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Saturday July 20th 2019

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Writing Southern Thrillers

By Inweekly Staff

In 2016, Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio introduced Nicholas “Deke” Deketomis in his bestselling thriller “Law and Disorder.” Deketomis is a trial lawyer who has built his reputation on making large corporations pay for their bullying tactics. In the book, he finds himself fighting a murder charge when the mega-corporations fight back.

Papantonio followed up this fall with “Law and Vengeance” that introduced Deke’s law partner Gina Romano who does battle with one of the America’s largest weapons manufacturers after one of the firm’s senior partners is murdered.

Inweekly publisher Rick Outzen has also entered the world of fiction with “City of Grudges,” which debuts March 13. In the novel, publisher Walker Holmes writes an article that gets one of the town’s most popular leaders arrested. Not wanting to believe Holmes, the city turns on him as dead bodies begin to pile up, and his enemies blame his reporting for destroying lives. His career, newspaper and life hang in the balance as he fights for vindication and redemption.

Papantonio and Outzen agreed to sit down and interview each other about the challenges of writing fiction on topics that are very close to their professional lives.

Themes
Papantonio: The themes of books develop either by design or second nature. What emerges on the paper is an attitude that you have about a particular idea and that attitude develops into a theme. When I read “City of Grudges,” the theme that jumped out was your discomfort with fake news and the inability for people to understand that much of what they read or hear probably is not all that accurate.

“This was based on a short story I wrote about 10 years ago when fake news wasn’t really on the horizon, but as I began writing the book, a theme developed that people only want to hear what they want to hear,” Outzen said. “The other theme that ended up coming out of it was the idea that Pensacola is a hard town to know. You and I both have lived here for over 30 years, and things still happen in this town that we don’t ever completely understand.”

Papantonio said, “While you’re on this idea of themes though, I want to talk about another theme that I saw. For some reason, we have a nature about us that we’re always looking for a hero. One of your main characters, Bo Hines, had become such a hero in the eye of the community, but he was anything but a hero. The real hero in this book is Walker, who doesn’t look like a hero.”

“Well, Walker’s imperfect. Walker is hardheaded,” Outzen said. “He finds at the end that he probably has as many grudges as the people that he’s writing about, and that he’s too difficult for the power structure to deal with. He’s more comfortable in a bar then he is anywhere else, and that always gets him in trouble.”

Outzen: Your second book, “Law and Vengeance,” really goes after the gun industry. What you’re able to do in your books is tie them to cases that you and your firm have been involved in. Does that make it easier or harder to do the story?

“These books are easy to write. They honestly are, only because I don’t have to sit down and say, ‘What if?’ because they actually happened,” said Papantonio. “My first book, ‘Law and Disorder,’ focused more on a pharmaceutical company that was killing women all over the country. That really happened. It was modeled after the Yaz case that I handled and tried.”

He added. “‘Law and Vengeance’ was a book about the DuPont poisoning an entire community of 70,000 people with a product that they made. In addition to that, that book also carried another case we handled, which was a case against a weapons manufacturer that made a defective gun site. It’s not as if I have to say, ‘What if,’ because every day that’s what is happening.”

A Sense of Place
Rick Outzen: Mike, in ‘Law and Disorder’ and ‘Law and Vengeance,’ you have placed them in a fictional town, Spanish Trace, rather than using Pensacola. I’ve used Pensacola. What were some of the advantages of having a fictional town?

“The reason I didn’t use Pensacola is because I wanted to add some different features to the town,” said Papantonio. “I wanted to put features in there that in a lot of ways wouldn’t be fair to Pensacola. I didn’t want to insult anybody and have them look at it construed as my personal attack on the city that I’ve lived in for 32 years. I think that was part of the thing that motivated me.”

Papantonio: “Well, let me ask you, were you comfortable just going on and saying Pensacola is what I’m writing about?”

“I was,” said Outzen. “It may be an overly grand idea, but I wanted Pensacola to be featured, so that the reader would want to come here and see the places in ‘City of Grudges’ The majority of the places in the book are real places-Palafox Place, Jackson’s, St. John’s Cemetery, Bangkok Garden and the old H & O Café. I wanted readers to want to visit and see this town, like what ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ did for Savannah.”

However, some places needed to be fictional.  Outzen explained, “I didn’t want to put something bad happening in a place that was real, that wouldn’t be fair to that business. There are a few places that are fictional for the very same reason that you talked about. I didn’t want to hurt them.”

Developing Characters
Papantonio: As I read ‘City of Grudges,’ it was very apparent I could almost pick out the characters and figure out what the relationship was to reality. As you were writing this, did that happen by mistake or did it happen just on its own energy or did you plan to have such a direct relationship between reality and fiction?

“I wanted to create very memorable characters that expressed some of the essence of Pensacola, without being tied to real people,” said Outzen. “Walker Holmes, some people will see that as being me, but he isn’t. He embodies a lot of the small-town editors I’ve known over the years.”

He added, “Walker Holmes has some very powerful people that he butts heads against, but then he has his ‘Sherlock Holmes Baker Street Irregulars,’ all these people that he’s done favors for and written stories about, who help him uncover the truth.”

Outzen: ‘Law and Disorder’ had a male protagonist, Deke Deketomis. ‘Law and Vengeance’s’ protagonist was Gina Romano.  Was that more difficult writing about a female as your main character?

“You would’ve thought so,” said Papantonio. “You have to really think about the dialogue to have it have some realism about how Gina might speak, but the other parts of Gina weren’t difficult because she has all the qualities of a top-flight trial lawyer.”

He added, “Whether you’re male, female, yellow, pink, black, it doesn’t make any difference. If you have those qualities as a top-flight trial lawyer, you’re going to have those same similarities with whoever you are.”

Outzen: I think the thing I liked about Gina was that though she grew up in a wealthy family, she is a flawed protagonist. Talk about that aspect of her.

“Well, she was flawed due to no fault of her own,” said Papantonio. “The twist on Gina Romano it that though she lived in a home with a very, very wealthy family, she has to overcome how horribly she was treated by her parents.”

He explained, “The mother was a drug-addicted socialite. The father was an overbearing triple A-type personality who dominated the household and was abusive to mother, Gina’s brother and Gina. She came up really hard, which is the opposite of what we believe, and it left her very flawed. I thought it was an interesting take because I’ve met so many people like that, that came up with everything except love and attention and really good parenting.”

Outzen said, “The challenge in writing is you’ve got to develop a protagonist with which the reader can identify.”

“Well, you certainly do that with Walker,” said Papantonio.  “I think people are going to be able to identify with Walker because it’s somebody you truly want to have as your best friend.”

He continued, “Here’s what I found myself doing as I was reading Walker. I’d say, ‘”Dammit. Why can’t you pull it together? Don’t you see what’s happening? Why must you put yourself in these awful situations?’”

Laughing Papantonio added, “Walker’s getting beat up. He’s getting victimized by everybody in town. He’s about to lose his business, if not his life. All of a sudden you just find yourself going, ‘I really like you, Walker. I like you, but there needs to be some intervention here.’”

Outzen: The law firm in your books is very, very similar to Levin Papantonio firm. Readers see the challenges of being a husband and a father in this type of high-pressure law firm. Was it difficult to capture such a personal part of your life in a thriller?

“That wasn’t a challenge to capture because I’ve always tried to understand that what I do for a living is a living, but what I do for my family is what’s important,” said Papantonio. “Coming out of law school I had job offers that would’ve had me in big cities immediately making big, big money, but I understood that I wanted to have a home life.”

He continued, “With Deke, what I’ve tried to do is characterize what my perfect idea is of a family when they have to operate within the level of pressure that you have to operate in the caliber of lawyering I do.”

“I have chosen not to do things like automobile cases and those types of things,” said Papantonio. “I’ve chosen to do the most complex cases in the country. Well, that’s what Deke does. In addition to that, he’s got to be able to change hats. He has to put on his lawyer hat and be the best lawyer he can be in a trial, in a courtroom in one of the most high-pressure circumstances that you’d ever want to put yourself in.”

He added, “Then you have to change your other hat, and you have to go home and be a great parent and a great husband. You have to show some wisdom, and you have to show continuous compassion. You have to show all those things that don’t fit well sometimes in the pressure of a courtroom.”

Papantonio: As I’m reading Walker going through all his trials and tribulations you get the impression that maybe you’ve been there yourself, as an editor yourself. Was ‘City of Grudges’ a way for you to be able to articulate some of those things that bother you about having to be an editor in a town like Pensacola?

“Starting anything from scratch is difficult, especially a newspaper,” said Outzen. “We were definitely underfunded. We had 9-11, hurricanes, a recession, the oil spill, and a town that initially did not understand that you could have real investigative reporting of the caliber that we were doing.”

He continued, “There was a lot of pushback. There were weeks that we lost as many advertisers as we gained. I wanted that in the story because I like the idea of an imperfect hero that somehow holds it together when all the odds are stacked against them.”

“I’ll tell you my reaction,” said Papantonio. “In this book, you almost automatically fall into feeling like you’re a best friend with Walker. He’s a person that you want to have a beer with; you want to talk with because he has such worldliness about him. There’s a huge worldliness that he has, and he’s living in this relatively medium-size city.”

Outzen: Let’s talk about villains. Your bad guys are evil. They’re violent. Tell me about writing a bad guy because I’m not as good at it as you are.

“You owe it to the reader to write a bad guy,” said Papantonio. “The reader has to invest in the story. I wouldn’t be so quick to say that you hadn’t invented some bad guys. Your bad guys just aren’t as quick to kill people as mine are.”

He explained, “What I have are bad guys that are operating at a level their conduct warrants the worst of the worst because the stakes are so high.  If they don’t get away with what they’re trying to do, they go to jail, or the company shuts down. There’s a whole lot more money at stake.”

Next Books
Papantonio: ‘City of Grudges’ screams out for a series of books done on Walker. When I closed the last page of the book, my thought was, ‘I want to hang around with Walker some more.’ What do you have in mind?

“The second one is called ‘Blood in the Water,’” Outzen said. “The book is built around the April 2014 floods and jail explosion. It opens in End O’ the Alley Bar with Walker completely disheartened because some things haven’t gone the way that he thought they would yet again.”

Papantonio said, “Because of his fault.”

“Well, yeah,” said Outzen. “He was mule-headed and stubborn, and he’s got to get his act together again and deal with the flood.”

He added, “It’s going to be interesting to see how Walker comes through it because there’s always going to be pieces that jump into the story that just make it so much fun. Now, your new book is going to be built around opioids.”

“Yes, it’s a case involving opioids we’re actually handling on behalf of cities and counties all over the United States,” said Papantonio. “It’s built around that. The Bergman-Deketomis firm is back in charge, but the case is originated in West Virginia by a very talented lawyer. The firm gets involved with the young lawyer and goes after the bad guys in a big way. The bad guys are the opioid manufacturers and distributors. You talk about somebody that has a lot to lose. It’s both of them.”

He added, “You’ve got the government—both the DEA and attorney generals of several states—on the side of the opioid manufacturer. And you have this young man in West Virginia that believes he’s David confronting Goliath and that he’s going to be okay in all this, even though Deke has his doubts as the case goes forward.”

Outzen asked, “You look like you’re having fun writing.”

“Yes, it’s a great release,” said Papantonio. “I enjoy developing the characters and the plot lines and seeing how the stories unfold.”

Outzen said, “I can’t wait to see what happens to Deke Deketomis and Walker Holmes next.”
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Law and Disorder” and “Law and Vengeance” are available on Amazon and in Barnes and Noble and other bookstores. “City of Grudges” can be preordered on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and will be in bookstores on March 13.