Author Snapshot: Charles Salzberg

Pre-order alert! Second Story Man will be available March 26! Order your copy now.


Charles Salzberg has written over 20 non-fiction books, including Soupy Sez: My Zany Life and Times.. He is author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swanns Way Out, Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of the year by Suspense magazine and “Twist of Fate” one of three crime novellas in Triple Shot. He teaches writing the New York Writers Workshop where he is a Founding Member.


SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

CS: Obviously, it’s been a while but I think the first book, other than the usual picture books, like Dick and Jane (which probably was inspiring because I figured I had to be able to do better than that) would probably have been Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It showed me you could write in the first person and in the vernacular, and create character that way. Here was a story I could connect with, even identify with: the outsider. An earlier novel was one called, The Winning Forward Pass, a sports novel about an All-American college football player. It showed me how to tell a story. I actually found a copy of that book in a second-hand bookstore and bought it. And the other book that probably helped shape me as a writer, was Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which I read as a teenager, simply because it was on sale at the local drugstore, which was attached to the building where I grew up. I think it was the title that grabbed me, and somehow, I identified with the ineffective “loser,” Tommy Wilhelm, most likely because I was so shy as a kid.

SR: What’s your new book/work in progress about? What inspired you to write it?

Second Story Man Final Cover

CS: I’m working on another Henry Swann novel, called Swann’s Down, which would be the fifth in the series. I thought the last Swann, Swann’s Way Out, would be the last in the series because I thought I’d taken the character as far as he could go. But after a year or so, I was suddenly struck with another idea for him, something that would tell the reader something more about Swann and his outlook on life. In it, Swann is working two cases. One, is for the ex-wife of his partner, Goldblatt, who was swindled out of a large sum of money by a fortune teller. The second plot, involves Swann being hired by an attorney friend to find a missing witness on a murder case which involves a professional hit man who swears he did not commit this particular murder.


SR: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?

CS: I don’t write horror, so for me that would be the most difficult emotion to elicit: fear. Why? Because what hasn’t been used before? I mean, the normal scary things, including clowns, have been done to death. Of course, no one can do that better than Stephen King, so why even try?


SR: Practice pitching: tell us what your book is about in 30 words or less.

CS: Second Story Man: Two lawmen, a retired Connecticut State investigator and a Cuban/American Miami police detective team up to bring down the arrogant, brilliant, athletic, manipulative master burglar, Francis Hoyt.


Charles Salzberg PhotoSR: What’s the best thing about writing?

CS: You can do it at home, in your pajamas, and you never have to leave the house, or in my case apartment, when the weather is bad. And, no tie and jacket. And I guess that moment, which doesn’t come often, when you think you’ve written the perfect sentence.


SR: What’s the worst thing about writing?

CS: Having to do it.


SR: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?


  1. Lolita
  2. Herzog
  3. The Great Gatsby
  4. The Sound and the Fury
  5. The Natural
  6. Portnoy’s Complaint
  7. The Continental Op
  8. A Short History of Nearly Everything
  9. In Cold Blood
  10. The Executioner’s Song


SR: What’s your protagonist’s greatest fear? Why?

CS: There are three protagonists in Second Story Man, and they all have the same fear: failure. All three are obsessed with being the best, with winning, and to differing degrees they will push the envelope of decent behavior to be the best.


SR: Did you set yourself a specific writing challenge with this book? What was it, and what was the reason?

CS: The challenge was to write from three completely different points-of-view, in the first-person. That meant I had to create a different “language” for each of them. There was always the risk that they would sound alike, and so, using their different backgrounds, I had to make sure that each voice was distinctive, that I didn’t necessarily have to label who was speaking at any one time (I did, but I think if I stripped away their names, the reader could easily tell whose voice he or she was listening to.)


SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

CS: Movies—I’ll see practically everything—reading, and hanging out with friends. Fortunately, I have enough freelance friends to schedule lunches at least three times a week, including one with my pal and fellow writer, Ross Klavan. Every week, we meet at the same restaurant, and try to solve the problems of the world. Not much luck, so far, but we’ll keep eating until we do. And then, of course, there’s Fantasy Baseball to keep me busy six months out of the year.


SR: What strategies do you use to keep your books fresh? Particularly if you write a series character, how do you keep them consistent without retelling the same content book to book?

CS: That would be deathly for me, and it’s why I almost ended the Swann series with the last one. But I have a simple way of keeping things fresh. I usually do not write about murder. In other words, I’m not interested in writing your traditional mystery, where there’s a dead body, a host of suspects, and the detective solves the crime. That leaves me so much more room to create, because I can choose from a host of other crimes: fraud, theft, blackmail, crimes of the heart, embezzlement. In fact, I’m kind of proud of the fact that in Swann Dives In, which takes place in the world of rare books, you’re not sure what the crime is until halfway through the book and then by the end of the book you’re not even sure there was a crime. So, one of the fun things for me is to figure out what crime I’m going to write about and what world I’m going to set it in. I have used murder in my novels, but for instance in Devil in the Hole, the murder takes place before the book even begins, the reader knows who committed the crime, and there are no other murders in the rest of the book.



SR: 6 Fun facts about you, or your protagonist:


  1. Favorite color: blue
  2. Favorite game: baseball
  3. Favorite vehicle: a city bus
  4. Favorite social media site: Facebook
  5. Favorite subject in school: English, as in literature. I read so much anyway it wasn’t even like taking a class, and I was exposed to so many new writers.
  6. Favorite pet: dog.



SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?


Book signing at Mysterious Bookshop (NYC), April 3, 6:30 p.m.

Book signing at Book Culture (NYC, Columbus Avenue), April 30, 7 p.m.
Book signing at Page and Palette (Fairhope, AL), May 19th, 2 p.m.

Blog Talk Radio, “Literary Viewpoints” with Fran Lewis, March 26, 10 a.m.

Blog Talk Radio, “Gus’ Guy’s Radio, Robert Manni, April 25th, 7 p.m.


Author Snapshot: Michael Niemann

I’m a bit of an expert on the world of chocolate. I used to teach a course on the politics and economics of cocoa and chocolate. ~ Michael Niemann

Michael Niemann writes international thrillers. Illegal Holdings is his third Vermeulen novel. The others are Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade. During his academic career his work focused on southern Africa and frequently spent time in the region.

SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

MN: I grew up in Germany and at that time, almost every boy read the adventure books of Karl May, a 19th century German writer. They were all set in the American West and I remember reading as many as I could get my hands on. The first one I read had an Apache chief Winnetou as the hero. I still remember the dramatic scenery, although I found out much later that May had never visited the United States until very late in his life.

Illegal Holdings Cover

SR: What’s your new book about? What inspired you to write it?

MN: Illegal Holdings is about access to land in Mozambique, a poor country in southern Africa. It dives into the machinations of powerful international donors and the resistance of ordinary people against it. My protagonist Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator for the United Nations ends up in the middle of this and has to choose a side. I was inspired by my personal experience in the country and my distrust of the increasing power wielded by large philanthropic organizations in poor countries.

SR: Due to oppressive taxation you have to move into a tiny house. What are the ten books you aren’t giving up?

MN: Actually, my wife and I moved to a very small house three years ago, and not because of taxes, but because we wanted to. So I’ve had to pare down my book collection to a minimum. Although I have more than ten books, here are the top ten that made the cut. You’ll notice few fiction books on the list. That’s because I’m an avid user of my local library and because these days I can have as many ebooks as I want on my devices.

  1. The Production of Space – Henri Lefebvre
  2. Security, Territory, Population – Michel Foucault
  3. Critique of Everyday Life – Henri Lefebvre
  4. The Constant Gardner – John Le Carré
  5. The Long Twentieth Century – Giovanni Arrighi
  6. Citizen and Subject – Mahmood Mamdani
  7. On Writing Well – William Zinsser
  8. Werke – Heinrich Heine
  9. Vengeance – Lee Child, editor (because one of my stories is in it)
  10. Jim Knopf und Lukas, der Lokomotivführer – Michael Ende (one of my favorite books as a child)

SR: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? How does music/art influence you creatively? MN: Yes, I do. For my first Vermeulen thriller I listen to The Clash a lot because it was his favorite band. Funny, really, that I chose that band. I was never much of a punk fan, but grew to like the band and it helped me get to know my character better. He’s mellowed since, but the occasional Clash song will still show up in later novels. My musical tastes are wide-ranging. For this novel, I listened a lot to Mabulu, a Mozambican marrabenta band. Music creates a cocoon of sound in which my imagination can thrive, at least that’s what I tell myself.

SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?

MN: Is all of the above an option? Let me focus on character names. Since my novels are set in far away places and involve many local folks, I do have to research first and last names. So I do spend a fair amount of time finding out what are common last names, common first names in the country. Once I have a set of names, I play with different combinations of first and last names until I find a combination that sounds good to me. This isn’t as easy as it might sound. In some circumstances, certain names are tied to specific ethnic groups. So I have to be careful not to combine the wrong names.

SR: Is your protagonist more likely to go insane or end up in prison?

MN: Prison, definitely! One of his drawbacks is his stubbornness. Once he’s figured out what’s what, he doesn’t let go. Although he hasn’t been in prison yet, the nature of his work and the locations where he does it will eventually land him in prison. Not every country has a Bill of Rights. It’s only a question of time.

SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

MN: I like to cook and bake. For example, I bake all the bread we eat at home. I make a damn good flourless chocolate cake and some tasty biscotti. Cooking is a creative process almost like writing. The choice of ingredients, the pairing of different food items. Having said that, I don’t consider myself a “foodie.” I don’t follow the latest trends. I have a repertoire and add to that when inspired.

SR: What strategies do you use to keep your books fresh? Particularly if you write a series character, how do you keep them consistent without retelling the same content book to book?

MN: Because Valentin Vermeulen works for the United Nations, I get to send him anywhere in the world. That’s probably the first ingredient to keep the books fresh. One of the challenges is to keep introducing him in fresh ways. So far it hasn’t been a problem because he’s only appeared in three novels (I’m working on the fourth). There are many tricks to get background into the story without becoming stale. In Illegal Holdings, for example, his first appearance is told from the POV of a different character.

SR: Do you have any special events coming up? Where can people catch up with you in person or on a podcast?

MN: I have a book release event at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland OR on March 1 at 7 pm. I’ll be at While Away Books and Espresso in Roseburg, OR on March 17 at noon and at Barnes & Noble in Eugene, OR that day at 3 pm. Readers can also listen to an interview with me on Literary Ashland