Interview with Kevin Michaels

What is Still Black Remains all about?

Still Black Remains is an original work of fiction. It tells the story of Twist, one of the leaders of an inner city gang named the Skulls, and the architect of his gang’s decision to kidnap a mafia soldier in a last-ditch attempt to end a violent turf war. The war started when the Skulls tried taking a bigger piece of the drug business in their Newark, New Jersey neighborhood from the organized crime family who had once been their partners. Like most great ideas, the plan doesn’t turn out as expected. Negotiations between the gangs deteriorate, words fail, the violence escalates, and the only recourse left is the inevitable execution of the hostage. Chosen to be the one to execute the prisoner, the story covers Twist’s ability to pull the trigger, the consequences of that action, and his internal struggle. As the volatile situation grows more explosive by the hour, the lines between right and wrong blur; resolution comes with a price and Twist has to decide if pulling the trigger will get him what he wants, and if he can live with that cost.

What is the theme of Still Black Remains?

The central theme developed in “Still Black Remains” is the struggle of a different generation trying to realize the American Dream against all odds, and through any means possible. If the American Dream is the guiding belief of this country – the set of ideals like democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality – that says everyone has the opportunity for prosperity and success (as well as social mobility), the characters in the book have learned that hard work by itself will never help them achieve what they want. They have to work outside the system to get what they want. The inner city landscape where they live is filled with desperation, anger, and a sense of futility and in many cases violence is both the solution to problems and the result of problems. Actions – no matter what’s involved or who gets hurt – are justified as being “part of the game.” For Twist, it’s a struggle between his own individual desires and the subordination to the Skulls’ goals and needs.

How do you develop your plots and characters?

As a writer, your goal is to tell the story brick by brick and let it build organically. It starts by creating a plot based on “what if” questions that set things in motion – in the case of Still Black Remains that’s imagining a scenario between an organized crime family and a newer street gang who controlled distribution and now want to carve out a bigger piece of the pie for themselves. Putting that conflict between the old and the new into play, then letting the action build as each side tries gaining an advantage. I knew where I want to go with the story – I always create a rough outline/blue print before starting, but part of the fun in writing are the detours that happen along the way as the story changes in unexpected ways.

You need to create interesting characters who get the readers’ attention AND move the story forward. It’s all about motivation. To me, character development and the things that motivate each of them are the most important aspects of any story. As a writer, you need to fully understand what drives each character to tell a realistic story.

Although sometimes the characters surprise you and take the story in directions you don’t necessarily plan, and sometimes you discover someone who takes on more importance as the story develops. Twist was actually in a few scenes in a book I wrote called Lost Exit, then he showed up again in another story, and even though that short story went nowhere, he was memorable enough that I wanted to use him again. He was only a minor character in the first draft of Still Black Remains but there was something about him that gave the story a spark and made it come alive and I wound up rewriting the book based on his POV. Each character has a specific purpose in the story – there are very few throw-aways or characters who don’t move the story forward in one way or another – but I found that as I wrote, each personality developed in ways that were unexpected (I knew who Cuba was, but the level of his anger and violence surprised me, although nothing he did or said was out of character). 

What was your favorite part of writing Still Black Remains?

My favorite parts of writing Still Black Remains were the scenes between Twist and Michael Valentine – that dynamic between them was interesting to create and fun to explore. As they get to know each other they find some commonality and shared similarities in each of their lives. Each of them found a sense of belonging – Twist with the Skulls while Valentine got the same thing with his organized crime family – and as their relationship grows, they learn that in some ways they aren’t so different. Twist finds that Michael Valentine understands him better than some of the Skulls do – even with their differences they almost grow to like each other. Friendship will always be out of the question because their backgrounds and differences are too pronounced, but in another place they might have had a different kind of relationship.

Actions usually speak louder than words, but putting Twist and Valentine together in that room over the garage on Murray Street allowed me to strip away everything else and build their relationship solely through dialogue.

And of course, finishing a book gives a sense of accomplishment like nothing else, so there was that, too.

Give us some insight into your main character. What does he do that is special? What are his character flaws?

Twist was born in an inner city and he’s a product of that environment. He grew up in a gang culture with brothers who were involved in the Skulls, and part of his early development was selling drugs as a corner boy. But he’s smarter than the others and has dreams of getting out of the “game” and becoming a businessman. He’s insightful enough to see that his future on the street is limited, and there are only two career paths – either dead or in jail. More than anything, he wants normalcy which is something he has never known his entire life. In a world where actions happen without deep thought or much personal reflection, he is more thoughtful and less reactionary than the guys in the Skulls. He takes things more personally which is both a strength and a weakness (unlike Bone and Cuba- his two contemporaries, he is unable to be cold and distanced).

I think Twist is smart, compassionate, and purposeful — he cares deeply for Malik, and wanted him to stay out of the Skulls and find a better life than the one he could have had in the Skulls. He recognizes Malik’s strengths and tried looking out for him, and Malik’s kidnapping is personal for Twist. Finding Malik (or at least learning what happened to him) drives him and is the undercurrent in his relationship with Michael Valentine. He cares for Maria too, but he can’t show her the kind of love she expects because he’s focused on Malik. The fact that Twist is engaged in some pretty heinous criminal behavior doesn’t make him a bad person – he has some qualities that readers will find heroic and hopefully have them rooting for him.

If you could spend time with a character from your book, which character would it be? And what would you do during that day?

Since most of the characters in Still Black Remains are criminals, it limits activities and things we might do together – I certainly wouldn’t want to be part of their everyday activities. But if I had to choose one character to spend some time with, it might be Cooper – the ex-cop who sold the Skulls their guns. He has a tremendous back story that we only touch on in the book – he’s an ex-cop whose father was also on the job, but he’s been forced out of the police force and now deals guns to whoever will buy them. In some ways, he would be a great anti-hero, lacking conventional qualities like morality and idealism to be a gun-dealing samurai. No convictions. No alliances. The only thing he’s about is getting his price.

I could imagine sitting in a small hole-in-the-wall bar at the Jersey Shore, trading shots of Jack Daniels and drinking Budweiser while talking about his life, the things he’s seen, and the things he’s done both on and off the job.

Tell us about the conflict in this book. What is at stake for your characters?

The obvious conflict involves the drug and turf war between the Skulls and the organized crime family who have been supplying them for years. That’s all about power and money – the side that wins gets to control the streets, carve out a bigger piece of the neighborhood, and take a larger share of the profits. In their New Jersey neighborhood that’s what the game is all about.

But for Twist it’s deeper than that.

His conflict is much more personal – it’s about using Michael Valentine’s kidnapping to get Malik back, or at least find out information about where he’s being held. Malik is someone who deeply matters to Twist; he saw potential in him – Malik has skills and abilities that would be wasted in the Skulls (the same way Twist’s abilities and potential have been wasted), and Twist doesn’t want him to be just another casualty of the streets. What’s at stake for Twist is his soul – he’s forced to wrestle with the question of whether or not he can pull the trigger to kill Valentine and if he does, live with those consequences. The heart of the conflict has Twist questioning the limits of his own capacity for violence, struggling to confront the differences between vengeance and valor.  The lines between right and wrong blur so much that they are almost indistinguishable and while resolution will come with a price, Twist has to decide if he can live with that cost.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Still Black Remains?

Even though there’s violence throughout the book (after all, it deals with inner city life and a gang war based on drug trade), there are moments where it’s still about people and their feelings for each other. Twist genuinely cares about Maria and Angel, and he thinks about getting out of the game while taking them out of Newark, but he’s incapable of showing that in ways that work for her. He saw something special in Malik and took him under his wing, trying to steer him away from the kind of world he and his brothers lived in – he knows there are only two outcomes to that life (dead or in prison), and he wants more than that for Malik. Eddie Dallas loves and protects his mother and sisters by sheltering them from the world he lives and works in. And for all of Bone’s toughness and hard edges, he mourns his brother and is motivated by revenge for his death.

What I found surprising was that at the core of the book (and my writing) it’s all about the human experience each of us shares. When you dig down underneath surface differences, we are all human beings no matter what our backgrounds. And all of us want essentially the same things at our core. We want to love and be loved. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. We want to feel that what we do with our lives has meaning. I didn’t expect to see that in the characters when I created Still Black Remains.

How do you choose which genre to write in?

I think the genre chose me. I didn’t set out to write a story in the crime fiction category – I wanted to examine life in an America’s inner city and explore the conflict that arises in the neighborhoods, like David Simon did in “Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets”. I started with the idea of exploring the question of what would happen if somebody was put in a situation where he had to make a decision whether someone else lived or died. And if he could live with that decision and the consequences of that decision. The book grew from that concept.

Of all the characters you have created, which is your favorite and why?

Cuba was probably the easiest to write – from the moment I wrote him into that first scene in the Expedition, I could picture everything about him. He does not have much in the way of inner motivations and there’s very little inner conflict with him because it’s all about achieving what he wants by any way possible. Cuba is equal parts rage and pain, which makes him incapable of throttling back anything. His world has always been filled with black and white – there are no grey areas with him, and violence is a perfectly acceptable solution to almost any problem.

But my favorite character is Eddie Dallas. There is so much to like about him – not just his sense of humor or his rock and roll roots or the attitude he carries from scene to scene, but his perspective on everything that is happening with the Skulls. He is Twist’s best friend which gives him deeper insight into Twist’s fears and motivations, and in a world filled with people that can’t be trusted, he’s the only person Twist can truly trust and someone who has Twist’s back, no matter how bad the situation gets. He’s a deeper character than both Cuba and Bone who are “live-for-the-moment” kind of guys – thoughtful, respectful, and protective (not only of Twist but his mother and sisters, too).

Tell us about your background. What made you decide to pursue writing?

I was an avid reader as a kid – I read any and every book I could get my hands on, and I always loved the way writers created their own universe to tell their stories. I loved the power of imagination – as a writer you could tell any story you wanted.

I wrote in high school and college (school newspapers and magazines), although it wasn’t until a few years ago after a career as a corporate warrior that I decided to pursue my dream of writing fulltime. I had written off and on for a few years while working, but never pursued it seriously. It comes down to that desire and need to write or tell a story. Writing gives me complete satisfaction and in a lot of ways, creates the kind of happiness I had always been seeking and never found in business.   Throughout all the years I worked in the corporate world I felt that dissatisfaction gnawing at me, and I knew I would never be happy until I pursued my dream. I can’t imagine finding happiness doing something other than writing.

A writing career isn’t like being a rock star or a movie actor – very few writers show up in the headlines, wind up on the cover of People, or get interviewed on Entertainment Tonight. But that’s not why you write – you write because you have stories you want AND need to tell to any audience that will read what you’ve created. It’s a need to be a storyteller.

My only regret is that I didn’t choose this path earlier.

What is your writing process?

I write every day. I need that kind of discipline, and even if much of what I write changes, I am constantly writing. And I’m always thinking about the next story or the next book. I overhear conversations and listen to dialogue, and imagine those same words being said by characters in different scenarios and scenes. I still write my initial drafts by hand, and I can’t break that habit because there’s a certain comfort in physically putting words down on paper.  My ideas start slowly in the back of my mind. A feeling, a scene, maybe even just a line that I want to hear a character say. Then I build an entire book around that – usually with an outline, although sometimes the characters and the action will take me in different directions. It’s a step by step and piece by piece process. It can take weeks or months for that initial idea to grow into a full-blown plot, and the slow pace can drive me nearly insane.

I grew up in a little town not too far from Atlantic City, and I’m one of those few people you’ll meet who is proud of being from New Jersey.   I spent a number of years living at the Jersey Shore. New Jersey is a tremendous source of inspiration in my writing…..there’s such a wide variety of people, backgrounds, life styles, and cultures mixed together. I think living in the shadows of New York and Philadelphia gives most of us who grew up in New Jersey a little bit of an “attitude”, and that’s the kind of characteristic that sneaks into my characters’ actions and my stories.

Tell us about the challenges of getting your book published. How did it come about?

It was challenging finding the right publisher for Still Black Remains. I needed a publisher who was willing to take a little bit of a risk on something that was outside the mainstream and didn’t fall within a specific genre. That was the biggest obstacle – Still Black Remains doesn’t have a clearly defined niche or category like horror, fantasy, or romance. There’s more broad-based appeal to the story and it crosses over between different genres like contemporary fiction as well as crime fiction. Agents and editors who first read the book felt it was a strong story but they didn’t know how to position it in the market or where to target the audience (most were afraid it would fall through the cracks). The other issue that came up was voice- most of the characters in Still Black Remains are black, and I was told that some publishers might be reluctant to publish the book because I wasn’t black (assuming that only a black writer could write and market a book from that POV….which is idiotic because that would mean only women could write books featuring women characters, only real cowboys could write westerns, and only zombies could write about the zombie apocalypse. That kind of belief and attitude diminishes and dismisses a writer’s creativity and ability to imagine).

Literary Wanderlust appealed to me for a number of reasons. I think the diversity of the writers who are published by Literary Wanderlust speaks volumes about their approach. I wanted a publisher who would invest in the book and invest me as an author. Their business model keeps overhead low and allows them to take more risks with newer and mid-list authors, and I was encouraged by their feedback when I initially submitted the manuscript. Their editors worked closely with me to help tighten the story, making it much stronger and focused – their recommendations made the characters’ POV clearer, heightened the conflict, and ultimately made the book better. The Literary Wanderlust team came up with a viable marketing plan so that the book won’t get lost on book shelves and will find its audience. From the beginning we have worked together as true partners, and I have felt that my success is their success.

What is your favorite genre to read?

I’ve always loved crime fiction, and when I was younger I fell in love with stories by writers like Donald Westlake, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, and John MacDonald, then discovered Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, and Robert B. Parker. Now I enjoy reading Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Gillian Flynn, and Megan Abbott. Each of them are great at moving their stories forward with every word and scene – there’s no wasted action or useless dialogue between characters (you never find two characters just sitting around talking about the weather – unless it’s central to the plot of story). Dialogue has always been an important component of my writing and writers of crime fiction write some of the best dialogue you’ll find at the bookstore. Elmore Leonard is a perfect example of that kind of writer – his writing sounds the way people talk and rings true. There’s a rhythm and cadence in that kind of dialogue that has always appealed to me.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are your favorite books?

There is a world of authors I admire, starting with writers of crime fiction like Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Lawrence Block, and Wallace Stroby who have that sparse, clean economy of words. Their descriptions are vivid and powerful, and they don’t use a lot of words to create images that are impactful (the same way Hemingway and Mailer did years ago). Some of my other favorites are Sam Shepherd, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, Pete Dexter, Don WInslow, and Dan Jenkins. And in terms of sheer poetry and beauty in both style and words, I love Toni Morrison, Pat Conroy, and Maya Angelou.   There’s a certain beauty in the writing of Pat Conroy that is awe-inspiring – he is so vivid and paints incredible images with his words (“Prince of Tides” and “South of Broad” take my breath away…I read “South of Broad” and remember being so envious of not only the beauty of his words, but the grace and style of the imagery in everything he wrote. There are times when you sit back as a writer, admire what someone else has written, and just say, “Damn….I wish I could write like that.” That was one of those times).

I also think Bruce Springsteen is one of the great story tellers out there – and if Bob Dylan can win a Nobel for his body of work, you have to recognize the talent in the stories Springsteen writes. There is some much feeling in his songs about everyday life (the pain, sorrow, heart break as well as what it means to get up every day, get dressed, go to work, and provide for your family – even at the cost of your dreams). When I was younger I loved Kerouac for his sense of adventure and jack London. And now list of great writers would be complete without Hunter Thompson, Jon Krakauer, and Sebastian Junger. 

What other projects are you working on?

I have two other novels in the pipeline – the first that I’m finishing is one entitled “All Those Yesterdays” which is about domestic violence crossing three generations of a family.   Domestic violence is a subject that I’ve actively written about over the past few years, and this book allows me to not only explore the topic in detail but to feature a strong female character at the heart of the story. In my other books I haven’t had the opportunity to do that, and it’s been exciting creating that kind of character will giving voice to an epidemic that affects individuals in every community, regardless of age, economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality. The second is tentatively entitled “A Steady Rain” and falls within the more traditional crime fiction category (“Breaking Bad” meets “Justified” with a touch of “Winter’s Bone” and “A Simple Plan”)

Do you have a day job in addition to being a writer? If so, what do you do during the day?

I run a community based organization called Story Tellers that develops literacy through the art of writing. We started a few years ago in Asbury Park, New Jersey and within the past eighteen months have expanded into Georgia. Using reading, group exercises, and one on one mentoring, Story Tellers provides under-served teenagers and young adults the opportunity to write their own stories which can inspire them to discover the strength and power of their own voices. The goal of the program is to develop literacy, self-expression, and self-esteem.

Self empowerment through self-expression.

What motivates you to write?

It’s very simple: I love writing. There is unimaginable power and enjoyment in using imagination and creativity to tell stories – writing makes me feel complete.

I think Hemingway said it best: “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”

Why did you write Still Black Remains and what was your inspiration?

One of the most meaningful books I ever read was Dawn by Elie Wiesel. I first read it in high school along with Night, and found it powerful, moving, and compelling. In the book, Elisha, the protagonist, lost his family in the concentration camps and in the aftermath of WWII he joins the armed struggle for the foundation of a Jewish state, thereby hoping to contribute to the creation of a new homeland. At the same time he sees in his comrades a family unit offering him comfort and trust. However, his world is turned upside down and his new sense of purpose is shaken when he is ordered to shoot a British hostage. Elisha survived the terror of Nazi concentration camps only to be ordered to become an executioner himself? Dawn addresses how someone can be haunted and ultimately changed by trauma; it looks at the philosophical questions of when does killing become murder and how exactly does murder (or the possibility of being a murderer) change a person. I liked that question of “does the end justify the means”, even it involves the death of someone else.

Who did you write Still Black Remains for (audience)?

I didn’t write Still Black Remains for any one particular audience or demographic (which might explain why it was more difficult to initially find the right publisher – I might have had more options if I had chosen a genre like YA, Horror, or Science Fiction that has a specific audience). I wrote “Still Black Remains” because it was a story I wanted/needed to tell – even if no one else wanted to read it.   If I tried shaping the book toward a particular segment of the audience when I began writing it, I might have been tempted to change the voice, or soften the language, or minimize some of the violence. It is a gritty story. Life in neighborhoods like the one where the book is set is gritty and violent and harsh. I wouldn’t want to sanitize “Still Black Remains” or try to turn an “R-rated” story PG to find a broader audience.

But now that Still Black Remains is finished, I think it can find an audience with both younger and older readers. The same demographic who watched and enjoyed gritty, realistic dramas like “Breaking Bad”, “The Sopranos”, “The Wire”, and “Empire” should enjoy “Still Black Remains”.

Where can we find you online? 


Twitter:       @KMWriter01

Instagram: KMWriter01


I post my fiction along with periodic writing updates at A Cold Rush of Air, and I can be found at my other blog: Sliding Down the Razor’s Edge to offer my opinion and POV on topics not too earth-shattering in size, scope, or detail. And those few people who really want to know more are always welcome to email me at

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

You need to write – every day. And you need to keep writing. And when you’re not writing, read. Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

Never stop trying to improve and never stop working at your craft – the most important thing you need to do is to keep writing. If you want to write realistic dialogue you have to listen – every conversation has a certain style and flow, and as a writer you need to capture that and reflect it in the dialogue your characters use. Keep working at it and never allow yourself to get complacent or careless. Then edit. Revise and review what you’ve written, and don’t be afraid to make changes, even when they are drastic. Make the book as tight and error-free as possible. Edit ruthlessly. Don’t be afraid to cut out the parts that don’t work. Then finish what you’ve started – the best advice I got was this:

“You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.”

Don’t give up. And don’t let somebody else tell you that you can’t do something. Take rejection as a motivator – learn from it, work hard, and study the craft and keep trying to get better.

What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?

Good writing starts with conflict. Without conflict there’s no reason to read a story – conflict is the engine that drives everything forward (otherwise you just have a lot of dialogue and pretty scenes and a group of characters just drifting form page to page). Norman Mailer once said, “I got a sense of the power of restraint from Hemingway…I learned the power of simple language in English. He showed what a powerful instrument English is if you keep the language simple.” I try to follow that approach in my own writing. And your story needs a unique voice – don’t try to be someone else. There was only one Hemingway. And one Faulkner. And one Fitzgerald. Writers who try to copy someone else are rarely good enough to imitate someone else with any degree of success.

I keep a copy of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing taped in front of me while I write – they may not be appropriate for every writer, but I’ve found that his rules work for me:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

His most important rule is one that sums up the 10: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Any last thoughts?

People always want to know if I’m that guy on “Breaking Bad”…… it would be cooler if they thought I was Brad Pitt or George Clooney…..

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