Ace Atkins Q&A

A Conversation with ACE ATKINS, author of
ROBERT B. PARKER'S CHEAP SHOT

1. CHEAP SHOT is only the second Spenser novel that uses a Boston sports team as the primary plot point. The first was way back in 1976 with MORTAL STAKES, the third Spenser novel, in which Spenser is hired to protect a star pitcher for the Red Sox. Considering Bob Parker's deep love of sports—if not necessarily Boston's pro sports teams—isn't it a bit odd that he didn't utilize a Boston sports setting more often?

I kept on waiting for a hockey book! Bob did write about college basketball in '89 with a fictional college in the Boston area — his often used Taft University. So I really looked at a football book as a natural progression. Not to mention the huge impact the folks at Foxboro have on the city.

I grew up the son of an NFL coach, so I had a lot of insight into the lifestyle and world of these players. My earliest memories are of me at practice with the Buffalo Bills and learning how to high-five from O.J. Simpson. Bob Parker and I both played and loved sports — athletics were a big part of our lives and I believe core to anyone who writes Spenser. You can't write Spenser unless you've had that physical side, work ethic. It's key to the character and his outlook.

2. Once you decided that the plot of CHEAP SHOT would revolve around a Pats player being Spenser's client, how did you go about contacting the Patriots to research Gillette Stadium? Did they give you the third degree before agreeing to cooperate?

I have a lot of contacts and pals who work in the NFL. But I never had to use them. Joan Parker made a phone call! That's about all you needed in Boston, was for Joan to pick up the phone. She knew everybody and everybody damn well knew Joan Parker. She set it up, and both I and Bob's close friend Mel Farman, who helps me a lot with research, were given first class, unrestricted access to Gillette, from being greeted by the director of publicity and shown every part of the facility to answers to our many questions. We later learned why: Robert Kraft is a major Spenser fan! He once paid nearly ten grand to be mentioned in a Spenser novel as a charity auction.

3. Having read your way through the entire Parker canon during your college days, was there ever a particular story that resonated in a special way? And if so, do you ever ponder the possibility of carrying on with that storyline in one of your own Spenser books?

I think all Spenser fans always go back to Early Autumn and Spenser's relationship with Paul. I'd like to see Paul in a future book. But I also really miss Rachel Wallace. We haven't seen her for quite some time. But I also want readers to know that the Spenser world is evolving and growing — I think we'll definitely see Mattie Sullivan from Lullaby in upcoming stories. South Boston is too rich of a world not to explore. Not to mention Roxbury. I think a lot of new stories will be coming from neighborhoods south of Boston.

4. Do you feel compelled to test-drive the recipes you utilize in the scenes where Spenser is preparing a dinner for Susan? In this book you have a very elaborate chili and cornbread combination under the spotlight... did you make that actually happen for Angela, your wife?

I do like to cook and have made all the recipes in all three of my Spenser novels. I learned to cook as a young man, as a bachelor, really through my love and appreciation of Spenser. The idea of a man cooking elaborate, interesting meals for himself or his girlfriend just made a lot of sense. I also drink a lot of beer — it goes with the research. Spenser taught me a lot about beer. 

5. Your own stellar career playing football for the legendary undefeated Auburn team of 1993 must have imbued the Patriots storyline in CHEAP SHOT with a special pleasure for you. Discuss.

Hmm. "Stellar" might be more than generous. I was a scholarship player and did get to play a lot — mainly as a pass rush specialist during 3rd and long situations. I had some great games and ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated for a big win over Florida. But I joke that was my curse — the SI curse. I never was drafted or really had any NFL aspirations. That's a tough, hard life, and those guys deserve those paychecks. My dad had horrible injuries and pain that he suffered through his whole life.

But for the novel, I was able to write about a football player and how one thinks without WRITING about football. I think someone coming to a similar project with little knowledge of the game or the NFL would want to show off how much they know and what they learned at the sacrifice of the story. And we all know, Spenser doesn't ramble about such things. He distills the words to only the ones with true meaning.

I also hope readers will see the fun I'm having with the sports-obsessed media we have today. Sports news is 24/7, and players have to live their lives through social media as well as being top athletes. The criticism of the players by those who have never played is a sore spot for me. I believe many fans these days look at players like action figures or stats and not real people who work their asses off.