HOTSEAT- Mere flesh wounds: Straka's life of crime (writing)

Andy Straka

Andy Straka is living the writer's dream. He's just published his fourth book, Record of Wrongs. He won the Shamus Award for the best private eye book of 2004.

Despite having a publisher and garnering critical acclaim, he's glad he doesn't have to depend on writing to make a living.

Such is the plight of the 21st-century author, where getting a book published– heck, four books published– is no guarantee that bills can be paid.

"My sense of being a writer has changed," he says from a deck outside the Earlysville home that he and his wife, Bonnie, a dermatologist, bought when they came to Charlottesville in 1988.

"The business of being a writer has changed. I've become a little bit jaded. But you always hope you'll hit the lottery and get a big advance."

Straka calls himself the "accidental crime novelist." He never read the Hardy boys while growing up in rural upstate New York. As an English major at Williams College, he didn't get into crime fiction until he was handed a copy of Raymond Chandler's Big Sleep in his modern American lit class. 

"I thought it was easier to read than Absalom, Absalom!" he says, indicating he was inadvertently steered toward crime by William Faulkner, who used to live in Charlottesville. 

Even then, he didn't write for a decade, working instead at various jobs, including medical equipment sales. "Bonnie says I know enough to be dangerous," jokes Straka.

By the mid-'90s, she suggested that he stay home with the kids and "try this writing thing," he says. With five children– they just adopted a daughter last summer– ranging in age from 4 to 21, Straka became a stay-at-home dad– and wrote.

 A Witness Above, published in 2002, launched both his Frank Pavlicek series and his interest in falconry, the hobby of Charlottesville-based P.I. 

All three falcons Straka has owned have been released into the wild, but he still has his falcon cage– and the scar from being "footed" when his hand got in the path of his bird's food. "It felt like a hot vise on my thumb, and blood spurted out," he says. "That didn't bother me– it was a tiny puncture wound," but he notes that the raptor can squeeze 200 pounds per square inch, which left a deep, long-lasting bruise. 

Straka's latest novel is based on DNA exoneration. "I finished the book and found out another local writer– I think his name is Grisham– was coming out with a book on the same topic," he deadpans. "I breathed a sigh of relief that it was nonfiction."

A literary town like Charlottesville, with its Virginia Festival of the Book and legions of writers, provides plenty of support, Straka says. But he's also aware that since writers are a dime a dozen here, "In some other locale, they could say, 'He's our local author.'" 

He considers the book fest a major writer's resource, and he pointed out to festival organizers in 2000 that mysteries were a pretty popular genre. He formed a committee that resulted in the phenomenally well-attended Crime Wave, which this year brings Walter Mosley. Straka will be there, moderating panels and networking with his fellow crime-lovin' writers.

"In crime fiction, there's a sense of the familiar, of redemption, a sense we can move forward in a broken world," he explains.

Andy Straka moves forward and keeps writing. 

Age: 49

Why here? Moved to Charlottesville in 1988 for my wife's medical residency at UVA. We became intoxicated with the area and decided to stay.

What's worst about living here? High cost of real estate 

Favorite hangout? Believe it or not, Albemarle Dermatology and Signature Medical Spa, where I serve as  part-time troublemaker and technical miscreant for an office of otherwise highly productive medical professionals.    

Most overrated virtue? Charisma 

People would be surprised to know: My wife and I were in college together, and I wooed her by placing anonymous poems in her campus mailbox.  

What would you change about yourself? I would be a more patient listener.  

Proudest accomplishment? Finishing my first novel.  Seeing it published was a bonus. 

People find most annoying about you: Obsessive brainstorming   

Whom do you admire? Abraham Lincoln

Favorite book? The Gospel According to John

Subject that causes you to rant? Demagoguery  

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The accessibility of information

Biggest 21st-century creep out? The accessibility of information

What do you drive? 2003 GMC Envoy with room for four kids and a hawk box in back.

In your car CD player right now: Something by Steven Curtis Chapman

Next journey? Denver, Colorado, for Left Coast Crime, a mystery writer and reader's convention

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Being sent to the principal's office in the third grade after hitting another boy in the eye with a paper airplane. The eye was okay, but my airplane designs have suffered ever since.  

Regret: Especially when I was younger, glossing over people's emotions and not taking the time to really get to know them

Favorite comfort food: Cherry-covered cheesecake

Always in your refrigerator: Dr. Brown's Diet Cream Soda

Must-see TV: Book TV, History channel, Law & Order

Describe a perfect day. Write a thousand words of inspired prose, take my children walking, canoeing, or hunting, and share a romantic dinner with my wife in a quiet restaurant  

Walter Mitty fantasy: Playing backup for Bob Dylan

Who'd play you in the movie? Tommy Lee Jones?

Most embarrassing moment? Being in the Hotseat

Best advice you ever got? When all else fails, keep writing.

Favorite bumper sticker? So many cats, so few recipes.