W.M. Akers isn’t a fan of real-life murder, but he thinks a lot about how much people love fictional murder. “I think it’s very interesting how people tend to walk around agreeing that murder is a bad thing, but as soon as they sit down for fiction, they tend to become a lot more ambiguous about that,” Akers says.
Westside Lights, the third book in Akers’ Westside trilogy about Gilda Carr, a badass detective who investigates “tiny mysteries,” does have murder in it. But Gilda’s tiny mysteries are beyond that — they’re the type of puzzles that have us questioning our relationships, day-to-day actions, and choices late at night — because Gilda understands that murder is dangerous and best to stay away from when she can.
Since the release of Westside, the first book in the trilogy, the books have received rave reviews. Kirkus Reviews called Westside “addictively readable” and The New York Times said it was “superb,” later naming it a notable book of the year.
As Narratively’s former senior editor and longtime contributing writer, Akers has written pieces covering baseball player Tom “Shotgun” Rogers and one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, plus edited stories on topics ranging from real-life mermaids to ridiculous food fads.
In addition to his acclaimed novel series, Akers spends his days writing Strange Times, his newsletter that examines the wackiest stories from the 1921 New York Times, working as a writing coach, and creating Deadball —a tabletop baseball simulator.
Narratively sat down with Akers to talk about his trilogy.
I went through the pieces that you wrote for Narratively, and I saw that you like jazz, you graduated from NYU and that you’ve written a lot about baseball. Did any of this work influence the Westside trilogy?
Absolutely. Particularly Murder at the Tuxedo, the story about the murder in New Orleans which takes place around 1911. The research for that story played into the Westside books which take place about ten years later. So in creating the gangster underworld at the heart of the West Side [of Manhattan], a lot of the vibe comes from research that I did for that story.
When the reviews for your first book came out, did you feel like you had made it?
When the first book came out, it was really exciting. I got to do all this cool press: The New York Times really loved it, which made me feel like my head was gonna pop off. I got to [look at] a picture of myself in the newspaper. All of that was exceptionally cool. But it also felt like the thing that they’re talking about is the thing that I finished a year ago. And for me, when I finish working on a project, my brain has moved on within 48 hours.
[But still], when a book comes out, it’s really cool. You get to tell people about it; you get to hold the book in your hand. It’s kind of scary, because people are reading it for the first time. It takes a little bit of work to get back into the headspace of, what is this book about? Because I finished this months and months ago, I don’t even remember anymore.
In Westside Lights, Gilda Carr’s beloved is murdered, and she’s the prime suspect. Do those events relate to your life at all?
Well, I’ve never had a lover murdered; I’ve been very lucky in that respect. All of the stuff about Gilda waking up on a boat and her lover is murdered and all her friends have been essentially pulped, I made that up, but it is drawn in part from the gangs in New York that I leaned on for the inspiration there. But [in relation to] Gilda and her relationship to how she feels about murder, that’s the thing that’s really important to me.
It’s always been really important to me that in these books, murders don’t solve problems that can just create more problems; Gilda’s not a person who can just murder her way to a better reality. I think that in a lot of fiction, writers give their characters that as a “Get Out of Jail Free” pass — if you kill the bad guy, then your problem will go away. And there have been moments in the books when Gilda has killed, but it’s not a thing that she’s ever felt good about.
And it’s not a thing that has made her life easier. It just makes things worse. And I think that murder is like that in real life, too….I’ve tried to really hold myself to the position that murder is bad, even when it’s interesting. I think that’s a thing that most people would agree to be true, but then they let their characters get away with it.
Do you identify with Gilda Carr at all?
Gilda and I have a lot in common. I’ve taken the liberty of writing somebody who is a full expression of many of the qualities of myself that I tend to damp down in real life. So she’s extremely sarcastic, she’s impatient. She is no-nonsense in a way that [if you act like that] in real life, people think you’re a jerk. But a fictional character can do that all they want. She is extremely suspicious of technology. She doesn’t like most people, she doesn’t like new things. All of that is stuff that is within myself. It’s a lot about self-preservation, a hatred of violence, a hatred of murder and a desire to see right done in the world.
If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career and give yourself advice, what would you say?
Invest in Bitcoin in 2015. [Besides that], for a really long time, I’ve had a little piece of paper taped in front of my desk that says, “It’s not bad, it’s not boring, it’s just the first draft.” And I think that’s something that would have been great to have taped to my desk years earlier.
When you’re working on a first draft, you will often have those moments where you’re like, “This sucks.” And it might, and that’s okay—it’s not the finished product. It’s the first draft, you’re gonna keep working on it. It’s not like you’re baking a cake here — when you’re done, you get to go back to the beginning and keep going. If I made a cake that was the quality of my typical first drafts, that would be a very sad cake. Nobody would want to read it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Westside Lights is now available to purchase at the Narratively Bookshop.