Riley Banks talks to Virgil Alexander about the true crime that inspired his novel, The Wham Curse.
Firstly, tell us a little bit about you and how you came to be a writer.
I was born in rural Gila County Arizona, graduated from Miami (Arizona) High School, attended Eastern Arizona College, Arizona State University, & University of Phoenix. I retired from an international mining company after 42 years of service. I was a part-time community college instructor in both vocational and academic classes. Business and Technical writing were a big part of my work and I did a human interest column in a local newspaper.
I have always been a story teller and for decades had thought about writing some of my stories, but just never got around to it. I’m a lifelong amateur Arizona historian and about a year before I retired in 2009 I read for the first time about the payroll robbery of Major Wham and his military escort. I was excited about the historical importance of this new (to me) event, and thought it would make a great basis for a mystery.
Is this your first book or have you written others?
The Wham Curse is my first published book, I have a second novel, Saints & Sinners, using the same main characters as Wham in final editing right now, and 102 pages of a third unnamed novel written. I also have been working on a non-fiction history of ranching in Gila County for several years and expect to publish it later this year.
Tell us about your current book and what makes it special.
The Wham Curse is an engaging mystery, not just because the murder seems inexplicable and clues are few, but also because the characters reflect the diverse cultures of the modern west. The main story line is a murder mystery, but throughout the book, the day to day police work is also dealt with by the rural police officers. The tensions of small-town politics, cultural differences, and the rural lifestyles create interesting scenarios. The feeling of place and history permeates the story as it takes place in the range and basin wilderness and agricultural setting.
What genre is it and who is the target audience?
It is a murder mystery and targets those who like mysteries, police procedural stories, and reservation or small town law enforcement.
Do you write in one genre or mix it up a bit and write in a few?
The Wham Curse is a historic novel, which bounces between the 1880 robbery and the modern murder. It is very much a western story, both in the Wild West and contemporary west. It is also a story of lost treasure. The love interest of one of the three main characters, Deputy Manny Sanchez, adds an element of romance. So, yes, it touches multiple genres.
Tell us how you settled on the title.
In the story those who possess the gold and silver of Major Wham’s payroll, all meet with a bad end. One of the characters refers to this as the Wham curse. It just seemed like a natural for the title.
Describe your favorite scene in the book.
My favorite scenes are those that mix the mood of a character with the description of the geographic setting. Perhaps my favorite is when the (as yet unidentified) murderer is sleepless on his ranch with pangs of conscience as he sits on his front porch in the bright moonlight, and watches the light move across the flats as the fast moving clouds block, and open up streams of moonlight.
If you had to choose one favorite character, who would it be and why?
I really like all three of my main characters. Al Victor is a San Carlos Apache Policeman who shares insights into both old and modern Apache Culture. Bren Allred is a Caucasian and Mormon who is sympathetic and a natural leader. But I think my favorite is Manny Sanchez a new deputy on his first murder case, who is an amateur historian and just a nice all-around guy. But I also really like my bad guy and one of the other suspects. There are several strong minor characters in the story as well.
If your book were made into a movie, who would you want to play the main characters?
Allred would be ideal for a young Robert Redford, Victor would be Adam Beach, and Sanchez would be a clean cut version of Manolo Cardona. Bonny Victor would be Mary Kim Titla. Monica Allred would be Amy Adams. Jenny Mondragon (Manny’s girl) would be Salma Hayek.
Where do you draw your inspiration? Is there anything in your book based on real life experiences, or is it all fiction?
Most of my characters are based to some degree on real people I have known, or a character might be based on traits of several real people. Many of the experiences in the book come from actual events that are adapted to fit the story. The physical appearance of Al Victor is really describing a Navajo friend of mine, and many of the Indian stories came from another close Apache friend who lives on the reservation.
Is there a message in your novel that you hope readers will grasp?
There is a strong element of second chances and forgiveness in the book; I think everyone could benefit from more of that. Perhaps another point is that the “real America” is alive and well in the rural west. Diverse people live in harmony, individualism, self-determination, and accountability is valued, and people watch out for and help each other.
What has been your most successful marketing tactic to date?
Marketing has been the most difficult thing of the whole process. I think that my web page, my Face Book page, and direct e-mail have yielded the most sales of all my activities. I have done several book signings, appearances, newspaper interviews, and one radio interview, and I saw sales generated from all of these, but not as much as the electronic media.
What are your thoughts on book trailers, and do you have one for your books?
I have not made a trailer; I’m a babe in the woods on a lot of the media type things.
Who designs the covers of your books?
I used an Outskirts Press format with a stock photo for the background.
Are you Indie published or Trade published?
I publish independently through Outskirts. The book was published as a trade paperback.
Describe the publishing process you went through? Did you engage an editor, beta reader, formatter, designer, publicist or any other professional to help in the process?
I first submitted to Poisoned Pen Press in Scottsdale, where the submissions editor, a man by the name of Monty Montee, was enthusiastic about it. After being in their evaluation system for almost a year it ultimately was turned down for publication.
Mr. Montee was kind enough to provide me with the three reader critiques, one of which was very good, one very critical, and one somewhere in between, I fell short of publication score by a very narrow margin. He encouraged me to use the three critiques to do a deep edit, which I did – it took me several months.
By the time I finished Mr. Montee had passed away and I didn’t have the heart to go through the long submission process again. So I decided to self-publish. I had friends and family read it and provide feedback. Finally I hired a professional editor and worked with her, and then published it.
What do you do when you’re not writing? Do you have a day job, and if so, what is it?
I’m retired and working on three current writing projects, so writing is now my day and night job.
Where do you get your ideas?
I’m not sure. I read something in the paper or a bit of history and realize there is a good story in that. I’ve made a list of about twenty possible story lines. My current projects include a story dealing with Mexican drug and people smuggling, and another based on Indian artifact theft.
How important is planning to you? Do you plan the whole book or just start writing?
I do kind of a “story line plan” which is a very general little outline. Then I start writing and adapt or add to it as I write. I keep track of both the main story line and the subplots as the story develops because it makes it easier to go back and insert needed actions or clues to make the story work.
Which do you consider more important? Character or plot, and why?
Do I have to choose? Both are really important the plot has to work or the mystery won’t work, but it’s the characters that engage and keep the interest of the reader. I also think setting, culture, and scene development is almost as important to the story.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author and what did you learn from that criticism?
The bad review from the Poisoned Pen reader. The weird thing was that the good review and the bad review were absolutely opposite on some points. For example as I wrote the story originally, the reader knew from the opening scene who the killer was, but the cops had no clue. One professional reviewer loved that and the other thought it was horrible. There were also some very harsh words on my messing up tense, which has helped me a lot. The fact that I wrote too much like an engineer has helped me to crisp up my writing and not worry about details that give nothing of value to the story. On the other hand I had one reader that wanted me to use more factual details in Wham, but it is fiction and those details would not have helped the story. So I consider all criticism, but am careful about which criticism I apply.
What has been the best compliment?
Several readers have compared my writing to Tony Hillerman and JA Jance. I think it is off, but I’m highly pleased that anyone would compare me to them.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
If you want to write, read. Read a lot. Read different types of books. When you write, write what you know firsthand as much as possible, and if you write about things you don’t know, do serious research before you start. Hire a good substantive and copy editor and pay attention to what she/he or they say.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Thank you for reading my story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Favorite place in the world to be?
My favorite place is the US Southwest, but particularly Arizona. I live in paradise. I also love Hawaii, Canada, Peru, and Holland
If a genie granted you three wishes, what would you ask for?
That my high school sweetheart and wife of 45 years could have her health back, that America will always remain a place that protects and honors the Bill of Rights, and that each of my books would be read by a million readers.
What is your favourite thing about being a writer?
I love writing and I love research; the actual act of visualizing the story and putting into words is exhilarating.
What is your least favourite thing about being a writer?
The frustration of getting people to notice and read the book; marketing is hard, illusive, depressing, but necessary.