After reading the blurb for Trial of Tears, I went on a Pulp Fiction YouTube Spree. I lost hours of my life on “Say what again,” “I gotta stab her three times?” and Ezekiel 25:17. Today, Chris Semal joins us so we can pluck his brain. 🙂 But first, the blurb which sucked me in.
‘Pulp Fiction’ meets ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ in this tough, funny, sexy and fast-paced story.
Pete Watts is a former undercover narcotics cop who got way too close to his job. He now runs a music rehearsal studio in which all manner of eccentric musicians come through. His soon to be ex-girlfriend is a talented singer with a sleazy manager who is in the habit of giving his clients drug habits, occasionally overdosing them to move their recordings up the charts, with the full support of the shady entertainment company for whom he works.
This universe of people is inexorably drawn into a war between two violent drug gangs, viewed through the perspective of the Napoleonic leader of one gang. He has recently signed on a strange, but beautiful ex-mercenary, who wears makeup in the form of multi-colored tears running down her face. These tears are, in fact, decals on which different poisons are concealed, hence the title. Some survive the Trial of Tears, some don’t. The story’s taut climax is set in a posh townhouse in which only the courageous will emerge unscathed.
While it certainly has its share of humor, action and suspense, it is also a story of friendship and redemption, as well as being a love letter to New York City.
Reena Jacobs: Musician, singer, songwriter. Do you find your background in music has helped you as a writer? And if so, how?
Chris Semal: Absolutely, Music has always been my first love and is a constant source of discussion with my friends, who mostly are musicians themselves. It’s an innate form of communication and you can express pretty much every emotion by how and what you play. I’m usually the lyricist in whatever original bands I’ve played in and most of the songs are character driven, that is to say, they are sung from other perspectives than my own personal one. Someone once told me that to be the singer in my band, you need to be a method actor. This is a huge help in writing a novel, as you have to put yourself in the heads and personalities of many different characters and make them all believable. I’m probably a precious few steps away from having multiple personality disorder 🙂
Also, writing about something I know so innately helps in conveying the joy that playing with other musicians provides. I think I’ve translated that feeling well in the chapters and scenes which focus on that element, as well as the coldness and calculation on the business end.
RJ: I find music highly inspirational. However, it distracts me like nothing else when I’m trying to produce. What about you? Did you have a playlist while writing Trial of Tears?
CS: I always write with iTunes on in the background, but no particular playlist. I have some 9500 songs and just let it run on random play like a jukebox. I may tweak things a little and forward a song if it’s not the right mood for where I’m at, but I usually just let it run. When you’re in a Guns N’ Roses mood and Miles Davis shows up, you’ve got to take charge of the moment, though sometimes it’ll take you somewhere unexpected.
RJ: Guns N’ Roses… you bring memories of my youth to me. 🙂 Give us a brief description of a story you have hidden in your skeleton closet? And will it ever see the light of day?
CS: With any luck, most of my stories will see the light of day. At this point, I’m not the most prolific producer, though I see my pace picking up the more I write. The next work to see publication is a novella called ‘Time Flies’. It’s a coming of age story set in Manhattan in the late 1980s through the aftermath of 9/11. As a native, I love setting my stories in the city. I wrote this as a bit of a reaction to people who commented that Trial of Tears is a little intense or over the top for their tastes. I look at it as if Ozzy Osbourne played a bar mitzvah. That’s not to say that I don’t let humor into the story, but it’s on a different level.
RJ: I like that viewpoint. I think sometimes it’s easy for novels written by an author to fall into the sameness. Versatility keeps things fresh. What are you working on now?
CS: I am currently working on the sequel to Trial of Tears, titled Reign of Tears. It picks up the story a year later. I’m about seven chapters into it and hopefully will have it done in 2013.
RJ: Awesome! Readers will have something to look forward to. Which of your characters do you relate to most?
CS: Ah, I relate to most of them in one way or another. The relationship between the protagonist, Pete Watts, and his closest friend is based on the way my oldest friend and I get along. Pete’s a nice fellow who, though he’s had a tough life, is the kind of guy you’d like to hang out and have a beer with. That being said, I really had the most fun writing for the villains, of which there are many. You can let loose the worst elements of your psyche without fear of incarceration or recrimination. I wanted to make my bad guys truly hissable, but with an element of humanity that keeps them grounded. They chose the paths they took for a reason.
I was seriously bummed out when I had to kill off Ronno towards the end of the story. As despicable as he was, he grew on me and I gave him tons of good lines. Alice, the inspiration for the novel’s title and cover, was an absolute gem to write for, broken toy that she is. She wasn’t even in my initial character sketches when I started outlining the story! From some deep, dark recess in my mind, she makes her entrance in Chapter 5 and does her best to take over the story. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers who want to know more about her and that will happen in Reign of Tears. In this book, I treat her like the monster of a well-done horror movie. You don’t want to show too much and overexpose her, so I focus more on the wreckage she leaves behind. I recently had a fun publicity assignment in which I wrote a character interview with her. It ends very badly for the interviewer.
CS: There are many things, but a lot of them are subjective and what works for one person might ruin someone else’s work. If I had to give the younger version of me advice, it would be to realize how much polishing an initial manuscript needs. It’s normal to think that you’ve written something tremendous after you’ve completed a novel and you may confuse the completion of a major milestone, which finishing a first novel certainly is, with how far you are along the road to being publishable. Without a doubt, once you have it polished til it gleams, hire an editor. You can only go so far by yourself. No one has an ugly baby, but a professional perspective will show you what is working and what needs work. If you have to go down the road of self-publishing, figure out what your business strengths and weaknesses are, because you’re going to need to put a good team together. So many different skills are required and it’s unlikely you’ll be good at all of them.
RJ: Excellent advice. Anything special you’d like to say to readers?
CS: I always enjoy getting feedback on my work, good or bad. This a labor of love and I had no idea how much I was going to enjoy the process. It’s one of the best mental exercises you can put yourself through and, even if you don’t wind up on the bestseller list, all sorts of doors will open up to you if you take a journey like this.
About the Author
Chris Semal was born in New York City in 1959 and has lived there all his life. He is aware that other places exist and likes to visit them from time to time, but the city is a hard mistress to resist and he keeps going back to her. A musician, singer and songwriter, he has played pretty much every rock club in Manhattan at one time or another since the late 70s and went to school at the University of Miami to study Music Engineering, coming back north to do the only obvious thing possible, becoming a municipal bond broker and eventually working as a consultant building financial models. In the early part of the millennium, between both consulting and band gigs, he thought it might be interesting to see what would happen if he expanded on the 80 or so words he used in writing song lyrics and went for the 80,000 he would need for a novel. And so Trial Of Tears was born, along with a passion for developing plots and characters.