Please welcome Jonathan Segura, author of Occupational Hazards!
Jonathan Segura Interviewed by R. Don Copeland for New Mystery Reader
Brooklyn-based writer Jonathan Segura is destined to eventually write beyond the noir setting of Occupational Hazards, his first novel. Segura is an often brilliant raconteur who has already draw comparisons with Elmore Leonard and Chuck Palahniuk. Segura’s day job as the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly seems to have helped endow the pages of Occupational Hazards with an authorial voice that captures immediate rapport with the reader.
I reviewed Occupational Hazards right here in the June Paperbacks section of New Mystery Reader. For this New Mystery Reader interview, I was able to catch Segura at home this Sunday.
RDC: Could you begin with a brief biography of Jonathan Segura? I understand you grew up in the Midwest, but would like to know more specifically where you were born and raised, and a brief description of your growing up years? Also, how old were you the first time you thought you might want to be this thing called a writer?
JS: I did grow up predominantly in Omaha, Neb. My dad was in the Air Force, so we moved around a couple times. I was born in Newport News, Va., then moved to Hickam AFB outside of Honolulu when I was five, then to Omaha when I was ten. Stayed there until I moved to New York in 2002 at the salty old age of 24. So, growing up in a few different places around military bases, you sorta learn to get along with a lot of different people from wildly different backgrounds. I also had a lot of bad haircuts. As far as when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I figured out pretty early that I could string words together.
RDC: As you have your M.F.A from Columbia, it seems a fair assumption you’ve long wanted a career with words. Can you tell us Jonathan, what sort of career you ‘wished’ for at 18, ‘hoped’ for at 22, and later ‘envisioned’ at 26? I’m smiling a bit, but it’s perfectly acceptable if your dream, hope and vision remained consistent. Or didn’t.
JS: At 18, I wanted to be a reporter. By 22, I was a reporter and enjoying it but wondering if maybe there wasn’t a different kind of writing I’d rather be doing; as a reporter, you spend a pretty small chunk of your day writing. Lots of phone calls, reading boring court filings and municipal docs, covering various board meetings, meeting strange dudes in parking garages for confidential document hand-offs, etc. At 26, I’d just finished grad school and was waiting, like an idiot, for that million dollar advance. I’m still waiting for that, by the way.
RDC: As was your character Bernard Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn, please) in Occupational Hazards, you yourself were a reporter in Omaha, Nebraska. Can you tell us about your experiences as a reporter in Omaha? Was newspaper journalism ever a career ambition of yours? Or was it more nearly a necessary step on the career ladder?
JS: I worked for a couple of alternative newsweeklies, first as a freelance writer and later as a reporter and news editor for a dramatically understaffed paper. I covered mostly city hall and courts and had as much fun doing that as a person reasonably can. I had a great editor/mentor who drilled into me the value of word economy and precision. I hope those values come through in the novel.
Journalism was something I came to accidentally. I signed up for a creative writing class my freshman year of high school, but only like two other people signed up for it, so the class was cancelled and I needed to fill an elective. I looked at the options, and journalism involved writing, so. I stuck with that through high school and enjoyed it despite the wretched journalism teacher, then majored in print journalism. What do you do with a BS in journalism? Get a reporting job, weasel into a PR firm or wait tables.
RDC: I had the notion that you have a sort of ‘Master Plan’ Jonathan, in which you consciously chose a smaller stage such as Omaha to cut your teeth as a novelist. And that you later plan to move your novel settings on to a much bigger stage such as New York, and perhaps still later, Internationally. Just a notion on my part, or any substance?
JS: I realized as I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel that first novels are largely learning experiences. (The same could be said for second, third and twelfth novels, I’m sure.) So I thought I’d start out with something I could manage, which is a pretty simple narrative structure set in a locale I know relatively well. And now I’m working on something that’s a bit wider in scope. Though you can still have big, important novels set in the backwoods—let us not forget The Echo Makers is set in a corner of Nebraska much smaller than Omaha.
RDC: You’ve been compared stylistically to several very talented writers. Your own Publishers Weekly felt that Occupational Hazards ‘should appeal especially to fans of Chuck Palahniuk and Arthur Nersesian’, while Radar likened you to ‘a shotgun wedding of Elmore Leonard and Chuck Palahniuk’. Candidly, both Palahniuk and yourself are savagely funny and sharp, but I don’t find you stylistically similar to Palahniuk- beyond having talent of a similar order. This might be hard for a mid-westerner such as yourself to answer (as it may seem to strain modesty), but do you have an idea why your writing is compared to Palahniuk’s?
JS: I think the Palahniuk comparison boils down to profanity and irreverence. We’re definitely, as you point out, very different stylistically, but, goddamn, there are a lot of ‘fucks’ in both our works. He also has a lot more money than I do.
RDC: Every (honest) writer has parts of his game he’d like to improve- whether strong already or not. Jonathan, can you tell us what aspects of your writing you work most on improving?
JS: Oh, all of it? Like most writers, I’m deeply insecure and really, really hate everything I write. I’m convinced it’s all shit. That, of course, is a vague non-answer to your question. The thing I’m working on right now is in third person, and I’m having a lot of trouble nailing down the voice, ie: is this me editorializing or is this the character editorializing? Is this me choosing this adjective, or is this adjective something the character would use? Free indirect style is a bad, bad motherfucker.
RDC: As a deputy editor at Publishers Weekly Jonathan, you certainly have a wonderful opportunity occupationally to become very familiar with the sort of good- and bad- writing that is published today. Focusing on bad published writing for now, what sort of authorial mistakes ‘disconnect’ you as a reader. Name as many or few as you wish, please.
JS; A lot of it is along the lines of Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” dictum. But, some specific things I can’t stand:
· sex scenes that are about sex
· grammatically perfect dialogue
· beginning a novel with a line of dialogue
· narrative arcs that involve people learning from their mistakes and becoming better people
· mannered storytelling and neatness in general
· nice people who do the right thing
· excusing away a character’s bad behavior by relating it directly to a childhood trauma
· childhood trauma
· cute shit
· the assumption that a character’s feelings/inner life are enough to carry a book/story
· “But I love you,” he said.
RDC: What sort of published writing ‘has you at hello’ (if any)? What sort of author grabs you, and has you almost from the beginning, and would thereafter have to make mistakes to lose you?
JS: This, again, is a “know it when I see it” thing. I can get hooked in any number of ways, but I’m not going to wait for page 150 for the hook. If I don’t care about the characters pretty quick, I’m out. I’m also drawn toward grotesques and nasty types. They’re so much fun to read about.
RDC: You chose noir or detective fiction as the genre for your first novel. As talented as you are in the genre, I don’t necessarily see noir as your final destination. Jonathan, do you see yourself writing in other genres? If so, can you tell us what sort of home you eventually envision for yourself as a genre?
JS: I’m really afraid, actually, of getting pigeonholed. I love writing noirish stuff, but it’s not all I want to do; the thing I’m working on now is very much not a noir. I hope I can sell it. I honestly don’t know where I’d like to end up. I wouldn’t mind a Graham Greene sort of set-up, where you can turn out “entertainments” as well as “real books.” I realize that may sound pompous, for a guy with one book out to say “I’m going to be like Graham Greene,” but here we are and there that is.
RDC: Whom are you own personal favorites amongst authors actively publishing today? Choose any genre.
JS: How about: Martin Amis, James Ellroy, A.L. Kennedy, Elmore Leonard, Bruce Wagner, James Lee Burke, Aleksandar Hemon. Peter Carey’s Theft is magnificent, and I’m reading and loving Zoe Heller’s The Believers. Irvine Welsh can be sublime. I wish David Gates would write another novel—Jernigan and Preston Falls are pure genius.
RDC: Do you have any new projects you’re now working on, or that are about to be published?
JS: I’m working on another novel and am in the earlyish stages of it. I haven’t honed the elevator pitch for it yet, but it’s ‘bigger’ than Occupational Hazards in terms of scope (it’s not at all a noir), though I hope to keep it very dark and funny.
RDC: This last question is a sort of ‘vacation’ from our previous line of inquiry. I saw some photos in your blog that appeared to be taken in the Basque region of France (possibly Spain). What sort of world travel have you yet engaged in? What sort of world travel, if any, would you yet like to do?
JS: Ah, those pics are from Bilbao, Spain. We were there for a couple days this summer, and you know what? They love to drink. Then we hit a tiny and shockingly beautiful mountain village in Spain called Segura. My people may or may not have distant roots there. (My mom’s genealogical research indicates my dad’s line of Seguras left Malaga and landed in Louisiana in the early 18th century. Her people are West Virginia hillbillies of indeterminate origin. These things are of recent and inexplicable interest to me. Maybe I’m getting old.) But, to answer your question: I didn’t get a passport until 2005, when my then-girlfriend (and now wife) ordered me to get one. Since then, we’ve taken a couple trips a year and have hit a good chunk of Europe, as well as Turkey and Morocco. It’s difficult, I’ve found, to get a decent martini abroad. This is a problem. I’m currently fascinated by countries that have currencies weaker than the dollar.