Milwaukee author Zhanna Slor is releasing her sophomore noir crime novel, Breakfall on April 4. And while the mysterious circumstances of the murder are fabricated by Slor, the story is inspired by her experience training in martial arts.
“Jiu Jitsu is a practice of self-defense where you can literally learn to kill somebody with your bare hands,” says Slor. “It’s easy to get caught up in it, and grow obsessive.”
While the sport could attract people who are looking to improve their agility and strength, Slor believes the practice can also nurture someone’s inner violence.
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The story of Breakfall takes place in Chicago and follows two lovers in the aftermath of messy divorces. The main characters Mina and Matthew were caught having an affair by their respective spouses. The story picks up as both characters are trying to rebuild their lives post-divorce, and find themselves still intoxicated by one another, and the community of the Jiu Jitsu gym where they met.
When the body of a fellow Jiu Jitsu member shows up in a dumpster, Matthew, who is a cop, and Mina find themselves woven into the story of the death. Both characters start to question each other as they slowly figure out they are a lot more enmeshed in the violence of this murder than they thought they were.
Inconspicuous plot lines, one-off remarks and small behaviors come back into play toward the end of the book as the murderer, and the circumstances of the crime, are revealed to the reader in a literary crescendo that makes you wonder how you missed the clues all along.
[SPOILERS STOP HERE]
Breakfall is Slor’s second crime novel, her debut book At the End of the World, Turn Left (2021) takes place in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. The second time around, it only took Slor four months to complete a novel.
“My first book was a struggle and it took so many rewrites,” says Slor. “It took five to seven years to get right. It started off as an essay collection, then it turned into a literary novel. And then half the book, which follows the other sister, didn’t even come into the story until the last year.”
After so many years of writing her debut novel, Slor wanted to take a break before diving into another story. However, once she started attending Jiu Jitsu classes, the plot started developing in her thoughts behind the scenes, and it wasn’t too much longer until she was ready to put pen to paper.
“I told myself I’m going to take a break from writing, I deserve it,” says Slor. “Two months later I had so many ideas, it was the week my first book came out and right around the time I started Jiu Jitsu.”
Slor was born in Ukraine and came to southeastern Wisconsin in the mid ’90s. She grew up without a TV in the house so she immersed herself in the world of books, a habit she has yet to break.
“I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven, since I learned English basically,” says Slor. “I got obsessed with reading and it was just decided that I wanted to be a writer. And I never changed my mind about it.”
Slor spent nearly 10 years figuring out how to write a book, including navigating the logistics of publication, a notoriously difficult world to break into.
“I went the normal route of emailing 1,000,000 people, and it took forever to get a ‘yes,’” says Slor. She says it wasn’t until she started working with her editor that her first novel turned into a crime story.
“She told me ‘I feel like you’re scared to write crime scenes.’ and I told her ‘I think I am, I’m intimidated,” explains Slor. “I had been putting it off and skipping over it. She told me ‘this is crime fiction, you can’t just skip over it.,’ Once I got past that barrier I wrote all the crime elements in one sitting.”
Slor wanted Breakfall to be a literary novel, solely about an affair and the dynamics of a Jiu Jitsu gym. “Halfway through I was like, this needs a murder,” says Slor. “I guess I’m just writing crime fiction forever now.”
The book’s impeccable pacing and suspenseful plot make it a fun and fast-paced read for fans of literary murder, sex and violence. Readers can step into Slor’s story on April 4, when the novel is set to release. Slor is hosting a book release party in collaboration with Lion’s Tooth at Sugar Maple on Saturday, April 8.