Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An Interview with Sam Morton

Sam Morton is one of the finest writers and people I know. Who else would agree to be a speaker for a romance writers program and spend two hours riding to the location wearing wrestlers’ tights beneath his jeans so he could surprise me, the program chair, by stripping at the presentation? (Perhaps I should mention that although I remain a member of the group, I have never been asked to be program chair again.)

I was delighted when Sam decided to join us at Writers Who Kill, and kept asking if I could do an in-depth interview with him, to give him a proper introduction to our WWK audience. Now, I have that great opportunity and privilege.

Let’s start at the beginning, Sam. Where were you born and where did you spend your early years?

I was born and raised in what was the small mill town of Rock Hill, South Carolina. Today, Rock Hill has become a bedroom community of the ever-spreading Charlotte metro area. Rock Hill was a fantastic place to grow up. My dad belonged to every club that had a mascot with antlers. He was a member of the Moose Lodge and the Elks Club, one of which had a park on a huge lake where I fished, swam, played on a playground with a polished steel sliding board that in the summer may as well have been a grill plate, and ate some of the best grilled hamburgers in my life.

When did you decide you were going to be a writer?

When I was twelve. I experienced two seminal events that year. One Sunday in church, my pastor read about a family who had lost everything in a fire. He described their blackened faces, their tears, their disheveled hair. I thought he'd been reading a passage from a book. I found out later he had written those words himself and it hit me like a brick: everyday people can write like that.

The second event was actually a school quarter spent with English teacher Dan Forest at Rawlinson Road Junior High School. As a mentor, the man was a genius.

You graduated from the Citadel, South Carolina’s Military University, with a degree in English. How did you decide to attend the Citadel, and how did your education there shape your life?
When I was thirteen, I spent my first of the next five summers at the Citadel Summer Camp as a camper and then counselor. My second year there, my father died two weeks before camp started. A mama's boy anyway, I pleaded with my mother to let me stay at home. She stood strong. Those weeks at camp, literally days after my father passed away, I felt embraced, protected, watched over. I felt like I was home. That feeling never left me. My senior year in high school, I had been accepted at the University of South Carolina and Wofford University. I was a pre-nominee for the Air Force Academy. Then I got my acceptance letter to The Citadel and told everyone else, "Thanks, but no thanks." I knew I was going "home."

My education there was stellar. I'd put it up against any Ivy League university, perhaps not in academics, but in life lessons. I learned how to handle stressful situations. I learned to make decisions, and more importantly, to take responsibility for them without quibbling or excuses. I learned when to sacrifice and when to stand firm. And I learned to write from some of the finest minds in the field, some of the same professors who taught Pat Conroy.

At one time, the local writing group to which we belong, The Inkplots (founded by fellow WWK blogger Carla Damron), had three male members, all graduates of the all-male Citadel. What is it about the Citadel that molds exceptional authors?

Actually, I believe all authors are exceptional. Everybody wants to write a book and since we all learn to conduct the physical process of writing by first grade, everybody believes they can "write." Work for any CEO who tries to write his or her own memos and you begin to see how untrue that is. Where authors are exceptional is in actually making the creative process a priority, devoting time and study and constant improvement. Authors have the temerity to say, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead," in a sea of critics, and naysayers, and literary agents for whom our work, "Doesn't suit their current needs." Only exceptional people push through that, and that kind of perseverance comes only through self-discipline. That may be where Citadel folks have an advantage over some lowly fraternity slug who slept til noon, skipped his first three classes, and started drinking by 4:00 p.m.—not that I hold any animosity!

You mention three distinctive jobs in your website biography: 12 years as a robbery/ homicide detective for the Richland County Sheriff's Department in Columbia, SC; 10 years as a professional wrestler; and one long week as the blade changer on a potato cutting machine. How has each of these experiences influenced your life and your writing?

Twelve years as a cop gave me an endless supply of writing material and insight into almost every crisis situation and how people react. I've seen a father who inexplicably never shed a tear over the death of his young son, and had more than one severely battered woman fight me for trying to arrest her abusive husband. I've worked murders in which people were killed for a) taking the last fried chicken leg, b) because he had a half-million dollar life insurance policy, and c) because he had no money at all and had thus wasted the robber's time.

Lillian Ellison, The Fabulous Moolah, the greatest female wrestler in history, taught me how to tell a story, which is all a wrestling match is. She taught me the ebb and flow and how to kick things up if the fans got restless. She also taught me the greatest marketing lesson ever. You can't even get this stuff at Harvard: In a sandpaper voice, Lillian once told me as I sat sucking air in her training ring, “Honey, there are three types of wrestling fans: the kind that think it’s all fake and no x-ray or doctor’s report will make them think otherwise; the kind that absolutely believes it’s all real and nothing will make ‘em believe any different; and then there’s the kind right there in the middle that just ain’t quite sure—and that’s where you make all your money.”

The Frito Lay gig taught me the value of an education, as in, "Get one or you'll be working third shift in a factory like this the rest of your life!"

Disavowed, your first novel, begins with a horrifying crime, a white supremacist group murdering a black infant. What made you decide to write this novel and what was the process that led you to Echelon Press, its publisher?

I wanted to write a book in which my protagonist conquered evil, and not just garden variety evil either. My evil had to be vast and conspiratorial. Racism, back in the news so recently, remains a huge topic of interest and a deep well from which to water all sorts of emotional conflict. Go big or go home, right? Two of my favorite authors are Pat Conroy and Daniel Silva. Fighting against the evil is hard enough, but like Conroy, I wanted my protagonist to have enough self-doubt that victory would be far from a sure thing. And like Silva, I wanted enough action so that just when readers thought my main character was safe, something bad would happen.

Very, very fortunately for me, I happened across Karen Syed and Echelon Press at the South Carolina Book Festival in 2005. We began with casual hallway conversation, which led her to invite me to send in my manuscript. Three novels later, it remains a fantastic relationship.

Tell us about your working relationship and how it benefits both you and Echelon.

Karen donated all the proceeds from the anthology, called Heat of the Moment, to a firefighters' charity. She's a huge proponent of giving back. Like with most regional publishers without enormous marketing budgets, the bulk of the marketing falls on the writers. That said, Echelon provides dozens of marketing opportunities during the year, everything from booth space at major festivals (Printer's Row, Decatur Book Festival, L.A. Times Book Festival) to co-op ads in industry trades. Everything is designed to maximize author exposure while minimizing costs. Karen will even help you find a roommate to share expenses at a festival (and if her room has a kitchen, she'll cook for you, too). I believe we authors get much more benefit from the relationship.

Where we benefit Echelon is simply by our commitment. If, for example, I attend Printer's Row with 15 other authors, we'll usually set an overall sales goal for the tent. If someone isn't interested in my mystery, but is instead looking for a book for their grandkids, I try to co-market my colleague's children's book—or at least get the customer talking to my colleague. More often than not, we'll reach the $10,000 mark in sales at Printer's Row, but it's all achieved through team selling.

Describe your young adult series. What made you decide to write these novels? What can readers expect in the next book?

I can sum it up in two words: teen spy. In book one, Betrayed, the teens take on a rogue Mexican general and a drug cartel. Book two, Ten Weeks Til…, has them infiltrating a Latino street gang (two of my main characters are Latino), which, in turn, is competing with the Russian mob for territory. One of the best pieces of advice I got when I began the series came from Shannon Greenland my good friend and a very polished and widely published young adult author. Shannon told me never to underestimate the sophistication of my audience; therefore, in addition to the action, my characters deal with relevant and real life issues, moral dilemmas such as illegal immigration in book one and drugs and violence in book two. Young adult is tricky because the parents buying the books want characters who, if they have a gun pointed at them, say things like, "Oh, golly!" and believe that sex refers only to gender. I got teens, folks, and that simply ain't the case. I try, therefore, to walk that fine line between not upsetting parents and not insulting the intelligence of my readers.

Yet to be named book three, the last in the series, completes the arc of betrayal when the teens find out their own boss is working against them and plotting their demise.

In addition to your fiction, you have a distinguished career writing for college, business, and nonprofit organizations. How have you managed to balance commercial and educational work with fiction?

Because I'm a pantser, if I get a sure fire paying gig, fiction writing hours move to early, early mornings or late evenings until the CEO, professor, or director has in his or her hands a completed brochure, memo, or letter and I have a check in mine!

Seriously, I'm lucky to have such flexibility in my schedule. In reality corporate messages ought to be short and to the point because the people doing to yeoman's load don't have time to sit around reading memos. When I get corporate work, I get right to it and get it done, but the whole time I'm thinking about getting back to my fiction. I think about what happens to my characters next. I suppose it's the human phenomenon of always wanting what we don't have. When I "don't have time" to work on my fiction because I'm enmeshed in corporate writing, that's when my creative juices start to flow and I get some magnificent plot work done in my head. The trick is to remember it and put it to use when I get my fiction time back.

Family is very important in your life. Could you tell us about your parents, wife, and children, and how they have influenced your writing?

My family is matriarchal driven. My maternal grandmother headed the family until she became ill and my mother, the eldest of her siblings, took over that role. Now that she's gone, my sister has taken it on and I see my niece preparing for it. As a result, you will not find a damsel in distress in any of my books. In my life and in my fiction, I find those to be mythical creatures.

My wife is the dominant partner in our relationship, and she's also a very nurturing and caring person. Both my son and daughter have me wrapped around their little fingers, and I couldn't be a happier man.

My relationships with my children inform my writing. I have no hesitation in letting my 12-year-old daughter or 15-year-old son read anything I write from a sex scene to a violent murder to strong language. Why? Because I've found through my work in law enforcement that nothing I write can compare to the cruel, evil things people really do to each other. I'd rather have my kids read this kind of thing and us talk about it than to have them experience it and realize I had information that could have helped them all along.

On your website, you have written a wonderful tribute to wrestling champion Lillian Ellison, the Fabulous Moolah, your friend and your teacher. Could you tell us how you met and came to work with her?

When I was a deputy sheriff, I patrolled often in the neighborhood where Lillian lived. I'd been a wrestling fan all my life, but a six-foot brick wall surrounded her house, and I never got dispatched there, so I figured my chances of just running into her were slim. Then I met someone who knew her well and introduced us. I paid her to train me to wrestle, and we became friends.

She also became my booking agent, getting me booked to wrestle in everything from large arenas (I made my TV wrestling debut at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, N.C. wrestling the legendary Ricky Steamboat) to bar parking lots.

Did you agree to join WWK because the initials reminded you of WWE? Do you find any similarities between the two?

Well, I knew one of the "Ws" stood for writers, so I surmised wrestlers were not involved since most of the wrestlers I know can barely read or write. (In the wrestling business, that's called "cutting a promo" when you insult other wrestlers.)

One similarity—E.B. Davis routinely "slams" me for my preference of the mountains to the beach. Perhaps she's had too much sun.

Thank you, Sam, for being a member of WWK, a great writer, and a fabulous friend.


  1. Hi,Sam,

    You have such an interesting background, perfect for writing crime fiction. I enjoyed reading the interview. Best wishes for your continued success.

  2. Thanks Paula for the interview so we got to know Sam better.

    Thanks Sam for joining WWK. You’ll forgive me for not offering to share a bear hug?

    ~ Jim

  3. As a longtime fan of your fiction, one of the things I love best is how you often weave humor into even your darkest stories. Can you tell us a little about the importance of humor in storytelling and how to add that element without making seem forced?

  4. This is a great interview. We get to see the many, many facets of the strange animal that is SAM MORTON.

  5. Great insight into a many-faceted (that means you're a real jewel, Sam) person I've had the privilege to know for years. If I'm ever discouraged, I can count on Sam to say something to make me laugh. He's an overcomer who makes me think twice about whining. I appreciate his explanation about sharing his writing with his children. Thanks, Paula.

  6. I appreciate the difference between those who enjoy the mountains over the beach, Sam, but I chose to flaunt my preference because the beach is infinitely superior. The warmth, the sun, the leisure, sleeping in my beach chair, boating, shelling, fishing, beach games, reading...the list could go on and on.

    Slamming? Nah--sticking out my tongue isn't quite the put down that slamming is, but for me, it's a nice touch! I suggest a rematch--your choice of weapons! Name the date--here on WWK.

  7. Thanks, Paula, for this probing interview of our newest member.

    Sam, you have such an interesting background. I can certainly understand how you would be drawn to write crime fiction. Thanks for becoming a part of the WWK crew!

  8. Thanks, Paula for the interview of our newest member. Sam, it's been nice getting to know you better.

  9. Thanks to everyone for these wonderful comments. To answer Debbie question, the way I work in humor without making it seemed forced is I try to make the one seminal comment that everybody is thinking, but no one yet has the guts to say. I do believe weaving humor into fiction is important, especially in mystery where the action or suspense can get intense. You almost have to have some release valve, and humor not only serves that purpose, but endears the humorous character to the readers.

  10. Sam, I enjoyed learning about your interesting background. Perhaps you and E.B. can have a beach vs. mountain rematch using words as your weapons. In this corner...

  11. Love this! Enjoyed another glimse into the ever-fascinating Sam's life :)

  12. I agree with E.B. and Kara--mountains vs. beach rematch with Sam and E.B. on WWK. Only, don't either of you feel obliged to wear tights.