Scott Butki interview with Andrew Wilson

I bring good news for fans of Agatha Christie:  Author Andrew Wilson is writing a series I think Christie fans, and many others, will truly enjoy.

Wilson, an award winning journalist, has written biographies of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath and Alexander McQueen and that work enriches his other fiction writing.

Wilson, a big fan of Christie, has come up with a clever idea for a series: Have Agatha Christie as a character in the books.

Death in a Desert Land: A Novel Cover ImageIn Death in a Desert Land, Agatha Christie gets a letter from a family who believes their late daughter, a prominent archaeologist, recovering ancient treasures in the Middle East met with foul play. While Gertrude Bell overdosed on sleeping medication, found near her body was a letter claiming that Bell was being followed and to complicate things further, Bell was competing with another archaeologist, Mrs. Woolley, for the rights to artifacts of immense value.

Christie travels to far-off Persia, where she meets the enigmatic Mrs. Woolley as she is working on a big and potentially valuable discovery. Temperamental but brilliant, Mrs. Woolley quickly charms Christie but when she does not hide her disdain for the recently deceased Miss Bell, Christie doesn’t know whether to trust her—or if Bell’s killer is just clever enough to hide in plain sight.

Wilson was kind enough to let me interview him about his novel and his series.

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

Andrew Wilson: I’ve always been fascinated by the real-life travels of Agatha Christie and intrigued that the writer traveled from England by herself to the archaeological site of Ur in southern Iraq in 1928. It was the location for her 1936 novel Murder in Mesopotamia. The other source of my inspiration was the Mesopotamian collection, particularly the artifacts from Ur, held at the British Museum. There is a stunning collection of daggers, death masks, exquisite jewelry and details of what the archaeologist Leonard Woolley—a real-life figure who is one of the characters in my novel—named “The Great Death Pit.” He unearthed evidence of ritual human sacrifice—the servants of the King and Queen of Ur seemed happy to give up their lives when the royals passed away. I thought this would make the perfect backdrop for a murder mystery, which Agatha Christie herself has to solve.

Scott: What made you decide to start a series of novels in which author Agatha Christie is a character? Why her instead of one of her characters? How far back did you have this idea?

A Talent for Murder: A Novel Cover ImageAndrew: I first came up with the central idea for the series — Agatha Christie as detective—on a train, which is a very Christie location. It just came to me out of blue. The first novel in the series, A Talent for Murder, was published in 2017 and I had the idea back in 2013.

I couldn’t include any of her characters in the books — Poirot and Miss Hercule are copyrighted characters and are the intellectual property of Agatha Christie Ltd. I didn’t want to do that anyway, as I wanted to explore the personality of Agatha Christie herself, who was such a fascinating person.

Scott: How did you research the books in this series? Should they be read in order?

Andrew: For A Talent for Murder I looked at police statements, newspaper reports and various books to piece together the real-life sequence of events surrounding Agatha’s disappearance in 1926. I also travelled to Newlands Corner, in Surrey, where Agatha abandoned her car and also to Harrogate, the place where she was discovered after ‘disappearing’ for 10 days. For A Different Kind of Evil I traveled out to Tenerife, where Agatha visited back in 1927.

And although I wanted to travel to Iraq for research for Death in a Desert Land, it was too dangerous. I have been to Yemen so I drew upon my memories of travelling through the desert for that book.

They are stand alone novels, but of course they follow a chronological course, starting with A Talent for Murder, set during the real-life disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926. This was followed by A Different Kind of Evil, set in early 1927 when Agatha traveled to Tenerife and the third one is Death in a Desert Land, set in 1930 in Baghdad and southern Iraq.A Different Kind of Evil: A Novel Cover Image

Scott: Believe it or not there are some readers who might come to your books having never read any Agatha Christie. Would you encourage them to read some of her books before they start yours? If so which is a good one to start with?

Andrew: Yes—of course! You don’t have to read Christie to enjoy my novels, but you probably will get more out of them if you do. There are lots of playful references and sidelong glances to Christie’s work. I’d start with one of her masterpieces, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which was published in 1926. I’d also add Death on the Nile, And Then There Were None, and Five Little Pigs.

Scott: How did having previously written biographies of Patricia Highsmith and Sylvia Plath help you as you wrote this series? Also how does your journalism background affect your work as a novelist?

Andrew: I love the process of the biographical research, looking through archives, letters and old photographs to bring someone alive from the past. I set these novels in locations we know Agatha visited at a specific time—for instance, we know that Agatha traveled to southern Iraq, and visited the archaeological dig of Ur, in the autumn of 1930. I try to capture the essence of certain places.

Scott: I see from your biography that you wrote a book about the survivors of the Titanic.  How did you come up with that idea, and how did it go?

Andrew: I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Titanic, but I realized that all narratives ended when the rescue ship, the Carpathia, docked in New York. I wanted to know what happened to the 705 survivors after that point. How did the disaster effect them? How did it shape the rest of their lives? And I discovered a mostly unpublished archive belonging to Walter Lord—author of A Night to Remember—at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, which was a treasure trove of information.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Andrew: I’m finishing the edits on the next novel in the series, which is called I Saw Him Die, and set in August 1930 on the island of Skye in Scotland. Agatha Christie was there on Skye for a month before her second marriage to the archaeologist Max Mallowan. It’s a homage to Christie’s nursery rhyme novels.

Scott:  Your bonus question: What is a question you wish you would get asked in interviews. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Andrew: Who are your literary parents?

I’m the son of Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith!

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOHN GALLIGAN

With Bad Axe County, John Galligan completely blew me away with a character and plot that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Bad Axe County: A Novel Cover ImageI was particularly taken with a protagonist who as a teenager in the midwest was named Dairy Queen, but in the present is a bad-ass interim sheriff of rural Bad Axe County, put in that role after the death of her corrupt predecessor.

In addition to fighting crime, dealing with misogyny and corruption she is also trying to solve the mystery of her parents dying more than ten years prior and being skeptical of the police writing it off as a murder-suicide. In the middle of a storm she is also trying to track down and stop human trafficking.

Galligan let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story? Which came first, the characters or the plot?

John Galligan: First came Sheriff Heidi Kick. I was taken by the idea of a girl who grows up in a rural Wisconsin community and is a star in one venue—she is the Crawford County Dairy Queen, and later the Dairy Queen for the whole state of Wisconsin—and later plays a completely different role in that same place. When you talk about a smart, beautiful, fully rounded Wisconsin farm girl, you are talking about a very formidable person, someone who can milk a cow, do calculus, ride rodeo and play softball, drive any kind of machine, shoot a gun, play at least one musical instrument, and look naturally pretty, all without being much aware of how special she is. So I wanted to put a young woman like that in a position of power and see what happened. Then I did research into crime in the rural Midwest and the plot came from that (see question 3).

Scott: You had me pulled in from the start, with the protagonist of Heidi White, daughter of murdered parents who has to deal with sexism and her Dairy Queen past. How did you develop this great character?

John: It was easy to fall in love with a character like Heidi Kick, and because I spend so much time in rural Wisconsin I see young women who could be Heidi all the time. In my novel The Nail Knot, everybody’s favorite minor character, and mine too, is a young farm woman named Junior who is taking care of her dad, who has dementia, while she tries to keep the farm afloat. So Junior is the prototype for Heidi Kick—me taking a favorite minor character from another book and building her into a heroine. I did research into the whole queen phenomenon in the rural Midwest (maybe elsewhere too), where, swear to God, there is a queen (and princesses) for everything. Something perhaps about the need to acknowledge (and perhaps confine) femininity in rural cultures. I also did research into the way women with power are often treated in the workplace. Some of this shocked me. I expected sexism . . . but not the truly ugly open hatred that many women have to face. All of the violent and hateful tweets directed at Sheriff Kick come directly from that research. They are real things that men have directed at women above them in their workplace. My experience as a baseball player also informs this. I have spent a lot of time in the “trenches” of misogyny . . . and you don’t want to know . . . except you will know if you read Bad Axe County. Finally, I think I am able to feel very close to Heidi’s heart as a parent, and I was able to tap into my feelings and experiences as a dad to understand how she might feel and behave as a sheriff who is also, and foremost, a mother. 

Scott: Human trafficking is one of those dark, awful topics that people often don’t talk about, let alone write about it. Why did you decide to tackle it?

John: As I said in my answer to Question 1, first I had a female sheriff—in fact, the first and only female sheriff in Wisconsin. Then I researched crime in the rural Midwest. I came across a study where the researchers were interested in sex trafficking. They interviewed rural law enforcement leaders across the Midwest—almost all men—about their perceptions of this problem in their communities. Overwhelmingly, they reported that there was little or no problem, that sex trafficking for the most part did not exist. The researchers then interviewed people who worked in women’s shelters and crisis centers, and women’s health services—almost all of them women—and heard from them that sex trafficking not only occurred but in their view was epidemic. 

So what happens if suddenly law enforcement is being led by a woman? What if suddenly we have Sheriff Heidi Kick in an environment where sex trafficking has previously been tolerated or ignored? What becomes visible? What happens when a woman sheriff tries to enforce change?

The research I did on sex trafficking and the closely related business of pornography was harrowing and often hard to continue. Same for some of the writing. But I couldn’t turn back once I understood how real this was, and what a perfect challenge it was for the first woman sheriff in the Bad Axe.

Scott: Do you know of a place like Bad Axe County or was it a total invention?

John: Bad Axe County is a fictional county in a real place, the coulees of southwestern Wisconsin, a rugged, generally impoverished, sparsely populated, and gorgeous region along the Mississippi River. It’s my favorite place to be. Bad Axe is a place name in the region. I have inserted Bad Axe County between two real counties, Vernon and Crawford. 

Scott: Is this novel a stand alone or part of a series?

John: It is part of series. I am currently at work on the next one, starring Heidi Kick and tentatively titled Dead Man Polka

Scott: How has your background, ranging from journalist to cab driver to film screenwriter to living in Japan, among other things, affected your work as a novelist?

John: It all works together somehow. As a journalist I learned to sit my butt down and write to meet deadlines. Nothing like it for vanquishing the whole notion of writer’s block. Screenwriting was how I learned to write visually and tell a story. I’ve always been adventurous, and experiences like working in the salmon industry in Alaska, hitchhiking across the country, driving a cab, teaching poetry in a prison, immersing myself in rural Japan, etc., obviously broaden my view of humanity and give me ideas and characters to write about. The experience in Japan, particularly, stripped me down to zero, made me aware of what it meant to be a white American male, and I was privileged by that opportunity and rebuilt myself as a different, more aware person. I am very proud of the novel I wrote based on that experience, my first, Red Sky, Red Dragonfly, which the reviewer for the major English newspaper in Japan called “one of the most authentic evocations of this country and its people I have read.” It took me seven years to complete, and in that time I became a novelist.  

Scott: How has teaching affected your writing?

John: A massive and continuous encounter with human souls . . . all the more because as a writing teacher my job is to help students find their voices and express their truths clearly to the world. Writing, both the process and the product, is one of the most deeply and fully integrating human experiences, in my view. 

Scott: Let’s end with what I call the bonus question: Here’s a chance to ask a question you wish interviewers would ask and then answer it.

John: What about your other books? See question 6 for my first novel. After that I wrote a serious of murder mysteries, The Nail Knot, The Blood Knot, The Clinch Knot, and The Wind Knot, which feature a nomadic fly fisherman crisscrossing the country trying to fish himself to death but instead finding life in the people he meets and reason to keep living in the murder cases he solves. And no, while fly fishing is the milieu and the metaphor, they are not about fishing or for fishermen. Many non-fisher-persons enjoy them and the most common thing I hear is, “Wow. What a story! And your books really make me want to learn to fly fish.”  I hope readers will give my other novels a try too.

THEY’RE RALLYING IN THE TOWN SQUARE: SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEWS ACE ATKINS

Ace Atkins is one of my three favorite current crime writers, for his captivating series about former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson, and he continues to impress on his 8th book in the series, The Shameless.

(In case you’re curious the rest of the three are Laura Lippman and Craig Johnson.)

The Shameless (A Quinn Colson Novel #9) Cover ImageThe Quinn Colson books always have fascinating characters and interesting plots and plot twists. This new one is better than usual because there’s a political candidate criticizing the media as “fake news” as well as an alt-right group, so he’s capturing some of the current climate in America.  This new one also has buried secrets, dirty lies, and lots of greed and ambition.

One of the main plot lines in the new book involves how 20 years ago a teen boy named Brandon Taylor was thought to be just another teenager who ended his life too soon. Now, two New York-based reporters working on a podcast show up in town, asking Sheriff Quinn Colson and others important questions: What happened to the evidence? Where are the missing files? Who really killed Brandon?

While Quinn wants to help and his wife was a close friend of Brandon, Quinn was just a kid himself when this all happened in 1997. Quinn’s also busy now dealing with a criminal syndicate trafficking drugs and women through the MidSouth.

Quinn’s been fighting evil and corruption since he was a kid, at home or as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time, evil may win out.

In between writing Quinn Colson books Atkins, a former newspaper reporter, writes novels about protagonist Spenser, Robert B. Parker’s iconic character. After Parker’s death in 2010 his estate asked Atkins to continue the series.

Atkins was nice enough to let me interview him again about his new books. You can read one of our prior interviews here.

Scott Butki: I always love your Quinn Colson series but this one seemed even better than usual, and I think part of that was because you decided to reflect the current political scene in there. Why did you decide to include references to alt-right groups and a Trump-like governor candidate talking about “fake news”?The Ranger (A Quinn Colson Novel #1) Cover Image

Ace Atkins: My friend Jack Pendarvis recently commented that when I first started writing Quinn—in The Ranger—these people were hiding out in the woods, and now they’re rallying on the town square. I think that’s a pretty accurate statement on the times we’re living in. If I’m going to keep writing about the Deep South, I had to write about the decay of decency, truth, and ethics embodied by our current political climate. Quinn has always been a classic moral hero and recognizes good from evil. Pretty standard stuff, right? These days, many people don’t seem to know one from the other. That’s pretty much the whole backbone of The Shameless.

Scott: As a former journalist yourself how do you feel about what’s happening with people not believing the news media as much, often with that cry/assertion of fake news?

Ace: I never thought I’d hear that kind of junk in America. That kind of talk sounds like something from the old Soviet Union or some Banana Republic dictator. This country was founded on the right to stand up and call our leaders on their bullshit. And the press has always been a watchdog against corruption.

When I was at The Tampa Tribune, we had reporters routinely check budgets and spending of local leaders. Now—with the rise of so-called fake news—you actually have citizens taking elected officials at their word instead of the people who found proof the politicians are lying to them. Absolute insanity. The alt-news, alt-facts people remind me of folks you’d find in a cult. They latch on to a leader and won’t listen to logic or facts that contradict that leader. This isn’t just stupid. It’s dangerous as hell. This is how you lose democracy.

Scott: I also like that you make a bow to the current popularity of podcasts. What made you decide to include podcasts in the book, and how did you go about interweaving that into the plot?

Ace: The original concept of the novel was for the story to be written in a series of flashbacks to when Brandon Taylor first disappeared in the early 1990s and the initial search to find him. But I’ve done that type of story a few times and didn’t want to repeat it. I also felt like the podcasters offered something to new readers of the series: a chance to see Tibbehah County with fresh eyes and a brand-new perspective. I really like how those sections played out.

Scott: Do you have favorite podcasts. What are they?

Ace: Definitely “In the Dark: Season Two.” Speaking of journalism, the amount of work and dedication by Madeleine Baran and her team was astounding. They recently spoke here at the University of Mississippi, and I made a point to meet them and tell them how much I respected what they’d accomplished. Their investigation into the death row conviction of Curtis Flowers just led to a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Anyone who doubts the value of journalism and holding elected officials accountable should listen to this podcast. The amount of corruption, lies, and evil they uncover is astounding. Even for Mississippi.

Scott: Maybe it’s because I do a lot of anti-racism work but I was intrigued that you also had Caddy’s mom, on page 33, making a common racist remark, about race and athleticism. Why did you decide to do that?

Ace: I know what part you’re talking about. Jean Colson’s grandson is a mixed-race child who’s good at football and she jokes about him not getting his talent from the white side. It was obviously a racist comment made by a woman who would never consider herself a racist. She also loves her grandson deeply and would never want to say anything to hurt him. I guess what that’s all about is racism takes all forms, from small jokes to insane people marching with torches. None of it is good. But it definitely permeates our culture whether we admit it or not.

Scott: I guess the term may have been around before but seeing your book referred to as “country noir” was a new term for me. How do you feel about the term and it being attached to your book/series?

Ace: I’ve read many reviewers or critics often try to define books about the South that focus on the rougher side of life. I’ve heard “grit lit,” too. Country Noir seems to be the latest. I think while my Quinn Colson books definitely have a strong noir influence, they aren’t pure noir because there is a moral center in Quinn. My buddy, David Joy, probably defined my books best by calling them a hybrid of noir and hero books. If I just stuck to my bad guys and their story, it would fit the noir definition a little better. But overall, I’m in for anything that will highlight a genre I really love.

Scott: What’s the status of the film version of your book, The Ranger?

Ace: Something big is in the works, Scott! But I’ve been sworn to secrecy. Buy me a few Shiner Bocks in Austin at the Texas Chili Parlor and we’ll talk . . .

Scott: It’s been a few years since you started alternating between writing books in the Quinn Colson series and the Spenser books. Has it become easier or quicker switching from one series to the others? 

Ace: Nope. In fact, it seems to get tougher. It’s mainly the added level of writing a novel in a voice that isn’t necessarily your own. I don’t just write a book about Spenser, I write a book about Spenser as it might’ve been told by the late Robert B. Parker. With Quinn, I just write in my own natural voice. Switching back to Quinn is easier than going back to Parker. To get back into Parker’s voice, there is a tremendous amount of prep each time.

Scott: Do you have a favorite of your Quinn Colson series and a favorite of your Spenser books?

Hmm. I think I have a particular good feeling about The Forsaken for Quinn as it was the fourth book and the one that really kicked the series into high gear. I always knew this was a series with legs, but I think The Forsaken hopefully showed the fans how many ways we could go with a rural county in north Mississippi.

On Spenser? I had a lot of fun with the last one, Old Black Magic, because its ties with the incredible Gardner art heist in Boston. I became absolutely obsessed with the real case.

Scott: What are you working on next?

As I’m about to leave for Quinn Summer Tour on July 9 for The Shameless, I’m wrapping up my eighth Spenser novel—Angel Eyes. It will be out sometime in November. It’s a fun book as it’s my first chance to have Spenser reconnect to old friends, fan favorites, in Los Angeles.

HEROINES OF THEIR OWN STORY: SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEW CRISTINA ALGER

I’ve heard much praise for Cristina Alger, mainly due to the success of her novel, The Banker’s Wife, so I had high expectations for her new book, Girls Like Us.

Alger met the hype and them some. With fascinating, deep characters and excellent plots with good twists, I was enthralled with this book.

Girls Like Us Cover ImageThe novel centers on the investigations of three grisly murders on Long Island, inspired by the real-life Gilgo Beach murders.

As the book begins, FBI Agent Nell Flynn has returned home to Suffolk County for the first time in ten years following the death of her father, a local homicide detective, with whom she’s always had a complicated relationship. Her mother was brutally murdered when Nell was just 7.

Intending to spread his ashes and take care of his affairs and leave, Nell instead gets pulled into investigating local murders.  She becomes increasingly convinced that her father, who died in a motorcycle accident, should be the prime suspect and his follow cops were covering his tracks.

Alger worked as a financial analyst and a corporate attorney before becoming a writer. Her other books include The Darlings, and This Was Not the Plan.

She was nice enough to agree to do an email interview with me.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Cristina Alger: I’ve always been a true crime addict, and when the bodies of four young, female sex workers were found on Gilgo Beach in Long Island (a town which happens to be not too far from where I live) I followed the case with obsessive interest. The more research I did, the more questions I had, not just about the killer but about the police officers conducting the investigation. Eventually, all my late-night research blossomed into a novel.

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

Cristina: I was a lawyer in my past life, and most of my novels come from true crime stories which pique my interest. If I find myself researching a news story or cold case for long enough, I can’t help but wonder how I can turn it into background for a novel. So I’d say plot comes first, though character goes a long way in refining the details.

Scott: How did you come up with the intriguing premise of a FBI agent realizing the primary suspect in a series of grisly murders might be her recently deceased father, himself a homicide detective? 

Cristina: When I decided to write a book loosely based on the Gilgo Beach murders, I realized the thing that interested me most about the case was a theory that kept cropping up on true-crime web forums (and which I kept considering myself): the killer was actually a member of the Suffolk County Police Department and was actively working to keep the case cold. I used that theory as the springboard for the novel. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between adults and their parents — that theme comes up again and again in my writing — so it added an extra element to have Nell, the protagonist, investigating her own father.

Scott: How did you do research for this book?

Cristina: I had the best stroke of luck when researching this book: a bookseller friend of mine introduced me to her husband, a retired Suffolk County Police Detective. He was an amazing resource for me, and offered up so much background on his career and cop culture generally. After I met him, the book really started to click into place.

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

Cristina: As a thriller reader myself, I’m tired of reading about women who are crazy or manipulative or in need of saving. The suspense market feels flooded with these stories. I hope readers walk away from my books feeling like an alternative exists: there are thrillers which highlight strong, independent women, women who are the heroines of their own stories.

Scott: What has it been like getting praise from such authors as Lee Child and Nelson DeMille for your books?

Cristina: I mean, dreamy! I can hardly believe it. They are the writers that made me love thrillers in the first place. I’m deeply grateful for their generosity.

Scott: Have you been able to draw on your past work as a financial analyst and corporate attorney when writing these books? If so, how?

Cristina: Law school taught me two things: how to research and how to write in logical, pared-down prose. I lean on those skills every day as a writer. My previous work life taught me discipline. I’m used to long hours and hard work, and that discipline propels me through those rough patches when I’m not feeling inspired.

Scott: I have heard your last book, The Banker’s Wife, is currently in development as a limited TV series by the team behind Homeland. What’s it like having one of your books turned into TV? How much involvement will you have with the project?

Cristina: I’m over the moon about the team developing The Banker’s Wife. The director, writer, producers and lead actors are amazing (and all women!). I’m not intimately involved in the project, though I’ve hung around as a resource — particularly when questions about finance crop up. But for the most part, I try and stay out of the way — this book’s in great hands.

Scott: I understand you love thrillers. Who are some of your favorite current authors of thrillers?

How long do you have? I have so many. I will read anything by Laura Lippman, Meghan Abbott, Karin Slaughter, Gillian Flynn, Alafair Burke, Jane Harper, Flynn Berry, Lee Child, Nelson de Mille, and John Grisham. I also love Nordic Noir: I’m Traveling Alone by Samuel Bjork and Snare by Lilja Sigurdardottir are recent favorites.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Cristina:  Another thriller! And I’m having my third child in a few months, so lots of projects in the works.

SCOTT BUTKI INTERVIEWS MEGAN MIRANDA

I jumped at the chance to interview Megan Miranda, as I’ve heard lots of positive buzz about her best-selling novel All The Missing Girls, which The New York Times Book Review described as “Hitchockian,” and The Perfect Stranger.
The Last House Guest Cover ImageI predict her new book, The Last House Guest, will also land on the best-seller list and have positive buzz.

Her new book is set in Littleport, Maine, which is a town where some, including strong protagonist Avery Greer, live all year round while other wealthy folks, including Sadie Loman and her family, visit only on the summer. Sadie and Avery have a fierce, long friendship.

As the book begins Sadie has been found dead and the police are ruling it a suicide, but Avery can’t shake the feeling people in the community, including Sadie’s family, blame her for the death.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Megan Miranda: I had the characters and the premise from pretty early on, but their story, and how it could best be told, developed over the course of several drafts. When I started The Last House Guest, I knew I wanted to set it in a town where there would be this contrast of insiders (the characters who live in the town year-round) and outsiders (those who visit each summer). Avery and Sadie grew from this idea. But as I worked through earlier drafts, I realized that Avery embodied both sides of that equation—she is someone who grew up as an insider, but now feels like an outsider to her own town.

The friendship between Avery and Sadie—and all that happened because of it—became the heart of the story. Which then gave rise to the structure: At the start of the story, Avery can’t seem to accept or move past Sadie’s death a year earlier. And she keeps circling back to that pivotal night with each new discovery, looking for the things she might’ve missed the first time around.

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

Megan: The characters always come first, though they tend to develop alongside the plot. They work in tandem, with plot roadblocks forming character, and character choices informing the story direction. But the characters are always the element I’m most interested in following—both as a reader and a writer. I think this is why I’m not much of an outliner before I start—I need to get to know the characters first, and write my way in to their story.

Scott Butki: Should readers new to you start with this book or one of your earlier ones?

Megan: They can definitely start with this one! Each of the books stands alone, with a new set of characters, and a new setting. They can be read in any order.

Scott: How are you reacting to the popularity of your books?

Writing a book can feel very solitary—but these characters live inside your head for so long, and finishing their story, getting it to where you hope it will be, always means so much. To see it then resonate with others has been such a wonderful experience. I’ve been so grateful that people who have enjoyed these stories have helped spread the word about them.

Scott: Can you talk about the relationship between Sadie Loman, from a wealthy family that visits a vacation town every summer, and Avery Greer, a townie dealing with the grief after her parents die.

Megan: When Avery and Sadie meet as teens, they each find something in the other that fills a void in their lives. Avery had spent the time before meeting Sadie feeling adrift and alone, unable to escape the way others in town see her. And Sadie has a complicated relationship with her own family, never quite living up to expectations. Both of them are able to become someone else through the other’s perspective. But just as with the town itself, their friendship looks different when viewed from the outside versus the inside.

Scott: Why did you decide to begin the book with Sadie’s death?

Megan: There were two reasons I wanted to start the book here. The first went to story: Starting with the end-of-season party from the year earlier introduced each character with their alibi—when and how they were accounted for on the night of Sadie’s death—which is key to unraveling the mystery that follows.

The second reason went to character: For Avery, this is the pivotal event that shatters her world. And this is the night she keeps coming back to in more detail throughout the book as she gains understanding.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Megan: One theme I keep coming back to—in All the Missing Girls, The Perfect Stranger, and The Last House Guest—is this focus on identity, tied tightly to experiences in the past. How people are viewed, and how they view themselves. The one common thing I find at the heart of each main character, despite everything that happens throughout their story, is a sense of resiliency.

Scott: What have you figured out for this, your tenth book, you wish you knew when writing your first?

I wish there was something universal I’ve taken away from the writing process, but the thing I’ve learned the most is that every single book is different. Sometimes the structure and story come together right away. Sometimes they don’t. I guess the one change in my process is that I panic less when a draft doesn’t work at first. I’ve come to accept and appreciate that trial and error is part of my process, and to trust that I’ll get there in the end.

Scott: How did you go about researching this book?

Miranda: When I was writing the first draft, I asked my family if anyone wanted to take a trip up to Maine with me. Which is how I ended up spending a summer vacation in a minivan with my parents, my husband, and my 2 kids. We drove up and down the coast, stopping at so many beautiful towns along the way. We also spent several days in Bar Harbor, which is where we used to spend a week each summer when I was growing up. It made me think a lot about perspective, and how that can shift over time. I had last been there as a teenager, and was now visiting with my own children, hiking the same trails, visiting the same places. I wanted Littleport to feel like a character in and of itself, and a place that can have two different perspectives, both as an insider and an outsider.                     

Scott: The last question is my bonus question: What is a question you wish you would get asked in interviews but never are. Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

Miranda:  Why are you drawn to small town settings?

I love the dynamic that a small town provides, where characters know everything about one another—or think they do. For me, a small town feels like a living, breathing character. Something that might shift and twist, just as the story does.

EVERY MURDER VICTIM CAN HAVE A STORY: SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH R.G. BELSKY

As a former journalist and a fan of mysteries I’m a bit biased in favor of books about the news media written by current and former journalists. I thought I should mention that as I introduce an interview about the latest book by R.G. Belsky, Below The Fold.

Below the Fold (Clare Carlson Mystery #2) Cover ImageThat said, R.G.’s books would be great reads even if they were not based in the world he knows best, the news media.

This is the third time I have been lucky enough to interview R.G. by email, here for his novels The Kennedy Connection and Shooting for the Stars and here for Blonde Ice.

While those books had a protagonist named Gil Malloy, this new book has an intriguing protagonist named Clare Carlson, a TV news director who still has a reporter’s instincts.

As the book begins one of the news reporters wants to go against the grain and do a news piece on the murder of a woman who is homeless. While that story would often not get much media attention Clare approves a story about this woman who called herself Cinderella.

Soon there are more murders, more victims, more questions.

And with that, let’s get to the interview.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

R.G. Belsky: I’ve worked for many years in the media (at the NY Post, NY Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News). We in the media are frequently criticized for only focusing on sensational, high profile crimes in our coverage. Like O.J., Jon Benet, Casey Anthony etc. So I decided I wanted to write a book where a media person—Clare Carlson, news director of a New York TV station—decides to cover a murder that normally would be ignored: the death of a homeless woman on the streets of Manhattan. In this case, a seemingly insignificant death leads to links to powerful and influential figures which turned it into a sensational headline murder. But I wanted to show how every murder victim can have a story, once a journalist goes looking for it.

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

R.G.: I’m very big on the importance of character. If I like the character, I’ll read a mystery novel even if the story isn’t great. But a great story won’t keep me turning the pages of a book where I don’t relate to the character or characters. So obviously I follow the same approach in writing my own mysteries. Clare Carlson, my character, comes first. I figure if I can get her right readers will follow her wherever the story leads…

Scott: In what ways is the protagonist, Clare, the news director for a New York City TV station, similar and different from you?

R.G.: Well, she’s a woman, and I’m not. I suppose there are some similarities between Clare and me. But I didn’t really create her based on me. I drew my inspiration from a lot of terrific journalistsmen and womenthat I’ve worked with in newsrooms over the years. People who became obsessed with their jobs and with breaking the big storyeven if the rest of their life suffered as a consequence. As I frequently have said, “I’ve known a lot of Clare Carlsons in my life.”

Scott:  When I last interviewed you here, you were doing a series starring Gil Malloy. Why did you switch to a series featuring Clare? Did you base Clare on people you have worked with?

R.G.: Clare was not originally meant to be a series. In 2016, the same year as the last Gil Malloy book came out, I won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville for a manuscript about a woman journalist who is hiding long-buried secrets about a sensational missing child case that she’s been covering. It was meant to be a stand-alone book based on this one story.

But the character, Clare Carlson, worked so well I was asked by my publisher to turn it into a series. I’m sure glad, because I love writing about Clare.

Scott:  Did you decide to write about the news media in your novels as a way to draw on your knowledge and experience?

R.G.:  Absolutely. I’m a great believe in the “write what you know” approach to being a fiction author. I know a lot about newsrooms and the media, so that’s where I set all my books. Besides, if I wrote about lawyers or spies or anything else, I’d have to do a lot of research. And, believe me, I hate doing research! But seriously, I believe my media background adds an air of authenticity to my books which hopefully makes Clare more interesting to the reader.

Scott:  What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

R.G.:  That it was a good read! Fun, entertaining, thought provokingand all that kind of stuff. I write books with the idea that I want them to be like the kind of books that I like to read myself. I figure that if I like my books, other people will too. As a mystery reader, I love reading characters like Harry Bosch, Spenser and Kinsey Millhone. As a TV mystery fan, I loved The Rockford Files and Columbo. So I tried to draw on elements from all that when I created Clare Carlson. I want people to enjoy spending time with Clare.

Scott: What DO you think on the true state of journalism today?

R.G.: Oh, my! We could talk for hours about this. Yes, journalism has changed dramatically since I started my career. Back in the 1980s, we used to sell a million copies a day of the New York Postand everyone got their news from newspapers or TV. Now print newspapers are shrinking or dying rapidly, and many people get their news from smart phones, tablets, and websites. But I’m not some old “get off my lawn” journalist who wants to tell you how terrible journalism is today. I spent several years recently working as a managing editor with NBC News digital coverageand discovered all the possibilities that social media opens up for journalists. I mean we still have three newspapers in New York City, but we have many, many more news websites springing up every day. Good journalism is good journalism, no matter how it is delivered to the reader.

Scott: What is it like to get blurbs and praise from such authors as Douglas Preston and Michael Koryta, and Meg Gardiner?

R.G.: Yes, I’m always blown away when someone whose work I admire likes my book! In addition to the ones you’ve mentioned, I’ve also gotten praise for the Clare Carlson series from Lee Goldberg, Hank Phillippi Ryan and Reed Farrel Coleman. I only seek author blurbs from writers whose work I really enjoy reading (I figure that way there’s a decent chance they’ll like my stuff too). A long time ago I even got an author blurb from Michael Connelly. Now if I could just figure out a way to get a copy of my next book to Stephen King….

Scott: Is it true that you helped create the famous “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline? Tell me about how you come up with it?

R.G.: Yes, I was in the New York Post city room when the most famousor infamoustabloid headline ever was written. It involved a holdup man who murdered someone at a topless bar, then cut off the victim’s head. I didn’t write the headline, but my role in that historic journalistic moment is chronicled here.

The funny thing is I’ve worked in journalism for decades, and accomplished some pretty significant things along the way, But, if you google me, you’ll find the most prominent thing is being a part of the “Headless Body in Topless Bar” headline. Go figure!

Scott: What are you working on next?

R.G.: The third book in the Clare Carlson series, The Last Scoop, will be out in 2020. I’m just finishing up the editing on that now. In this one, Clare is on the trail of a serial killer even scarier than Son of Sam or Ted Bundy or the Zodiac. Which was interesting to do because I’ve covered Son of Sam and other serial killers so extensively over the years as a journalist. Of course, there is also ongoing drama surrounding Clare’s personal life, which I love to write about too. If you like Clare in the first two books, I think you’ll want to read this one too!

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH GREG ILES

Greg Iles, the bestselling author of the Natchez Burning trilogy, returns with a new novel, Cemetery Road, about friendship, betrayal, and shattering secrets that threaten to destroy a small Mississippi town.

I was captivated by the Natchez Burning trilogy with deep characters, a fascinating protagonist in Penn Cage, lots of plot twists and an interesting exploration and investigation of white supremacists in the south in the past and present.

For this new book the main character is Marshall McEwan. He vowed never to return to his hometown after leaving at 18. The trauma that led to his departure won him journalism praise. As a former reporter I approve of Iles’s descriptions of journalism in this and other books.

But now events in McEwan’s hometown have conspired to make him return: His father is dying, his mother is struggling to keep the family newspaper from going under, crime rates are high, to name a few.

Mr. Iles, the author of 16 books and a novella, was kind enough to let us interview him by email for his new book, which comes out today.  He worked for several years as a guitarist, singer and songwriter in the band Frankly Scarlet. He quit the band after he got married and started writing his first novella. He, along with Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and others, is a member of the literary musical group The Rock Bottom Remainders.

Cemetery Road: A Novel Cover ImageScott: Where or how did this story come to you?

Greg: Cemetery Road actually grew out of the shocking secret revealed at the novel’s conclusion.  I don’t want to say more than that, but the core of my novels is always psychological and emotional, rather than depending on the externalized structure or details.

Scott: How would you describe your protagonist, Marshall, and his struggle in this book?

Greg: He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington, D.C. journalist, who is forced to leave his career at its height to return to the small Mississippi town where he was raised.  Because of a bad relationship with his father, he swore he would never go back. But when his father is dying, he must return to run the family newspaper until it can be sold.  This is what throws him into contact with the corrupt group of men who run the town, much as their ancestors had since the Civil War. To his surprise, the crimes he uncovered there stretch all the way back to Washington, D.C.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Greg: That much of what we see around us in life is dictated by knowledge that remains hidden.  At bottom, this is a book about secrets between parents and children, husbands and wives, and siblings.

Scott: Did it feel weird to be doing a book other than Penn Cage after your amazing trilogy?

Greg: It was actually a relief after the ten-year struggle that it took to produce the trilogy, which ended up exceeding two thousand pages.

Scott: I really enjoyed your three volume trilogy set in Natchez, Miss., which I only recently learned you wrote while recovering from a terrible car accident. What did the folks of Natchez, the city where you grew up and now live, feel about your portrayal of it?

Greg: A critic once wrote that I do my hometown the backhanded compliment of setting my novels there.  In general, the people of Natchez have been great about what I have written. That may be partly because the novels have ended up generating a fair amount of tourism for the city.

Scott: When does your next Penn Cage book come out and what’s it about? I read you said there was still more you wanted to write about Penn Cage. Will we found out what that means in that book?

Greg: A lot of readers were a bit disturbed by the fate of Tom Cage at the end of the trilogy.  I always intended to return and deal with the rest of Tom’s thread. The Fates aren’t quite finished with Penn and Tom, and I think readers will be glad to learn that.

Scott: I have read that you long avoided writing series. What changed your mind on that?

Greg: Nothing changed my mind.  The first Penn Cage was intended to be a standalone.  Seven years later I wrote Turning Angel, thinking it would be the last.  Seven years after that, Penn tapped me on the shoulder, and the Devil’s Punchbowl was the result.  And when I decided to deal with the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana and Mississippi, Penn and Tom Cage turned out to be the ideal characters to do that.

Scott: As a Southern writer do you feel an obligation to tackle the mythology and stereotypes about the south?

Greg: Yes.

Scott: How does your work as a musician affect or help you as a writer?

Greg: As a musician and a songwriter, you learn a great deal about the rhythm of language and develop the ability to say a lot with very few words.  I write very long books, but I can hit readers in the solar plexus when I need to.

Scott: What is the status of the films being adapted from your books?

Greg: There has been a lot of interest all along, and some abortive deals made, but nothing is headed into production at this moment.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Greg: I’m working on at least three other things.  I don’t want to give away what they are, but they are all very different from each other.  There is one more Penn Cage novel to come. A lot of readers were unhappy with where Penn’s father ended up at the end of the last novel.  So that will come, but it’s unlikely to be the next novel.