Interview with author Gray Basnight

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Gray Basnight – a writer I used to play with when we were both little kids in Richmond, Virginia! Now we’re both writing political thrillers, except mine involve a lot more humor and vampires.

GRAY BASNIGHT: Hi Michael! Thank you for this terrific opportunity.Gray Cap

VENTRELLA: Introduce yourself to my readers, Gray!

BASNIGHT: I’m deeply immersed in my third career — fiction writing, after almost three decades in broadcast news as a writer, editor, producer, and reporter; preceded by a few years pursuing an acting career.

From our hometown of Richmond, to N.C., to D.C., I now live in New York where I’ve been for, ahem, forty years. That’s long enough to be a native.

But to step back in time, may I say I had a very good time visiting your house as a kid. I don’t remember much specifically about what we did. I don’t think we played at ordinary games like Monopoly or Hide-and-Seek, mainly because neither of us was ordinary. In fact, as you well know, we were both quite special in extraordinary ways. But I do know we had a good time, and not just because of our friendship. Your parents made it great fun because they encouraged creativity and, unlike most adults I knew at the time, actually enjoyed having children hanging about and doing natural child-like things. For me, that was wonderful.

VENTRELLA: I mostly recall us running around pretending to be James Bond. Both of us Bond, at the same time. We were kids.

BASNIGHT: As for details of my life since then—well, I wish I could cut to a phantasm-style video in honor of your recent Monkees book: “Here I come, walking down the street, I get the funniest looks from…” (You know the rest).

So, let’s see, there was college at NC Wesleyan, followed by grad school at GW University for an MFA in Theatre, where I thought I’d become a college theatre  professor.

After GWU, I made the big move to NYC to be a struggling actor (cue: Daydream Believer), which I thought mattered if I planned to teach. Then it magically morphed into waiting tables at an Israeli nightclub in Greenwich Village. While I met many interesting people there, I decided it may be best to move on to—well, anything else. (cue: For Pete’s Sake).

Fortunately, I had an offer to work at WOR radio. This led to opportunities in broadcast news where I wore many hats including writer, producer, editor, and reporter.

Three decades and several stations and newsrooms later, I was laid off in 2009 from Bloomberg Radio in the midst of the financial crisis. My title on the day of my demise was “reporter,” and the last big story I covered was the Miracle on the Hudson. That company’s decision led me to the question—what now? My answer: write novels. It was a long time desire, and something I’d previously tried to squeeze into precious spare time. (Cue: I Wanna be Free.)

And that is the story of my…uh-oh, wait a second. Let’s not forget something important. Somewhere in that phantasmagoric Monkees-inspired cinematic montage—I met my wife Lisa, and eventually we got married on our 9 th boyfriend/girlfriend anniversary. We’ve now been married twenty-two years (cue: I’m a Believer).

And, as we all know, The Best Is Yet to Come (and that’s a song the Monkees would probably have recorded had Sinatra not beat them to it.)

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the plot of FLIGHT OF THE FOX!FoF-Finder

BASNIGHT: It’s a political run-for-your-life thriller. My central protag, Sam Teagarden, does not own a gun or know anything about how to karate chop people. He’s a university math professor whose only weapon is his intelligence and his will to live. After receiving an encoded file in his email inbox, he suddenly has drones trying to kill him for reasons unknown. During his race down the East Coast from teams of black-ops hitmen, he manages to decode the document. He learns that it’s a diary written by a former high ranking official with the FBI that reveals many unknown facts about the 20th century. If published, the decrypted diary will radically alter the public’s view of U.S. history.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide on that title?

Interesting story. It was originally titled “The Dear John File.” I liked it. Still do. It was intended as an homage to Robert Ludlum who made the run-for-you-life genre so popular with his Bourne novels. But the publisher was understandably concerned that my title would be misunderstood as an adolescent romance novel. Quite a reasonable observation! So, I changed it to FLIGHT OF THE FOX, based on the idea of a fox hunt. My protag even thinks of himself a fox in a fox hunt during his race for survival.

VENTRELLA: How did you go about finding a publisher?

BASNIGHT: I concentrated on small publishers. Several expressed interest, but when Down and Out Books stepped up with an offer, I was really pleased. I was introduced to D&O through a writer friend, Charles Salzberg, to whom I’ve dedicated this particular book.

D&O is a fast-growing outfit based in Florida that’s garnering quite a bit of respect in the crime and mystery genre, as well as tremendous interest from readers.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about your other books.

BASNIGHT:  THE COP WITH THE PINK PISTOL (2012) is a police procedural / mystery / romance / humor novel with three separate plots. I didn’t set out to blend all those genres and plots. For some reason, that’s what popped from my fingertips when they were poised over the keyboard.

cpp_cover_for_pingg-small NYPD Detective Donna Prima (don’t ever call her prima donna) is a tough Brooklyn native who carries a pink .38 revolver strapped to her ankle in defiance of police regulations. To her astonishment, when she responds to a 911 burglary call, she gets romantically involved with the burglary victim. He’s a southern WASP who makes his living as an actor on a TV soap opera called “Vampire Love Nest.” (Hey, Michael—this one had vampires!)

It got super reviews from “Kirkus” and “Library Journal,” and is still available as an e-book.

My second novel is SHADOWS IN THE FIRE (2015). It’s an historical novel set in Richmond during the city’s final days as capital of the Confederacy. Here’s the non-fiction story: the evacuating Confederate forces accidentally burned down much of the city and the next day a contingent of black soldiers wearing Union blue marched into town. They put out the fires and restored order. Not one shot was fired. There was no raping or pillaging. One day later, President Abe Lincoln walked (literally) into town for a brief look-see. To my knowledge, it’s the only war story where the conquering army actually made improvements, instead of adding to the destruction.

Now here’s the fiction story: all of the above is witnessed by my two central characters, a 12-year-old slave girl, and a 16-year-old slave boy. They hope to get married when the war is over, but lose sight of each other during the chaos.

All in all, it’s a dramatic story. But then, it’s natural for me to say that because I wrote it. And, by the way, this novel is dedicated to the idea that an American Slave Memorial should be located on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, home of many equestrian memorials to Confederate generals.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

BASNIGHT: “Yes,” to the former question, and, “not really,” or even an outright “no” to the second.

Here’s the naked truth as I believe it. Let’s say I want to be a great piano player. Well, I happen to have no musical skill whatsoever. Even so, if I studied hard and practiced piano with great discipline, I think I could hammer out a pretty good version of “Rocky Raccoon” so that everyone at the cocktail party would be quite impressed. But I still wouldn’t be as good as, say, Elton John, let alone Chopin.

Writing is similar. So, yes, I believe true writing skill is innate. That doesn’t mean that those without natural talent cannot become writers. They can. They do. Study and practice will teach one how to write better sentences and compose better paragraphs. And some become commercially successful. But it’s generally true that solid, inventive, inspired, and insightful writing cannot be taught.

VENTRELLA: How important is a professional editor?SinF_Cover-small

BASNIGHT: Vital! I may be an unusual writer in that I like and appreciate editors. Having spent nearly 30 years in the news industry, I’m respectful of what a solid editor does to help produce improved results. I’ve been yelled at by good editors. And, having been one myself, I’ve even done the yelling. None of it means you have to fold your tent every time. You can fight for what you think works and must remain in your story. But most writers, I’m convinced, need to be accessible to the insights of a competent editor.

Learning how to do that can start with having a field of beta-readers that provide honest feedback on works on progress.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

BASNIGHT: To answer this question, may I focus on the definition of the word “professional?”

For me, that hinges on money, i.e., income. If you get paid for what you do, you’re a professional. Vanity publishing is fine, particularly if your principle wish is for friends and family to see your book. Although, because of eBooks and the ease of self-publishing via the Internet, the publishing industry is certainly going through tectonic changes and self-publishing may take on greater significance in the future. We’re all watching and waiting to see how everything shakes out and where the evolution leads.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

BASNIGHT: Regardless of what anyone has heard or not heard, there’s only one supreme rule: butt in chair. If you’re not sitting at the keyboard for a minimum of four-to-six hours a day, six-days a week, you’re not going to be a professional writer.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

BASNIGHT: Believability is certainly important. But if the wider narrative is working well, what John Gardner called the “fictive dream,” then anything can be made believable by a skilled writer.

On the other hand, all characters are, indeed must be, special in some larger-than-life way that makes the reader care about them. Frequently what makes them special is their struggle to overcome some obstacle and how they go about meeting the challenge.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

BASNIGHT: The advice—write what you know—is dumb, though it can certainly work quite well as a starting point. If I recall correctly, New York firefighter Dennis Smith attended a writing class where he was told to “write what you know.” So he did. The result was “Report from Engine Company 82,” published in 1972. It’s a very good and highly successful book. I read it as a teenager and found it inspiring. But generally, it would be bad if writers only wrote about what they know. If Daniel Defoe only wrote about what he knew, we wouldn’t have “Robinson Crusoe.” Likewise for Flaubert’s “Madam Bovary,” Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and thousands more.

VENTRELLA: What’s your next project?

BASNIGHT: I’m three-quarters of the way into the sequel to FLIGHT OF THE FOX. This features another race against time and death for my main character (no spoilers here, you’ll have to wait to find out who that is). In this story, the protagonist finds himself in the middle of a bureaucratic screw-up where the powers that be never, never, never get it right.

I have a completed YA that’s loosely based on “Treasure Island,” but features a contemporary 15-year-old female protag filling the Jim Hawkins role. NOTE: Any interested agents or editors reading this may call me for a look see.

After that, I’ve got about ten manuscripts in the mystery genre that all need attention. Some are partially written, others are complete first drafts. They are all good ideas, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately, they are all also in dire need of rescue in the categories of plotting, pacing, and characterization. So—time for some serious “butt in chair.”

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