Friday 20 May 2011

Mike Dennis interview: Setup On Front Street

Setup On Front Street by Mike Dennis
Amazon UK, Amazon US

After thirty years as a professional musician (piano), Mike Dennis left Key West in 2006 and moved to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. In December 2010, following the release of his first novel, a noir tale called The Take, he moved back to Key West, where he self-published Bloodstains On The Wall, a collection of short stories. His latest book, Setup On Front Street, is the first of a trio of noir novels set in the shadows of Key West, where the tourists never go.

Can you sum up Setup On Front Street in no more than 25 words?

Key West, 1991. Don Roy Doyle is back in town, fresh out of prison, looking for his share of the swindle that sent him up.

What was your motivation for writing it?

I wanted to write a noir novel based in Key West, out of the sun and back in the shadows where the tourists never go. Most people don't realize that this is a very noir town, and I wanted to do a Key West novel that wasn't steeped in the "quirky character / Margaritaville" stereotypes.

How long did it take you to write?

The first draft took about six weeks, then it was another seven or eight months to bring it around.

How much difference does an editor make?

Plenty. You need fresh eyes. A good editor, one in whom you have confidence, can (and almost always does) spot the big-picture flaws, like storyline inconsistencies and plot weaknesses. Then there's the small-detail errors, like grammar and punctuation, which can easily derail a novel, no matter how good the writing. I consider myself to be pretty good at spotting these in my own writing, but you can never get them all. It's the fresh eyes thing.

Who designed your cover?

How much difference does a good cover make?

A good cover makes a big difference, and a great cover can make all the difference. You need a good book, of course, and the best cover can't make up for a poorly-written book. But if the book is there...well, we do judge it by its cover, don't we?

How important is a good title?

Very, very important. I'm reminded of the organized crime attorney whose career was damaged by his long association with Mafia criminals. He wrote a book and wanted to call it The Price Of Loyalty.  The publisher took one look at it and said no. The book came out as Mob Lawyer and was a big hit.

Did you have any other titles in mind?

No. Setup On Front Street came to me in the most ususual way. I was a professional poker player at the time, playing every day in Bellagio in Las Vegas. They use house dealers in the poker games there, so every now and then, if someone wants a new deck introduced into the game, the dealer will call for a new setup, which is a little box containing two new decks. One day, this dealer made such a call. We were at table 14, and she hollered out "Setup on fourteen!" Something inside me snapped, and I had my title. The book was finished and up till then, I'd been totally unable to come up with a title, but it was handed to me that day.

What's the best piece of craft advice you've been given?

Every scene should contain tension at some level, and every single character has to have a stake in the action.

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

Writing the last line of a novel.

What was the last good eBook you read?

One Lonely Night by Mickey Spillane.

What crime book are you most looking forward to reading?

I would have to say Choke Hold by Christa Faust. It's been held up for one reason or another, but I'm sure it'll be worth the wait.

What are you reading now?

The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli. I've read a couple of his other books and there's a certain bleak quality about his writing, a certain hopelessness in all of his characters, that's hard to find anywhere else. This one is set in Vermont, of all places, and instead of the cutesy-poo picture-postcard image that we're all used to, it becomes a center of great despair. That's noir!

If you had to re-read a crime novel right now, what would you choose?

I'd have to go with The Grifters by Jim Thompson. Nobody understood the criminal mind better than he did.

From an artistic rather than financial perspective, what book do you wish you had written?

Not long ago, I read Ace Atkins' White Shadow. I read that and I went, "Yeah. That's the way it's done." It's a remarkable novel about the murder of a retired crime boss in Tampa in the 1950s. You read this book and not only are you immediately transported to that place and time, but all of your senses are engaged throughout. That to me is great writing.

What are your views on eBook pricing?

I've got a few ebooks out right now at different prices: a novel from a traditional publisher at $4.99, a self-pubbed novel at $2.99 and a self-pubbed short story collection at 99¢. I intend to price the digital version of Setup On Front Street at $2.99. I'm not ruling out experimenting on down the road, but for now, it'll be $2.99. I really like the way that ebook self-publishing has allowed authors to set, and even change, their own prices and then let the marketplace take over. The New York publishers are still in denial that anything substantial is happening, so they continue to price ebooks at $9.99 and even $12.99.

What are the greatest opportunities facing writers these days?

Of course, it would have to be the explosion in digital self-publishing. When you have best-selling authors turning down mid-six-figure advances in favor of self-publishing, you know there's plenty of room for the rest of us in that arena.

Ever tried your hand at screenwriting?

No. Screenwriting is a discipline that I just don't get. You bust your ass the same way a novelist does, but when you're finished, you don't have a finished product. The movie is the finished product, and by the time it comes out, IF it ever gets made, you may not recognize it. A friend of mine asked me to read and critique a screenplay he'd written, and when I did, I couldn't tell him anything. Because all I was reading was dialogue and I had to glean the story entirely from that. I told him I couldn't tell a good script from a bad one, and I can't.

How do you feel about anyone being able to publish?

Well, you know, it's always been that way, hasn't it? You had the vanity publishers and all the rest of them for years, so anyone who wanted to put up the money could have a book.

But the question really implies that the great unwashed, those who could never break down the gates of the New York castle, are now able to circumvent that castle and go directly to the readers with a product that might well be the equal, or even superior, to anything the castle is grinding out. As we all know, Amanda Hocking was rejected repeatedly by agents and publishers, and yet she sold 450,000 self-pubbed books in January alone. That's a startling figure, representing a lot of people who are willing to pay to read what she writes. Now, New York wants her, but only after her astonishing track record got their attention.

What was your favourite book as a child?

When I was in junior high, I read Moby Dick. Of course, I didn't understand all of its subtleties at the time, but it opened my eyes to the wonders of storytelling. I still marvel at the complex tale that emerged from the simplistic "Call me Ishmael."

Which author should be much better known?

Vicki Hendricks. She is a great writer. Period.


  1. Thanks for running this, Al. Much appreciated.

  2. Mike - great interview. I had the same problem with scripts until I read some damn good ones.

  3. Well done on both of you.I'll be heading over to Amazon for my copy soon as I'm done here.

  4. Mike, if the script was all dialogue, it was most likely a bad script. Cinema is a visual medium. I'd highly recommend checking out the screenplay for SEVEN. Some lovely writing in that. Just make sure you don't end up with a shooting script.

  5. Great interview - I am astounded that Setup on Front Street only took Mike Dennis six weeks to write. This is a layered tale with complex characters and plot lines. But it does explain the smooth unfolding and pace of the story. It's my favorite book of his so far.

  6. Enjoyed the interview, Mike. And I loved your novel The Take, so I'm looking forward to reading this one. If it's anything like The Take, it will keep me up reading until I finish. I couldn't wait to see how The Take ended, and I wasn't disappointed. It's a great read, so now . . . on to the Setup.