Friday, January 18, 2013


 Another Q&A today.    This time with Chuck Hustmyre.   Chuck’s retired law enforcement who then began working as a journalist.   From there he wrote several non-fiction true crime books… then a novel… then a screenplay (HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN) which was produced last year.   His current project, THE AXMAN OF NEW ORLEANS, has been completed both as a novel and an adapted screenplay.

1.  Where did you first come across the story of the Axman of New Orleans?  Have there been any appearances in fiction prior to your novel?

CH:  I don't remember when I first heard of the axman. It seems he was always lurking there in the back of my mind. He has made a few appearances in books before, but other than a graphic novel, I think my book is the first one exclusively about the axman murders.

 2.  What research did you do on the story and where did you go?

CH:  I did a ton of research. I spent two solid weeks at the state library poring over microfilm copies of century old newspapers from New Orleans. I also spent time at the state archives. That is how I confirmed that Joseph Monfre was real and that he served time at Angola for dynamiting a grocery store. Then to confirm the shooting in Los Angeles in 1921, I had to search the archives of the L.A. Times. I have a giant file on the axman killings.

 3.  The story began as a novel and you've adapted it to a screenplay.  What were the challenges facing you in doing the adaptation?

CH:  The biggest challenge was how to present a series of murders that spanned nearly a decade in a condensed timeline and have it all fit into 120 pages.

 4.  You began news and feature reporting.  Then true crime non-fiction.  Then fiction.  How did the journalistic approach affect your fiction style?

CH:  I think the best training I had for screenwriting was being a journalist. Writing news articles teaches you how to write fast and tight. The lead in an article has to grab the reader's attention, just like the first images or scene in a screenplay. I don't think it is a coincidence that many top novelists began their careers as reporters. As an aside, now that the newspaper business is dying and the book business is in such turmoil, I think you will see more former reporters try their hand at screenwriting.
5. Are any characters in Axman composite characters or did all these folks exist?

CH:  I created the two man characters, Detective Colin Fitzgerald and reporter Emile Denoux. Almost all of the other characters are historical figures. I did change the names of one or two to protect the sensibilities of their real descendants. But the more disreputable figures from history, I left intact since I could not possibly damage their reputations anymore than they had already done themselves.

 6.  Which is more difficult to write: Screenplay or novel?   And why?

CH:  A novel is more difficult to write, mainly because novels are so long. A screenplay is about 18,000 words, whereas a novel is about 100,000. It takes a year to write a novel. But that doesn't mean that screenplays are easy. To tell a complete tale in 18,000 words is often quite a challenge. Novels give the author the space to do some meandering. Screenplays don't. A good script has to be tighter than Dick's hatband. As lean as a triathlete. There is just no room for fluff. Anything extraneous has to be excised.

 7.  How committed we're you to track the historical events?  This the "based on" or the "inspired by" true events version?

CH:  I kept everything real that I could. All of the murders are real. I tinkered with the timeline some, and I changed a few of the circumstances, but the basic story of the murders is quite real. What I created was the ending, but even that is based on the true story. If I had to put a number to it, I would say that my version is about 75% true to the facts.

 8. Is it possible for a writer to get "lost in research"?   How much time was put In prior to writing?    Did you consider doing it as True Crime?

CH:  I originally intended to write AXMAN as a nonfiction book. The problem was that there was just not enough of a historical record to write a complete book. Added to that, whatever official records existed were probably destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, since I know from personal experience that in New Orleans the clerk of court's archives were in the basement of the courthouse, which flooded during the storm. Still, while working on the novel I did an enormous amount of research. The biggest difference between the Axman research and the research I did for my two true crime books was that with the Axman case, there was no one to interview. The case is a hundred years old and everyone with direct knowledge of it is dead. That is why I went the fiction route. I wanted to tell the entire story, but for dramatic effect I needed to fill in the gaps in the history. And yes, writers can get "lost in research" and never actually start writing. Research continues through the writing, but once I have enough to understand the story, I start writing.

 9.  How did your background in law enforcement come into play telling the Axman story?

CH:  My law enforcement experience helped me understand the real story and tell it in a way that is true to life. Most writers don't know a gun from a gumshoe, and their writing shows it. I can't tell you how many times I have seen ridiculous police situations on screen or read them in books. I try to create circumstances that could actually happen. My characters are real people in extraordinary situations. They're not supermen or superwomen. No one dodges bullets.

 10.  New Orleans as a setting.  The unique race and culture juxtapositions in the story remind the reader how unique the city is.  How did the setting enhance your story?

CH:  I think New Orleans is part of the story. The city is another character. The culture, the ethnicity, the rampant corruption -- all play a part in the story.

 11.  You've been successful in getting five books into print and one film produced from your novel.  What's the future for Axman?   Advice to the fiction writer on landing an agent or first deal.  

CH:  The AXMAN novel was briefly on the Amazon bestseller list, but without a marketing campaign behind it, it remains a rather obscure novel, just like the Axman case itself. The Axman is America's Jack the Ripper, yet most people in New Orleans -- even most cops I've asked -- have not heard of the case. I'm hoping that as the book slowly picks up sales and as my manager shops the screenplay, the story can finally reach a wide audience. As far as getting your first deal, that's on the writer. No L.A. agent is going to even consider a screenwriter without a production credit. When I was a cop, I used to be the ram guy, the one who battered down the door while we executed search warrants. I take that same approach to selling my writing. If I come across a locked door, I break it down.

 12.  Your favorite scene from the book?

CH:  From the book and the script, I like scene in which Colin and Emile are riding around in Emile's boss's Ford Model T looking for the Axman on the fog-shrouded streets and they find him.

 13.  Other projects you have in the works.  Do you have another untold New Orleans story?

CH:  I have several scripts under option, but the one I'm most excited to see come to the screen is my contemporary JFK conspiracy thriller, THE ASSASSIN. I was born the day JFK was shot, about two hours after the assassination, so I have always been fascinated with the case. And it also has ties to New Orleans.

More interviews to come.   Thanks for reading.  /STH

CHUCK HUSTMYRE wrote the script for the 2011 Lionsgate movie "House of the Rising Sun," and the upcoming Lionsgate movie "End of the Gun." He is also the bestselling author of the books "Killer with a Badge," "A Killer Like Me," and "Unspeakable Violence." He can be reached at

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