MysteryPeople Q&A with Terry Shames

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

Terry Shames’ latest Samuel Craddock novel, The Necessary Murder Of Nonie Blake, deals with identity and family in a small town. When a woman is murdered upon her return from years in a mental hospital, Craddock takes on the case and delves deep into small-town secrets. We are happy to be hosting Terry, along with Josh Stallings and Scott Franks, on Monday, February 1st, at 7 PM. We are delighted she was able to take some time to talk about the book and the community she’s created.


MysteryPeople Scott: Part of the book deals with mental illness – what did you want to get a across to the reader about that issue?

Terry Shames: I wish I had something profound and astute to say about this, but the fact is that Nonie Blake just showed up, as most of my characters do. I’m conflicted about Nonie. When you understand her motivation, you feel compassion for her, but her decisions manifest in a distorted way. there’s a hint that some of Nonie’s mental disturbance is passed down to her from her predecessors. I don’t believe in the “inheritance” of mental illness, but I do believe that the way a family repeats its mistakes can lead to the same results. I never intend to be didactic in my books. I want to present a scenario and explore all its facets and I hope my readers will put some thought into how and why people behave they do and the consequences of that behavior not just for the immediate friends and family, but for the community.

MPS: The idea of identity also plays a big part. What did you want to explore about that concept?

TS: Anybody who has read my books knows that identity plays a big part in my writing. I’m interested in people’s secret selves, i. e., the things that people believe about themselves that others would not suspect. The ways in which people want others to admire them and how they think they fall short—and how they sometimes misread this. Especially I like to explore how people want to be seen and the lengths they will go to to protect that. And finally, I like to explore how identities are tied up in family, friends ands community. Someone like Nonie Blake can a make a terrible mistake and their identity is forever tied up with that mistake. is that fair? Is it different for members of a small town than it is for people in a city, where they can be anonymous?

MPS: Samuel’s jurisdiction is getting populated with more and more characters. Do you have a favorite to write for?

TS: I love the people of Jarrett Creek. It’s a small-town, but even in a small town there are going to be people who never come to the attention of law enforcement. People tend to stay in their socio-economic groups—they socialize in their immediate neighborhood, with the people they work with, with people in their age group, people they attend church or entertainment events with. So unless some one breaks out and commits a criminal act or becomes a victim, the chief of police might not know them. That means there are always new people I can introduce. As for favorites, I love Loretta. The more I’ve written about her, the more dear she seems. In one of the books I tried to send her on vacation, but the book felt flat without her. I realized that she represents the voice of the community.

MPS: What makes Samuel a good investigator?

TS: Samuel knows his community and he has a feel for what makes people tick. That allows him to notice if things are out of whack. A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge was set outside his immediate community, though, and he still prevailed. Samuel has an analytical mind. In the latest book, he feels uncertain of his abilities. A fresh new recruit is sent to him by state law enforcement and he has some trouble adjusting. But his ability to observe and make connections eventually prevails.

“I think more to the point what I share with Samuel is compassion. I can hate what someone has done, and still feel sorry for the circumstances that lead them to stray from civil behavior. Very rarely I’ll feel that someone has stepped so far outside the human community that I despise them.”

MPS:  What is the biggest thing you share with him?

TS: What an interesting question. I once was invited to talk to a book club. One of the members said, “You are Samuel Craddock: Samuel likes wine, you like wine. Samuel likes art, you like art.” That’s true, but I think more to the point what I share with Samuel is compassion. I can hate what someone has done, and still feel sorry for the circumstances that lead them to stray from civil behavior. Very rarely I’ll feel that someone has stepped so far outside the human community that I despise them. Two great writers, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer explored the world of people who committed heinous crimes. Learning the kind of world a criminal inhabits frequently leads to compassion. It doesn’t mean I don’t think they should pay dearly for their crimes, but it does mean I acknowledge the extraordinary luck that makes most people a law-abiding person. I have a horror of committing an accidental crime that would lead to recrimination. I suspect that many people never even consider that possibility. But even being able to imagine that state leads me to be able to consider the despair someone has who makes one bad choice after another. Who am I to say that that person might have had a totally different life had he or she been born into a different environment. I think Samuel thinks that way, too.

MPS:  You’ll be sharing this event with our friend Josh Stallings. What do you like about his work?

TS: That’s an easy question to answer. When I read Josh’s work I feel as if I’m careening down a highway in a car with someone at the wheel who knows how to have fun, knows exactly where he’s going… and may be a little bit crazy. That may not appeal to everybody, but I love to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and my everyday life fall away. Young Americans was wonderful because it’s not only zany, it’s got a core of humanity—a lot like Josh Stallings.

Terry Shames joins Scott Frank and Josh Stallings on Monday, February 1st, at 7 PM, for an evening of up-and-coming authors. Rooted in tradition, yet helping to redefine the mystery genre for the 21st century, these three writers are not to be missed. Find out more about this event. You can find copies of Shames’ latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

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