Interview: Wayne Zurl

Wayne Zurl was born in New York and grew up on Long Island. During the Vietnam War he served on active duty with the Army and later in the reserves. He worked for twenty years for the Suffolk County,New York Police Department and is currently living with his wife, Barbara, in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee — not far from Prospect PD.

Enjoy this interview.

Tell us about your latest book. Do you have a favorite passage you’d like to share?

My novel, A New Prospect, follows a retired detective from a large Long Island police department as he reluctantly accepts a job as the police chief in the fictional city of Prospect, Tennessee. The excerpt below appeared in a local press release when the book debuted. I think everyone will get the gist of the story from this.

Finding a killer in a small Appalachian community doesn’t look that difficult to gritty ex-New York Detective Lieutenant Sam Jenkins. Adjusting to the culture of rural Tennessee, dealing with shady politicians, powerful rich families, and colorful residents, makes Sam feel like a fish out of water, or a cop out of bourbon.

But A NEW PROSPECT isn’t just about a homicide. Jenkins, the new police chief, is busy coping with his mid-life crisis, trying to patch the cracks in a department shattered by scandal, and looking for a new purpose in life. He barely finds time to concentrate on a murder investigation that requires him to revive his old skills as a detective.

The victim, Cecil Lovejoy, a wealthy real estate developer, couldn’t have deserved it more. His death was the inexorable result of years misspent. And it appears to be no great loss to anyone, except the prime suspect is Sam’s personal friend.

Jenkins’ abilities are soon attacked when Lovejoy’s influential widow urges politicians to reassign the case to state investigators.

Feeling like “a pork chop at a bar mitzvah” in his new workplace, Sam suspects something isn’t kosher when the family incessantly tries to force him out of the picture.

During their investigation, Sam and his new partner, Officer Bettye Lambert, meet, among others, a pair of swingers, an engaging ex-prostitute, and the victim’s grandson, a young homosexual recently threatened with outing by his grandfather.

To resolve an impossible situation, Sam turns common police practice on its ear to insure an innocent man doesn’t fall prey to an imperfect system and the guilty party receives appropriate justice.

Jenkins’ first adventure at Prospect PD is fictional, but the authentic procedures and language are based on Zurl’s twenty years of investigative and supervisory experience with the Suffolk County Police Department, one of the largest municipal law enforcement agencies in New York and the nation.

I wanted this story to appeal to those middle-aged people who left their homes in retirement and relocated to sections of the US with unfamiliar cultures, as well as all fans of the traditional murder mystery. Throughout the book, back-story refers to the protagonist’s former life as a police administrator, the reasons for his retirement, and the stark differences between life on Long Island and that in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee.

Picking a favorite scene is difficult. I have a few and all for different reasons. But I guess from a writer’s craft standpoint, I like something from the chapter where Jenkins meets Rachel Williamson, a TV reporter, in a Knoxville restaurant to give her an update on his murder investigation. When I finished this brief excerpt, I felt proud of myself. To me, it sounded just like something Raymond Chandler may have written in a Philip Marlowe story. I can’t remember, but I may have just read a Chandler story and like a chameleon, took on some of his writing voice.

She wanted a glass of chardonnay. I waved to my new friend, the baseball fan, and asked for one from Kendall-Jackson.

Rachel and I adjourned to a small table in the cocktail lounge. I carried my beer, the bartender brought her wine. We sat in heavy captain’s chairs. The lighting was soft and indirect. Tommy Dorsey and his band played I’ll Be Seeing You. I knew the words, but I didn’t sing along.

Please share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

I’d like to make a big enough splash with A NEW PROSPECT to establish a reputation and land a contract for the second full-length book in the Sam Jenkins series, A LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT. I’m currently working on the final revision of that story. A portion of my query letter describes it.

A stipulation of the Patriot Act gave Chief Sam Jenkins an easy job; investigate all the civilians working for the Prospect Police Department. But what looked like a walk in the park, turned into a nightmare. Preliminary inquiries reveal a middle-aged employee didn’t exist prior to 1975.

After uncovering nothing but dead ends during the background investigation, Jenkins finds his subject lying dead in a Smoky Mountain creek bed—murdered assassination-style. By calling in favors from old friends and new acquaintances, the chief enlists help from the FBI, CIA, British Intelligence, and the Irish Garda to learn the man’s real identity and find the trail of a killer.

I’ve called LEPRECHAUN’S LAMENT the second in the series, but six Sam Jenkins mystery novelettes have been produced as audio books and published simultaneously as eBooks. Two more are scheduled for release later this year.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

That’s a tough question. If I take it from a learning standpoint, there have been many. One that first comes to mind is Robert Rogers of the rangers by John R. Cuneo. This is the biography of the famous American soldier of the mid-18th century French & Indian War, founder of Rogers’ Rangers.

If I substitute significant for interesting, I might say James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (Signet Classics). Not only do I like the book (and the myriad movies produced from it), but knowing the book intimately landed me a job with the now defunct magazine, Buckskinner, writing a regular column called COOPERSTOWN about all the fiction of Fenimore Cooper.

I should also mention a gift copy of James Lee Burke’s Black Cherry Blues: A Dave Robicheaux Novel. Burke has become one of my favorite writers and this book piqued my interest in police/detective fiction. It was the impetus that got me to where I am today with my writing.

Book you’re currently reading?

I’m almost finished with Death in Vineyard Waters : A Martha’s Vineyard Mystery, one of a series of mysteries by the late Philip R. Craig. The main character is a former Boston cop living on Martha’s Vineyard who gets involved with assorted capers taking place in the small communities on the island.

Best writing-related memory so far?

I began writing A NEW PROSPECT in 2006 and finished a first draft that summer. During all the revisions and workshopping of that book, I practiced writing shorter pieces using the same cast of characters from Prospect PD. Unfortunately they were novelette length and too long to sell on the short story market. Then I found Mind Wings Audio, a publisher looking for stories between 8,000 and 11,000 words to create one hour “commuter” audio books. I submitted A LABOR DAY MURDER and a few months later received a “greetings” letter. Compared to the rejection letters I’d been getting, that acceptance felt great. I’ll always be grateful to the publisher, Mary Gould, for giving that story a chance.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

That’s another tough question because success may depend a lot on advantageous timing.

Theoretically, a successful writer should be able to construct an interesting, face-paced story with a likable protagonist who readers can relate to and want to read more about. The story must also fit into the template currently in vogue with publishers for the particular genre. He or she must be masterful at creating a ONE PAGE query letter that either inspires an agent to go out and peddle the book or hook an acquisitions editor into sending a publishing contract.

After that, he or she needs to muster a successful post-publication campaign promoting their book and sell enough copies to make that big splash I mentioned before.

Lacking all that talent, you could become successful if you knew the right people and fit into the mold spoken of in the writer’s maxim, “You don’t have to be good, you have to be marketable.”

Where can we learn more about you?

My website holds a lot of information about me and my series of Sam Jenkins mysteries. But the “About the Author” section doesn’t say it all. I do provide a brief biography and because some people have asked about the time I worked for a TV show, I provide a link to an interview where that is discussed. The “Messages/News” section contains a number of interviews I’ve done. All the great questions asked by the interviewers draw much more information from me.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I suppose many ex-cops would like to write stories inspired by their professional exploits. Not all of them have the actual drive to put other pursuits aside and sit down with a pad and pen to write 80,000 or more words as a true crime story or take actual incidents and embellish them into a fiction novel. I’ve always needed a creative outlet in my life. Stacking up manuscripts seemed logistically more feasible than filling my attic with model airplanes or oil paintings.

Thanks for spending time with my interview. I hope you read one of my books.

Other works by Wayne Zurl:

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