Creative Embers: Francis Sparks on ‘Made Safe’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m joined in cyber chat by Francis Sparks.

Francis is the debut novelist of Made Safe (Pandamoon Publishing), the first book in the Moses Winter Mysteries. He also has a story (“Twenty Steps) featured in The Great Tome of Darkest Horrors and Unspeakable Evils, Volume 2. Francis grew up on a farm in Iowa, and fell in love with reading upon discovering TSR/Wizard of the Coast’s treasure trove of fantasy novels as a middle schooler. Then, working as a library assistant in college, he came across the works of Raymond Chandler and developed a love of mystery/detective stories. It was in his thirties that he began pursuing writing seriously. Francis currently makes his home in Des Moines with his wife and children, where he’s hard at work on revising a secret project and also contemplating the next Moses Winter book.

Francis Sparks
Francis Sparks

Praise for Made Safe:

“Francis Sparks’ MADE SAFE is a gripping, fast-paced and hard hitting thriller. Sparks’ depiction of the gritty underbelly of the heartland will grab you by the throat and not let go. Hold on tight for a wild ride.”—Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence

“Fans of hard-boiled detective novels will love MADE SAFE. A tough, smart, dogged PI in Moses Winter.; a set-up that jumps to life from page 1; dialogue that snaps, mobsters, suspect cops, and femme fatales, MADE SAFE has it all.”—Eric Rickstad, New York Times bestselling author of The Silent Girls

“MADE SAFE by Francis Sparks is an original, riveting, deftly written, and impressively crafted novel depicting the gritty underbelly of the American heartland. Clearly, as a novelist, Sparks is a master of the crime thriller genre.”—Midwest Book Review

From the publisher:

For Private Investigator, Moses Winter, the job just got more complicated. His adultery case has taken a violent turn landing the subject of his investigation, Fred Dunsmore, in the hospital and Moses in jail. Moses is held for questioning along with his erratic client, Sharon Dunsmore, and Fred’s mistress, a Bosnian refugee who just happens to be related to the DCI agent investigating the case, Raif Rakic.

After Rakic secures their release, Fred goes missing, and Moses Winter finds himself compelled to find him. With the assistance of Rakic, Moses unravels Fred’s ties to Des Moines’s underworld and is forced to confront the most heinous crimes of his career.

Made Safe

Now, Francis Sparks reveals his creative journey and inspirations …

John Valeri: What was the impetus for writing Made Safe – and how did you find crafting your debut novel to compare to expectations? Is there one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the very beginning?

Francis Sparks: I started out having no idea what I was doing or where the story was going. I spent a long time figuring out how I write. I think I knew pretty early that writing was going to be a daily challenge but I don’t think I expected the process to take as long as it did. I think my level of naiveté worked in my favor in some respects. I did some things right by accident and eventually powered through to the first draft and then worked on revisions until I couldn’t anymore.

I didn’t know when I started that I don’t do well outlining or plotting in advance. I think knowing that and not trying to make myself do something or be something that I’m not would have been helpful but really there’s no way to know until you try. Is that something Yoda said?

JV: You have dual protagonists in Moses Winter and Raif Rakíc. In what ways did you endeavor to have these characters play off of one another – and how do you see their dynamic as transcending the antagonism that often characterizes such relationships?

FS: Raif wasn’t in the early drafts of Made Safe. He is that clichéd story of a character that kept popping up and demanding more attention that you hear all the time but he really did keep doing that to me. I gave him a chapter and then another until it was to the point that he was almost level with Moses in terms of “page time”. I think Raif was needed as a counterbalance to Moses. I don’t go into Moses’ past at all but I do with Raif. I see Moses as more of an observer, a white hat whereas Raif deals in shades of gray. Raif is much more conflicted by his past and the choices he has to make between career and family.

JV: You use Iowa as the backdrop to the story. In your opinion, how does setting enhance narrative – and in what way(s) did your intimate knowledge of the area benefit its telling?

FS: I think the setting is very important. In Made Safe an early and bitter Iowa winter adds another layer of danger and uncertainty to situations that are already fraught with both. I think stories set in L.A. and New York are great. I actually just finished a novel set in NYC called You Belong To Me by Colin Harrison and loved it. But I think this comes back to the old adage: write what you know. I know Iowa and I know Des Moines and I think I can tell much better stories about Iowa and the people that live there than a more traditional setting for a crime novel like Chicago, New York or L.A.

JV: What social issues inspired your plot – and how can fiction be a powerful lens through which to explore factual realities?

FS: Human trafficking is the central issue of Made Safe. In researching the novel, I found a lot of very disturbing information and anecdotes on the process of turning a human being into a sex slave. It is both sickening and infuriating that something so basic as human liberty is taken from children for the basest of human desires and that it happens every minute in the United States and around the world.

I wanted to make the reader confront the topic directly in the hopes that they will get beyond terms like trafficking and prostitution and see it for what it really is. Slavery. Fiction is an incredibly powerful tool in achieving an awakening of empathy for other people and the struggles they have. It is very easy for someone to think “Can’t happen here” or “They were troubled youths” when the people are abstract but when you assign faces, names, thoughts, and words to those same people it is much different. Reading is powerful because you take on the perspective of that character and in a way what happens to the character happens to the reader.

JV: You developed a love of fantasy novels at an early age and later discovered the books of Raymond Chandler. In what ways has your reading life inspired your writing life – and how do those influences find their way into your work?

FS: Fantasy novels were my gateway drug into reading and helped me through a difficult adolescence. I could completely escape into a book and tune out the real world. I graduated on to Hemingway and later Chandler and then discovered Zadie Smith and then back to fantasy with Harry Potter.

I always wanted to be a writer but didn’t think it was possible. I think Hemingway and Chandler made me think maybe I could be a writer with the seductive way in which their writing seems effortless.

I saw a PBS interview with Zadie Smith in my last semester in college and devoured White Teeth. She’s incredible. In almost every Hemingway book there is a tidbit about the writing process. Chandler gave me my first literary hard-boiled detective and how wonderfully engaging that genre could be.

Zadie Smith.

She is one that you sort of look at yourself and think, have I wasted my time? Lou Berney is a writer that currently makes me ask that question with his detective novel called The Long and Faraway Gone set in Oklahoma City.

You should write what matters.

Did I answer the question? Reading is everything.

JV: Leave is with a teaser: What comes next?

FS: I can say that I am in the final stages of revising a completely different writing project, I fell into something totally out of my comfort zone, and I’ll begin working on the second Moses Winter book very soon. I’m definitely busy!


With thanks to Francis Sparks for his generosity of time and thought.


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