Tom Kakonis has been called the “master of the low-life novel.” It’s a title that seems oddly out-of-place for a former university professor, but one Kakonis enjoys. For this interview, the author of seven novels discussed how he earned that title, his background as a writer, and a tragic event that triggered the idea for his latest release from Brash Books, “Treasure Coast.”
“When I was a student at the U. of Iowa Writers Workshop, about a thousand years ago,” said Kakonis, “we were encouraged to write what might be categorized as ‘serious’ fiction. That is, stories with sensitive heroes forever taking their own psychic pulses or battered by sweeping forces outside their control.”
Kakonis classified that training as very practical and useful, but feels it distanced the students from the real world. “The danger of a literary education for the aspiring writer is the acquisition of an attitude of remote superiority over the crass real world. It’s an attitude often fostered by such an education. For two decades I tried to write what I thought, and had been taught, was literary fiction, and nobody wanted to read it.” Kakonis said he has the unpublished novels to prove his point.
“Once I accepted the hard truth that I had no great and profound thoughts to deliver through the medium of my work,” said Kakonis, “I turned to the perhaps less noble but vastly more entertaining realm of commercial fiction. I found a publisher on my first outing and never looked back.” Kakonis has been writing books for pure entertainment ever since.
Although Kakonis says his life has only been “moderately interesting,” during the Korean War he worked on a radar system designed to protect North America called the Distant Early Warning Line, spent time doing hard manual labor on a railroad section crew, and spent a few post-army years engaged in pool hall and beach hustling. In a convoluted way, all of those experiences led him to understand how to write a “low-life” novel.
In addition to his time in the army and working on a railroad crew, Kakonis had one more experience that prepared him to write truly colorful language. He said, “Perhaps most useful of all for fiction writing was a year spent teaching inmates at Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois. In these and other similar settings I was exposed to the vernacular of clusters of men absent the civilizing influence of females, so I had a share of the dialogue for such characters handed to me like a gift.”
Oddly enough, while his narrative was influenced by men, the impetus for “Treasure Coast” came from his sister. Kakonis said, “Many years ago my older sister was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer. Miraculously, she managed to survive for almost twenty years before it caught up to her. The final days of her life were spent in a Mayo Clinic hospital bed, and I spent many of those difficult days in a bumbling attempt to comfort her.”
Kakonis added that during those final days, he absorbed much of went on around him in the hospital. He said that for many years after his sister’s death, he still recalled “the acrid odors, perpetual noisy bustle, and often poignant scenes.” He added, “When I sat down to write what would become ’Treasure Coast,’ those sensory images surfaced to form the core of the opening scene: a central character in a similar deathwatch over an expiring sister.”
“The completed fictional scene sparked the onset of a narrative,” said Kakonis. “I had a couple of characters, uncle and nephew; a potential conflict on the horizon; a setting in West Palm Beach; and a then murky female character. I had the nucleus of a story, so I was off and running.” As Kakonis wrote, he realized he did not want stereotypical characters and took steps to solve that problem.
In “Treasure Coast,” Junior Biggs is one of the main antagonists. Kakonis said, “He’s the most despicable of villains, but he still plans to use part of the money he hopes to come by with their big score to buy a proper headstone for his mother’s grave.”
Kakonis hopes the use of incongruities adds a comedic element to the narrative. Another example is when kidnapper Hector Pasadena submits meekly to the instructions of the kidnap victim herself and helps with the house cleaning and cooking chores. Kakonis said, “Juxtaposing such comic scenes with those of brutal violence helps me create the atmosphere of ambiguity I’m striving for in both narrative and characterization.”
For more information
Tom Kakonis does not have a website, but you can learn more about his on the Brash Books website at http://mysterythrillerbooks.com/author/tom-kakonis/.