One of my favorite things about the world of indie publishing is that authors can blend genres in ways that create books that are fresh and unique. My guest today, Stuart Jaffe, has done that with his paranormal mystery series set in North Carolina, featuring a ghost detective from the 1940s who makes himself known, and begins to work with, a detective in the present day.
Stuart shares two amazing true stories that went on to inspire some of the events in his Max Porter Mysteries. It’s such a cliche to say truth is stranger than fiction, but Stuart has some excellent examples that prove the reason that saying exists.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Stuart Jaffe
Alexandra: Hi, everyone. I’m Alexandra Amor. And I’m here today with Stuart Jaffe. Hi, Stuart!
Stuart: Hi, Alexandra.
Alexandra: How are you?
Stuart: Thanks for having me. I’m doing fine. How are you?
Alexandra: I’m great. You’re so welcome. I’m so happy that you’re here. So just by way of introduction, I’ll let everyone know. Am I pronouncing your name, your last name correctly?
Stuart: It’s Jaffe.
Alexandra: Jaffe, okay, perfect. Stuart Jaffe is the author of the Max Porter Paranormal-Mysteries, The Malja Chronicles, The Gillian Boone novels, the Bluesman series, Real Magic, After the Crash, and much more. You’re a prolific guy, Stuart. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He was the co-host of the eclectic review podcast. And for those who keep count, the latest animal listening on his rural farm in North Carolina is as follows, one dog, four cats, one albino corn snake, three aquatic turtles, seven chickens, and a horse. But Stuart says that, thankfully, the chickens and the horse do not live inside the house. And so your black tarantula must have died. Is that right?
Stuart: And so they do it by…they lay on their back, and then they crawl out of it.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Stuart: So when they first start to shed, you think they’re dead because they’re on their back. So it took us about a couple days to realize, “Oh, that’s it.”
Alexandra: Oh no!
Stuart: But yeah, we lost that. We had bunnies. We’ve had other animals. We’re trying to reduce a little bit but I never win that argument.
Alexandra: No, I bet you don’t.
I’m really interested in the Max Porter Paranormal-Mysteries. That’s the thing that really piqued my interest. And since this is a show about mystery novels, I thought that would be a great fit. And the thing that intrigues me about them so much is that they combine several genres. So “paranormal mystery noir,” someone mentioned in one of your reviews. So tell us a little bit about what that’s like for you to combine those genres.
Stuart: A lot of fun.
Alexandra: Yeah? Oh, good.
Stuart: I’ve never been able to really write this in the confines of one little genre. I’m a science fiction fantasy kind of guy. I read everything. I’ve read romance, everything. And I love mysteries. But I’ve never tried to actually just write a pure mystery. Every time I sat down, I’m like “I’m just going to write a cop or detective,” or something like that. The next thing I know there’s some magical element. I’ve been writing for almost 20 years, and the world has changed enough in the last 5 or 10, especially with e-books, that those odd niches and mixtures of genre and blending is coming out more and more.
Readers have always wanted it. But when distribution is really narrow and you can only go to a bookstore, bookstores look everything up in the categories that they could sell to you easily. And if you didn’t fit in that, it is really difficult to get picked up by a publisher, which was my problem for a long time.
And then the whole indie book revolution happened and the e-books, and I was like “Oh, I could just do it and see what happens and find out if there’s an audience for it.” And since we’re talking about it, I’m really excited to say that the fifth book in the series, Southern Haunts, just came out a few days ago.
Alexandra: Oh, cool! That’s awesome. We’re recording this in December of 2015.
Tell us a little bit about your detective. He’s a ghost.
Stuart: The book is about a guy named Max Porter, who’s just a guy. He’s married. And he and his wife moved down to North Carolina, which is where I live right now. And they move into Winston-Salem, which is a pretty large city. He’s been hired to do research for this strange family. And the office he’s in turns out to be haunted by the ghost of a 1940s detective named Marshall Drummond. And Max can see this ghost. It’s the only ghost he’s ever, ever able to see. And the ghost is in the first book, which is called Southern Bound. The ghost has been cursed and bound to that office.
Initially, the case that Max is working on and an old case from the 1940s that caused Drummond to get stuck where he is collide, and he ends up helping free Drummond. And then after that, Drummond decides to stick around, and Drummond brings in business from the ghost world sometimes. And sometimes, they deal with other issues in cases. I try to go through different genres of mystery, thriller, suspense, and stuff, depending on the book.
The second book is not really a murder mystery at all. It’s more just a chase over a mysterious painting that they’re trying to find. One of the books, called Southern Gothic, goes more of a gothic troupes. The book that just came out, Southern Haunts, is an actual haunted house kind of story. And then there’s all these mysteries in the vault.
And my favorite part about all of this is that there is history involved. I take real history of Winston-Salem and the surrounding areas. It keeps growing, so, really, all of North Carolina. There’s real history put in and then blended with witches and ghosts and curses and the mysteries. So I find all kinds of weird little mysterious things, and I’m like “Oh, I could take that.”
So for example in the fourth book Southern Gothic, I ran upon a story about, at the end of the Civil War, things in the South were chaotic.
Stuart: Homes were being ransacked. There was not a lot of law and order. And this train goes through North Carolina. It stops at this one town. And it’s loaded with wool and gold. and nobody knows where it came from. And when authorities finally show up, everything’s gone. The wool, they can find all the people are like “Yeah, we took the wool. We took this wool.” No one admits to the taking of gold. No gold can be found. And to this day, nobody knows whatever happened to it. Although, there are people who go up and down the tracks with metal detectors, and people have found coins over the decades, hundred years.
Alexandra: No, that was fantastic, and you actually lead into… I wanted to ask you about the research because I noticed on your site…and you mentioned that you like to fold that in. That’s a really interesting story. Any other really interesting stuff you’ve stumbled upon?
Stuart: This is how it all started. I live in rural North Carolina, but I lived in Winston-Salem for about 10 years. And somewhere along the line, I was living there, and my concern was I really don’t know much about where I’m living. I’ll stop at this site. I was just interested, and I was stuck at the library waiting for my wife one day. And so I’m just kind of meandering around and I stumbled upon a story that this is from in World War II. At the time R.J. Reynolds, which is a tobacco company and pretty much one of the biggest ones in North Carolina, if not the United States. And in Winston-Salem in particular, they pretty much own and run the town. I don’t know if you know US cigarettes, but Winstons and Salems, those cigarettes are named after the town.
Anyway, so he’s producing cigarettes for the soldiers. And the US soldiers in particular had really never smoked cigarettes up until World War II. And then they became massively addicted from all the stress they were under. They were smoking them down like you couldn’t believe. And he couldn’t keep up with productions. So R.J. Reynolds goes to the president of the United States and says, “Look, I’d be happy to run my factory 24/7 and give you all the cigarettes you need. I just need labor. I don’t have the people. I can’t afford to do it.”
So, this is the part that brings…which is why I even wrote the first book. Unbeknownst to me and to just about everybody I’ve ever talked about this, we shipped in German POWs. We brought them to the US and set up little camps. There were like 18 to 20 prisoners in each camp and there were about 20 of them or so all over North Carolina. And at night, we bus them into Winston-Salem. They’d work all night long. And then we bus them out before anybody woke up.
Alexandra: Oh my god!
Stuart: I’ve run into a couple of people who knew about this and said that we’ve done it, we did it, and taxes as well for other things that needed to be, other than labor. I’m not a World War II nut, but I enjoyed reading about it and all this. And so I thought I knew just about everything, broad strokes. I never heard of this. And I looked into it, and it’s completely true, and I was like “Well, there’s the beginning of a great story.” And that led eventually to the Max Porter Paranormal-Mysteries.
Alexandra: Wow! That is such a great story, fantastic. My goodness.
And so tell us a little bit more too about Max Porter. He’s a teacher, correct?
Stuart: He’s a researcher. He was a teacher.
Alexandra: He was a teacher, okay.
Stuart: That didn’t work out. So before the book starts, he and his wife were living in Michigan. And it was during the economic, financial crisis we all went through way back when. That coupled with some poor choices he made led to him losing his job. And they were pretty much down on their luck. And they ended up applying for this mysterious job that brought them down to North Carolina where the book begins.
Now, I mentioned that R.J. Reynolds, their family kind of runs Winston-Salem. There’s another family, real-life family, Hanes, or Hanes underwear. They’re also a huge big family. The two families, basically, truly are still huge families in this area and in the city. So I created a fictitious third big family, the Hull family, who traced all the way back to the beginnings of Winston-Salem, which are with the Moravians, way, way back, maybe the 1700s.
I created this fictitious family about the Hulls who broke away from the Moravians because they got into black magic. And they ended up using this magic to get prosperous. And so they’re a constant foil for Max and a way I can involve all the curses and magic and stuff, magical aspects into the story without actually offending real families.
Alexandra: In one of your reviews, I noticed sometime described Max’s wife, Sandra, as semi-paranormal. So what does that mean?
Stuart: This is always the big contention. The big problem, it’s one of those things like you love it or hate it about the first book. I knew this but I just decided to do it anyway, which is that she can see ghosts, always. She was always born that way. She’s had that ability.
And like a lot of people who go through that, she kept it quiet and secret. It’s not something you talk about because people mishear it if you claim you can see ghosts. So she never really told anybody including her husband. Until one day she walked in, and there he is talking to a ghost. And it all comes out, and they’re like “Wait, you can see?” And so the three of them end up coming by the end of the first book, open shop together as a PI group. And that’s where he meets all their other adventures. So yeah, she can see them.
But the books are completely told from Max’s point of view. So he never can see what she’s seeing. In fact, the only way he’s ever been able to see any other ghosts is if a ghost actually…It’s very painful to go through but they stuck their heads into his head and allowed him to see what they’re seeing to get touched into it. But it’s debilitatingly painful. Well, the first time, he didn’t know it was going to happen. He’s only ever allowed it happen one more time. And it was desperate, obviously, that he allowed it to happen.
But so, yeah, that’s her ability. And then as things have been progressing, she’s dabbled a little bit into witchcraft. And we’ll see how that progresses. I have clients for her but you know that’s down the road.
Alexandra: Do you find that most of your readers are mystery readers or are they paranormal readers or is it a mix?
Stuart: It’s definitely a mix. I know majority of my readers are women.
Stuart: Based on the demographics I can see from my Facebook and all that, at least I should say the majority of my readers who contact me through Facebook, which doesn’t surprise me because women make up something like 80 to 85% of all readers that buy books. And mystery is one of the top. I think it’s somewhere around number two. It varies. But romance is always number one in selling. And then it shifts between fantasy and mystery.
There’s always an overlap. But I did get a lot of emails from fans who are like, “I’ve never read anything with fantasy in it. And I’m just a mystery reader but I’ve tried it and I really loved it.” So that’s always nice to hear.
I find most readers who like my stuff are readers like me who read everything. And if you like lots of different kinds of books… The only thing that’s consistent about my writing or my books is that there is always some kind of fantasy-ish or science fiction-ish elements.
But I write paranormal-mystery series. My other series, the Malja Chronicles, is actually a science fiction fantasy hybrid. It’s a post-apocalyptic story where magic caused the apocalypse. I have pure science fiction books. And right now, I’m starting a new series that’s kind of an action-adventure of the old Mack Bolan, Remo Williams vein. I don’t know if you know those books but it’s from the ’80s.
Alexandra: No, I don’t.
Stuart: They were lighter versions of like James Bond. They’re just spy thriller kind of things. But I’m putting a fantasy twist on it, of course. And it’s a lot of fun. I’m not writing it for this reason. But as I started writing, I realized it sits between Max Porter and the Malja Chronicles in terms of…It’s a little bit more fantasy, magicky than Max, which is pretty much just some paranormal elements and then the rest is realistic. So it’s more magicky than that. But it’s still in this world, whereas, the Malja Chronicles is a whole nother parallel universe.
Alexandra: Oh, okay.
Stuart: So it might help some people make that transition to see what else is out there.
Alexandra: Yeah, exactly. And I noticed too you recently, or maybe it wasn’t recently, recorded the audio book for…
Stuart: So yeah, the first four books of the Max Porter books are all done in audio and are available now. I do all the narration from my podcasting days. Plus, my undergraduate degree was in theatre. I’m completely comfortable, and you can hear it, it’s not hard to let me talk. I don’t mind doing them. And it’s a lot of fun. And the response has been really powerful and good.
Now, the Malja Chronicles, which is a six-book, complete, that series is done. It’s a complete story. Malja, she is kind of a Xena-ish type character and warrior. I’m not the voice for that. So I’ve hired somebody to do that. And hopefully, actually, I believe this week, at least hopefully in time for Christmas this year, which is 2015, it’ll be done and out. So we’ll see. But yeah, I do the Max Porter ones, and I’m going to be soon recording the book that just came out, Southern Haunts. And I’ll keep doing them. I say to people, “As long as you keep reading them, you keep getting them.” I’ll keep doing them because I enjoy doing it. It’s a lot of fun. They’re more work than other books because of the research I have to do. Extra month, but it’s fun.
Alexandra: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
When you record the audio books, do you go to a studio? Do you do that at home?
Stuart: No, I have all the equipment at home from… The Eclectic Review was a podcast that I did with my wife for…Literally, we just folded it a few months ago. And it ran from… I think podcasting was maybe around for about a year before we found out about it. So it ran for almost eight years. We did about 400 episodes. And we did it every week until my writing… I just don’t have the time to record and edit and read a lot of research because we were talking about science fiction and writing and art, hence, the title Eclectic Review.
Stuart: So I have mixing boards and microphones and all of that.
Alexandra: Oh, okay. Do it right there, yeah, oh awesome. Okay, well thank you so much for being with me today. We’re going to wind up a little bit. But I want to ask you a question before we go. And I ask this of every mystery author.
Why do you think mysteries as a genre have been so pervasive in our culture and have lasted for so long? Do you have an opinion about that?
Stuart: There’s no one reason. There’s several reasons I think. The two biggest are, one, all good mysteries end by being solved, and so it gives us some sense of control or comfort in life.
For example, most science fiction does not. Most science fiction is about a change, and then we go off to some new world. First, we were humans and then mutated into something else. And now, this is what our life is, which is a lot more unsettling then the world went crazy. Somebody got murdered. But, hey, we caught the bad guy. So there’s a circle there of closure that I think people like.
Stuart: But I also think that sadly it’s very relatable. There are murders. There are crimes. And more often than not, actually tied into that is the first thing is that, sadly, a lot of those things do go unsolved. Justice is not done. So I think there’s a lot of wish fulfillment in here that we want to get it…We want the puzzle solved, and we can vicariously live through the characters who do the solving.
Alexandra: Yeah, no, I totally agree. Yeah, I think the puzzle solving element is such a big part of the appeal of mystery novels. Well, thank you so much for being with me here today, Stuart. So let everybody know where they can find your books.
Stuart: Everywhere. You can buy them, of course, Amazon, anywhere e-books are sold. They’re also all in print. It could be ordered through any book store. Oh, and since we’re talking about Southern Bound in particular is, I have it set up. It’s called perma free. The e-book you can download from just about anywhere for free to give it a try. And if you really like free books, you can actually from that there’s a little link to sign up for my newsletter. And if you do that, you’ll get the next book for free. You could really try out the books for no cost and see if you like them. And if you do, then you can go get everything.
Alexandra: That’s right, yes, yeah. And your website is stuartjaffe.com?
Alexandra: Perfect, okay, awesome. Well, thank you so much for being here again. I really enjoyed it.
Stuart: Thank you so much for having me.
Alexandra: Take care.
Stuart: You too.