Monday 6 February 2012

Bonnie Kozek interview: Just Before The Dawn

Just Before The Dawn by Bonnie Kozek
Amazon UK|Amazon US

Bonnie Kozek is the author of the Honey McGuinness hardboiled grunge thrillers, Threshold and Just Before the Dawn.  Kozek has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.  Learn more about her work at: or contact her at: 

Can you sum up Just Before The Dawn in no more than 25 words?

Psychedelics, psycho-killers, and a lethal XXX-Rated nightmare of biblical proportions: Welcome back to the twisted world of Honey McGuinness.

What was your motivation for writing it?

Truth is often unearthed in the most unexpected places, utilizing the most unconventional methods, which requires an author to be willing to get her hands dirty.  I like getting my hands dirty.  I like plunging the depths of a damaged psyche.  Noir grunge fiction provides me a perfect vehicle and offers a bottomless pit of grime.  It’s a match made in heaven, I guess.  Plus, it’s a challenge – like having a dinner party and serving T-bone steak without the meat on it.  Stripped of the traditional pulling of heartstrings – stripped of prettified, multisyllabic, adjective-laden language – I have to try to deliver a bone so tasty that my guests won’t notice.  Not so easy. 

So, I’m always on the lookout for a concept, a core – something around which I can construct a story and use the vernacular of the genre.  Perhaps surprisingly, for Just Before the Dawn, I found that kernel in a small book called The Prophet.  Written by the great Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, I read these words: “ . . . when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”  And I thought: Bingo!  That’s it!  See, I’ve got this protagonist, Honey McGuinness, who’s so starved that she could actually travel that road.  So, I set out to test her limits – physically, emotionally, ethically and morally.  In all these areas, I tried to explore the depths to which she would allow herself to sink.  I tried to take her to – or let her hover just above or below – that “point of no return.”  I wanted to answer the question: Could Honey descend to a place so dark and deep that she couldn’t claw her way out? 

How long did it take you to write?

About four years total.  I put it down for a number of years and then came back to it. 

How much difference does an editor make?

Working with an editor is detrimental to my mental and physical health.  Here’s why:

I had a literary agent and editor at a distinguished New York agency.  Things went swimmingly for a while.  He used words like “remarkable” and “brilliant” about my work.  He awaited each new chapter with bated breath.  He said he loved the novel (which, by the by, is yet unpublished) and was certain he could get it published by a well-respected house.  We worked closely over a two-year period – speaking daily.  During this time he suggested editorial changes, which I made without fuss.  After the two years, when the book was finished, he decided to have his new assistant read the manuscript, explaining that the work needed “fresh eyes.”  After reading the manuscript, this prepubescent moron told his boss that he “couldn’t follow the story” and his boss, my agent/editor, sent me an email saying that he had decided he couldn’t sell the book, ending the email with one word: sorry.  Immediately after receiving the email I fell down two flights of stairs.  Later that day I drove my car into a ditch.  The following night I walked in a zombie-like state into the home of complete strangers and proceeded to join the bewildered little family at their dinner table where they were just about to partake of a really nice home-cooked meal.  (Unbelievably, they let me stay.  Oh, the kindness of strangers.) 

I’ll take a good proof-reader over an editor any day of the week.  If a proof-reader fails to catch a mistake, it may be temporarily embarrassing (i.e. “Ghengis Kahn” instead of Ghengis Khan”), but at least it’s not permanently disfiguring.

Who designed your cover?

Cornelius Drake, which may or may not be a pseudonym for a designer/photographer who may or may not make his or her bread and butter by designing the covers of children’s books.

How much difference does a good cover make?

A good cover can’t “make” a book, but it can help get a book into the hands (virtual or actual) of a potential reader.  No question about it.  Conversely, a lousy cover can definitely “break” a book.  My philosophy is: if you’re going to invest some serious money, this is the place to do it.

How important is a good title?

A title can be of greater or lesser consequence, depending on the content.  In this case, Just Before the Dawn, the title was crucial.  Because of the XXX-Rated adult content, I wanted to prepare and caution the reader.  I wanted the title to be unambiguous: “You’ve been forewarned!  Enter at your own risk!”  

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

My father only gave me one piece of advice: Even the grandest ideas start with a small spark.  Even the greatest fortune starts with a single dollar.  So, when you find a passion for something, start small – even if it means starting in your garage or your basement. 

What's your favourite part of the writing process?

I’m obsessed with words.  They’re powerful and endlessly mysterious.  I believe that each and every single word has a secret code – something that lies beyond its obvious meaning.  The key to breaking the code is finding the right word and then finding the right word to follow that word and then the next, and so on.  I adore spending time finding just the right word – even when it takes me days or weeks, which it often does.

Also, writing grounds me to the earth – to time and space – which fulfills a hunger I have for terrestrial connection.  It’s funny because, theoretically, fiction writing wouldn’t seem a natural conduit to “reality” – yet somehow it works for me. 

What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?

I think people become artists for varying reasons.  Some are born with immense talent, others make art to survive.  (The two-time Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and author J. Anthony Lukas once said, “All writers are, to one extent or another, damaged people.  Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. ”  Lukas, diagnosed with depression ten years earlier, hanged himself in 1997.)  It’s fair to say that I started out as a member of the latter category.  It’s a less intellectual approach – at least in the beginning.  And the risks are titanic, because talent not wholly inborn is learned and earned through the sweat of the flesh and the letting of blood.  So, in the beginning, I fought demons on the battlefield of the written page.  That has changed over time.  I think that knowing why I write is my strength.

My weakness is that when it comes to writing I’m a “one verb at a time” type of gal.  When I’m writing I can’t take breaks.  I can’t take a walk.  I can’t answer the phone.  I can’t interact with other people.  I can’t make any type of plan – even if it’s something in the far distant future.

What aspects of marketing your book do you enjoy?


As a reader, how would you describe your taste in crime fiction?

I don’t read really scary, gory books – books with deranged killers or the likes – or any mass-market crime fiction.  Other than that, I’m open. 

What are you reading now?
Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann

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

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” by Charles Willeford

What's the best collection of short stories you've read?

“When the Messenger is Hot” by Elizabeth Crane

Ever tried your hand at poetry?
I have one book of published poetry, “Mania” – which has original artwork by the American/Dutch artist, Jan Frank.  Lately, I’ve been writing rhyming poems, which I’ve found to be surprisingly un-childlike.

Do you read outside of the crime genre?

For a long time I only read and related to really tortured writers, poets, artists: Baudelaire, Rimbaud – the usual suspects.  I remember reading an interview from 1919 with the writer Djuna Barnes.  The interviewer asked her why she was so morbid and she answered, “Look at my life.”  I mean, that’s what I related to.  Not anymore.  Now I like rhyming poems and Artaud.  In the noir crime fiction genre of the Honey McGuinness books, I’d say my favorite writers are Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler.  Outside of this genre?  Oh, there are so many.  Among contemporary writers I’m crazy for Jeanette Winterson, Jonathan Lethem.  I read Alice Munro, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosely, David Foster Wallace.  Then there’s Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, Henry Miller – that crowd.  There’s Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck.  And Gabriel Márquez, Thomas Mann, Alexander Dumas.  I’m sure I’ve missed some but as you can see, my stock is eclectic.  Once you clean house, there’s room for everything.  I like that.

Do you enjoy writing?

Beyond words.

Do you have any other projects on the go?

I’m currently working on a novel (the working title: The Woman Who Was Good Enough to Eat), which was inspired by the true story of a 55-year old woman who met a 30-year old man and, two days later, married him.  Before the honeymoon was over he ate her, literally.  

Just Before The Dawn by Bonnie Kozek
Amazon UK|Amazon US

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