I recently interviewed thriller writer and good friend Peter Aragno, whose guest post “Gas Can Zombies of New Jersey” remains one of the most popular posts to ever appear on this blog, and no surprise… he came through like a champ again, talking about everything from playing CBGB’s in the 80’s to writing on a bus to his approach to indie publishing. And here’s the best part: because I threatened him with a pointed stick (or maybe just because he’s a good dude), for the next five days, you can download his thriller SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN for FREE. Get it here.
Before we get down to the writerly stuff, what are three fun facts about you?
Surprisingly, I was able to come up with a few facts that are actually “fun”. To uncover the bad stuff you’ll have to get me drunk.
First, I love a good prank. I pulled off my first one at the tender age of 6 or 7. I was the ring boy at my aunt’s wedding. Just as the photographer was snapping a group photo I held the small ring pillow in front of my face. I had to time it perfectly so that no one, especially the photographer, would notice. I remember getting the idea from a Little Rascals episode where a young Spanky doesn’t want his picture taken because he thinks he’s going to be “shot”.
I don’t remember what happened immediately after my little stunt, but I imagine I caught a beat down for that one. If I did, it was worth it. The photos are on my website (peteraragno.com) if anyone wants to take a peek at my early mischief. I punk’d a few co-workers over the years but nothing extreme enough to get me fired.
Second, I’ve probably worked more jobs than most people in their life time. My first job was selling flower and vegetable seeds door to door in my neighborhood when I was about 9 or 10 years old. That didn’t go well but a few years later I put together a little lawn mowing business that kept me in cold hard cash from April to October.
My father was notorious for finding me all sorts of summer jobs. A few he pulled out of the local paper included a job picking corn and a job working in a restaurant that later led to working in a ditch installing water pipes and then installing roof trusses. Other times he found me jobs painting houses, a job painting miles of fence on a horse farm. One time he got me a job working for his cousin in a fabric business in NYC. That was actually a fun job. I got to climb mountains of rolled up fabric.
Later on, I found my own jobs. In high school I worked in a nursing home with my friends. In the 80’s, while shuffling between college and work, I worked for a clearing firm on Wall Street, a bond trader, also on Wall Street, in a liquor store, a plastics factory, delivering furniture for Macy’s, working as a currier, working the graveyard shift at UPS and Roadway and a salesman for a home improvements company. I worked as a union carpenter installing walk-in boxes and later worked as a carpenter framing houses and additions. I was also a member of the Teamsters Union during a stint at a beer distributor.
After I graduated Rutgers I made my way back to a Wall Street firm, but this time working across the river in Jersey City, where I’ve been for the last 17 years. I don’t regret taking the long haul route to finish college and settle into a career because all the people I met along the way are wonderful character studies I can draw from for the stories I write today.
Finally, before I wrote short stories and novels I wrote songs. Lots of songs. In the 80’s and early 90’s I was a singer and guitarist in a band that played every kind of dump from bars with bowling alleys to bars attached to strip clubs and just plain old dive bars everywhere in Jersey. The highlight of that experience was probably getting to play at CBGB’s in 1989 and opening up for Killing Joke at City Gardens in Trenton. I don’t remember if a guy named Jon Stewart was bartending that night but how we forced ourselves on stage for a full set is itself an epic story and typical for my band. But, it was all downhill once the 80’s were over. Grunge hit in the early 90’s and no one cared all that much about unsigned east coast bands.
Tell us a little bit about SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN
SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN is my first novel. A former naval officer, Keith Brighton, and oceanographer, Anita Patel, meet for the first time on a research vessel. When the vessel is hijacked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they escape to a nearby island where they learn a lot about themselves, each other and the mysterious man behind the hijacking. They also discover they may have to sacrifice their lives in order to stop him from executing his deadly plan.
What was your inspiration for SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN?
Originally I came up with a plot about a cruise ship being hijacked but scrapped the story after it was nearly finished. Then I came up with an idea for a character: an American naval officer who washes out of the navy after a tragic accident. That’s pretty much all I had until I started reading some old news reports on the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the same time, I was reading about the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Scientists from Woods Hole conduct some the most important scientific research on every ocean on Earth. It wasn’t long before I came up with an idea for a new plot and began to outline a new story.
This must have necessitated a lot of research. What was that like?
Brutal. There was so much technical and historical information I needed to learn. I felt very overwhelmed in the beginning. I almost gave up on the story but I liked the characters too much to throw in the towel. I also made a ton of mistakes early on in the process and learned a lot of lessons. The first thing I learned is you end up using very little of your research in a story. This first novel was a tremendous learning experience. I work much smarter now when it comes to research.
Another tough aspect of the writing game is rejection. How do you handle it?
I have a lot of experience in sales and success in the sales game is achieved mostly by how you deal with rejection. One thing that I’ve done is frame my first rejection letter and hang it on the wall above the desk in my office at home. The letter was from a very good agent at one the most respected literary agencies in New York. I keep the letter where I can see it as a reminder to work harder at writing and keep trying to get better.
I’ve learned to approach rejection by understanding that sometimes stories get rejected not because you’re a bad writer but because an agent feels a story is not something they can get behind or they’re just not interested in. A writer may have a good story but just haven’t pitched it to the right agent. Rejection is just part of the business. The best thing a writer can do is listen to what they have to say, learn from it and keep writing.
I also have a great group of writer friends who have experienced far greater numbers of rejections than I have. Although I have voiced my frustrations to some of them in the past, when I learned of the number of rejections some of them have endured I quickly learned I have absolutely nothing to complain about.
My friends have also experienced varying degrees of success in publishing and they all share the things that brought them that success. The internet and the various conventions we attend together make it easy for us to keep in touch and share our ideas. But, in the end, the only way to get passed the rejections is to write a damn good story.
These are interesting times in publishing. What are your thoughts on the publishing business?
The publishing business today is fascinating. Prior to the internet, publishing had not changed all that much in a hundred years or more. Before the internet, you wrote a story and submitted it to an agent or editor. If a big house picked you up, great. If not, you sought out a smaller press. If they rejected your story you paid for printing yourself and sold your book out of the trunk of your car or you quit.
But today, there is a new alternative. We’re living through changes that are forcing everyone who works in publishing to question the way in which things have been done. And it’s all happening very fast. No matter what area of publishing someone works in they’re not immune from the incredible changes technology is swiftly bringing to the business. I think we all have to adapt to these changes and make them work for us. The business is incredibly competitive and tough but there are also new opportunities that writers can take advantage of.
You’ve decided to try your hand at independent publishing. Why did you choose to go it alone?
The honest answer is I spent a year reading blog posts, magazine and newspaper articles and talking with many people in the business, all with opinions both for and against self-publishing.
All that reading and discussion along with what I see happening before my eyes played a part in my decision. Self-pubbing in some ways is easy and in other ways very difficult. Although I don’t have the help of a good agent or the team at a publishing house I still have to find people to help me out. So, in some regards I’m not actually doing this alone. The same team of professionals that are available to a traditionally published writer are still available to me. I just have to find the best people and pay them or do those tasks myself. There are a number of things I’ve learned to do myself but editing my manuscripts and the difficult technology stuff I always hand over to the professionals.
Although I will continue to pursue representation by a literary agent, I made the decision to publish my stories on Amazon. I’m not against signing with a publisher in the future if a deal should come my way and the terms are mutually beneficial, but I thought publishing on Amazon was the right thing to do at this time.
What’s your writing process?
Creating an entertaining story is always my most important goal and I feel most satisfied if I have a particular theme to focus on in telling that story.
I think most writers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, express their values through their writing. Writing is most satisfying for me when I can dramatize those abstract ideas while telling a good story at the same time. We all strive to make our characters unique and interesting and our plots compelling but if you can accomplish all that and convey your values I think that’s very special.
When it comes to thrillers, I think the good ones reach just beyond the limits of what people believe is possible in the real world. So, when it comes to plotting, I like to come up with ideas where a reader’s first gut reaction is to say, “Oh, that could never happen”, but then after thinking about it a little longer conclude, well, maybe it could happen. I hope that’s the reaction people get from SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN.
Not all my thrillers are going to have this element but it’s something I think about when I’m plotting. Some books that have caused this initial reaction in me are, Robin Cook’s COMA, Peter Benchley’s JAWS, Tom Clancy’s HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and Michael Crichton’s JURASSIC PARK, to name a few.
As for the mechanics part of the process, I write long-hand in notebooks that have very hard covers. Staples sells a great notebook which allows me to write when I don’t have a desk. For instance, I wrote most of SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN on a New Jersey Transit bus on the way to work. On the weekend I open my notebook which contains what the nuns in my Catholic grammar school called, “chicken scratch”, and type what I’ve written all week onto my laptop. As I do this I’m performing my first edit.
In our home I have a nice office upstairs that overlooks our fish pond and yard that backs up to a woods and a brook. At times I’ve seen stroll through our yard small herds of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and the resident red fox chasing one of the many rabbits that live nearby.
My room is the perfect place to write. I’m surrounded by my books and all the other things that help me write including an old grammar school globe from the 1970’s I bought in an antique shop in Freehold, NJ. They say writers are playing God when they create characters and worlds. Having the world at your fingertips, in the form of a globe, makes the job of playing God that much easier, especially when writing a high seas adventure series. I can look across the globe and decide where I want to take my characters next.
How do you interact with other writers?
Carefully, one of them is a former Golden Gloves boxer and some have written stories so dark that if they were ever to ask for my help putting a couch in a van parked on a dark deserted street I’d surely decline.
Seriously, I try to go to a few conventions every year. It’s a great place to meet other writers and form friendships. Thrillerfest, which is run by The International Thriller Writers, is one of my favorites. I’ve met some of my closest writer friends during this annual 4 day event in New York City. ITW is a great organization. It’s a huge challenge to plan and coordinate Thrillerfest every year but they do a great job. I’ve learned so much about writing and the publishing business while sitting in on classes taught by some of the best thriller writers in the business.
For the last two years I’ve also been to NECON, a convention held in Rhode Island. Much more laid-back than Thrillerfest but always a great time and tremendous learning experience. I’m very happy with the friends I’ve made at both these events and that friendship continues on the internet while we’re all waiting for the next con. I’m planning on adding the World Horror Convention to my list next year and Borderland’s Bootcamp, if I summon up the courage. I’ve heard great things about both.
Thrillerfest in Manhattan (2013?). Pictured left to right: Todd Gerber, me, Kyle Steele — who may or may not have been detained later — and Pete, who adds a little class to the group… but you guys, of course, know the truth about Pete and class…
Who are some of your favorite authors?
It’s so tough. I wake up every day knowing I’ll never live long enough to read all the books I want to read. It’ll come as no surprise that I have lots of favorites in several different genres.
In the Thriller genre I’m into Jon Land, David Baldacci and Steve Berry and I love the military thrillers mastered by the likes of the late Vince Flynn and Tom Clancy as well as Brad Thor and Brad Taylor.
Ira Levin and Ayn Rand are two writers who I think had the ability to do what I mentioned earlier – take a broad abstract theme and develop complex and imaginative plots that dramatize their values. Over the years I’ve had a great deal of fun being engaged in heated debates discussing their fiction from a standpoint of both style and content.
In crime novels I’m a huge fan of Mickey Spillane. In modern horror, Stephen King (of course!) and Clive Barker are two of my favorites.
Heading back in time, some of my favorites are Edgar Allen Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Herman Melville.
If that’s not enough there are a number of new writers I’ve discovered or had recommended to me over the last few years that I enjoy very much and I’m keeping a sharp eye on. Robert Dugoni, Rio Youers and Kira Peikoff are some of my favorites whose books I think about long after I’ve read them. Tosca Lee writes in a genre that is probably my least favorite but I read her anyway because she writes beautifully and with great passion. Is it wrong to have so many favorites?
What are your plans for the future?
With the major changes taking place in publishing I’m making sure I keep an open mind, listen to as many people’s opinions and ideas as I can and learn from them.
My immediate plans are to have two different book series running at the same time. In SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN I’ve introduced the characters of Keith Brighton and Anita Patel.
I’m also finishing up the first book in another series about a tough intrepid reporter who covers the Jersey shore. I created the character, Nick DeLuca, in a short story called THE BEACH HOUSE that was published in Suspense Magazine in January 2013. In book one of the series titled, A LINE IN THE SAND, Nick gets involved covering some very dangerous characters in some of my favorite beach towns of New Jersey. Along with Nick will be a host of odd-ball characters from the Jersey shore but I promise none of them will have a spray-on tan.
So, if SEVEN DAYS OF RAIN is not your thing, maybe A LINE IN THE SAND will be. I hope to have this new novel done before the end of the year and I’m rewriting the short story and will offer it as a free download on my website prior to the release of the novel.
I also have a blog that I’m getting back into and I have a number of short stories I’ve been working on. One of them is a very dark story in a genre I’ve never tackled before. I hope to get them complete by the end of the year as well.
I’m just going to keep writing, keep listening to friends in the business and hopefully land a good literary agent before I’m eligible for social security. Thanks for the interview, John, and congratulations on your Bram Stoker Award for PHOENIX ISLAND.
Thanks, Pete. See you at Thrillerfest, my friend!
For more on Pete, check out his website.