Joseph Kanon has been writing spy novels for quite some time, focusing on the murky politics of immediate post-war Berlin as the starting point for much of his work. Last month, I profiled Joseph Kanon’s latest spy novel, Leaving Berlin, as an atmospheric triumph, with impeccable plotting, deep research, and a measured pace that accelerates to frenetic by the end of the novel. Mr. Kanon was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the novel.
Molly O: Your main character faces persecution for being Jewish in Nazi Germany, and as a Communist in McCarthy-era USA. His character seems to epitomize the vulnerability of stateless peoples, before and after WWII. He is in between countries, just like the private detective in a PI novel is between criminals and cops. What drew you to such a character?
Joseph Kanon: I needed a protagonist who would be above suspicion to the Soviet occupation authorities and someone who had defied HUAC would certainly have filled that bill in the late ’40s. In a sense, his principled defiance of the committee becomes a perfect ‘cover’. His being half-Jewish was important in explaining his reluctance to return to Berlin (his parents have been murdered in the Holocaust) but also helps to explain his feeling of being, at least partly, an outsider, someone looking, wary about committing to either side. And of course it’s also part of the reason he’s so taken with the von Bernuth family– he’s not just in love with Irene, but with their heedless self-confidence, their absolute certainty about their place in society.
MO: Postwar Berlin is such a perfect setting for shifting alliances and evolving identities, and many of your books are set in the immediate post-war period. What draws you to this setting, this time period?
JK: I think it was the hinge of the last century, a point of real transformation– there was before the war and then there was after and this ‘after’ world, in all its gray areas of moral ambiguity, is the one we inherited. Events such as the invention (and use) of the atomic bomb, the revelation of the Holocaust, changed things forever. It is therefore an inherently dramatic period, and one not as explored in fiction as some others (always appealing to a writer)– ordinary people are making decisions that will affect how we live for the next 50 years or so. I’m interested in the effect of history on people and this was a period when everybody was affected, whether he wished to be or not.
His latest Walt Longmire novel, Dry Bones, has the Wyoming sheriff involved with a murder investigation that is right in the middle of a fight for the rights to a rare and sizable Tyrannosaurs Rex fossil. Longmire must also deal with an unexpected tragedy that strikes close to him. We caught up with Craig to ask a few questions (he mostly answered) about his book, his state, and the direction of the series.
MysteryPeople: Much of Dry Bones‘ plot revolves around the discovery of the most complete Tyrannosaurus fossil and who has the rights to it. In your research, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the dino-world?
Craig Johnson: That scientists are just as capable of heinous activity as the rest of humanity. You would think that by pursuing the high-minded tract of empirical data that they would be above the petty squabbles and backbiting that plague us mere mortals, but that’s not the case. In the historic battles between Cope and Marsh, two of the greatest paleontologists in American history, they salted each others’ sites with incorrect bones, wrote horrible articles about each other, and at one point one of them had the skull of the other on his desk. All of which makes the dinosaurs seem pretty civilized.
MP: The subject reinforced the idea of how history has been an important element in the series. How does history apply to Walt’s part of the country?
CJ: Well, there’s history and then there’s history… Less than 20% of native religious items and bodies have been repatriated to the tribes, which in this day and age is ridiculous. Wyoming is the outdoors. As your good buddy James Crumley once said, “The west is the out of doors, just go to Casper, Wyoming and look at the town. That’s not the West, but look out and away, that’s the West.” I think westerners are confronted by the natural world to a greater degree, and the history is all around us, whether it be teepee rings from a couple hundred years ago, or bones from sixty-five million.
David C Taylor has been writing for film, TV, and theater since the seventies. He has written for classic shows like The Rockford Files and scripted several movies including the fun Tom Selleck caper flick, Lassiter (a personal favorite) and the rock comedy Get Crazy. His debut novel, Night Life, is a look into New York City of the Fifties. One almost hears the theme from the Burt Lancaster film Sweet Smell Of Success as we follow Michael Cassidy, a cop with a unique background, whose case puts him in the middle of the red scare and up against real life villain Roy Cohn. It is a book rich in story and character that never loses itself in the period and atmosphere it evokes. I recently talked talked to Mr. Taylor about his book and the period it tackled.
MysteryPeople: Michael Cassidy is an intriguing character who can move in many directions and has an interesting history. How did he come about?
David C. Taylor: It is difficult to know exactly how a character is born. If you have been watching people’s behavior and storing up incident for as long as I have, I think there are characters alive inside you, and when you begin to tap them, they grow naturally as you demand more and more of them. I did grow up with a father who worked in the New York theater world, so that was available to me. And I did not want to write a run of the mill character whose background would lead naturally to the police department. I wanted him to be a bit of an outsider in all the worlds he passes through.
MP: What drew you to Fifties New York as a setting?
DCT: New York in the Fifties was the New York I grew up in. It was a city that did not really change until the late Sixties, by which time I was in my twenties, and youth is the time in our lives when many memories become indelible. I wanted to write about that city, which I loved, without limiting the story by making it about a boy.
George Wier is best know for his pulp influenced yarns involving Austin hired gun, Bill Travis. His latest, Murder In Elysium, is a bit more serious (although there is plenty of humor) following a West Texas sheriff who has to deal with a man returning to town after he got him out of murder charge that he thought was wrong, though many in town believed he did it. We caught up with George Weir to ask him a few questions.
MysteryPeople: Murder In Elysium has a much different tone than the work you’re known for. What drew you to the story?
George Wier: The idea of the question of guilt or innocence drew me in, initially. I’m from a small Texas town, originally, and the townsfolk seemed to be 1) a tad insular, and 2) opinionated. If, in their eyes, someone was guilty, then usually their minds were made up and they were already on to “bigger and better things.” It didn’t matter that they weren’t there when the thing happened, or what the weight of the evidence was one way or the other, or even the lack of evidence. If you were guilty, well, that was it. Game over, fellah! But from the point of view of the person on the receiving end of the justice system, I wanted to paint a picture of a guy who was on the inside–and I’m saying all that and trying not to give anything away, of course. I think I managed to do that.
MP: Shane Robeling is much more laconic and says fewer words than most of the heroes you’ve written. How much of a challenge was that?
GA taciturn character is far easier portray when you’re writing in first person. You get to give the character’s viewpoint without a lot of dialogue in the way, and you get to paint the bulk of the picture of the other characters through their dialogue; their interactions with the main character. Most importantly, I didn’t want Shane Robeling to be Bill Travis. Shane has the professional law enforcement background that Travis lacks. He’s an insider in that world and he drew the short straw with the FBI, and this has left him jaded him, somewhat. I wanted that to come out as well. Also, I wanted to take him from his federal cases and put him in a small town setting (such as that where I grew up) and see how he would do. In a small town, everything is far more personal. There isn’t a wall between you and the rest of the world. In a small town, you rely on your neighbors. You know them and they know you. And it’s always a surprise to find out how well they know you. I think Shane does all right in Elysium. I wasn’t so sure when I started out with him, but now I’m rather proud of him. You’re right, he doesn’t say much, and I wanted what he didn’t say to be as salient as what he did.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for Lake Country come about?
SEAN DOOLITTLE: Ass-backwards for me, this time. Ideas seem to work best for me when they start with characters, but this one started with a situation, which came from a news story I read about creative jail sentences. So I started with that as a nugget for a story. But the story didn’t really find it’s gears until I found the characters, and then it became about something completely different than the original notion. Generally that’s when things start to feel like they’re working properly.
MP: In many ways, Lake Country is about misguided heroics (feel free to disagree, since you wrote it). The closest thing to a hero is Mike, who could have gotten the police involved, and two reporters who are acting more out of ambition. Do you prefer writing a book without “good guys”?
SD: I do tend to write about flawed characters, partly because that seems realistic to me, and partly because flawed characters seem like more fertile ground for drama (or comedy, for that matter). Misguided is an interesting way to think about the protagonists in this book; I do think they’re all a little lost in one way or another. Personally, I feel like Mike and Maya are both trying to do what they think is right, they’re just not always sure what that is or how to accomplish it. And they’re hindered by their own baggage. My favorite bad guys even tend to have gray areas.
Having said all that, in this book I also think I wrote the closest thing to a straight-up villain as I’ve written in a while, and I have to admit, it was kind of fun.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: I’ve noticed when many of our customers pick up your book they ask themselves, “Why would anybody want to write about Amarillo?” What is your answer to them?
BILL DURHAM: Why would anyone want to write about any place? My answer is that it’s the people and the history of the place that make it interesting to write about. I’m not a particular fan of Houston, although I love David Lindsey’s books set there. I’ve never been to New Iberia, Louisiana, although I devour James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux novels. I don’t think that “glamour” (ooh, he’s using the British spelling, from before Noah Webster changed it. What a snob!) makes a place such as New York or Los Angeles inherently more interesting than any other location. It’s true that London gave us Shakespeare, the greatest story-teller of them all, but my uncle Egbert Norwood Durham (known as Buddy) from DeKalb, Texas, who barely had a fourth-grade education, and my close friend Dick Pena from Muleshoe would fair threaten the blue ribbon from Master Will in a story contest. As a student of American history, I can promise that not everything interesting happened on the East or West Coasts. I’ve known as many fascinating characters in the Panhandle and seen as many heroes and villains there than on any Manhattan boulevard, Hollywood street, or theatrical stage.
In this specific case, I was writing a contemporary Western, and Amarillo seemed the perfect setting, Plus, I used to play a lot of pool there.
MP: Even though your book is Texas through and through, your protagonist is a Jewish lawyer from New York. Why such an outsider?
BD: Even though I’m Texas born and raised, I always have felt like somewhat of an outsider. My family moved from Texarkana to Iowa when I was 6 and when I was 15 we moved to Muleshoe. Kids there made fun of my “funny” (to them) accent, and so I felt like an outsider. I also had different attitudes and beliefs about politics and religion than most of my peers, so I felt like an outsider for those reasons. It took me years to become comfortable in my skin as a Texan. I spent ten years in New York City, and so when I chose my main character, I wanted to pick someone who could see Texas culture from the outside yet come to love certain aspects of it, as I did. Max is half a doppelganger for me.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to the world of cheerleading for a noir story?
MEGAN ABBOTT: I always think the seed for the next book lies in the last one and in The End of Everything there’s a character who’s a serious high school field hockey player. I started watching high school girls play and was so dazzled by their intensity on the field. They looked like warriors to me. That led me to cheerleading, the most dangerous sport for girls. Today’s cheerleaders are deeply competitive and their willingness to take risks fascinated me. To put themselves in bodily danger. I started thinking about it as this perfect terrain to explore female power, friendship, appetites, desire, ambition.
MP: Besides Coach, who you could argue hasn’t completely grown up, adults have a limited appearance and not much dialog. Did you design the book to step out of the cheer squad as little as possible?
MA: Yes. I guess to me they’re absent presences. When you’re a teenager, your world is your peers and when you’re involved in something as deeply as these girls are with their squad I think that only increases. It’s almost as if adults disappear. Also, it began to feel a lot like a war story, or a gangster tale. Their whole world is one another. There is no other world. And that’s a hothouse. It can only create trouble.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How different was writing your second Jocelyn Shore book compared to the first?
JANICE HAMRICK: The writing itself came more easily. Having gone through the process once gave me more confidence when I ran into a snag or couldn’t figure out something. Knowing that I would be able to work through it and having developed some techniques from the first book made it go more smoothly. It was also far more intense. In Death on Tour, the murder victims as well as the group of suspects were all strangers to Jocelyn, which made the deaths and the mystery shocking, but not painful. In Death Makes the Cut, Jocelyn is on home ground. The murder victim was a close friend and mentor. The suspects are all people she knows or thinks she knows. This is a very personal story for Jocelyn…and therefore for me. I admit I actually cried a couple of times while writing. How pathetic is that?
MP: You did a great job of portraying the high school teachers with their gossiping and cliques that rival the students’. As somebody who isn’t a teacher, how did you approach that world?
JH: To some extent, everyone shares a common high school experience. The wonderful but often weird teachers, the underhanded school politics, the intense competition is something everyone knows from their own student days. As far as I can tell nothing has changed at all (unless it has actually intensified) over the years. In addition, I experienced high school life and clubs as a parent volunteer and I also got to hear some pretty hair-raising stories told by my kids and their friends. The astonishing mixture of high ideals and cruelty, of ruthless competition and overwhelming generosity all blend together seamlessly in every high school activity that I witnessed. Honestly, sometimes I felt like a puppy dropped into a shark tank.
MP: You use Austin locales with as much detail as you described Egypt in Death On Tour. What does setting provide for you as a writer?
JH: Setting is reality, and without a solid physical location, a story just isn’t grounded. In some novels (for example, in Death on Tour), the location is almost another character – the story really could not take place anywhere else. Even when the setting isn’t a major player, the overall ambience, the physical distances, even things like the weather, all come together to bring the story to life.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: Ricky, your central character in Chicken Hanger, is an illegal alien. What do you do in approaching a character who is different from you?
BEN REHDER: Were you not aware that I am an illegal alien? I’ve kept my secret very well. Regardless, I did do a lot of research for my novel. Found a great article about undocumented aliens working in poultry plants, so I know I got that part right. Also watched four or five documentaries about undocumented workers—how they get here, the challenges they face, how they live once they’re here. Very interesting stuff.
MP: What made you want to deal with illegal immigration?
BR: I think it’s an interesting topic—you have the blending of various cultures, but the politics of it also is a hot button. If you grow up in central Texas, you interact with undocumented aliens on a regular basis, so it’s just an integral part of who we are. Plus, the national debate about this topic has been going on for years. There is one particular newspaper article I like to reference—it talks about the rancor and political strife created by Mexican immigrants coming over to the U.S.—and then I reveal that the article was written in the 1930s.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: As a newcomer to the series, I was surprised at how dark many of the plot elements were for a “light mystery”. Do you feel a writer should put some dark into the light?
VICTORIA LAURIE: It’s interesting that you should see some dark elements in the plot, Scott. I don’t know that I give putting in dark or light elements much thought when I’m crafting the stories. Mostly, I try to come up with a really good mystery, and that almost always involves a murder. Murder is a pretty messy business, so what I’m really going for is something that doesn’t feel contrived or convenient, but rather something more real. Wherever I can I do try and bring some humor and fun into the story too. I’m striving to have the reader go through a whole gamut of emotions. I want my readers at times on the edge of their seats, at other times moved by a touching moment, or maybe indulging in the romance between Abby and Dutch, and at other times laughing at some crazy hijinks or a bit of quick-witted banter. At the beginning of each new story I craft, I set out to entertain myself, and as I have the attention span of a gnat, I figure if I’m not bored, then odds are my readers won’t be either.
MP: You do a wonderful job of establishing the relationship with Abby’s PI pal, Candice. How did you construct her as both a friend and foil for Abby?
VL: Well, in Candice’s case, I’m actually writing what I know. Candice is a conglomeration of three of my closest girlfriends. And as good girlfriends often do, these three amazing ladies laugh at all my jokes, push me to stop whining when I’m cranky, eat better, exercise more, and support me through both good times and bad. They’re sisters from other misters and I know in my soul that if I ever called any one them in the middle of the night and said, “There’s a dead guy in my living room, and I killed him,” they’d be all, “Sit tight. I’ll bring a shovel.”
MP: Abby is still going through physical therapy as a result from a previous adventure. Was it frustrating writing your heroine with a more limited physical capacity?
VL: No, that was actually done on purpose. I wanted Abby to be physically vulnerable in this book, and force her to use her own smarts to get herself out of the dicey situations I had set up for her. I also wanted her to rely on the other regular characters in the series, because Abby can be a stubborn, independently-minded person at times. Her reliance on those sub-characters also pulled them into the story a little more, which kept me entertained throughout the crafting of the manuscript and allowed my fans to spend some time with characters they’ve come to know and love.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: Dutch has such a unique voice and outlook. How did he come about?
TIM BRYANT: I’m very much a Texas writer, so I wanted to create to-order the perfect Texas character to push my stories along. And so Dutch is, not coincidentally, a good bit like me. We share a love of music. I’m a big fan of Bob Wills, Texas swing music, blues and jazz and country music from the 1940s and ’50s. I like going out and having a drink or two with friends. I like nosing around in dark corners and contemplating the great mysteries of life.
Dutch also has seen enough to have a pretty wide distrust of those in positions of power. He feels like the game’s been rigged, and his job is, for the most part, a matter of leveling it back out as much as he can. As a character, he started out in a series of short stories that I wrote while getting my Creative Writing degree. I originally thought of tying several of those short stories together into a novel, which quickly proved to be a more daunting task than I had imagined. By then, I’d gotten to know Dutch pretty well, and there were lots of other stories to tell. So the material in the book is almost completely independent of that in the original stories.
MP: What drew you to post-war Fort Worth as a setting?
TB: Fort Worth was the perfect location for Dutch because it had a thriving music scene in that era, and the music is an important backdrop to the story. In fact, it becomes part of the major subplot. Fort Worth had been home to people like Bob Wills and T-Bone Walker, as well as to radio station WBAP, which was important to the whole area in a historical sense. Fort Worth had that renegade, wild west image. It was home to Hell’s Half Acre, which earned its nickname the hard way. The whole town just had a real chip-on-its-shoulder attitude from having to stand up for itself to avoid getting lost in Dallas’ shadow. Finally, in addition to it being a western town, Fort Worth was also very much a part of the south. There was a lot of change coming to postwar America, especially in the South. Established orders were shifting, which caused a great deal of tension and turmoil. Dutch Curridge is quintessentially Texan, but he wouldn’t have been as comfortable in East Texas or the Hill Country or along the border.
MysteryPeople: How would you describe your books?
Timothy Hallinan: The Poke Rafferty books are thrillers, which I hope are character-driven. While the thriller plot begins and ends in each book, the story of the little family that’s at the center of the series (and that’s the element I care most about) continues from book to book. The father figure is Poke (short for Philip) Rafferty, an American travel writer who came to Thailand to write a book and stayed to start a new life; his wife, nicknamed Rose, whom he met when she was dancing in one of the red-light bars on Patpong Road, once Asia’s most lurid street; and their adopted daughter, Miaow, now 12 or 13 (no one knows) whom they adopted off of the sidewalk. They’ve all been damaged and they all need to make a home, so they’re trying with all they’ve got to create one across gulfs of religion and culture and expectations and personal experience. They’ve been together five years now, and if anything the bonds are getting stronger, although Miaow is now entering a very difficult age.
MP: What first took you to Bangkok?
TH: In 1981 I was working on a PBS series about the first tour of Japan by an American symphony orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I was supposed to take a few weeks off in Japan when filming ended. But it was the coldest February in decades, so I called my travel agent (there were still travel agents then) and asked her to send me someplace that was both Asian and warm. She suggested the Philippines, but I’d spent a couple of months there working on a dreadful movie, and it wasn’t a happy experience, so I went for choice number two, Thailand. I landed in Bangkok wearing a down jacket and a woolen cap on a day when the temperature was just below 100. The immigration guys were falling off their chairs laughing at me as I crossed the terminal, and that was the first time in my life I ever saw immigration people laugh. I was in love with Bangkok by the end of the first couple of days. I’ve had an apartment there ever since.
MYSTERYPEOPLE:What got you to look at the ’60s, particularly with a character who hadn’t experienced it?
EDWARD WRIGHT: Every now and then I get the itch to write a suspense novel with political overtones. The other example was my third book, “Red Sky Lament,” which looked at the Hollywood Red Scare of the late 1940s. In From Blood, I wanted to write a contemporary story that looked back at one of America’s most turbulent decades. Since the ’60s seem far away to many readers, I chose to view that period through the eyes of a young woman who would function as a stand-in for the average reader. The ’60s are foreign to her, but because she’s a historian by training, she has the skills to reassemble that era piece by piece. And because her murdered parents were active participants in the radical politics of that age, she has a very personal reason for her quest.
I had my own personal reason, and here I’m giving away my age. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I was a low-level editor at the Chicago Tribune and was intensely curious about what was happening in the streets. I was tear-gassed, along with hundreds of demonstrators and a few of my co-workers, in Lincoln Park on the second night of convention week. So some of my memories of the ’60s are still very fresh.
MP: What did you want to get across about that generation?
EW: That the members of the radical fringe of the anti-war movement — people who were roughly my age back then — were frighteningly committed to their goals and willing to use violence to achieve them. It was the kind of all-or-nothing politics that has almost disappeared today. In the novel, I wanted to ask the questions: What if two militants went deep underground after a fatal bombing — but what if, unlike real-life figures such as Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, they never resurfaced and were still in hiding today? What would they be like? Would they have lost their youthful passion, or would they still be committed to overthrowing the government by force? The young protagonist of From Blood, Shannon Fairchild, asks the same questions and sets out to find the answers.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: The Joy Brigade is a bit of a departure, more of a spy/adventure novel than a police mystery. How did it feel dipping into another sub genre?
MARTIN LIMON: The Joy Brigade is definitely a departure. I greatly enjoyed the chase and the thriller aspects–like Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” So much so that I hope to do another some day.
MP: What was it like just focus to on Sueño?
ML: The focus on Sueño followed easily enough from the plot. He’s stuck in North Korea after all, alone. However, bringing some of the other crew in later, like Ernie and Staff Sergeant Riley, was even more fun than usual. I missed them.
u look at a particular period in Korean history when Kim Jong Il takes over in ’72. The tension you describe within the American military reminded me of stories my dad told me about being stationed in Germany during the Cuban Missile Crisis. How touch and go was it from becoming another war?
ML: Military intelligence (that famous oxymoron) always took the threat very seriously. The North Koreans, often and repeatedly, said flat out that they were going to reunite the country before Kim Il-sung retired. All our training and field exercises and live fire drills were designed to head that off. The Cold War was all pervasive in those years and Korea was right in the center of it. After all, the Korean War was the first direct confrontation in the Cold War, and a devastating one it was.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: The Knights Templar legend has been a popular one for authors in the last decade. What did you see in it for Bloodline?
JAMES ROLINS:The mythology of the Knights Templar has always been shrouded by whispers of lost knowledge or hidden treasures. For this new book, I decided to address a suspicious lapse in Templar lore. Historical documents state that there were nine founding members of this ancient order. Eight of these knights are actually referred to by name, but the ninth’s identity has become lost in history. Which makes me as a writer ask: Why was this ninth knight’s name stricken from history, what secret needed to be buried with that name? Answering that question became the thrust for this new book.
MP: Unlike many adventure heroes, you give your hero Gray problems outside of work, for example dealing with his father’s Alzheimer’s. What does this add to the story and character for you?
JR: First, such details flesh out a real character. It allows readers to relate at a more intimate level. Each of us at some point in our lives has struggled to balance the responsibilities of our personal lives with the pressure of our professional roles. Gray is faced with the same balancing act. It humanizes him and instills sympathy–so when I do put him in harm’s way, you care about his fate. I also wanted to try to capture on the page the sheer devastation of Alzheimer’s, how it effects an entire family.
MysteryPeople: It’s very rare, even in a story about criminals, when one of the central characters is a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. What compelled you to use that background for Hobe?
Peter Farris: I’ve had a lifelong fascination with prison culture and prison gangs, and the alpha-male criminal sociopaths they can produce. Given the AB’s reputation, I thought giving Hicklin ties to the gang would make for a dynamic, complicated character.
MP: Is there anything an author needs to know about writing a book with a central character who has so many socially unacceptable traits?
PF: It’s important to write the character as dispassionately as possible, because the moment you inject any sympathies or antipathies I don’t think you’re writing fiction anymore…you’re writing propaganda. I knew it was essential to write about a white supremacist with that type of neutrality, both to serve the story and hopefully challenge the reader to accept (and maybe pull for) this outlaw despite his blind superiorities and reprehensible views. I’ve heard from a few readers who told me they couldn’t believe I had them rooting for such a despicable person. I admit I take a real satisfaction in that.
MP: This is your first novel. What did you get out of the experience?
PF: I’ve wrestled with a few emotions directly before and after the book’s release, including a strange sense of relief which was probably due to my own anticipation and eagerness.
One valuable lesson I’ve learned is that once your baby goes out into the world, there’s not much you can do about it. Just get on with the next sentence, the next gig, and don’t sweat how many reviews you have on Amazon or if somebody hated the novel on Goodreads and let everyone know about it.
MysteryPeople: You seemed to capture both Spenser and Robert B Parker’s voice effortlessly in Lullaby. Was it as easy as you made it look?
Ace Atkins: I felt very comfortable sliding into Spenser’s voice. In a way, I’ve been prepping to write Spenser for more than twenty years. The series has been such a big part of my life — the main reason I became a crime writer — that I felt I could get right into the next novel without much research. These characters are old friends and I know how they think and talk.
MP: There are so many elements from the Spenser books that are now standards in private eye novels. What did you want to make sure you got right?
AA: The absolutely most important part of a Spenser novel — and I think RBP would agree – is the flow of the language. Bob himself said he believed fans of the series — whether they knew it or not — enjoyed the play of the language and the dialogue more than anything. The crime, the investigation is important but we love Spenser for Spenser’s style.
Craig Johnson’s books featuring his put-upon Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire have grown in popularity and will be the basis for the A&E show “Longmire” starting this June. His latest book, As The Crow Flies, has Walt drawn into a murder case on The Cheyenne reservation. Craig will be here at BookPeople for a discussion and signing of the book on May 16th. Craig was kind enough to find the time to answer a few questions on writing, his Cheyenne friends, and his peyote research.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: You’ve described As The Crow Flies as going back to a traditional Walt Longmire book. What exactly do you mean by that?
CRAIG JOHNSON: Hmm. I don’t particularly remember saying that. Actually, if pressed, I guess I’d say that it’s more of a departure from the last book, Hell is Empty, an allegorical retelling of Dante’s Inferno-but I think that’s true of all the books; each one is a departure from the last. Hell is Empty was something really different; some people liked it, some didn’t but for me the most important thing is that I’m not writing the same books over and over in some kind of half-assed formula. A traditional Walt Longmire book? I’m not sure I even know what that is. I guess the narrative in As the Crow Flies is something a little different in the sense that the book takes place entirely on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, but Walt is back, surrounded by a lot of friends and family, dealing with societal problems, and in that sense I guess it’s more traditional.
MP: I couldn’t help but think that Tony Hillerman would have been proud of your depiction of Indian reservation life. What was important for you to convey about the Cheyenne reservation?
CJ: Thank you for the compliment, Tony was a wonderful guy and a great influence. The people, it’s always about the people. My hope is that the characters express the diversity and intelligence of my friends up on the Rez. One of the dirty little secrets of my books is that the Indian (Yes, I use that term because my Indian friends make fun of me when I use the politically correct term-Native American) characters are generally based on people I know up on the Rez. I’m writing about Indians, but I’m not an Indian so I take great pains in making sure I get them, their culture, history, spirituality, and their humor, right. Using real people makes that possible. The only problem is that there are only about two thousand people up on the Northern Cheyenne Rez and when I use people as characters, everybody knows who I’m talking about.
Wallace Stroby’s Cold Shot To The Heart was on my top ten list last year. His follow up with heist woman Crissa Stone, Kings of Midnight, involves money from the infamous Lufthansa robbery, the mob, and a questionable partner in crime in a book that is getting as much acclaim as Cold Shot. Wallace recently answered a few questions about his latest for MysteryPeople.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What made you return to Crissa again?
WALLACE STROBY: Oddly, once I started writing about her – I say oddly, as she’s a professional criminal and a woman, and I’m neither – I had her voice pretty clear in my head almost immediately, and that almost never happens. By the time I got to the end of COLD SHOT, I had all kinds of ideas about things she could do going forward, and that was exciting.
MP: What drew you to using the historical Lufthansa Heist as a major part of the story?
WS: If you’re writing about high-level armed robbery in the U.S., Lufthansa is certainly the high-water mark. Six guys walked into the Lufthansa cargo terminal at JFK and – without firing a shot – walked out with between $5-$10 million in untraceable cash (no one ever knew for sure how much). At the time, it was the largest cash robbery ever on American soil, and very little of the money – only about $30,000 – was ever recovered. However, within a few months afterward, almost all the principals had been murdered, because the bosses found it was cheaper and easier to kill them than pay them their share.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: You use themes of xenophobia and homophobia in the book to dig deep into the story. What did you want to explore with bigotry?
LEE THOMAS: What I wanted to explore was the pervasiveness of identity-based hatred and the ease with which it is embraced, whether by an individual, a community, or a nation. So I touched on examples of the phenomenon from the ground up, from childhood bullying to mob mentality right on through to the most heinous and familiar example: the Nazi’s campaign of persecution. But I wasn’t interested in doing a flat, predictable morality play on the subject. That’s why the character of “The German” was so important. It would have been easy to use a gentle, likeable, wholly innocent guy as the story’s pivotal character, but by using a strong, even brutish, man with an unsavory past in this role, the reader is forced to look beyond personalities. This added a nice layer of traction to the tale.
MP: You do a balancing act with three points of view. Why did you find that necessary with the book?
LT: I didn’t start with the idea that this would be a novel. I was writing a lot of Young Adult fiction at the time, under the name Thomas Pendleton, and I needed some balance to those projects, something decidedly adult. Once the character of Ernst, “The German,” was in my head, I wrote a series of scenes, including one that became the prologue of the novel, and several others featuring interactions between him and various townspeople. After a while I noticed that there was some thematic depth that could be explored there, but it became clear that Ernst’s point of view alone wouldn’t be sufficient to tell the story. I decided that the character of Ernst’s neighbor, Tim, was the best one to hold the story together. As the book progressed, I experimented until the distinct points of view created the right levels of intimacy between the reader and the three main characters. For instance, I needed the titular character, Ernst, to exude authority and immediacy, so he communicates to the reader through a journal written in the present tense. Plus, I wanted as little between Ernst and the reader as was possible. He needed to speak for himself. This wasn’t true of the Sheriff, who wears his motivations, his strengths, and his weaknesses on his sleeve, so having the reader follow him in the third person was more effective. And there was a practical component of storytelling involved. Though never stated outright, I approached the piece as if Tim were not just writing his sections but compiling the book as a whole, so while he had Ernst’s journal from which to lift passages, he had no choice but to recreate the sections featuring the Sheriff.
Last year Marcia Clark hit the crime fiction scene with her novel Guilt By Association. Introducing her series character Los Angeles special prosecutor Rachel Knight, it was more hard boiled procedural than legal thriller, and it was one of the fresher reads of 2011. MysteryPeople will welcome Marcia to sign and discuss her follow up, Guilt By Degrees, this Friday, April 20th at 7pm. I recently asked her a few questions about being a new writer, how she has adapted her former life into hr fictional one, and her love of jazz.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What was more challenging for you, your first book or the follow up?
MARCIA CLARK: Though the second book was no walk in the park, I’d have to say the first book was the more challenging one. Setting up a series requires the creation of a set of characters and a world. And both the people and the world have to offer possibilities for stories and character development that are as limitless as possible, in the hope that you get to write a whole bunch of sequels. In order to do that, you have to think carefully about all your elements.
For example, I think it’s important to give each character a back story that can entertainingly – and believably – have impact on them in current time. In addition, I needed to decide how much of that back story to reveal in the first book. In Guilt by Association, I alluded to a traumatic event in Rachel’s life but didn’t delve into it. I did that for a couple of reasons: first of all, no normal person spills their whole life story the first time you meet them – you know the weirdo who corners you at a party and tells you about how they got dumped by their first boyfriend in junior high because they wouldn’t let him get to second base? That’s not the kind of person who can carry a series because who wants to hang out with a self-obsessed blabbermouth like that? Second of all, Rachel Knight is a private person who has a hard time sharing her feelings even with her best friends and the traumatic event in her childhood is a secret she’s kept from everyone.
MysteryPeople: Edge Of Dark is one of those books that seems to be a mix of genres or not really any one genre. Was there anything that gave you the idea for this one?
Joe R. Lansdale: I think a lifetime of reading and experience came together in this one. The Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, mythology and Huckleberry Finn, this and that. I wasn’t consciously mixing or not mixing. I just wrote the story that came out.
MP: You use a female protagonist in the book, which you also did in one of my other favorites, Sunset and Sawdust. Is there anything you have to keep in mind when writing for the opposite sex?
JL: I think you try to be observant. You try to pay attention to memory about women you know or have known. That’s what I did. I tried to keep in mind how kids acted when I was young, and how they acted now. In some ways, they stay the same. I, of course, used the language of that time and of someone less educated. But Sue Ellen seemed to present herself to me and say I have this story to tell, so sit down and listen. I did.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did the idea for the Lucky series come about?
DEBORAH COONTS: To be honest, Lucky was born out of frustration and love (probably like a lot of us, but we won’t go there.) As a writer, I was frustrated. I’d been working so hard for years trying to “follow the rules” or at least follow the collective wisdom of those who had traveled the perilous path toward publication. I found myself spinning my wheels trying to reinvent myself as Sandra Brown. As someone finally pointed out, we already have a Sandra Brown, we don’t need another. Rats. I was so hoping I could at least have her wardrobe… Anyway, finally a dim light went on in the complete darkness between my ears: I needed to be the best Deborah Coonts I could be. So, I threw out the rules, turned off the sarcasm mute, and delivered my deathless prose, unfiltered. And Lucky was born.
That’s the frustration part. The love part has to do with my love affair with Las Vegas. Before you get me wrong, I don’t gamble, I’m not into extra-marital dalliances or exotic dancers. What I love about Vegas is not the seamy or the tawdry, although we do all of that well in Vegas–no, I love the magic, the fun, the shows, the concerts, the shopping. The human parade is on display every night–people laughing, shrugging off the burden of reality. They reenergize, they have fun. And, I LOVE fun! And that’s what Lucky is about: love, laughter, and above all fun.
It is always exciting to introduce a new writer to our MysteryPeople readers. It’s even more exciting when the writer’s new book examines a controversy that hits CNN at the same time it arrives in stores. Kira Peikoff’s Living Proof takes place in 2027 and concerns a scientist using embryonic stem cells and an operative for a new agencey who goes undercover to catch her breaking the law. It’s a mix of thriller, romance, and hard sci-fi that looks at the debate between, science, polotics, religion, and women’s health. We’re proud to be hosting her at our Wine, Women, & Mystery event March 18th. To give you an idea of this new talent and her book, I asked Kira a few questions.
MysteryPeople: How did you feel when one of the themes of Living Proof (religious morality versus women’s reproductive health rights) was being debated in the news right when your book was released?
Kira Peikoff: I think that the timing of the news cycle and my book’s publication is almost eerie. Within one month of my release, we’ve seen the PershonhoodUSA movement roaring in states around the country (especially Virginia and Oklahoma) and we’ve also seen the amazing early results of a clinical trial with embryonic stem cells that has helped restore vision to two legally blind women. Both of these feel straight out of my story, which I think goes to show how timely the subject matter is in our culture right now
MP: The book is a mix of several genres that dovetail seamlessly in the story, political thriller, hard sci-fi, romance, even social satire. Do you have one particular favorite genre?
KP: I can’t say I have one particular favorite genre. I just love a good story well told, whether it takes the form of sci fi, romance, thriller, mystery, or fantasy. I do tend to read a fair amount of suspense fiction, though.
MysteryPeople: How did the character of Lily come about?
Hilary Davidson: I always feel a little embarrassed admitting that I have different characters living inside my head, but it’s true. Lily’s been around for quite a while. I started working as a travel writer 13 years ago, and that’s let me explore some amazing places, such as Peru, Easter Island, and Israel. But I’ve always felt like the world’s most boring travel writer, because while I love to explore new places, I’m also eager to get home at the end of a trip. On the road, I’ve met writers and photographers who were the opposite — they had bad situations waiting for them at home, and they would do anything to keep traveling for long stretches of time. I started thinking about what it would be like to live like that, always on the run. That’s the position Lily’s in, and thinking about what she’s running away from really shaped the character she is now. She’s a travel writer who never wants to go home.
MP: Did you find it difficult to do a sequel to a book that seemed very self contained?
HD: While I was writing the first book, I also had ideas for two more books with Lily going through my mind. I wanted The Damage Doneto have a very clear, well-defined ending, because I wasn’t sure if I could sell one book, let alone three. But I knew exactly where I wanted to pick up with her in the second book. The Damage Done is very much a book about loss. At the beginning, Lily has a strong, albeit somewhat artificial, sense of who she is and where she belongs. She has a glamorous, independent life she’s created for herself, but while she’s searching for her sister, she loses everything she considers important. The Next One to Fall begins soon after, with Lily at the lowest point in her life. She’s drifting through her days like a ghost, and she’s consumed with grief and guilt. Her friendship with Jesse is the only deep connection she has to anyone, and he’s dragged her to Peru because he thinks it will be shock therapy for her system. It is, but not in the way he expected. When Lily finds a woman dying at the foot of a staircase, she’s horrified, but when that woman’s death is dismissed as an accident, she becomes enraged. The police find evidence that the woman used drugs, and they don’t want to look further into the case. Lily gets drawn deeper and deeper into the situation, because it forces her to think about her sister. On some level, Lily feels that if she can get justice for this dead stranger in Peru, she’s getting the justice her sister never really got.
MysteryPeople: As someone who doesn’t follow hip-hop, this book schooled me. How did you go about writing a book for hard-boiled mystery fans who might not know much about the music and also for your fans who are well versed in it?
Nelson George: I’ve been a fan of detective novels since I was an adolescent. All the Chandler books. The Maltese Falcon by Hammett. All that great Black Mask stuff. I read all that through my teen years. Chinatown is one of my top three favorite movies. So this kind of storytelling is very much in my DNA. I’d done a couple of noir novels before — Night Work and the book I introduced D. Hunter in, The Accidental Hunter. But with The Plot Against Hip Hop I really wanted to interweave my affection for that kind of narrative with the rich history of hip hop culture.
MP: What did you want to convey about hip-hop culture in the book?
Nelson George :I’ve been covering hip hop since its beginnings in the Bronx and Harlem. In the decades in between the culture has spawned a rich lore of triumph, mystery, failure and death. From the chapter titles to the character back stories I wanted to drench this novel in all of that history. That’s what I intended. It was a lot of fun.
MysteryPeople: A Quiet Vendetta is a sweeping look at the history of the American Mafia in the last half of the 20th century, yet the story relies on two flawed men in a room. Which came first, the era you wanted to explore or the characters?
RJ ELLORY: Well, the emotion always come first, and that may sound like a strange answer! I don’t write a synopsis or an outline for any of my novels, but I do start with a vague idea of the kind of story I want to write, and also a very clear idea of the kind of emotional response I want to evoke in a reader. In the case of A Quiet Vendetta, the intention was to write about the worst kind of human being I could think of, and yet have the reader be sufficiently seduced by this character to even come to like them by the end of the book. I wanted to write a vast Mafia epic, something that spanned several decades and many cities, and have each city be as much a character as the individuals who drove the story forward. I wanted it be many stories within one story, and I wanted to write one chapter in third person, another in first, and alternate them back and forth. I also wanted to blur the lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
MP: How did the character of Perez, a Cuban enforcer for the Italian mob, come about?
RJ: Well, very simply, I wanted to create a character who – no matter how deeply he became involved with the Mafia – would always remain an outsider, simply because he was Cuban. I also wanted to begin Perez’s story during the era of Mafia domination of the Cuban casino business. Therefore it made sense to have Perez be picked up by the Mafia in Havana coincident with Castro overthrowing Batista.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: While this book is as rough, brutal, and unflinching as your previous work, with characters who you have to accept on their own terms, it has a slightly more romantic quality than the other books. Did writing about people that were a part of your own lineage have a different effect on you?
JAMES CARLOS BLAKE: Not that I’m aware of. While the skeleton of the story is formed of my family’s history, the book is a novel, a work of invention, and I freely altered family facts to suit my tale. I think the “more romantic quality” you perceive in it may derive from there being so many women in it. One of the joys of writing this book was that it so naturally involved many women of every age and kind — from a wise and ancient crone to a truly bad-ass 16-year-old.
MP: What kind of research did you have to do for a story you’re so connected to?
JCB: There wasn’t much research necessary by the time I decided to write the book . I’ve been familiar with my family’s history since I was a boy, and over the years I’ve read a good deal about 19th-century Mexican and American history. If there’s one general subject of study that benefits a fiction writer, it’s history, whether or not he writes historical fiction. History is human nature writ large, and the better you understand the past, the better you’ll understand people in general, including those of our own day. What’s more, I’ve lived, at one time or another, in almost every place in the book, and I have a good memory for places, for their weather, landscape, character. Together with imagination, those memories served me well in creating the physical and cultural worlds of the Wolfes.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: It seems that now that Vanessa Michael Munroe has learned more about her past from The Informationist, she’s really dealing with it here and trying to understand when to cut off emotions she had previously shut down. Did you feel you were writing for a slightly different Vanessa this time?
TAYLOR STEVENS: I felt that I was writing for a different situation more than for a slightly different character, because there are aspects of Munroe’s personality that just weren’t able to surface within the circumstances of The Informationist, and which we’re finally able to catch glimpses of in The Innocent. That said, just as we as individuals are touched and changed by what happens in our own lives, she, too, was affected by prior events, and I think a bit of that comes through, as well.
MP: Vanessa is out to rescue a girl from a cult, making the mission very personal for her. What did you most want to convey about this type of life?
TS: Writing The Innocent seemed like a perfect opportunity to showcase more of Michael Munroe’s talent and badassery while offering readers access to a firsthand knowledge of cult life that most thriller writers don’t have. The Innocent is fiction and Hannah and her experiences are emphatically not me or mine, but this book is also probably the closest I will ever get to writing an autobiography. Now when people ask me what it was like growing up in The Children of God, I can smile and simply point to The Innocent and say, “Here, read this.”
MysteryPeople: What made you think it was time to follow up The Gates?
John Connolly: I had just enjoyed writing The Gates so much that it seemed natural to write a second and – hey – maybe a third. It was so completely out of my comfort zone, to some degree, or should have been, but I found it a marvelous release. Also, books like The Gates, The Infernals, Nocturnes and The Book of Lost Things tend to be written out of contract, so there is a certain freedom that comes with working on them. I’m beholden to nobody, which is very liberating.
MP: What brought you into the world of Young Adult fiction?
JC: All writers only have a number of themes that interest them, and to which they return over and over. One of mine is childhood, whether in the ghost stories – where it’s often children in peril – or in the Parker books, or in The Book of Lost Things, which I’ve always described as being a book about childhood for adults. In a way, writing The Gates and The Infernals is just another way of approaching the same subject matter. It’s certainly not the money! There may be an impression that young adult fiction is a potential cash cow for writers – and I think some adult writers have entered the field with a degree of cynicism in that way – but it really isn’t. Also, part of the pleasure for me in writing them has been doing events with kids in schools, but that’s also some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. There’s no point in going into the field of young adult fiction unless you’re doing it for entirely the right reasons. Otherwise, I think you’ll get found out in the end.
MP: You’re one of those writers whose kids’ books have an equally large following with adults. What do you think brings the grown ups over?
JC: I think it’s simply the case that the books made few concessions to their younger readership, so they’re equally accessible to adults and kids, even though they’ve been written with kids in mind. The language and ideas in them are fairly complex, but that’s a hangover from my own youth. When I was growing up there was no such thing as ‘young adult fiction’, not really. At the age of 10 or 11 you simply graduated to adult fiction once you’d exhausted the potential of the kids’ section of the library. I don’t remember struggling too much with the prose in those books, so I approached writing The Gates and The Infernals with that memory. Kids are just much smarter than adults sometimes give them credit for being.
Q: You’ve done several stand-alones in the past five years and The Cut seems to be a return to your early series characters like part time PI Nick Stefanos and ex-cop Derek Strange. What spurred you to go back to this form?
A: I was ready to write a straight-ahead crime novel again. I had met some veterans of Iraq who were working as investigators for criminal attorneys in DC, and I felt like there was a story there. The idea that Spero Lucas would do recovery work on the side for a fee was a fictional conceit that gave me the engine for the narrative. I don’t have plans in terms of my career, to be honest with you. I write the books that are knocking on the door of my imagination.
Q: How have the DC streets changed in your books since those earlier heroes walked them?
A: DC has changed considerably since I started writing about it. Back then we had 460-some homicides a year; now we have a third of that. The violence around the drug trade has lessened as well. When I was a teenager DC was 70, 75 percent black, and now it’s 50 percent. Chalk that up to whites moving back in and a rise in the Hispanic population. Get out in the neighborhoods, though, and you’ll discover our culture. It’s still a black city to me, with a southern black aesthetic behind it. Always will be. We have our own music, Go-Go. We have a storied, straight-edge punk scene. All that stuff you read about Washington being a buttoned-down city of transients in cheap suits is bull.
Q: For you as a writer, what is the appeal of following Spero Lucas for a few books?
A: The way I set him up, there’s more to discover about him and his psyche. Because he’s young, there’s room for him to grow.