Some authors spend months, maybe years, traveling the world in search of that perfect idea or story to write about.

Joe Souza stands beside his chair at Mill Creek Barber Shop in South Portland while ideas and stories, as well writers, come to him.

Turns out, most people need haircuts: writers, police officers, salesmen, chefs, insurance executives, parents. And it also turns out that the barber’s chair, particularly Souza’s barber chair, is a place where people really open up.

“The barber shop is one of the last places where people sit and talk. You can’t pull out your phone or watch TV, you sit there and have a conversation. And you’re captive to the barber,” said Souza, 53, author of eight books, mostly horror and crime fiction, some of them stories seeded by what he’s learned while working. “Sometimes people tell me too much, or email me for advice. The barber’s chair is a window on human nature.”

Not only does he get to listen to a great variety of people each day, gathering snippets of wisdom that inform his settings or characters, but he meets a lot of local writers. He counts a dozen or more writers (plus writers’ family members) among his regular customers. He’s introduced local writers to each other while they were waiting for a trim. He’s given critiques to writers in addition to giving them a haircut.

Steven Konkoly, a thriller author whose books include “Fractured State” and “The Perseid Collapse” series, said he started getting his hair cut by Souza about 15 years ago, purely by happenstance. But when he found out Souza was a writer too, Konkoly asked him to read what would become his first book, “The Jakarta Pandemic.”

“He read that all the way through and told me it was too long, that I should cut this or that, and I listened,” said Konkoly, 45, who now lives in Indiana. “Joe does a really good job with critiques, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but he’s always very constructive.”

Souza also talks writing outside of the barber shop. Until recently he was a member of the Pine Cone Writers Den, a Portland-area writers’ group that includes several of his barbering customers. Several of his works have won critical praise. His horror novel “The Reawakening” (Permuted Press) won the 2013 Maine Literary Award for Speculative Fiction. His short story “Loss Prevention” won the 2004 Andre Dubus Award in short fiction from the University of Southern Maine.

Souza writes whenever he can. He writes in the barbershop, in coffee shops, in between his son’s hockey games or while waiting for his daughter at a play rehearsal. He said he sells enough books to make part of his living by writing, maybe $15,000 to $20,000 in a good year. His first three books were published by Permuted Press, known for horror books. Then he turned to self-publishing through Amazon, and he has also had books published by Amazon’s Kindle Press, which selects works for publication as ebooks. Souza sees his writing as a small business, and he likes the business structure of publishing with Kindle Press. He says authors with Kindle Press get to keep 50 percent of all profits, a much higher percentage than what most major publishers allow. Plus Kindle markets its books.

That’s not to say Souza wouldn’t consider trying to get his books published by a major publisher, if the terms looked good to him. But he hasn’t done that yet. Souza says the way he has published his books has worked for him and allowed him to make money doing something he loves.

“To be successful these days, an author has to be entrepreneurial and hard-working,” he said. “It’s like being a barber. I get a percent of what I earn and so the more heads I cut the more I make. You can’t sit back and expect an agent or publishing company to push your career.”


Souza was born into a family of barbers. He grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, a working-class city outside of Boston. His father was a barber, as are uncles, cousins, and brothers. When he was a teenager, his father sent him to barber school, telling him he’d have something to fall back some day.

Souza went to Northeastern University in Boston, where he got a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in history. Later, he’d get a masters in education at the University of Washington.

While at Northeastern, he got a job through the school’s co-op program with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington. It was the early 1980s, and he helped compile information on international drug lords and smuggling operations. He also worked for a while selling lobsters on the South Boston waterfront, when infamous gangster Whitey Bulger was running his operation in that neighborhood.

He thought about going to law school, but a job in a law office convinced him not to. He said he worked as a paralegal for a firm that was defending a company accused of contaminating water in Woburn, Massachusetts, where a high number of people with leukemia was found. The book and movie “A Civil Action” were based on the case. Souza said he didn’t want a career where he might have to “work for the bad guys.”

Souza was always an avid reader. He’s long been a fan of John Irving for “his amazing story-telling skills” and of mystery and crime writers like Robert Parker and George V. Higgins. He started writing fiction seriously in college. He found that various jobs he had, including with the DEA and in the law office, gave him lots of ideas for stories.

Later, he taught middle and high school in Seattle, and he met his wife while on the West Coast. But years of teaching in urban schools was wearing on him. He wanted to write in his spare time, but found he had little energy after spending all day in school and nights grading papers.

He needed to find something else to do that would also allow him to write. He needed something to fall back on, like his father said he might.

He also wanted to move back to the East Coast. He had a friend in Scarborough and thought the area might be a nice place to work, write and raise a family. In 2001, he started looking for jobs. He called Mill Creek Barber Shop, a multi-chair shop near South Portland’s Mill Creek Park. They asked how soon he could start.


Souza generally works at the barbershop Wednesday through Saturday. But he also has two teenage children, so it’s not like all his non-barbering time is devoted to writing. Still, the barbering schedule allows him to write, and he’s taught himself to write in any space, under all conditions.

SOUTH PORTLAND, ME - AUGUST 26: South Portland barber Joe Souza, the author of eight horror and crime novels, is reflected in a mirror as he cuts Wade Merritt's hair at Mill Creek barber shop. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

Joe Souza is reflected in a mirror as he cuts Wade Merritt’s hair at Mill Creek barber shop. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I don’t know where he gets the energy. I’ll get there at 6:15 a.m. on a Saturday and he’s there, and he’s on his feet all day,” said Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, a long-time customer. “He’s just one of those guys, no matter where he was, people would talk to him.”

Souza’s book ideas come mostly from his natural curiosity, enhanced by tidbits he picks up in the barbershop. He bases some of his characters on customers, though he’d rather not say which ones, to protect people’s privacy.

A recent book, “Unpaved Surfaces,” draws upon the local culinary scene and the fact that Souza cuts the hair of chefs. It’s a drama, set in a town based on Cape Elizabeth, focused on a family that had a child go missing. The book is more about the aftermath, the family dealing with the tragedy a year later.

The book he’s working on now is a mystery set in a rural Maine college town, and it involves a local brewery. He based the brewery on the new Fore River Brewing Co. in South Portland, a favorite meeting spot for Souza and some writer friends.

Souza’s subjects are quite varied. He also wrote a book that features a zombie apocalypse, “Darpocalypse,” and one about the ebola virus being used as a weapon of world domination, “Lethal Chain.”

“He can work really fast, and he moves so comfortably from writing about zombies to family drama to crime,” said Julie Kingsley, a writer and writing teacher at Southern Maine Community College, who met Souza because he cuts her husband’s hair. “He’s someone in command of who he is.”

In Souza’s own description of himself, he shies away from the term author.

“When I was young I thought I’d be like John Irving, but that’s not how it is for me. Publishing is so tough these days,” Souza said. “I consider myself a barber who writes stories.”