“Once upon a time is hell.” The first line of the thriller Pyres sets the tone for 308 pages of death, deceit, and a closet full of skeletons that a fifteen-year-old girl must unearth in order to solve her father’s murder. Author Derek Nikitas’s first book has made an irreversible mark on the crime fiction genre. Recently having released his second book, The Long Division, Nikitas is making himself hard to ignore.
Although Nikitas now lives in Kentucky, many of his stories are set in the state where he grew up. Not only did New York heavily influence the settings, but it helped him set the ambience that permeates throughout his stories.
“My formative years were in New York. Pyres is partly a coming-of-age story, so it seemed natural for me to set it in New York. Since I’ve been writing crime noir, it also helps that Western New York is very cold, gray, and economically depressed—all good, depressing atmosphere.”
His passion for writing wasn’t something that simply developed in college; it had been blossoming since he was in grade school. Having a very lenient father, Nikitas was allowed to watch horror movies. Therefore, he created eerie stories, stemming from what he’d seen.
Although Nikitas’s environment and childhood played an enormous role in his novels and short stories, it wasn’t the only thing he was influenced by.
Real life details and situations are reflected throughout his writing. When asked how he developed such an intricate plot for his first novel, he recounts the numerous aspects that went into it.
“As for where the Pyres story came from, it’s a combination of several dozen disparate elements: sensational hitman crimes, Norse mythology and Swedish culture, motorcycle gangs, growing up in Western New York, charter fishing, my in-laws’s cabin in the woods, and much more,” Nikitas answers.
As with many writers, Nikitas also drew a lot from his favorite books and authors. Not unexpectedly, he pulled a lot of inspiration from horror novelist, Stephen King. Nikitas’s writing reflects much of King’s intricate plot twists, well-developed characters, and chapters full of suspense and chilling scenes.
“Dean Koontz, John Irving,” he says, listing some of his favorite authors.
When asked to pick his favorite novel, Nikitas, can’t pick just one.
“Just one? You’ll have to let me splurge with two, at least,” he says, naming Nabokov’s Lolita and James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.
Nikitas earned an undergraduate degree in English from the State University of New York College at Brockport, then decided to travel down the east coast to the University of North Carolina Wilmington to pursue his masters.
“I totally lucked out, in that I had such a transformative experience in what’s turning out to be one of the country’s best MFA programs.”
As Nikitas began his education at UNCW, he began to realize his passion for writing crime fiction.
“I fell for the stuff, madly. Crime is one genre where you can effectively combine the stylistic qualities of literary fiction with the plot elements of a fast-paced commercial story. Plus, the worldview and existential mood of much crime fiction was quite appealing to me. Even then, I was writing crime stories long before I would’ve ever defined them as such. People had to tell me I was writing crime stories.”
Although Nikitas says he’s been writing since he was in elementary school, he wasn’t immediately successful in the world of writing until he reached the age of twenty-five.
“I’d amassed at least a hundred rejection letters before I got my first break with The Ontario Review, run by Joyce Carol Oates and her husband Raymond Smith,” Nikitas admits. His work had been likened to Oates by other students. “I hoped she’d recognize a kindred spirit, and it worked.” Now, he admits that first publication was simply a step on his way to becoming the writer he wanted to be. “I wonder if there’s ever a time when a writer feels like he’s made it.”
After having published a short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, an editor at St. Martin’s Press spoke to Nikitas. He told Nikitas he really enjoyed the story and wondered if there was a novel in the works. He was in the process of writing Pyres, so he finished it and they bought it. Nikitas makes it unmistakably clear that he was unusually fortunate in how smooth this went.
“This is not the way things usually go. I was incredibly lucky, though I paid my rejection dues in the short story market (and still do).”
Nikitas didn’t have an agent when the St. Martin’s editor contacted him, however, he states that it’s fairly easy to get an agent once a publishing company shows interest in your writing.
“Before that, not so much,” he says. “Once St. Martin’s accepted the book, it was another eighteen months before the book came out—editing, copyediting, cover designs, etc. Except for the editing, this stage is largely out of the writer’s hands. You wait and wait and wait, and then it’s there, on the shelves (or virtual shelves, as is more commonly the case these days).”
“Before Pyres, I wrote a couple bad novels and at least a couple hundred-and-fifty-page bad novel fragments. I had an agent early on who contacted me after I published my second story in The Ontario Review. He taught me quite a bit about what was marketable, what would actually sell, for a first-time novelist. Having a likeable protagonist, narrative momentum, and a believable plot were my biggest hurdles. Pyres came out of those efforts, though even Pyres was rejected by the agent, who has since expressed his regret—a deliciously satisfying moment.”
Not one to fall on a simple, flat idea, Nikitas is a firm believer in that it takes a variety of ideas to make a novel intriguing, driven, and worth reading.
“That’s the key to novel writing I think—a whole bevy of ideas gestating next to one another, and then merging together,” he adds. “Even a short story is the combo of five or six ideas. Many stories fail because they’re founded on too thin or too one-dimensional a premise. The trick is to throw unrelated stuff together and watch the ingredients figure out how to form a whole (either in brainstorming or revising).”
It took Nikitas three and a half years of sporadic writing to finish Pyres, and a year and a half of more focused writing to finish The Long Division.
Now, Nikitas is teaching at Eastern Kentucky University in their Creative Writing MFA program. As an established author, Nikitas is looking forward to publishing his next novel, as well as branching out.
“My novel-in-progress is on a much larger scale than what I’ve done before…I’m also tossing around some film script projects, but with that world I’m still on the outside looking in.”
When asked about what his advice for prospective writers is, Nikitas is very clear about what it takes to be successful.
“The obvious: write as much as you possibly can, and learn how to revise as strategically as you can,” he says. “Read obsessively and diversely. Don’t focus on publication, as your apprenticeship will probably last at least a decade, if not a couple. Focus on writing well enough to impress yourself and strangers, and then try to get better. Getting better means writing lots of new things, not flogging the same dead horse for years. Talent is a manifestation of time invested on the job—reading and writing, strategically.”
Photo by Caroline Nikitas