“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.
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. He also released a collection of short stories entitled NINE IN THE MORNING. 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 will be published by Literary Wanderlust LLC.
He has also published a number non-fiction articles and stories 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 raged 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).
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) with his wife, Helen and an assortment of children and pets.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I grew up in a little town not too far from Atlantic City, and I’m one of those few people you’ll meet who is proud of being from New Jersey. New Jersey is all about attitude, edginess, and Bruce Springsteen songs – the same as my writing. New Jersey is part of who I am as a writer, and much of the state has found its way into my stories.
New Jersey is a tremendous source of inspiration …..there’s such a wide variety of people, backgrounds, life styles, and cultures mixed together. The diversity in the state is incredible. I think living in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia gives most of us who grew up in New Jersey a little bit of an “attitude”, and that’s the kind of characteristic that sneaks into my characters’ actions and my stories.
A few years ago, after riding out Hurricane Sandy like Captain Dan riding out the hurricane in Forrest Gump, I decided it was time for a change. I sold my home in Asbury Park and relocated to the foothills of the Appalachians in Georgia where I live with my wife Helen, and an assortment of children, cats, and dogs.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
I originally wanted to write a simple crime story about life in a gritty, violent neighborhood where violence is justified as being “part of the game”. One that explored the dynamic of a black street gang fighting against an older entrenched Mafia gang, but I quickly realized there was a whole dynamic of urban life in the inner cities that I wanted to explore, the same way David Simon did in “The Wire”. I wanted to tell the story from the POV of one character who grew up in the Skulls. How his life had evolved. What being part of a gang meant, and how it impacted his life.
One of the most powerful books I ever read was “Dawn” by Elie Wiesel. In the book, Elisha, the protagonist, lost his family in the concentration camps and in the aftermath of WWII joins the armed struggle for the foundation of a Jewish state, hoping to contribute to the creation of a new homeland. At the same time finds comfort and trust in his comrades – the family he lost. His world is turned upside down and his new sense of purpose is shaken when he is ordered to shoot a British hostage. Elisha survived the terror of Nazi concentration camps only to be ordered to become an executioner himself “Dawn” addresses how someone can be haunted and ultimately changed by trauma; it looks at the philosophical questions of when killing becomes murder and exactly how murder (or the possibility of being a murderer) changes a person.
I liked that question of “does the end justify the means”, even it involves the death of someone else. Twist faces a number of morality issues in the story. His conflict is more personal than his gang’s conflict – it’s about using Michael Valentine’s kidnapping to get Malik back, or at least find out information about where he’s being held. What’s at stake for Twist is his soul – he’s forced to wrestle with the question of whether or not he can pull the trigger to kill Valentine and if he does, live with those consequences the same way Elisha struggled with being the executioner.
How do you create your characters?
I work at creating the characters in my books – agonize sometimes about getting them right. Interesting characters get the readers’ attention AND move the story forward. That’s important. You want characters to jump off the pages and make your writing come alive. To me, character development and the things that motivate each of the characters are some of the most important aspects of any story. As a writer, you need to fully understand what drives each character to tell a realistic story. And you have to write your characters from their POV.
Sometimes characters surprise you and take the story in directions you don’t necessarily plan, and sometimes you discover someone who takes on more importance as the story develops. Twist was actually in a few scenes in my first book “Lost Exit”, then I worked him into a short story I was writing a year later. Although that story went nowhere, he was memorable enough that I wanted to use him again. He was only a minor character in the first draft of “Still Black Remains” but something about him gave the story a spark, and I rewrote the book based on his POV. Each character has a specific purpose – there are very few characters who don’t move the story forward in one way or another – and I found that as I wrote, each character’s personality developed in ways that were unexpected
For example, Cuba was probably the easiest to write – from the moment I wrote him into that first scene in the Expedition, I could picture everything about him. I knew everything there was to know about Cuba, even if much of I didn’t make it into the book. That came through in the way he acted and how he talked with the rest of the Skulls. He doesn’t have much in the way of inner motivations and there’s very little inner conflict with him because it’s all about achieving what he wants by any way possible. Cuba is equal parts rage and pain, which makes him incapable of throttling back anything. His world has always been filled with black and white – there are no grey areas with him, and violence is a perfectly acceptable solution to almost any problem.
What inspires and what got you started in writing?
A lot of writers will tell you that writing is like an itch that needs scratching, and that’s what drives us. I think all writers have a deep-rooted need to tell stories, and writing is the best way for us to express our imagination and creativity.
I wrote in high school and for my college newspapers and magazine, although it wasn’t until I quit my career in the corporate world ten years that I decided to pursue my dream of writing fulltime. I had written off and on while working but never pursued it seriously. It comes down to that desire and need to write or tell a story. Writing gives me complete satisfaction and in a lot of ways, creates the kind of happiness I had always been seeking but never found in business. During all those years I worked as a corporate samurai I felt that dissatisfaction gnawing at me, and I knew I would never be happy until I pursued my dream. I can’t imagine finding happiness doing something other than writing.
A writing career isn’t like being a rock star – very few writers show up in the headlines, wind up on the cover of People, or get interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. But that’s not why you write – you write because you have stories you want AND need to tell to any audience that will read what you’ve created. The bottom line is that it’s a need to be a storyteller.
My only regret is that I didn’t choose this path earlier.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I share a desk with my wife – actually it’s a large, over-sized old country table that we repurposed as a desk so we can sit across from each other. I write every day. I need that kind of discipline, and even if much of what I write changes or gets thrown away, I am constantly working …staring at a blank page is working in my world if I can justify it as part of the creative process.
I don’t work in complete silence –it’s impossible because of the variety of dogs, cats, children, and neighborhood distractions around me – but as I start to get deeper into revisions and rewrites I tend to block them out. Music helps through all stages – everything I write tends to have its own soundtrack, even if it’s only in my head. I’ll choose music that it is appropriate to the story – artists and songs that would fill the worlds my characters live and work in. While I was writing “Still Black Remains”, I immersed myself in music by Notorious BIG, Ice –T, and Killer Mike, although every once in a while I snuck in a song or two from Bruce Springsteen just to break it up a little.
A drink sometimes follows the day’s writing….
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Writing is a lot of “what if” scenarios. It starts by creating a plot based on that “what if” question that set things in motion – in the case of “Still Black Remains” it was imagining a scenario between an organized crime family and a newer street gang who controlled drug distribution, and wanted to carve out a bigger piece for themselves. I asked myself a lot of “what would happen, if…” questions while thinking through the story. I knew where I wanted to go with it – I always create a rough outline/blue print before starting, but part of the fun in writing are the detours that happen along the way as the story changes in unexpected ways. And the sense of chaos that comes when you throw away the outline isn’t always a bad thing.
As a writer, your goal is to tell the story brick by brick and let it build organically.
I’m always thinking about the next story or the next book. I overhear conversations and listen to people talk, and imagine those same words being said by characters in different scenarios and scenes. Sometimes it’ll be a lyric in a song or a story in the newspaper. My ideas start slowly in the back of my mind. A feeling, a scene, maybe even just a line that I want to hear a character say. Then I build an entire book around that – usually with an outline, although sometimes the characters and the action will take me in different directions. It’s a step-by-step and piece-by-piece process. It can take weeks or months for that initial idea to grow into a full-blown plot, and the slow pace can drive me nearly insane.
What do you like to read?
When I began reading seriously in high school I loved Kerouac and Jack London for their sense of adventure, along with Hemingway, Mailer, and Faulkner. Just because. And I’ve always loved crime fiction. At an early age I fell in love with stories by writers like Donald Westlake, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and John MacDonald, then discovered Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Robert B. Parker. There is a world of crime and mystery authors I admire, starting with other writers of crime fiction like Michael Connelly, Don Winslow, George Pelicanos, Ace Atkins, and Wallace Stroby who have that sparse, clean economy of words. Their descriptions are vivid and powerful, and they don’t use a lot of words to create impactful images. Each is great at moving their stories forward with every word and scene – there’s no wasted action or useless dialogue between characters (you never find two characters just sitting around talking about the weather – unless it’s central to the plot of story).
I don’t think any list would be complete without mentioning Stephen King. He doesn’t get enough credit as a GREAT writer – I admire the way he can write horror but then switch gears and create something as moving as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and The Body (which was made into Stand By Me).
And there’s a certain beauty in the writing of Pat Conroy that is awe-inspiring – he is so vivid and paints incredible images with everything he writes. “Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” take away my breath – not only the beauty of his words, but in the grace and style of the imagery. 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”.
I also think Bruce Springsteen is one of the great story tellers out there – if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel for his body of work, you have to recognize the talent in the stories Springsteen writes. There’s so much feeling in his songs about everyday life (the pain, sorrow, heart break as well as what it means to get up every day, get dressed, go to work, and provide for your family – even at the cost of your dreams).
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring authors in regards to writing?
You need to write – EVERY DAY. And you need to keep writing. Never stop working at your craft and never stop trying to improve – you can’t fool readers with complacency.
If you want to write realistic dialogue you have to listen – every conversation has a certain style and flow, and as a writer you need to capture that then reflect it in the dialogue your characters use. Keep working at your story. Then edit. Revise and review what you’ve written, and don’t be afraid to make changes, even when they are drastic. Make the book as tight and error-free as possible. Edit ruthlessly. Don’t be afraid to cut out the parts that don’t work. Then finish what you’ve started – the best advice I got was this:
“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”
Don’t give up. And don’t let somebody else tell you that you can’t do something. Take rejection as a motivator – learn from it, work hard, and study the craft and keep trying to get better.
And when you’re not writing, read. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
Anything else you’d like to share?
I believe strongly in the power of readers – books wouldn’t exist without readers. As writers we want to make a difference with our words, and to do that it comes down to our readers. Without readers, books don’t have an audience and writers don’t have context or a voice.
Books don’t matter without readers.
It takes readers to make a good book.
Thanks to The Pen & Muse for giving me a forum to discuss writing and “Still Black Remains”.