Playing with a full deck: author Ace Atkins gives advice to aspiring Auburn writers
Ace Atkins is a 1994 mass communications graduate and former defensive end of Auburn’s undefeated 1993 football team. Now a New York Times best-selling author, Atkins agreed to discuss the finer points of literature with The Plainsman.
You started off as a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune. Was it a coincidence that you became a crime/mystery writer, or fate?
I wouldn’t describe myself as a mystery writer, but certainly I write about crime. Definitely those experiences I had as a young reporter covering the crime beat certainly led me in that direction, but I had always been of those types of books. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard were some of my favorite authors, so I’d always been interesting in covering the same material as a journalist. My experiences with the crime beat further solidified that I want to write crime novels.
You became a full-time novelist at age 30. Does creative writing get easier with age?
Well, I’ve been writing at fiction ever since I attended Auburn. When I was at Auburn I was working on short stories and a novel, but it wasn’t until age 30 that I became a self-employed, full-time writer. I actually published my first novel (Crossroad Blues) when I was 27, so not too far out of school, but I think as you get older you have more stories to tell because of a wealth of experiences. That makes things easier.
What is a typical day like in the life of a full-time novelist?
(Laughs) I work an honest job 11 months out of the year. Then for one month I go out and promote my books. I’m pretty much by myself all year long except for that one month when the book comes out. When it comes out then I’m all over the place, from New York to L.A., promoting the book. That’s not necessarily my favorite part of the job, I’d rather be writing. Right now I’m on a heavy writing schedule and about to turn in a novel. It’s a job. I drive to my office in downtown Oxford and sit down and work. I take a lunch break, then come back and work some more.
Writing is such solitary work, does it ever get lonely?
Fortunately my office is right in the middle of downtown where many of my friends work, so getting lunch break with a buddy or walking over to the bar for a beer is never too far away. Writing is a lonely profession, it’s certainly something you can’t do by committee, but I prefer it that way. I like working alone, I like working for myself.
In 2011 you were selected by Robert B. Parker’s estate to continue writing the ‘Spenser’ series of novels. What’s it like writing for a character that was created by someone else?
It’s a lot of fun, because that’s a character that really got me interested at the books that I write now. If you’d seen me years ago outside the Haley Center I would’ve had a copy of one of Robert Parker’s novels and certainly one of the ‘Spenser’ books. The character really resonated with me as very funny and smart. As a person now in his forties, to be able to continue on that series is a real honor. Not just because I respect him as a writer, but because when I was 18 years old those are the books that I was reading and had a lot of effects on my career and social outlook.
Would you consider Auburn to be an inspiring place to write?
Actually, I wasn’t even allowed into the creative writing classes. I can’t remember the name of the teacher, but she wouldn’t let me in the class because she said it was too full. I think she thought I was just another football player trying to get an easy A. As if there was this stereotype that you couldn’t be serious about writing and literature because you were a football player. My writing experiences at Auburn were from a few main sources, mostly in the English department. Dr. Crandall taught a great class on short stories and George Plasketes in the Communications department was a big influence, he was kind of my mentor in college.
Is there any place in Auburn that you think would give somebody a great idea for a novel?
It’s not there anymore, but the mall in front of Haley Center used to be a great place to just hang out and eavesdrop.
What advice would you give to would-be novelists wandering around Auburn?
The best experience a young writer can have is not learning how to write through watching movies or reading books, but by paying attention to the way people talk. Hanging out with friends or sitting at a bar and just hearing conversations, that’s always the best thing to do.
Have you ever thought about writing a book of your experiences on the undefeated 1993 football team?
(Laughs) I don’t think anybody would believe it. It’s too crazy, it would be stranger than fiction. It would be a lot of fun to write. Some of the alumni and people surrounding the football program are more bizarre than any villain I could come up with in my books.