Alex Segura discusses his new novel Blackout and his work with Archie Comics
Alex Segura is a busy man. By day, he’s the co-president of Archie Comics, and writes comics like The Archies, in which the Riverdale kids form a band and meet real-life musicians like CHVRCHES. But by night, Segura is also a prolific mystery writer. Blackout, Segura’s fourth mystery novel featuring protagonist Pete Fernandez, is out May 8 from Polis Books. Ahead of its release, EW caught up with Segura to discuss the new novel, balancing his novels and comics work, and what makes his hometown of Miami a surprisingly great setting for noir.
Check that out below, along with an exclusive excerpt from Blackout.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Blackout is your fourth Pete Fernandez novel. What new things did you learn about him and his world writing this one?
ALEX SEGURA: I try to push Pete forward with each novel, so he never feels static or evergreen. A big part of the fun in writing a series is discovering how Pete and his partner Kathy change from book to book. Pete’s journey, in particular, has been a significant one. When we first meet him, he’s bottomed out, drinking heavily, reeling from his father’s death and working at a job that he can’t stand. But falling into detective work, first as a hesitant amateur and eventually as a professional, that really ignites him as a character. So we see Pete start to not only get better at solving these tangled, deadly Miami crimes — facing off against drug gangs, serial killers and the like — but also trying to get better at life. For starters, he quits drinking, which then leads him to start rebuilding the relationships that he destroyed. But even in recovery, Pete’s not perfect — he’s stubborn, impulsive and seen a lot of bad stuff happen, so he still has a lot to work on. When we find him in Blackout, he’s hiding out in New York, away from his friends and life in Miami, avoiding dealing with a lot of things that have happened to him over the years. Blackout is a mystery that weaves through not only Pete’s past, but Miami’s own secret history, and Pete’s ultimate enemy is something that’s managed to permeate every aspect of his hometown, and is responsible for one of Pete’s biggest, deepest regrets.
I’m always learning about Pete, and the writing of Blackout was no exception. I never thought the mystery would originate in Pete’s high school days, but once I started writing the flashback scenes, they worked and became the bookends to the novel. I really enjoyed spending time with Pete at various stages of his life — those moments serve as a stark contrast to Pete today, who’s still screwed up and prone to doing frustrating things, but wants to make something of himself. That personal story unfolds as we see a bigger conflict spring to life, with Pete coming into contact with an ambitious Florida politician who tries to hire Pete to find his missing son. But what really locks Pete into the case is evidence that this missing man might somehow be tied into Patty Morales — and the truth behind her final fate. That spurs Pete to return home, but he soon finds that the two cases are tangled up in the remnants of a insidious and secretive cult that does not want to be brought into the light.
The book starts with a flashback to Pete’s high school days. How does this book’s mystery balance past and present?
The mystery that propels the book involves Patty Morales, a straight-A student who went to high school with Pete. They weren’t exactly friends, but knew each other — enough that Pete asked her to prom and was shot down. She goes missing late into their senior year, and the mystery becomes one of Miami’s most talked-about cold cases: Where is Patty Morales? Fast forward to Pete as an adult, shortly after we meet him in the first novel, Silent City, and he’s hired to find out the truth about Patty Morales — what happened to her? But Pete’s a complete mess, and botches the case in spectacular fashion. It becomes one of the things that haunts Pete the most, and he can’t seem to shake it. He let this girl down. He blames himself and his destructive, drunken behavior for not being able to do right by this person. The balance tips very much to the present, with brief interludes in the past to give context and help paint a more complete picture of Pete and his motivations, as we catch up with Pete and see what pulls him back from his life in New York to Miami — and how he’s managed to damage his existing relationships since last we saw him. What is it that draws Pete back to Miami? How does it tie into the Patty Morales case and this murderous cult? Those are the questions Blackout answers — and more.
What makes Miami a good setting for noir and mystery?
Miami is bright, sunny and beautiful — it’s paradise. But even paradise has a dark side, and when you have that contrast, when you showcase the shadows dancing on the fringe of the sunlight, or the evil that lurks beneath the neon veneer, that’s when things get interesting. Also, being from Miami, I see the town differently. It’s not a tourist destination for me — it’s home, and it’s a much more complex and layered place than you’ll find on TV or in travel brochures. I try to show the Miami I know, the expansive, complicated and sometimes-dangerous city that I’ve come to know really well.
How do you balance your crime fiction with your duties as co-president of Archie Comics? For you, what’s the main difference between the two types of storytelling?
I’m not sure if I have a magic recipe for finding balance, honestly. I just don’t do much else, aside from spend time with my family, which is really important to me. I’m lucky enough to have a creatively fulfilling day job and this great, engaging second career writing crime novels about my hometown. I have a lot of gratitude.
In terms of the differences between comics and novels, I think the big thing is time and collaboration. In comics, you write a script in a few weeks and then in a few days you might start seeing pages, then in a month you’ll see inks, letters and so on. And each of those steps involves someone else interpreting what the previous people did, to varying degrees. The artist takes the writers script and visualizes it, for example. With a novel, not only are you by yourself until you have this massive stack of pages done, it’s completely your vision — the reader creates their visual and pacing based on your words. There’s no passing the baton. Both are really creatively fulfilling in different ways.
Music is a big component of your comic The Archies, in which Archie and his friends meet a lot of real-life bands. Here, Pete Fernandez always seems to be listening to music (Pearl Jam, Replacements, etc.). How does music influence your writing, and how do you incorporate it in?
I think about music all the time. Especially when crafting a scene, I listen to different bands or artists to help me zero in on the tone. So, on the surface, I do tend to drop a lot of musical references because I think it adds texture and personality to Pete and his supporting cast, but on a deeper level, music really informs the tone and context of a book. I make playlists for each novel. They start out as sprawling, 1-2,000 long lists that I trim as I go, and as I get deeper into the writing and drill down on what the book is about. By the end of it, I have the novel soundtrack, which is a fun end result, but that journey — where I’m thinking about the book and characters and how things play off each other through the prism of music — is invaluable to me.
Excerpt from “Blackout,” by Alex Segura
April 11, 1998
“Pete Fernandez, troublemaker. How is that even possible?” Pete whirled around and looked down the long, cavernous hallway that connected the second floor of Southwest Miami High’s A and C wings. He yanked out the headphones that were blasting Oasis’ Definitely Maybe album. He’d hoped to get through his Saturday cleanup duty unnoticed. But here was Patty Morales, ace softball pitcher, plucky newspaper editor, and Pep Club president, walking toward him, all smiles. He tried to avoid her eyes. They were friends, sure—they’d shared a few laughs in class, worked together on the school paper, hung out with some of the same people. But it ended there. They didn’t hang out after school and Pete still felt a grating embarrassment when he relived their last conversation. The painful jumble of words continued to echo in his brain as they escaped his lips, stilted and slow, like a production assistant wheeled onto the anchor desk seconds before on-air.
Hey, um, Patty, prom’s coming up, and I, uh, just wanted to see …
He could still feel the sheen of sweat on his hands. The dry, cottony mouth that prevented him from saying the words he’d practiced in front of the mirror just that morning.
Girls like Patty Morales didn’t struggle for dates. She carried herself with a calm and ease that belied her true, potent mix of smarts, confidence, and beauty. She was out of his league, and Pete knew it. But he had to try.
She’d responded to Pete with a soft, warm smile that felt more like a dagger to the stomach. It wasn’t so much that she said no, Pete realized later, as he replayed the exchange in his mind. It was the look of pity lurking behind the smile that made him feel like shit. Like a fool. He’d slinked away to his next class—his head down, eyes buried in his European history textbook as he sat in the back row of Ms. Delgado’s class.
“I’m on garbage duty until graduation,” Pete said as Patty approached.
Patty Morales and the prom were Pete’s biggest concerns a few months ago, but that seemed like a distant car in the rearview mirror now. He was dealing with a set of problems that would have seemed unimaginable at the start of his senior year. For kicks, Pete and his now-former friend Javier Reyes had tried to make off with some forties of Olde English from a bodega in their suburban Miami neighborhood of Westchester. They’d failed in spectacular fashion. Instead of pulling off a daring, if somewhat moronic, act of resistance, Pete narrowly avoided being arrested—only to be placed under 24-hour surveillance by his father. His dad, Pedro Fernandez, dropped him off at school. He picked him up. If his dad had to work late, Pete was forced to sit in his airless office at police headquarters, the constant chatter and buzz of activity making it impossible to do anything beyond making tedious small talk with Carlos Broche, his father’s burly and gruff partner, in the homicide department of the Miami PD. This was the new world order for Pete, at least until he graduated and left home—and his father—for good.
The incident had made the gossip rounds at Southwest, but Pete gained no currency in the eyes of his more rebellious peers or even his fellow bookish, shy types. It made him seem dumb. Because, well, it had been dumb. Pete still wasn’t sure what had driven him to do it, aside from a desire to spite his father and impress Javier, a popular kid who had no reason to be driving around town with a likable but not popular guy like Pete. He wanted to show his friend he was tough, too, that he could hang with him and his kind. But he’d just shown Javier that he was a coward and fraud.
Though the infraction happened outside of school, the administration still felt the need to levy some kind of punishment on him—a move that came with his father’s full support, Pete knew. All things considered, the punishment was mild, if tedious: school cleanup duty every Saturday morning until he graduated. Pete wandered the school grounds, tossing cigarette butts, plastic cups, fast-food containers, and an occasional condom into a clear plastic bag that he dragged behind him.
“Well, that’s only two months away,” Patty said, a polite smile on her face. “How long are you stuck today?”
“I’m working on some layouts for next week’s issue of The Lancer, if you’re bored,” she said, giving him that sad smile again. “I could use your help. You’re always good at coming up with those zinger headlines.”
She felt bad for him. Pete’s stomach lurched at the thought.
Pete was conflicted. He wanted to run, to leave this punishment— real and imagined—behind and seal himself away for as long as it would take. He didn’t want to be tangled up in the pull of her sympathy. Yet her concern, which Pete could happily misinterpret as interest, beckoned him. He wanted to be near her. To smell her too-sharp perfume and listen to her breathy voice and to think, just for a moment, that he was part of her story. But what was left of his pride won out.
“No, thanks,” he said. “I gotta head home after this. I’m on house arrest.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, a slight sadness creeping over her smooth features. She understood. Even a girl as friendly and warm as Patty knew how the social hierarchy of high school chugged along. They moved in different circles, only interacting for fleeting moments as they whizzed along their divergent paths.
Pete turned around, but then felt her hand on his shoulder.
“You know, Pete, I meant to tell you this before,” she said, her words steady and unhurried. “When you asked me about prom.”
“It’s not you, okay? I hope you know that,” she said, taking a step closer, her hand still on his shoulder. “It’s not that I wouldn’t have had fun with you. But, I mean, I don’t think of you like that, you know.”
“When you asked me, I wasn’t in a good place. I’d just gotten fucked over by my ex—that guy from Columbus, Danny Castillo,” she said. “And I had already told Mari and Illiet that we’d go together, you know, as friends? Single girls not needing a dude, right? So, I couldn’t change it up on them at the last minute.”
Heat spread over Pete’s face and he knew his cheeks were red. He clenched the half-full garbage bag tighter, the plastic burying itself in the creases of his palm. He wanted to be anywhere but here. Even the musky, humid holding cell they’d thrown him into after the robbery, which smelled of urine and sweat, with its chorus of low, menacing voices paired with the methodical ticking of a clock, seemed preferable. The last thing he wanted to hear about was Patty’s private-school ex-boyfriend.
“But it meant a lot that you asked me,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I just wanted you to know.”
She moved her hand away and gave him a languid wave. “So … I’ll be in the yearbook room if you want to stop by, okay?”
She smiled and then turned toward the student media room, glancing out the large, fingerprint-clouded windows that overlooked the patches of unkempt grass between the school wings.
Pete felt a surge of euphoria spread through him, like an energy drink kicking in. He made a mental note to ditch his garbage detail early so he could have a few minutes to say hi before his dad pulled up in front of the school.
But Pete never saw Patty alive again.
Patty Morales turned right off the breezeway and walked toward A200, the student media classroom where the Southwest yearbook and newspaper set up shop. She didn’t like coming in on the weekend, but it meant the office would be quiet and she could get work done. It also got her out of the house, away from her parents. She knew her dad would leave. It was only a matter of when. Her parents fought daily. The arguments never got physical, but the tension and anger permeated everything around the house. Terse exchanges in the morning as the three of them bustled through the kitchen. Snide remarks from her mother as her dad tried to make conversation over a rare family dinner. Tiny fissures in their daily lives that would continue to grow into a bottomless canyon that would swallow them all. Patty knew her mom was difficult. Loud, brash, opinionated. It was what had drawn her father to her when they were first dating, she guessed. That attraction was gone now, replaced by anxiety and resentment, a silent battle fought under the cover of long, painful silences that seemed to stretch for days. It meant her father came home late and left early, if he came home at all.
It was the nights spent elsewhere that sealed it. Patty wasn’t stupid. She lived in the same house with her parents and heard the arguments, even behind closed doors. Patty felt the disdain that festered between them, replacing the warmth and love Patty had once thought immortal. Her father was spending most of his time elsewhere—and while her mother hadn’t discovered a smoking gun in terms of his fidelity, it still had created an irreparable rift between them, and Patty took the brunt of the collateral damage. Yet Patty wasn’t mad at her father. She loved them both and, even at the age of eighteen, understood that life was loaded with large swaths of gray. Her parents weren’t perfect. Neither was Patty.
Patty used the key the media advisor, Mrs. Vazquez, had given her and walked into the classroom. She flipped the lights on and moved toward a bridge-like workstation set up near the back of the room for the newspaper staff’s main editors. She sat in her usual seat and powered up her computer. As she waited for the Mac to awaken, her thoughts returned to her parents. She sighed deeply. Her house seemed forever altered—a place once bursting with memories of Nochebuena celebrations, birthdays, and anniversary parties had become simply the place where Patty slept.
Patty heard her beeper vibrate and grabbed her purse, sliding her hand inside the small brown bag. The pink pager’s thin display revealed a familiar—but unexpected—phone number: Danny Castillo.
Patty wasn’t sure if she could even count Danny—the tall, brooding Columbus High quarterback—as her ex-boyfriend. It started and ended in a brief and blinding flash of activity. From first kiss to drudging conclusion, the totality of their relationship felt more like a slapped-together TV montage than a true romance. They met at her friend Soraya’s party a few months back. Mild flirting at first. His hand grazing hers as they sat on the long black couch. A lingering look as the conversation lulled to a stop. Shared sips from a lukewarm bottle of Corona. An ironic, awkward dance to Semisonic’s obnoxious earworm “Closing Time” as the host ushered the stragglers out. Then the buzzed, zigzagging drive home, during which he hadn’t tried a thing—no weaving lean-in for a kiss, no clumsy hand in her lap. Ever the gentleman, she mused.
The all-night phone calls started next. After dinner, she’d scurry to her room and close the door, knowing her parents were too caught up in whatever personal turf battle they were waging to think about her. It all seemed so frivolous now. But it had felt to Patty like she and Danny really talked, communicating on a deeper level—not just about school gossip or the music they were listening to or 90210-type bullshit, but things that felt substantial: what he wanted to do with his life, college, his family.
It seemed like a relationship, Patty thought, as she dropped the beeper into her purse and wheeled the creaky chair back toward the screen. She wasn’t exactly super-experienced when it came to dating, having spent her high school years thinking about college and doing the things that would get her there. Patty wanted an Ivy League school, but she’d settle for anything that guaranteed her ample distance from the sweltering summers and family drama of Miami.
They’d gone on dates, they’d hung out with his friends, and spent time together at his house while his parents were away. Not time- time, but they did stuff. More stuff than Patty had done before. The bristle of stubble against her cheek, his hungry mouth on hers, the heat that seemed to radiate from him. It had all been new, passionate, and special. It made Patty wonder whether the heat and her parents’ problems were good enough reasons to leave Miami, if Danny was going to stay.
The first doubt crept up on her like a toothache, more overt and bothersome as time passed. He’d invited her to go to church with him to some off-the-grid congregation she’d never heard of. Patty wasn’t religious, but she was Cuban, and that meant she was Catholic. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to a church service except for Christmas Eve, Easter, or a funeral. It wasn’t part of her routine.
The church—or, God, in some form—had become a significant part of her father’s life, though. From what little she picked up from the wall between the rooms, she knew her father spent his time away from home doing something spiritual, which her mom did not approve of or think much of. She still worried her father was having an affair, but there was little evidence to back that up. The truth— that her mild-mannered, humble father had strayed from his wife to embrace God—was much more bizarre to Patty than an extramarital indiscretion.
With all that background noise going on at home, Patty didn’t have room for much more. So, she passed on Danny’s church outing and he seemed okay at first. Easy. Patty had enough to worry about, anyway, what with her entire home life crumbling before her eyes. She thought that’d be the end of it. It was—but not in the way she’d envisioned.
She opened PageMaker to mock up the next edition of The Lancer, Southwest’s somewhat monthly newspaper. She was the editor-in-chief, a fancy title that just meant she was stuck finishing up the things the editorial staff didn’t get to: copyediting stories, writing headlines, making sure the final proofs were delivered to the printer, and, on release days, lugging and dropping off stacks of newspapers to classrooms before school started. But she loved the work and enjoyed her staff—most of them, anyway.
Thinking about the newspaper’s core editors—news, sports, features, opinion, and arts—pulled her mind back to Pete Fernandez. She liked him. Not like-liked, because that spark just wasn’t there, but he was funny, smart, and focused when he wanted to be. He could have made a case for himself to be editor of the paper, but for whatever reason, he didn’t—allowing Patty to take over, unopposed. Not a bad guy, even if he’d made stupid decisions.
The prom thing had been strange, but not all that surprising. Patty could tell that Pete had the crush of crushes on her. The mixtapes slipped into her locker, how he’d turn away when she’d catch him staring in class. The occasional, not-so-surprise run-ins between periods. He was a sweet guy, but Patty wasn’t attracted to him. Didn’t dream of him as she doodled in her notebook or as she listened to the tapes he made her—which were a little heavy on the Beatles and Billy Joel and thick in terms of the message he was trying to send. He was her friend, and she was sad they’d graduate and part ways before they could become closer.
“It’s for the best,” she said to herself as she sent the double-page interior spread to print. It was a forward-looking piece on graduation, with updates on who’d been accepted where and some quotes from notable “student leaders” about how much they’d miss the purple- and-white building that made up Southwest Miami High.
Her beeper buzzed again and Patty groaned. What the hell did Danny want? It’d been almost a month since she’d broken it off and he’d seemed more than happy to never talk to her. Another buzz. The first message was Danny’s number, the next said 911. Emergency.
Patty picked up the phone next to her computer. She dialed 9 to get an open line and then Danny’s home phone number, from memory. It rang once before he picked up.
“Hi,” Patty said. “What’s up? You beeped me 911?”
“Yeah, I need to talk to you,” he said, his voice drowsy like he’d just woken up from a long nap. “I need to see you.” “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m busy.”
“At the paper?”
Patty didn’t answer.
“I can come pick you up,” he said. “I have stuff to talk about. Big stuff. It’s important.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. Be strong.
“Look, Danny, no,” she said. “I have shit to do and I haven’t heard from you in weeks. You didn’t even respond when I left you a voicemail about that cop—who, I swear, has been showing up all over the place. It’s creeping me out. So, yeah, I get it. We’re not friends. Which is fine. I told you I needed space, but you can’t have it both ways, okay?”
She heard him starting to respond as she hung up. But she put the receiver down firmly. She was done with the drama. The cojones on this guy, using 911 like that. She’d been worried for a second. Patty went back to work.
Patty finished up later than expected, but she felt satisfied. The sections were laid out and edited — only missing a game story on that night’s girls’ swim meet. Ryan would have the recap written in the morning and then Patty would figure out how to get the proofs to the printer so they could have the paper out by Tuesday. Not bad, Morales. Not bad.
She shut down her computer and grabbed her purse, looking around the large classroom to see if she’d forgotten anything or if she had to bring anything home. She grabbed a large binder from Mrs. Vazquez’s desk. It contained the proofs for the upcoming 1998 yearbook. The editor of the book, Hannah Aclin, a girl that Patty didn’t know well but was friendly with, had asked her to give the pages a once-over for style and consistency. She’d work on it tonight. Patty locked up behind her and walked down upper A wing, away from the breezeway. She didn’t hear the footsteps until she’d reached the middle of the hall, close to Mrs. Dymond’s classroom, where she took AP English. The steps seemed slow and hesitant, the person unsure they wanted to be seen. Creeped out, Patty turned around quickly to try to glimpse whoever was behind her. But the hallway was empty, and she felt stupid.
“Been here too long,” she said. She was right, too. It was almost six and the Miami sun was fading into darkness, an orange smear sinking into a pink sky. She’d just gotten caught up in the work, she thought, and now it was time to go home and see what new spectacle awaited her. She made it to the stairs at the end of the hall. Then she saw it. The body. It was on the landing that separated the first half- flight of stairs from the rest, near the school’s south exit. The man was lanky, crumpled and moaning, sounding like a trapped and wounded animal aware its time is up. He had his hands wrapped around his head, knees in his chest in the fetal position as he rocked back and forth. Patty realized she knew who it was, and took the stairs down two at a time to reach Danny Castillo. She didn’t see any injuries, but it seemed like he’d taken a nasty fall. The black-and-blue marks might show up later.
But I didn’t hear anything fall.
She reached for Danny’s shoulder. He hadn’t noticed her yet.
“Danny! Jesus,” she said. “Danny, what happened to you?”
She rolled him over and saw his eyes flutter. The middle of his white Columbus High T-shirt was soaked with a dark, spreading stain of blood. His anguished sobbing stopped, and he seemed to freeze, his eyes locked on a distant object past Patty.
This can’t be happening.
But now the footsteps she thought she had imagined were back—louder, more confident. As she followed the sound, her eyes drifted down toward the hallway that lead to the first-floor A wing classrooms. That’s when she saw him, looking up at her and the fallen Danny. She let out a relieved sigh.
“Oh, thank God,” she said. “Help—help me with him? We need to get him to a hospital—I think he’s dying.”