Q&A with Kathleen Kent

While she’s a respected historical fiction author, Kathleen Kent is new to
crime fiction. In The Dime, she introduces us to Betty Rhyzyk, a tall, red-headed, lesbian cop from Brooklyn whose first big case after transferring to Dallas gets her neck deep in drugs, cartels, and murder. We caught up with Kathleen to ask few questions before she joins Joe Lansdale for a signing and discussion at BookPeople on February 23rd.

MysteryPeople Scott: Betty Rhyzyk first appeared in a short story as a part of the anthology Dallas Noir.  Did you know you wanted to do more with her after writing that?

Kathleen Kent: I’ve always loved contemporary crime fiction, but never tried my hand at it until the editor of Dallas Noir asked me to submit a short story for the collection.  A cousin of mine is an undercover cop in Dallas and I asked him for some true-life incidents—things taken from his own experiences.  After some prodding, and promises to change the names, dates and places, he provided me with some hair-raising stories.  Out of those stories Det. Betty Rhyzyk was born.  I truly thought that the short story would be a one-and-done project, but the character stayed with me.  And, at the urging of my agent, I started developing an outline for a novel-length work, which grew into The Dime.  It took me about a year to complete the book once I found the voice and narrative style.

MPS:  Since the story is based in Dallas, why did you decide to make her a fish out of water from New York?

KK: I grew up in Dallas, but after college moved to New York, living and working there for twenty years.  Returning to Dallas to raise my son in 2000 was an eye-opening experience.  For a while, I too felt like a fish out of water.  And, for all the wonderful things about living in Dallas, I was baffled by some of the more exotic expressions of Texas pride, like Confederate reenactment groups: grown men wearing costumes and reconstructing battles from the 1800’s, using muskets and chuck wagons. It’s always interesting, I think, to give your fictional characters obstacles and challenges right out of the starting gate.  For Betty, being a six-foot tall, redheaded, in-your-face, Yankee, lesbian cop,those challenges came, not only in pursuing the criminals, but in learning to negotiate her way through the predominantly Southern, male police force where she worked.

MPS: Dallas is a character itself in the book and one that Betty appears to be in a fight with. What did you want to say about the city?

KK: Dallas is nothing if not a city of contrasts.  I’ve heard that we have more plastic surgeons now than L.A., spend more on lawn care than Beverly Hills, and have built more churches per capita than any other city in the U.S.  Big D has sunk billions into glittering buildings, gargantuan sports arenas, world-class museums and city parks.  And yet, for all of the local “pretty”, we have enormous problems with drugs, growing numbers of homeless citizens, and a thriving prostitution industry.  I wanted to expose the darker underbelly of Dallas, the kinds of things that often do not make the five o’clock news; the events which have caused considerable tension amongst its more privileged, insulated inhabitants.

MPS: You’re mainly known for historicals.  Did you find any challenges with a
contemporary novel?

KK: The tone of The Dime is very different from my previous novels. I wanted the overall narrative to feel more urgent, the pacing faster, the dialogue, more contemporary. I still had to do research, but a lot of it was trying to get active-duty cops to talk to me, which
proved to be difficult.  I’m a civilian, and they have much to protect.  There are a lot of grey areas in undercover work, so most of the information I got was from retired cops.  Retired cops are the best, and, happily, will talk your ear off.  I did spend some time lurking around a few darkened alleyways, and seedy beer halls, dodging big, hairy guys wearing leather and praying I wouldn’t be mugged. Fortunately, I wasn’t.

MPS: What do you have in store for Betty next?

KK: I’m well on my way to finishing the second Det. Betty Rhyzyk novel. It’ll be a stand alone story, but with connecting threads to The Dime. There will be a few familiar faces, and a few new ones to give Betty nightmares.  She will, of course, continue battling the cartels, and in some cases, members of her own team.   And there will be more of Betty’s backstory, more of what made her a “ferocious” woman.

MPS: Part of your book tour is with Joe Lansdale.  How do you prepare for something like that?

KK: Joe and I have been paired together for author talks in the past, at the Texas Book Festival and at book stores.  Whenever I get the chance, I always go to one of his author talks, which are off the cuff, intimate and very, very funny.   Joe and I both grew up in East Texas and his stories, both written and spoken, resonate deeply with me.   We both have a love for contemporary crime as well as for historical fiction, and I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to share the upcoming book tour with him, as his new Hap and Leonard series novel, Rusty Puppy, will be launched at the same time.

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