Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Author Interview: E. W. Sullivan (Sully) Author of Swarm Theory

Award winning author E. W. Sullivan (Sully) was born in Jacksonville, Florida. He worked as an architect and contractor, taught computer networking, and owned a financial services company before becoming an author.  Sheaves of Zion was Sullivan's first novel and Readers' Favorite 2013 bronze medal winner for fiction-mystery-sleuth. His second novel, Swarm Theory, is the second book in the Thelonious Zones crime series.   He credits his high school English teacher, Mr. Smith, for planting the seed for his love of writing, his late father for how to tell a great story and his late mother for how to curse properly.   E.W. Sullivan lives, works and writes in Atlanta, Georgia with his wife Anita and daughter Paris.

Swarm Theory: A Murder Mystery-Thriller
Criminal profiler Dr. Thelonious Zones wants to believe his father didn’t kill his mother. What stops him from believing is the twenty-five years to life he received for her murder. Zones’ avuncular employer and father’s best friend, Sam Drake, defends his innocence. Zones sets out to find the truth to this twenty-four year old question, but his search is interrupted when he is forced to investigate the death of a young Arab college student and the series of bombings engulfing a small southern town. Zones’ theory and profile of the perpetrator(s) are questioned by law enforcement when events change and new suspects emerge. The trail to the truth will lead Zones through a thicket of well-guarded secrets and childhood memories that cause him to question what he believes about how the world truly works.
Who are your influences?
My literary influences are many and they span both time and genre. Richard Wright and James Baldwin first showed me the impact a good story could have. JD Salinger brought out the rebel in my writing. More contemporary are Walter Mosley and George Pelecanos whose crime fiction is some of the best I’ve ever read.   
When did you begin writing?
I became serious about a writing career ten years ago. It was either stay in corporate America and eat steak or pursue my passion to write and eat bad Chinese takeout. The former won out for another seven years (the heart was willing, but the stomach staged a coup d’etat). I’ve been seriously writing for the last three years.
How do you come up with your stories, characters, character names, POV, etc?
As a crime mystery writer, coming up with the stories is easy – death and destruction are all around. The trick is making it seem fresh. For example, my newest novel, Swarm Theory, deals with bombs and terrorist – nothing new, right. But then throw in cutting edge science and corrupt institutions and you got a story with some interesting angles. As for my characters, I draw on a wealth of both street and classroom knowledge. A minor character from the novel whose nickname is “Car Wreck” comes from someone I knew as a child. Professor Landrosky, a character also from the book, has mannerisms of my college professor. So, for me, real life experiences play a major role in story and character development.
Do you work from an outline?
Yes! And the more detailed the better. I’ve tried the pantser route with little success. I like the structure an outline gives me. It allows me to think ahead as to how a chapter, plot, character, etc. will be developed. It also keeps me from writing myself into a hole. The outline, for me, is a road map (or GPS) that keeps me from getting lost.       

Tell me about your favorite scene in your novel.
No self-respecting novelist would have just one. But if I must, I’ll have to say that my favorite scene in the book is “The Hack”, Chapter Forty-nine. It has all the elements of a great scene: action, tension, dialogue, foreshadowing, etc. The strange thing is that there’re no fight scenes, no car chases, and no gun fights. Yet, the scene is weighty. The dialogue between Zones and Stats is some of the best in the book. There are other scenes with better elements, but as a representative of the whole, “The Hack” is perhaps the best.       

Can you tell us a little about your writing philosophy?
Soapbox time! I have the same philosophy about writing as I do about music. If a song doesn’t edify the listener – provoke thought, action or emotion – then it is noise. One of my favorite Bible verses is I Corinthians 13:1 which says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Let’s be clear, I write murder-mystery thrillers. The genre doesn’t lend itself to producing a, To Kill a Mockingbird. But that doesn’t mean it should be devoid of thought-provoking subject matter. Early Rap music was a social commentary on the plight and struggles of a people that raised the art form from an underground lyrical competition to that of a musical vehicle to air grievances and bring about societal change. In the wrong hands, as we now see, it has, “…become as…a tinkling cymbal”. Whether you are a poor writer or a great one, edify the reader. If at the end of reading my latest novel (Swarm Theory) the reader goes, “Hmmmmm?”, them I’ve done my job.
Have you ever tried writing in any other genres?
Yes. In fact, I’m reworking an early novella titled The Red Heifer.  I’ll describe it as an adventure story with religious overtones. It is, to me, some of my best writing and storytelling. I hope to finish the revisions soon. Stay tuned. I’m also in the idea stage of a contemporary piece that revolves around the life of a young, black man from a North Carolina sharecropping family during reconstruction. It’ll be loosely based on stories my father told me about his early life growing up in the Jim Crow South.   

Do you have any interesting writing-related anecdotes to share?
It was my freshman year of Humanities 101 at a small community college (they were called junior colleges back then). The professor, a diminutive, bespectacled older woman, assigned the class to write a one page report on a contemporary topic of our choosing. My subject matter escapes me, but what I do remember is that I labored over the assignment for many days, to make sure everything was perfect – it was. Days later, after grading the papers, the professor held me after class. “Mr. Sullivan,” she said, holding the folded paper in her hand, “this paper is perfect, no spelling or grammatical errors.” I recall feeling a slight smile spread across my face. She looked up at me from behind her glasses. Although I had no proof of it, something told me she had once been a nun, despite the wedding band around her ring finger. “Are you sure you wrote this?” She squinted her eyes like my mother when she didn’t believe the lie I had just told her. My mother, however, knew me like she knew the lyrics to her favorite gospel hymn, the one she sang every morning around the house. This woman knew nothing about me. I was just one of many faces passing before her every day. In that one instant, the smile my face donned had been wiped away. I remember being puzzled. I did write this paper. I have the crumpled drafts littering my bedroom floor to prove it. I stood there, towering over her, but she held the high ground. “That’s my work. I wrote it,” I said through a nervous smile. She shoved the paper at me. “It’s boring though. You have a good day, Mr. Sullivan.” She returned to her work and I turned tail, bolting for the door. Outside the classroom, I unfolded the paper. Marked in red at the top of it was a big, fat ‘A-’. An ‘A’ minus for a perfect paper, I thought. I also thought, bitch (sorry ladies, I was young at the time). I left school that day feeling that my integrity had been assailed. It was not a good feeling. I finished her class doing well but feeling untrustworthy. 

I learned a few things from that experience that stay with me to this day. People don’t trust perfection because they know that there is no such thing. So, when they see it, there’s an automatic distrust of it. It’s why we like our protagonist flawed. We love flawed characters. Saints rarely make a second book. Another thing I learned from this experience is that your readers must trust you as an author. Better yet, they must trust your work. Imperfection is okay (that’s what editors are for). I write imperfectly to this day. I make my editor earn his or her money. You want to deliver a polished product to the reader, but they expect some imperfection, just not the glaring subject-verb not in agreement type.  Finally, a perfectly written, boring story in publishing is called an abstract. So, unless it’s written for an academic journal and the like, readers expect to be entertained. I wasn’t sure if the half point deduction I received from my professor was for her believing that I had plagiarized the paper or for its lack of entertainment value. Either way, I had failed in gaining her trust and in keeping her interest.   

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