Interview: Last Words by Rich Zahradnik

In the darkest corners of New York City, LAST WORDS examines the city during its harshest period in 1975.

While New York burns, Coleridge Taylor, a reporter for the Messenger-Telegram, hunts down a killer, hoping to redeem himself for writing an invented news article.

Laura Wheeler, a co-worker, joins Taylor on his adventure, dodging the mob and crooked cops. Will they be able to achieve justice in time or will they be engulfed by the rest of the city?

To celebrate the upcoming release of this thrilling mystery, I am spotlighting an interview with Rich Zahradnik! Without further ado please welcome Rich Zahradnik to The Lit Bitch!

Q & A with Rich Zahradnik author of LAST WORDS

Q: What inspired you to write LAST WORDS?

A: The story started out as a what if? What if a big-time police reporter were forced to do the dull work of obituaries, always dealing with the dead but never pursuing the why of their deaths.

Q: The main character, Coleridge Taylor, mentions music often, are you a fan of the same bands Taylor references? What are your top 3 favorite songs from the 60s and 70s?

A: I like most of what Taylor likes, though found out about a lot of the groups later than he did. I was in high school from 1974-78. My group of friends and I thought we were mired in a musical wasteland, disco on the one side and hair bands (Styx, Foreigner, Kansas) on the other. Punk had not reached Poughkeepsie, so I did not become a fan of that music until I reached college, when I discovered the Talking Heads, the Police, and the Ramones. I also became a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, who was neither punk, nor hair band, just real. My three favorite songs:

  1. Thunder Road
  2. Pyscho Killer
  3. Sweet Jane (with the Intro)

Q: How would you describe your journalism experience compared to Taylor’s?

A: Taylor obviously came up earlier than I did at a different time for newspapers. I started in the suburbs, while he’s always been in the city. He’s covered police stories far more than I ever did. Much of my career was in media and business journalism. I think Taylor is a much more tenacious reporter than me, braver even, doing anything to get the story. That’s what’s important to him. Other things have always competed with journalism in my life, including writing fiction.

Q: When Laura and Taylor go out for drinks, the song “Gloria” by Patti Smith is playing in the background. What made you choose that song for them?

A: I loved Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and I wanted to have Patti Smith singing a song from ’75 that she did sing and most readers would know.

Q: What challenges did you face as you were writing LAST WORDS?

A: The first challenge was working full-time for a good chunk of the period I was writing the novel. There were days I might write half a page. That would get me down. I thought I’d never finish. The second was thinking that since I lived through 1975 I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research. I was wrong about that. It was all the little details that needed checking. Like when did the cost of a pay phone or subway token go up.

Q: What scene was your favorite to write? Why?

A: The last, and not just because I was at the end. At that point I was really flying. You can see it all coming together. Second would be a scene early in the book when Taylor visits the makeshift homeless shelter.

Q: Taylor carries a hefty literary name being named after the English Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge. What inspired you to connect Taylor to the English Romantic poet?

A: Taylor has a poor relationship with his father, an alcoholic English professor. His father gave him that name, and Taylor hates the ornamentation of it. Doesn’t much like his father either. Journalism is pretty much the opposite of poetry. I liked the name for all the contradictions it implies. I’m a huge fan of Morse and really wanted to go the one-last-name-only route, but didn’t want to be too much of copycat. This was my compromise.

Q: Taylor works as a journalist in LAST WORDS. What was one of your favorite stories you covered as a journalist?

A: Covering the Cannes Film Festival. Stars. Glitter. Movies. Business. All wrapped into one two-week long party. At another time, I co-owned a weekly newspaper. Being the news outlet and voice for a community was a real kick, though there were a lot of different stories in there.

Q: What makes 1975 so unique? What characteristics and traits define that time period in your perspective?

A: The year 1975 and the city of New York intrigued me because of the very striking parallels to America today. Then as now, an unpopular war was finally coming to its sad end. A major institution, the city itself, tumbled toward bankruptcy, threatening a cataclysm on the entire financial system. This as banks and ratings agencies ignored the warning signs or willfully misled the public. I chose this time period for the differences as well as the similarities. Solving a mystery in 1975 required good old-fashioned legwork and serious brainwork, rather than science fiction-like instant DNA typing and surveillance video available from any and every angle. Taylor has to find a pay phone when he needs to call someone. There’s something satisfying in that for me.

Q: Is there any research that didn’t make it into LAST WORDS that you wish you could have included?

A: I learned a lot more about what a terrible beautiful mess Times Square was at the time than I could fit in. Some was cut; some I couldn’t even use. Things like the signage, the history of some of the restaurants. I could have written pages alone on the Horn & Hardart Automat and bored everyone but myself.

Q: How would you characterize Taylor and Laura’s relationship? What keeps them together through all of the danger they face in LAST WORDS?

A: I think they are falling for each other in the midst of danger and a mutual love for breaking news. Laura may have the Columbia degree, but she loves Taylor’s street smarts and instincts for getting the story. Whether their work will be enough to keep them together is a question for the next book.

Q: Did anything surprise you as were writing LAST WORDS?

A: Characters who came out of nowhere and became interesting and important.

How grim 1975 really was. Time has a way of mellowing things. I remember the mid-Seventies as a difficult period, but I was a kid so I wasn’t really plugged into how terrible things were in New York and the country. Gas shortages. Inflation. Unemployment. Crime. The South Bronx burning.

Q: Taylor’s character faces his own pride along with other villains throughout LAST WORDS. Would Taylor consider his pride a virtue or vice? Why?

A: It’s a thin line there. His pride drives him to get good stories, the big scoops. When it drives him to the sins of hubris, he’s in trouble.

Q: If you could go back in time, when and where would you go? Why?

A: I’m obsessed with time travel stories. In fact, I’m writing a time travel novel for middle graders. It’s hard to pick one, but if I had to, the time of Christ. His life affected all of Western Civilization, the entire glove. I’d like to see what really happened during that period. Either that or my own childhood, to see everything I’ve forgotten.

About the Author

RICH ZAHRADNIK is the author of the Coleridge Taylor Mystery series published by Camel Press. He was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter, often writing news stories and analysis about the journalism business, broadcasting, film production, publishing and the online industry.

In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York’s Center for Fiction. He has been a media entrepreneur throughout his career. He was the founding executive producer of CNNfn.com, a leading financial news website and a Webby winner; managing editor of Netscape.com, and a partner in the soccer-news website company Goal Networks. Zahradnik received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University.

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for spotlighting my interview on The Lit Bitch. I’ll be stopping by to see if your readers have any questions or comments for me about my novel LAST WORDS or mysteries or writing or whatever comes up.
    Best,
    Rich

    Reply

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