There is no set formula to writing a successful novel, but author T.T. Monday might have uncovered a portion of the equation by combining two of America’s favorite pastimes in his novel The Setup Man. Baseball fans and crime fiction aficionados will unite with Monday’s debut novel starring Johnny Adcock, an aging Major League pitcher who moonlights as a private investigator, using both brains and brawn to resolve the unique problems faced by fellow professional athletes. Oversized egos and enormous salaries simply mean more powerful and deadlier predators!
We sat down with T.T. Monday, the pseudonym for writer Nick Taylor, to discuss his transition from historical novelist to crime writer, and creating a truly innovative hero in a genre saturated with doppelgangers.
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us about The Setup Man. The book has been out for just over a month now. How has it been received by readers so far?
Most readers have inhaled the book; one guy wrote to thank me (sarcastically) for his lack of productivity at work. I don’t want to take responsibility for anyone’s trouble at work, but I took that as a compliment.
As Nick Taylor you have written two historical novels, The Disagreement and Father Junípero’s Confessor, but The Setup Man represents a gigantic shift in direction for you. Have you always wanted to write a crime novel, and how did your experience writing your other novels aid your writing of this one?
I’d wanted to write a detective novel for a long time but didn’t know how to begin until I hit on the idea of making my detective a professional baseball player. Writing about baseball turned out to be the entry point I needed. As soon as I found the voice of Johnny Adcock, my detective/player, the story began to appear. Because I’d published the two historical novels, I never worried that I wouldn’t finish, even though it was my first attempt in the crime genre.
What are your favorite crime novels, or who are your favorite crime writers?
I just read Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes (1909-1984), an African-American writer who published eight hard-boiled novels featuring the Harlem police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones. It’s an unnerving book, a kind of political allegory as well as a detective novel. I found it fascinating on a number of levels. My personal hero, however, is Raymond Chandler.
Where did the character of Johnny Adcock come from? The only comparable protagonist I can think of is Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, who went from renowned basketball player to sports star representative after a knee injury ended his career – but unlike Myron, Adcock is still playing the game. What I liked most about him was his pragmatism; from the very beginning he’s aware of how lucky he is to be doing what he does for a living and doesn’t take it for granted. For me, that made him immediately likable.
I’ve read the Bolitar books, and I was thinking of him to some extent when I came up with Johnny Adcock. However Adcock’s true origin was a thought experiment where I asked myself what relief pitchers might do in their spare time. Adcock is what’s known as a left-handed specialist, a pitcher who is brought in to face one batter per game. That means he works ten minutes a day, leaving plenty of time for extracurricular activities. I also made Adcock a divorcee so he wouldn’t have a home life. You’re right to observe that he’s a pragmatist. He’s also restless, which means he hates wasting time. All of these factors converge in his avocation, doing these investigations for teammates.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you, who do you support, and who is your favorite all time baseball player? And does Johnny share any of his traits?
I grew up a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and most of my favorite players were Dodgers pitchers, guys like Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser. I’ve always loved the supporting players, too, especially relief pitchers who seem to kick around forever. I’m thinking of guys like Tim Crews, Jesse Orosco, Guillermo Mota, and Alejandro Peña, whose routine on the mound was so deliberate he was nicknamed “Slow.” I always wanted to be a pitcher, I think because they control the pace of the game.
You balance the whodunit aspects of the plot with insight into the inner-workings of the world of professional baseball, and the constant prospective upheaval faced by players as they approach retirement, are traded, or are required to play in a new role. How did you approach plotting The Setup Man to ensure all of these elements worked in unison?
I’m about the same age as Johnny Adcock, so I tried to put myself in his shoes. For a writer, of course, your mid-thirties isn’t old, but for a professional athlete it’s ancient. I tried to imagine how it would feel to finish your career and still have half your life ahead of you. Barry Bonds talked about this in an interview I read recently. It may be hard to sympathize with someone like Bonds who had so much success in his career, but it’s not so hard when you’re dealing with an average player like Adcock.
Did you do any research into the inner-workings of a baseball team and the mentalities of players? What did this involve?
Not really. I watched a lot of baseball, in person and on TV, and I read a number of baseball-player memoirs (Jim Bouton’s 1970 book Ball Four is probably the most insightful), but for the most part I used my imagination. Now that the book is out I’ve been told by a few broadcasters and former players that it’s pretty accurate.
I’m not a baseball fan – it wasn’t something I grew up with – but I was impressed by how deftly you described the sport. Those familiar with baseball, the true passionate fans, won’t feel like they’re being talked down to in The Setup Man, but nor will newcomers feel overawed by information overload. I presume this is intentional, so I wonder how you went about trying to find that perfect balance.
My two historical novels presented the same problem: how to marry history and fiction without alienating fans of either one. Ultimately I had to trust my instincts, because as a fan of both baseball and crime fiction (and history and literary fiction), I was able to serve as a stand-in for my readers.
Let’s talk about your writing process. Are you a pen and paper man? Do you prefer the keyboard? And are you a write anywhere, anytime kind of author, or do you have a daily routine?
I have horrible handwriting, so I have always written my books on the computer. These days I’m working at the local public library, because my home office was converted to a baby nursery. I write four days a week. Most writers find that their best work comes in the morning, but I’ve always preferred the hours right before dinner. Not sure why.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
Thirteen years ago I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org) for the first time, and I learned the discipline of setting a word goal for each writing session. I still do this when I’m writing first drafts. Nothing summons the muse like knowing you have to hit 500 words before lunch.
What are you reading right now?
I’m halfway through The Bone Church, a debut thriller by Victoria Dougherty. Her protagonist is an athlete, too – a Czech hockey player who outfoxes the Nazis and then the Communists as he tries to escape Czechoslovakia. As a member of the Czechoslovak national team, his fame is a real obstacle; he is always getting recognized. Great material, great voice. I recommend it highly.
Can we expect more from Johnny Adcock in the future? He’s not quite at retirement age yet!
Adcock’s not hanging up the spikes yet. That’s all I can say!