Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Still Black Remains by Kevin Michaels

Title: Still Black Remains
Author: Kevin Michaels
Release Date: April 1, 2017
Publisher: Literary Wanderlust
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Received from Smith Publicity in exchange for honest review

Synopsis
“Still Black Remains” is an original work of fiction.  It tells the story of Twist, one of the leaders of an inner-city gang named the Skulls, and the architect of his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-ditch attempt to end a violent turf war.  The war started when the Skulls tried taking a bigger piece of the drug business in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood from the organized crime family who had once been their partners.  Like most great ideas, the plan doesn’t turn out as expected. Negotiations between the gangs deteriorate, words fail, the violence escalates, and the only recourse left is the inevitable execution of the hostage.  Chosen to be the one to execute the prisoner, the story covers Twist’s ability to pull the trigger, the consequences of that action, and his internal struggle.  
As the volatile situation grows more explosive by the hour, the lines between right and wrong blur; resolution comes with a price and Twist has to decide if pulling the trigger will get him what he wants, and if he can live with that cost.

My Review
Still Black Remains tells the story of Twist, who is one of the leaders of the inner-city gangs called Skulls and he also engineers a plan for his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-minute attempt to end a huge violent turf war that’s been going on. Twist is chosen to pull off the execution and he must decide whether he wants to pull the trigger and live with the consequences and will get him what he wants, and if he can live with what he did. Reading Kevin’s Still Black Remains was something that I haven’t read in a while. It was uniquely different with how Twist wanted to handle things, especially for someone who was a leader of a gang. Overall, I thought that the characters were explained well and the story line was clear and I really felt the characters played well with their roles. I really enjoyed Still Black Remains and I highly recommend it. 

Interview

How did you come up with the title?
It started with the idea/image of a chalk outline of a body on the pavement and grew from there. There is a certain amount of violence within the story – it’s about inner city life and violence is a significant part of gang life, so that image became integral to the story.  Depending on how you look at it, it could also be a social commentary on race.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The central theme in “Still Black Remains” is the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible.  The characters in the book have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want.  They have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems.  Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game.” 
At the core of the book (and my writing) it’s all about the human experience each of us shares.  When you dig down underneath surface differences, we are all human beings no matter what our backgrounds. And all of us want essentially the same things at our core. We want to love and be loved. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. We want to feel that what we do with our lives has meaning.
I also liked that question of “does the end justify the means”, even it involves the death of someone else.

What books have most influenced your life?
That’s a tough question to answer.  There are a number of books that have influenced my life – not just as a writer but in life lessons and as inspiration.
“Dawn” by Elie Wiesel (along with “Night”)
“The Sun Also Rises” and “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway
“Prince of Tides” by Pat Conroy
“Brotherly Love” by Pete Dexter
“Zen and The Martial Arts” by Joe Hyams

Each of these books has a story behind the reasoning, but there’s probably not enough time or space to get into the specifics. 

What book are you reading now?
I just finished Laura McHugh’s “Arrowood” which was excellent, and Wallace Stroby’s “The Devil’s Share”.  If you’re a mystery/crime/thriller reader and haven’t yet discovered either McHugh or Stroby, you’re missing out on excellent writers.
I’m all over the place with my reading list, but next up for me are:
Rise” by Cara Brookins
Bad Boy Boogie” by Thomas Pluck
Savages #2” by Don Winslow
The Second Mrs Hockaday” by Susan Rivers


Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Not necessarily “new” but in addition to the writers already listed, a few of the writers who have gotten my attention recently are:
Brynn Greenwood  - “All The Ugly and Wonderful Things”
George Saunders – “Lincoln in the Bardo
Emma Flint – “Little Deaths”

What are your current projects?
I have two other novels in the pipeline – the first that I’m finishing is one entitled “All Those Yesterdays” which is about domestic violence crossing three generations of a family.   Although the book is a slight departure from my recent writing, domestic violence is a subject that I’ve actively written about over the past few years, and this book allows me to not only explore the topic in detail but to feature a strong female character at the heart of the story.  In my other books I haven’t had that opportunity, and it’s been exciting giving voice to a problem that affects individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. 
The second is tentatively entitled “A Steady Rain” and falls within the more traditional crime fiction category (“Breaking Bad” meets “Justified” with a touch of “Winter’s Bone” and “A Simple Plan”)

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
No. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some hesitation, doubt, and a little insecurity when I finished. I think that’s natural after you’ve poured everything you have into writing a book.  I had a strong team of editors who challenged me to tell the best story possible, and to make it as tightly written and realistic as possible.  By the time I had finished editing I was able to walk away and say, “THAT is the story I want to tell”, without any regrets.

Can you share a little of your current work with us?
“Still Black Remains” tells the story of Twist, one of the leaders of an inner city gang named the Skulls, and the architect of his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-ditch attempt to end a violent turf war.  The war started when the Skulls tried taking a bigger piece of the drug business in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood from the organized crime family who had once been their partners.  Like most great ideas, the plan doesn’t turn out as expected. Negotiations between the gangs deteriorate, words fail, the violence escalates, and the only recourse left is the inevitable execution of the hostage.  Chosen to be the one to execute the prisoner, the story covers Twist’s ability to pull the trigger, the consequences of that action, and his internal struggle.  As the volatile situation grows more explosive by the hour, the lines between right and wrong blur; resolution comes with a price and Twist has to decide if pulling the trigger will get him what he wants, and if he can live with that cost.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
The book that made a difference was “Prince of Tides”. There’s a certain beauty in the writing of Pat Conroy that is awe-inspiring – there is a certain flow to the way he weaves his way through stories incredible images with everything he ever wrote.  “Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” both took away my breath - not only the beauty of his words, but the grace and style of the imagery in everything he wrote.  There are times when you sit back as a writer, admire what someone else has written, and just say, “Damn….I wish I could write like that”. 

Do you travel much concerning your book(s)?
Not yet, but within the next few weeks I expect to put together a schedule of readings at a number of small venues, book clubs, and local writing groups throughout the east coast.  I’ll also be traveling to some of the larger shows such as Book Expo in New York, Bouchercon in Toronto, and SIBA.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part was understanding the ins and outs of the gang culture (both the Skulls and the organized crime family they are at war with), and writing it accurately.  You run the risk of creating stereotyped characters if you aren’t truly realistic about all parts of gang life.  That involved a significant amount of research into all aspects of the street level drug trade from all points of view, including law enforcement – the threat from the police is a real part of everyday life on the streets, and it’s an undercurrent that hangs throughout everything the Skulls do.
Voice was also extremely important.  To write it realistically and accurately you need to understand the language – the slight nuances and speech patterns characters’ use was critical.  My favorite parts of writing “Still Black Remains” were the scenes between Twist and Michael Valentine – that dynamic between them was interesting to create and fun to explore.  As they get to know each other they find some commonality and shared similarities in each of their lives.  Each of them found a sense of belonging – Twist with the Skulls while Valentine got the same thing with his organized crime family – and as their relationship grows, they learn that in some ways they aren’t so different.  Twist finds that Michael Valentine understands him better than some of the Skulls do – even with their differences they almost grow to like each other.  Friendship will always be out of the question because their backgrounds and differences are too pronounced, but in another place they might have had a different kind of relationship. 
Actions usually speak louder than words, but putting Twist and Valentine together in that room over the garage on Murray Street allowed me to strip away everything else and build their relationship solely through dialogue.  Nailing their voices was the hardest and most challenging part of writing the story.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
It was challenging finding the right publisher for “Still Black Remains”.  I needed a publisher who was willing to take a little bit of a risk on something that was outside the mainstream and didn’t fall within a specific genre.  That was the biggest obstacle - “Still Black Remains” doesn’t have a clearly defined niche or category like horror, fantasy, or romance.  There’s more broad-based appeal to the story and it crosses over between different genres like contemporary fiction as well as crime fiction.  Agents and editors who first read the book felt it was a strong story but they didn’t know how to position it in the market or where to target the audience (most were afraid it would fall through the cracks). The other issue that came up was voice- most of the characters in “Still Black Remains” are black, and I was told that some publishers might be reluctant to publish the book because I wasn’t black (assuming that only a black writer could write and market a book from that POV….which is idiotic because that would mean only women could write books featuring women characters, only real cowboys could write westerns, and only zombies could write about the zombie apocalypse. That kind of belief and attitude diminishes and dismisses a writer’s creativity and ability to imagine).


Biography


Kevin Michaels is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel LOST EXIT, as well as two entries in the FIGHT CARD BOOKS series: HARD ROAD and CAN'T MISS CONTENDER. His collection of short stories entitled NINE IN THE MORNING was released in April 2014. His short stories and flash fiction have also appeared in a number of magazines and indie zines, and in 2011 he was nominated for two separate Pushcart Prize awards for his short stories. Other shorts have been included in the anthologies for SIX SENTENCES (volumes II and III) and ACTION: PULSE POUNDING TALES (2).

In April 2017 his latest novel STILL BLACK REMAINS was published by Literary Wanderlust LLC.

He has also published a number non-fiction articles in print publications ranging from the NYTimes.com and the Life/Style section of The Boston Globe to The Bergen News and Press Journal, and has been found in print at places like the triCity News, NY Daily News, and The Press. He is the Founder and Creative Director of Story Tellers which is a community-based organization that develops and promotes literacy through writing. Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers, young adults, and women from distressed situations the opportunity to discover the strength and power of their own voices (self-empowerment through self-expression).

Visit him at his website http://kevinmichaelsfiction.com/. He also shows up periodically at: SLIDING DOWN THE RAZOR'S EDGE to offer opinions and POV on topics ranging from violence against women, sexual assaults on college campuses, and domestic violence to politics, education, and his increasing anger and disappointment at the NFL.

Originally from New Jersey, he carries the attitude, edginess, and love of all things Bruce Springsteen common in his home state, although he left the Garden State to live and work in the foothills of the Appalachians (Georgia).

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