Q&A with Mike McCrary

In Steady Trouble, Mike McCrary introduces us to Steady Teddy, an Austin bartender, floating casino manager, part time pimp, and amusement park princess. She finds a way for life to get more interesting when an offer to inherit a art of a millionaires wealth puts her in the cross hairs of the man’s greedy and murderous family. Even by McCrary’s standards this book does not let up. We talked to Mike about the novel and the character at its center.

Mike McCrary will be joining Rick Ollerman and Eryk Pruitt for an event at BookPeople next Monday, November 6th, at 7pm. Hope to see you there! 

Image result for mike mccrary authorMysteryPeople Scott: The forward momentum of Steady Trouble is relentless. What do you attribute this to?

Mike McCrary: Thank you. It’s not by accident. I think it’s a constant fear that I have, a panic even, that I will not entertain the person reading the thing. I simply don’t want to bore people. Perhaps to a fault.

I don’t want anyone who picks up any of my books to not be entertained. I’m sure it’s happened, for one reason or another, but I guess I want to make sure I do as much as I can on my end to keep the pages burning along and for people have a good time.

I write with the intent to entertain. Not to wow them about how I can describe trees and shit.

MPS: How did the character of Teddy come about?

MM: I knew I wanted to do something a little different from my other stuff. I wanted a character who was damaged, but in a different way than the usual crime / thriller badass heroes.

Image result for mike mccrary authorShe’s not a raving alcoholic cop with a dead partner or disgraced hit man out to help the world be a better place. She’s was involved in a horrible attack during childhood that she doesn’t even remember because she suffered a head injury during the incident. Some characters might have taken that tragedy and folded up into a drug addict or turned it into an inspiration and become a lawyer or whatever, but this trauma molded Teddy into something different. Not a victim or a shining light of goodness, but something else.

She became a force of nature created in her own image. She’s carved out a strange life for herself, but all on her terms. I wanted readers to have sympathy for her but never pity her. That character setup also allows for a lot of great twists and turns because we’re learning about her as she learns about herself and a past that she didn’t know existed.    

MPS: Did writing a female lead make anything different?

MM: Not really.

I was very purposeful on how I created her. I didn’t take the story into places that I didn’t think I could do justice to. I also didn’t make it some male fantasy, sex tale with kinky shit on every other page. I made her a person who’d been through some tough stuff, but could handle it. I tried to think of strong women I’ve known, put them in that situation and tried to think about what they might do. It could have easily been a male lead, not to dump on my gender, but I thought Steady Teddy needed to be more than that.

MPS: Was there any challenge in writing for a lead of a different gender than yourself?

MM: Some, but the biggest challenges were from a technical side more than anything else.

Really it was just getting into the mindset of her each day before writing. It’s written in first person so I had to be aware of using words that associated myself with being female. After a few days it was pretty easy, perhaps more than I care to admit, but it wasn’t any different than taking on any other lead I’ve written. Once you get past the obvious stuff, you simply write the character. She’s a person involved in a situation, like any male character, and then you write to entertain. Not like I was typing things like, “Damn, my vagina is bothering me today.”

MPS: What draws you to protagonists who don’t follow the most virtuous path?

MM: More fun. More interesting. That’s probably the short answer.

I read somewhere that Superman is hard to pull off now because society today is too cynical to believe anyone is that pure and good. Maybe that’s true, maybe not, but I’ve always had a fascination with people that live and roam in the margins. We’re all a mess. We’ve all got our travels in the dark, some darker than others, so I think readers identify and like to explore characters that aren’t perfect or even vaguely close. The ones that are trying best they can, but keep falling short. That can’t get out of their own way. Much like all of us at times.

MPS: You are also doing your fourth Remo book. What can you tell us about it?

MM: Yeah, this will be the fourth and perhaps the last Remo for a while at least. It’s called Remo Went Off and will be out in November. I’m very happy with the way it’s turned out. I’m also very happy that I got to do the Remo series the way I wanted to. People have been very kind and seem to have great affection for the character despite the fact he’s pretty much an asshole.

If you enjoyed the other three then this one will not disappoint. There’s all the action, profanity, fun, jokes and insanity that I’ve had a blast writing. As I look at the four books as a set, it’s crazy to think the entire story only really takes place over a few days. Fun days for the readers, and the writer, but not so much for Remo.

Remo has been a fixture in my writing life, I owe the man a lot, and he’s been good to me. Despite what I’ve put him through.

Mike McCrary will be joining Rick Ollerman and Eryk Pruitt for an event at BookPeople next Monday, November 6th, at 7pm. Hope to see you there! 

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Guest Post: Terry Shames on Sisters in Crime

We’re wrapping up our 30th Anniversary tribute to Sisters In Crime with essays from its members. We go to the president of the northern California chapter and MysteryPeople favorite, Terry Shames. Terry is known for her books featuring Samuel Craddock, an widowed police chief in a central Texas town. In her essay, Terry talks about being at one of the founding meetings of Sisters In Crime.

sisters in crime logo

Thirty years ago two writer friends convinced me to attend Bouchercon in Baltimore. They told me I’d have a blast. As an aspiring mystery writer, I’d not only learn a lot, but I’d meet lots of mystery writers and fans. They were right. I met writers I was in awe of, and found them to be warm and friendly. I was in heaven. As a beginner, I soaked up not just the atmosphere, but the information I heard on panels I attended.

What I remember most about the conference, though, is that my friends invited me to tag along to hear writer Sarah Paretsky talk about an idea for a new organization that would be geared to supporting female crime writers. It was common knowledge that although half of crime writers were women, the lion’s share of awards, reviews, interviews, and buzz went to male writers. Sarah wanted to change that.

Sarah’s talk was inspiring. It wasn’t mean-spirited. There was no talk of men not deserving recognition. It was about women deserving a share of the goodies. There were men in the audience as well; men who came to cheer on women, who they thought deserved better as well.

I, along with most of the women there, signed up enthusiastically for the new organization, Sisters in Crime. How could I have known that thirty years later I would be president of our northern California chapter of what has become a vibrant national organization.

The value I have received from Sisters in Crime is immeasurable. I’ve met both women and men dedicated to the idea that when one succeeds, we all succeed. When I started writing in earnest several years after that initial conference, I heard about a sub-group of the organization called The Guppies (the great unpublished). This was a group of women writers who were determined to be published. They wanted to help each other by exchanging information, tips on agents and publishers who were eager to hear from new writers; conferences and workshops that were especially helpful. The membership also exchanged virtual hugs when someone was disappointed; advice; warnings of predatory people in the publishing field; and finally, high fives when someone had success. The membership also included seasoned writers who wanted to participate in giving unpublished writers all the help they could.

This has been my experience through the years with Sisters in Crime. The dedication to supporting sister writers succeed was not just an empty slogan. I see it play out daily, in the email list serve where people ask for advice and opinions, and receive thoughtful responses. When you ask a “sister” for help, there’s always someone listening and willing to step up. Members are eager to exchange manuscripts for mutual critiques. They alert other members to valuable workshops. They ask compelling questions about writing and publishing, and many members join in the conversation.

From that meeting thirty years ago to the present Sisters in Crime has grown to a national force for women in the crime writing field. I am proud to be a part of it. In fact, I have just completed a week long retreat with six other “sisters” whom I would never have met had it not been for Sisters in Crime.

Sophomore Triumph: Laura McHugh Strikes Hard in Arrowood

Laura McHugh is a writer to be delighted in—a crime author who both seems old to the genre while creating incredibly new and ambitious works of fiction adored by fans and critics alike.  Her debut novel, The Weight of Blood, won the International Thrillers Writer award, lining up McHugh with the toughest of her competition.  Ms. McHugh is known to be a night writer, and this comes through with many of her scenes in her two novels to date—including her most recent stellar accomplishment, Arrowood.

Arrowood is at once a dark tale of crime and corruption and a vivid family saga.  McHugh incorporates some of the best of her own locale and the history of her characters in creating one of the most vivid and suspenseful reads I’ve come across in quite some time. While The Weight of Blood is frankly flooring, Arrowood takes the idea of memory, family, and the unreliable narrator to such new heights it’s remarkable this novel even exists.

One immediately thinks of fellow-heavyweight Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places when approaching Arrowood’s premise. A young woman returns home after many years—and creating and cultivating many secrets of her own—only to be contacted by the leader of a group of people who try and solve murder mysteries, a man who believes he has solved the mystery of what happened to her sisters decades before. It’s a spicy premise but the similarities between these two great novels pretty much stop here.  Arrowood is a novel not to be defined by comparisons, defying all expectations inside its pages.

Arrowood is at once strikingly brilliant, incredibly frightening (so much it makes one seem vulnerable in the best and worst of ways), intriguing in its mystery and enchanting in its incredibly elaborate setting.  McHugh weaves a nearly perfect narrative, with a pitch perfect voice for the story, around a decades old mystery that seems both impossible and inevitable to be solved.  The reader learns early own how they will be completely satisfied with the conclusion of McHugh’s sophomore effort, if only because of Ms. McHugh’s writing abilities, so all-encompassing and wise-beyond-their-years.

Returning to the comparison between Gillian Flynn and Laura McHugh—and there really is no true comparison, these are two women who write in their own right, in their own way, in their own settings, in their own voices, with stories like loaded pistols ready to be fired right in their readers’ direction—the crossing of ideas and storylines, the telling of two similar stories by two completely different writers seems inevitable here.  Just as Gillian Flynn had to expose the murky, dirty side of one untruth, so Laura McHugh has to expose her own.  If anything is to be learned from McHugh’s novels, it’s that we know nothing, not the novel’s ending, not the novel’s twists and turns, and certainly not ourselves, either as the reader or the narrator.  But what narrator really knows their own story?

As for McHugh’s third book, little is known about the follow-up that can probably only be described as “epic.” Count Laura McHugh with other Lauras (like Ms. Lippman), with the Gillian Flynns and the Megan Abbotts and the Alison Gaylins of the world.  She deserves the credit that’s due to her, and any reader deserves the chance to find themselves lost in the pages of her novels.

Sisters In Crime: Guest Post from VP Noreen Cedeno

We continue celebrating the 30th Anniversary Of Sisters In Crime by posting a guest blog from The Heart Of Texas Members (a.k.a. HotSinc) with it’s current vice president Noreen Cedeno, who gives a candid look at the group events open to the public that occur on our BookPeople third floor every second Sunday of the month.

Sisters in Crime, NOT a Group of Female Ex-convicts

Sisters in Crime is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Who are Sisters in Crime and what do we do?

Once a visitor inquired at our meeting: Is this a meeting for female ex-convicts?

Uhhmm, no. We are writers and readers of crime fiction. All writers and readers of crime fiction are welcome to join. Our meetings are open to the public. And yes, male members are welcome to join and be our siblings in crime.

Another visitor wrote to me after a meeting: “I was a bit surprised to find not a women’s political meeting but a mixed gathering for a talk on hypnotism!!”

Well, yes, our meetings are not women-only political rallies. We are here to support female crime writers in a variety of practical ways, but we don’t discriminate, so everyone is welcome at our meetings.

One way we help our writers improve their craft is by widening their knowledge base. Writers can’t research a topic that they don’t know exists, have never heard of, or can’t imagine. Conversely, some topics are so involved, attempting research leads to outdated or overwhelming amounts of information. Therefore, at some of our meetings, we strive to help crime writers improve their craft by succinctly presenting topics that may be useful in a story.

So yes, you might walk into a meeting on hypnosis presented by a psychologist. We’ve had presentations on poisons, drones, and what different caliber bullets do to the human body. We’ve had a JAG lawyer introduce us to the military justice system. We’ve had guest speakers from just about every law enforcement group we can find.

Accuracy and authenticity are vital in writing! Nothing annoys a reader faster than an author getting details wrong. The Austin Police Department Bomb Squad was particularly nice, bringing not only their dog, Dax, but also “det cord” and C-4 for us to pass around during their presentation. It’s easier to write accurately about something you’ve touched with your own hands or seen with your own eyes. Hearing about law enforcement directly from the officers and agents who work in the field exposes us to the language and look, and the concerns and personalities of the men and women who serve as first responders. Those details are invaluable to any crime writer trying to create authentic characters and accurate depictions of how law enforcement agents handle crime.

As I mentioned before, we welcome crime fiction readers too! Sisters in Crime is open to both male and female readers of crime fiction. Therefore, we try to present subjects our non-writing members will enjoy hearing about. Luckily, most crime fiction readers also enjoy hearing presentations by law enforcement officers.

We occasionally have authors as guest speakers too. These authors may be locally known, nationally known, or internationally known. Last year, through an arrangement with the national Sisters in Crime organization, we had Rhys Bowen come and speak about her writing. We will have local authors who are members read selections of their work at our October 8th celebration of Sisters in Crime’s Anniversary.
 

Other things we offer writers:

Sometimes we have presentations specifically geared toward our writers. Those topics have included everything from marketing strategies to producing audiobooks.

We provide a place for authors to meet each other and discuss problems or share news. Authors have found critique partners and fellowship at our meetings. Our local newsletter includes industry news, writing tips, and information about opportunities to submit work for publication.

Sisters in Crime helps writers succeed by providing them opportunities to present their work. We showcase our local members work at festivals and conferences. Here in Austin, that means we will have a table at the Texas Book Festival in November. I’m only discussing the local chapter benefits. Opportunities abound at the national level as well. I’ve sent books to large conferences that I otherwise would not have had any access to or ability to attend because Sisters in Crime solicited members’ work for the conferences. Sisters in Crime works to ensure their members have opportunities that they might not otherwise have. In fact, the benefits available at the national level would be a whole other blog post.

So, if you like to write or read crime fiction, mysteries, police procedurals, cozies, thrillers, suspense, hardboilednoir, amateur sleuths, or private detectives, you are welcome to come to a Sisters in Crime meeting, usually held on the second Sunday of the month at Book People at 2:15 in the afternoon on the third floor.  You don’t even need to be a female ex-convict to come!

Q&A with C.M. Wendelboe

C.M. Wendelboe’s three novels featuring Lakota FBI agent Manny Tanno has made him a fresh voice in crime fiction. With Hunting The Five Point Killer, he introduces us to Arn Anderson, a former Denver police detective, whose job as consultant for a local television station takes him to his childhood home in Cheyenne, dealing with his past as well as the murders of several lawmen. I caught up with Mr. Wendelboe to talk about character, place, and his books.

MysteryPeople Scott Montgomery: Like Manny in Death Along The Spirit Road, you have Arn return to his boyhood home. What draws you as a writer for this situation?

C.M. Wendelboe: As Thomas Wolfe wrote, “You can’t go back home to your family, your childhood…back home to the escapes of time and memory.” Manny couldn’t force himself to go back home, and neither could Arn, though they both did, both returning to their boyhood homes by circumstances they fought to control. But in the end, circumstances neither resisted as much as they could have. As if each man secretly wished to return to their past. We all would like to go back home again, even if we publicly deny it. We’d all like that second chance, that opportunity to right wrongs, to take that fork in the road we should have taken back in the day. But which is too late for us now.

So Arn, like Manny, does the best he can in the present to do those things that he ought to have done back in the day. I like the idea of my characters confronting their own shortcomings, reflecting on how things might have turned out differently if only they had taken the other fork in the road. But they go on with their lives, knowing they can do little about those decisions that have ultimately forged them into who they are as people. Maybe I’m just suspicious of seemingly-perfect people.

MPS: What did using Cheyenne Wyoming as a location provide for you?

CMW: I wanted to set my contemporary series in a town brimming with western heritage, and Cheyenne definitely fills that requirement. Folks here represent what people think of the West:  still opening doors for others, men still tipping their hat to ladies, drivers pulling over to help a motorist stranded along the road. Cheyenne’s western history dates back to regional Army forts housing soldiers garrisoned to fight Indians, and the Union Pacific making Cheyenne “Hell on Wheels”, and road agents preying on hapless victims. And, as often as not, doing the dangle of death from a stout piece of hemp courtesy of a vigilance committee. But it’s also a place where many men and women go armed, and are prepared to use their weapon when they perceive a threat. Arn has to go about his investigations knowing at any time he may encounter someone armed who takes offence to sticking his nose into their business. So Cheyenne won out over many other town in the Rocky Mountain region.

MPS: While a decent guy, Arn is pretty damaged. What does a wounded
character allow you to do?

CMW: Hollywood is populated with beautiful people: they live in lovely mansions and drive exotic cars and verily shine with charm when out in public. People are drawn to that. But not as drawn to them as when we learn their perfect lives aren’t as wonderful as we thought. When we discover their flaws and their weaknesses, suddenly they are more like us. Human. Arn is a wounded character, which naturally makes him more interesting. We learn that his perfect life as a Denver Homicide Detective is marred by the premature death of his wife. And when Arn moves back to Cheyenne to take a consulting job with the local television station, we discover that the ghosts of his abusive father’s past and an apathetic mother long dead still haunts him. He’s just more interesting with these memories. More interesting with flaws and a painful past.

MPS: Several moments you write from the killer’s perspective. How did you approach those scenes?

CMW: I was a lawman for nearly forty years, and worked the street my entire career. This allowed me to come into direct contact with all manner of criminal. Occasionally, I would interview post-crime suspects that were genuinely sorry for what they had done. Most, though—including most murderers—felt no remorse, and deflected blame for what they had done upon their victim/s. Those interviews helped shape what direction I intended taking my story.

Rarely have I read tales spoken from a killer’s viewpoint, and had no guidance on how to go about it. So, used my knowledge of murderers to get into that role. When I needed to write those passages from the murderers’ point of view, it would take me some preparation to become the suspect’s voice. I would think back to this interview I had conducted, or that suspect telling me things about his crimes, and that’s when the words would begin to flow. These passages from the killer’s POV are short—two pages at the most and many shorter—because it was difficult for me to continue thinking like a sociopath or a psychotic. Perhaps I’ll get the courage one day to write an entire novel from such a point of view.

MPS: I’ve noticed all the Wyoming crime writers populate their books with characters that have some form of a sense of humor. Why do you think that’s an inherent trait in the people who live there?

CMW: When I was a just a young policeman working an off-reservation town in South Dakota, I was assigned with other local officers to respond to Custer, South Dakota, where the town had been taken over by Indian militants. As I sat huddled with other officers from around the state nervously waiting to advance on the rioters, an older deputy sheriff beside me began cracking jokes. I thought he was nuts to be joking at such a serious time. But soon I and those within earshot of the man began to relax, began feeling as if we would be able to perform our job there. The taut tension we’d experienced subsided.

As I write about lawmen—both active duty and retired—I know that an integral part of their world is humor. Much has been written about a policeman’s graveside humor and how disrespectful it is. Not so. Law officers frequently find things amusing at the worst possible times because that’s how they cope with the day-to-day nastiness they have to work around. Call it a defense mechanism for the mind. No one wants to be high on the roller coaster all day. Everyone wants to come down for a breather before the next hill is climbed.

MPS: You have two period books coming out soon, Backed To The Wall and Marshall and the Moonshiner. What can you tell us about those?

CMW: Backed to the Wall was fun to write. I’ve been an avid reader of period westerns since I was a kid, and wrote and published my first short stories in that genre. Writing book-length tales allows me to develop my character in ways that the shorts didn’t. One of those was man tracking. We’re led to believe that all western men were competent trackers. But that wasn’t the case. Like today, those folks who were track-savvy back in the “Old West” were much sought after. There are countless times where tracks were lost, false trails followed, bad men and renegade Indians alike allowed to make their getaway because those following had no track awareness. Not so my man Tucker Ashley. His claim to fame is that he’s an astute tracker, working for the Army when he’s not battling lice in a local lockup.

The story opens with Tucker fighting a hangover in such a jail when he learns a Lakota raiding party has abducted his love interest from her mercantile while Tucker was locked up. He makes his escape, and is hot after the Indians when an old enemy—Deputy Marshal Aurand Forrester—gets on his trail. Between Aurand’s fast gun and his gnarly posse and the Indians trying to kill him to get Tucker off their track, it is doubtful if he’ll survive either one in his pursuit of his woman.

Marshal and the Moonshiner is set during the Great Depression. It begins when U. S. Marshal Nelson Lane is called to the Wind River Indian Reservation in western Wyoming to assist local tribal police with a homicide. When Nelson arrives, he learns two neighboring ranchers had got into an altercation. One shot the other to death before fleeing to relatives in Oklahoma.

This was a time when the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner to the FBI) was in its infancy, and could spare no one to investigate crimes out west. Nelson must travel to Oklahoma, far out of his element in a large town. The local sheriff assigns Nelson his junior deputy, a Cheyenne Indian woman names Maris Red Hat, as Nelson’s liaison and partner in search of the fugitive. Soon, they’re caught up in local corruption in their pursuit of the murderer from Wyoming. If Nelson can keep himself and Maris from being killed, he might just find the murderer and bring him back to Wyoming for justice.

My Head is a Choir and All the Singers are Singing Different Songs: MysteryPeople Q&A with Joe Ide

 

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Joe Ide burst onto the mystery scene last year with his debut Isaiah Quintabe mystery, IQ, a Holmesian puzzler set in South Central LA. A bunch of us quickly blazed our way through IQ – with its well-rounded characters, stylish action sequences, clever heists, weaponized pit bulls, and foggy-minded celebrities, what’s not to love?

Now Ide is back with the second in the series, Righteousin which IQ and his reluctant side-kick Dodson go on a wild road trip to Vegas to try and rescue a deep-in-debt DJ and her doofus boyfriend after they mess with forces beyond their clearance level. IQ wants a chance to rescue his brother’s ex-fiancee’s wayward little sister, while Dodson just wants a break from home before his new baby is born, but both get more than they bargained for as gangs, gamblers and grim-faced traffickers all converge on the lucky-in-love, unlucky-in-gambling Vegas couple and their LA protectors. Interwoven are new developments in Isaiah’s understanding of his brother’s untimely death. 

Joe Ide mixes his choreographed action sequences with meditations on love, isolation, and friendship, for a surprisingly moving story that we’ve chosen as our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for October. Thanks to Joe Ide and the folks at Mulholland, we got a chance to ask a few questions about the book and the series.

  • Interview by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: I loved the madcap adventure that Isaiah and Dodson take to Vegas. What was your inspiration for the Vegas setting and their road trip through the sleaziest of cities? What kind of research did you do for the Vegas parts?

Joe Ide: I wanted to take Isaiah out of the hood and put him someplace where he have to deal with new situations and different kinds of characters. The more he’s a fish out of water, the more obstacles he has to overcome. There’s that old adage, no conflict, no story. Putting it in another location is a challenge for me. How to use the enviroment to advance the story. Embarrassingly, I did very little research on Vegas. For me ( like Isaiah) the town is “Too bright, too loud, too colossal.” Also like Isaiah, I bought a dog for 99cents and it was as big as a cat. The visuals I took from photographs and videos. As an aside, my Mom loved Vegas. She enjoyed being up at two in the morning, going anywhere she wanted. She had secret pockets in her pants to keep to her money away safe and foil the pickpockets.

MO: Dodson’s romance is unlikely, but the story of his courtship makes his successful wooing of his practical girlfriend believable. Which came first in the writing process, Dodson’s part in Isaiah’s adventure, or his new romance?

JI: I knew Dodson would be involved. He’s Isaiah’s Dr. Watson after all. But I like characters with full emotional lives. I want them to deal with the same problems we all deal with – like relationships. Giving him a romance seemed natural and the book is structured in a way that I that I could write about it.

MO: Both IQ and Righteous initially destabilize the reader’s expectations with two seemingly disparate plots, but then bring them together at the end in just the right way. Do you have extensive outlines before you even start writing? How do you tie it all together?

JI: I start with vaguest idea for a story and then I ask myself questions: Where does this take place? Who are the clients? Who are the bad guys? What do the bad guys want? What are the major problems Isaiah has to confront? And so on, and while I’m figuring these things out I’m making vague, random notes. About a character’s looks or a possible scene or piece of dialogue or whatever occurs to me. Think of it as a pointillist painting. I’m putting dots on the canvas and after I have lots and lots of them, the canvas starts to take shape, and at a certain point, I have to decide, is this a book or isn’t it? I’ve thrown a few away and started over, but when I have the makings of a book, I start writing as fast as I can. If I don’t know something I skip it and keep going until I have the creakiest skeleton of a story with missing limbs. But when I’m done, I have a structure on which I can build. Subplots occur to me as I’m writing and become more dots until they’re little canvases themselves and I see ways to knit them together, things I didn’t know when I started. I’m always thinking ahead, asking myself, where will this go? How will it be resolved? I’m making the process seem much more linear than it is. My head is a choir and all the singers are singing different songs. It takes them a long time before they’re on the singing the same tune. I recommend my methods to no one.

MO: I’ve heard there’s plans for a TV series in the making (which I will absolutely watch and hopefully binge watch!). What stage is the planning at? Who are your ideal casting choices?

The TV world moves at its own pace. I don’t know what they’re actually doing and where they are in the process. Every time a production makes an advance, another compromise is made with the original material. It’s too aggrevating and time consuming to worry about that stuff. I’ll stick to writing books.

MO: So I love Sherlock Holmes, and I love that you’re inspired by the stories, but not beholden to them. In particular, at the end of Righteous (and I promise there are no spoilers in this question) Isaiah is helped not just by his grasp of logic, but by (it seems to me) perfectly timed random fate. How much do you draw on the Sherlock canon, and how much do you like to change things up?

I’m not conscious of drawing on Sherlock. His influence is mixed in with a dozens, hundreds of others, including my own life experience. I don’t really decide how much of this and how much that. It just comes out that way. That sounds simplistic but it’s not. It’s the result of everything that’s ever happened to me put in a blender until it’s all unrecognizable and poured on to the pages.

MO: You have a love of South Central LA drawn from your experiences growing up in the area – tell us about your setting. Which came first to you when you were developing the series, the character or the area?

Chicken and the egg. As you say, I grew up in the hood and I loved Sherlock Holmes. I read all fifty six stories and four novels multiple times. When I decided to write a book there was never any question it would be Sherlock in the Hood.

MO: You have such perfectly choreographed shootouts and fight scenes – how do you plan out the action in your books?

It helps that I was a screenwriter. A set piece in a movie is structured the same as a set piece in a book. It has three acts. Act one lays out the premise, the situation. Act two is the action playing itself out, escalating in intensity until the end of the act where all seems lost for the good guys. In Act three, the good guys rise again and justice wins the day. Maybe. Having that as a base, I start my planning by thinking about outcomes. What do I want happen during the sequence? How do I want it to end? Then I identify the players and what each of them wants. I pick a location that serves these purposes and then I play chess with the pieces. If so and so does this, what’s so and so’s response? How does so and so get from A to B? What’s the most surprising, creative way for these things to happen? Sometimes I draw annotated diagrams. It’s about being specific and patient. Again, the process isn’t close to being that logical or organized.

MO: Obviously Arthur Conan Doyle is one of your writing inspirations, but you seem to draw from a diverse array of genres, and your voice is all your own – tell us about your influences.

All the writers you’d expect. Walter Moseley, Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Don Winslow, James Lee Burke, Chester Himes, John LeCarre (spy novels are just crime novels in another country) James Ellroy, Dennis Lehane, Octavia Butler and on and on and on. Other kinds of books as well. Chris Cleaves, Donna Tart, Toni Morrison, Sarah Waters, Janet Fitch, Amor Towles, William Styron, Cormac McCarthy – also on and on and on and on. I like storytellers and interesting writing.

MO: Poor Sherlock. His love life is in shambles. Will he ever find love?

Yes, he will! But he will tormented, frightened and flummoxed, (like anybody else that’s in love).

MO: What’s next for the series? It seems like Isaiah’s resolved some of the lingering questions about his brother’s death and is ready for the bigtime in terms of investigations.

My original plan was for the characters to grow from book to book. In IQ, Isaiah is very isolated because of a tremendous burden of guilt. At the end of the book, he sets the guilt aside. In Righteous, he realizes he’s lonely and makes his first awkward attempts at reaching out. In IQ, Dodson learns that he and his girlfriend are having a baby. In Righteous, he has to deal with fatherhood. IQ3 will continue that growth. Of course, there will always be new bad guys and adventures but I don’t know as Isaiah ever take on really big investigations, ones of say, national importance. There are many other writers, like LeCarre, who do that way better than I could ever hope to. Isaiah’s cases will remain in the middle in terms of size. That’s where he (and I) feel most comfortable.

You can find copies of Righteous on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Q&A with Thomas Mullen

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown found critical acclaim when it came out last year, winning fans in crime fiction and “the literary set” alike. His second novel of the first black officers serving in a Jim Crow, Atlanta, proves their is much to mine in the subject. Our Matthew Turbeville caught up with Mr. Mullen to talk about, research, race, and writing.

Matthew Turbeville: I’ve been reading your novels for a while, but was especially intrigued by your Darktown series.  Can you tell me a little about what inspired these novels?

Thomas Mullen: A few years ago I was reading a book on Atlanta history called Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn by Gary Pomerantz. It’s a big book that traces 150 years of ATL via two prominent families, one black and one white. In the middle is a four-page passage that covers the circumstances around the 1948 hiring of Atlanta’s first eight African-American police officers, and, most interesting to me, the insulting Jim Crow restrictions they operated under: they could only patrol “colored neighborhoods,” they only worked the night shift, they could not drive squad cars, and they could not set foot in the police headquarters and instead had to operate their own makeshift precinct in the basement of a YMCA in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood (where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up). Last but not least, they could not arrest white people. If, God forbid, they ever saw a white person committing a crime, they were supposed to call in white officers to help. But the idea was that since this was a time of such strict segregation, and they were patrolling black neighborhoods, they shouldn’t even see any white folks, let alone white lawbreakers.

Image result for thomas mullenThe fiction writer in me immediately asked, well, what if? Life tends not to confine itself to such strictly drawn lines, and I found myself imagining the plot of Darktown¸ in which two of the black rookies do in fact come upon a white criminal, and begin to suspect a white cop helped him murder a young black woman.

Because this was 1948, I felt pretty early on that this had series potential. Darktown is set in this historically overlooked period after the end of World War II but before the Cold War and before the first key victories of the Civil Rights movement. So I found myself thinking of the different stories I could tell if I followed some of these characters over the next 15-20 years and traced how they, the city, the South, and the country changed as a result of the Civil Rights movement—and the white backlash to the movement.

Other inspiration came from the many great books in which writers take the ingredients of the classic hard-boiled murder mystery and do something unexpected and odd with it. Three of my favorite recent novels are Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless BrooklynColson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; I love how they’re able to do something fun and novel with a classic form this way. And when I learned about the offensive, insane Jim Crow restrictions that Atlanta’s first black officers had to work under, I felt I had the ingredients for my own twist on classic noir.

Finally, I’m a big fan of what I’ve dubbed “totalitarian noir,” or murder mysteries that up the moral ante by placing their hero inside a corrupt, totalitarian regime. Like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels in Russia, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series in Nazi Germany, Olen Steinhauer’s series in an unnamed Warsaw Pact country. It occurred to me that I could write my own totalitarian noir right in my own town, because the South was every bit a totalitarian nation if you were black.

MT: I imagine it’s really difficult to write about an issue you can’t directly place yourself in.  How did you prepare to write about Black police officers—from the mid-twentieth century? What research did you have to do to fit yourself into their shoes?

TM: It’s definitely challenging, and it helps that I’d written other historical novels and so had a sense of where and how to start. I’m not the kind of writer who writes autobiographical fiction, where the protagonists are lightly fictionalized versions of myself. Because my books have been set in different times and different places, I’ve always had to work hard to create characters who had very different daily experiences than me, different hopes and dreams and obstacles, different worldviews, different concepts of what was and wasn’t possible in their world.

Research is always a big part of that, to determine what people were dealing with back then, what were the issues of the day, the debate and divisions, the jobs and roles people had, the dreams they could reasonably aspire to.

To learn more about Atlanta’s first black cops and their white counterparts, I found newspaper articles from ’48 and ’50 that offered some great context, but not too much in terms of what life was really like for the black officers, probably because they were hesitant to speak too candidly to the press back then. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s journalists ran some retrospective stories and talked to some of the initial eight African-American officers, most of whom were still living and some of whom were still cops. In those pieces, they didn’t hold back about their mistreatment from white cops and judges. Much of my books’ details about how they did their jobs came from those pieces, and from some recorded interviews two of them gave in the late ‘70s for an oral history project.

Finally, I read lots and lots of books. I’m more of a secondary-source guy, so rather than spending too much time in the archives (which I do some of), I would rather let the real historians do that, then I go and read the big books they write. I have bookshelves full of histories of Atlanta, midcentury America, African-American history, the Civil Rights Era, policing, biographies and memoirs, fiction from that time period, etc. I also read a lot of books about more contemporary issues with race and policing, because I want to make sure I don’t write anything that’s informed by misconceptions about the more recent past, like the war on drugs and our current over-incarceration of African-Americans.

MT: You tend to write largely from historical points-of-view.  What about history—and not the present day—is alluring to you? Do you think mysteries set in different times and places speak more to an audience, or at least differently?

TM: I never set out to be a “historical novelist” — my third book was contemporary, and I do have other contemporary ideas — but yeah, here I am with 5 books now, and 4 were set in the past. It’s a good question I don’t fully know the answer to. Maybe it’s because there’s so much amazing material, so many incredible stories, in our country’s past. Maybe it’s because it gives me an unusual lens through which I, and the reader, can view issues that remain important today, that we’ve also dealt with in the past under different circumstances, and therefore we can make unexpected, nuanced observations about then and now. Maybe it’s to avoid being another writer who just writes autobiographical fiction about myself and life in 2017. I honestly don’t know the answer.

MT: What is your process like when preparing to write a book? How were you able to release two books in the Darktown series so close together?

TM: As noted, I do a ton of research. But what I most love is writing, and I really can’t take doing a huge chunk of research at once, so I parcel it out. With a new idea, I’m likely to do some research first, just enough so I have an understanding of the time period, then I start writing. I do this because I need to know whether I can really write in that time, with these characters, or not; the last thing I’d want to do is spend 6 months on research only to sit down later and find I just can’t find the voice to write it. So once I’ve done some research, and then some writing, and I’m feeling good about the project, I might stop writing and do some more research, to really dive into the era. Then I’ll write again in earnest, occasionally stopping to do some supplemental research if I find there’s a specific topic I realize I need to know more about.

As for the new book coming out only a year later, that was a happy accident. I started writing Lightning Men about a month after finishing the first polished draft of Darktown, before my agent had even read Darktown. She’s normally a speedy reader but she had a full plate at that time, so by the time she read Darktown and had some edits for me, I’d already written a good 100 pages of the new one. Which meant that, by the time we finalized Darktown and had offers from publishers, I already had a great head start on the second book.

I continue to do lots of research, as there’s really no end to the important works I could be reading about this time period and these topics. Even if I ever felt that I’d caught up, each year brings the publication of several new, important works on the Civil Rights era, race and policing, etc. (For example, two of the nonfiction books that were just nominated for the National Book Award were about Emmet Till and about race and housing, so I’ve read them.) I’m pretty much always in the middle of a book I’m reading for research, and I’m finding that the writing goes a bit faster now that I have a solid knowledge of the era, as well as a pre-established setting and characters.

MT: Darktown seems especially necessary in today’s world—a world filled with hatred, racism, and bigotry.  What would you say Darktown and Lightning Men’s essential messages are? What do you hope readers gather from these books?

TM: It is extremely unfortunate, and enraging, and disappointing, and heart-breaking, and maddening, that we are still having some of the same debates. As I type this, on Monday 9/25/17, the main story is about whether African-American athletes have the right to protest, something that was a hot topic in the 1968 Olympics when some athletes held raised fists during the anthem (one of those athletes was Tommie Smith, a name I sort of borrowed in my books). It shows that these issues run deep, and in my opinion issues of race and power cut to the core of America, what it is today and what it’s always been, which is why I wanted to write the books in the first place, when I started the project in 2012. As for the messages, I’ll let the readers make those judgments themselves. If nothing else, I hope readers come away with a more nuanced understanding of our recent past as well as our present, and a more empathetic mindset about people different from themselves.

MT: In relation to the time period, what was the most difficult aspect of writing Darktown and Lightning Men?

TM: Hey, it’s all hard. And it’s all fun. Writing a novel is never easy, and I take what I do extremely seriously. I know that I’m handling material that can be sensitive, and that I have a responsibility to get it right. I feel extremely fortunate that I get to imagine stories for a living, and I want to make the most of that opportunity. I hope that the books not only entertain people but also illuminate areas of the world that they might not have thought about, illuminate elements of human nature that bind us together.

MT: One of the quotes that opens Lightning Men is concerning The Birth of a Nation, a film which grossly fictionalizes history and inspires the KKK to this day.  What do you think a book like Lightning Men will do for society? Do you think you are playing a role in correcting history?

TM: It feels a tad grandiose to wonder about my books’ impact. I’m just glad that they exist and that people are reading them, and I hope more readers come to the series as I continue it.

And I don’t know that fiction can “correct history,” but I can work hard to present things accurately and honestly. That means avoiding nostalgia, that means refusing to whitewash the past. I recently observed that writing historical fiction is equal parts keepin’ it real and makin’ shit up. The making up is the fiction part, the fact that I’m taking invented characters through an invented plot. But it only works if the surrounding world is real: if it’s historically accurate, if it’s realistic as opposed to nostalgic and sentimental, and if the characters act and think in ways that feel human and alive. I’m not trying to correct history, only to respect it in its fullness, all its glory and ugliness, tragedies and triumphs. With the series, I want to pay homage to overlooked heroes (the Southern African Americans who were willing to serve as policemen despite all that they had to overcome in their Jim Crow cities) and their undeniable triumphs, while never losing sight of all the defeats and tragedies along the way.