Since I first spotted the intriguing noir covers of his Nick Bracco crime-thriller series—which are so similar to my HUNTER cover in style—I’ve been eager to learn more about indie author Gary Ponzo.
Gary has a generous spirit and he loves to showcase other authors on his blog. A while back, he generously invited me to be interviewed there—one of the first fellow authors to shine a spotlight on HUNTER and me. I was grateful, and now I’m pleased to return the invitation. From his official biography:
“Gary Ponzo lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife Jennifer and two children, Jessica and Kyle. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Amazing Journeys Magazine and Potpourri. Two of his short stories have been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. His first novel, A Touch of Deceit, won the 2009 Southwest Writers Contest (Thriller category).
“Gary is currently working on Nick Bracco thriller #3 as well as continuing to place his short fiction in magazines. When he’s not busy trying to find a solution to the problems in the Middle East, he enjoys running, golf and spending time with his family.”
The Vigilante Author: Welcome, Gary, and thanks for accepting my interview invitation. Let me begin by telling you that I first noticed your books because of their amazing covers. They’re riveting!
Gary Ponzo: As far as my covers go, I created the first one for A Touch of Deceit with a graphic artist. I told her what I wanted, and we worked together for almost a month before I was happy with the results. The second book, A Touch of Revenge, was done by Kate Cornwell. She’ll probably be doing all my covers from now on. She’s also a fine writer and creates covers for herself and her husband, Jonas Saul.
The Vigilante Author: Well, they do exactly what good covers should do: catch the book browser’s eye, and suggest the genre. I love them.
So, tell us about the latest installment in your crime-thriller series.
Gary Ponzo: My newest book, A Touch of Greed, will be released in January, but the reason that was born is because of the original book in the series, A Touch of Deceit, which won the Southwest Writers Award and prompted me to give this publishing thing a whirl.
A Touch of Deceit is about FBI agent Nick Bracco, who recruits his Mafia cousin, Tommy, to help him track down the world’s most feared terrorist. Bracco is haunted by bouts of PTSD and has a loving wife who endures his dangerous occupation.
As far as Nick goes, he’s an interesting story. Believe it or not, I began writing that character modeled after the James Spader character in the movie, “Sex, Lies and Videotape.” In the movie, James Spader’s character couldn’t tell a lie. So the entire movie he tells people the truth, even if it’s embarrassing or socially unacceptable. I wrote the entire first novel having Nick unable to lie. It seemed like a great tension-builder. Except I couldn’t make it work. It was too hard, and I kept having to remind the reader of his problem, and it seemed forced; and after a couple of years, I finally scrapped the idea and wrote the entire book all over without his lying issue. Instead I gave him PTSD, which seemed much more plausible for someone chasing terrorists all day.
The Vigilante Author: You knew you had the seed of something good with his psychological quirk; I’m glad you found a way to adapt one that works. Is Nick the indispensable central character in all the stories? Any plans to change that?
Gary Ponzo: Nick will always be the main character in the series—I mean, after all, it is the Nick Bracco series of thrillers. But there’s many times where he’s not the main protagonist. I’ll switch points of view to put you in his cousin, Tommy’s, head, and let you see and hear what a Sicilian from Baltimore would say to a terrorist.
And that’s really the beauty of the series. What if the FBI used the Mafia to track these terrorists? This, of course, has happened in real life. Just recently, there were some agents in Boston who’ve been using mobsters as informants. It’s a messy situation.
Nick doesn’t open up the story wanting to use Tommy, but when a terrorist kidnaps his brother, then Tommy wants to help. After all, Tommy is family. As I say in my pitch for the book: “Things get messy fast. As fast as you can turn the pages.”
The Vigilante Author: I suppose that Nick, being the hero, is the easiest character to write?
Gary Ponzo: The Mafia characters are much easier for me to write, since my father owned a candy store in Brooklyn when I grew up, and some of the Sicilian boys would hang around the store. My dad was Sicilian, so the guys treated me like gold. They drank coffee and we talked about baseball and their kids. I didn’t know how dangerous they were until I was older, but by then, they were part of the family. It’s funny, but every other business on that street got robbed except ours.
The Vigilante Author: That solved a lot of research problems for you. Even though I come from an Italian background, too, you obviously had a more colorful childhood hanging out with Brooklyn mobsters. Explain how you made the transition from that to writing crime novels.
Gary Ponzo: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, but moved to Phoenix when I was 17 and I’ve been here ever since. Writing has always come easy to me; even at an early age I knew I was able to conjure up images on paper which created attention in my classes.
For example, as a senior in high school, I’d forgotten to do my English homework one morning. The assignment was to write two paragraphs of action. That’s it—just an action scene. So I scribbled the two paragraphs on my lap while taking the bus to school.
When I received my paper back that day, my English teacher gave me an “F” and wrote, “Who are you kidding?” across the top of the paper. I thought she’d known by the terrible handwriting that I’d written it on the bus, but when I asked why I received an “F,” she said, “You didn’t write this, it’s too good.”
Well, I was flattered, naturally. I guess she noticed my sincere reaction to the comment, so she asked me to sit down between periods and write a brand-new scene for her. I did, and when I was done she yelled at me for wasting my time in her class and not doing something with my exceptional writing skills.
Well, Mrs. Haney, I’m finally doing something with my skills. I hope you approve.
The Vigilante Author: I don’t know, Gary; she sounds kinda hard to please. So where did you get those skills? You must have been reading some fine writers.
Gary Ponzo: I began reading science fiction at an early age, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury—these were my original influences, just because they took me places I didn’t know existed. And of course they didn’t, but that was the beauty of it.
The Vigilante Author: I read those guys, too. I especially loved Heinlein. Who else?
Gary Ponzo: As I grew older, I discovered Raymond Chandler, and his sardonic tone really blew me away. I had no idea you could write so casually, as if telling a story over a beer in a bar. There was always so much structure to the fiction I’d read, and Chandler introduced a voice which I could emulate. It was my own voice, of course, but without reading his work I think my voice would’ve sounded an awful lot like someone else’s.
Later, I discovered Elmore Leonard and Nelson DeMille, and it just reinforced the fact that writing was more about telling a story in your own way and not just a mixture of narrative and dialogue.
The Vigilante Author: DeMille is another one of my favorites, especially his John Corey stories—the first-person hero has a truly memorable voice.
Every good writer I know has his own way to motivate himself to sit at the desk for hours and do the doggie work of pounding the keys. What’s yours?
Gary Ponzo: I’m self-motivated. I have a full-time job during the day and have a wife and two kids, so my writing is relegated to the evenings after everyone’s asleep. But I continue to write and set deadlines by telling my readers when the next book is coming out. So I need to keep on that timeline, or I get threatening emails from readers who tease me and ask for the release date. That’s why I put the date out there to begin with, so people will hold me to it.
The Vigilante Author: Gary, if the people you used to hang with are among your readers, you really don’t want to make them mad. You really don’t.
But I admire you for how you manage to juggle so many responsibilities and still write. I find it very difficult to concentrate if a lot is going on in my life. Of course, I’m completely O.C.D. in my writing habits—I outline plots obsessively and research a lot in order to get all my crazy notions under control. What about you? How do you work?
Gary Ponzo: Well, as I said, I’ll write at night in my office at home. As far as outlines go, I really don’t get too specific. I treat each chapter like a short story, and I’ll begin in the middle of the action and try to keep the tension up until the end of the chapter. At some point early on, I’ll have to know the ending of the book. This way I can steer the reader away from what’s really going to happen and give them a bit of a surprise. At least that’s the idea.
The Vigilante Author: When I began writing fiction, I was surprised at what I found to be easy and what I found to be difficult. I figured that plotting would be a breeze for me, because of how my mind works. But it was a big challenge for me. I also worried that my dialogue would be awful, but it actually turned out well. How about you: What’s hard about the process of writing, and what’s easy? What gives you the most pleasure?
Gary Ponzo: For me, the hardest part of writing is finding the time. I’ve never been one to stare at the screen for an hour with nothing to write. Now, I may look at what I’ve written the next day and delete the entire thing, but I’ve never been stagnant. Heck, I’ve tossed 30 or 40 pages away without blinking an eye, but at least I was going somewhere.
The Vigilante Author: I’m like that, too. “Writer’s block” isn’t a problem, and I’m not so in love with my words that I can’t be ruthless about cutting them if they don’t belong.
Gary Ponzo: As far as the greatest pleasure, I’d have to say hearing from readers who’ll tell me which character they liked and why. I never get tired of that.
I am particularly proud of my two Pushcart Prize nominations. These are given out to the best short story published in literary magazines each year. These nominations gave me the confidence to move on to writing novels. Without them, I might still be wondering about my skills.
The Vigilante Author: Well, Mrs. Haney told you that you had exceptional skills. Why didn’t you believe her? Given that, plus the prestigious awards, why did you decide to self-publish instead of seeking a traditional publisher?
Gary Ponzo: Yes, well, I did try the traditional route for a while. It seemed everyone really liked the book, but were afraid to pull the trigger with an unknown author.
The Vigilante Author: Yes, well, traditional publishers also rejected Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Vince Flynn, and J.K. Rowling. They aren’t exactly renowned for their editorial acumen. So, what happened?
Gary Ponzo: Finally, my literary agent at the time, Robert Brown, who is a prince of a man, cajoled me into publishing A Touch of Deceit on my own. He even helped format the manuscript. It took him a couple of months to convince me, so I went kicking and screaming, but I’m glad I did it. It was the best decision for me.
As far as recommending this to other writers, I’d have to say: Follow your heart. I was at my wit’s end when I entered this ebook market. It’s not for everyone, I promise.
The Vigilante Author: No, it isn’t. It depends on your goals and your personality. Speaking of which, what traits do you think a writer needs in order to succeed in this process?
Gary Ponzo: The most important part of the process is the writing itself. Everything else is just window dressing.
The Vigilante Author: Amen!
Gary Ponzo: I’m uncomfortable giving any author advice about writing, because there are so many stories which haven’t been told, and so many ways to write them. I would hate to tell someone how they should create their own novel.
Write outside the lines. Do whatever feels write. Be creative. Don’t listen to other people telling you how it needs to be done. Especially me.
The Vigilante Author: Amen to that, too. Lee Child told me the same thing: “Ignore all advice.” The book has to grow organically from who you are, as an individual.
Gary, how can people find out more about you and where to buy your Nick Bracco novels?
Gary Ponzo: First of all, thank you, Robert, for this opportunity. I appreciate your generosity.
Currently, my books are available as Kindle books on Amazon, and as Nook books on Barnes and Noble; however, I may be going exclusively on Amazon in the near future. As for contacting me, anyone can get a hold of me through my webpage. I always respond to my messages.
The Vigilante Author: Gary, this has been great. Thanks, and I wish you and your family every success in the new year.