We turn the spotlight on thriller novelist Derek Nikitas, member of the KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007. His debut novel is Pyres (St. Martin's Minotaur): When a folklore professor is shot dead in his car, the crime smashes together the lives of three disparate women: his anguished teenage daughter, a detective facing her own family’s collapse, and the pregnant former-junkie girlfriend of the killer ...
Raised in Manchester, NH, then Rochester, NY, Nikitas has published stories in The Ontario Review, Chelsea, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and The Pedestal Magazine. Joyce Carol Oates nominated him for a Pushcart Award in 2005, proclaiming his fiction "subtly written, and quite touching and powerful." He blogs at Myspace.com/DerekNikitas and is a founding member of KillerYear.
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AS A NEWBIE NOVELIST, WHAT IS SCARIEST FOR YOU?
I’m terrified I won’t keep improving and experimenting with each new writing project, that I already reached the limits of my talent a long time ago, and that I’ll soon begin to repeat myself or fall into a stylistic rut. I want to challenge myself with my writing, though I’m constantly terrified that I’ll lose the inspiration or drive to do so. I’m well into my second novel now, but for a while I was terrified to start it because I wanted to be sure I chose the best idea out of many, the most unique and challenging for me—but also one that St. Martin’s and potential readers would enjoy.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO COMBAT YOUR FEARS?
I try to remember that I felt this way when I was writing Pyres, my first novel. I didn’t have any publishers to please at first, but I had to please myself and the creative writing mentors I’ve had over the years. I wanted to do them proud. At the same time, I’m a bit of an iconoclast, so I’m never fully satisfied until I’ve gotten away with something I’m not really “supposed” to do in writing. Creative writing programs like the one I attended are not big advocates of genre fiction, but I wanted to prove to them that I could write a genre novel that still employed conventions of literary fiction. Of course, I didn’t want to write a straightforward crime-genre novel, either. So, for instance, I inserted some magical realism elements in Pyres, and then waited to hear people tell me I couldn’t get away with it. We’ll see how it turns out.
HOW HAVE YOUR "KILLER YEAR" CLASSMATES HELPED YOU THROUGH THIS CAMPAIGN?
My particular fear is a lonely one, and I have to combat it alone. Killer Year has helped me immeasurably in other ways—mainly by providing me with a community of writers who, although they’re debut novelists like me, have seemed to know what they’re doing much more than I have. I’ve gone from a zero knowledge of the business side of publishing to, well, passable knowledge. I’ve gotten moral and actual support from several members and the great mentor that Killer Year and International Thriller Writers gave me, Doug Clegg. Not until Thrillerfest, when I met them for the first time in person, did I realize what a great band of friends I have. I’m ecstatic that we’ll be memorialized in an anthology that will persist long after 2007 is over.
WHAT ARE YOUR WRITING HABITS?
They are sporadic and painstaking. A few paragraphs a day—a couple pages, if I’m lucky—endlessly revised before I move on. Some days I can only manage to revise what I’ve already written. Other days, no writing at all. I’m worst when I’m beginning a project because the pain of discovering a fictional world is frequently stronger than my will to open the word processor. Once that’s out of the way, I usually begin to glide: writing several pages every day and saving revisions until later. The last third of Pyres was written in a few weeks in Costa Rica, while the first two-thirds took about a year and a half.
AS A READER, WHAT DOES A BOOK NEED FOR YOU TO PICK IT UP?
I like books that willfully screw with me. At a recent writing conference I heard a legendary novelist say that we should write to the reader as if the reader were our best friends. I respect that point of view (and her charming books bear it out), but I couldn’t disagree more. I like a voice that’s a danger to me, that out to connive, to manipulate me, mislead me, insult me, hurt me, shock me. One of the first lessons beginning writers learn is that novels have to have conflict. That’s true, but the contention should also exist between the reader and the book. Unreliable narrators are key, and those old storytelling tricks of withholding, reversing, and revealing are also what I mean. Think of Hitchcock; he was a master. We go to Hitchcock to be messed with, not to be befriended. It’s a wonderful sadomasochistic relationship, and one of the main reason I like the crime/thriller genre so much.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING WRITERS?
Read novels that humble you, that make you sick with envy, then re-read them closely until you understand why you’ve been humbled. Novels that make you say, “I could’ve written that” are not particularly useful, except as motivation. I’m an advocate of the close, calculated study of books—the autopsy of a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, a novel. Make structural graphs of novel plots. I’m serious. Copy brilliant paragraphs word for word (as practice, no plagiarism) so you can see what it’s like to literally write these sentences that you love. Aim high; fail well. If I strive for Nabokov or Kafka or Dickens or Oates or Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison or James Ellroy, and I only get one-tenth of the way there, I’ve still got a pretty good book, right?
Read the best how-to books. Not the ones about how to write blockbuster bestsellers, because those books tend to insult our intelligence and our art. My top picks (so far): John Gardner, The Art of Writing and On Becoming a Novelist; Stephen King, On Writing; Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House, Robert McKee, Story. The last one is about screenwriting, but its lessons (some certainly debatable) are universal to all storytellers.
Cut your teeth in short stories so you learn how to write in five to twenty pages before you tackle three hundred pages. I’m not suggesting that short stories are a “practice” genre. They’re just as vital and important as novels, but when you’re an apprentice writer, they’re simply a smaller investment. This is important because your first several dozen attempts will fail, probably, which is as it should be. The trick, as is often said, is to “fail better” each time.
This, by the way, is an ongoing process for me. It’s advice for myself as much as anyone else, and it might be wrong advice for some people, according to their particular needs.
WHAT DO YOU WISH NON-WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
I’m far more disgusted by my own lack of understanding. I wish I understood so many things that “non-writers” do understand, like the legal system, surgery, how to fly airplanes, cognitive philosophy, quantum physics. Seriously, I don’t wish that non-writers understood any part of my writing process except the end result, the story itself. I like the idea that there’s a certain amount of mystery and romance surrounding the art of writing.
WHAT DO YOU WISH OTHER WRITERS UNDERSTOOD?
I’m humbled by what the great ones do understand. I wish I understood language like Nabokov does, metaphysics like Kafka does, human psychology like Joyce Carol Oates does. I don’t think I have any particular understanding I’d wish upon another writer—unless of course that writer is a student writer. Well, then, I’ve got whole semesters worth of stuff to say.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT PUBLISHING THROUGH THIS "KILLER YEAR" CAMPAIGN?
Almost everything I have learned about publishing I have learned through Killer Year and International Thriller Writers—or, at least, whenever I faced the disappointments and small triumphs of the publishing process, they were there to help and encourage. It’s a long road, and I’ve been fortunate to watch others take that road before me, since mine is one of the last Killer Year books to be published. We continuously remind each other of the number one issue in debut novel publishing: someone has actually agreed to publish your novel, and be thrilled by this fact, always—and now shut up and write your second book.
WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT YOURSELF?
Out of all the Killer Year folks, my only distinction is that I’ve spent the most time formally studying and teaching writing and literature; it’s been my “day job” for the past ten years, even now as I try to make my way through a PhD program in creative writing at Georgia State. What I’ve learned is that this distinction, at least as far as Killer Year and publishing are concerned, is rather useless. Marcus was in advertising, JT was a speechwriter, Bill is a web designer, Jason is an editor, Sean was a P.I, and so on. This is an All-Star team, man. I’ve not been able to contribute nearly as much as I’d like because of PhD-study time constraints and lack of expertise in anything but actual writing (a skill that we all already have, obviously). I’ve written a few blogs about crime fiction that I’ve been told are insightful. That’s about it. So I’ve learned I’m a freeloader.
And another thing: I thought all writers, especially crime writers, by nature, were morose introverts like me. These Killer Year folks have proven me wrong about that, too. I’m the only one of that sad species among them. Time to go fetal in the corner of a cold, dark room.
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Thanks to thriller novelist Derek Nikitas. Find him online at dereknikitas.com and at MySpace.com/DerekNikitas. Find more at the Killer Year website, the Killer Year blog and the Killer Year MySpace page.
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KILLER Q&A: J.T. ELLISON (All The Pretty Girls)
KILLER Q&A: DAVE WHITE (When One Man Dies)
KILLER Q&A: BRETT BATTLES (The Cleaner)
KILLER Q&A: BILL CAMERON (Lost Dog)
KILLER Q&A: MARC LECARD (Vinnie's Head)
KILLER Q&A: GREGG OLSEN (A Wicked Snow)
KILLER Q&A: PATRY FRANCIS (The Liar's Diary)
KILLER Q&A: ROBERT GREGORY BROWNE (Kiss Her Goodbye)
KILLER Q&A: MARCUS SAKEY (The Blade Itself)
KILLER Q&A: SEAN CHERCOVER (Big City, Bad Blood)
KILLER Q&A: SANDRA RUTTAN (Suspicious Circumstances)
KILLER YEAR: Class of 2007
Adopting Killer Year