The Beat of Black Wings — an Interview with Josh Pachter

Sherry here — Edith and I both have a short story in the anthology The Beat of the Black Wings. It’s the brainchild of renowned short story writer Josh Pachter and releases tomorrow, April 7th. Isn’t the cover stunning?!
Being part of this anthology gave both Edith and I a chance to write something different and a little darker than we normally write.
Edith’s story is “Blue Motel Room” — A depressing blue Savannah motel room. A desiccated hand in a locked safe. A petty thief with the blues . . . and wanderlust.
Sherry’s story is “Last Chance Lost” — An isolated Wyoming saloon, a lost man, a last chance at love, and a gun – what could go right?
Edith: Josh, you and I went back and forth a few times about “Blue Motel Room,” my story in the anthology. Did the anthology editing take up a lot of time?
Some editors are very hands-off, while others are more (some of them much more) hands-on. I’m a hands-on editor, and the highest compliment I can receive from an author is when she responds to my edited version of her story by saying “It’s better this way.” That said, it’s probably obvious that some stories require more of an investment of my time, while others start out closer to the vision I have in my head of the final project and therefore need less attention from me. Honestly, Edith, I can’t remember whether yours was a “needed more time” or “needed less time” story, so why don’t we just say yours was the only one I got that was perfect, exactly the way you submitted it, and required none of my time at all! (I will add here without mentioning any names that “Blue Motel Room” was unique in that another author tackled it before you did, and I had to turn that writer’s submission down. It was a good story — and the author ultimately sold it somewhere else — but it really just wasn’t right for The Beat of Black Wings. Most of the projects I edit are by invitation only — I haven’t got time to manage an open-call project! — and I hate the thankfully-rare occasions when I extend an invitation, take up the author’s time, and then ultimately have to turn down the submission. Sometimes, though, it does unfold that way….)

Edith: I keep wishing I’d chosen “Refuge of the Roads,” one of my favorite Joni songs. Which songs do you wish had been chosen and weren’t? Will we have a stab at Volume Two?

The one song I was surprised to see no one select as inspiration for a book of Joni-inspired crime stories was “Raised on Robbery” from Court and Spark. I mean, come on, that’s such an obvious choice! I was also surprised to see no one tackle “Woodstock” (it’s such an iconic composition) and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” (hello? crime stories?!). If The Beat of Black Wings sells as well as I hope and think it will, sure, why not do a Volume Two? Not right away, though: I’m currently finishing up work on The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffett, and next up I hope to tackle Only the Good Die YoungCrime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel.

Edith: What’s your favorite Mitchell song?

Seriously, Edith? That’s like asking a parent “Who’s your favorite of your children?” Joni’s songs aren’t my children, of course, they’re hers. But I’ve come to think of them that way — not just because of this book but from fifty years of listening to them. So I can’t even pin down a favorite album, let alone a favorite song … though both Court and Spark and Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm are high on my list.

Sherry: Where did the idea for the anthology come from?

In the Acknowledgments section at the back of the book, I thank “the letter K for setting everything in motion.” Readers will — or at least I hope they will — wonder what the heck that cryptic comment means. Since you’re asking, Sherry, I’ll explain. On the morning of the day I turned sixty-six, I woke up early and, not wanting to awaken my wife Laurie, settled in at my computer with, for once, nothing important that needed doing. On a whim, I decided to create an alphabetical list of the titles of the almost a hundred short stories I’d written over the preceding fifty years.
When the list was done, I realized that there were only half a dozen (well, seven) letters I’d never used at the beginning of a story title: K, P, R, U, V, X, and Z. I know what I’ll do, I decided, I’ll write stories to fill in the blank spaces! Since the first missing letter was K, I figured I’d start there. So, hmm, a story title beginning with the letter K. “Kill Shot,” “Killing Me Softly,” “Killer….” And then I remembered Joni’s “The Beat of Black Wings,” which is certainly one of my favorites of her songs, and which is about “a young soldier, his name was Killer Kyle.” So I wrote a story called “Killer Kyle.” Right around then, though, I became aware of the existence of several books of crime stories inspired by the lyrics of such songwriters as Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash, and I thought it might be fun to put together a book of stories inspired by Joni Mitchell songs.
The Beat of Black Wings seemed like a logical title … but that meant I’d have to change the name of my Killer Kyle story, dammit! (Just in case anyone’s interested, I later wrote one called “KLDI,” which will be in Michael Bracken’s Mickey Finn 2 next year. I’ve also now written “The Pig is Committed” [which is forthcoming in Mystery Weekly], “Under Water” [which is in the submission queue at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine], “The Vampire Shift” [which I’ve pretty much finished but haven’t yet submitted anywhere], and “Zero Hour” [which I regret to say was rejected for Barb Goffman’s Crime Travel collection but which I’ve since submitted elsewhere]. Still no R or X stories, though. Hmm, “Rx for Murder”?…)
Sherry: What was the biggest challenge putting this project together?
The biggest challenge was finding a publisher. I don’t usually use an agent, but I thought this book would be attractive to the big New York houses and knew I wasn’t equipped to deal with those behemoths on my own, so I brought in Peter Riva, an agent I’ve dealt with before. He was enthusiastic about the book, but the New York firms all came back to him with variations on the old “doesn’t fit in with our current plans” line. Frankly, I was beginning to despair when one of the contributors — I think it was Marilyn Todd — suggested Untreed Reads. They’re not a big New York house, but working with Jay Hartman and K.D. Sullivan has been an absolute pleasure, one of the best experiences I’ve had in half a century of dealing with publishing companies, and I’m looking forward to embarking on a new project with them soon.
Sherry: Part of the proceeds are going to a charity — tell us about that.
There are a couple of revenue-sharing models out there for genre anthologies. The one with which I’m most familiar is that the editor takes 50% of royalties generated by the book, and the contributors share equally in the other 50% — and, these days, it’s not unusual for anthology contributors to receive no upfront money, just the eventual royalty share. From the beginning, though, I insisted on two variations on that standard. First, I wanted a third of the revenues to go to a charity Joni would either select herself or at least approve of — and every single one of the authors was not only agreeable to that plan, even though it would cut into their share, but enthusiastic about it. Second, the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards remain the gold standard for crime fiction, and they require that, for a short story to be eligible, the author has to have been paid a minimum of $25 in advance or on publication. Untreed Reads is a small enough house that they simply can’t afford to pay advances, but I want “my” authors’ stories to be Edgar-eligible, so I’m fronting a $25 advance against royalties for each story out of my own pocket. (Hopefully the book will sell well enough that I’ll be able to pay myself back — and we’ll all make some money over and above the advance!)
Meanwhile, I tried to get close enough to Joni to have her pick a charity, but she’s pretty close to unapproachable these days. She suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, so I did some research online and came up with the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. I asked Les Irvin, who webmasters Joni’s website (jonimitchell.com) if that seemed like a good choice, and Les agreed that it was. So I contacted the BAF, and executive director Christine Buckley turns out to be a huge fan and was very happy to accept donations made in Joni’s name. So I hope all you Wickeds and Wicked readers will order copies of the book for yourselves and as gifts for your family members and friends — not only because it’s a terrific collection but also to support this very worthy cause!
Readers: Do you have a favorite Joni Mitchell song? Or a song she wrote that meant a lot to you at a certain time in your life? Please share. And ask Josh questions about wrangling this kind of collection.
JOSH PACHTER is a writer, editor and translator. Almost a hundred of his short crime stories have appeared in EQMM, AHMM, and many other periodicals, anthologies, and year’s-best collections. The Tree of Life (Wildside Press, 2015) collected all ten of his Mahboob Chaudri stories, he collaborated with Belgian author Bavo Dhooge on Styx (Simon & Schuster, 2015), and he co-edited Amsterdam Noir with Dutch writer René Appel (Akashic Books, 2019) and The Misadventures of Ellery Queen and The Further Misadventures of Ellery Queen with Dale C. Andrews (Wildside Press, 2018 and 2020) and edited The Man Who Read Mr. Strang: The Short Fiction of William Brittain (Crippen & Landru, 2018) and The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe (Mysterious Press, 2020). www.joshpachter.com

16 Thoughts

  1. Thanks, Edith and Sherry, for inviting me to join the Wickeds today, for your excellent questions … and especially for your excellent contributions to THE BEAT OF BLACK WINGS!

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    1. Thanks, Liz! I love the cover, too. (Kudos to the design team at Untreed Reads. My only contribution was that their original version had my name larger than Joni’s, to which I said no no no!….)

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  2. I’m probably going to be one of the few people who can’t rightly lay claim to a favorite Joni Mitchell song. I really don’t listen to her music. While I do like a lot of different music, outside of hard rock and heavy metal, my choices are limited in what I like.

    But Edith has a story in this book so when I first read about it, I knew I was going to be getting a copy of it.

    Josh, thanks for the insight on the behind the scenes creation of the anthology. It was really interesting to see how it came about, where the money goes and what you did to make sure the stories/authors are Edgar-eligible.

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