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Sparrow has simple goal: make readers finish

Duluth author Thomas Sparrow throws worlds of hurt at his ne'er-do-well characters. His heroes, if they can be called that, are ordinary or small town people thrust into situations way over their heads after a bad decision, then another, then ano...

Duluth author Thomas Sparrow throws worlds of hurt at his ne'er-do-well characters.

His heroes, if they can be called that, are ordinary or small town people thrust into situations way over their heads after a bad decision, then another, then another. The bad decisions keep coming until there's no hope of going back, only struggling to go through it all and hopefully come out alive.

It's the noir genre, in the spirit of Raymond Chandler. Sparrow calls it the underside of the American Dream. "The soft underbelly, to use a well-used phrase," he said in an interview last week.

While he said some have called the genre dead, it's doing all right for him locally, and things are even brighter overseas.

Sparrow's first book, "Northwoods Pulp," and its successor, the recently released "Fatally Flawed," are perfect examples of noir. The first contains dark short stories and a novel-length work.

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"Social Climbing," one of those pieces, is the first installment of Sparrow's Keith Waverly stories. "Fatally Flawed" picks up Waverly's story as he flees mayhem in the Northland to a new life in Florida, where he finds himself in trouble again with drugs and drug runners. He can't seem to find the straight and narrow.

If such characters don't seem particularly likeable, that doesn't bother Sparrow.

"I think it's not necessary to like the characters if you like the stories," he said, pointing out F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" and the HBO television series "The Sopranos" as instances of successful stories populated by unlikeable people.

(After some thought, Sparrow noted later in an e-mail that many actors prefer to play bad guys, and maybe it's the same with writing.)

But his goals are simpler than likeable characters. "I'm just really concerned with writing a story that will keep people's attention -- that they will actually finish the book," he said.

And so he piles it on.

His writing process builds on trouble. "I usually have an idea of where I want to get to," he said. "Along that line, I'll also have an idea of key turning points, where the characters have decisions to make. My characters usually make the wrong choices."

And so in Florida, Waverly falls in with an old nemesis from up north. He gets back together with his ex-wife, uses stolen credit cards, makes bad deals with bad cops, starts selling drugs.

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"The characters take you where they want to go," Sparrow said, particularly with dialogue, one of his main focuses as a writer. Sometimes a conversation he writes will take a turn he doesn't expect.

Sparrow started writing as a young child, using an Underwood mechanical typewriter in his sister's room to bang out adventure stories. But then he stopped and didn't do much writing until a college class at UMD in the late 1960s. In the early '90s, he edited the Zenith City Pages and did a lot of the writing himself. That got him back in the habit.

"Northwoods Pulp," released in 1999, made a small profit domestically, but the real success story came from overseas. For starters, he got a review in Shots Magazine in England. The "godfather of noir" in England, Russell James, also gave the book a positive review.

And that was just the start. A Japanese publisher, Fusosha, expressed interest in "Northwoods Pulp," and after a long series of negotiations agreed to publish "Social Climbing" in the form of a bunco book, a sort of portable, pocket-sized book that's popular among Japanese readers. It will be released there this spring. One of the final points on the way to publication was the pending follow-up, "Fatally Flawed," although there is no word yet on whether that, too, will be published in Japan.

However, "Shots" is planning a review and author interview on the book in its winter issue.

In the meantime, Sparrow keeps writing every day. He's working on the third -- and he suspects final -- Keith Waverly story, which will bring the character from the 1970s setting of the previous two works to the present day. He says if demand is high in Japan, he'll consider doing Waverly prequels, though.

When asked about the response of his audience, Sparrow said he gets both positive and negative, but mostly positive.

"I'm surprised that a lot of younger people seem to enjoy them," he said. "And again, the average fan of 'The Sopranos' should enjoy my book."

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This year, two students at Lake Superior College contacted him about the books and interviewed him for class projects.

"Just the fact that they finished the book, to me that's great," Sparrow said.

News to Use

Tom Sparrow's latest noir book is "Fatally Flawed," published by Sparrow's publishing house, Bluestone Press.

ISBN: 0-9672006-2-8

Cost: $13.95

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