P.I. Tales’ inaugural private detective novel, Throwing Off Sparks, is set for release May 12, 2020. The novel is also the first book in the Riley Reeves Mystery Series featuring our first of many series detectives, Riley Reeves.
We sat down with the series’ author Michael Pool to discuss what makes Riley a compelling character, and why he chose East Texas as the locale for the series. It’s a great interview with excellent insight into what to expect from the Riley Reeves Series. Read on below!
P.I. Tales: Tell us a little about how Riley Reeves came into being, and why you chose a female East Texas P.I. as the basis for your first series character?
Michael: A few years ago, a friend of mine, Michael Bracken, put out a submission call for The Eyes of Texas, which was an anthology of private detective stories set in locales across Texas (published by Down and Out Books). Having grown up in East Texas, I loved the idea and wanted to contribute a story. So I put together the concept for a story called “Weathering the Storm” that revolved around a private eye chasing a serial killer operating in the chaos of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, which was a big ecological happening around that time.
From the moment I started writing it was like Riley jumped fully formed onto the page. It just became clear that she had a lot to say, and that she had a chip on her shoulder when it came to the way men sometimes try to dominate women, particularly in old fashioned East Texas.
Riley is a conglomeration of the many strong women I knew and interacted with growing up in East Texas. As I’m sure other writers have experienced, she was just one of those characters who came clawing out of the void and insisted that her story be told, NOW. I knew within a page of starting the short story, which did end up being selected for inclusion in The Eyes of Texas, that I was going to write an entire series of books featuring her.
P.I. Tales: Tell potential readers a little about East Texas, and what they can expect to experience there through Riley’s series.
Michael: Most people picture a flat, barren landscape when they picture Texas. But it’s a huge, diverse state, culturally and geographically. For example, it is faster to drive from Tyler, Texas to Chicago, Illinois than it is to drive to El Paso, Texas. The cultures in each are as different from Tyler as they are from each other, too. East Texas is in the piney woods region and has everything from huge pine forests to swamps dotting the humid, tropical landscape. It has a history as an insular, divided place that is full of secrets.
East Texas was home to one of the original oil booms (and the second-largest oil field on the continent, outside of Alaska), and that meant, on the one hand, a few people got enormously wealthy, while on the other thousands of people roughnecked out a hard paycheck working in the oil fields and living in places like Kilgore. Most of the families of both ends of that spectrum still inhabit the area. It has always had an odd juxtaposition of working-class and affluence. Not to mention the dialect is quite charming (think Matthew McConaughey, who is from Longview 30 miles down the road from Tyler).
Fans of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series have heard of Tyler in passing, as Joe’s characters occasionally make their way there from the fictional town of LaBorde while working out their cases. It’s the kind of place where a girlie girl might be able to shoot a rifle better than your country-ass grandpappy, and she’s not likely to let you forget it.
P.I. Tales: What makes Riley unique in terms of being a series detective worth reading?
Michael: There is a paradox at the center of Riley, much like there is to the place she grew up. On the one hand, Riley desperately desires peace and harmony. On the other, she has a problem with risk-taking and looking for the exact kind of trouble that prevents peace from taking root in her life. These two parts of her are in constant conflict for control. But the series is also about what that conflict does to Riley’s personal life, which is rife with its own paradoxes. I wanted to explore that idea in particular because it is something I’ve experienced through my own real-life work as a private detective. It can be an isolating, lonely job, and it can absolutely take over the rest of your life.
When Throwing Off Sparks first picks up, Riley is recently divorced, down to one living relative, and often neglectful of her best friend and guiding light, Latonya Johnson. She finds that what is good for her loved ones and what is good for her clients are generally at odds, and how she navigates those odds makes for a compelling, emotional, exciting story.
When you add in the chaos of her brother Chip’s addiction to alcohol and his connection to Riley’s ex-husband, and how they contribute to her inner conflict, it ramps her stress up to the point where something has got to give or Riley will be pulled apart. I think that’s her most compelling feature. She will absolutely pull herself apart for the people she loves or is tasked to protect, losing valuable parts of herself each and every time.
P.I. Tales: What were some of the challenges of writing a female protagonist as a male author?
Tough question, but a good one. I mean, I can never really know if I’ve gotten it right or not when writing female characters, so that’s one thing. But I didn’t want that to stop me from trying. I can tell you that there is a deep part of me in Riley, but also deep parts of women I have greatly admired in her, as well. I can’t pretend to fully understand any of them, but I can understand parts of them.
Writers are nothing if not perceivers. I feel like our talents, to the degree that they exist, are in our ability to see intrinsic parts of people that transcend concepts of gender or culture or race. That doesn’t mean getting it perfect, but it does mean trying to understand. I did not seek to get women correct so much as to get Riley correct. That took getting to know her and getting out of the way to let her tell her own story, which is written in the first person.
Riley gets her indomitable spirit from her father, mostly, with a few details from her mother, mainly stubbornness and a sense of tradition. In my own life, I get my indomitable spirit from my mother, a great example of the kind of Texas woman who inspired Riley in the first place. Tough, smart, and unmovable when it comes to the people they care about, Texas women are some of the most powerful people I have encountered in my life.
I see some of these traits in myself (the stubbornness, anyway), and it may be that this is the part of Riley that is the most a part of me. If so, it comes from the women in my life and my mother in particular, and I think in that sense I have gotten it as right as I’m ever going to get it.
Riley can bring me to tears because I care deeply about what happens to her, and my hope is that this comes out through the writing and the reader feels the same way about her as they move through her character arc. Anything I got wrong will hopefully find context in the extreme love and admiration that I feel for Riley (and for Latonya), which is born from the love and admiration I feel for the powerful women who have shaped my life. She’s my favorite character I’ve ever created, and I know readers are going to love her too!
Throwing Off Sparks comes out May 12, 2020, as the inaugural title from P.I. Tales. The eBook is currently up for pre-order with both the paperback and eBook editions released worldwide on May 12th. For a sneak peek at the prologue to Throwing Off Sparks, fill out the form below!