Barry Hoffman is a veteran author who isn’t afraid to speak or write his mind when it comes to the darker, more troubled side of society’s core. Founder of the Bram Stoker award-winning specialty press, Gauntlet Press, Barry is well known for his Eyes series and several outstanding stand-alone novels such as Track of My Eyes and, most recently, Silent Scream. Never one to shy from controversy, Hoffman often pushes the envelope on the personal turmoil of his characters while navigating them through the streets of Philadelphia, whether it’s to track down human monsters or fight to survive a force that’s not quite human at all.
Hoffman’s latest offering, Silent Scream, explores the aftermath of a brutal crime within an inner-city complex. In the lobby where everyone could and did see a young girl get raped, nobody bothers to lift a finger to help or otherwise intervene. When the cops arrived, nobody said a thing, not even as a series of strange and savage murders began to link themselves to that one horrible incident.
In between stories and producing highly sought after, collectable books, Hoffman took the time to chat with me about the real-life genesis for Silent Scream, why the topics of sexuality and equality are so important to him, and plenty more in between.
(Interview conducted by Rick Hipson)
CEMETERY DANCE: Barry, I understand your latest novel, Silent Scream, was inspired by a real-life tragedy. What can you tell us about that and how it impacted what you wrote?
BARRY HOFFMAN: In 1964 (my last year at college) Kitty Genovese was attacked and murdered in Queens, New York, while onlookers in an apartment looked on. Nobody came to her aid. As most of my books are inspired by the headlines I was shocked by the attack. I wrote a short story based on the incident, but I was haunted by the attack (I believe there was a similar attack on a Boston bridge many years later). Fifty years later I found a novel where I could focus on a fictional attack. The focus of the novel is not on the teen who assaulted the main character, but those in a tenement who looked on and did nothing to help the victim.
No doubt, learning about Kitty Genovese’s attack angered you and got your gears turning on how to speak out about it through your work. At what point did you know you had enough to sit down and wrote out the novel you did?
As I mentioned, I first wrote a short story based on the incident. It merited more. A few years ago I decided to write a novel which explored some secondary characters from my writing about the Philadelphia police force. I had the characters I wanted to focus upon but needed a plot. The Kitty Genovese attack plotline allowed for the interaction I wanted between these characters. I was able to give the Kitty Genovese attack its due.
How much fun was it to revisit some old friends from the Pennsylvania police force and explore their background through the flashbacks you incorporated into the story?
A large number of my novels in some way, shape or form touch upon the homicide unit of the Philadelphia Police Department. It makes sense that characters from one novel would appear in other novels. I really enjoyed these characters interacting with one another. Some make only a cameo appearance, as I am constantly creating new characters, but others play a major role as secondary characters. I have a pretty vast number of characters I can call upon in future books — a newspaper reporter, an ICU nurse who had once been a therapist, a slew of detectives, private investigators and bureaucrats from the police department and the DAs office.
Were their backgrounds always something you were conscious of throughout your previous work, or were their flashback sequences as much of an engaging surprise for you as it was for me to enjoy?
It gradually dawned on me that there would be this interaction between characters from one novel to another. These novels (while written over a 30+ period of year) focuses from the mid-nineties to just prior to the pandemic. Some characters would receive promotions, others would leave the police department to become private investigators or join the DA’s office as a detective. So, before there were flashbacks there were the changes that took place as these characters got older and their job situation altered.
With Silent Scream I wanted to give more substance to two secondary characters, in particular. Those required flashbacks. My characters come to life in my mind. I had written so much about these two characters, without focusing on either as a main character, that I had created a backstory for each in my mind. I enjoyed putting on paper what had been in my mind. Their interactions (especially when they were new to the force) definitely surprised me. I really enjoyed those interactions that led to their mutual hostility of one another over the years.
Although this book is a standalone novel, do you feel compelled to explore the possibility of turning this into a new series for you?
Silent Scream won’t become a series because the two characters I explore are no longer detectives. Even in Silent Scream there are new characters who are more hands-on during the investigation because they are boots-on-the-ground detectives rather than part of the police department bureaucracy. Still these characters will continue to play a significant role in my novels but as secondary characters.
Speaking of reoccurrences, I understand one of your constant characters within the Pennsylvania Police Department, McGowan, is based on someone you once worked with. Care to elaborate?
The two characters explored in Silent Scream are Estefan Morales and Russ McGowan. Morales isn’t based on anyone. At the time I began writing my novels I was a teacher at a Philadelphia Middle School. My principal and I didn’t get along to put it mildly. Behind his back he was referred to as The Teflon Man as he found someone else to blame when he should have taken responsibility. In one notable case a girl from my class snuck out of the lunchroom and fell down the stairs, breaking her arm. My principal called me on the school phone to place the blame squarely on me. When I told them the girl had been at lunch he was disappointed. He turned around a blamed an overworked lunchroom aide for the accident.
I think every author of fiction adds autobiographical material into his/her novels. I know I’ve used numerous incidents from my life in my writings. Here was the perfect opportunity to rail at my principal without confronting him directly, possibly losing my job. He was to appear in one novel (a villain within the police department, because his ambition overrode his humanity). I found him appearing a second, third and fourth time. In Silent Scream both he and Morales butt heads as rookies, then detectives, and finally as part of the management of the department. I had a ball taking my principal to task again and again and again.
Another constant in several of your books is the representation of sexuality and racial identity, and more to the point, the inner struggles some of your characters face with it, particularly in an environment that is less than accepting of minority backgrounds and lifestyles. When did this subject become important to you, and why do you feel representing the inequalities of sexual and racial identities in your work is something which continues to be necessary for you?
When researching one of my early novels I interviewed some detectives who were part of the Philadelphia Police Department. I also lived in Philadelphia for 30 years. It’s a very diverse city. A city of neighborhoods. Racism and sexism continue to be rampant. And it made headlines when the first openly gay male graduated from the Philadelphia Police Academy. From my interviews and just watching the news it was obvious that the Philadelphia Police force was a haven for white males. People of color, members of the LGBT community, and women were routinely discriminated against and faced hurdles to both exist and climb the ladder of the police force. At the same time, special interest groups began exerting political power to level the playing field on the force.
While my novels are fictional, they are based on real events and lifestyles. For this reason my characters are a diverse bunch. McGowan is a racist and detests female cops. He’s not thrilled with Morales who is Hispanic. My novel Blood Sacrifice is based on a female version of the first openly gay graduate of the Philadelphia Police Academy. That book explores both the problems she faced as a lesbian cop and her insecurities that came to the surface as a result of the discrimination she faced. As events of the Black Lives Movement proved, racism and discrimination against people of color, women and those of the LBGT community are as bad today as they were thirty plus years ago. I refuse to ignore them in my novels.
As a society, we clearly have a long way to go as far as equality goes and seeing everyone treated as fairly as the next person regardless of sexual, racial, or personal orientation. That said, do you feel we’ve made any significant improvements towards treating alternative lifestyles and cultural differences fairly since you first began to discuss such things in your writing and with Gauntlet magazine?
I think society has been forced to confront these issues by special interest groups formed to protect minority and other targeted groups. If there is now discrimination faced by a lesbian police officer, for example, as was the case in Blood Sacrifice, an individual cop doesn’t have to confront the prejudice on his/her own. Political realities (especially in big cities) have also changed. A mayoral candidate needs support from the black, Hispanic and LGBT community. Politicians must also confront issues of importance to women. Outside pressures have led to improvements. Without this pressure the Philadelphia Police Department would still be a men’s club, sadly.
What’s next on the creative horizon for you, and what’s the best way to keep up to date with your releases?
Cemetery Dance at some point will publish my 9/11 novel Reincarnate, which I am excited about. I’ve been tossing some ideas around for my next novel. I have a website at http://www.barryhoffmanauthor.com/.
All of my books are available on Amazon and at the Gauntlet Press website.
Is there anything else you might like to add about Silent Scream, what it means to you now looking back at it, or about the general state of publishing in today’s landscape?
I had a lot of fun with the supernatural aspect of Silent Scream. Many of my most recent novels don’t have a supernatural bent to them. The shapeshifting in Silent Scream was a blast to write. And I really enjoy writing antagonists who can generate sympathy. That, too, is front and center in Silent Scream. Is the shapeshifter a villain? Or, is she less of a villain than Russ McGowan, a cop who hasn’t done anything illegal but is morally bankrupt. Silent Scream also has one of my most shocking twists of any book I’ve written. I don’t think many readers will see it coming.
Thanks as always, Barry!