when a killer comes after the people you love? Set against the background of the hunt for serial killer Lex Talionis, Letters from the Dead includes a cast of complex characters: hard-nosed, hot-headed NYC homicide detective Tom Cavanaugh; Cavanaugh’s half-brother, Jack Bennis, a Jesuit priest and former covert agent; 90 year-old Mary Jane McIntyre in a nursing home guarding deadly secrets in letters from her dead sister; and a ninja-like killer bent on revenge for the cyber-bullying suicide of his daughter. Together in this fast-paced mystery-thriller, they confront a wide array of physical, emotional, and psychological conflicts – including anger, aging, marriage, pregnancy, love … and murder.

Interview with George Hopkins

George, how long have you been writing, and how did you start? 

I’ve been writing on and off for over fifty years. I was Sports Editor of my weekly college newspaper for a while and majored in English. I taught English in high schools for over thirty years and had a number of essays published in our local newspaper. I wanted to try fiction, and for the last ten years I’ve been writing mystery/thrillers. 

What’s the story behind the title Letters from the Dead 

A 90-year-old woman in a nursing home keeps a group of letters she received from her now dead sister.  The letters hold secrets that her two sons never knew. The letters could change the brothers, but they also put the elderly woman in danger as they also reveal things about another resident of the nursing home that could implicate him in a number of crimes.

Do you have another job outside of writing?   

I conduct a writing workshop at the John Noble Maritime Collection on Staten Island, New York. I also have been coordinating a Senior Poetry Contest and Festival for the Community Agency for Senior Citizens for the past fourteen years.

How did you create the plot for this book?
This is an interesting question I never thought about before. Actually, with this mystery, I started with the killer and worked backwards. I introduced a lot of cross-conflicts and an elderly aunt who holds letters written by the mother of the major characters. The letters reveal secrets the brothers do not know, but also put her life in danger.

What’s your favorite line from a book?

My favorite line is naming the serial killer. If I told you the line, however, it would give away the ending.

Talk about a hook! How do you get to know your characters?  

I put myself in their shoes. I’ve come to realize that there are usually no completely blacks or whites in life, but a series of grays. All of my characters face real problems.  How they deal with the problems and conflicts make up the story. No one is without blemishes or totally evil. We are what we are.

Which character did you most enjoy writing?  

All of my characters are a part of me. Choosing one would be like asking me which of my children do I love the most. I love them all – for better or worse.

What would your main character say about you?   

“He’s not really a bad guy. He means well. He gets a bit obsessed at times. He’s scrupulous, basically moral, has a sense of humor (maybe a little sick at times), and loves life. He’s not very aggressive, but with him – still waters definitely run deep – and I wouldn’t like to get on his wrong side. He loves his family, writing, and golf – in that order (although he is a horrible golfer).”

Are any of your characters inspired by real people?

My characters are a part of all the experiences I have had and the imagination of my sometimes fertile mind. No one is based on a real person. Rather they are all based on combinations and imagination.

Is your book based on real events?  

No.  Although there are elements in it that are real like the stories of Rwanda, Somalia, post-stress-traumatic syndrome, and ectopic pregnancies.

Are you like any of your characters?

Probably. We are all human beings, and we all have flaws as well as strengths.

One of your characters has just found out you’re about to kill him off. He/she decides to beat you to the punch. How would he kill you?    

He would probably have my wife come up to me and shoot me as she said, “I am sick and tired of calling you for dinner while you keep typing on that damn computer. How many times do I have to tell you dinner is ready? I’ve had it. Eat this!” BANG!

Yikes! I'd be on time to dinner, if I were you! If you could be one of your characters, which one would you choose?   

I’m a part of all my characters, but I would probably choose Cavanaugh because he appears resolute on the outside, but he tries to keep his true feelings to himself.

With which of your characters would you most like to be stuck in a bookstore?   

Father Jack Bennis. He is well-read and has had multiple experiences as a soldier, an assassin, and now a priest.

A father with experience as an assassin? Now that is intriguing. With what five real people would you most like to be stuck in a bookstore? 

My family.

Tell us about your favorite scene in the book. 

This would be the rape scene where Fran’s ex-lover attacks her and she fights for the gun in her purse. Or it could be the scene where Cavanaugh encounters the serial killer in Fran’s apartment.

Who are your favorite authors? 

Michael Connelly, James Patterson (when he writes by himself), Pat Conroy, James Joyce, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Lawrence Sanders, Robert Parker – eclectic group!

Yes, and you have some of mine in there! What’s one pet peeve you have when you read?

Grammatical and spelling errors.

Do you have a routine for writing?   

I usually write at night when everyone else has gone to bed. The plan is to write one page a night so that at the end of the year I will have written 365 pages, but I tend to get on a roll at times which means I finish the book earlier (unless there are a lot of distractions in my life – which there usually are) and I go to bed much later.

Where and when do you prefer to do your writing? 

I prefer to write at night so no one disturbs me, and I don’t disturb anyone else.  It seems sometimes when I am sitting at the computer typing I get the feeling my wife feels I am goofing off. It’s much better for both of us if I write alone.

Where’s home for you?   

I live in Staten Island, the “forgotten” borough of New York City.

If you could only keep one book, what would it be? 

The dictionary.

You’re leaving your country for a year. What’s the last meal (or food) you would want to have before leaving?   

A 24 oz. steak, medium-rare, smothered with onions and mushrooms or simply a quarter-pounder with cheese, onion rings, and French fries.

Would you rather work in a library or a bookstore?  

A bookstore because you can talk more freely to people.

Where is your favorite library, and what do you love about it?

The 42nd Street Library in Manhattan because it has everything a “normal” person would want or need.

You’re given the day off, and you can do anything but write. What would you do?   

Play golf with my friends or play with my grandchildren.

You can be any fictional character for one day. Who would you be?  

The Little Engine that Could.

I love that! What would your dream office look like?  

It would be lined with books. There would be a large, uncluttered (for a while at least) desk with a computer, a printer, a radio, and quiet.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I could not find an agent, and I wanted to get my books “out there” before I died.  Publishing with the few remaining large publishers can take up to two or more years.
You published with OutskirtsPress, who caters to self-published authors. Are you happy with your decision?

I published Letters from the Dead with OutskirtsPress because it allowed me to keep the price of the book down for readers. I was disappointed, however, in their use of a small font in printing the book. I found Xlibris, who published my first two novels, Blood Brothers and Collateral Consequences, did an excellent job of printing, but the cost for readers, I felt, was too high.

What steps to publication did you personally do, and what did you hire someone to do? Is there anyone you’d recommend for a particular service?

I did the first book all on my own, but had the second and third novel covers designed by the publisher.

What’s one of your favorite quotes?  

“Things fade, alternatives exclude.”

What’s your favorite candy bar? And don’t tell me you don’t have one!  

Chuckles and jelly beans.

Tis the season for jelly beans. I get in trouble with those little bitty beans. What do you like to do when you’re not writing? 

Talk with my wife, visit my grandchildren, watch my favorite TV shows (NCIS, Blacklist, Blue Bloods, Castle), and play a lousy game of golf.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  

Where I am. As a former student once told me, “No matter where you are, that’s the place to be.”

What are you working on now?  

Another mystery/thriller with the same characters tentatively called Random Acts of Malice, involving a plot to kill a judge.

Good luck with it, George, and please come back when it's released to tell us more!

Let's Talk Writing Interview

Excerpt from Letters from the Dead

We lay aside letters never to read them again,
and at last we destroy them out of discretion,
and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life,
irrecoverably for ourselves and for others.


Chapter 1

Mary Jane MacIntyre lay in her bed fingering her rosary beads. She looked down at her hands as she started the first decade of the Sorrowful Mysteries – the Agony in the Garden. Her fingers were bent and twisted by arthritis. She looked at the brown spots and wrinkled skin on the backs of her hands. And her mind began to wander.

    “Peggy, you’ve got to tell the police….”

     Tears rolled down Margaret’s cheeks. Her hands and voice trembled. “I can’t, Mary Jane. He’ll kill me. You don’t know what he’s like.”

    “You can’t let him do this to you, Peggy. You can’t let him get away with this.”

    Like a sheet of newspaper caught in the wind, the voices within her skipped from place to place as another voice within voiced a series of Hail Marys.    

She lifted her eyes to see the black and white picture of three young people framed in a faded leather frame on her night table. She didn’t need her reading glasses to recognize the three standing, smiling on the sandy beach of Coney Island. He stood in the middle with one arm around each girl. He was tall and thin, and his dark hair was ruffled. Both girls were laughing. One wore what looked like a short shirt with two thin bands running around the bust and the bottom. The other wore a sleeveless dark woolen jersey tank suit that clung tighter to her body with a light belt around the waist. The bathing suit was actually navy blue and the belt white rubber, Mary Jane remembered.

    The words of the prayer in the background peeped in again as she started the second Sorrowful Mystery. “… lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil….”

    She was the only one left now. They had gone. He first, then she. Mary Jane was the only one left now - the only one who knew.

    The door to her room opened a bit as a nurse looked in. Ms. MacIntyre was saying her rosary again as she did every day. The nurse decided not to interrupt her reverie. She would come back later.

Mary Jane heard the door open and close. Her ears had not lost what her legs, hands, and eyes had. She may be old, but she still could hear. Sometimes, as she continued to pray the rosary and try to concentrate on the second Sorrowful Mystery – the Scourging at the Pillar, the voices of her past were as clear as the opening of the door.

“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it?” The voice was gruff and loud with a slight touch of a coarse Irish brogue. She heard the thud again as he punched her in the chest and threw her against the car. “You mind your own bloody business, you little whore, or I’ll do the same to you.”

“I hope you die,” the young woman’s voice replied. She saw herself running down the street screaming, “I hope you die. I hope you die….”

She heard his laugh again. Its icy tone sent shivers through her body. Howling like a madman, he lifted his flask of Bushmills and shouted, “Not before I take your little sister with me.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners....” Mary Jane’s eyes moved to her end table where she kept the letters. No one seemed to write letters very much anymore. At least she never got any. But who was left to send her any? The letters in the drawer were sacred to her. They held a secret she had kept buried within her for a long time. Maybe too long. Soon it would be her time. Should she tell someone? What good would come of it now?

On the wall by the side of the window, the MacIntyre coat of arms hung, another remembrance of the past, a gift her father had given her on her twelfth birthday. She recalled his stories about the ancient MacIntyre clan and how one of its earliest lords cut off his thumb to plug a hole in a sinking ship. He regaled her with stories as she sat in his lap at the kitchen table in their fourth floor railroad apartment and he drank his Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and told her about how the MacIntyre family was a proud clan of warriors and poets that survived battles and adversity. How many times had he made her shout with him, the MacIntyre war cry, “Cruachan”?

Her eyes could just make out the two red eagles with outstretched wings, the ship with furled sails, the red fist clutching a cross, and the hand with a dagger protruding from a knight’s helmet on the family crest. She couldn’t see the family motto from where she lay, but she knew it by heart – “Per ardua” – through difficulties. Life had been a series of difficulties, yet here she was – the only one of the group left with a secret buried in the letters which pressed on her heart.

It was time to let go. But she had to tell someone before she left. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

About the author:

George Hopkins, a former United States Marine Corps sergeant, has worked as an assistant principal of English in the NYC public high schools and has taught at Columbia Teachers’ College, St. John’s University, Middlesex College, and the College of Staten Island, in addition to being an exchange teacher in Puerto Rico. Twice he was honored by the NY Association of Teachers as “Teacher of the Year.” This novel is his third mystery featuring Detective Cavanaugh and Fr. Bennis. Both previous novels, Blood Brothers and Collateral Consequences, are award-winners and are available online.

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