Hostile Questions: Steve Ulfelder

Steve Ulfelder builds, rents, sells, and services race cars. Even we here at Hostile Questions can respect that. But then he has the audacity to write books, too? And then has the cheekiness for his first novel, Purgatory Chasm, to be nominated for an Edgar Award? Oh, it’s on. I’ve got my tire iron, Steve’s got his monkey wrench. Let’s see who emerges from this race in first place.

Just who do you think you are?

Who the hell wants to know?

He’s smiling because there’s a guy behind you with a tire iron.

I was a biz and tech journo for 20 years. Around 2007, with things looking truly ugly for freelancers – a trend that’s only accelerated, from what I hear – I quit that racket and took a night course in writing novels. At the same time, I began putting in more hours at Flatout Motorsports Inc., a company I co-founded that builds race cars. Like Conway Sax, my hard-boiled protagonist, I race cars. (He’s a former NASCAR stud. I’m a weekend-warrior sports-car racer.) Also like Conway Sax, I’m a drunk. I’ve been sober a long time. Longer than Conway. Heh.

Where do you get off?

Born in Los Angeles, lived in Minnesota and Michigan as a kid, finally landed on the mean streets of Hingham, Massachusetts. And by “mean” I mean “preppy, effete and elite.” Went to Ohio Wesleyan University. I now live near Framingham, Massachusetts, a funky place midway between Boston and Worcester that doesn’t know if it’s a fading mill town or a leafy commuter suburb. My books are centered in Framingham.

What’s the big idea?

Hard-boiled amateur sleuth series, two books down and, I hope, many more to come. Faves and influences: James Ellroy, Ed McBain, Westlake/Stark, Ross Macdonald, Robert B. Parker. And, most importantly, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. I could do nothing but reread McGees and die a happy man. (Well, not quite. I would also need to reread Lonesome Dove every five years, as all right-thinking people should.)

Conway Sax drank his opportunity and his family away. He sobered up with help from the Barnburners: half AA group, half vigilante squad. Conway will do anything, repeat anything, to help a Barnburner in need. In Book 1, Purgatory Chasm, he signs on to retrieve a pal’s classic car from a sketchy shop. Then the pal turns up dead. In Book 2, The Whole Lie, he’s pressed into service by a Barnburner (and former lover) who wants help shaking down a candidate for governor. She’s got ample shakedown ammo: she bore the politician’s love child. People start dying.

What is your problem, man?

My problem? I got no problem. I’m walkin’ here!

Conway’s a first-person narrator, and of course that brings some challenges – you’re limited as to what can take place off stage, and when it does, you need to brew up a way to tell it. And then there’s the amateur-sleuth problem. Conway’s day job is auto mechanic, and in every book I need to present him with a case, then deal with the fact that he’s ignoring said day job to run around sleuthing. Someday, it’d be sweet to write a cop or licensed PI who just punches the clock and tackles cool cases.

Haven’t you done enough?

More Conway. More racing.

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About the Author:

Dan Kraus, senior editor at Booklist is the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award.

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