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Indie Mystery: J. Alexander Greenwood Draws Readers to What Lies Beneath

J. Alexander Greenwood, author of Pilate’s Cross and Pilate’s Key, is a former journalist, politician, television executive and radio talk show host. Greenwood has always been drawn to what lies just beneath the surface of places and people. When his career in public relations took him to Peru, Nebraska, a place he affectionately calls “the smallest town in the world,” he found the inspiration for a mystery novel. Greenwood tells IndieReader about the core of Pilate’s Cross, and about how open secrets…can fester in a community until an outsider raises questions.”

Loren Kleinman: What’s so mysterious about the mystery novel?

J.Alexander Greenwood: In one sense, the most mysterious thing about the mystery novel is how well the genre has stood the test of time. It can be argued that Edgar Allen Poe wrote the first “mystery” or “detective” story with The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841. Since then, the genre has evolved from essentially solving puzzles (ala Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie) to hunting serial killers (Alex Cross) to foiling terrorism (John Corey)—and finally to angst-ridden Swedish detectives (Wallander) and female super-sleuths (Kinsey Millhone, Della Peabody). The genre lives on because it has grown with the times.

However, I really don’t write mysteries; instead I try to put interesting characters into mysterious situations. I’m far more interested in the characters than the actual mystery. Frankly, any fan mail or reviews I get rarely mention the mystery—they mostly talk about the character John Pilate and his foibles.

LK: You lived in Peru for some time. Tell me about how traveling influenced Pilate’s Key.

JAG: I lived in Peru, Nebraska for a couple of years; it’s a place I lovingly call the “Smallest Town in the World. I lived most of my life up to that point in a metro area of approximately 1.2 million people, so moving to a town with less than 1,000 folks was a shock to say the least. What I learned was how people in small towns keep and live with their secrets. A nasty murder-suicide that occurred at Peru State College in 1950 is the basis for my first book, Pilate’s Cross.

I’m working on the third book in the John Pilate Series (Pilate’s Ghost). It takes place in numerous locations around the country. I like to research places I’ve been—and try my hand at writing about places I’ve never been to see if I can successfully transport the reader there.

LK: Pilate’s Key takes place in Key West. How did you decide on the Keys as the focal destination?

JAG: I’ve only visited Key West twice. It’s chock full of interesting history and some downright macabre events that sparked my imagination. I knew within a day of arriving there that Pilate’s Key would be set there.

LK: Do you think island life has a tendency to hide truths? Why?

JAG: In Pilate’s Key I have a passage about Key West that explains its allure as a mystery novel setting. I think it answers the question:

Key West floats 154 miles from Miami, the last in a necklace of 5 precious island gems, held together by an elevated silver strand known as U.S. Highway 1. There are actually hundreds of mostly uninhabited Keys; but Key Largo, Marathon, Islamorada, Big Pine Key, and Key West are the crown jewels.

Built on a bedrock of coral, Key West is two miles wide and four miles long. While small, it’s large enough to contain a riotous history of inflated egos, brash pirates, treasure hunters, the United State Navy, more than its fair share of bizarre happenings, and even the White House.

When sixteenth-century Spaniards arrived on the island, they found the bones of the dead leftover from the Calusa and Seminole Indian battle, bleaching in the subtropical sun. The Spaniards dubbed the macabre slab of coral Cayo Hueso, the Island of Bones. Later, English settlers changed Cayo Hueso to Key West, something easier to pronounce in their tongue.

To the literary-minded, the island is the impecunious, down-on-its-heels backdrop for onetime resident Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. History buffs know it is as President Harry Truman’s favorite vacation spot, home of his “Little White House.”

Not unkindly, some have said, “more than a few nuts roll downhill to Florida” in general, to Key West specifically. A spectacularly macabre example is the story of Carl Tanzler, aka Count Carl von Cosel. The German-born Key West resident developed an obsession with Maria, a Cuban beauty nearly thirty years his junior.

Maria was dying of tuberculosis, a tragically common diagnosis for many in 1930s America. A few days before Halloween 1931, Maria succumbed.

Tanzler grieved for Maria, but he was far from giving up on her, even after her heart stopped beating for him or anyone else. He stole her body from the crypt, mummified it, and slept with her corpse for nearly a decade before suspicious family members discovered his gruesome living arrangements. He was arrested with the discovery, but the charges were eventually dropped. It has been reported that Tanzler committed repeated acts of necrophilia on Maria’s corpse.

A particularly ham-fisted attempt at controlling illegal immigration by the U.S. Border Patrol in 1982 led to Key West briefly seceding from the union, establishing itself as the Conch Republic. The legendary Conch rebellion lasted precisely one minute before the “prime minister” surrendered to the U.S. and demanded a billion dollars in foreign aid.

To this day, this beautiful coral strip attracts the strange, the enchanted, the disenchanted, and those looking for a quiet life under the palms and Geiger trees. It’s also a floating Casablanca, an island of conflicting agendas, artists, commerce, piracy, snowbirds, tourists, and eccentrics—a Mecca where people prosper or go bankrupt, live or die.

Truly, Key West remains the Island of Bones.

LK: What is John’s secret? Or does he make the reader work for an understanding of his realities?

JAG: I’ve been criticized for the fact that while both books are relatively fast paced and short (around 200 pages each), I only give away small pieces of the background of John Pilate and his doppelganger Simon in each book. I suppose I do make the reader work to understand (and perhaps even like) the character.  It’s clear from the get-go that he’s hit a rough patch and struggling through the tail end of a bout of clinical depression set off by a nasty divorce and job loss. Before anybody thinks he’s too much of a sad sack, he does retain a self-deprecating streak, humor and a running commentary with a guy named Simon. Simon isn’t particularly kind to John. Is Simon a real person? Is he John’s imagination–or is it mental illness? Readers have to decide.

LK: John Pilate, the main character of Pilate’s Key is multi-faceted: complicated, in relationship straits and is conflicted with an on-again-off-again depression. How is he a doppelganger for real life?

JAG: He’s been through the wringer. Though my life is in a very good place now, I’ve had some rough years, too. Some of it my own doing, some of it a circumstance of genetics, and some of it because I trusted people who didn’t have my best interests at heart.

A friend told me he would never—even in a fictionalized context—share sensitive elements of his life with the world. My answer is that this is a work of fiction, but it has to possess a degree of verisimilitude or it’s just a construct—something artificial and uninteresting. I’ll probably never confirm or deny which elements are taken from my own life experience—and I suspect most people don’t care.

I will say that depression is not something I write about lightly or as a gimmick. Mental health is a serious issue in this country, and I want my work to show that someone afflicted with mental health issues can not only function, but also do extraordinary things.

John Pilate is afraid to let anyone know about his depression. I think he feels that way for good reasons. It’s getting better, but the stigma attached to depression can set a person’s career back. It can be used as a weapon against the person suffering depression in a divorce case. Depressed persons often alienate people who don’t understand the effects it has on the afflicted. I hope we can get to a place where depression is treated the same way any other illness is—with therapy and medication. It shouldn’t be seen as a moral or intellectual failing.

LK: Tell me about writing on “what lies just beneath the surface of places and people.” How does this idea relate to your understanding of John Pilate?

JAG: Pilate leads a double life in that he’s hiding a major, personality-altering illness. That crooked smile hides the self-doubt, self-loathing and fear that his depressed condition exacerbates. I think we all have issues, things we hide. I find those hidden things—which some people translate as flaws—much more interesting than “it was Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick.” John Pilate makes mistakes any normal person would in a stressful or alien situation. I think that Simon—his shadow, if you will—is probably a crude but effective mirror to hold up to the character. It might even be a bit of a cheat. It’s far easier to strip away the bark of the lead character when there is a supporting character that exists purely for that reason.

LK: Why should the reader care about John Pilate?

JAG: He’s terribly human, therefore flawed, but he’s a guy you would definitely enjoy having a cocktail with. John is also struggling, as we all do in this life, with his limitations and frustrations. He’s very loyal to his friends and true to his beliefs. Most of my readers—at least the most vocal ones—are female, and more than a few have said, “I love John Pilate” or “John Pilate is sexy.” Woohoo!

LK: Are you reading any indie authors now? If so, who? Why?

JAG: I read stuff that’s nothing like what I write. It may be in the same genre, but the writing style has to be very different than mine. Jason C. McIntyre could well be the next James Patterson–though I’m sure he would hate it that I said that. Let me rephrase it—he’s the first Jason C. McIntyre, and people should read his thrillers. Eden Baylee’s debut Fall Into Winter is a delight—the most literary erotica I’ve ever read. If people like Fifty Shades of Gray, they will love Eden’s stuff. A. W. Whitford (Eat At Joe’s) is a developing talent, too. There are so many other Indies out there who humble me with their talent.

LK: Talk about ‘real’ life, fiction and the art of writing mystery.

JAG: Real life is the place I live, but writing is often how I experience it most deeply. That’s backwards, I known—but it may be a symptom of being a writer. To that end, I’ve taken stabs at literary fiction with short stories—which I consider to be mostly unsuccessful. I also have a box in my basement with a couple of novel manuscripts that just aren’t very good. It doesn’t mean I won’t continue trying to write a mainstream book, but right now, the genre stuff is more comfortable. I wrote a quasi-horror short story (Obsidian) that won two awards. It may be the closest thing to mainstream success I’ve ever had.

Mystery writing has four indispensable elements—four P’s: Pacing, Problems, People and Pleasure.

Pacing: A good mystery moves along. I don’t enjoy reading a mystery that gets into doorstop territory. Mystery lovers want some exposition and then they want things to move along to a satisfying conclusion. My books are paced like a roller coaster. The first few chapters are that clink clink clink clink to the top, and the rest of the book is the twisty, turny fun ride before you end up relieved and maybe a little sore but satisfied.

Problems: The mystery or situation.

People: Characters readers care about and enjoy “living with” for a few hours.

Pleasure: A little sex, some adventure, maybe some quirky facts about the setting and more than a little humor.

LK: Is John Pilate indie? In his way of life?

JAG: Yes. John Pilate is very independent. He doesn’t quite understand that the unusual path his life has taken is very much because of his own conscious and subconscious choices. At first, he blamed external factors for everything that happened to him. As he grows in the subsequent books, he starts to get it. That’s part of his journey—figuring out who he is and his place in the world.

LK: Give novice indie writers some advice on getting started in self-publishing? What’s your advice?

JAG: Develop the discipline to write every day. Set a daily goal. I’d say 500 to 1000 words—whatever challenges you. The writing doesn’t have to be brilliant. That’s not the point. It’s about establishing the discipline.

When you think your work is ready for publication, it’s probably not. Let some beta readers have a crack at it. Ask people who like to read and will give it to you straight. Your mom doesn’t count. She will love whatever you wrote and stick it on the fridge with a magnet. Good beta readers will often find mistakes and raise red flags on things you may want to change.

Most importantly: hire an editor. I have a degree in professional writing and have worked as a journalist and public relations professional for twenty years; so naturally thought I could edit my own work. Sadly no. I made some rookie mistakes with my first book (even after six drafts!) that I couldn’t live with, so I recently hired my editor from Pilate’s Key to help issue a revised version of Pilate’s Cross.

Trust me: typos, grammatical idiosyncrasies, and even a minor plot inconsistency will wreck you with a reader—possibly forever. I have a couple of nasty reviews because of those very things. I earned that derision by issuing unintentionally sloppy work. It seems so unfair to work so hard only to be pilloried for a few simple mistakes (often the same mistakes that slip through the cracks of books published by the Big Six), but Indies are ironically held to a higher standard. Make sure your work is the best product possible before you offer it up for sale.

LK: Can you give indie readers a peak inside your next project?

JAG: I’m in the middle of the first draft of book three in the John Pilate Series, Pilate’s Ghost. I’m aiming for a Halloween release date. After that, I plan to give Pilate a rest. I’m also focused on a project with artist David Allen Terrill. It’s an immersive ipad/tablet app called What the Gardener Saw. It started as a series of David’s paintings and his concept for a neo-Victorian, slightly steampunk-ish Edward Gorey-meets-Tim Burton world. He asked me to write a few character sketches for each painting. I got into writing those and had so much fun I wrote a 30,000-word novella. He generously let me run wild, create new characters and warp some of his concept. We’re working with a nationally recognized digital arts company to create the application and make it do cool stuff. It should be available by Christmas. It’s fun.

J. Alexander Greenwood welcomes email from readers: author (at) pilatescross (dot) come or visit J. Alexander Greenwood at or on Facebook at

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