Nostalgia & Progress in a Small Texas Town: MysteryPeople Q&A with Melissa Lenhardt

The Fisher King is an involving follow up to to Stillwater, Melissa Lenhardt’s small town hard boiled featuring Jack McBride, a newly appointed police chief in his Texas hometown up a against a corrupt political fixer. Here the battle deepens and continues in an engaging manner. Our Meike Alana caught up with Melissa who with be discussing small town crime fiction with Terry Shames and James Ziskin at BookPeople on Tuesday, January 24th, at 7 PM.

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Meike Alana: Your fictional town of Stillwater faces an issue that confronts many small Texas towns—the age old conflict between maintaining the integrity of small town life and embracing the growth that would generate jobs and income. Was there a particular town that you modelled Stillwater after?

Melissa Lenhardt: A few years ago I attended a Texas historical conference and heard an academic speak about two west Texas towns within twenty miles of each other that had two very different histories. One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy.

I thought it would be interesting to explore these two opposing civic ideas in my fictional town of Stillwater. Joe Doyle likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better. Being a master manipulator, he uses the nostalgia argument to convince good people to go along with his ideas. Ellie, on the other hand, sees the town is dying, and knows the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.

I started writing The Fisher King in 2013, well before nostalgia versus progress became the central issue of the presidential election. The battle between the two ideologies isn’t new, and there isn’t an easy answer, though I suppose we’ll see over the next four years how well the nostalgia theory works in reality.

“I started writing The Fisher King in 2013, well before nostalgia versus progress became the central issue of the presidential election. The battle between the two ideologies isn’t new, and there isn’t an easy answer, though I suppose we’ll see over the next four years how well the nostalgia theory works in reality.”

MA: When we first met hero Jack McBride in your first novel, he had taken the job as police chief because he thought it would be an easy gig and a way to escape the memories surrounding his failed marriage. That was only 6 weeks ago, and Stillwater has experienced more crime in that short amount of time than it probably has since it was founded—and now the ex-wife has moved to town, determined to win Jack back. Yet you don’t paint Jack as the stereotypical white knight who does no wrong while solving all the world’s problems—he’s a flawed human being who sometimes struggles to do the right thing. What was your inspiration for Jack?

ML: I can’t point to one person who was inspiration for Jack. I did have a very clear idea of what I didn’t want Jack to be, and that was the stereotypical tortured loner cop who drinks too much and has a big dark secret haunting him. Those characters are as boring to read about as white knights are. I wanted him to have a strength of character that is constantly tested, but that doesn’t always pass the test. I think the best thing I did for Jack was have him get his ass kicked before page 100 of Stillwater. It established his fallibility as a cop, and put him on guard that Stillwater wasn’t Mayberry, like he’d hoped. The second-best thing I did was have him fall in love. His willingness to open himself to Ellie shows his deep well of trust and hope in the goodness of people. Those two sides of his personality are constantly at war, and that makes him fun to write.

MA: With everything else going south in his life, Jack is also dealing with a moody teenager who has his own hormonal issues—and that makes Jack seem all the more real. What prompted you to incorporate his parenting conflicts into the book?

ML: Giving him a teenager was part in parcel of making sure Jack didn’t check out from the world after Julie left. He couldn’t. What easier way to humanize a character than make them a parent? What easier way to insert tension than to make the child a teenager?

“I think the best thing I did for Jack was have him get his ass kicked before page 100 of Stillwater…The second-best thing I did was have him fall in love.”

MA: Who are some authors you take inspiration from?

ML: Deborah Crombie, Deanna Raybourn, Larry McMurtry, Kate Morton, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anne Bronte…

MA: What are you reading right now?

ML: I’m listening to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and Middlemarch by George Eliot. I’m reading The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith.

MA: Is there another Stillwater book in the works?

ML: I should be able to start the next Stillwater mystery later this year. Currently I’m working on a historical fiction book I’m under contract for. I do have a completed novel set in Stillwater with Kelly Kendrick, Ellie’s best friend, as the main character. But it’s women’s fiction, not a mystery, and between getting The Fisher King and the Sawbones series ready to publish, I haven’t been able to polish it up for submission. I hope it sees the light of day one day.

MA: I know you have a new series that you’re working on, can you tell us a little bit about that?

ML: My Sawbones historical fiction trilogy will be released in April, May and June of 2017. It’s about a female physician who is falsely accused of murder in 1871 and goes West to start a new life with a new name. Of course, things don’t go as planned and she’s chased by Pinkertons and bounty hunters across Texas and Indian Territory, down the Mississippi River and back west to Cheyenne.

The historical fiction novel I’m working on now is a stand-alone, but a character or two from the Sawbones series might make a cameo. It’s early days on the new MS, but it’s tough leaving my Sawbones characters behind, I love them all so much.

You can find copies of The Fisher King on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Melissa Lenhardt comes to BookPeople to speak and sign her latest on Tuesday, January 23rd at 7 PM. She’ll be joined by authors Terry Shames and James W. Ziskin. 

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