Tim O'Mara's editorial debut, Down to the River, a crime anthology of 22 short stories, aims to raise funds for the conservation nonprofit American Rivers.
Tim O’Mara’s first novel, Sacrifice Fly, came out in 2012 and I was instantly smitten by his main character, teacher, and accidental investigator Raymond Donne. With a nice mix of humor and grit and a very authentic sense of place, O'Mara wrote a wonderful first novel. He’s now working on his fifth Raymond Donne novel, a standalone high school-based crime drama So Close to Me, and gearing up for the April release of Down to the River, a crime anthology of 22 short stories he edited, the proceeds of which will go to support the work of the conservation nonprofit American Rivers.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: You started out with a terrific PI series featuring a teacher. You also were a teacher. Can you talk a little bit about how your two life threads intersected?
Tim O'Mara: My Raymond Donne series—ex-NYPD cop turned NYC public schoolteacher—started when I was making a house visit to check on a student I hadn’t seen in a while. Here I was, a white guy from Long Island, in the middle of a three-building housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and all the other folks were Hispanic, African American and Hassidic Jews. I thought, “This would be a great opening to a detective story.” I’ve now had four Raymond Books published and am working on my fifth.
If you think about it, good schoolteachers and good cops share a lot of the same skills: questioning, empathy, patience, the ability to get people to talk to you. I’m also at an advantage as my brother and brother-in-law are both veteran cops. I have built-in resources whenever I need them.
Publishing is a very changeable business so I know you have to be nimble. What kinds of things have you learned since your first book was published? Would you do anything differently?
Publishing is a weird business. It’s the classic example of “Just when I think I have some answers, they change the questions on me.” I have also learned the value of a good editor, and with Matt Martz at St. Martin’s for my first three books, I had one of the best. The education I received from him was worth as much as my advances.
The other big thing I learned is all I have control over is the book. Writers have to write, plain and simple. I’ve also learned that in between the writing, there’s a lot of promotion and marketing to be done on my end. I married well in that regard.
You have now edited a short story collection, ad I have a couple of questions about it. First of all it’s called Down to the River – so, crime stories set on rivers, I’m thinking? Who came up with the concept?
The concept of Down to the River was all mine. I was inspired by Eric Beetner’s wonderful anthology Unloaded—also published by Down & Out Books—which was a collection of short crime stories with no guns. Down to the River was inspired by my living near the Hudson River and the East River; I love rivers and felt they’d make great settings for crime stories. Based on the 22 stories I received, I was right.
How different was it to sit in the editor’s seat and how did you choose stories for the anthology?
Putting on the editor’s cap for the first time was a humbling experience. It’s a different skill set from writing. I had to be respectful of each author’s story, while at the same time making sure the story was being told in the most creative ways. I was constantly asking myself, “Am I looking to change things because that’s the way I would write it, or because the story is better that way?”
Every writer whose work I edited was respectful of my edits and was not shy about not always agreeing with me. At the end of the day, it’s a fragile balance between how they see their story and making it a better story. This time around, I mostly acquiesced to their points of view. After all, they all generously donated their stories to this collection and the mission of American Rivers.
Short stories are such a great way to discover new writers. What can readers look forward to discovering in Down to the River?
There are many amazing “new” voices in Down to the River. I made a conscious effort to be as diversified as possible in choosing the authors. (I didn’t want the literary equivalent of a Woody Allen movie.) Anyone can fill an anthology with white male authors. I am very pleased with the idea that readers of this collection will be introduced to authors they never heard of before, and some who have never been published.
We read to hear the experiences of others; the more different those voices and experiences are from our own, the more we learn and the more we understand.
This book is going to be supporting the nonprofit, American Rivers. Can you tell us more about the organization?
American Rivers is an organization that advocates for the protection of our fragile waterways, both large and small. They educate the public about these fragilities and the importance of rivers as sources of food, travel, recreation, and how rivers help maintain nature’s delicate balance.
It’s humbling to understand that I can drop a piece of garbage in the Iowa section of the Missouri River and that piece of garbage stands a good chance of making its way to the Gulf of Mexico and then the Atlantic Ocean. Rivers literally connect us all as citizens of the world. We need to respect that.
What’s next for you as a writer or editor?
I am currently working on my fifth Raymond Donne novel, The Hook. My deadline is the end of May, so I’m hoping for a late 2019 pub date or early 2020. I’m also working on a third novella featuring Aggie, who was in Smoked and Jammed, in the books Triple Shot and Three Strikes respectively. Both books were published by Down & Out and also feature novellas from Charles Salzberg and Ross Klavan. Our third collection is due out in the fall of 2020.
I’m also working on a high school-based crime drama, So Close to Me, inspired by the works of Megan Abbott. And I’m teaching "Writing the Novel" to adults and working with incarcerated youth on Riker’s Island in a reading/writing program. (Thank goodness I “retired” a year-and-a-half ago.)
Finally, can you tell us something a little bit unexpected about yourself?
Something unexpected about me? As a crime/mystery writer, I have no dark side. I wish I did sometimes. I had a very suburban upbringing with a solid family support system and a generally optimistic outlook on life.
Also, I do believe that most—if not all—of life’s situations can be better understood through baseball metaphors and analogies.
TIM O'MARA is best known for his Raymond Donne mysteries about an ex-cop who now teaches in the same Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood he once policed. O'Mara taught special education for 30 years in the public middle schools of New York City, where he now teaches adult writing workshops and still lives.
Melanie Goldings’ first book, Little Darlings, is a psychological thriller about Lauren Tranter, the mother of new born twins, who is experiencing postpartum depression and psychotic breaks—or are they? The reader has to take what comes through the new mother’s point of view and try and figure out what’s happening. I found it impossible to stop reading Little Darlings once I picked it up.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: Mysteries, and psychological suspense in particular, have always explored the trope of the unreliable narrator. Some succeed far more than others, but one reason your book is so good is that Lauren's psychological exhaustion is a relatable one that so many people have experienced: being a new parent. Can you talk about how you came up with your “hook”?
Melanie Golding: Lauren’s experiences are drawn from conversations I had over the years with women who had given birth, and the things that happen very commonly to women during birth and in the days following. What struck me about it, was that while I was pregnant with my first baby, I had no idea of the kinds of things that went on, only a vague notion that there might be an episiotomy, and that there would be something like pain, but that when it was over, I would forget all about it.
After I gave birth I felt cheated and tricked by everyone who had pretended it wouldn’t be all that bad, and the feeling grew as other women shared their stories with me. I felt foolish for not being wise to this, and wondered where all the ‘bad’ birth stories were in fiction. I also realized that in terms of characterization, it was key that Lauren should have this, a fairly standard birth experience, so that people can see how traumatic birth can be, for mental health as well as physical health, even if, medically, nothing went 'wrong.'
Another key, relatable aspect is the fear that she feels, that she won’t be good enough, or that she will fail in some way. Many people feel this, after having a baby, and so many women are depressed at this time but never diagnosed or helped. When the changeling tale came into my hands, everything seemed to click into place for the story. What could be more frightening than having your babies switched, and then knowing that no one believes you?
One of my favorite mysteries of all time is Celia Fremlin’s The Hours Before Dawn (1958), which I read years ago when I had a toddler and an infant. I thought it perfectly captured the kind of crazy thinking that comes when you’re sleep deprived. The attitudes Lauren encounters—that she’s kind of nuts and must be appeased—could have been lifted straight from Fremlin’s long-ago novel. Can you talk about that a bit? Do you think attitudes toward new mothers are kind of stuck in the past?
I love that book! The main character is so relatable. Even though it was written in the 1950s you can see that some things are exactly the same. The protagonist has internalized her mother-wife role in the same way that many women still do, despite the fact we are supposedly living in a post-feminist world. Also you can see many of her husband’s flaws in (some!) modern men to this day, unfortunately, even though he’s a good guy.
What has changed quite a lot is the attitude toward babies and children: these days they are protected more, and adults are more aware of how precious the early years are in terms of development. In Fremlin’s book, the main character is forever leaving the baby outside for a few hours to ‘air’ him. That sort of thing wouldn’t happen now.
Were you interested in toying with the perceptions of the reader? As a reader you have to think about the information you’re taking in and try to parse it. That’s always the case, to a point, but it’s an interesting way to approach your main character.
I’m really interested in perception, and how events can be perceived in totally different ways depending on your perspective. I love conspiracy theories, and the idea that there are thousands of people out there who believe folk legends are real. Ghost stories, also, are fascinating, because although science does not accept in general the prospect of an afterlife, there are still huge gaps, places in the human psyche and in the world we live, where there is no knowledge or explanation for phenomena. I wanted to create a novel that could be read in different ways, depending on the reader’s outlook, and their openness to non-concrete solutions. Also, I really wanted to create something that people could disagree about, and then have a really good discussion.
I also love the folklore element. I’ve always thought that kind of interweaving adds so much to the richness and texture of a narrative. Where did the idea to use a changeling story come from?
I first had an idea for a short story with a contemporary setting based on the changeling tale, mainly because it frightened me. I was writing it for a local event that was having an Eerie Evening. The story kind of chose me, I think, because it got longer and longer (way past the event’s word count) but I couldn’t stop writing it. Then I started to research the folktale and discovered that it had been frightening people across cultures in many different versions for centuries. That made me examine the origins of the tale and I decided it was a story that either explained postpartum psychosis in a time before people knew what that was, OR it was a story about evil beings that desire to steal children. I really wanted it to be both.
This is your first book, but it does not seem like a freshman effort. Do you have a bunch of drafts stuck in a drawer somewhere?
Of course! I have a couple of malformed tomes on a hard drive, not quite forgotten, but definitely never to see the light of day. These are the practice novels; the pancakes that the chef never serves, but eats before anyone sees.
Have you always wanted to write a mystery novel? Are you a big fan of the genre?
I was always keen to write a mystery novel. As a reader I started with Enid Blyton as a young child and moved on to Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, then to Stephen King and James Herbert. I devour books by Lawrence Block. I admire anyone who can pull off a big twist, such as the one in We Need to Talk About Kevin, as I haven’t managed to write one yet and I’m worried I can’t do it. Having said that I am planning a big twist novel to prove myself wrong.
What was your path to publication like? Long, short, easy, difficult?
Like many writers I have always written for myself, but for a long time I attempted to be successful as a composer-lyricist rather than a fiction writer. I found the need to write novels came upon me in my late twenties. At the same time, I lost the desire to perform my own music in any serious way. I wrote and wrote until I had a finished novel that I could bear to let others read. After it was rejected by every agent and publisher I sent it to, I spoke to a friend who had done a masters in creative writing and I suddenly knew that was what I should do. Little Darlings was begun on the first day of the course, in September 2015, and it sold in November 2017.
What writers have been influential for you?
I read and reread everything by Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, and Iain Banks, but all writers are influential. You can learn different things from Patricia Highsmith than you can from Alexander McCall Smith, just as what you learn from Stephen King is different to what you learn from Anne Tyler. But all the lessons are invaluable.
I’ve always read everything I could get my hands on; each book will have contributed in some way to the writer I am now, but books I remember as being extremely influential include: Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson; The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks; and One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson.
Finally, what’s next? Are you working on your next book?
I am working on another thriller featuring DS Joanna Harper and inspired by a different folktale. I’m really interested in the way these stories still intrigue us, the agelessness of them. I like to try to imagine how and for what purpose the tales first appeared, and build a story around that.
Melanie Golding is a UK based author with a wide range of interests, including music and folklore. In 2016, she completed the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, graduating with distinction. Her debut novel is Little Darlings (Crooked Lane Books, 2019).