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Debbi Mack interviews crime writer Tony Knighton on the Crime Cafe podcast.
Check out the show notes below, or if you’re in a rush, download a copy!
Debbi: [00:00:08] Hi, everyone. This is the Crime Cafe, your podcasting source of great crime, suspense, and thriller writing. I’m your host, Debbi Mack. Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two e-books for sale. The nine-book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy links for both on my web site DebbiMack.com, under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
Debbi: [00:00:59] Hi everyone. I’m very pleased to have with me today a crime writer who’s also a working fireman or firefighter, if you will. He’s a lieutenant with the Philadelphia Fire Department. If you’d like to enter a giveaway for a copy of his novel Three Hours Past Midnight, just go to my blog and look for his guest post. You can also find the guest post on my Patreon page. So, in any case, here he is, Tony Knighton. Hi, Tony.
Tony: [00:01:34] Hi, Debbi. How are you doing?
Debbi: [00:01:36] OK. How are you today?
Tony: [00:01:38] Oh, swell. How about you?
Debbi: [00:01:40] Not bad. Not bad at all. You know, it’s Friday and the weekend’s coming.
Tony: [00:01:48] Yeah, yeah.
Debbi: [00:01:48] Let’s see. I am reading your novella, Happy Hour and Other Philadelphia Cruelties? I have to say, the first chapter left me breathless.
Tony: [00:01:59] Oh, thank you.
Debbi: [00:02:02] You write a very fast-paced story. Would you say that’s part of your style?
Tony: [00:02:09] Yeah. Yeah. That’s fair enough.
Debbi: [00:02:12] Yeah. How would you describe your writing generally? Do you consider yourself hardboiled or noir? Is there a difference?
Tony: [00:02:22] Sort of both. I heard Duane Swierczynski, another Philadelphian, talking about the subject, and he says the difference all counts on the ending. If it’s a positive ending, you just wrote hardboiled. If it’s a negative ending, you write noir. I think that’s at least an interesting explanation. My stories are a little bit of both, I think. Happy Hour is definitely noir.
“If it’s a positive ending, you just wrote hardboiled. If it’s a negative ending, you write noir. I think that’s at least an interesting explanation. My stories are a little bit of both, I think.”
Debbi: [00:03:16] So a little bit of both then.
Tony: [00:03:19] Yeah.
Debbi: [00:03:20] Do you focus more on mystery or kind of like thriller-type stuff, suspense.
Tony: [00:03:26] Most of my stuff I guess falls into the category of crime fiction. My novel sort of ended up being a mystery, too. But I’ve always been a little bit more interested in will they get away? That just seems to be my preference or the kind of stuff I end up writing.
Debbi: [00:03:58] Gotcha. So tell us about Three Hours Past Midnight. What is the book about?
Tony: [00:04:09] That story … it features a character that I wrote in a short story. And in that story …
Debbi: [00:04:20] You’re trailing off a little bit, sometimes.
Tony: [00:04:23] I’m sorry. Yeah. The novel features a character that I started in a short story, and by the end of the story, the guy was still alive. Then I realized I kind of liked him. And I’d had an idea for the novel. The crime involved in the novel and I just sort of have never been able to see who would do it. And I see this guy now. It’s basically two guys who are burglarizing the home of a crooked politician who ended up in jail. They believe there’s a wall safe and a lot of money in it. They indeed find the safe and get away with it. And, very shortly, one of them is killed and the safe [illegible]. The rest of the book is basically the other guy, main guy, going through Philadelphia throughout the night trying to find who did it and who’s got his safe.
Debbi: [00:05:47] There was a part there where you said one of them gets killed, when the safe does something and it cut out.
Tony: [00:05:55] I’m sorry. One of them gets killed and the safe is gone.
Debbi: [00:05:59] Okay. Aha. Now I’ve got it. Yeah. Boy, the sound is being funny today. Well, you chose a good excerpt from that book, because I really enjoyed it. Are you writing a sequel?
Tony: [00:06:16] Well, that excerpt actually is from the sequel.
Debbi: [00:06:19] Woo! OK.
Tony: [00:06:24] It’s a couple of weeks later and he’s something else to do. In the excerpt, he’s traveling to central Pennsylvania and Norristown’s on the way. So he stops off at the guy’s house that he knows there. And so on.
Debbi: [00:06:45] Aha! Well, that’s very interesting. It’s a nice teaser for the first book, too. So I admire your ability to combine details about Philadelphia with a fast-moving storyline. How do you work in the details without bogging the story down?
Tony: [00:07:07] That’s a really good question. I think … I don’t dwell on details that much. I don’t go in for big, lengthy descriptions. I usually will … I’ll write about the first thing that struck me about a location. Or what I think is significant about that location. I kind of leave it up to the reader to fill in the gaps. If that makes sense.
On writing about location: “I don’t dwell on details that much. I don’t go in for big, lengthy descriptions. … I’ll write about the first thing that struck me about a location. Or what I think is significant about that location. I kind of leave it up to the reader to fill in the gaps.”
Debbi: [00:07:47] That makes total sense to me.
Tony: [00:07:50] Readers who come from the city and readers who have never been to the city get a different take on things. And while I was writing it, I was afraid that maybe if you’re not from Philadelphia, this won’t be that much fun. But I think again, without being detail heavy, readers follow along whether they know the city or not.
Debbi: [00:08:31] I know what you’re saying. It’s kind of like you want to give the flavor of that city without ….
Tony: [00:08:36] Yeah. Yeah.
Debbi: [00:08:38] Bogging everything down and making everything grind to a halt. I assume you’ve gotten to know a lot about Philadelphia through your work with the fire department.
Tony: [00:08:50] Oh, yeah.
Debbi: [00:08:51] Do your experiences as a firefighter influence your writing and how, if they do?
Tony: [00:08:58] They have to and, I mean, I’ve done this for over half of my life now. So we’re the sum of all of our experiences. Being a fireman, I’ve worked all over the city. I’d get rotated every three years. So I know the city pretty well. Except maybe one section in the far northeast. Everywhere else. And I like the town. You know? I mean, there’s a lot of craziness and there’s a lot of nuttiness, but it’s home and familiar. And you know it’s a [illegible] city.
“So we’re the sum of all of our experiences. Being a fireman, I’ve worked all over the city. I’d get rotated every three years. So I know the city pretty well.”
Debbi: [00:09:47] Are you originally from that area?
Tony: [00:09:50] Actually, no. I came here when I was in third grade. Which means I’m still the new kid. But, yeah, I’ve been here most of my life.
Debbi: [00:10:05] Where were you from originally?
Tony: [00:10:07] We bopped all over. I was born in Pittsburgh. We lived in Bordentown, New Jersey, and we were in Shreveport, Louisiana, for a while. After being here for a couple years, I was in Toronto for a year and then in between all those moves, I lived in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
Debbi: [00:10:37] All right. Well, so you’ve lived all over, I know what that’s like. So let’s see. Have you ever considered writing a crime story with a firefighter protagonist?
Tony: [00:10:51] It’s interesting that you say that or asked that because I did, and when I was finished with it, I didn’t like it. It basically followed an arson investigator who’s having some trouble. And I didn’t like it, and I just recently looked at it again, and I think I fixed it up. So I’m working [illegible] on my sequel to Three Hours, and I’m cleaning up this thing that I wrote a while ago. And it does involve the fire department and the firemen and there’s fires.
Debbi: [00:11:39] And this is going to be a novel? The thing you’re working on now?
Tony: [00:11:46] Maybe. I cut a lot out. That’s what I had to do to fix it, so it might be a novella. It might be a novel. Might be in between.
Debbi: [00:11:55] I was going to say, do you have a preference for writing short? Because I noticed you started with short stories and the novella before you came out with your novel.
Tony: [00:12:05] Yeah, Well, I mean, truth be told, I wrote three novels that never saw the light of day before Happy Hour got published. My writing is very spare. I can sit down at something that I’ve been working on and, on a productive day, my word count will have diminished. I appreciate that kind of writing. I mean, I do like … there’s a lot of people who write very lush sorts of stuff and I enjoy their writing, too. But I sort of figured out early in the game that if I write very simply and very spare, I can turn out professional-sounding prose. So that’s kind of what I go with.
“[T]here’s a lot of people who write very lush sorts of stuff and I enjoy their writing, too. But I sort of figured out early in the game that if I write very simply and very spare, I can turn out professional-sounding prose.”
Debbi: [00:13:11] That’s interesting because you’d be perfect as a screenwriter. Have you ever considered that?
Tony: [00:13:17] I did with my brother and we got into a fight on the first page. So that was sort of the end of that.
Debbi: [00:13:28] Well, it’s something to keep in the back of your mind if you ever want to write taut, concise prose, because that’s what’s required for screenwriting and you’ll need to take out words. Let’s see. What else? I was gonna ask you if … oh, what authors do you find most inspiring?
Tony: [00:13:50] I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dashiell Hammett.
Debbi: [00:13:55] Don’t we all?
Tony: [00:13:57] I owe an awful lot to Richard Stark. I think that George V. Higgins’ Friends of Eddie Coyle might be the best book I’ve ever read. And I like a lot of literary guys, too. I like all the Johns. You know, I like John O’Hara and John Updike and I like John Cheever. You know, so, I like a variety of stuff.
Debbi: [00:14:32] Do you like James Steinbeck?
Tony: [00:14:34] Yeah, yeah. I like Steinbeck, too. I like James Ellroy’s stuff. Jim Thompson. I owe him a debt, too. Jim Thompson has this … I mean, every book of his that I read, he has this delicious way of making everything crap. Everything is seamy, you know, everybody’s on the take. And it’s just wonderful the way he does it. In the early Richard Stark books, sort of like the world is bad. And I think some of that rubbed off on me. I kind of like that.
Debbi: [00:15:24] Those are all great influences, great writers. If someone asked you how to get into either firefighting or writing as a career, what would you tell them?
Tony: [00:15:38] Oh, man. I know in Philadelphia it helps a lot to have been in the service. I got ten points for my military service. Toward my, you know, civil service test. I had worked as a roofer before I got on the fire department and crappy construction jobs. A knowledge of construction. How a buildings are put together and laddering. I probably learned most of what I know about carrying, raising and climbing ladders from before I got on the job. So all that stuff helped. As far as writing, I mean, you know. Just get a pencil and a piece of paper. Start. Start putting it down. Hanging out with other writers, look at their stuff, they’ll look at yours. Read, read all the time. I think that’s how, you know, I mean, that’s how I broke in. Take some classes.
Writing advice: “Just get a pencil and a piece of paper. Start. Start putting it down. Hanging out with other writers, look at their stuff, they’ll look at yours. Read, read all the time.”
Debbi: [00:17:00] That’s great advice. All of it. I have to ask, what are your thoughts about the way firefighting and firefighters are portrayed in movies and on TV?
Tony: [00:17:14] It’s all pretty silly. I mean, some of the shows get some of the details right. As goofy as it was, Denis … Oh, his name just went out of my head.
Debbi: [00:17:31] Denis Leary?
Tony: [00:17:32] Yeah. His show.
Debbi: [00:17:35] Rescue Me?
Tony: [00:17:37] Yeah, that sort of hit part of it pretty well because it was a comedy and the workplace is a comedy. Nobody’s workplace is a drama. The firehouse is a comedy. A lot of funny stuff going on. So he got that part right. The thing about firefighting is nobody really sees what we do. The stuff that civilians can see us do, they could do. They could do it, too. It’s tough [illegible] is going inside. Working in pitch blackness, Inside a burning building, you can’t see anything. And there’s no way to show a civilian that. There’s no way to show it in a movie. So none of them really get it right, you know? But I’m sure police say the same thing about cop shows.
Debbi: [00:18:44] Sure. I know lawyers say the same thing about lawyer shows.
Tony: [00:18:49] Yeah. Yeah.
Debbi: [00:18:51] Well, is there anything else you’d like to say before we finish up?
Tony: [00:18:57] I want to apologize for my ineptitude.
Debbi: [00:19:01] Oh, no.
Tony: [00:19:02] You, at that, and my lovely wife. This has been … this has been a gas. Thank you very much.
[00:19:14] Well, it’s my pleasure, Tony. Thank you. And thank you, Julie. That’s your wife, I assume. Who set this up? Oh, yeah. Don’t forget everyone to leave a review for the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. And—big announcement—the special offer I’m giving of a shout out as well as a copy of my upcoming novel, my fourth novel in the Sam McRae mystery series is now live on my Patreon page. The Patreon page for this podcast that is.
[00:19:53] So check out the details there. And on that note, thanks again to our guest and to you for listening. Next time, I’m going to have author Burl Barer on the show with me. In the meantime, take care and happy reading.
And don’t forget to check out the special offer on Patreon! 🙂 Check it out while it lasts.