English majors don't get a lot of respect. Case in point, jokes such as "How do you get an English major off your porch?" (Answer: Pay for the pizza.) But author Jeffrey Leever has done very well with his English degree, thank you. After starting out writing for newsletters and working as a senior editor and PR staff member for Colorado Governor Bill Owens, he turned his pen to crime fiction with his debut, Dark Friday, released in 2007.
In the second installment in the series, The University, investigative journalist Kevin Gibson lets his cousin, a former cop, talk him into looking into a student's disappearance at Tremont University. Along the way he encounters a coed hiding dark secrets and a comatose former student injured in a brutal attack two years ago who holds a critical piece of information. Gibson's investigation ultimately points toward a conspiracy involving faculty, students and some well-connected people in high places.
Leever is embarking on a blog tour this week, and graciously agreed to answer some questions for "In Reference to Murder."
IRTM: What inspired you to write that first book? A lot of people often have the desire, but fewer are able to make it happen.
JL: I enjoy a good writing-related challenge — the give and take, the late nights. With book one (which for me was DARK FRIDAY), the question I confronted was "Can you take something you originally thought was a short story idea and turn it into a trade paperback novel?" The desire came from genuinely wanting to tell the story of those characters and what happened in their town. There was one scene in particular that was "the payoff" for me of all the effort (which comes in Chapter 33 of my first book).
IRTM: Any particular writing influences — favorite authors, mentors?
JL: JL: Dave King, the coauthor of the book SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS was a definite influence. I also enjoyed Stephen King's ON WRITING, although I've never actually read a King novel. Both of these books are like ongoing reference material for me. Some of my favorite authors over the years have been Harlan Coben, Nelson Demille, James Byron Huggins, Philip Yancey, and a host of others.
IRTM: You were an English major and have even spoken at your alma mater about using that particular major in the real world. Do you think such a degree helps or hinders the creative-writing process? Do you ever have a little nagging voice in the back of your head saying, "But Professor Smith said never write that way!"?
JL: I always like to go out and talk about writing in general. To be able to encourage college students makes it even more enjoyable. I personally think that having an English major helps (or at least can help) the creative writing process. Maybe I'm lucky because I've have never had a "Professor Smith" type critiquing me in my head like that. I'm sure I do break my fair share of grammar rules as taught by some of the high school and college English teachers that I've had. None of them have ever sent me an angry note or anything, so that's good.
IRTM: You indicated that you came up with the idea for your first book, Dark Friday, while in an airplane. I think it's fascinating how the brain can pop out ideas at times when you least expect them. Was the university-based plot for your latest novel also serendipitous?
JL: Yes, it started with a nightmare that I had where I couldn't find my best friend. It was one of those dreams that you just can't shake for a long time even after you've awakened. Premise-wise, I kept coming back to the idea of how scary it would be if you just sort of lost track of your closest friend during a night out...and then gradually you end up realizing that they're truly missing and not coming back...then it hits and you realize you'll never see that lively, vibrant person again.
I began to ask some "What ifs" and eventually the story took shape. I ended up on a college campus with a student disappearing and his friend trying to figure out why — and really not liking where the answer leads him.
IRTM: In your first book, you chose a real town as the setting, Jasonville, Indiana, a place you found on the Internet but actually visited, interviewing the locals. In this latest novel, you've instead chosen a fictional town of Tremont, Nebrasaka. Was that due to some negative feedback from using a real town, a liability concern or just a desire to create and control all the details in your own imagined setting?
JL: It was more just a matter of wanting to do something moderately different. I basically used the real town of Kearney, Nebraska, but created a fictional suburb and renamed the university that's there (which is actually the University of Nebraska at Kearney).
IRTM: Taking the "real" vs. "fiction" question further, have you based any characters in your novels on people you've known or encountered in your life?
JL: Without question. Some are composites of various people. They're always fictionalized, of course. I find it hard to believe there are many authors who could truthfully answer no to this question. To quote Simon Cowell, "It's just an opinion."
IRTM: The protagonist in your two books is investigative journalist Kevin Gibson. Most authors who create a journalist as protagonist have worked in the business themselves. Did you have any qualms about getting details right or find that you had to do preliminary research or interviews to help portray an investigative journalist accurately?
JL: I do have a decent amount of journalism in my background and have spent time in several newsrooms in different states. I almost majored in journalism in college before going to the English route. Of course, one of my favorite genres to read and study, other than mystery, is true crime. I've done a lot of research on investigative techniques and have many articles from investigative crime reporters in my files. If I'm ever accused of murder or some other heinous act, the police are going to find a lot of "evidence" in my files.
IRTM: You had a short story adapted into a play, which was performed on stage. Has this whetted your appetite for writing mystery plays or even screenwriting?
JL: Yes. It was fascinating to see an actor's portrayal. I do have a couple of scripts in the works. It's certainly a different art, but I like approaching storytelling in different ways.<
IRTM: Do you have any interesting or unusual writing quirks?
JL: I have been known to take my MacBook to strange places to capture a scene. I also write at odd hours. I'm probably one of the most nocturnal creatures you'll ever find outside of the vampire world.
IRTM: I understand you play the drums! I suppose they're a little too big to carry around to book signings for some added entertainment (although that would certainly get people's attention), but maybe we'll see a drummer protagonist in the future? Any additional plans for Kevin Gibson?
JL: I am not above taking drums to a book signing...actually I think I like that idea now that you've brought it up. I come from a very musical set of siblings and when I was a teenager, my older brother had this cool set of drums that he told me not to touch. Guess what I did whenever he was gone? It was all self-taught and surreptitious.
I don't know if you'll ever see a drummer protagonist in one of my books, but I think Kevin may cross paths with a rogue drummer at some point in a future story. See what I think of myself? The drummer should be a villain and not a protagonist...
Jeffrey Leever is giving away a free signed copy of his book, The University. Go to Jeffrey's book tour page, enter your name, e-mail address, and this 4-digit PIN, 8166, for your chance to win. Entries from "In Reference to Murder" will be accepted until 12:00 Noon (PT) tomorrow. The winner (first name only) will be announced on Jeffrey's book tour page next week.