Ace Atkins has gotten to be one of MysteryPeople’s good friends. Not only is he one of the best writers currently out there (Edgar nominated in the past two years), he’s a great supported of the genre, bookstores, and all around good. At 7PM, May 31st, between our annual Shiner Bock and BBQ get together, I’ll be moderating a Q&A with Ace for his signing of two new books, The Broken Places with his original series character Quinn Colson and Wonderland, his second book that continues Robert B Parker’s Spenser series. To get an idea of the discussion, here’s a quick interview we did recently.
MysteryPeople: Do you think Quinn has changed any since The Ranger?
Ace Atkins: Perhaps a bit more understanding? Ten years as a U.S. Army Ranger can harden a man. But returning home, being with his family, and seeing problems on home soil humanizes him a bit.
MP: A tornado plays a major part in The Broken Places. Since that is a disaster many have experienced and all have seen on the news, how did you approach writing it?
AA: A tornado touched down maybe a mile and a half from my farm two years ago. After tearing through a small community called Pine Flat, it skipped over to Smithville, Mississippi. The entire town of Smithville was destroyed. The story of Jericho is probably only half of what happened to Smithville. That entire town was destroyed and has yet to recover. A year later, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal published a retrospective of the tornado that included wonderfully written first-hand accounts. I owe a lot to that reporter, Kristina Goetz.
MP: In this series you tackle a subject some authors try to avoid, religion. Can you write about the South without dealing with it?
AA: I am not what I would call a religious person. But as a Southern writer, you can’t avoid religion. It’s in every aspect of Southern life, whether it should be or not. Every political campaign in Mississippi tries to show their candidate is more of a Christian than the opponent — often overshadowing the real issues. Some of the religion is true and genuine, too. And as a writer, you must write about both.
MP: Country songs and musicians, both old and new, get referenced frequently in the book. Does the form have a particular influence in this series?
AA: Music has played a huge role in my writing since my very first novel, Crossroad Blues. I’ve learned a lot about writing from musicians I admire — from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash. When I first started writing The Ranger, I wanted it to read like/sound like a Johnny Cash ballad.
MP: One of the main characters in Wonderland is Sixkill, the Cree and PI in training who Parker introduced in his last Spenser novel. Did you feel like you had more license with this character than some of more established ones in the series?
AA: That’s a great question. Yes, in some ways I think I am able to complete the idea of a character that Parker created in his last work. There is not much to discuss about Hawk. Hawk is Hawk. And I wouldn’t try and tell you anymore about him. Sixkill has lots to tell me and readers. And is the perfect character to complement this stage of Spenser’s career.
MP: Wonderland reminded me of me of one of your favorite Spenser books, Early Autumn, in by having Spenser mentor somebody, you learn about him and his code. What did you want to get across about who Spenser is?
AA: Spenser taught Paul how to live his life on his own terms. He’s teaching Sixkill the same lessons but compounded by making a living and surviving in a violent world. One does not become Spenser or Hawk overnight. He is a work in process. Spenser is passing down his talents and skills. For him to want to work with Sixkill tells us more about Sixill than Spenser. Spenser is not a man to waste his time.
MP: After writing in the world’s of Spenser and Quinn Colson what similarities have you found in Boston and Mississippi?
AA: Ha! Actually many. Deep religion. Dirty politics. You don’t step on a man’s honor in the deep South or South Boston. Southerners and people from Boston all come from the same place pretty much.