Author Len Abram Talks About His Novels, The Process Of Writing, And How He Chooses His Subjects
Interviewed By Bobby Franklin
With a PhD in literature, Len Abram taught at three universities, including the University of Maryland armed forces program (Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and Bermuda). He taught Marines on Okinawa for a year and learned to SCUBA dive.
When teaching jobs went scarce, he became a technical writer for networks and financial services, with customers, such as MasterCard, NATO, Department of Defense, the Federal Reserve, Japan Airlines, and Fidelity Investments. At Fidelity, he earned a stock broker’s license and wrote articles for customers. He interviewed experts, such as Peter Lynch, Suze Orman, and Larry Kudlow.
Empty Doorways is his third novel. His first was also a crime novel, with some of the same characters, The Medallion, followed by an historical a novel set in World War I, Debris: A Novel of Love, War and the Lusitania.
He has completed – more accurate than ran — eleven Boston Marathons, the last one in 2019 in seven very long hours.
Boxing Over Broadway: Hi Len, thank you for speaking with us at Boxing Over Broadway.
Len Abram: Thanks for this opportunity.
BOB: You have written three novels — The Medallion, Debris, and your latest, Empty Doorways. While Debris is a historical novel, how would you describe The Medallion and Empty Doorways? Is Empty Doorways a sequel to The Medallion?
Len Abram: Debris, A Novel of Love, War and the Lusitania, required research: from the politics and strategies that shaped World War I, to the ship designs that made the Lusitania so fast, to the German submarine U-20 that sunk the ship, killing 1200 passengers and crew. I learned that spies on the New York docks targeted the ship for attack. I fictionalized who those spies were, how they got there, and what happened to them.
The Medallion and its sequel Empty Doorways are contemporary detective stories. Like most people, I get my information from reading newspapers or watching TV news about crimes in metropolitan Boston. I did take several courses in gun use and gun safety, how to operate and fire the Glocks my detectives carry. A .357 pistol plays a role in Empty Doorways. The bullet can go through an engine block. I learned to load and fire one.
BOB: Is Boston important in your stories because you live in the area and are familiar with it or is there something special about Boston that adds to the flavor of your books?
Len Abram: The cabbie Sasha Denisov gets many of his fares at South Station, one of two major Boston transportation centers. Not far from the station is the Boston Police headquarters at Government Center, where Detectives Schwartz and Di Natale work.
As realtors say, Location, location, location. Like lives, stories have a context. Boston appears in all three books
As realtors say, Location, location, location. Like lives, stories have a context. Boston appears in all three books. Even the historical novel Debris focuses on a distinguished Boston family of the early 1900s. The Lindseys built the chapel on Newbury Street in memory of their daughter Leslie and her husband Stewart, drowned when the ship sank. To this day, weddings are performed in the chapel.
The Medallion and Empty Doorways are set in today’s Boston, its neighborhoods, such as Mattapan, and its surrounding cities, such as Cambridge. The two books mention shared events, but can be read in or out of sequence. Major and minor characters reflect the ethnic and cultural varieties that make up the communities of the city – and add vitality and richness to life here.
From the Boston Common, when we look up Beacon Hill at the State House, we might see its golden dome as our highest ideals we climb to reach. If beyond our grasp, we continue to try.
BOB: Tell us a little about the characters that are common to both books. How did you come up with the names for them? Their personas?
Len Abram: My three major characters are taxi driver Sasha Denisov and Detectives Ben Schwartz and Al Di Natale of Boston PD Homicide.
Immigrant Sasha Denisov grew up in the Ukraine, as did my parents and cousins. They served in the Russian army like Sasha, but the cabbie was in the special forces Spetsnaz, after which he names his cab company. Sasha’s name I drew from Ivan Denisovich, the everyman character in Solzhenitsyn’s novel of the Gulag, the Soviet Union’s concentration camps. Like so many, Sasha fled his native land for a better life.
Ben Schwartz, an outstanding detective, is in his 50s, a couple of decades older than his partner Al Di Natale. Originally from New York, Schwartz is Jewish, not observant like his wife Evie, but each year he goes to a synagogue to pray for a murder victim, one of his cold cases, which he is determined to close in The Medallion.
Schwartz’s partner Al Di Natale, with the lyrical Italian name, is a former Catholic altar boy from Woburn. Di Natale is a decorated Army combat veteran, who distinguished himself as a patrolman to become a young detective. Di Natale is very handsome, an asset and a curse. His vanity may ruin his marriage.
In Empty Doorways, Schwartz and he join the rest of Boston searching for a missing 12-year-old boy from Mattapan.
BOB: Why this topic, these characters?
Len Abram: Many years ago, I taught eighth grade in an inner-city Boston school. I told one disruptive boy to stay after school as punishment. He couldn’t. He had to meet his parole officer. On parents’ night, the mother of one of my black students, tall like the missing boy in Empty Doorways, said to me, “Mr. Abram, please learn my boy,” By that she meant teach and maybe lead or influence her son. I think of all those parents and grandparents, who want the best outcome for their children – and what they are up against in some of our neighborhoods. I think I speak for them in my writing.
BOB: Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a novelist.
Len Abram:I love reading stories and I learned that I love telling stories too. I have a PhD in literature and taught for seven years, four of them in the Far East for the US armed forces education program. I ended up as a tech writer in computer networks when there were no teaching jobs.
I have always written essays and book reviews, along with my technical writing. One day I left work, which was next to South Station, and I noticed the cabs lined up for fares. I had an idea about a taxi cab driver, an immigrant from the Ukraine, who risks his life while pursuing the American Dream. I wrote a paragraph, and showed it to a friend. “Why don’t you do something with this?” he asked. That started me writing novels.
BOB: Writing is a tough job that takes a lot of discipline. How do you structure your creative time?
Len Abram: I joked to another writer when my third book was published: the victory of tenacity over talent. Some truth in that. One of the characters in Empty Doorways is given a saying or motto for his recovery from a severe injury: Never Quit.
I’ve had many setbacks and many rejections about my writing. I don’t know how much talent I have. Someone has said that talent is everywhere. Whatever success is, it takes more than talent.
When I am writing a novel, I work five days a week, three to four hours my limit. Right now, I am in between novels, and just finished a book review. That sharpens my skills while I am thinking of my next project.
BOB: Will there be a sequel or will you move to another topic?
Len Abram: Whether these two detective books begin a series – we’ll have to wait for the next novel on that score. But I am planning one.
BOB: This seems like something that could work quite well as a TV series. Any plans to adapt it into a screenplay?
Len Abram: An editor and friend is a professional screen writer. We are talking about a series based upon the cases of Detectives Schwartz and Di Natale.
BOB: In closing, why will people enjoy reading your Empty Doorways?
Len Abram: One of the characters in the novel says that if we cannot protect our kids, none of us is safe. If we cannot protect Gabriel Clay in Mattapan, how safe is any of us anywhere?
The cabbie, the teachers, the parents and grandparents, the clergy, and of course the police, like Schwartz and Di Natale, are fighting to save the kids, in effect, our future. That’s worth writing about, and maybe reading.
Thank you, Len Abram
The road was as crooked as a tree root, following an ancient Indian or game trail, Castilla guessed. Paved once and forgotten, a token of good will from a Mexican government, perhaps hoping to stall another revolution by the campesinos. Pitted and washed out, the road was threadbare to the sand floor of the desert.
The lights from the two vehicles cut tubes into the night, dark as poured asphalt. Clouds had squeezed together without a seam, leaving the stars as dim dots and the half-moon a shadowy boulder. To their left on the horizon, the string of lights, brighter than the stars on a clear night, was Texas. Their two vehicles were on the Mexican side of a desert, at least three quarters of the year barren, with a short, fierce rainy season. The cloud cover meant that it would start soon.
The torrent lasts a few weeks, not more than a month, Castilla remembered. He had grown up in a village a hundred miles to the south. Desert flowers bloom until the sparse land looked like a meadow. With the rains came flash floods, racing through the land to find the larger rivers to which the water belonged. The floods pushed aside what was in their way, trees, coyotes, snakes, cactus, rocks, cars, people. His father and his dog Alonzo, in a pickup truck older than the one in front of them, had been swept away by such a flood.
Hector Castilla was only ten. “Life has dealt us a hard blow,” his mother said, wrapping herself in black dresses borrowed from neighbors. She handed Castilla one of his father’s favorite hats, a sweat-stained Stetson. Castilla thought that the hat was in a trunk of clothing in the cellar of his villa. The passing of the hat, he realized later, marked the end of his childhood.
The pickup in front was also a Ford, at least two decades old, the second time around for the odometer. The paint was worn to the primer. Rust had reduced the metal rocker panels to paper. Three men lay bound on the bed of the pickup. The truck belonged to one of the men, Ernesto Guerra, who was tied up in the back with his cousin Mateo and his friend Tomas. Guerra’s dog, a pit bull with a muzzle guard, lay next to him, the chain to his collar tied to a metal cleat. When Castilla’s men picked up the three, they were ready to shoot the dog if the muzzle guard came off. The dog was fearless. He growled and shot spittle through spaces in the guard. Guerra said to the dog, “Cochise, silencio.” The pit bull dropped his clipped ears and lay quiet against him.
El Nino, one of Castilla’s men, drove the pickup. He peered over the dash watching for gulleys that could break an axle. Beside him in a burlap bag were the weapons and ammunition taken from the three men, Guerra’s scuffed nickel .357 revolver and two rusty black revolvers of different calibers, belonging to the other two men, along with a fold-up knife and a barber’s razor, found in their jeans. Also in the bag taken from them were packets of brown heroin, stenciled with the brand names of WMD and Star Wars. Also, there were bags of marijuana, and hundreds of pills, in several colors and shapes. The three men were caught selling in Castilla’s territory.
The vehicle behind the pickup, Castilla’s, was a new black Escalade, shiny as an eel. It stayed far enough behind the pickup to avoid the stones kicked up from the tires. The more powerful lights of the Escalade overshot the pickup hundreds of feet and its wide tires bridged ruts. The new shocks and springs cushioned the ride for the four men inside, the driver Manuel, his thick knuckles wrapped around steering wheel, Marimacho and Felipe, Castilla’s two other bodyguards. Hector Castilla sat in back next to Marimacho. El Nino in the pickup was also a bodyguard, the youngest in his service at 16.
Castilla liked privacy when he did his business. With drones and satellites, that was getting more difficult. Driving late at night on off-roads in the desert was about as private as he could find. Besides, he and his men had driven out here before and no one had noticed them or what they left behind.
Castilla was the only man smoking in the Cadillac, his brand, gold-tipped Dunhills. The Escalade’s air conditioner sucked the cigarette smoke into the dash and returned clean air with a fragrance enhancer. Castilla was short, even by Mexican standards, and did not like being reminded of his height. One of the great drug lords, as the press called them in their love of medieval words, had the nickname of Shorty. Not for Castilla.
His clothes and tastes didn’t suggest that they belonged to one of the wealthiest men in the Mexican state of Coahuila. This was in the economía ilegal, larger than Mexico’s legitimate economy and competitor of the government. Castilla only spent a great deal on his footwear; the boot maker from San Diego was an artist in adding three inches to Castilla’s height.
He was third in line of the Sinola cartel. Emmanuel Sinola had a big map in his home, on a private island off the Mexican east coast. Freighters and pleasure craft came offshore to pick up bales and packages to bring to the customers. Sinola had hacked out a runway on the island. He flew his jets and twin props into there. When he traveled at 500 miles an hour, Sinola could be home for supper from nearly anywhere in the country.
Castilla himself had a villa on the east coast, but not his own island. He was given his territory, like the other lieutenants, to be the chief executive officer of his own business, which grossed duffel bags of cash, with dozens of machines to count it all. Castilla just attended a meeting Sinola organized. He invited a professor at a famous business school in the United States to talk about improving their company.
A Lear jet brought the man from Hartford to the island at twice his usual fee. Castilla never went beyond the tenth grade of the missionary school, but he got a message from the lecture and his own observations: if businesses don’t expand, they contract and start to fail. Stasis, estasis, in Spanish, that is what the MBA fellow from Yale called it.
In his home, Castilla had a map of the United States. Pins showed where he sold or distributed. His area was there too, green pins for the most profitable, red and yellow for those less so, pins everywhere on the map, across the United States, except when he looked north. New York and New Jersey were saturated already with competitors. But in the place called New England, there might be room. Was life’s secret either grow or die?
“Pass them. Head to the arroyo,” said Castilla, leaning over to tap his driver’s thick shoulder.
Manuel stomped the gas pedal and moved around the lumbering pickup. In the dust behind, they saw it try to catch up. Another road veered to the right, this one just dirt, and dropped gradually into what was a valley, shallow and hidden. Organ pipe cactus towered over the tall Escalade. Manuel drove around desert willows that scratched the tires and fenders and barrel cactus shaped like bread crusts.
Castilla said stop. Manuel signaled the pickup so he wasn’t rear-ended. The kid El Nino drove well, great reflexes and fearless, but impulsive too. They pulled to a stop, shut their engines and stepped out, leaving their lights on; Castilla got out of the tall Escalade backwards holding onto the door. The bodyguards looked around, but they were quite alone.
Still, they unbuttoned their coats to access their weapons, pistols with long magazines. Manuel pulled an AK-47 out of the vehicle and shouldered it. He went back to the Escalade and returned with a machete, well-worn in its scabbard. With it, a strong man could sever a head in a few seconds.
“Get them out,” Castilla said. “Conseguirlos.”
El Nino dropped the gate on the pickup truck and dragged the men by their boots and sneakers onto the hard dirt. The dog growled and yelped inside the mask, but he had little choice but to follow his master to the ground. They dropped hard, the men and the dog on the ground, raising dust in the beams of the Escalade. The dog was glad to be out of the vehicle and was wagging its tail. It tried to lick Guerra’s face inside the bite guard.
The dog growled when El Nino pulled a 9mm from a holster. He stepped back, thumbed off the safety, and looked over at Castilla. Manuel pulled out overalls and a cap from the Escalade and slipped these over his street clothes. He pulled the machete out of its scabbard and walked to the bound men. The dog growled again.
“Get them on their feet,” said Castilla. His men were surprised. They prepared themselves for the violence and he stopped them. The acts did take resolve, an adrenalin spike, a gulp of Mezcal, a couple of pills, the snort of something white or brown, in order to shoot or butcher a person who was no danger to you. Usually with hands tied behind or worse, hands up, appealing for pity, mentioning children by name, their ages, anything to slow down or interrupt what was about to happen, and they couldn’t stop.
If he saw his men falter, Castilla bolstered their courage.
“You are not paid for pity,” Castilla had said once or twice and was repeated among his employees enough times to be misquoted or embellished. “It’s enough I pity you. If I don’t, who will save you?”
They had heard the rest of the speech before.
“This is war. Big countries like that cesspool from the north, Americanos, bomb their enemies with billion-dollar aircraft. Collateral damage when they kill thousands of innocents. War gives them the right.
“We are at war and what about our rights? At war with the government of Mexico, which will take away our livelihoods so we can go back to what? – selling trinkets to the tourists, dirt farming, with a few cattle or pigs, rice and beans and maize until our children look ready for the vultures? Or do we break our backs picking vegetables from sunrise until dark on farms or orchards of the enemy that stole our land? “
“No, patron,” the men said.
The dog was sniffing the air hard to try to understand the place and the people.
“Now I will give you another lesson. Look, two of them have pissed in their pants, but not this one,” pointing to Ernesto Guerra. “They all think they have reached the end of their lives. Maybe they have. I run a business, with computers, satellites, networks, jets, the best in machines and I hope the best in men. Now we will see what kind of men we have here. Untie them. Also take off their shirts.”
The bodyguards stood the three men up. Manuel used the machete to cut the tape. He let them take the tapes off their mouths themselves. They rubbed their wrists and arms. Their shirts were on the ground and they were cold. Guerra stepped forward and asked for aqua, water. They had a few prison tattoos, neighborhoods, but not an organization like MS-13. They did not know that the affiliation would have meant instant death.
Felipe brought them three bottles from the Escalade. They drank. Finally, Guerra spoke.
“Patron, we should not have been selling our bags in the area. It was my mistake. Not theirs. This is my cousin. This is my friend.”
Castilla stepped out the shadow of the Escalade.
“Your tattoos says that you belong to no gang. You are not supposed to be in this area between me and Los Zetas.”
“That’s true, patron. It was my fault,” Guerra said. “We had extra bags and needed to get rid of them. Los Zetas allows us little parts of their territory, arrendamiento. It was only a few miles to yours and so we went. I won’t tell you it was the GPS, we had to make our quota…”
“We have a boss too. He don’t let us miss our quota. They beat us, especially my cousin. He is smaller.”
“What if I made you an offer? Manuel could leave your heads somewhere as a reminder to others. But that hardly shocks anymore! What a fucking world when you can see worse on YouTube.”
“First of all, I know who you are, Ernesto Guerra. I hear about you. You have crossed into my territory many times, but this time we got you. I need someone to expand my operations. We are going to push.”
“You know New York?”
“Yes, there two years in and outside of the city. Long Island.”
“A couple of hundred miles from New York, the capital of a state, the one called Massachusetts. You speak English and know your way around. We’ll get you there. First, you’ll replace local dealers, not on the street, but the ones running the business from their offices and cars. Second, we’re going to flood the drug market with lots of cheap stuff, especially heroin. We have another way to distribute, this time from the sea. The cheap price will expand our market. Later the price will rise. You don’t mind the sea, do you?”
“I can swim for an hour and the cold don’t bother me,” Guerra said.
“You will be pushing out people who don’t want to be pushed. Some of them you will put on the side of the road.” The reference to the side of the road was from the cartel wars in Mexico, a convenient place to leave the dead.
“I understand and am not afraid,” Guerra said.
“You’ll demand loyalty from the street pushers and will give them bonuses for selling our products. They will make more money because we will bring in more customers,” Castilla said. “Aimless American youth will come to us, first for fun and then for necessity. Interested?”
“Si, yes, I give my word,” said Guerra.
“You like this powerful pistol,” Castilla said, holding the scuffed .357 Smith & Wesson his men had taken off of Guerra. The frame of the gun had to be heavy and strong. Castilla held one of the bullets in his palm. “This bullet could fit a rifle.”
“Yes, patron, they don’t get up and shoot back at me with this one.”
“Let’s see your loyalty,” Castilla said, tossing Ernesto Guerra his pistol and a couple of cartridges. Manual put the front sight of his AK-47 on Guerra’s chest, finger moving from trigger guard to trigger, while Guerra loaded the pistol.
“Shoot your cousin Mateo. He’s worthless anyway.”
“Please, I can’t do that. He’s my wife’s cousin,” Guerra said.
“Shoot the dog.”
Copyright 2020 Len Abram