Thomas Adcock is a Detroit-born journalist and novelist, winner of an Edgar Allan Poe Award. As U.S. correspondent for CulturMag, a Berlin-based international magazine of art and commentary, he writes on American behavior and politics. His novels and short stories been translated into Japanese, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Bulgarian and Czech. He began his newspaper career at the Detroit Free Press and has written for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Chicago Today, the Toronto Telegram, the New York Law Journal and The New York Times.
Adcock has also worked at a Manhattan advertising agency and taught journalism and creative writing—at Temple University (Philadelphia), New York University, and the New School for Social Research (New York). He has been active in P.E.N. International, the Mystery Writers of America, the Czech Writers Union, and was co-founder of the North American chapter of the International Association of Crime Writers.
He and his wife, the actress and writer Kim Sykes, live in New York City and upstate North Chatham, N.Y. They are activists in progressive causes and political organizations.
»Take it easy, but take it.«
Where do you live?
New York City, U.S.A.
What do you do for a living?
Journalist – novelist – essayist
Your Hobbies are …?
1) Upkeep of my 226-year-old farmhouse in the upstate New York village of North Chatham, population 503;
2) left/progressive political activism in New York City and North Chatham, N.Y.
What’s the last book you can remember?
T.J. English – “Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster“
And the last movie you’ve seen was …?
“The Artist“ (French/American romantic comedy – black & white silent movie – winner of the Academy Award for best picture 2011
The last time you’ve listened to music it was …?
“Colors“ – by the Brooklyn pop/jazz vocalist & band: April Smith and the Great Picture Show
Your last accomplishment has been what?
Just now, I’ve finished mowing the pasture behind my farmhouse, after which I filled the tractor with gasoline for next time, and changed the oil. This was after an early morning run to the county dump with junk cleared out of the barn.
Which historical character do you admire – and why?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the wheelchair-bound 1930s Depression-era U.S. president who rescued America from probable fascism. My farmhouse is located in the Hudson River Valley of New York State, historic home to the Roosevelt family—now FDR’s presidential library at Hyde Park, which my wife and I visit often.
Which reform has been a real advancement for mankind?
The abolition of apartheid in South Africa—latest in the unending struggle for liberty and dignity.
Who is your hero in everyday life?
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who I hope becomes the next American president.
Any favorite thing or things?
Large friendly dogs, smart & imaginative children, Chinese food, ice cold lemonade on a hot summer day.
Your absolute favorite quote?
»The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth: persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.« — JOHN F. KENNEDY
What brought you to writing?
As a young boy, I was an avid reader of newspaper comic strips; my favorite was “Steve Roper,” a heroic crime reporter for “Proof” magazine. My boyhood fantasy was to become Steve Roper. At about age 16—this would have been the year 1962—I met a man named Rosenfeld, a one-time important daily newspaper reporter in Detroit fallen to hard times as a writer for a very bad weekly neighborhood journal that paid him very little by way of salary. But to me, Rosenfeld was an idol. I would see him in the small newspaper office down the street where I lived. I gathered up my courage and one day introduced myself to the (once) great man. As I look back, I believe I gave Rosenfeld something he badly needed: respect in his difficult present circumstance, and affirmation of his achievements in better times. Rosenfeld allowed me to tag along with him as went about the neighborhood gathering up news for the next edition. After some months of this, Rosenfeld asked me for a personal favor: would I please substitute for him in covering an appearance at a nearby lecture hall by a wicked man named George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party. Said Rosenfeld, “I’m Jewish. I can’t bear to be in the same room with Nazi scum. Just write down exactly what this hateful man says. We’ll print it, and trust our readers to see Rockwell for the violent fool that he is.” I did exactly as Rosenfeld directed. It wasn’t easy: “Commander” Rockwell had large, intimidating men posted all over the auditorium—with swastikas sewn to their sleeves, and pistols holstered on their belts. In fact, there seemed to be roughly ten of these swaggering Nazi disciples to every curious civilian in the audience, most of whom walked out soon after Rockwell began ranting. I wrote up my report, quoting Rockwell at length, and noting that he drew only a small and eventually disgusted audience. A few days later, my article was published and Rosenfeld had given me a byline—my first! I received a lot of mail from people I knew in the neighborhood, congratulating me for having the courage to attend a Nazi rally; more importantly, Rosenfeld said he was proud of me. I received exactly one negative letter—from an aide to Rockwell, complaining that I had insulted the “commander” by reporting on how people walked out on his “important” address. This was my first intoxicating taste of the power of the press.
In terms of fiction, the best of which is closely examined truth, I know when I am writing well when I complete a sentence or a paragraph or a passage that causes me to say to myself, “Oh, I didn’t know that I knew that.” I know then that I have entered what Carl Jung termed the “collective unconscious”—the archetypes of emotion and experience common to all the world’s cultures. Story-telling is likewise universal: every human being in every culture needs stories to organize and understand existence. Archetypes are story-tellers’ tools for communicating with people they do not know, nor ever will meet.
In journalism, I have two masters: 1) the publication that pays me; and 2) my personal integrity as a reporter of fact—and an interpreter of complicated sets of facts. In fiction, I write almost purely for my own need and satisfaction.
My journalism is truth as I see it. I hope that my fiction is received as what I would call refined truth—truth heightened by the dramatics of introducing made-up characters sorting through the difficulties of facts and lies and hardship and joy and danger and romance: in short, the mess of life. Readers may make of it what they will.
Describe your path to what you’re doing now ….
I am completing a new novel titled “Lovers & Corpses,” about a 60-something former police detective and journalist from New York City who retreats to a small village in upstate New York. The opening line came to me when I mistook the first sentence of a newspaper article, thinking that it read, “This morning, I found a finger.” I cannot remember the correct wording. But I certainly do remember thinking, after realizing my lucky mistake—Oh, what a fine opening to a mystery novel!
I was born to working-class parents in Detroit two years after the end of World War II. I am self-educated, having lived on my own since the age of 16. I was an activist during the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s, and was part of nearly every major demonstration against the Vietnam War—what the Vietnamese call the American War—including the November 1969 “Moratorium Against the War” in Washington, D.C., when my head and shoulders were bashed with police batons during a twelve-hour march around the White House, during which time our chanting was loud enough to prevent President Richard Nixon from his night’s sleep. In December of 2012, I was received at the White House, now occupied by President Barack Obama—as a journalist, and under non-violent circumstances.
Is passion important for you?
Yes. It drives me to write fiction and journalism, each of which is assumed to benefit—or at least amuse—the reader. But in truth, I write for ME, driven by what I consider a passionate selfishness: story-telling helps ME to understand MYSELF and the world around me. When I succeed with a story, strangers of like mind find affirmation for themselves; this is perhaps the last true intimacy.
Your thoughts about mastery and failure?
In failure, there is mastery; in mastery, there is failure. The thing is to write—without fear of failure, and with no expectation of mastery.
Fears are …
In the context of writing, I admit to occasional discouragement—even despair at times, given the instability of the publishing industry, especially in the United States. This is the irony: much of the world’s best popular literature and journalism comes from American writers, fewer and fewer Americans read books—or newspapers and magazines. And then there are the publishers themselves, of which E.B. White, the great American journalist and novelist said, “They have all the dash, and romance, and imagination of pigeons—yet they are not so beautiful against the sky.” When I am seriously discouraged, I rely on the joy that my two grandchildren provide to lift my spirits. The three of us sometimes sing together: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine/You make me happy when skies are gray/Oh please don’t take my sunshine away.” Or, I remember an April night in 1992 when I was given an Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel by the Mystery Writers of America during the organization’s annual black-tie banquet. This was for a novel titled “Dark Maze,” which had been rejected by twenty-four New York publishers before finding its way to bookstores as a paperback original with a small press run.
Has there been a point in your life when you had any regrets?
As the little sparrow said, “Non, je ne regrette rien!”
Money is important. … Or isn’t it?
I have written extensively about crime. Crime does not pay—enough.
Tell us a bit about inspiration and creativity.
Inspiration comes with the morning milk. Creativity is a different matter. As the late, great sports writer Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just sit down at a typewriter and wait for little beads of blood to ooze from your forehead.”
What does a typical day in your life look like?
My typical day is rather dull. Awake somewhere between six and seven in the morning and perform my toilette, make a pot of coffee and a boiled egg with a toasted bagel, read the New York Times as a guide to what the ruling class would have me believe, do the Times crossword puzzle, do the daily shopping for groceries and whatnot, waste time on the internet machine, go to the gym for some sweaty exercise, plot activities with my political comrades, sit down at my computer in the afternoon and wait for little beads of blood to ooze from my forehead, prepare dinner for my wife and myself, watch some television (news programs and old comedies mostly), read a book, go to bed.
On the best days, I tend to my grandchildren. Weekends are spent working on the farmhouse, which is an expensive form of relaxation.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I’ve actually given a lot of thought to this question, so often asked of writers. I used to be flippant and answer, “Some guy in Cleveland mails me ideas.” I am a bit more mature nowadays. The last paragraph of the first chapter of “Lovers & Corpses” has a less annoying, more considered and complex response: “Everyone you know, and everyone you shall meet, is fighting a battle that you never heard of.”
How important are media like newspapers, tv, the internet for your creative process?
The content of all media buzzes inside me, like bees trapped in a jar trying to make their escape.
If you had to choose: Hammett, Chandler, Ambler, Simenon – who would be your favorite writer? If none of these just pick another one … And tell us why?
Eric Ambler. His imagery and prose and characters are as important as plot. Life is too short to simply plod through little more than plot.
Is there any advice you could share with someone who wants to become a writer?
Read. (This sounds simple, and flippant, but I am constantly surprised—stunned, I might say, which is more polite than to say disgusted—by how many wannabe writers seem not to read much of anything. I find this insulting, both personally and culturally.)
Is there anything in the way of a legacy you hope to leave behind?
My ideal tombstone: “Here lies Thomas Adcock, who on occasion told a damn good tale.”
- Precinct 19 (Doubleday & Co. 1984)
- Sea of Green (Mysterious Press 1989)
- Dark Maze (Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster 1991)
- Drown All the Dogs (Pocket Books/S&S 1993)
- Devil’s Heaven (Pocket Books, S&S 1994)
- Thrown-Away Child (Pocket Books, S&S 1996)
- Grief Street (Pocket Books, S&S 1997)
- The Cannibal of Pang Yang (CulturMag 2012)
- Murder on the Aisle (1985)
- Mystery for Christmas (1986)
- Thou Shalt Not Kill (1987)
- Merry Murder (1988)
- Bad Behavior (1992)
- Death in Dixie (1997)
- Murder Most Merry (2002)
- New Orleans Noir (2006)
- Bronx Noir (2007)
- Brooklyn Noir/3 (2008)
- The Mister’s Funeral (EQMM 1985)
- New York, New York (EQMM 1986)
- Christmas Cop (EQMM 1986)
- Thrown-Away Child (EQMM 1986)
- Zero Man (EQMM 1986)
- Cracker Jack (EQMM 1987)
- No Jury Will Ever Hang You (EQMM 1987)
- Smart Sammy Slapman (EQMM Sep 1987)
- The Sixty-Six Cent Divorce (EQMM 1987)
- The Trespass (EQMM 1988)
- The Dark Maze (EQMM 1988)
- The Life of a Big Whale (EQMM 1988)
- The School of Ten Bells (EQMM 1988)
- Shoot Me, I’m Already Dead (EQMM 1989)
- Who Gives This Bride? (EQMM 1989)
- Straight Down the Middle (AHMM 1990)
- A Cool, Clean Shot (AHMM 1992)
- My Dear Dead Dope (EQMM 1992)
- Lawyers’ Tongues (Akashic Books 2007)
- You Want I Should Whack Monkey Boy? (Akashic Books 2007)
- The Morgue Boys (Akashic Books 2008)
THOMAS ADCOCK is America correspondent for CULTurMAG, the German internet magazine for literature, music and positions.
In late 2012, he published a ten-part U.S. Presidential Campaign Diary for CULTurMAG. Here are links to the diary entries: