Interview: Rich Zahradnik

Long and Short Reviews welcomes Rich Zahradnik whose debut novel Last Words was release last fall by Coffeetown Enterprises. It’s the first of a series featuring Coleridge Taylor, a journalist who has been demoted to writing obits after a previous source he used proved to be unreliable. It began as a “what if…?” What if a big-time police reporter were forced to do the dull work of obituaries, always dealing with the dead but never pursuing the why of their deaths.

Rich himself is a former long-term reporter, so we asked him to describe his journalistic experience compared to his character’s.

“Taylor obviously came up earlier than I did at a different time for newspapers. I started in the suburbs, while he’s always been in the city. He’s covered police stories far more than I ever did. Much of my career was in media and business journalism. I think Taylor is a much more tenacious reporter than me, braver even, doing anything to get the story. That’s what’s important to him. Other things have always competed with journalism in my life, including writing fiction.”

Music also plays a big part of the story, with Coleridge Taylor mentioning music often. The author admits he likes most of the music that Taylor does, but he found out about a lot of the groups later than Taylor did, because the author was in high school from 1974-78.

“My group of friends and I thought we were mired in a musical wasteland, disco on the one side and hair bands (Styx, Foreigner, Kansas) on the other. Punk had not reached Poughkeepsie, so I did not become a fan of that music until I reached college, when I discovered the Talking Heads, the Police, and the Ramones. I also became a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen, who was neither punk, nor hair band, just real. My three favorite songs:

1. Thunder Road
2. Pyscho Killer
3. Sweet Jane (with the Intro)”

“When Laura and Taylor go out for drinks, the song “Gloria” by Patti Smith is playing in the background. What made you choose that song for them?” I asked.

“I loved Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” and I wanted to have Patti Smith singing a song from ’75 that she did sing and most readers would know.”

The author set the book in 1975 because there were striking parellels to America today.

“Then as now, an unpopular war was finally coming to its sad end. A major institution, the city itself, tumbled toward bankruptcy, threatening a cataclysm on the entire financial system. This as banks and ratings agencies ignored the warning signs or willfully misled the public,” he explained. “I chose this time period for the differences as well as the similarities. Solving a mystery in 1975 required good old-fashioned legwork and serious brainwork, rather than science fiction-like instant DNA typing and surveillance video available from any and every angle. Taylor has to find a pay phone when he needs to call someone. There’s something satisfying in that for me.”

Part of the challenge of writing this book was that for a good part of it, Rich was also working full time, so there were days he might only write half a page, which was very discouraging to him.

“I thought I’d never finish,” he admitted. “The second was thinking that since I lived through 1975 I wouldn’t have to do a lot of research. I was wrong about that. It was all the little details that needed checking. Like when did the cost of a pay phone or subway token go up. I learned a lot more about what a terrible beautiful mess Times Square was at the time than I could fit in. Some was cut; some I couldn’t even use. Things like the signage, the history of some of the restaurants. I could have written pages alone on the Horn & Hardart Automat and bored everyone but myself.”

“Did anything surprise you as were writing LAST WORDS?”

“Characters who came out of nowhere and became interesting and important. How grim 1975 really was. Time has a way of mellowing things. I remember the mid-Seventies as a difficult period, but I was a kid so I wasn’t really plugged into how terrible things were in New York and the country. Gas shortages. Inflation. Unemployment. Crime. The South Bronx burning.”

“Taylor carries a hefty literary name being named after the English Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge. What inspired you to connect Taylor to the English Romantic poet?”

“Taylor has a poor relationship with his father, an alcoholic English professor. His father gave him that name, and Taylor hates the ornamentation of it. Doesn’t much like his father either. Journalism is pretty much the opposite of poetry. I liked the name for all the contradictions it implies. I’m a huge fan of Morse and really wanted to go the one-last-name-only route, but didn’t want to be too much of copycat. This was my compromise.”

Finally, I asked, “If you could go back in time, when and where would you go? Why?”

“I’m obsessed with time travel stories. In fact, I’m writing a time travel novel for middle graders. It’s hard to pick one, but if I had to, the time of Christ. His life affected all of Western Civilization, the entire glove. I’d like to see what really happened during that period. Either that or my own childhood, to see everything I’ve forgotten.”

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1_22 mystery last_words_300In March of 1975, as New York City hurtles toward bankruptcy and the Bronx burns, newsman Coleridge Taylor roams police precincts and ERs. In LAST WORDS by Rich Zahradnik (Camel Press, $12.49 paperback; $4.95 Kindle), Taylor searches for the story that will deliver him from obits, his place of exile at the Messenger-Telegram. Ever since he was demoted from the police beat for inventing sources, the 34-year-old has been a lost soul. A break comes at Bellevue, where Taylor views the body of a homeless teen picked up in the Meatpacking District. Taylor smells a rat: the dead boy looks too clean and he’s wearing a distinctive Army field jacket. A little digging reveals that the jacket belonged to a hobo named Mark Voichek and that the teen was a spoiled society kid up to no good, the son of a city official. Taylor’s efforts to learn Voichek’s secret put him on the hit list of three goons who are willing to kill any number of street people to cover tracks that just might lead to City Hall. Taylor has only one ally in the newsroom, young and lovely reporter Laura Wheeler. Time is not on his side. If he doesn’t wrap this story up soon, he’ll be back on the obits page—as a headline, not a byline, in Rich Zahradnik’s LAST WORDS.

About the Author: 1_22 mystery Rich_Zahradnik_imageRICH ZAHRADNIK is the author of the Coleridge Taylor Mystery series published by Camel Press. He was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. He held editorial positions at CNN, Bloomberg News, Fox Business Network, AOL and The Hollywood Reporter, often writing news stories and analysis about the journalism business, broadcasting, film production, publishing and the online industry.
In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a first-of-its-kind program run by New York’s Center for Fiction. He has been a media entrepreneur throughout his career. He was the founding executive producer of, a leading financial news website and a Webby winner; managing editor of, and a partner in the soccer-news website company Goal Networks. Zahradnik received his B.A. in journalism and political science from George Washington University.

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