Thursday, September 27, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Chris Ingram

Q. Like your father “Big” Dan Ingram—whose voice filled the airwaves at WABC New York for decades, you’ve also spent most of your professional life in radio. But much of your radio work involved writing, editing, and producing for CBS News. How did your fiction writing life evolve? And what are the emotions and motivations that drew you to writing fiction?
A. I think I’ve been a fiction writer as long as I’ve been able to express myself. At least since I read Moby Dick in my bed by the hallway light in third grade. In fact, my father called me “another Clifford Irving” on one of those notes I had to write about a playground incident at school. You know: the kind you had to write and have your parent sign before handing it in to the principal. I took it as a compliment.
Working behind the scenes in radio provided me a way to connect with my father without seeming to imitate him. He made a career out of being a wise-ass, and I wanted a chance at the same. I also clearly wanted a closer connection with him. As you note, he was highly successful. No one reaches the heights he attained without sacrificing a portion of his home life. Most children of famous people experience that. And I grew up in a family of eight kids. It makes sense one of us would follow him into the business. In fact, I wrote a historical novel, “HEY KEMOSABE! THE DAYS (AND NIGHTS) OF A RADIO IDYLL about him and New York radio.
I think I learned I could actually write in high school, at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts. I found a very nurturing home there, and began to find my voice. Watching Linda Ellerbee on late night TV while working as a night motel manager sparked an appreciation for the art of writing tight, concise, yet expressive copy. More recently, while living in Florida and helping care for my dad, I was able to carve out the time to devote myself to the craft of fiction. Then my brother offered to let me live in his home and write full-time. It’s been an unimaginable blessing, as I’m sure you understand.
Q. Your debut mystery novel THE REDHEAD IS DEAD was Co-written with Donna Rheaume. Please tell us a bit about Donna—and how the two of you teamed up to collaborate?
A. Donna is one of my dearest friends. We worked together in the crucible of all-news radio in Boston back in the 1980s. We often participate in wide-ranging long-distance conversations over drinks; phonetails, we call them. She was living in Boston, in a tiny Beacon Street apartment, and the upstairs neighbor made way too much noise. We joked about it, and she even went up a few times to plead for peace—or at the very least that the neighbor would remove her shoes or buy a rug.
That’s where I came up with the first chapter of the Redhead Detective. Donna is the inspiration for the protagonist. Since we both worked in news together in Boston, it made sense for the character to exist in that world. I took a few elements from her life and melded them with my twisted imagination into a story. Since I based so much of the book on her fictionalized experiences, Donna is credited as a co-author. And the Redhead’s name is Donna Rand.
Q. You recently remarked that writing in radio newsrooms under incredibly intense deadlines helped shape the way you write today. Can you share some specific examples—ideally involving THE READHEAD?
A. When you’re writing in a newsroom, whether it’s in a tiny, unrated market or at the major broadcast network level, deadline pressure is extreme. So are the distractions. I found while writing THE REDHEAD IS DEAD that if I was working in a quiet space, the slightest noise could sometimes distract me. Hearing a car squeal its wheels would get me out of my seat wondering what was going on out there. However, if I was writing in a public space, like a coffee shop or my local bookstore, a troop of monkeys could shatter a dozen glasses behind me, and the noise would just be absorbed by the rest of the din. I can, of course, write in silence; I just prefer a little background noise.
I’ve also found that writer’s block just doesn’t exist for me. If you sit down four minutes before air time to describe a momentous story of national or world implications in four sentences, you can’t say “I’m blocked.” You push through. I’m fortunate that that ethos seems to have stayed with me. I have written every day, save a few here and there while traveling, for the past several years. If I’m feeling disconnected with one piece, I take up another. Between novels, Flash Fiction, Micro-fiction, and poetry, there’s always something that needs work.
Q. THE REDHEAD has earned a Reader’s Favorite Five Start distinction on Amazon. Congrats. Does this mean every reader who reviewed your book on Amazon gave the Redhead five stars?
A. Nah, it just means I sent it to a website that reviews books for free and the reviewer was kind to me.
Q. I’m curious to learn more about the Redhead—but since you’re the only writer I know who ultimately decided to self-publish on Amazon, let’s talk about that. Can you describe the road you took after breathing life into the Redhead—and sought to unleash her on the World?
A. THE REDHEAD IS DEAD is something that really surprised me. Though I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery, I never considered myself a “mystery writer.” I just found that the more I wrote, the more the book wrote itself. That is, every time I crafted a twist, a new turn just seemed to open itself up to me. I found that writing a mystery is a much more task-oriented project. If I’m writing a Flash Fiction piece, for instance, I can let my imagination roam until it settles on an image. That in turn gets fleshed out as I try to create a context, and eventually, with any luck, a complete stand-alone story emerges.
With THE REDHEAD, I sat down every day and had to plot out a path for Donna Rand to get out of whatever mess I’d placed her in the day before. Of course, there was plenty of rumination overnight. I found that “writing to completion” really applies; I made sure I stayed at it until I had set up a circumstance that would require and inspire the next conflict. That translated into a fairly productive rate of five hundred to a thousand words or more a day.
The result was a full blown trilogy: THE REDHEAD IS DEAD, THE REDHEAD RISES, and REDHEAD RESURRECTED. As I was creating the second book and then the third, I followed the traditional path, querying publishers and agents, and waiting. And waiting. By the time the trilogy was complete, I was tired of waiting six months or more to hear back on every query—though maybe impatient is a more accurate term.
That’s not a complaint; I know they’re swamped by piles of books and queries. And the fact that the old system hasn’t collapsed under its own weight is a tribute to the efforts of all the slush-pile readers of the publishing world. But then I happened to hear about Amazon’s Kindle Direct program, and thought, Why not? In the end, I think my experience can serve as a cautionary tale for any writer, because though I did go through with the process, there are a few things I would have done differently.
Q. Ah, now we’re getting to the reasons why you’ve been strapped to this wooden wrack. So time to stop hinting—and start spilling your guts, amigo.
A: Let me put it this way: Larry McCoy, my friend and former boss at CBS News Radio says, “Everybody needs an editor.” In fact, he wrote a book by that title. The support you receive from a publishing company—whether traditional or self-publishing—just isn’t there with Kindle Direct. And that’s not a knock on them; they don’t claim to offer editing or any real promotional help. And for me, no matter how many passes I make through my own work, I always benefit greatly from the perspective of another person’s questioning eye.
Formatting is also an issue. I am in no way a computer expert. I used the software they promoted, and while it looks fine, I’m certain the input of someone with a higher level of expertise could have made it better.
And that’s the main lesson from my experience. Kindle Direct is great for instant gratification. You can get your work “out there” in a day or two. But you’re on your own. You have to edit, format, and at least as importantly, promote the book yourself. That’s why I’m often on Facebook trying to gain “clicks,” and, with luck, purchases. But if you’re not a natural salesman—and I am not—then it can feel awkward, and I know I could probably do much better.
On the business side of things, I have no complaints. As far as I can tell, the contract is crystal clear and I retain all rights to the book. So if at any time, I choose another route, I can take my book down and reissue it any way I wish. Amazon also seems to have made the book available as agreed, and I’ve had some decent feedback.
I long ago stopped trying to figure out the equations they use to determine rank, or why they’ll sometimes put “only two copies remaining,” or such nonsense on the ordering page. But I don’t think I, or the book has been harmed in any way.
I have to admit: deciding to use Kindle Direct was driven by a real sense of “let’s stick it to the man”—which is ironic, of course, because Amazon is the world’s largest retailer—and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the man” now. But Amazon offers us writers the ability to take things into our own hands. We don’t have to wait months or more, hoping that someone will drag the fruits of our fevered labors off a slush-pile, and then actually like it. We’re banging that baby out like tomorrow’s newspaper, ready to reload and do it again tomorrow. There’s something exciting about that, especially to an old newsman.
But if you notice, I haven’t taken the same route with the second and third books in the series. I eventually got some very useful input from an agent about “THE REDHEAD IS DEAD,” and I intend to apply this advice to the book soon. With any luck, I’ll get representation, and go the traditional route. That’s not to say I won’t ever go with Kindle Direct again. But if I do, I’ll invest in an editor, and learn more about formatics—as well as sales promotion.
Q. Speaking of “banging things,” I first discovered your work in writer-singer Nancy Stolhman’s Facebook group Flash Fiction Lovers. Besides your flash story, “Redemption”—in which a World War II soldier by the name of Walter earns himself the distinction of “hounding the local girls for a bang beside the hedgerow”—your micro-fiction has also been published in online and print publications. Your poetry has appeared or is forthcoming at The Lock Raven Review and Bloodbond Magazine. And your ghost story: “Another Dead Man’s Curve” is featured in the well-regarded anthology SECRET STAIRS.
So what can we expect Chris Ingram to bang out next?
A. Oh, lots of things. Among them, I’m in the editing stages of two larger pieces. The bigger one is a novel about an engineer at a big New York City radio station in the mid-1960s, who’s going blind just as he meets the love of his life. Their adventure takes them to Castro’s Cuba as they follow the leads of a centuries-old mystery involving her ancestor, the pirate Diabolito, and a buried treasure that may or may not exist.
The second is a sci-fi/satirical novella set in Florida about what happens when rising sea levels render much of the country into two societies: the wealthy and connected who live in elevated cities, and the forgotten poor who survive on the upper floors of inundated motels and condo complexes.
Oh, and there’s a little matter of a dozen astronauts marooned on the Moon by a fanatical and capricious authoritarian government. Fun stuff. I’m also at work on a somewhat disturbing flash fiction piece about a neglectful dad and his son who find themselves in a car, sinking in the East River. And there’s always the poetry.
Q. Okay, let’s close with some serious shit: since you studied beer at Syracuse University—and since none of the other writers in this Ink-Quisition series have presently lived in Boston—if you were having actual drinks with Donna Rheaume, what are the top three places in Boston where you’d invite us to chill with y’all?
A. I haven’t been there yet, but they’ve apparently turned the old Charles Street Jail into a hotel/bar complex. The bar names reflect the locale. There’s Liberty, CLINK, Alibi—you get the picture. Donna says it’s a hoot. I’m guessing overpriced though. Back in the day I used to stop at a food stand just outside the jail for greasy food at three a.m.
I always liked the Pourhouse on Boylston Street. And the Silhouette Lounge is a great old dive in Allston. The Red Hat, around the corner from Boston City Hall has always been a good spot to spy politicians and newspaper folks—or avoid them.
And you can learn more about his work (including Links to some of his published stories) by venturing to his website:


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