Stona Fitch is an American author who sees at the world a bit differently, spotting trends and dissecting them, and his crime novels are all the better for it. Take his latest, for example. Death Watch is set in the high stakes world of New York advertising, where a young creative called Coe Vessel sets out to prove himself by taking on a seemingly impossible account – to promote a watch that can potentially kill its wearer. Cassius Seven the height of edgelord nihilism, but when the threat of death turns out to be real, Coe has to figure out how to save purchasers from the product he boosted.
This is Stona’s seventh crime novel and he has a good track record. His 2001 book Senseless was adapted for film in the UK in 2009, and he’s also the author of Third Rail and Dark Horse – two Boston-based crime novels – under the pen name Rory Flynn.
Based in Concord, Massachusetts, Stona is the founder of Concord Free Press, a not-for-profit outfit that aims to benefit the community and anyone who loves to read. And, he’s a man with a fascinating past that takes in everything from playing the electric mandolin in a pop band, writing for the Miami Herald and dishwashing in a punk-rock hangout. We just had to invite him over to Crime Fiction Lover for a chat about Death Watch, and more…
With such a varied and creative career behind you, what turned you to writing novels?
I was lucky enough to study with two legendary novelists as an undergraduate – Russell Banks and Joyce Carol Oates – who inspired me in many ways. After college, I worked as a daily reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, then as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald, before turning to fiction.
What do you think crime fiction lovers will love about Death Watch?
It’s a very fast read, but readers tell me it sticks with them. And it balances darkness with humour – like life, ideally.
This book is a bit different in that there’s a product central to the story. Tell us about the Cassius Seven and how it kills people?
Cassius Seven – AKA Death Watch – is a luxury watch that could potentially kill its wearer. At some point in the future – or never – the watch sends seven incredibly sharp little knives into the wearer’s wrist, causing death via exsanguination. Is it real or just a hoax? Well, that’s the central question of the book, which keeps the story going – and the reader guessing.
Who is Coe Vessel and how did you develop this character?
Coe Vessel is a creative director at a boutique ad agency in New York. He’s funny, frantic and more than a bit haunted by the legacy of his famous father, a giant in the world of advertising. I knew a bit about this world from my day job, which is advertising-adjacent. And then I just turned up the pressure on my main character to see what happens.
The world of advertising, marketing, promotion and creative agencies is a place we don’t see much in crime fiction. How have you used it in this novel?
It’s an unusual setting, but definitely fraught with dishonesty if not outright crime. Agencies convince clients to part with big budgets in the hopes of selling more of a product or service. Like publishing, it’s an industry built on hope and rife with delusion. So, it’s an intriguing world to write about, and (I’d like to think) read about.
It feels like the world is a crazy place, but could a watch like this really exist and would people buy it? Are there themes that you wanted to provoke thought about?
In our era of rogue chatbots and technology gone awry, Death Watch could definitely exist. After all, the founder of Oculus created a VR headset that kills the user if they die in the game that they’re playing. Would people buy Death Watch? Someone who thinks of themselves as invincible might. Did I mention Elon Musk?
Mortality is definitely a thought-provoking theme – some characters think they’ll live forever, while others are willing to let a watch kill them. I wrote Death Watch during the early pandemic, when mortality was on our minds. Ordinary objects (mail, groceries) suddenly turned into potential vectors for a killer virus. A deadly watch seemed all too possible.
In the second half of the book, Coe tries to reverse all the promotion of Death Watch that he’s done. What does he come up against?
The bad guy is definitely Watanabe – creator of Death Watch and a famous/notorious Japanese artist and provocateur. Kind of like an evil twin of Ai Weiwei. Trying to stop Watanabe takes a lot of clever work from Coe and his team.
Our readers would be fascinated to hear about your publisher and your own outlook. Concord Free Press is a non-profit publisher, and you yourself have run a non-profit organic farm. You’re a former punk musician and a media consultant. Do your sensibilities run counter to those of Coe?
I think every writer brings some elements of themselves to their main characters, even if they don’t seem similar on the surface. I’m definitely not Coe, but we share an appreciation of the absurd. And weird first names.
As for the Concord Free Press, it’s definitely not a project Coe would pursue – no money in it. We publish books and distribute them for free, asking only that readers donate to a cause they believe in or someone in need in their community. Then pass their book on so that others can give. Our all-volunteer press has inspired more than $5 million in generosity throughout the world, and created a new model for publishing based on the inherent generosity of readers.
Death Watch is published by Arrow Editions – the new, slightly more commercial imprint of the Concord Free Press. So, it’s not free, but all proceeds from Death Watch book sales go to support the Concord Free Press and its ongoing mission of inspiring generosity
What other authors, especially crime authors, have inspired you and why? What are you reading at the moment?
Elmore Leonard is a big influence, since his novels are so clean and compact, but still rich and resonant. I also like Walter Mosley quite a lot because he creates such memorable characters. I’m reading his latest, Every Man a King, now. His novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is one of my all-time favourites.
What’s next for Stona Fitch?
I’m working on a crime novel set in Oklahoma in the 1950s, based on a murder deep in my family history.
Order a copy of Death Watch below, or visit the Stona Fitch website here.
Great interview – thank you. Stona has a perspective that blends edginess, emotion, and human experience. Loved his earlier books and can’t wait to read Death Watch.