Alan Orloff has had a diversified career during his lifetime, far more than most folks. Lucky for us, he's now settled into writing awarding-winning novels and short stories. His debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His novel, Pray for the Innocent, won the 2019 ITW Thriller Award in the Best E-Book Original category.
Alan's short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and other publications, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Noir at the Salad Bar, 50 Shades of Cabernet, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and many others. His story, "Rule Number One" was selected for the 2018 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. His story, "Happy Birthday" (published on Shotgun Honey), was a 2018 Derringer Award Finalist in the Flash Fiction category. And his story, "Dying in Dokesville" (published in Mystery Most Geographical) won the 2019 Derringer Award in the Short Story category.
Alan is always willing to chat with readers and fellow writers. So, it was no surprise when he agreed—without hesitation—to talk with us for Suspense Magazine.
Alan, thanks for chatting with us. You come from a diverse background. A degree in mechanical engineering, an MBA. You've worked on nuclear submarines, at a marketing research firm, and have even driven a forklift, among many other things. Now you're a full-time writer. How in the world did that happen?
A very good question, one that my wife asks me all the time. I wish I had a better answer, but one day I just decided to give writing a try. While I never (never!) had taken a creative writing class (or shown any desire to do so), I'd always been a big reader. I guess I finally got fed up reading other people's stories and wanted to write my own! I started slow, with a proof of concept. Could I write a short story? I did, it didn't stink (too bad), so I took a few workshops, then a few more, and kept at it. Still doing it, too.
Tell us about your thriller, Pray for the Innocent.
Don't hate me, but I woke up at 4 am with the premise for this novel fully formed in my head. I recommend this method very highly! (Although, every morning since, when I wake up WITHOUT a great idea in my idea, I have to admit I'm a little disappointed.) The book kicks off with a slight sci-fi twist and then it's off to the races. (It was fortunate enough to win the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original.) Here's a brief description:
In the shadow of the Pentagon, a secret DoD brain research experiment goes terribly wrong, and an ex-Special Ops soldier escapes, believing he is Viktor Dragunov, the Russian operative from the 80's thriller novel, Attack on America. To capture him, the Feds turn to the person uniquely qualified to predict his next moves, the man who created the fictional character, best-selling author Mathias King.
Now a reclusive English professor, King is reluctant to get involved, having sworn off the culture of violence after a deranged fan murdered his wife. But when innocent people start dying, King is thrust back into that dark world. With help from his enthusiastic graduate assistant Emily Phan, King must outsmart his own creation--while outmaneuvering the cover-up-loving Feds--before Dragunov succeeds in his hell-bent mission.
To destroy America.
Your first novel, Diamonds for the Dead, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. What was your inspiration for that book?
Two things came together for this novel. When I was around ten years old or so, my family discovered we had some relatives in Russia who were being persecuted. They'd been in and out of jail and were struggling to immigrate to Israel. I also had another relative, local, who I only saw on holidays. He was a diminutive man who always laughed at my jokes and enjoyed his schnapps just a little too much. I combined these two ideas to come up with the beginnings of my story.
You've self-published three horror novels—The Taste, First Time Killer, and Ride-Along—as Zak Allen. Why self-publish? And why did you decide to go with the pseudonym?
A few things factored into my decision. I got this great idea for a horror novel (in my opinion, of course), and I couldn't NOT write it. So I did. But my agent at the time didn't represent horror, so I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. At the time, many writers were having success self-publishing, and I figured I might as well give it a try. I discovered I wasn't very good at it. Of course, that didn't stop me from trying again. And again. I think I've learned my lesson (at least for a while)—I'll do the writing and I'll leave the marketing and promotion to the professionals.
I used a semi-pseudonym (Alan Orloff writing as Zak Allen") to keep reader expectations in check. I didn't want those readers who enjoyed Diamonds for the Dead (a nonviolent, traditional mystery) to pick up another "Alan Orloff" expecting one thing, only to be grossed out reading about cannibals. Don't get me wrong—grossing out readers is fine, as long as they get sufficient warning!
Your Last Laff Mystery Series—Killer Routine and Deadly Campaign—has a comedian as your lead character. Do you have experience as a stand-up comic or have you worked in a comedy club? If not, what research did you do to write the novels?
I've never tried to perform comedy on stage—too terrifying. But as an experiment, I worked up about twenty minutes of "open-mic night quality" material to use at book events (for those people not familiar with open-mic nights, the routines can be really, really bad). I discovered that having an audience made up of your friends who have come out to support your book launch reduces (but doesn't eliminate) the heckling! You can actually see one of these events on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EjcM7v5S2LU
What authors inspired or influenced your writing?
In high school, while all the other students were laboring over James Joyce and William Faulkner, I was reading Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Stephen King. Then Dean Koontz and Harry Harrison and Robert C. Clarke. In the 80's, I was working in Boston and my boss introduced me to a PI named Spenser. I devoured all those books as fast as I could.
Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard, or Lawrence Block?
Put me down for Block.
You've completed the Herndon (VA) Police Department's Citizen's Police Academy. How has that advanced your career?
I wanted to write about crime, but I was a child of white-bread suburbia. So I took the Citizen's Police Academy to learn a few things. And learn I did! We talked about gangs and drugs, we saw a K9 demonstration, we got to use a LIDAR gun, we went to the shooting range to use a real gun, we visited the detention center, and we went on a ride-along. In fact, my ride-along experience was so incredible that I wrote a novel called … (wait for it) … Ride-Along.
We met at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity conference. What would you tell new writers are the benefits of attending such events?
I love conferences and conventions. In addition to learning about craft, you can also learn about the business of publishing (a squirrelly business, I have to say). Perhaps most important are the connections you can make with other writers. Writers are fascinating people, and they come to the table with such a wide variety of experiences—both within and outside of publishing.
On a similar note, you teach fiction-writing classes at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. How would you "sell" this to a young writer? What do you personally find most fulfilling doing this?
There's a saying: "Some writers are born, others are taught." Actually, I believe that most writers—no matter how much innate talent they might possess—can benefit from taking classes and workshops. There are so many writers looking to get published that you have to be really, really good to stand out from the crowd. For me, the benefits are twofold: I always learn something while teaching, and it feels good to be able to help beginning writers—we were all beginning writers once!
Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, or Quentin Tarantino?
Three faves, but I'll go with Scorsese.
If you could have written any classic novel, from any time period, what would it be?
I'm not really into the classics, unless Agatha Christie counts. I thought the device Christie used in Murder on the Orient Express was very clever. I wish I'd thought of the idea behind Jurassic Park. A dinosaur theme park, with real live dinosaurs? Brilliant.
Do you think about marketing at all when you're in the "creative mode"? In other words, do you tailor your work to its potential market?
I wrote The Taste, so you would think that potential markets don't factor into my writing. They definitely should, however! I have noticed that, increasingly, I'll put aside the more outlandish ideas I get and work on stuff that is a little more mainstream (read: marketable).
Tell us about I Know Where You Sleep, your latest release.
I was very excited about the release of I Know Where You Sleep (Down & Out Books, February 2020) because it's my first private eye novel! (I got to join the Private Eye Writers of America.) And working with the very passionate people at Down & Out Books has been great, too.
Here's a description:
"I know where you play," rasps an ominous voice on the phone at Jessica Smith's gym. "I know where you pray," whispers the same voice at her church. The police are no help, so Jessica, tired of fleeing and unwilling to be cowed into hiding, turns to her last resort—PI Anderson West.
West dives into Jessica's case, pro bono. With some overzealous help from his loose-cannon sister Carrie, he unearths a horde of suspicious men in Jessica's life—vindictive ex-beaus, squirrelly co-workers, skittish boyfriend wannabes. But are any twisted enough to terrorize her?
After the stalker breaks into Jessica's bedroom—I know where you sleep—and she goes missing, West must find her before the stalker does. Or before Jessica tries something foolhardy, like facing up to the tenacious bastard on her own, armed only with a handgun and a prayer.
And, last question, just for fun: Ginger or Mary Ann?
Mary Ann. Ginger is a little too high class (and high maintenance) for me. I'm a down-to-earth guy, and Mary Ann seems a little more my speed.
Always fun to talk with you Alan!
(This interview first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Suspense Magazine.)