In his spare time—when not writing fiction—J. L. Abramo works as a catering chef in Denver, Colorado.
Along with membership in Mystery Writers of America and Private Eye Writers of America, Abramo is a member of the Screen Actors Guild—having appeared in episodes of Perry Mason and Homicide: Life on the Street.
Abramo is a first generation Italian/Russian/American.
—Tell us about Coney Island. What inspired you to write it?
Coney Island Avenue is a continuation of my previous novel, Gravesend. The book carries on the stories of a group of returning characters. The decision to write a follow-up (sequel, if you will) was motivated by the expressed interest of readers to hear more about these characters—and my own interest in learning more about Samson, Murphy, Rosen, Ivanov, and others. That being said, the question of inspiration—in the spirit in which I believe it was asked—can be better addressed by talking some about what inspired me to write Gravesend.
Gravesend was (as Coney Island Avenue is) a novel about people—many who happen to be Brooklyn police detectives—about the challenges they face both on the job and in their personal lives. After my first three published novels (Catching Water in a Net, Clutching at Straws and Counting to Infinity) which revolved around a central antagonist (private investigator Jake Diamond), I wanted to take a shot at a novel that was more an ensemble piece—where there was no lead character but rather a group of individuals with somewhat equal weight, travelling on their own personal roads while at the same time often dependent on one another where those roads intersected.
Although Gravesend is a crime novel/thriller on the surface, I realized in time that the book was an attempt on my part to better understand how the manner in which human beings handle adversity ultimately defines them as persons—good or evil—weak or strong—fair or unjust—loved or despised—admired or feared. Similarly, Coney Island Avenue, beneath the surface, is much about the influences—positive and negative—mothers and fathers have on sons and daughters.
However, I would have to admit the greatest impetus to writing Gravesend and following with Coney Island Avenue was a personal urge to return to the place of my origin—an opportunity to rediscover Brooklyn—and Brooklyn played one of the lead roles in Gravesend and could also be considered a major supporting player in Coney Island Avenue.
—For you, what’s the best thing about writing?
For lack of a better term, it is the journey. I begin each book with a scene I imagine—almost cinematically—without knowing exactly how or where it will end. I don’t want the trip to be restricted by a preconceived destination. I want to be surprised and I have the suspicion—correct or otherwise—that if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.
This approach has what some may call problems, but I perceive as challenges.
Once it finally dawns on me how and where the end will be, I may discover that I can’t get there from where I am in the writing. This requires backtracking to the fork in the road I left behind which will ultimately get me where I need to go—and can require a fair amount of rewriting—but the unpredictability makes the journey more astonishing for me and hopefully, for the reader, worth taking.
Also, once I have the end in sight, there is a tendency to want to rush to the finish line—but I need to be careful not to leave the reader in the dust.
For me writing is an adventure—and the best part is I am allowed to invite others to come aboard.
—What’s the worst thing about writing?
I’m reluctant to use the word worst when talking about writing so I will say that the two toughest things are the solitude and the long wait for feedback.
With few exceptions, a writer of fiction works alone. It is the nature of the beast. Aside from some background music, to help me establish a rhythm, everything else, particularly other beings, are a distraction. After six to twelve months working on a project the book receives its initial feedback from your publisher and editors. It is then another six to twelve month before the book hits the shelves. By then, you are working on something new and, although it is always good to see the work greeted positively, it is somewhat like old news.
This is why I have tried to stay active in theatre in addition to the writing—where the work is collaborative and where after a relatively short six week rehearsal period you are ready to get out on stage and experience firsthand the immediate pleasures and displeasures of your audience. It provides, for me, an essential balance of artistic urges.
—Tell us about 4 books, 4 songs, and 4 movies that have influenced your writing process.
Four songs that speak to the varying moods I work to incorporate in my writing—often needing to force them to cohabitate:
Private Investigations (Dire Straits), Watching the Detectives (Elvis Costello), Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (U2) and Paperback Writer (The Beatles).
Four films that have inspired me to flesh out characters and fine tune dialogue:
On the Waterfront, House of Games, Mean Streets and Chinatown.
Four books that have influenced my tendency to write large casts of characters:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Oliver Twist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Godfather.
—What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?
There are characters in Coney Island Avenue—and in Gravesend before it—who do terrible things. The antagonists. The bad guys. I don’t condone or expect readers to condone their actions—but I try to empathize with those who are misguided by raw emotion and traumatically unfamiliar circumstance.
Eliciting empathy is tricky business. As a reader I could never empathize with Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, but I could understand how the treachery inflicted upon Edmond Dantés in The Count of Monte Cristo could make him hungry for personal justice. Sometimes people are pushed over the edge—and those doing the pushing may also be culpable.
I don’t pardon Gabriel Caine or Tony Territo in Gravesend, as I don’t pardon Rey Mendez or John Cicero in Coney Island Avenue—but I don’t hate them. They are not monsters—only people who make very wrong decisions about how to ease their torment. I want to understand the motivation, not simply feel pity or antipathy.
Eliciting empathy is tricky because people don’t care to admit, even to themselves, that there may be a breaking point—a point where rational behavior doesn’t do the trick—that there but for fortune may go you or I.
I hope readers can feel empathy for some of these characters—everyday people dealing with adversity and tragedy—and perhaps come away with thoughts about how these bad guys, and we ourselves if put in their shoes, might find ways to deal with desperation, loss and hardship constructively rather than destructively.
—Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?
(In no particular order):
The Jerusalem Bible (Reader’s Edition)
The Things They Carried (Tim O’Brien)
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Cambridge Edition Text)
The Sunlight Dialogues (John Gardner)
The Laws of Our Fathers (Scott Turow)
Killing Mister Watson (Peter Matthiessen)
Red Dragon (Thomas Harris)
East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson)
Gravesend (J.L. Abramo)
—What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?
I would have to give credit to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.
The novel is very much about Brooklyn—the land where I grew up and will always consider home.
The novel is very much about family—and family was a very important part of my cultural background.
And the novel is about a young person who aspires to become a writer.
In Gravesend and Coney Island Avenue readers will learn a lot about Brooklyn, hear a lot about family, and will hopefully recognize J. L. Abramo as an older person who aspires to become a better and better writer.
L. Abramo was born in the seaside paradise of Brooklyn, New York on Raymond Chandler’s fifty-ninth birthday. Abramo is the author of Catching Water in a Net, winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Private Eye Writers of America prize for Best First Private Eye Novel; the subsequent Jake Diamond novels Clutching at Straws, Counting to Infinity and Circling the Runway, winner of the Shamus Award; Chasing Charlie Chan, a prequel to the Jake Diamond series; and the stand-alone thrillers Gravesend, Brooklyn Justice, and Coney Island Avenue.
All pictures are property of J.L. Abramo.