Author Interview: Tim O’Mara

Tim O’Mara is a favorite new voice of both Jamie’s and mine—we love his Ray Donne, a teacher/private eye. O’Mara’s vigorous storytelling, great characters and setting make this series a real stand-out.

Tim O'MaraQ: First of all, why a P.I. novel? Are those the kind of books you always liked to read? If so, who are your favorites?

A: I’ve always been interested in crime fiction, from Encyclopedia Brown to Michael Connelly. My faves now include Don Winslow, Marcus Sakey, George Pelecanos, Lyndsay Faye. I’ve also just discovered some British writers and the couple who make up Nicci French really know what they’re doing.

Q: Your main character, Ray Donne, is a former cop, now a teacher. How much of your own experience and your own family’s experience (I think you have some cops in the family) do you draw on?

A: Being a teacher is like being a detective. It takes time to sift through the clues to find out what kind of kid each individual student is and how best to reach that student. And—you can ask any of my students—a good algebra problem is like a good mystery, all those unknowns and variables. I draw on my own personal experiences a lot, but am careful to not write a kid who may recognize himself and has a parent who’s a lawyer. My big brother, the cop, is my go-to guy when I have a police question. If I get any of that wrong, I’m in trouble.

Q: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of a great first sentence. Can you elaborate on that? Why is it so important, and what, in your opinion, makes a great one?

A: A great first sentence draws the reader into the action and the character right away. I work harder on my first sentences than any other sentence in the book, and I challenge anyone to stop reading after one of my first sentences. They’re like potato chips in that regard. It’s the same with movies. I always think of Murtaugh and Riggs in the car chase in the opening shot of Lethal Weapon 2; we don’t care who they’re chasing, we just want to go along for the ride.

Q: When it comes to plot, what’s your method? Your plots are often quite complex and I’ve heard all kinds of answers to this question, including poster boards of each location with sticky notes for each character. So – poster board? Outline? Seat of your pants?

A: I’m what’s now known as a “pantser.” I start writing when I think I know the first five scenes—forty or fifty pages. I’ve learned to trust myself that if the first fifty pages are good enough and filled with potential, the next three hundred and fifty will work. (He said with a shaky confidence.) Like a lot of crime writers, I’m constantly asking myself not only “What if?” but also “What next?” If I’m happy with the answer, I keep going.

Q: Is it difficult for Ray to continue to be believably drawn into the kinds of situations he finds himself in? Do you ever see him actually moonlighting as a private eye (as he sort of does in this book).

A: Yeah, there’s going to come a time when Raymond’s going to stop doing this teacher-by-day/crime-fighter-by-night thing. (I’m sure it’s against union rules.) I’m hoping that when he—and I—get to that point, I’ll have the confidence as a writer to retire Raymond and let him enjoy life a bit more. For however long the series goes, though, the main focus will always be on kids in peril. That’s what got me into the genre and that’s what the series is about.

Q: What’s your feeling about the Private Eye genre in general? I think it’s undergoing a change—your books are an illustration, as the private eyes in books today seem very reluctant or they actually are something else, like Ray. Brad Parks has a reporter, Steve Ulfelder an interesting vengeful recovered alcoholic, Alex McKnight, Steve’s Hamilton’s character, is always very reluctantly drawn into a new case. I know there are other examples.

A: I think the PI genre is as strong as it’s ever been largely because of all the nontraditional PI’s out there. Michael Sears’ Jason Stafford is a great example: an ex-con/financial expert who can only find work investigating financial crimes. Daniel Friedman’s Buck Schatz, the 88-year-old retired cop is another great example. Then you can add in all the “cozies” and it would be hard to find a profession where that person can’t be investigating a crime while trying to hold down a day job. That being said, few things are better than a good old-fashioned PI like Jim Rockford or Travis McGee putting in a good day’s work.

Q: I think one of the strongest parts of your books are the setting, which is weird, because New York has been used countless times as a setting, but you bring something a little special and different to the table. Can you talk about that a bit?

A: I grew up on Long Island (“Lawn Guyland”) less than an hour away from New York City and we didn’t go in that much. When I finally moved into Brooklyn back in 1987, I fell in love with the place—all five boroughs. I think it’s my love affair with the city—especially Williamsburg, Brooklyn—and it’s never-ending ability to surprise me that comes through in my books. I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now and it’s impossible to run out of things to write about if you’re paying attention. (“Writer’s Block” in New York City refers to a street where three or more writers live.)

Q: What’s ahead for Ray and Allison? (Or don’t you want to say?)

A: What’s ahead for Ray and Allison? Have you been speaking to my mother? I’m not sure what their future as a couple holds. They play well against each other and are constantly challenging each other’s world views. I can tell you they will never be Spenser and Susan. I can’t imagine Ray watching Allison spear a leaf of lettuce and getting all romantic about it. Allison’s a good foil for Raymond, and I see her staying around for quite a while. I may even let them dip their toes into living together and possibly marrying. That would make my mom real happy.

Q: Is there something more to Ray’s reluctance to call his mother in your latest book that you may get to in the next book?

A: I’m debating whether or not to actually bring Ray’s mom into the fourth book—Nasty Cutter. The story does involve Ray’s—and his dead father’s—past so it may be time to break the whole “Columbo’s wife” thing I’ve had going with Mrs. Donne. I think I’m just wary of having his mom take over too much of the book like mine might. (She’s not going to read this, is she?)

Q: Finally, do you have a favorite mystery (or book)? One that changed your life in some way?

A: My two favorite books of all time are probably To Kill a Mockingbird and Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. I wouldn’t say they changed my life, but they constantly show me how powerful novels can be. I know it sounds corny, but they also inspire me to be the best writer I can be. Another book I value greatly—and read once a year—is George Higgins’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Any writer who wants to see—and read—great dialogue—should make this required reading.