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  • Bill Chastain

TOYS AND GAMES: Best-Selling Author Ace Atkins

You never know who will become the next best-selling author. Take Ace Atkins.

Back in the day, I worked in sports for the Tampa Tribune, so I occasionally had to write stories about athletes breaking the law. When that happened, Atkins — who covered the cops beat — would be kind enough to pound out a few graphs using the proper legal terms that I could pop it into my story.

Since saving my ass Atkins has in fact become that best-selling author, taking over renown author Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series while also writing his own Quinn Colson series.

“Going back to high school, I always wanted to write books,” said Atkins during a recent phone conversation. “When I was in college and playing football I’d get asked what I wanted to do, and I’d say I want to be a novelist. But I couldn’t have found New York publishing with a road map. I didn’t really know what that meant. So becoming a newspaper writer became my training. I got into it by accident and it was the best experience I ever had. That was a catalyst for me becoming a professional.”

Today he’s happy his time in the newspaper business came when it did.

“I do feel fortunate that I got the time in during the last great days of the business,” said Atkins, lamenting the current plight of newspapers. “Those were fun days, 1995 to 2000, it was still a paper.”

Being a crime reporter suited him given his aspirations.

Ace Atkins (c) Joe Worthem Ace Atkins

“I kind of petitioned to be on the crime beat at the Tribune,” Atkins said. “Of course no one really got in my way. Everybody’s like, ‘that’s the worst beat to have.’ And I was like, ‘I’ll take it.’ For a single young guy, it was a great job.”

Atkins published his first two books while still at the Tribune. Once he wrote his third he took the leap. He left Tampa and moved to Oxford, Mississippi where he worked as an author as well as a professor at Ole Miss.

“I did that like five years,” Atkins said. “But I don’t have a masters. I was never a tenured track professor.”

Besides, he wanted to concentrate on writing books. In particular the suspense and crime genres.

“I liked the more realistic kind of stuff,” he said. “I always liked Elmore Leonard. Kind of the social commentary of Carl Haiison. I hope the stuff I do is a little edgier than who-done-its. I like to do the real stuff.

“Like George Higgins, who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I knew I wanted to write more authentic type stuff. That’s what I was reading. Elmore Leonard and Robert Parker. Haisson.”

Atkins’ unique story brought him a break while in college. Former NFL defensive end/author Tim Green read a story about a defensive end at Auburn who wanted to write books. That story prompted him to contact Atkins.

Green’s first book, Ruffians, had just been published.

“He wanted to read my first book,” Atkins said. “So while I’m in college. I sent him this manuscript I’d been working on very hard. I’d worked on it diligently, but it was a total piece of shit. It was terrible. And Tim, I don’t know why. He marked it up and kind of started helping me.”

They have remained close.

“Tim’s one of my best friends,” Atkins said. “Truly one of my best friends. I’ve known Tim well over 20 years.”

Though Atkins already wrote fiction under his own name, becoming the author to continue Parker’s Spenser series added to his portfolio.

“I was a life-long Parker fan,” Atkins said. “When I was at the Tribune I always had a Robert Parker book in my bag. I think in some ways Robert Parker and Spenser kind of led me to wanting to work the crime beat and do the kind of stories, I did.”

Jacket THE REDEEMERS (hi-res) Ace Atkins’ latest, “The Redeemers.”

G.P. Putnam and Sons were the publisher for Atkins’ books and had also served as the long-time publisher for Parker’s books.

“I think people in-house knew I was a real fan and somebody who loved the Spenser books for a long time,” Atkins said. “It came to be known several months after [Parker’s] passing in 2010 that the family wanted to continue the books. And so, through Putnam, they asked if I would submit some pages.”

Atkins got the job.

Upon doing so the publisher asked if he needed to have Parker’s other books sent to him so he could familiarize himself with the series. Atkins politely declined. All of Parker’s books — first editions he’d bought when they came out — already lined the shelves of his library.

Atkins now spends half the year writing Spenser books — often finding himself in urban Boston, the setting for the series — and he spends the other half of the year in Mississippi where he writes Colson.

“That’s kind of how it’s been the last five years,” Atkins said. “Spenser book comes out in the springtime for the opening of the season, because it’s very baseball heavy. And Quinn books come out in late summer.”

Atkins is living every authors’ dream.

“Exactly,” Atkins said. “It’s really two different jobs. I take both very seriously, keeping Spencer going because I have such a personal connection. I’ve loved those books for so many years. But it’s definitely important for me to keep my identity with the kind of books I write, which are very natural to me.”

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