Atkins returns to series

Author Ace Atkins poses in the Arcade Resturant in Memphis. (Photo by Jay Nolan)

Jay Nolan

New York Times best-selling author Ace Atkins has written 15 novels in the past 12 years. His latest is “The Broken Places,” the third installment of the Quinn Colson series.

Atkins played college football at Auburn and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize when he was a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune.

“The Broken Places” is published by Putnam. The 352-page novel costs $26.95.

Atkins recently discussed his time as a college football player and a newspaper reporter and what the future holds for his series’ leading character, Colson.

Q: Talk about your time playing football at Auburn and being a part of that 1993 undefeated Auburn team.

A: First, I can’t believe it has been 20 years since I played at Auburn. We were not supposed to be that good that season. We were in a transition period, and we were not expected to win a game that season. It was really a unique group of players.

You talk about football 365 days a year when you live in Alabama, and maybe that’s why I live in Mississippi now. Football is important in Mississippi, but it’s a religion in Alabama.

I had to move to Mississippi to become a writer because if I still lived in Alabama, I’d still be a former football player.

Q: You got on the cover of Sports Illustrated for sacking then-Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel. Was that the highlight of your career?

A: Without a doubt, it’s an unrivaled event in my college football career. We were both undefeated and to sack a Heisman Trophy candidate like Danny was the highlight of a great game. I still have the Sports Illustrated cover in my office.

Q: What was your opinion of current South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier as the Florida coach back in the day?

A: Our defensive coordinator hated him immensely (laughing). I can still remember our coaching staff getting us pretty fired up the night before the Florida game and giving us some pretty good motivational speeches. Unfortunately, nothing I can repeat in print.

Q: Did you think about playing in the NFL?

A: My dad was a professional football player and coached and scouted in the NFL for a number of years. I grew up around football my whole life, but that was never my dream. My dream was to become a writer. When that last game was over at Auburn, I knew that was the end for me.

Q: When did you want to become a writer?

A: I think I became obsessed with the idea in college, but I had no idea what becoming a writer entailed. I couldn’t fathom how to become a professional writer or what steps you needed to take. But I loved books and was a voracious reader. I had one coach who took a book out of my hands because he felt like I wasn’t being serious enough about football and he couldn’t understand why I’d want to read books on my leisure time.

But there was a flip side to that as well. There were plenty of professors who didn’t think I could become a writer or a serious student because I was a football player. I wanted to take a creative writing class at Auburn, but I wasn’t accepted into it and I believe that was because I was a football player.

Q: You got your start being a writer as a newspaper reporter?

A: I got my start being a stringer, covering prep football and baseball games that no self-respecting sports writer would ever cover. Honestly, I was a terrible sports reporter. I really had to work at it.

Q: Then you got a job at The Tampa Tribune?

A: I slowly built up a clip file at The St. Petersburg Times by doing game stories and features and eventually landed a job covering the crime beat for The Tampa Tribune. I did that for five years, and it was the best decision I made in my life.

Q: You were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for a piece you did in Tampa?

A: It was a seven-part series about the murder of a woman from 1956, and I kind of reopened the case. I talked to witnesses and got to know the primary detective on the case. It was less an investigating piece and more of a time-capsule piece.

I was trying to bring back that period of time and really to try and bring to life what happened. The funny thing is that I basically spent my own time on the story, weekends, after work and when I finished it, they left it in the computer for a year before they ran the story.

They only ran it because it was the week of Christmas and all the reporters wanted to go on vacation (laughing).

Q: How did being a reporter help you become a novelist?

A: Everything I know about writing, the fundamentals of writing came from my time as a newspaper reporter. There’s no coddling as a newspaper reporter. I had editors just throw things back into my face, and it was humbling.

I had to leave my ego at the door. What you learn is that words are cheap. When you don’t have a lot of space, you learn to use your words wisely, and that improved me so much as a writer.

There’s no way I would have become a novelist without being a newspaper reporter first and working with some very talented editors in Tampa. I loved working at the newspaper, it was probably the best time of my professional life.

Q: Where did the Quinn Colson character come from?

A: What I learned when I was a reporter was to incorporate realism into my novels. It helped me develop characters that were real and put them in situations that were as realistic as possible.

My previous novels had been loosely based on real-life cases or true stories set in the past.

My editors wanted something contemporary, and I came up with Quinn Colson. I wanted to write something about the South since I’d grown up in Alabama. I started to see these men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan and see them around town and wanted to write about a U.S. soldier coming home, but I didn’t want him to be a Jason Bourne or a Rambo or a super soldier.

I wanted to write about an everyday guy. A guy like Quinn Colson because I knew a lot of guys like him. I see them every day.

Q: Where does Quinn go from here?

A: I just wrote a synopsis of the fourth Quinn Colson novel that I submitted to my editors recently. The book is tentatively called “The Devil’s Ways.”

I won’t start writing that until probably September. I’m currently writing a book in the “Spenser” series for the Robert B. Parker estate. He was one of my favorite authors. His family hired me to continue the series.

Reach Andrew Miller at 937-5599.