Alumnus talks new mystery novel, St. Louis, time at UMSL

Alumnus Rick Skwiot, BA sociology 1970, wrote “Fail,” his new mystery novel that came out Oct. 27 via Blank Slate Press.

St. Louis native Rick Skwiot has traveled to Mexico and lived in Key West, Fla., but he returned to his roots, at least in his recent writing. His novel, “Fail,” is set in St. Louis and follows St. Louis Police Lt. Carlo Gabriel’s investigation into the missing husband of the mayor’s press secretary. During his investigation, Gabriel uncovers information about mass corruption and a faulty education system that could get him killed. The novel was released Oct. 27 from Blank Slate Press.

After graduating from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1970, Skwiot pursued a writing career. He is author of several fiction and nonfiction books, most notably “Death in Mexico,” which won the Hemingway First Novel Prize and “Sleeping with Pancho Villa,” a finalist for the Willa Cather Prize. In 2004, he was the Distinguished Visiting Writer for the MFA in Creative Writing program at UMSL. UMSL Daily recently caught up with him on his alma mater and the decisions behind writing his new St. Louis-based mystery novel.

You attended UMSL from 1965-70. What was your experience at the university in its infancy?

The campus had a highly competitive intellectual fervor that grabbed me. Of course there was the New Left movement that had spread everywhere, but UMSL was unique. It boasted a lot of bright, ambitious young students—you had to be in the upper 10 or 20 percent of your high school class to get in, as I recall, since space was so limited. Many of us were first-generation college students paying our own way with summer and/or part-time jobs or getting help from sacrificing parents. Thus we were focused, not frivolous. Standards were high and the courses, rigorous.

How has your degree from UMSL shaped your writing career?

I majored in sociology but took political science, philosophy and economics courses as well. In all of them we did a lot of writing, which was evaluated not only on content but also on form. That intense, demanding undergraduate experience helped prepare me for work as a newspaper reporter and ultimately as a novelist. In fact, I believe that my new novel, “Fail,” was in large part informed by my sociology training and could perhaps be labeled social-science fiction.

How has your being from St. Louis influenced the setting of “Fail?”

Being a St. Louisan helps me understand and appreciate the city in a way that would be difficult for a non-native. I played on its redbrick sidewalks and alleys as a kid, hung out in its taverns and clubs as a young man, and worked both on its truck docks as a Teamster and in its high-rise offices as a public relations man. All those experiences and more help me put the reader solidly in St. Louis within the pages of the novel. I know the people and the way they talk. I share their values, and I recognize the unique smell of St. Louis sewer gas. I know I got the city right.

What attracts you to the mystery genre?

As a reader I love mysteries that take me into unfamiliar settings and cultures, where I can expand my knowledge of the world and my sympathy for others facing extraordinary, high-stakes events in their lives. So it was only natural that I would attempt a mystery novel myself. I like best the mystery novels that blur the line between genre fiction and literature – such as those of the contemporary Australian writer Peter Temple or the late, great Belgian writer Georges Simenon, who has influenced my writing style and approach more than any other writer. In literate mysteries we are drawn in because there is often a life-or-death challenge, lurking danger, intrigue, a puzzle to solve, a series of revelations, perhaps some dramatic irony, pointed dialogue and moral or psychological dilemmas – the stuff that makes for good drama. That’s what I tried to accomplish with “Fail.”

This story was written by Marisol Ramirez, a UMSL student pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing.

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