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IL Interview- Smile and a Gun

Feb 27, 2019

Ghosts, Gangsters, and Widows: An Interview With Sherilyn Decter, Author of INNOCENCE LOST, Book One of The Bootlegger Chronicles

Hello Dear Readers! Today I’m very excited to bring you something new and different: an interview with author Sherilyn Decter!
Decter’s marketing team over at MC Book Tours reached out to me to join her book tour, and I happily accepted. Her new novel, INNOCENCE LOST, which is the first book in The Bootlegger Chronicles,  just went on sale this month on Amazon.

I’m also happy to note that INNOCENCE LOST is the first in a five book series, so there will be a lot more of Maggie to come—and even Al Capone makes an appearance. While I don’t usually review fiction on this blog, given the content of Decter’s novel, I thought you all might enjoy learning more about her research process and her interest in history—plus gangsters, of course!

So, let’s get this interview started!

1)    What inspired you to set your novel during the Roaring Twenties?
America was fundamentally transformed in those ten years. There was so much change going on—social, fashion, economic, transportation, communication, technological innovation. There’s energy in change—and energy is heat.
I am fascinated by the changing role of women. You can see that surging independence in the clothes they wore, their venturing into unfamiliar territory like classrooms and offices. And getting the vote—huge!
I’m also fascinated by the 1920s entrepreneurs—the bootleggers and gangsters. Mostly men from the wrong side of the tracks, limited formal education and yet they set up international distribution networks, managed fairly sophisticated vertical integration between manufacturing (moonshine) through distribution and sales. Usually facilitated by verbal contracts and enforced with the threat of violence. There were agreed upon sales territories, especially after the Atlantic City Conference in 1929 when the modern “Mob” was born.
Finally, coming out of the Great War was a certain recklessness—live for today—inspired by the carnage on the battlefields. Whether it was the work of painters, writers, or musicians; creativity in the 1920s tended to have a fatalism and extreme innovation that makes it hard to look away.
In terms of personal inspiration, I was sitting in a jazz bar listening to an old Billie Holliday song when I decided to actually try and write a book. This was a seminal moment for me. I was at a crossroads in my life and needed to start a new chapter—turns out literally. The music set the scene, and I started to think about those smoky speakeasies, glamorous flappers and dangerous gangsters in the 1920s. Before you know it, I was hooked. Many writers find a coffee shop that inspires them to write. For me, it was sitting in that jazz club every Sunday afternoon, sketching out ideas and chatting with curious patrons. And I mean, who doesn’t love a good gangster story?

2)    I love that there’s a supernatural element to your book, especially since it’s set during a decade which saw a massive resurgence in Spiritualism and interest in the occult. What made you decide to bring a ghost into your main character’s life, and what inspired his character?
The main character in the Bootleggers’ Chronicles series is Maggie Barnes, a woman of her time who takes on the challenge of seeking justice for the murder of a young boy. In those days, women had very limited opportunities to acquire the skill set of an investigator, so she needed a mentor. It could have been a relative or a friendly cop. But I’ve always enjoyed reading paranormal, so I decided it would be a ghost.
Many of the characters in my novels were real people—blending the factual characters with fictional characters and staying true to history. My ghost, Frank Geyer, was indeed a real Philadelphia police detective. He was famous for tracking down one of America’s first serial killers, H. H. Holmes. Netflix and Hulu are bringing The Devil in the White City with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s the story of H. H. Holmes and Frank Geyer. Through research, I discovered Frank, which then set the books in Philadelphia. More research dug up the villain, Mickey Duffy, King of the Bootleggers in Philadelphia, his wife Edith and nemesis Colonel Smedley Butler of the Philly police, business partners and fellow gangsters Boo-Boo Hoff and Max Hassel, and then I filled in the rest of the characters around them.
The spiritualism that arose from the trauma of World War I certainly influenced Frank’s character, although it takes a lot of convincing (which were great scenes to write) for Maggie to accept that he is indeed a ghost. His purpose for remaining in Philadelphia where the books are set drives the narrative of all five Bootlegger books and is the dramatic conclusion to the series.

3)    What research advice do you have for other fiction writers focusing on the 1920s, and are there any historical resources that you’d recommend?
Thank goodness for the internet. I used newspaper and police archives extensively. I also read many—many—many reference books from the times and the area. Some great non-fiction books were always close at hand, including Bootleggers and Beer Barons of the Prohibition Era, Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940, and the transcripts of Philadelphia’s Grand Jury Investigation in August 1928 into bootlegging, racketeers, and police corruption.
Because so many of the characters were actual people, I read lots of biographies and Wikipedia entries. J.D. Crighton’s books on Frank Geyer and H. H. Holmes were invaluable.
Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods so I took great care in choosing which neighborhood Maggie would live in, and the descriptions of the streets and markets in the city. I wanted it to feel like the city was one of the characters. A couple of book clubs in Philadelphia were very helpful in beta reading the books to ensure that they sounded like someone who understood the city wrote them.
I also reached out to various institutions and historical societies in Philadelphia who were extremely helpful in helping to answer specific questions I had. For example, Drexel University gave me copies of the business class brochures and other information for 1926 when Maggie goes back to school to become an accountant, as well as wonderful alumni photographs.

4)    This one’s just for fun: who’s your favorite historical underworld figure from Philadelphia, and why?
It would have to be the villain of the Bootlegger series, Philadelphia’s King of the Bootleggers, Mickey Duffy. Mickey is a fascinating character and reading about him from contemporaneous newspaper stories and magazine articles helped fill in the background I needed. He was one of those self-made entrepreneurs I mentioned earlier. He understood that Prohibition regulated the supply but not the demand for liquor and stepped up to meet the need. He married a very feisty gal, established some ‘flexible’ business partnerships with other gangsters, corrupt politicians and law enforcement, and had a desperate yearning to be accepted into Philadelphia’s established business community. Like many of his colleagues, he was gunned down by rival gangsters. The streets of Philadelphia were lined with thousands of mourners during the funeral procession.

As a side note—and given the title and theme of your blog—Al Capone is a lurking character throughout the series and a business partner of Mickey’s. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a significant part of the plot in the fourth book in the series, Watch Your Back, which will be released in May 2019.

And there you have it, folks: gangsters, bootleggers, Victorian ghosts, and young women coming into their own during the tumultuous Roaring Twenties…what more could you possibly want? I’m gonna go order my copy right now!
~*~