Friday, November 9, 2012

Interview with the Man of Mystery: Tom Savage

Tom Savage joins us today at Gothicked Blog for a long anticipated interview. I am beyond thrilled to have found Tom and to have had the chance to ask him some questions about his writing. Read on to the end for a fabulous contest to win a copy of one of his books, too. Tom is the author of some of my favorite gothic romances/suspenses and thrillers. Today, his novels Valentine and Precipice are out in e-book format! The rest of his amazing backlist of books is on the way. I'm honored to have gotten a chance to talk with Tom, and I think you'll find this interview enlightening.

1. What was your path to publication?
I majored in drama in college, and I minored in English. My late mother was an actress, and I started out as an actor, which I did professionally for a while after college. But I grew frustrated with constant auditions and rejections, so I sat down with some friends and wrote a musical, which ended up on Broadway for about 5 minutes. Big flop, and sooo expensive! So I decided to write a novel, because I could do that all by myself, and if it flopped, nobody lost a million bucks, right? I wrote a detective story called DANCE OF THE MONGOOSE, set in my hometown, St. Thomas, VI, and went out to find an agent. No luck--all the agents I approached said the book wasn't "commercial" enough. By this time, I lived in NYC and worked at Murder Ink, the late mystery bookstore, so I looked around the shop to see what was selling. Romantic Gothic suspense thrillers were selling, so I sat down and wrote PRECIPICE in order to attract an agent, and it worked. I immediately found an agent for it, and he called me 2 weeks later and told me that 6 publishers wanted it! There was going to be an auction, but one of the houses made a preemptive offer of a two-book deal, and I took it. That's how I published my first novel. (PS: The success of PRECIPICE led to another publisher immediately taking that detective novel nobody wanted, so that got published, too.)

2. Tell us a bit about what inspired you to write Precipice and The Inheritance, specifically. I enjoyed Valentine as well, but many of the fans of Gothicked like the first two novels I mentioned because of their gothic romance elements.

PRECIPICE was inspired by my need to attract agents and publishers (see above). I decided to write a big Gothic-style thriller, and I read a few by authors I like: Mary Higgins Clark, Robert Goddard, Minette Walters, Thomas H. Cook, Ruth Rendell. I particularly love Rendell's "Barbara Vine" novels--A DARK-ADAPTED EYE and THE HOUSE OF STAIRS are just about the zenith of modern Gothic suspense, along with Minette Walters's THE ICE HOUSE. I also remembered writers from my youth (see below), especially Phyllis Whitney, who visited St. Thomas and wrote a book that is set there, COLUMBELLA, which was a direct inspiration for PRECIPICE (a young woman comes to St. Thomas as au pair for a rich family, and all hell breaks loose). And, of course, my all-time fave author is Daphne du Maurier. I thought about all these authors, and I came up with...


1) a girl

2) a big house

3) an exotic locale for the big house (with occasional bad weather)

4) mysterious and/or frightened relatives and servants (one of whom is usually insane)

5) an old family secret (OFS)

6) an elderly relative/servant who tells the girl about the OFS (and then usually dies)

7) a new murder plot that is directly related to the OFS

8) ominous documents (wills, letters, newspapers, diaries) pertaining to the OFS

9) one precocious child with a cute pet (usually a dog)

10) two sexy men (one good/one bad), or one sexy man who is both (The JANE EYRE/REBECCA Syndrome)

I used that list for both novels, with very different results. I actually had a longer list at first, but I pruned it--I left out ancient curses and secret passageways, among other things.

THE INHERITANCE was directly inspired by another classic novel, THE IVY TREE by Mary Stewart. I read that when I was about 16, and I was totally blown away by the (justifiably famous) surprise ending. I immediately read the book again, just to see how the heck Mary Stewart did it. After PRECIPICE and VALENTINE, I decided it was time to fulfill my secret fantasy--to write The Gothic To End All Gothics. (One lovely critic actually called it that in his review.) I hubristically decided that I was going to top THE IVY TREE, and I knew just how to do it. I don't want to give anything away to people who haven't read it yet, so I'll only say I thought up an ending for a romantic suspense mystery that I, personally, had never seen. Then it became a writing exercise--could I actually do what I wanted to do? Would I get away with it, or would the whole thing fall apart before I finished? Well, the result was published, for better or worse. It's no IVY TREE (what is?), but I'm very proud of it.

3. Were you impacted in your writing or craft by any authors in the Gothic or gothic romance genres?

Absolutely. I always liked reading, but I was 15 when I really first heard the call. I got a bad case of flu, laid up in bed for 2 weeks. I couldn't go to school (Yay!), but I had to read this book for English class, GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Boo!). So, out of sheer boredom, I started reading it, and pow! I absolutely fell into that book. That old house, and the crazy old lady in her wedding gown, and the hero's lifelong love for the girl who treated him so badly, and that creepy convict who ended up being his benefactor. Loved it. I didn't want it to end, but it did, and I asked my sister what I should read next. She handed me REBECCA by Daphne du Maurier. By the time I got out of that sickbed, I knew I wanted to write someday, and it was those two books that did it.

4. Do you have any comments on the future or present state of the Gothic or gothic romance genres?

My favorite recent Gothics are actually psychological suspense novels with Gothic elements: Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Morag Joss, Laura Lippman, and a wonderful detective novel by S. J. Rozan called THE SHANGHAI MOON, which was partly inspired by THE MOONSTONE (the "Shanghai Moon" is a fabulous, cursed jewel that brings death to all who try to possess it). I also loved THE THIRTEENTH TALE by Diane Setterfield, THE HOUSE AT RIVERTON by Kate Morton, IN THE WOODS by Tana French, and THE POISON TREE by Erin Kelly. And I'll read anything by the marvelous husband/wife team that writes under the name Nicci French. I'll tell you what I don't like: there are a lot of recent so-called "fem-jep" suspense novels that are basically serial killer books. The "fem" is often a professional detective or cop or medical examiner or whatever, and there's way too much sex and violence and language and general nastiness. I've had my fill of all that. I'm no prude (I'm the guy who wrote VALENTINE and SCAVENGER, after all), but enough already! I also have no use for paranormal romance, but that's just me. I haven't read any of these series with sexy vampires and sexy werewolves and something called a shape shifter, so I can't comment, but I suppose they're Gothic, too. I leave them to the people who enjoy them.

The future of the Gothic romance genre might depend on more writers going back to the basics that first made the genre popular, and studying the enduring authors of the form: Poe, Hawthorne, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, the Bront√ęs, du Maurier, Stewart, Whitney, Clark, Elizabeth Peters. And let's not forget Margaret Millar, Victoria Holt, Charlotte Armstrong, Anya Seton, Joy Fielding, Linda Howard, Jayne Ann Krentz. I don't remember any of those authors giving us a jaded rich guy playing tie-me-up-and-spank-me with a shy--and apparently mentally challenged--co-ed. And yet the current #1 bestseller I'm referring to has been described by critics as a "Gothic romance novel." I sincerely hope that is not the future of Gothic romance.

5. How did your birth and years in the Virgin Islands inform your writing?

I wasn't born there; I was 9 when I arrived there. I was born in New York. I grew up in a reading home. My mom and my older sister, Suzy, were voracious readers of mystery and suspense novels. Because we were on a small tropical island, the only books that got all the way down from the mainland USA to the local bookshop were the big--I mean BIG--New York Times bestsellers. At that time (1960s and '70s) the biggest mystery and suspense writers were Agatha Christie, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, Helen MacInnes, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mary Stewart, Alistair MacLean, Phyllis Whitney, Robert Ludlum, and Daphne du Maurier. My family read them, so when I started seriously reading (after the flu episode), that's what I found in the house. I minored in English in college, and I've read all the "usual" important authors and classics, but mystery was always my genre. When I started writing, that's what I wrote. And the Virgin Islands were the place I knew best, so I've put them in several of my novels.

6. How did working at Murder Ink, the New York City bookstore you mentioned in previous interviews, play into your role as a writer?

I was working there when I started writing, and I made many friends and contacts there--agents, publishers, but mostly authors. They all came in for readings and signings, and I got to know many of them. Then I joined the Mystery Writers of America and the International Association of Crime Writers. To this day, many of my writing inspirations are mystery writers I first met at Murder Ink.

7. What is the most difficult thing for you about writing/plotting a novel? You have been praised for the plot twists in your work. I'm thinking of Precipice, in particular. Are these twists hard to formulate?
The most difficult thing about writing is writing. I'm not being facetious--there's nothing tougher than getting "the seat of the pants in the seat of the chair." Computers help a lot. I wrote my first 2 novels in longhand on yellow legal pads, which I then had to transfer to a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter (remember those?), so the Computer Age did not arrive a moment too soon for me.

I imagine a person, then I put that person in a situation. After that, the rest of the story usually follows. The "twists," as you call them, are my starting point. I love all kinds of mysteries, but my all-time faves are the ones with surprise endings. With my first 2 novels, DANCE OF THE MONGOOSE and PRECIPICE, I started with the central character (a troubled detective in one, a troubled young woman in the other), and St. Thomas (the only place I knew well enough to write about), and a surprise (the identity of the murderer in MONGOOSE and the identity of the young woman in PRECIPICE). The twists weren't hard to formulate, but getting to those twists was a bitch. I mean, the plot that gets us from page 1 to that surprise ending. For me, that's the hard part.

8. What are you working on now?

I have a manuscript making the rounds of publishers, and I'm writing a new novel. They're both romantic suspense thrillers with surprise endings. I also write short stories occasionally--I just had one in the March/April 2012 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

9. I understand you have a pen name. If you don't mind, could you share a bit about that?

I wrote 2 detective novels, DANCE OF THE MONGOOSE and its sequel, WOMAN IN THE DARK. My first publisher had just put out PRECIPICE and VALENTINE, and they asked me to put a pseudonym on the detective stories for my second publisher so there wouldn't be confusion in the marketplace. I initialized my first and middle names (Thomas Joseph) and added my actual birth surname (Savage is my mother's maiden name--looong story). That's how I became "T. J. Phillips," but it was only for those 2 books.

10. You are something of an enigma to your fans. Many thought you had "dropped off the map" when they tried to find out more about what you were writing these days. They've missed you, and that led to this interview. If you don't mind my asking, were you still actively writing during the last few years, or did other pursuits take up your time?
I'm glad people have missed me, I'm very grateful for that. Yes, I've been writing, but no, I wasn't publishing. I had a string of misfortunes that led me to retire from the world for a few years. I lost my mom in 2003 (old age), then my sister Suzy a year later (breast cancer). Meanwhile, Murder Ink, where I'd been working for almost 20 years, was struggling to survive against a B&N superstore that moved in down the street and a landlord who kept raising the rent. We lost the battle in 2006, closing our doors forever, so I was out of a day job. Then my original agent and I parted ways after 15 years. And that's all in addition to some personal stuff I'd rather not talk about, except to sing a rousing chorus of "I'll Never Fall In Love Again." So for a while, I sat around my apartment in a bathrobe, writing but not publishing. Then some writer friends here in NYC dragged me out of my house and forced me to join their writing group.They wouldn't take no for an answer, and I found that I liked the company. But if I wanted to hang out with them, I had to read something to them, which meant I had to write something. So, I wrote some more. I now have 5 novels (all Gothic suspense thrillers) sitting in my computer, and I have a new agent.

11. What's next for you?

Getting those 5 new novels out of my computer and into print. That's the plan, anyway. It's a very tough market out there right now, but my new agent is doing her best, and I live in hope. And I'm preparing my backlist titles for their e-book debuts, so PRECIPICE, VALENTINE, THE INHERITANCE, and SCAVENGER should soon be available as downloads.

12. When you're not plotting your next mystery/suspense, what other hobbies do you enjoy?

My writing group, my Friday Night Club (a gang that gets together every week for dinner and Trivial Pursuit), reading mysteries (I'm currently in the middle of STAY CLOSE by my friend Harlan Coben, and I just reread THE SNARE OF THE HUNTER by Helen MacInnes), and my big passion, collecting DVDs of my favorite films (I now own the complete works of Alfred Hitchcock).

13. How can fans contact you?

A Facebook page is forthcoming, too.

Tom's books on Amazon (they are also at other retailers):

**If you'd like to win an e-book copy of either Precipice or Valentine, leave a comment in the post or share it on Twitter or Facebook and let me know you did! I'll enter you once for each comment or share. The contest ends November 20th at 11:59 PM CST.


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