Closing the Story on My Own Terms: An Interview with Alex Segura

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IN THE COURSE of five novels, Alex Segura has given us one of the most fascinating PIs in detective fiction: the messy, troubled, intelligent, and remarkably human Pete Fernandez. With unflinching prose, Segura has chronicled Fernandez’s personal turmoil, his romantic foibles, and, more importantly, his struggles with addition and recovery. Segura has both celebrated and transcended many of the tropes of the genre, all the while conjuring a three-dimensional panorama of the shadows and secrets of Miami with its colorful culture and musical vibrancy. The fifth installment, Miami Midnight, is Segura’s last. It’s a remarkable conclusion, if not a bittersweet finale. As this series comes to a close, I had to wonder why an author decides to call it quits on a successful series, how he knew it was time to say goodbye, and whether parting is such sweet sorrow or rather a relief.

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IVY POCHODA: I’m going to open with something I’m dying to know. I can’t even think ahead in whatever book I’m currently writing. But you knew before you dove into Miami Midnight that this was your final Pete Fernandez book. At what point did you decide that this was the end? ALEX SEGURA: I knew we’d end at five before I started writing the fourth in the series — Blackout — so I started planting the seeds for what I knew would be, if not the end, then a meaningful break of sorts. I knew by the end of the third novel, Dangerous Ends, that I didn’t have much more to go. I could only put Pete through these paces realistically for so long. He gets really, for lack of a better term, fucked up with each book. Shot. Almost killed. Forced to deal with heavy loss. So by the time I got to Blackout, I knew we had to start speeding down the hill toward the big finish, even if it wasn’t in that book. That’s why you have the mafia subplot in Blackout that pops out at the end to take Pete out, and it’s why we have the push and pull between him and Kathy, romantically, because I knew that was something that I wanted to come to a head in the final book. I didn’t know how I’d end things, though, but I knew some of the elements I wanted to play with — jazz, the mob (Italian, Cuban, and beyond), and Pete’s struggle with his identity. He got sober, had been a mostly dry drunk for a few books, but now I wanted him to face the bigger question — if you’ve recovered, what’s next? What do you do with yourself? And what’s the plan for you? Throughout the series, he pushes back on the idea of being a private eye — he flirts with it, but mostly he can’t come to terms with the fact that he’s good at this, and when he does embrace it, he’s flying in blind. By the time we get to Miami Midnight, we can see that subconsciously, he’s trying to get the pieces in place to finally become what we’ve been waiting for. The idea to have him solve his own mother’s murder came up later, while I was writing the book, and it was something I’d considered a while back — but didn’t feel like it was the right time. But now, closing out the series, it felt like the perfect moment for him to dig back into his own past and discover the truth about what happened to her, but to also get to know her — this mysterious woman he never really met — and to realize that she struggled with a lot of the same things he did, but she didn’t make it. You’ve lived with Pete so long, like a roommate or something even more personal, I imagine. What’s it like saying goodbye? I was excited about it at first, but as I got closer to the end — it started to sink in more. Like, “This is the last time I’ll get to write Pete with X character,” or, “Is this the last time we’ll visit this place or see this person?” The finality of it hit me as I was writing the last few chapters, and those are intense sequences, too. Lots of characters die, and the status quo is pretty seriously upended. So, it was intense and while, logically, I was excited to eventually write something else — something different — part of me was sad that this would be it for these characters. If not forever, then at least for a long while. It faded for a bit once I put the book to bed, but once the marketing started, and we very clearly said, “This is the last book,” people started to get really emotional! And that fed into the whole thing for me. As writers, we’re in our caves pecking away and we hope, down the line, someone likes our work. So to hear from so many people that were sad, upset, and anxious — it had an effect. It made me look back on the whole thing with this mix of pride, bittersweet happiness, and just a general feeling of accomplishment. Which was nice. I never considered changing course, because I think the story dictates that this is the end, but it was nice to see so many people were passionate about it. It made me reflect on the whole series more. I really believe in celebrating your victories — your accomplishments. Life is so full of bad news and tragedy, that we have to take note of the wins, so this very much felt like one — even if I never write another book, I can at least look at these five and feel really happy about how they turned out, and how I closed the story on my own terms. Did you have a sense of Pete’s journey when you started out, or did he take the lead and you follow? I started out just wanting to see if I could write a novel, period, then trying to see if I could write a novel like the ones I was reading and loving. A PI story that felt really steeped in setting, like the stuff Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman, or George Pelecanos would write, with really screwed-up heroes who aren’t the steel-jawed, tainted knights, à la Marlowe or Archer. Messed-up people trying to do good, I guess. I’d just moved to New York but didn’t really feel equipped to write an NYC novel, plus I felt like every private eye lived in New York or Los Angeles. I was homesick for Miami, and I loved the contrast of paradise and this dark, noir element bubbling under. But I didn’t think beyond that first book. Once it was almost done, and Pete had found the missing woman — who, spoiler alert, is Kathy Bentley, his eventual partner/lover/best friend — and I had the two characters play off each other, I really liked the dynamic and I felt like there was more to say. That’s when I considered doing it as a series, and I just dove into the second book, but even then — I wasn’t think beyond two or three. While writing the second one, I think I told people it’d be a trilogy, because I just couldn’t think that far ahead, which has served me well and also made it a harder journey, in terms of planning. I regret killing off some characters early, but then part of me thinks that’s just the way it goes — and the novels feel more genuine and real because they’re not as mapped out, that they’re more of an emotional journey, which is more akin to life. Bad stuff happens sometimes and you can’t really rationalize it very well, but you move on. But yeah, at a certain point, it was less about me nudging Pete along and more of just letting him loose on an idea. For a book like Dangerous Ends, the third in the series, I knew what I generally wanted to write about — so it became more of a question of how Pete would react in the situation and less of me orchestrating him and his friends. Blackout, too, was a byproduct of me wanting to write a cult book because I’d become obsessed with cults. And that became the fun of the series for me — I got to write about whatever I wanted through the prism of a PI series, and at the same time I got to tell this journey of a guy who starts off the series passed out in his apartment, a waste to the world, and — speaking generally — ends up in a much more established spot, as someone who helps others instead of just drinking his sorrows away. Can you tell me where Pete came from initially? Conceptually, I wanted to write about someone like me at the time — Cuban-American, early 30s, imperfect and certainly not well versed in being a PI … but savvy enough to be able to learn. I liken Pete to someone I went to college with but lost touch with a few years back … we have some common ground, but are different. I also wanted to tackle the idea of alcoholism outside of the PI genre trope, or the idea that a detective can knock back six drinks, hop in a car, get in a fight, and save the dame. It just didn’t ring true to me, and as much as I liked the books that did that well, it had become such an established part of crime fiction that I felt like I needed to push back on it. I wanted to show the grimy side of being a drunk — waking up in your own vomit, getting beat up, not having money, isolating yourself because you’ve alienated anyone that cares about you — and weave it into being a PI, or at least becoming one. But those were all just ideas. Pete kind of came to life as I wrote him, and all these pieces clicked together and formed his personality — funny, stubborn, frustrating, smart, instinctual — all these things you start to like, but also hate when it goes sour. I don’t think your characters have to be likable, or perfect, so I went in with the idea that this series would not be for everyone. That people might find him too frustrating to follow. But that was the kind of book I wanted to read, and I didn’t feel that it existed, outside of the ones that inspired me. Oh, here’s an apt final question. The series is over, but if we were to zoom in on Pete in a few years where would we find him? Oh, I love this question, because of course I’ve thought about it. I think PI novels can be dropped into one of two buckets — the “evergreen” PI, where it’s more about the case and story and the character/protagonist himself doesn’t change, and the evolving PI, where each novel pushes the hero forward in some way, altering their basic status quo, so the books are as much about what goes on internally as it is about the external. It’s clear which one Pete is. Without spoiling anything, Miami Midnight leaves him in a spot that opens the door to the series changing significantly, because we’re no longer inching toward the starting line. He is a PI now. He does have a status quo. The structure is there. So, I imagine he will have a series of adventures that remain fairly consistent in terms of his world. But I think jumping in 10 years later is perfect, because then I can shake everything up, and maybe deal with things that I’ll be dealing with then, too — fatherhood, getting older, questioning whether you’ve made the right decisions in life. I hope we’d find a wiser, less risky Pete, but one that still gets a thrill out of the chase. A Pete that’s probably still sober, helping others, hopefully still with the person we see him with at the end of the book — and then has to deal with a jarring, unexpected surprise that echoes back to his earliest days. I love derailing his comfy routines, so giving him a decade to settle in sounds about right.

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Ivy Pochoda is the author of Wonder Valley.