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Academics, Adventures, and Authorhood: An Interview with James Gilbert, author of Murder at Amapas Beach

Gilbert 1

I have always aspired to be a fiction writer, although my first career as an academic historian at the University of Maryland was a long detour. During those years, I published a number of books and articles on Twentieth Century American culture—a broad and engaging field focused on popular and elite culture, literature, films, ideas, social movements, and authors of every sort. As close as this came to fiction (a few critics have said of my work: too close), I always understood this discipline to be restricted by the limitations of documentation. Increasingly, I wanted to engage the emotional and psychological truths and the revealing potential of dialogue possible only through imaginative writing. And so for the last ten years or so, I have turned to creating novels and short stories. In this second career, I have published four novels (three in the Amanda Pennyworth Mystery Series), a book set in rural Illinois in the 1890s, and a collection of short stories. Another novel of mine about contemporary Chicago is forthcoming.

You can buy Murder at Amapas Beach here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The story and title were suggested to me by a tourist excursion I took while vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The side trip, together with a group of Americans and Mexicans, went to Amapas Beach. Secluded, with an obscure trail to a small craft village, and a jungle right next to where the sand dune started, the setting seemed perfect for a mystery to begin. And the title, it seemed to me, would be puzzling as well as intriguing.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

I was delighted that the artist visually captured the spirit and mood of the book.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I have always been a writer and a reader and I suppose that I have my favorite authors: Henry James, Saul Bellow, Alice Munroe, James Baldwin, Andre Aciman, and many more. But I certainly learn more about the craft every time I read a new novel or long literary essay.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

One of my great joys is reading contemporary novels in French. I lived for several years in France, and I like reading books about a culture that (when you dig deep) is very different from our own.

What was the most rewarding/meaningful part of publishing your book?

Holding a newborn book in your hand is an immense pleasure that I’m sure every author experiences. But I have an odd delight in the process of publishing which is editing my work. I love to navigate through what I’ve written, looking to replace something with the perfect word or sentence. And I always deeply appreciate the input and challenges from editors and readers prior to publication.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Something Mexican. The sound of Mexico is (aside from the blur of traffic), the staccato of voices, and especially the constant sound of music, sometimes coming from two or three different sources, overlapping and competing with each other, none of them distinct, but always vying for attention.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I would hope that the reader will identify with Amanda Pennyworth, my reluctant detective. In writing the series, I have gotten to know her very well—she is a very real person to me and I hope that readers will think likewise. I think my ideal reader is curious about people (and the trouble they make for themselves) and enjoys a good mystery.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I have a number of projects underway, including a new series of short stories and two novels that I am currently revising. The first novel is about a student who travels to Berlin, ostensibly to study German for his degree, but becomes entangled in a relationship with a woman with a secret past. The second is set in Chicago in the 1890s.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

Working with Atmosphere has been an enjoyable experience, from submission to editing and cover design to the final copyedited version. Nothing but professional!

You can buy Murder at Amapas Beach here.
Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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