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Author Interview: Steve Zell

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Steve Zell, author of Mantis (Mulhenney & Poole).

FQ: Good to talk to you again! As a fan of all your books, from this series to Running Cold, WiZrD – you name it – can you tell readers how these amazing ideas just come to you? Do you have certain places you go, TV/movies you watch, etc., for inspiration that opens up these stories in your mind?

ZELL: Great talking to you again too! And thank you for the great review! As far as where the ideas come from, oddly, I think a lot of it comes from humor. Jokes tend to be funny because they twist the normal somehow, or connect ideas or things that normally wouldn’t be. My mom and her brother Joe were both very funny and I grew up really liking to make people laugh. Humor frees your mind to “go there” even when you probably shouldn’t. So they made me feel free to go there. The idea there are actually birds called catbirds was enough to set the stage for Running Cold. I couldn’t help wondering how you might make one… What if combining animals into griffins was an ancient art? What if a kid was born with that gift…and didn’t know how to control it? The Sandy character in that story came from a young surfer who used to plop herself down across from me at my favorite coffee house in Hermosa Beach and tell me just how good or bad the surf was that day and why. Mantis came from actually using the critters to keep pests away in our garden over one summer. As the weeks went on I noticed the pests were gone – but so were most of the mantis – and the ones that remained were getting really big. One day I reached for what I thought was a broken branch on a tomato plant and, Gaaaah! It turned out to be the biggest mantis I’d ever seen! The last one standing. Then I made the mistake of watching a video showing how they mate and it all made sense...That gave Mulhenney & Poole a different sort of multiple murderer to go after.

WiZrD is the only book where I can tell you exactly what I was doing when the idea came to me. I was stuck in traffic on La Cienega Blvd on the way to a vocal session. With nothing to do but look at what was around me – I saw an old building being gutted. They were keeping the basic structure intact. I thought it was cool that a building could be the center of a thriving business one day, empty the next, and then come back as something completely different. That made me think, “What if a town could do that?” What if it was more than just the gold “playing out” that turned it into a ghost town? What if it did it on purpose? As luck would have it – there was a faded painting of a Wizard on one side of that building. Growing up in Arizona, ghost towns and Native American lore pretty much surround you – WiZrD brought all of that together for me.

As a kid I was lucky enough to have a lot of interests and to have parents brave enough to give me the freedom to explore them. I have less freedom now, we all do, but the interests remain and they’ve given me a nice pot of seemingly unconnected ingredients to cook with.

FQ: When you wrote True Creature, did you already know that Mulhenney and Poole were going to be recurring characters?

ZELL: I did, but I wasn’t sure they would be a team going forward. I had a basic outline of what I wanted – but I’ve learned not to be too rigid with outlines. My one firm rule is: know the ending before you start! But I’m even willing to break that rule if the characters honestly bring me to a better ending than the one I came up with originally. As the characters flesh out they develop their own quirks and sense of things – and the ideas I had for them up front don’t necessarily fit once they’ve grown. If I hem them in it feels unnatural. I first saw Deanne and her cousin, Father Pat, as the team - but once Sara and Deanne started interacting I really liked the way they looked and sounded together. They have a way of calling each other out that’s playful in some cases, painful in others – but they’re strong as a team and I like the interplay.

FQ: Along those same lines, and because of the awesome ending (as usual), can we expect this to be a prolonged series? Do you have this team’s future already planned out?

ZELL: Thank you for that – and yes! I definitely see them getting into a lot more trouble over the next decade or so. I’ll continue to work on completely unrelated stories as well.

FQ: Do you have a favorite when it comes to writing standalones versus series?

ZELL: I’m having fun with Mulhenney & Poole. I really do love having characters I can develop and go back to. The question now is do I keep the Mulhenney and Poole stories running in sequence or not. I like freedom…and standalones give you that freedom.

FQ: We’ve spoken before about your blogs and music; how is the music going?

ZELL: I keep writing music and singing - but just for sanity and fun these days. It’s killing me that editing the audiobooks takes so much time away from recording music. I’ve “Covid-challenged” myself to learn a set of cover tunes I can play and sing wherever there’s a piano handy – and that’s coming together. I also wrote a song that probably reflects the isolation of this period a bit too much. Might be depressing – so I haven’t recorded it yet.

FQ: When I think about fictional teams I think about their “themes.” Such as, I mention Mulder and Scully and immediately hear that unforgettable X-Files theme. Hopefully, if these characters make it to the small or big screen, will you (or have you already) put together a great theme for them to be known by?

ZELL: I actually wrote a song for Running Cold – a “Beach Boys light” vocal-harmony only song called, She Was Everything. But yeah, the X-Files theme fit them so well. If Mulhenney & Poole do make their way to, well, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, HBO (seems like that’s where everything is happening these days). I’ll be more than happy to have the theme pros go at it! There are folks “looking at it” now...but, I can say from my experience with WiZrD and Hollywood, there aren’t even eggs to count at this point, so don’t even think about chickens.

FQ: During this time of the pandemic, do you feel that books and music can and do help people get out of this “real world” and feel better because they’re entertained? Along those lines, are there authors and/or musicians that have helped you through these trying days?

ZELL: I’ve always thought if you can put readers into a world where folks they care about are having a much worse day than they are and still surviving (more or less) it helps! It also helps to laugh.

Sadly, my reading suffers when I’m writing. I go back to folks like Evelyn Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor. That sense of humor, darker the better, is what I really love. Right now, it’s music that helps me the most. Lot of 60’s & 70’s. Listening to Steely Dan actually helps me write. Some of my favorite coffee houses actually played Steely Dan while I was there – lot of nice people in those places! But playing and singing – that helps even more than listening.

FQ: You’ve taken us to a great number of places with your books – from the Old West to fantastical worlds – can you give us a sneak peek at what comes next from the Steve Zell universe?

ZELL: I’ll return to the Old West at some point – not sure when yet. I tend to work on two or three things at once until one idea becomes more important to me than anything else. Certainly more Mulhenney & Poole – and who knows, it may be time for Deanne to slide down the coast while she’s in California and face the truth of exactly what happened to her brother...There are also a couple completely different planets I’m ready to explore, and possibly other mediums. 

Here is something extra...Every reader has their own idea of what characters look like – and I don’t want to take that away from them...that being said...Meet Sara Poole...

Sara Poole


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