Interview and Introduction by MysteryPeople Contributor Scott Butki
Ace Atkins, in his Mississippi-set Quinn Colson series, has written an amazing series full of fascinating well-developed characters dealing with creative plotlines. Too often book series focus too much on character at the expense of an interesting plot, or are guilty of the opposite; in possession of a good plot but thinly developed characters.
I’ve been praising this series for several years and I marvel that, with his new book, The Innocents, Atkins has upped his game even further. For The Innocents, the sixth in the series, he has made some significant changes: namely, Quinn isn’t sheriff for this novel and there’s a disturbing image at the heart of the book.
If writing this series was all Atkins did that’d be enough for many. But Atkins was also tapped, in 2011, by the Robert Parker estate to continue the Spenser series. He’s done a great job and I count his Spenser books as better than Parker’s late period books. As long as Ace keeps cranking out books, for both good series, I’m going to keep reading him and I urge you do to the same.
Ace kindly agreed to an interview about his latest novel and his ever-growing body of work. He’ll be joining us at BookPeople this upcoming Saturday, July 16th, at 3 PM, to speak and sign his latest Quinn Colson novel, The Innocents.
Scott Butki: Which came first with this book, the plot, the new characters and/or the striking image of a girl walking while on fire? And where DID that girl-walking-while-on-fire come from?
Ace Atkins: The image of the girl for sure. A similar crime happened here in north Mississippi in 2014. While this is in no way the telling of the Jessica Chambers story, the horrific crime certainly was the starting point for the book. For a long while, even while I was writing the novel, it seemed her murder would remain unsolved. Thankfully someone has now been charged with her killing and awaiting trial.
SB: Fannie Hathcock, the new operator of the local strip club is quite a fascinating well-developed character. How did you come up with her?
AA: Well, she’s based on a couple of legendary Southern criminals. Fannie has roots in my earlier novel, Wicked City. There was a true life brother operator in Phoenix City, Alabama named Fannie Belle. They are definitely kindred spirits. She also has a lot in common with a woman named Louise Hathcock, a tough edged Southern criminal who battled the famed Buford Pusser back in the day. Put those two women together and you better get out of the damn way!
SB: I enjoyed having Lillie, in this book, serve as acting sheriff. Did you choose to do that to serve as a reminder of how she would operate as sheriff versus Quinn?
AA: I think to have Lillie in charge for this book worked in two ways. It’s a change up from the previous novels, except for The Ranger. (Of course, Lillie has always been the more skilled detective. She served as Quinn’s law enforcement mentor since the start. ) But mainly it was a connection to the previous novel, The Redeemers. We promised Quinn was out as sheriff and I wanted to follow through with that storyline. I believe most fans return to Quinn and his world down South to see what’s going to happen next in the big picture.
“I am pretty much retired from being a journalist. Although some stories are too damn good to pass up.”
SB: You have some of the best crime writers around – Lee Child, Michael Connelly, C.J. Box and Megan Abott – singing your praise? How does that feel? Do you feel a pressure by that? When you started writing fiction did you ever think you’d reach this point?
AA: It’s always great to hear people you read and respect like what you do. I’m a big fan of all those authors. I wouldn’t say I feel any pressure. But I certainly want to do my best. I’ve been writing novels a long time, for almost 20 years. To get respect and support from the crime novel community is very much appreciated.
SB: I understand that you haven’t entirely abandoned the non-fiction work you did as a newspaper reporter. What kind of topics do you write about?
I am pretty much retired from being a journalist. Although some stories are too damn good to pass up. I recently wrote an expose of a con man here in Mississippi with the help of an old friend from my former newspaper, Michael Fechter. I wish I had more time to report and write but two books a year keeps me plenty busy. Here’s the story in Outside magazine.
SB: Do you have a favorite among your novels?
AA: I do. I obviously love writing about Quinn and the world of Tibbehah County. But I’m partial to my book, Infamous. It’s the story of George “Machine Gun” Kelly. It’s a fun, crazy story that’s almost all true. I’m very proud of the research and work that went into it. I hope to return to the “True Crime” format sometime soon.
SB: Would you like readers new to the Quinn series to start with the first book or just start anywhere?
AA: You can start anywhere. But I think readers get more out of it by starting with The Ranger and reading in order. Each novel has big events that are self-contained. However, there are many long story arcs that grow in the series. It’s much like binge watching a cable TV series. It’s really just one big story.
SB: For a while you were working with someone who optioned your Quinn Colson series for television. Whatever happened with that?
AA: That’s still in the works but first up is a film. The Quinn books have been optioned by longtime Hollywood vet, director/producer Jeremiah Chechik. I’m writing the script right now with my writing partner, Jack Pendarvis, an Emmy award winning TV writer. Jeremiah and I have some big plans for this series. First up, The Ranger.
“I believe the continued success of the Spenser books isn’t just about writing the character but giving him a solid story to follow. A great character falls flat without a mission.”
SB: Are you at this point alternating between the Spenser book and the Quinn books? Do you ever come up with plot lines or characters where you have to decide which character’s universe to put them?
AA: Yes! All the time. However, it often boils down to Southern vs. Boston stories and which would work better for a PI vs. a sheriff. That much said, I could easily switch the story I’m writing right now from Spenser to Quinn. I believe the continued success of the Spenser books isn’t just about writing the character but giving him a solid story to follow. A great character falls flat without a mission.
SB: What’s next for you?
AA: I’m writing the Spenser for 2017 and polishing the film script for The Ranger. In the fall, I’ll be returning to Tibbehah County and working on the seventh Quinn book. I can’t wait. This next story may be the best idea I’ve had yet!
SB: Thanks for all the great books.
AA: Thank you, Scott!!
Scott Butki interviews authors for MysteryPeople and other sites. You can see an index of his interview with authors and other artists here.