Stephen Mack Jones — the award-winning Farmington Hills-based crime writer whose fourth August Snow novel, Deus X, debuts Nov. 7 — is living proof that sometimes, idleness can lead to great art.
“I started writing the first book out of boredom,” Jones confesses, noting that in that moment, he’d retired from a long career in advertising, his wife was still in the workforce, and their son was attending high school.
“My job at the time was to make sure everybody had breakfast and got where they needed to be,” he says. “By 9 o’clock, it was just me sitting at home, listening to NPR news. Again. So I started writing August Snow … to entertain myself. … And before I knew it, I had 85,000 words.”
That first novel — focused on a half-Black, half-Mexican American veteran and ex-Detroit cop who, after some time away, returns to live in his Mexicantown neighborhood — made a splash in 2017, earning the Dashiell Hammett Prize for crime writing and the Nero Award, among other accolades.
No one was more surprised by this than the author, who, though soft-spoken, physically resembles the towering figure on his new book’s cover. “The fact that [the manuscript] was published in the first place was the biggest honor for me,” he says.
Not that there weren’t hiccups along the way. Though Jones landed an agent who brought his first draft of the manuscript to publishers, the initial reaction from Soho Press was mixed — largely because it specialized in books with a strong sense of place.
“I said, ‘Tell Soho to give me 30 days,’” Jones says. “This was one of the only times when my career in advertising gave me something I could use, which is the ability to write on the go, on the fly. I blew up the original manuscript. I thought about my experiences in Detroit, both in talking to people who’ve lived here forever and what my own experience was, and I infused that into the rewrite.” That rewrite sealed the deal with Soho.
As for Jones, he grew up in Lansing reading the science fiction of Ray Bradbury and watching Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. But another point of inspiration was a little-known middle grade (ages 8-12) series by Donald Wollheim about an astronaut called Mike Mars.
“I started feeling that I could tell these stories,” Jones says. “When one of his books would end, I would continue it in my mind. … As a kid, I was the odd combination of introspective and class clown — the opposite of my older brother, who was one of my few heroes. My brother was president of the high school math club. I was the theater kid, late with his homework, always with an excuse.”
Jones went on to explore poetry and film studies during his college years at Michigan State University. Years later, in his 30s, a play he wrote called Back in the World that was being staged at Detroit’s Attic Theatre drew the interest of a certain Detroit teenager named Keegan-Michael Key.
“He was one of the best actors to audition,” Jones says. “The only thing that stopped him was the fact that he was 17 years old, which was too young be play a Vietnam veteran.”
Key also had a more recent link to Jones: He was attached — as executive producer and star — to an in-the-works TV series about August Snow; however, scheduling conflicts ultimately caused those plans to fall through.
“There are things happening now that could bring the possibility of a series back,” Jones says. “I can’t really say too much, … but I have some exploratory talks happening that could go either way.”
In the meantime, Jones’ newest book, Deus X, takes readers into the shadowy world of religious secret societies when August’s longtime family friend Father Grabowski suddenly mysteriously retires.
“It was kind of my way of bringing Dan Brown [The Da Vinci Code] to street level,” he says. “August is a man at war with himself. … In war and in his police work, he’s seen what people can do to each other. And I think [with] his return to his childhood neighborhood — the money he’s using to rebuild it — he’s trying to bring back a sense of the time when he was loved by his parents, and nurtured by his neighbors, as a way of healing himself.”
Similarly, Jones has a deep personal investment in his novels. “They’re my way of honoring my mom and dad,” he says. “The love and commitment and discipline that they gave my brother and me. The sacrifices that they made. In a lot of ways, these books have always been love letters to my parents.”
Plus, as a bonus, Jones’ books have sparked more widespread interest in Detroit.
One of the first fan letters he ever received came from a reader in Australia. “He ended his email saying, ‘Detroit’s on my bucket list now, mate,’” Jones says. “And I thought, ‘Good. It should be.’”
This story is from the November 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.