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An Interview With George Shuman, Author of Last Breath, Part Two

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Continued from Part One, this is the second part of my interview with novelist George Shuman.

In the first part of this interview I talked about what a pleasant surprise George Shuman's new book, Last Breath, is. I didn’t think I would like the book because it’s essentially about Sherry Moore, a blind psychic who solves crimes because she can touch someone dead and “see” the last 18 seconds of his or her life. The concept struck me as too contrived and new-agey.

But Shuman, a retired Maryland police officer, makes it work. I was curious what others in law enforcement thought of his premise, one he admits he would have trouble accepting himself if he had to deal with it on a case he was investigating. There was a personal reason for my interest too. He lives near me and sets some of the story’s events near me as well. I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about these and other issues.

Scott Butki: What has the response to your books been from the law enforcement field? 

George Shuman: I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from cops and federal agents that I’ve worked with in Washington D.C. over the years, and from law enforcement retirees who are on their second careers as professional security consultants around the world, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Consensus is that I’m spot on procedurally and that I’ve really nailed the characters we’ve all encountered in one dark place or another. 

For most of us from law enforcement, even after all these years of retirement, we still have the “cop dreams,” about jammed guns and dark alley chases and we remember all to well the things said and done when the heart was pumping and we were not highly trained fighting machines, but young men and women making split second decisions that were sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Thrillers are a great recreational release for many of us still, but we are particularly hard critics when it comes to our own genre, critical as to whether or not an author or screenwriter gets the procedural aspects right, which I will grant can be gleaned through research, but to hear authors and especially screenwriters attempt “cop talk” can be like nails on a chalkboard when it doesn’t ring true. 

Were you describing real places in this book? What do you consider the benefits and consequences of using real places? 

You know I was just talking about this subject last week with a local woman who had read 18 Seconds and tells me that she knows not only the doctor that I was writing about in the first chapter but she was pretty sure that she knew the property that I was describing — with two stone pillars in front — on Route 711 in Westmoreland County.  I drive up and down Route 711 quite a bit now that I live near it, but at the time that I wrote 18 Seconds, I was drawing from my memory of one trip when I was a kid.  I’ve been told that I got the character of Sewickly, Pennsylvania exactly right, and I’ve never been there.

I mix real places that I know with real places that I don’t, and I pepper it all with some fictitious names of places that are real (for example, the fictitious town of Waterdrum in Last Breath is a vamped-up version of a real place called Ohiopyle). The clear benefit of using real places in fiction is to give the reader a point of reference. A little bit of truth lends a lot of authority to a story, just as a little bit of truth lends a lot of authority to a lie. I am not talking about credibility here – this really is fiction and I know that people who pick up a book know the difference. The point is a little bit of fact can go a long way.  And fans have fun with it.  Recently I received a photo of a book club standing on the boardwalk at Wildwood, New Jersey, all holding a copy of 18 Seconds.  It was fun and creepy for them to look under the boardwalk with my villain in mind. They’re waiting to get Sherry’s travel itinerary for the next book. On the not-so-positive side, I would like to put a disclaimer on the jacket of my books:  DO NOT USE THIS BOOK FOR DRIVING DIRECTIONS; IT IS FICTION.  Maybe one percent of the readers who live where the story takes place will take issue with the geographical accuracy of the book. They get so stuck in the reality of place that they can’t enjoy the story. For everyone else, if the author is doing his job right and pulling the reader along, each reader gets an idea of the place and then fills in the missing pieces of place with things and locations that they know. 

18 Seconds has sold in 19 countries; I’m going to guess that my readers in China and Poland have little concept of what a “boardwalk” is like on a U.S. coastline, or if I-70 runs east to west or north to south, but they don’t care if they enjoy the genre to begin with and the writer paints enough of reality that they can see their own personal film version of the story in their head.

What are you working on next? 

Simon and Schuster has me working on another Sherry Moore project. This one really has been fun, Scott. I’m calling it Lost Girls, although my agent or editor will surely change it.  Last Breath was originally called Breath Play, and 18 Seconds was called Recurrence.  Anyhow, it leaps from Alaska to Russia to Haiti and in it Sherry will meet a villain of crimes-against-humanity proportion and a strange old man in the jungle who, while calling it something quite different, does very much what Sherry does when she takes a dead person’s hand and taps into that last 18 Seconds of their RAM (or Short Term) Memory. 

What is this other book you referred to in the first part of the interview?

I love this book, but probably because it was my first. I call it Rattleman and it is about a young man who suffers Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the extreme poverty of Appalachia in the mountains of West Virginia where he witnesses his sister’s horrific death at sixteen. It is a book of mountain witches, mountain folklore, Cherokee Indians and a tormented man who walks the mountains in search of rattlesnakes to sell for their skins. I really can’t wait to see this book hit the shelf. I LOVE research, which is constantly pulling me off track when I’m supposed to be writing and I have never enjoyed research as much as that done for this novel. 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

With fifteen books behind me and new technology that will allow me to see my laptop screen while tanning on the beach. I hope people are still asking me if I’ll ever do just one more Sherry Moore novel. I hope to have one historical novel under my belt (French Revolution Era). I hope to have one comedy (I worked in the “luxury” hotel industry post law-enforcement), one horror story, and a handful of stand alone, gritty police stories. 

What did you hope I would ask that I didn't ask?

Does my mother like my books?  I think she made it through the first 4 pages of 18 Seconds and put it down once she hit the first word of profanity. (She finally finished it a year later.) She’s making a very strong effort to read Last Breath, which makes me cringe when I think of certain scenes that her face is surely going to contort over. I’d like to write something someday that she can read without wondering where she went wrong.  That aside, she pushes my books wherever she goes – the dentist, the bank, the insurance company. I’d like to take her with me to the Boucheron Writers Conference in Anchorage, Alaska next month — 18 Seconds is up for another award — I’d like her to work the book sellers table.  

Thanks for the interview.

Thank you for having me.

 

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.