This week it is my pleasure to interview Rick DeStefanis. Would you please introduce yourself to my readers, Rick and share something about your life.
I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee about a mile from Elvis Presley’s house, went into the US military in early 1970, and afterward worked the freight trains as a brakeman on the Illinois Central Railroad for a few years. After finishing school at the University of Alabama I went into management at FedEx—all this so I could someday write my books. After my two children married and moved out on their own, I began to write in earnest and published my first book in 2010. Two of my books have won awards: The Gomorrah Principle and Valley of the Purple Hearts. I now live in northern Mississippi with my wife Janet, a male Labrador named Blondie and a half-dozen cats.
When did you write your first book and how did it come about?
I first sat down and put fingers to keyboard back in 1986 when I returned to school to finish my degree work. Already having completed most of the required courses, I was left with a considerable number of elective hours to fulfil. I chose literature and creative writing—for a purpose. That brings me to the part: “…how did it (the first book) come about?”
In 1970 I went in the US military and later became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. I had a number of friends return from the war in Vietnam, all with stories to tell, but none wanting to relive their experiences except while drinking in bars around Fort Bragg, NC. I carried those stories with me for years, and they came out in the creative writing class as my senior project. That novella manuscript later became the full length novel Valley of the Purple Hearts. Although, my novels are only fictionalized accounts, much of what I write is based upon those veterans’ stories.
Do you always write in the same genre or do you mix it up?
I actually write in two genres now, but I am presently working on a novel that will make it a third. My first four novels are all historical military fiction based on the Vietnam War. What sets them apart from being simple “war” novels are my strong secondary female protagonists, the resulting romance and character development. The second genre is modern southern fiction. I write about modern-day rural southerners in the Mississippi Delta in the novel Tallahatchie. And the novel I am currently writing will be a western of sorts in as much as it begins at the end of the American Civil War and moves with the protagonist to the Oregon Trail.
When you write, do you start with an idea and sit down and let it evolve, or do you make notes and collect ideas on paper beforehand?
I would say it is a “hybrid” of the two. I always begin with the seed of an idea, but quite often let it germinate in my mind for a while before actually collecting ideas and making notes. The thing I do before actually sitting down and beginning to write is I determine my ending. From there I seldom stick strictly to an outline, and often the story does in fact evolve and become somewhat different from what I first imagined.
Would you like to give us a short excerpt from one of your books?
This is from The Gomorrah Principle. When Brady Nash learns his foster brother Duff may have been murdered by a rogue CIA agent in Vietnam, he enlists in the Army Airborne like Duff as well as duty-station Vietnam. He returns home after training for a thirty-day leave before leaving for the war, and goes to visit Duff’s grave:
Brady pulled his duffel bag from beneath the bed and found the bottle of bourbon he’d bought in Atlanta. Hiding it beneath his jacket, he slipped out the front door and walked up the road to the cemetery behind the church.
Most evenings near sunset, Preacher Webb went to the church sanctuary, where he played the electric chimes. And when the breeze died and not so much as a leaf fluttered, remnants of the sun often streaked the western sky while people sat on their porch swings in the valley miles away, listening to the music drifting peacefully from the hills above. Brady usually found the chimes comforting—except on this evening. He stared at Duff’s grave, cutting the dead grass like an ugly scar, and the sound of the chimes was a dirge that offered no relief.
After several swallows of whiskey, he noticed something shiny on the grass and bent over to pick it up. It was a spent piece of brass from an M-14. The army had shipped Duff’s body back from Vietnam. There was a flag-draped coffin, and when they buried him behind the church, seven soldiers fired their M-14s three times. The rifles cracked in unison, the shots echoing for miles across the hills, multiplying into thousands before fading into silence as the bugler blew taps. Brady found himself supporting both Lacey and his stepmother as they sobbed with grief. The sound of the bugle echoed down the mountain valley—and for Brady, the echoes had never ended.
He tipped up the bottle of whiskey, but he couldn’t get enough to dull the jagged edge of his pain.
“Duffy, boy, I’m going to do this for you. I promise, I’m gonna find the bastards that did this, and I’m gonna get them.”
He sat on the cold granite gravestone. Two-thirds of the liquor was gone from the bottle.
“Here’s to you, buddy. Wish me good hunting.”
He poured the remaining bourbon over the grave—all but a small portion, which he turned up and finished. A cold drizzle began falling. Standing, he took one last look at the grave. The icy pellets of rain stung his face as he thought of that day before Duff left. Duff had laughed about going to Vietnam. He had said it would be an adventure. Brady tossed the brass shell into the air and caught it in his fist. He had no such delusions. He put the shell in his pocket. There was going to be a reckoning, and someone had hell to pay.
Who is your favourite character and why?
One of the themes in all my stories is my secondary female protagonists standing by and supporting their veterans—sometimes with a high degree of self-sacrifice. I would have to give the strong-woman/favorite character award to Janie Jorgensen, the army nurse in Valley of the Purple Hearts.
Which of your books gave you the most pleasure to write?
The Vietnam War Series was a tough emotional ride, and although the most rewarding to me as a writer, it was not at all a fun set of novels to write. The one I had the most pleasure writing was Tallahatchie. The characters are all based on real characters and some real events I’ve experienced living in the South, and I often found myself laughing out loud while writing because of the memories.
What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
I am an amateur wildlife photographer. My photography will be featured at an art venue in Memphis, Tennessee in May of this year. I also love to fish and play poker.
What is the biggest factor for you when selecting a book to read?
By far the most important factor is the quality of the writing. When I say “quality” I am not necessarily referring to “grammatical gymnastics” but rather to the holistic process of telling an engaging and plausible story in a manner that keeps me reading. Of course, the writing must be good, but I am unimpressed when writers dress up their prose such that I compare them to putting a pink tutu and sequined ribbons on an Olympic gymnast.
Do you have your own website?
Are you working on a new book at the moment?
Yes. It’s nearly at the first draft stage, and should be out by late summer. It’s the western I mentioned earlier, a story about a young man who finds himself and his family consumed by events during the American Civil War. He eventually becomes a hunter/scout for a wagon train on the Oregon Trail where he faces hostile Indians and outlaws. And of course, there is the inevitable strong female secondary protagonist who he meets along the way. The tentative title is Rawlins, subtitled No Longer Young. I will be doing a cover-reveal on the website soon.