Author bio: After a successful career as a magazine journalist, book reviewer, nonfiction book writer, Charles Salzberg made a move to fulfilling that dream of becoming a novelist when his first novel, Swann’s Last Song, was published and wound up being nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. After four more novels in the Henry Swann series, he wrote three successful stand-alone novels, Devil in the Hole (named one of the best crime novels of 2013 by Suspense magazine) and Second Story Man (nominated for another Shamus and a David Award), and Canary in the Coal Mine. Second Story Man was named winner of the Beverly Hills Book Award. He’s also published three novellas, to be found in the collections Triple Shot,Three Strikes and Third Degree. He still teaches writing in New York City, is a Founding Member of New York Writers Workshop, and is on the boards of PrisonWrites and Mystery Writers of America-NY. His latest novel Man on the Run will be released this April.
You have described “Man on the Run” as being a continuation of your previous work, “Second Story Man,” why did you decide to revisit Francis Hoyt’s story?
When I completed “Second Story Man,” I had no intention of revisiting any of the characters. But after finishing “Canary in the Coal Mine,” and casting around to see what I’d tackle next, I started thinking about Francis Hoyt. Without giving away spoilers, I began to wonder what happens to a character like him after his book ends. I sat with that question for several months before deciding I’d see for myself. At the same time, during the pandemic one of the things I did to pass time was listen to true crime podcasts–a lot of them, especially how they jump into cold cases or cases in the news. I thought it would make perfect sense to create a podcaster–many of them are women–who inadvertently passes through Hoyt’s life. At that point, the seed of a story was planted. But I also became much more crime “literate,” and so a secondary plot line in the novel is based on an actual event.
“Man on the Run” features cutthroat characters who are ambitious, almost to a fault. How do themes of obsession with success comment on a larger societal trend you see in American culture?
I try not to get too political publicly because no matter where you stand you’re going to piss someone off. But that doesn’t mean politics doesn’t affect my fiction. For quite a long time I’ve noticed that Americans are obsessed with winning, about beating and sometimes humiliating opponents. We even had a president who promised so much winning that we’d get tired of it–I doubt that could ever happen. But I think there’s a downside to all that competitiveness, especially the win-at-any-cost attitude. And so that’s how Francis Hoyt came to be. He’s obsessed with being the best and he’ll do anything to win. And so, in both “Second Story Man” and “Man on the Run,” I explore the ramifications of this obsession–and to some extent I think we all have it. But sometimes, I think, it can backfire and cause serious problems for everyone. An exploration of that is a big part of “Man on the Run.”
You’re a board member of Prison Writes, an organization that uses trauma-informed practices to support literacy for incarcerated people. How does your affiliation with this organization inform your writing as a crime author?
I certainly didn’t join PrisonWrites with that in mind, but as it happens working with those who are incarcerated (or recently out of the prison system) does teach me a little about crime, especially motivation. But it’s also incredibly inspirational. Before the pandemic, I was part of a three-person team that went up to the federal facility, Otisville, in upstate New York, to work with incarcerated men. When we got there, I was shocked to see at least forty men sitting in a large gymnasium-like area, all there to learn something about writing–and it was not mandatory. In fact, when we asked, I think almost every one of the men was already doing some kind of writing, especially journaling. I never ask what they’ve done in the past, because I don’t want to pre-judge them in any way, but it is fascinating to hear their stories–it really gives a sense of humanity to each of them and by extension us. It’s the idea that many of us, put in the right circumstances, might be capable of some pretty nasty things.
Tell me more about your experience with PrisonWrites. Have you developed any relationships with the people you’ve met and do you know if they continue to write after leaving prison? Do you have any thoughts on how writing instruction and writing as therapy for students might affect the “school to prison pipeline” in some communities? If readers are interested in PrisonWrites, how do they get involved?
A former student of mine, Jessica Hall, asked me to come down to the Lower East Side and work with at-risk youth. They’d all been in trouble with the law and in order to stay out of youth prison, they had to take part in an after-school program (and part of the deal was that they had to attend school and if they didn’t they’re “sentence” would be adjusted and they’d find themselves remanded to a place in NYC called Spofford, kind of like the training wheels for the more hard-core adult prisons. One day and I was hooked. Working with these teenagers was eye-opening and although they weren’t used to writing, especially the boys (interestingly enough, the girls, many of whom kept journals, were far easier to work with) most of them, once they were convinced that it wasn’t going to be just another class they’d fail, enjoyed it. And when we got the idea of publishing a small magazine with their work, they really got onboard. When we “published” the book, just for family and friends, we decided to have a publication party, and to see the looks on their faces—many of them invited their family—was well worth all the trouble. For many, this was the first time they succeeded in anything “educational,” probably because we set it up so that it was fun, and that there were no losers, just winners. I’d like to think it does work, not all the time, but enough to keep doing it. One of the highlights for me was going up to Otisville, a federal prison (Michael Cohen spent time there), and walking into the gym to find forty men sitting, waiting for us to begin the class. It seems that practically every one of them had taken to writing, whether it be journaling, writing a screenplay or a memoir. It was not only thrilling, but awe-inspiring. And some of those incarcerated men, now back in society, have kept in touch with us, even volunteering to help. There’s a PrisonWrites website, and if you’d like to get involved, just contact Jessica Hall.
Your novel features a true crime podcast host. Did you derive inspiration from real true crime podcasts you’re currently listening to? Any that you’d recommend to readers?
As I said earlier, I came to the true crime podcast pretty late in the game, and only because of Covid. But man, after the first one, I was hooked. I’ve got a lot of favorites, but some of them are “Crimetown,” about the city of Providence, “Someone Knows Something,” “Chameleon,” (all seasons), and anything by Dan Taberski (he doesn’t handle crime per se, but his podcasts are fascinating, especially the one that searches for Richard Simmons, and “The Shrink Next Door.” But there are so many important podcasts, especially one like “In the Dark,” which in one season examines the case of a man who’s been tried four times for the same crime and was sitting on Death Row for a crime he likely didn’t commit (no spoilers here).
What do you hope readers will gain from “Man on the Run”?
That’s a tough one because, to be honest, I don’t think much about what my audiences might get from my writing. In fact, I don’t even think of myself as having an “audience.” But now that I’m asked, I think the first thing I’d want is that people reading it enjoy what they’re reading. And beyond that, maybe get some insight into human behavior. Because for me, crime is all about human behavior and the relationships we have in life and how those relationships sometimes fracture with devastating results. But the one crime I don’t have any (or very little) interest in is serial killers. And for that matter, I don’t write murder mysteries and although there might be a murder in some of my books, it’s always there to tell us something about the characters. And so, most of my books are corpse-free. There are plenty of other crimes to write about. I’ll leave murders to my friends who handle it so well.
What’s next for your writing career?
I’m a little more than a third into my next novel. I’m at the stage where I don’t even have a title for it that I’m happy with–so, I’m just calling it “Searching for Allie,” (but I can pretty much promise you that’ll change.) One of my characters has ESP, he can see things that have happened in the past. But the catch is, only one person in the world, his best friend, knows he has this ability. He’s actually a little afraid of it–it’s an albatross around his neck. And so he constantly avoids any “images” that might come to him–and so when his best friend’s college-age daughter comes up missing and he’s asked to help, which means like it or not, he has to deal with this “thing” he has. I don’t write with an outline–I never know where the story is going–so I’m afraid I can’t give you a plot summary.
Who are some of your favorite authors? Do you draw inspiration from them in your own writing?
I’ve got so many favorite authors, all of whom provided inspiration. Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth among them. These are the writers who “taught” me how to write, how to appreciate good writing, how to structure a novel and write compelling characters and dialogue. And notice there aren’t any pure crime writers amongst them. But if you look a little closer, you’ll Nabokov’s Lolita, one of my favorites, is really a crime novel—older man fixates on 12-year-old girl, kidnaps her and takes her across state lines. And then there’s the Executioner’s Song, about the life of killer Gary Gilmore. Not that I don’t admire crime writers like Dashiell Hammett (my favorite), or Raymond Chandler, right up there, or Ross MacDonald. I read them all and they’re the ones who taught me how to write a crime novel.
Besides crime fiction, what other genres do you read?
I pretty much read anything and everything except for Sci-fi and romance. But even then, if someone recommends reading something in those genres, I’ll give it a try. When I’m in the middle of writing fiction, I try not to read other fiction—sticking to nonfiction. For good reason. I’m either afraid that if it’s really good, I’ll get discouraged, thinking how could I possibly rite anything better? Or, I’m afraid somehow I’ll be influenced by someone else’s style.
What are you reading right now?
I’m almost always reading two, three, sometimes even four books at the same time and, on my mood at any particular time. Right now, I’ve got Peter Blauner’s latest novel, Picture in the Sand, Watergate, by Garrett M. Graff, Slow Horses, by Mick Herron, and Sleepless City, by my friend Reed Farrel Coleman.
What one book do you recommend over and over?
Gosh, there are so many, too many to choose, so I’ll just mention a few: In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, Seize the Day, by Saul Bellow, and Desperadoes, by Ron Hansen.