Interview with Steve Ulfelder:
It was late summer 2014 and my roaming took me to central Massachusetts. That presented the opportunity to connect with Steve and sit down to some dinner and conversation in Worcester. The fourth Conway Sax story was just released and we were sitting smack dab it in the midst of Sax country.
Interview with Steve Ulfelder
8/8/2014 – Worcester, Ma.
JS: Thanks for sitting down with me. Let me throw out some basic questions and see what develops.
Might I assume you grew up in Massachusetts? Somewhere nearby?
SU: Actually, we moved around a lot when I was young. I was born in Los Angeles, and sort of hopscotched around the country. So it was LA to Minnesota, to Michigan, and finally to Massachusetts. But Massachusetts is absolutely my home state. I have lived here most of my life.
JS: You mentioned that you went to Ohio-Wesleyan and you didn’t study creative writing? You were a technology journalist and decided to write a novel?
SU: That’s right.
JS: That would lead me to ask what writers would be your most significant influences?
SU: Okay….My favorite novel ever is Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry. John Irving was very big to me while in some important years. Also, Don DeLillo, Tim O’Brien, and who is the other guy?…oh yes; Richard Russo.
JS: I love Richard Russo. He also was a favorite of mine, especially a lesser known book called “Straight Man.”
SU: Those are sort of my literary guys. It begins and ends with John D. MacDonald for me. Actually, it doesn’t begin and end. Travis McGee is my all-time favorite. I love the Spenser novels. I love the Elvis Colenovels by Robert Crais. A real obvious successor to Spenser. I love the Parker novels by Richard Stark, and one absolutely favorite of mine is the 87th Precinct novels. That’s my sort of Mount Rushmore.
JS: Here we go into that typical type of question…. when you conceive a story, do you map beginning, middle, and end? Do you know how the story is going to end or do you just sort of come up with a theme and write it and it goes where it goes?
SU: What I’ve always got is the opening scenario, which just for example, in the first book, “Purgatory Chasm,” this jerky guy kinda has his car held hostage by a crooked shop, so I’ve got that…and I always know the last scene, or image, or line of dialogue in the book, and then the entire process of writing the book is to write 85,000 words to connect those two things.
JS: Ha ha, I love it!
SU: That’s all I’ve got to do. And in every book, I don’t think that last sentence has ever changed.
JS: I was going to say, do you ever change the ending along the way? You know where you want to come out and you bring it there?
SU: My reward, the whole thing I live for, is for when I get to type that sentence and I’ve earned it. I’ve written the whole damn first draft, and I get to write it. My last book, this YA novel has not been sold yet. That was more important than ever. I forget exactly. It has been a tumultuous couple of years. I had this final sentence in mind and when I finally got to write it, it was good.
JS: I love that! So, in terms of process, which is also a standard interview question…is this the type of thing where you wake up at six in the morning, write and discipline yourself for X number of hours, or is it more free form? How do you do it?
SU: For me, it’s a word count every day. I’ve usually done a thousand words a day. I am a morning writer. I
am always at the keyboard by 8am at the latest, and then I just sit there and write til I have my thousand words, and typically, that takes me til 11 o’clock. And then I am done for the day. By then, your brain is fried.
JS: Right, I would imagine.
SU: It isn’t digging ditches, but it takes a lot out of you.
JS: When your fans write to you, do you try to write back to all the people who write to you through your website?
SU: Oh yea, every single one.
JS: That’s great.
SU: I wish I got so many emails that that was a problem. But yeah, it means a lot to me when people take the time to write, so I like to get back to them.
JS: Do you feel as you’ve gotten older, you’ve gotten wiser? And can you put that wise growth into your stories?
SU: I will tell you, when I was…this is what a slow process publishing is. When I first conceived Conway Sax I was coming out of an AA meeting. And I believe that means, I was 38 years old. And I said, how old should I make this character that I just dreamed up? And I said, I know. I will make him 42 years old because that seemed very old to me at the time. Well, the first Conway book was published when I was exactly 50 years old! And you know what, I think I changed a lot in that 10 year span. I went from being a guy with two very small children to a guy with teenagers and you grow and you change a lot. I think that the way you can track that through the novels is that Conway is a violent guy; I think we all know that. That’s kind of his thing. He wishes it weren’t. He wishes he were more capable in other ways, but when push comes to shove, he is gonna beat the crap out of someone. But in the later books, especially in Wolverine Brothers, Conway still does these things, but doesn’t take any pleasure in beating people up. He is doing it as a means to an end, and it kind of makes it sick, and makes him hate himself, and he spends some time wondering what brought him to this place. And that’s how I think my aging shows up in Conway.
JS: If you weren’t having dinner with me, and you could be having dinner with any historical figure, whom would you be having dinner with?
SU: Any figure?
JS: Any figure. A real person, no fictional people. The Mad Hatter is off the table.
SU: I have one candidate. It would be hard for me to think about a better dinner companion that Winston Churchill. You wouldn’t get a word in edgewise, but you would hear some interesting shit. And lots of it.
JS: That’s great. And that’s all I’ve got. Thanks for meeting up. It has been a nice dinner and a pleasure to meet you. Can’t wait to get into Wolverine Brothers. I’m sure it will be a great follow up to the first three stories.