Novelist reveals how teaching in Brooklyn has shaped his work

Tim O’Mara. Photos courtesy of the author

Brooklyn BookBeat

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Following his acclaimed debut “Sacrifice Fly,” New York City public school teacher Tim O’Mara’s new novel “Crooked Numbers” (Minotaur Books) returns to the Williamsburg neighborhood to tell the story of Raymond Donne, a middle school teacher who has taken a break from his job to solve a mysterious killing.

O’Mara opens his book with a powerful scene, told through the eyes of Raymond: “It’s never easy looking into the face of a dead kid. Eyes that should be tracking a fastball or twinkling with mischief, shut forever. The mouth—perfectly suited for spittin’ out rhymes, lame homework excuses, or jokes about yo’ mama—never to be heard again.”

Raymond’s former student Douglas Lee was just shy of seventeen when he was murdered under the Williamsburg Bridge. Upon looking at Dougie’s dead body, Raymond recalls that the teen had everything going for him. “Dougie was going to be different,” thinks Raymond, comparing him to other teens who grow up in the projects of Williamsburg and become too distracted to graduate from high school. Dougie had earned a scholarship to a private school on the Upper West Side – he “was going to be a success story people on both sides of the river would want to take credit for,” Raymond explains. “And now someone had taken all that away.”

Dougie’s body is found beneath the bridge, destroyed by knife wounds. When the police find out that he had been in a gang, they don’t do much more investigating. But when Ray meets with Dougie’s mother, she seems certain that her son was never part of a gang, and asks Ray to begin his own investigation. A former cop, Ray does whatever possible to dig into the case – but before long, one of Dougie’s private school friends is killed and another winds up in the hospital.

A gripping mystery that enlivens the streets of Brooklyn, “Crooked Numbers” carves O’Mara a place among the most talented of contemporary crime writers. The author will appear in Manhattan to speak about his work on Saturday, Feb. 8 at KGB Bar (85 East 4th Village) at 7 p.m. Street in the East.

In celebration of the book’s release, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to the O’Mara about his experience living and teaching in Brooklyn. He shares with us what he hopes Brooklyn students and teachers will take away from his writing, and offers a preview of what he’s working on now.

Where in Brooklyn have you lived and worked?

I lived and worked in Williamsburg/Greenpoint for about twelve years. I moved there in 1987 (Windsor Terrace for the first year) because I knew I wanted to work with inner-city kids and I don't have the commuter mentality.

Can you tell me a bit about how your experiences as a teacher in Brooklyn have shaped your writing/inspired you to write novels?

I decided to set my books in Williamsburg largely because of the kids I taught. I thought it would be a neat idea to have a white ex-cop from Long Island working with Black and Hispanic kids.

At the time I started teaching, the area was just beginning to undergo the gentrification and the conflicts that brought on were ripe for crime fiction. The kids I worked with had many encounters with folks from different cultures who were now sharing their "hood."

Working with inner-city kids in Williamsburg enabled me to encounter dozens of stories every day—they were walking into my classroom. These were kids with various challenges and  obstacles that I never had to face growing up in suburbia. The proximity to Manhattan played a big part in these kids’ lives. Here they were living in constant stress and just across the river was the “City of Dreams.”

I always felt my job was to throw as much knowledge and experience at them and hope more stuck than not. They had no idea what their future would bring, so the more they got exposed to new ideas, the more prepared they'd be.

What do you hope Brooklyn students and teachers take away from your work?

One thing I'd like kids and teachers in Brooklyn to take away from my books is that there is the potential to be a hero in every one of us. My main character, Raymond Donne, does things and crosses lines I'd never dream of. (Actually, that's not true, since I did write them.)

My books also show how important family is when facing crises—especially when the crisis is literally life and death. I also would like them to see the beauty of Williamsburg from a (somewhat) outsider's point of view. One of my biggest joys when living and working in Brooklyn was hopping on my bike and getting "lost." I found more places and people than I could ever hope to write about in my lifetime.

What are you working on now?

At the moment, I'm waiting for my editor's comments on my third Raymond novel, “Dead Red.” I'm also working on a novella that has nothing to do with Raymond, and I'm one of a dozen or so authors who are collaborating on a bank heist novel. I continue to host and co-produce a bi-weekly reading series on the Lower East Side and still spend lots of time writing lesson plans and becoming familiar with the Common Core (can't quit the day job just yet.)

February 6, 2014 - 11:00am



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