Pick of the Month – TRIGGER By David Swinson

David Swinson’s Frank Marr has become one of my favorite private eyes. A functioning drug addict with a lot of dysfunctional relationships, he is just as likely to go looking for a fix before a suspect. In Trigger, reported to be the end of the Frank Marr trilogy, he takes a case that could lead to redemption or send him spiraling to oblivion.

Marr has quit using, but he doesn’t appear much better. He still raids drug houses, but flushes down the contraband he finds, using the rush as a replacement for the narcotics. The fact that he downs a lot of alcohol throughout the book is also suspect. He walks a razor’s edge asking to get cut.

Leslie Costello, the attorney he works for who is also his ex, gives him a job that hits close. She’s representing his former D.C.P.D. partner Al Luna who is accused of a bad shooting. Al swears he saw a gun, but none can be found at the scene. Frank’s work for the defense has him working with Calvin, a young black man who was at the wrong end of his abuse of authority in his police days. Their search for answers puts them in the middle of a drug war with shifting sides.

Swinson pulls no punches in his depiction of Frank. He follows the hard boiled school of the reader taking the protagonist on his own terms. If you haven’t read the previous books, The Second Girl and Crime Song, you may have difficulty in liking him at first. He is responsible for his own faults and has become a prisoner of them. We root for him to get past his sins and mistakes, allowing the decent man who is in there to fully come to form.

The plot itself also may be challenging to the reader. It almost works inverse to most mysteries, with more understanding, facts, and truth leading to more ambiguity. It reflects the right and wrong of the streets becoming more abstract from what Frank and Calvin learn from one another. It also ties into our concern we have for Frank returning to drugs for the dark confusing world the case leads him through.

If Trigger’s world is dark, it finds light in many of the characters, especially in its lead. His code provides an anchor for his soul on the rough, cold seas. He and others show that an ability to reach out to one another and share perspectives makes the streets easier to navigate. Frank Marr’s life may be harrowing, but there is hope if he can trust others for help.

WRITING AT A DETAILED LEVEL: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL POTENZA

Caror Potenza won the 2019 Tony Hillerman award along with a book contract for her novel Hearts Of The Missing. It also made MysteryPeople’s top five reviews of the year. It introduces us to Nicky Matthews, an officer in New Mexico’s Fire-Sky reservation’s tribal police. When she catches a body with a heart missing it leads to a deadly conspiracy on the rez, involving money, class, and tribalism. Carol was kind enough to answer some questions from us.

Hearts of the Missing: A Mystery Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: The first time I ever heard of The Fire-Sky tribe was in your book. What makes their tribe unique?

Carol Potenza: After much thought, I decided to create a fictional New Mexico tribe: the Tsiba’ashi D’yini or Fire-Sky. I did this for a couple of reasons: one, I didn’t know any of the individual Native Pueblo cultures well enough to select a specific tribe; and, two, I have sources on a couple of pueblos who helped me out with things like traditional practices, Native American sovereignty, and police procedures, but who preferred to remain anonymous. I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider to Native culture so I could emphasize both differences and similarities between the people in my book. In the end, I decided I’d use known elements—details I could find already published or shared, for example—from the nineteen New Mexican Pueblos, and not dig into anything these tribes wanted kept private.

MPS: Nicky Matthews is fresh take on the police protagonist. How did you go about constructing her?

CP: Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment. I think a lot of authors live in their heads. I know I do. As Nicky’s character evolved, I realized I had a little bit of a “Walter Mitty” syndrome. I’d fashioned my protagonist as someone I admired, someone I wished I could be. Nicky is younger, in great physical shape, has straighter hair, and is much braver than I am. She stands up to bullies and knows what to say to them in the moment, while I always craft that perfect come-back after a confrontation is long over. She’s willing to do the right thing no matter what, even if it means she might lose her job—or her life. Nicky has flaws and personal problems, too, but they’ve come about because her character isn’t afraid to push boundaries, be fearless, expose herself.

Nicky also has “visions”, something she says she’d never had until she started working on the Fire-Sky reservation. I gave her this ability because some of my contacts on New Mexico Pueblos actually saw and experienced the things Nicky sees in the novel—like the old Native woman in the glass. I used their true stories to make Nicky different from any police protagonist I’d read. And I have a lot more ghost stories to weave into my books.

MPS: You use the mystery theme of identity in a wonderful way that is tied to the culture. What did you want to explore about tribal identity?

CP: In Hearts of the Missing, I wanted to explore not what makes people different, but what makes people the same. To do that, I needed a sequestered or separated community. Living in New Mexico, I had a number of cultures to choose from—we are a minority-majority state. I chose Native American Pueblo culture because I had friends, family, and contacts who worked and lived on reservations and pueblos, and, like a lot of Americans, my family lore included Native American ancestors. Then I flipped everything on its head. I wanted my European-American heroine to be an outsider in a Native American sovereign nation. In the Tsiba’ashi D’yini pueblo, ancestry and genetics defined who an individual was. Because of her ancestry, her genetics, she will never be a member of the tribe she’s come to love. Even if you’d lived on the pueblo all your life, like my Ryan Bernal character, you can’t become a tribal member if you had the wrong genetic ancestry. I wanted to explore how the notion of genetic belonging could be both exclusive and destructive as well as inclusive and protective.

MPS: As a debut author, did you pull from any influences?

CP: Oh, yes. I love stories that use science in their plots, whether it’s pandemics or epidemics, forensics, DNA, genetics and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, ancient cultures, archeology, paleontology, and the list goes on. As I started to gather the pieces of Hearts of the Missing, I wanted science to play a major role. Books like Preston and Child’s Relic, Thunderhead, and Fever Dream, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Congo were inspirations because they took believable science and twisted it into such amazing, complex, and satisfying stories.

Probably the biggest influence is the writing group I joined when I first decided to write, along with its members. The Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA) in Albuquerque taught me how to craft an emotionally engaging story, one where the reader truly cares for the characters, becomes buried in the pages, and has a stake in the outcome. Romance writing is about emotion and character connection. I took what I’d learned from romance writing—what I’m still learning—and used it in Hearts of the Missing, even though it’s a southwestern mystery with supernatural elements.

MPS: You won the Tony Hillerman Award and I felt some echoes of his work in yours. Is there anything you admire about his writing?

CP: I admire Hillerman’s sense of setting and his description of the desert southwest, so spare yet so evocative. I admire the respect and fondness he had for the Native American cultures he wrote about. And I loved the way he butted cultures into each other: Navajo and whites; Zuni and Navajo; Navajo and Tano—a fictional pueblo culture in Sacred Clowns. He used the outsider/insider themes so deftly to add tension and conflict.

MPS: I noticed you have a background in chemistry and biochemistry. Can you see any way those skills are applied to the way you write?

CP: A scientific PhD trains you how to approach unsolved scientific questions. It teaches you how to gather evidence, assemble it into a coherent story, present it to your peers in the form of written, reviewed publications. It demands huge amounts of background reading and research, the linking together of sometimes-disparate ideas for new revelations. A science background dictates an understanding—at a detailed level—of how techniques work, the ability to find and tie up loose ends. It pushes you not to do derivative work, but to explore some new and unique property or direction to prove your hypotheses. Sound familiar? I think it parallels what an author has to do when writing a police procedural mystery.

MARRIED FOR THE MATERIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH LES EDGERTON ABOUT HIS MEMOIR, ADRENALINE JUNKIE

Les Edgerton’s crime novels careen through humor, heartbreak, and harrowing situations with a voice that seems often worn and and lived in. It comes from the fact he’s lived a lot of what he writes about. When his memoir Adrenaline Junkie came out last year, many of us couldn’t wait to read it, wanting to know what he hasn’t shared. It turns out, there was a lot. His life as outlaw, convict, hairdresser, husband to a few wives, and writer has given him a lot to draw from. I was lucky enough to interview Les about Adrenaline Junkie and get a few stories from him. Warning, Les isn’t a politically correct writer and neither is this interview.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’re someone who always has lived an interesting life and you continue to do so. What made you think this was the time to write your memoir?

Les Edgerton: Actually, I wrote it several years ago, Scott. I was just waiting for the right publisher. I’ve had several publishers who wanted to take it, but I wanted one who could get it reviewed in the right places and get it placed on bookshelves nationally.

MPS: You’ve used a lot of your experiences in your fiction. Did you notice anything changing in the tone or style as presenting them as actual personal occurrences?

LE: Not at all. I use my same writer’s voice on everything I write, be it various fiction genres or nonfiction. That was the primary concept I voiced in my first writer’s craft book, Finding Your Voice, and I believe that today as much as I did when I wrote that book years ago.

MPS: I’ve told some people that many of the more dangerous and exciting times you had weren’t in prison or as a criminal, but as a hair dresser. What was it it about that life style that put you on the edge?

LE: Yep. You’re exactly right. I was single much of the time I did hair and that means I was getting into lots of women’s knickers. Here’s a true story that illustrates the times. I was working at a salon named Snobs in New Orleans when the movie Shampoo came out one weekend. When I walked into the salon on Monday, there were all these guys in the lobby. I asked the owner, Tony Jones, what the heck was going on, and he laughed and said these guys had seen Shampoo and for the first time realized that not all hairstylists were gay—they were here to check out where their wives and girlfriends were getting their hair done. And, they were right to be suspicious—we were nailing lots and lots of women who came in to get their hair done. In fact, Warren Beatty was really mild in the movie. We daily did a lot more than he did in the movie. He was kind of a piker. There’s something kind of magical that happens when you lay a woman back into a shampoo bowl and begin shampooing her hair—it just creates a sexual bond immediately. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of sexual experiences with women whose hair I did.  Their husbands and boyfriends were right to check us out…

Here’s a fairly typical experience. I had just opened up a salon in a small Indiana town and was cutting the mayor’s wife’s hair. I was just about finished and we were just talking about everyday things, when out of the blue, she reached over and grabbed my johnson. So we had sex and then she started to leave and I asked her if she hadn’t forgotten something. What? she said, and I said, you forgot to pay. You want me to pay after what we did? she said. Well, yeah, I said. You don’t want me to think of you as a prostitute, do you? She saw I was right so she paid me. She didn’t tip though…

Another time, I had a shop in South Bend, Indiana, and was going to college at IUSB. One day, I’m cutting this woman’s hair and one of my friends, Bob Wensits, was sitting on a waiting couch when the phone rang. It was a man with a pronounced southern accent who began accusing me of screwing his wife. The truth is, I was doing exactly that. I began saying things like, I think you’ve got the wrong number, sir, and I’d never do anything like that—lame-o stuff like that—and finally, he said, I’m coming over there and I’m bringing my gun. I hung up and immediately swung the lady in the chair so she was between me and the front window and hurried up, finished her cut, hustled her out the door and locked it. The instant I locked it, Bob fell off the couch, laughing so hard he was crying and then revealed to me the caller was one of our friends, Fred Sulok. Bob said, I don’t believe what you did—you got that woman between you and the window. Well, I said, do I look like I’ve got a low I.Q. to you?

There were many, many experiences like that… I’ve been shot at and had women try to disembowel me with knives and lots of things like that…

MPS: You devote an entire chapter to the rape you experienced in prison. It feels raw and true, because it came across as you were still processing it. I’m assuming it was the toughest thing to write, so how did you approach it going in?

LE: Well, it was raw and true, so there’s that. I just approached writing it like I do everything else. Just tell it the way it happened. Any writer worth his salt has that “piece of ice” in their heart that Graham Greene talked about and I’m no exception. I can compartmentalize anything that happens to me and separate out my reporting from the emotion of the experience itself. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I wasn’t capable of doing that.

I guess I could wear a “MeToo” button, couldn’t I?

MPS: The thing I admired most about you in reading Adrenaline Junkie is that you almost always had a close friend around, whether they helped get you into trouble or out of it. Did you learn more or view them any differently when they became part of your writing?

LE: Not sure what you’re asking here, Scott. Do you mean do I view my friends differently when they become part of my writing? If so, the answer is no. All of the people in my life fit what one of my ex-wives said to me after we divorced. She said, you just married me for material, didn’t you? To which I replied, yes. And, that’s the way I’ve always viewed anyone I come into contact with. As material. It’s just what writers do.

MPS: I’ve often heard you say the two things you love the most are writing and talking about writing. What is the most important thing writing has given you?

LE: My life. I wouldn’t care to live a life without writing. What would I do? Mow my lawn and sit around watching TV? No thanks… Have you watched TV lately? Have you ever mowed a stupid lawn? There’s just never been anything else I’ve done that compares to writing. Nothing.

 

Meike reviews Last Woman Standing

MysteryPeople contributor Meike Alana has reviewed Amy Gentry’s new novel, Last Woman Standing. Gentry will be in the store Tuesday, January 22nd, at 7pm to discuss her book and sign copies.

Last Woman Standing Cover ImageAmy Gentry wowed us with her debut novel, Good as Gone, and her latest suspense novel is every bit as thrilling. Last Woman Standing introduces us to Dana Diaz, a Latina stand-up comic from Amarillo struggling to make it in a comedy scene dominated by men and rife with sexual harassment. Dana has recently returned to the Lone Star State from LA after a split from her childhood friend and writing partner. She’s grown accustomed to expect little from an industry where she’s continually reminded that a woman (particularly a woman of color) has little value, but her frustrations have reached a critical point. What she has told no one is the real reason she left LA—she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a well-known comic she idealized during a meeting purported to be about discussing her future.

One night during her set she aptly fends off a vulgar heckler. Computer programmer Amanda witnesses the encounter and offers to buy Dana a congratulatory drink. One drink turns to several, and the two women bond over their shared experiences of injustice and misogyny. Soon they strike a kind of Strangers on a Train deal—each will seek revenge on the other’s abuser. Revealing more would be crossing over into spoiler territory, but the ensuing plot twists make for a riveting tale of deceit and paranoia.

There is a definite #MeToo vibe to the book, and Gentry shines a harsh light on the myriad injustices that women face every single day. The novel examines the issues of sexual harassment and assault from a variety of angles, including the confusion that a victim can experience. Dana doesn’t even know how to put words to what happened to her—she knows it was “bad” but doesn’t initially realize that the episode qualifies as assault. When she describes her experiences to her male best friend, he’s dismissive and tells her she’s overreacting–an all too often experience for survivors of these encounters. As she comes to recognize exactly how deeply she’s been violated, she also realizes that a long-buried event from her past qualifies as rape. When she’s finally able to express her anger, Dana is shocked at the level of rage she feels as well as the violence she may be capable of. After all, there never seem to be any repercussions for the male perpetrators—so perhaps women need to take matters into their own hands.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA SCHAFFHAUSER

I was hooked on No Mercy as soon as I read the opening line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…” The protagonist, Ellery Hathaway, a police officer, is famous because she killed a particularly brutal murderer. He’s in prison, she’s involuntarily suspended.  

No Mercy: A Mystery (Ellery Hathaway #2) Cover ImageThe author, Joanna Schaffhausen, keeps the action and adrenaline and droll wit that first sentence implies. This is the second book in a series involving Hathaway, the first is called The Vanishing Season, for which she won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award in 2016.

While dealing with harassment, unwanted attention and personal threats for her actions, Hathaway is pushed to join a group therapy consisting of other survivors of terrible crimes. As she and an FBI profiler, Reed Markham, began to investigate the cases of two of the survivors in the group they find things are not as simple or clear as one would expect.  There are many twists and turns as well great character development.

The author has a doctorate in psychology. Previously, she worked as a scientific editor in the field of drug development. Prior to that, she was an editorial producer for ABC News, writing for programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America, and 20/20.  

She agreed to do an interview via email.

Scott Butki: I want to start by asking where in the writing process you came up with the awesome first line: “You kill one guy, one time, and suddenly everyone thinks you need therapy…”

Joanna Schaffhausen: Ha! Well, they say you need to hook readers early with a killer first line. I just took that literally.

More seriously, the audience has to get to know Ellery Hathaway quickly, and this line captures her thinking at the start of the book. Part of the mystery is whether she will still feel the same by the end.

Scott: How did you come up with this story?

Joanna: I asked myself what would be next for Ellery after the events of The Vanishing Season. Most police departments now mandate counseling for officers involved in shootings, especially if they result in the death of a human being, so it made sense that she would be required to do some introspection. Ellery, though, has survived to where she is largely by blocking out unpleasant events, so she’s not excited to talk about her feelings. So then I asked what she’d be doing instead, and the answer was obvious: she’d start investigating her fellow support group members.

Scott: I, and I assume many other readers of your books, find police officer Ellery Hathaway a fascinating character, someone who shot a murderer in cold blood but refuses to apologize. How did you come up with her character?

Joanna: Ellery survived a notorious serial killer as a teenager and has to live out her days in his shadow. This premise is loosely based on Carol DaRonch, who survived her encounter with Ted Bundy back in the 1970s. Bundy was executed for his crimes in 1989, but for Carol, he never dies. The public appetite for Bundy stories means that Carol gets to see his face on magazine covers, has to turn on the TV and see who is playing her in the latest movie adaptation, and field endless messages from kooks and creeps.

In the fictional world, Ellery’s had enough of other people dictating her life. She wants to be a force for good in the world, but she doesn’t like letting people get close to her, emotionally or physically. She has her own moral code and isn’t easily dissuaded from it.

Scott: How would you describe Ellery and FBI Profiler Reed Markham?

Joanna: Ellery has a passion for justice and is especially moved by women and children in harm’s way. The fact that she survived a brutal experience at the hands of a serial killer has given her the sense that she lives on borrowed time. She will risk her life without a second thought to save others.

Reed Markham is biracial and was adopted by a wealthy white Southern family after his Latina mother was murdered when he was a baby. He is empathic, intelligent and, as Ellery notes, lives his whole life on the premise that he makes a difference. He rescued Ellery as a young, green FBI agent and rocketed to fame on the back of the case. The world told him that he was a big hero, and for years, he believed it. Reuniting with Ellery has shown him all the ways he didn’t save her, and thus, it’s like a wound for both of them that never completely heals. However, they are also the only two with this precise shared history, the only two that see each other clearly in the storm cloud of a famous story, so they remain drawn to each other because of this.

Scott: How has your background – which included studying neuroscience, a doctorate in psychology, working for news programs – helped you with this book and this series?

 Joanna: The brain is so endlessly fascinating! Both neuroscience and psychology have devoted much research to criminal deviance, and these articles make for fascinating, if frustrating, reading. Behavior as complex as violent crime will have multi-factorial roots, including genetic, developmental, and environmental origins. Studies provide insights into why some people turn violent, how they justify this behavior to themselves, and how investigators might use this knowledge to stop them. However, none of it provides definitive answers. There is so much that is unknown, and this gray area provides fertile ground for writing.

Working for the news taught me so much. There are whip-smart, curious, and talented people at all levels, but we’re all feeding the same hungry beast in the audience. The beast wants sensational headlines and crazy, entertaining stories. It wants the stories now, in bite-size form. It can be a challenge to balance the truth, which is often messy, boring, and long-winded, with a format that demands a fast, digestible narrative.

Scott: I understand you get some of your idea from true crime stories. What is it that you take away from those stories?

Joanna: Partly, I am interested in the puzzle aspect. How did the investigators piece together the clues to find the suspect? This can provide a road map for similar fictional cases. I’m also interested in the psychological and emotional impacts of crime, so I want to know what it felt like to be involved in the cases. Yes, from the victim’s and investigator’s sides, but also people who were falsely accused, people who were related to the perpetrator, people who were witnesses, etc. I am interested in how all the pieces fit together into one story.

Scott: What did you learn from writing fan fiction for the X-Files?

Joanna: I could write an essay on this topic alone. I wrote approximately 1.2 million words of XF fanfic spanning fifteen novels and a bunch of shorter works, and that’s invaluable practice in terms of craft. However, I think the most important lessons for me are those that are difficult to find before you’re published, namely what it’s like to write for an audience. Not just your critique group or your best friend, but a diverse set of readers numbering in the thousands. My main takeaways are these:

  1. You can’t control your story once it’s out there. People will have reactions to it that you never anticipated, and that’s okay. Some will love it. Some will hate it. The author doesn’t get a say in how people feel about their story, and the reaction isn’t personal (even if it might feel that way sometimes.)
  2. Some stories are more popular than others, and the reasons are mysterious. I have works that people read once and yawned, and I have others I receive daily letters about, even after twenty years. I couldn’t tell you when I was writing them which would be the popular works and which would be the duds, nor could I do anything to force the issue. The only thing I could do is to write the next story. This is a freeing concept if you embrace it.

Scott: What do you want readers to take away from your book?

Joanna: First and foremost, I hope they are entertained. I am a storyteller at heart. Beyond that, Ellery and Reed’s stories are largely about identity. What are the defining factors that make us who we are? What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and how do they change over time? One of the threads through all the books is that we have more power over our own stories than it often feels like, and I hope readers embrace that too.

Scott: What can you tell us about the next book in the series, The Neon Boneyard?

Joanna: Reed receives shocking information about his family at the end of No Mercy, which sets up his quest to learn what happened to his murdered mother. She was stabbed to death in Las Vegas when Reed was only a baby, and the killer was never caught. Reed and Ellery set out for the neon lights to see if they can unearth the truth after all these years.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Joanna: I’m working on another serial killer tale. An amateur sleuth trying to find a serial killer who disappeared twenty years ago ends up dead in the same fashion as his victims. Did she get too close and force him out of hiding, or did someone else in her life use her unusual hobby to murder her?

Scott: What’s a question you wish you were asked more often but haven’t been? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Joanna: How many unpublished or abandoned manuscripts do you have?

At least a half dozen completed original novels and a handful of partial manuscripts. Some of these were written after I published my debut book, which shows you that publishing is not some magical wand to forever success. This doesn’t mean that all these other manuscripts were failures, either. I learned from them and cannibalized some for other works, and hey, maybe one or two will even resurface later in another form. Writing is about trying new things and if one of those attempts doesn’t yield immediate success, it doesn’t mean you failed as a writer. You take what you can learn from that project and move onto the next one.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH NICK PETRIE

I have a theory that if you give an awesome book full of adrenaline, excitement and plot twists to someone who usually needs a cup of coffee to get moving in the morning, the book will do the job. Nick Petrie’s new novel, Tear It Down, is one such book.

Tear It Down (A Peter Ash Novel #4) Cover ImageAs the book, the fourth in Petrie’s Peter Ash series, begins, Ash’s girlfriend sends the restless war veteran to Memphis to help a friend, Wanda, with a situation: she’s receiving strange threats. By the time he arrives her home is under attack, bulldozed by a garbage truck.

Meanwhile, a young homeless musician in Memphis, on the run after a jewelry store heist goes sideways, steals, at gunpoint, Ash’s car and Ash finds himself immersed in a second case with Ash trying to help not just Wanda but also this musician, Eli.

Petrie masterfully advances both stories while fleshing out all the characters.

Petrie’s first novel, The Drifter, won the ITW Thriller and Barry Awards, and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Hammett Awards. He won the 2016 Literary Award from the Wisconsin Library Association and was named one of Apple’s 10 Writers to Read in 2017.  Light It Up was named the Best Thriller of 2018 by Apple Books.

His books in the Peter Ash series are The Drifter, Burning Bright, Light It Up, and Tear It Down. A husband and father, he has worked as a carpenter, remodeling contractor, and building inspector.

Petrie agreed to let me interview him via email. This is the result.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this adrenaline rush of a story?

Nick Petrie: For me, stories evolve in strange ways.  Memphis is near the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and I set out to write a natural disaster tale.  I began to research Memphis and its historical conflicts and challenges, and I had a lot of stories to choose from.  I began with Wanda Wyatt because I’d met a photojournalist with post-traumatic stress, and I thought Wanda would provide a new way of looking at the consequences of war.  Then I remembered an article in a building magazine with a photograph of a dump truck that had crashed into a building, which gave me a way to dramatize a certain kind of conflict.  When Eli Bell showed up, he was so sympathetic and compelling that I knew something else entirely was happening, and the earthquake would have to wait for another book.

Scott: Am I right in guessing this is a story where you did some major outlining? It seems you would need it to explain both the plotline about Eli and the others robbing a jewelry store AND the plotline about Peter Ash helping Wanda?

Nick: That was the challenge I set for myself with this book – to write two separate plotlines that would twine around each other, and relate to each other, simultaneously.  Unfortunately, I’m not a big outliner, I tend to write more organically, and at times I really despaired for the structure of this book. (I often think my writing life would be easier if I could outline.  But I seem incapable of it.) I have a big corkboard on the wall of my office, and after I had most of a draft, I marked up a bunch of notecards, one card for each scene, and used the corkboard to arrange and rearrange until it felt right.  Not very scientific, I’m afraid.

Scott: What was it like to get this praise from Lee Child: “Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Petrie’s Peter Ash is the real deal…The writing is terse and tense, full of wisdom and insight, and the plot is irresistible.”  How would you compare Ash with Reacher?

Nick: I am a HUGE fan of Lee’s work, so his praise meant the world to me.  Peter Ash definitely shares some DNA with Jack Reacher – both are rootless ex-military heroes who don’t really fit into the modern world, and who are more interested in solving somebody’s problem than in the niceties of the legal system.  But I think the characters’ differences are far more complex. Where Reacher is a wandering loner by choice, Peter longs for a home, but he literally cannot stay indoors for very long. And where Reacher is a kind of superman, who you feel is almost beyond harm – and this is, I think, one of the core appeals of Jack Reacher – Peter Ash, although physically very capable, is still quite vulnerable, which is, I think, why the series has found so many readers, so quickly.  

Scott: How would you describe Iraq war veteran Peter Ash, as well as the character of Eli?

Nick:  Peter Ash is a Marine Corps veteran with post-traumatic stress that takes the form of claustrophobia, which means he can’t be inside for more than a few minutes.  Although he’s working hard to get better, Peter’s combat skills and wartime experiences have made him ill-suited to the modern world. But like many veterans I’ve met, Peter is driven to be useful.  So he dives back into the world, again and again, even if it means risking everything, to help others.

Eli Bell, on the other hand, is a talented young street musician in serious trouble.  He’s allowed himself to be caught up in a robbery scheme with his friends, but when the robbery goes wrong, Eli finds himself on the wrong side of a local warlord and his paid killers.  Eli is smart and proud and resourceful, and he doesn’t want Peter’s help. But he won’t live long without it.

Scott: How did you develop those two characters?

Nick: This might make me sound more unbalanced than I really am, but characters usually appear first as a kind of voice in my head.  I started writing The Drifter, my first book, because I kept hearing the voice of a cheerful, damaged veteran who needed to remove a big, mean dog from under a porch so he could do some repairs.  The whole story evolved from that basic sense of his character. The way Peter got the dog out from under the porch. His reaction when he found a certain Samsonite suitcase. What he did with the dog afterwards.  How he ended up under that porch in the first place. Everything Peter’s done since that scene has been an extension of that first voice in my head.

I have no idea where Eli Bell came from.  One day I started writing about these four black kids living in an abandoned house.  But I became very involved in their complicated friendship, their hopes and sorrows and dreams and ambitions.  And Eli’s voice was so strong that I just kept writing, not knowing where he would fit in the book, knowing only that he would take me somewhere interesting.  He’s fierce and strong and determined and flawed, with everything stacked against him – a writer could hardly hope for a better character.

Scott: Which comes first for you, plot or characters?

Nick: Character, absolutely.  I start with a character’s voice, then drop him or her into a difficult situation with no real idea of what he or she will do next.  Usually the voice tells me what happens next. In Light It Up, for example, I knew I wanted to write about Colorado’s newly-legal cannabis industry.  It made sense that Peter would want to help other veterans to protect the pot growers – protecting and helping others is like breathing for Peter. So I sent him to work one day, to see what would happen.  Unfortunately, some hijackers decided they wanted what Peter’s crew was carrying. Things went downhill from there.

Scott: You do a great job explaining what life is like on streets for Eli. Are you hoping readers will come away with some learning about that? What else are you hoping readers will take away from this excellent novel?

Nick: My primary job is always to entertain my readers, to jack up their adrenaline levels and keep them turning those pages.  That means I have to create characters that readers will care about, then give those characters increasingly difficult challenges.  And because my own life is pretty boring, I’m most interested in writing about people who are not like me, whether that’s a black street kid or a combat veteran or a working-class guy who feels abandoned and adrift.  

If my work can drop readers into the lives and minds and hearts of someone who is not like them? That, for me, is success. Because reading a good book is a radical act of empathy. The world could use a little more of that.

Scott: How do you go about researching a story like this?

Nick:  I begin by reading enough to hear that quiet voice in my head and get me itching to begin.  Then I write forward in the story until it’s clear to me that I need to know more. Sometimes research is more reading, sometimes it’s talking with experts, sometimes it’s talking with people who have lived an experience I’m only writing about.  This happens multiple times during the writing of a single book – sometimes multiple times in a single week. Also, I always make at least one visit to the place I’m writing about. Visiting Memphis had a profound effect on this book – creating a vivid setting is really important to me because setting is a kind of bonus character.  I really want readers to have an immersive experience. My favorite books are those that make me forget myself for a while.

Scott: This is the fourth book in your Peter Ash series. Do you want readers to start with the first one or with this one?

Nick: I’ve written them to be read in any order you find them.  But if you’re the kind of reader that likes to start at the beginning – and I’m actually that kind of reader – you might enjoy seeing the evolution of the characters and the kinds of trouble Peter gets into, starting with The Drifter.  

Scott: How far out do you have this series planned?

Nick: The thing I like the best about writing Peter Ash stories is that they can go anywhere and can take on any subject – as long as they involve vivid characters and a fast, exciting story.  I have some ideas about the larger arc of the series, but I try not to have too many preconceived notions. Following the characters seems to work best. The next Peter Ash book is set in Iceland, where Peter goes to find a missing child amid the dramatic landscape and strange characters of this wild and wonderful place.  Unfortunately for Peter, it doesn’t go well.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.