Even though Alex Segura and I are writing about opposite ends of the Sunshine State, the paths of our respective crime fiction series—Alex’s Miami PI Pete Fernandez and my North Florida Cannon family—have mirrored one another and now both of our sagas have come to an end. To mark the occasion, I’m sitting down again with Segura to discuss Miami Midnight, Holding Smoke, the trials of both writing and ending a series and where we go from here.
Alex: Steph, Holding Smoke is the epic finale to your Judah Cannon trilogy—did you always set out for it to be three? How have the characters evolved over the trilogy? Were there any surprises for you as you wrote?
Steph: I like the use of term ‘epic’ there, because from the very beginning that description was guiding the Cannon trilogy. When I started writing Lightwood, the first book of the series, back in 2014, I had in my head the idea to do a very classical narrative and character arc, but to set it in rural North Florida. In creating Judah Cannon, I was thinking along the lines of Michael Corleone in the Godfather films, Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders or Jax Teller in Sons of Anarchy. The son struggling within a crime family—the journey of trying to do the right thing, ultimately doing the wrong, and then having to reckon with the chosen path at the end.
For the most part, Judah developed as I thought he would—rising, falling, rising, falling again—but what surprised me the most about writing this series was how the other characters evolved. Main characters such as Judah’s partner, Ramey, and his nemesis, Sister Tulah, but also characters who started off minor and yet felt fit to take things over. In Lightwood, Shelia starts out as just a biker’s hanger-on. She manipulates the plot, but I never saw her going much farther. Yet, she would not be quieted and by Holding Smoke, she’s not only right in the thick of things, she’s also become one of my favorite characters. And Brother Felton, oh my. Again, he started out as an interesting minor character driving the plot, but becomes absolutely essential to the series as a whole by the conclusion of Holding Smoke.
Those are the sorts of surprises I love. Writing a series has a unique set of challenges, but it also gives you room to let the characters grow in unexpected ways. Being able to write Brother Felton’s story was one of the most surprising rewards of the trilogy for me.
In your own case, Pete Fernandez has the span of five books—from Silent City to Miami Midnight—to not only experience many a brush with death, but to grow and develop as a character. Did he take any unexpected turns for you? And—here’s another challenge in writing a series—did he make any decisions ‘in print’ that you had difficulty grappling with in the next book? Or did any of the other characters? Did you ever kick yourself around Book 4 or 5 for killing off a character in Book 1, or having Pete do something early on that later caused a difficult roadblock?
Alex: Like you had with Judah, I had an arc for Pete in mind, but it was very zoomed-out—I wanted to tell the story of a man who decides to become an investigator. I love the PI genre, but it always felt— with a few notable exceptions—that I was coming in mid-stream. I was discovering these characters at their peak, as opposed to learning how they came to be. I think in some cases that’s fine. We don’t really need Marlowe’s origin story, for instance. But I also come from comics, and origin stories are so important. Plus, I wanted the origin and character to reflect my world, in terms of being Cuban-American, younger (in comparison to some other PI characters), and dealing with a serious addiction.
So, starting out, I knew I wanted the series to be about how Pete went from a mess to PI. I didn’t know how long that would take. I thought it’d be a trilogy, but then I found some interesting detours—like exploring Pete’s family history in Dangerous Ends, or discovering new supporting cast members that made things move at a different speed. But by the time I got to Blackout, the fourth novel, I knew I had one more left and I started moving pieces toward that, with the idea that it’d end on a killer cliffhanger and set the stage for the final book, Miami Midnight.
There were definitely things that I didn’t expect that came from the characters. Like Pete’s sobriety. I thought I’d have him out there as a drinker for longer, but he got sober early on in the second book and, aside from one slip, the story became less about his struggles to stay sober and more about being a stumbling PI, which, honestly, feels a bit unique. I also didn’t expect him to get together with his investigative partner, Kathy Bentley, either—but no matter how much I tried to keep them apart, they ended up in bed together. But that’s the fun of writing—you create these characters, build this world, and then let them run around and see what works. The body counts in my books are usually high, too, so I often regret offing people too fast, like Pete’s best friend in the first book, or just because you come to love a supporting cast member. But that’s what makes those deaths impactful: you and the reader care about them. I also don’t know if going back and changing those things would make it better, per se. I find the series to be fun and unpredictable in a way that is really special to me, and I get the same sense from the Cannon books. That you had a ballpark idea of what you wanted, but you also gave yourself room to shift gears and follow your muse. Is that accurate?
Steph: Exactly. I had a basic idea of the long-term narrative—the rise and fall, and then rise OR fall, of a criminal—but yet I honestly didn’t know how the story was going to play out. I didn’t even know whether or not Judah was going to survive the trilogy. But, yes, it’s those surprises that make writing a series special.
Alex: I feel like our books tell parallel stories of the same state – Pete and Miami are kind of the city mouse, and your books take readers into a much more rural noir place that’s just as compelling. Can you talk a bit about setting and how it influences your work? And why you felt like North Florida was maybe under-served in the crime fiction space?
Steph: Parallel stories at opposite ends! You know, I was just thinking about this the other day. With Holding Smoke, I’ve now written four novels (include my first stand alone, A Tree Born Crooked) set in North Florida, only a few counties away from where I grew up. The land, the people, their struggles—all reflect my deepest roots. Yet, when I actually lived in that area, all I wanted to do was leave. I never felt a sense of connection to place or a pride in where I grew up. It took me living in North Carolina for ten years to appreciate how essential the concept of ‘home’ can be and how much this idea has influenced my writing. Like you writing about Miami from New York—it’s almost as though we need to get away from a place to be able to look at it closely.
As far as the area being under-served in crime fiction—I’d say that most people don’t even know that an area like North Florida exists! But what was most important to me in writing this particular setting was not so much showcasing the landscape, as the people. I wanted to write a crime series outside of the ‘law.’ While I have an AFT agent and case in Walk in the Fire, for the most part the story of Judah is one of a criminal battling other criminals and battling himself. Everyone knows the influence of Justified on my work and I’m sure my Boyd Crowder obsession has something to do with why Judah is a criminal and not a cop, but there’s also some logic to this decision. A lot of the characters in the story make bad decisions because they don’t have the opportunity to make good ones. There’s a scene in Lightwood between Judah and his father, Sherwood, that has always been important to me. Sherwood bullies Judah into returning to a life of crime because he doesn’t have many options. As a felon, how could he get any sort of decent job? Of course, there’s always the heroic and redeemed—the smart one who gets away from their family and climbs out of poverty, but in telling Judah’s story, I wanted to represent real people in his situation. And highlight how their backs are often against the wall.
Switching gears a bit, I wanted to talk with you about endings. No, I’m not going to give away spoilers for Miami Midnight or Holding Smoke, but I was wondering how you feel about series endings in general. Strangely, I avoid them as much as I can. Going back to Justified, for example. I’ve watched season 2 so many times I can quote whole scenes, but yet I’ve only watched the final episode once. I’ll still go back and re-watch episodes every now and then, but not the finale. Same with Game of Thrones (okay, that finale deserves not to be watched twice, but that’s another story), The Americans, Deadwood and other favorites. I’ve still never seen the last episode of Sons of Anarchy or The Shield, although I faithfully watched every single episode up to the last. Is this just something weird about me or do you feel the same? And do you ever worry that this will have readers shying away from the last installment of Pete’s story?
Alex: Oof, endings are hard—and that really messed with me while writing Miami Midnight, as I’m sure it did for you with Holding Smoke. I just didn’t want to screw it up! Mainly because of what you just outlined – most endings suck. Especially when we’re talking about serialized fiction, on TV or in books. I’ll defend the Sopranos, but that was more a gear-shift than an ending. I wasn’t keen on the Breaking Bad or The Americans finales, either. They just seemed too tidy, and so I felt like I had to really strike a balance. Tie up the big stuff, leave Pete in a place where people can imagine further adventures, and raise a few new questions.
All of that was happening while I was struggling a bit with the response. While writing Miami Midnight, it was about finishing it and doing it well, but I was also having another kid, working, you know—life! So I was in the trenches with the book and not necessarily thinking about how people would react. But at some point, we let it out that it’d be the last book, and I got so many emails and messages from fans that were heartbroken about it ending and that really resonated with me, and came at the perfect time, as I was finishing up the novel. It helped me add the right dose of weight and texture to the book in terms of it being the ending. Honestly, I just didn’t want it to be sappy. The Pete books have always been pretty rough and tumble—people die, people suffer, there are glimmers of hope and humor, but it hopefully never feels too orchestrated. Life is messy and gray and even if this is the end, there was just no way I was going to be able to close every thread and have it all make sense. But I did want to evoke the first book, nod to the series, and, most importantly—do what I’d set out to do in terms of Pete’s arc. But yes, endings are very, very hard. Is it safe to say we both did okay, though?
Steph: I’d say we did okay and then some.
Alex: I want to talk about Holding Smoke more—I feel like of the three books, it has its own tone and vibe. Still very much a part of the trilogy but also its own thing. Can you talk about how your life and hobbies and influences feed into each of the novels, and what your big picture pitch for Holding Smoke is?
Steph: I would agree with you. Even as I was writing Holding Smoke, I was pulling back at times from letting it take on too much of a separate vibe. Yet another challenge about writing a series—making sure that the style stays consistent! But Holding Smoke was definitely influenced by the research I was doing for my current work-in-progress. You’ll see hints of mythology winding its way in, as well as characters focusing on more ‘big picture’ ideas, outside of Bradford County.
Which sort of relates to the ‘big picture pitch.’ The big question I had in mind when I was trying to tie all the narrative strings together was ‘Can Judah and Ramey make it out of Bradford County alive?’ I won’t give away any spoilers, but the question wasn’t just one of ‘do I kill off a main character at the end of the series?’, but rather, can these two characters—so defined by their circumstance and setting—operate on a different level? Is there a future for them beyond the predictable outcome? And what does their final outcome say about humanity in general?
Sure, a big question there, but that’s the direction I’ve been going in. I don’t know where my place will be in the crime fiction world beyond Holding Smoke, as I’m writing in a new genre now, but I will know that these characters got me there.
And to steer this towards its ends—where do we go from here? You and I have become known for our Florida crime series and now that curtain has fallen. I’ve been working on a novel much more like Miraculum and I’m definitely leaning towards continuing in that vein. What direction are you going in now that you’ve said goodbye to Pete? And do you think writing his series has helped you or will help you get there?
Alex: It definitely has, because I feel like I—and you—created these defined bubbles for ourselves, but we gave ourselves enough room to get really creative. I mean, Silent City was a PI novel, Down the Darkest Street was a serial killer novel, Dangerous Ends was a bit of historical fiction, and so one. Each book fit under the umbrella of “Pete Fernandez,” but it also served to amplify whatever I was obsessing over, and it was created in the comfort, for lack of a better term, of the PI genre. So it almost felt like I was training to be able to just cut loose—which is kind of what I’ll be doing with my next crime novel, and in the meantime, I’m writing a Star Wars book—which is amazing and a great way to use my crime writing skills in a different way. I think the worlds we created really served as not only complex, compelling things unto themselves, but as great incubators for us as storytellers. I just regret Pete didn’t make his way up to meet Judah! I think there’s a story there.
Steph: Hey, now that our series have ended, maybe we’ll find time for that crossover novel. Who knows?