AUTHOR AUSTIN CAMACHO ON WRITING DAMAGED GOODS AND THE ICE WOMAN ASSIGNMENT
9/1/13 Austin Camacho interviewed by Sonia Linebaugh. What does the writer experience as the words flow onto the page? That’s what I wanted to find out when I interviewed Austin Camacho, author of five detective novels and four thrillers.
Q. Austin, what are your moments of ecstasy in writing?
A. There’s a kind of ecstatic moment when I find just the right line of dialog to express what a character needs to say, or write a bit of description that tugs at my heart when I read it the next day. In Damaged Goods [page 81], Hannibal asks the slave girl where her collar is: “For a frozen moment, the only movement in the room was the rising of dust motes in the shaft of light falling on the bed. Those bits of matter were so small they needed only the heat of the sun to put them into mindless flight. For humans,weighed down by guilt and pain and self-loathing, movement can be considerably harder. Eventually, Marquita moved her head to the side indicating the table beside the bed. A small sniffle came from behind her hair and three drops of her soul rode gravity down to thump into the comforter.” Afterwards when I read through the bit, I almost wondered who wrote it. Look what I can do. A different example of ecstasy is in The Ice Woman Assignment [pages 101-103]. If you write in the thriller genre, you know that a fight scene is an intricate ballet that has to go just right for readers to follow without getting lost in who is doing what. There’s a moment of great happiness when you know you’ve gotten it right. Then, there is that burst of joy when a cool concept appears that demands to be written. One day I was reading an article in which the writer said a suspect shouldn’t be charged. The story came at me all at once: the pivotal clue to WHY he shouldn’t be charged for the crime, is a battery that ought to be run down, but isn’t–that is the battery wasn’t charged so the man can’t be charged.
Q. How do your characters first arise in your mind? What senses are involved? For instance, do you see them or hear them?
A. I suppose I feel them first. They’re personalities who arrive before I get a physical description. They’re without a body, a smell. I know the plot and I look for personalities who can deliver. In The Trouble Shooter a building is taken over by drug dealers. I need a hero who will throw them out. What kind of fool can do that and why? That’s what grew the Hannibal Jones character. What kind of guy is he? What kind of woman would love him? Who would live in that neighborhood? That’s my approach to the major characters. Minor characters are different. You’re standing in line at the grocery store and something in the way a person is dressed, or their body language, their accent. I think—oh yes, you’ll be in my next story. My characters are never static. Their mannerisms are a lot of who they are. I notice mannerisms in real life people—clues to who they are.
Q. How do your stories begin?
A. It’s often a phrase that gets me started, an idea that has a double meaning like the man who couldn’t be charged because the battery wasn’t charged. In my short story “Smoke and Mirrors”, a character fakes his death. He appears to be in a burning building, but the witnesses are seeing him in a mirror. My stories begin with a plot. I have an idea how the novel starts and ends. Then I go searching for people. Q. Do you hold auditions? A. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes. A character might pop up and I’ll say, no, not you. Sometimes the person I thought would be the hero isn’t up to it. Then I’ll elevate a minor character.
Q. You started writing while you were in the military.
A. Yes, three of my books were written between 1987 and 1992 when I was in the army. They were really badly written, but they had something, some ideas I could use. I’d written about characters with a paranormal edge before it was popular. I didn’t talk about it for years. It started as a fun writing experiment. Two people who were entirely opposites had a supernaturally strong connection that allowed them to have empathy for each other. They became Morgan Stark and Felicity O’Brien in the Assignment thrillers. One of them wants to analyze and understand their strange connection. The other doesn’t want to know anything. It becomes a big part of the relationship. They’re both from the underworld. He’s an ex-mercenary. She’s a jewel thief. Once, Felicity has injured hands and can’t pick a lock. She tries to talk Morgan through it. It doesn’t work. Suspense builds. She finally feels his hands, like she’s pulling on a pair of gloves, and picks the lock through him. Her reaction is wow! His reaction is a gut-level chilling fear, something a mercenary isn’t used to! For me, it’s about the characters being changed by what happens to them. Readers don’t have to see that. They can just go along for the fun of the ride.
Q. Do your characters ever surprise you?
A. Rarely. I work to a fairly detailed outline and I follow it. A character might refuse to do what I want him to do. Then I have to throw an obstacle in his way so he has to go left, do what I want him to do. More obstacles equal good fiction. If a character feels a need to do something outside the story, that’s another story. I’ve often thought I could pick up any of my novels and write what the guy was doing between chapters five and six.
Q. What’s the difference between plot and action?
A. The plot is the action. Some action is external, some is internal, some is dialogue. As part of my job, I think there’s a contract between the writer and the reader. I owe you a satisfactory conclusion. In the mysteries, you’ll know by the end who the bad guy is, and he’ll be punished. The thrillers are more fantastical, but still the bad guy is punished, the good guy comes out ahead. The world returns to normal, or some new normal. I try to take it one step further. These people who have fantastic experiences have to be changed, impacted, altered in some way. It’s about characters on a journey. Morgan and Felicity live in two separate underworlds. They’re from the criminal element. I hadn’t thought of it this way before, but they’re both on a journey of redemption, trying to buy back their souls. They can’t un-kill people, but they can somehow try to make up for it. On one level, the story is a fun romp with action and adventure. The rest is under the surface.
Q. Does the reality of being a writer match the dream of being a writer?
A. No! On the one hand I expected a lot of good stuff that never happened. On the other hand, a lot of good stuff I never expected is there—those ecstatic moments, the emotional experience of writing. I’m able to deal with emotional and mental issues that would be impossible in ordinary life. It’s quite cathartic to deal with issues deeply buried in fictional characters. In Damaged Goods, Hannibal, who is a very conservative guy, has to face the conflict between spousal abuse, and domination, greed, and submission. How can it be that a person wants these hurtful things? The writing was in part me trying to work my way through. Being a writer is not what I expected, but not anything I would give up.
Austin Camacho’s books. Hannibal Jones: Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, The Troubleshooter, Damaged Goods, and Russian Roulette. His thrillers, set in some of the exotic places he experienced as a soldier: The Payback Assignment, The Orion Assignment, The Piranha Assignment, and The Ice Woman Assignment. Austin is a past president of Maryland Writers’ Association. He lives in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, with his family, including Princess the wonder cat.
Sonia L. Linebaugh is a freelance writer and artist. Her book At the Feet of Mother Meera: The Lessons of Silence goes straight to the heart of the Westerner’s dilemma: How can we live fully as both spiritual and material beings? Sonia has written three novels and numerous short stories. She’s a past president of Maryland Writers Association, and past editor of MWA’s Pen in Hand. Her recent artist’s book is “Where Did I Think I Was Going?,” a metaphorical journey in evocative images and text.