SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOANNA SCHAFFHAUSER

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

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

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

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

She agreed to do an interview via email.

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

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

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

Scott: How did you come up with this story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: What are you working on next?

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

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

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

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

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH NICK PETRIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: How did you develop those two characters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

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

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

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

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

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

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTT BUTKI’S TOP TEN READS OF 2018 (BOTH CRIME FICTION, FICTION, AND NON FICTION)

Scott Butki reads about 70 books, and interviews about 30 authors, a year, while also using book discussions to help create change and educate, particularly in social justice areas. An index of his interviews with authors is here

These first two I read this month for upcoming interviews in MysteryPeople. Both books come out in January 2019.

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

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

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

Martin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and while investigating there’s fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident. The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate, at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Bluebird, Bluebird Cover Image

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke – There have been plenty of white male authors who have written about real or fictional white male Texas Rangers. But in 2018, and for the next few years, I vowed to read less books by white males, both to coordinate with anti-racism work I do, and to get the perspectives of writers who might be outside my usual comfort range. That led me to this great novel.

With Bluebird, Bluebird, Locke, a black female author, writes about a black member of the Texas Rangers as he tries to solve a double murder of a white woman and black man in a town filled with Aryan Brotherhood members and local law enforcement who wants to ignore the racists and the drugs they deal.

With Ranger Darren Mathews, a native of east Texas, Locke has created a fascinating character who is torn between doing the right thing and doing what law enforcement, both local and the state, is telling him to do. All this in a backwater town that used to be a plantation.

The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America's First Serial Killer Cover ImageMidnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal And The Hunt For America’s First Serial Killer by Skip Hollandsworth – I don’t usually go for true crime books but this was an exception: A book about a serial killer in Austin, TX, believed to be the first known serial killer in the United States.

This is an excellent, true account of a weird infamous part of Austin’s history, that there was a serial killer in the late 1800s back before serial killers, finger print analysis, etc. was a known thing. To read this is to see how backward things were, from police trying to stop the killings by repeatedly arresting innocent black men, even when they were victims of the crimes, to how they would treat, or mistreat, crime scenes. After each killing, local leaders would walk all over the crime scene and when someone would finally bring a bloodhound it couldn’t even get a scent.

The killer was never caught but the killings stopped. Some think the killer may have been Jack the Ripper because after the killings stopped in Austin the killers began in London and there were similarities. The book is full of color and great details.

Splinter In the Blood by Ashley Dyer – If you like mysteries with lots of twists you need to read this book. The story starts out with a bang, literally, with a scene in which Detective Chief Greg Carver, the lead investigator of a serial killer named the Thorn Killer has been shot. He is sprawled on his seat in his own home. OK, maybe there are other mysteries that have started this way.

But I’m not done setting the stage because Carver remembers the shooter standing in front of him. Soon, by the end of the next chapter, he has remembered who shot him: His partner, Sgt. Ruth Lake, who after shooting him takes away his files, compromising the crime scene.

As the book proceeds there become two investigations: Who shot Carver and who is the Thorn Killer? Lake, of course, doesn’t tell anyone what she did, and is not supposed to be working on the former investigation but can’t stay away.

Gradually, we began to understand her motives, her disdain for Carver as a person and as an investigator. And Lake and the Thorn Killer are both fascinating characters…

I interviewed the author for Mystery People here.

Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead--My Life Story Cover ImageMake Trouble By Cecile Richards – I was looking forward to reading Cecile Richards’ memoir even before I was given the generous offer to interview her about it for BookPeople.

The book has something for everyone. Want to know what it’s like to be the daughter of former Texas Governor Ann Richards? Check. Want to know what it was like for Cecile to testify before a Congressional panel over those bogus fetal tissue videos? Check. Want to know what Cecile is going to do next, now that she’s stepping down as leader of Planned Parenthood so that someone else can step into that role? Well, that’s one thing that’s not in the book, but it’s a question you can expect authors, including me, to interview her about.

Near the book’s start, Richards shares some great stories about her early experiences making trouble, such as when she shocked a teacher by refusing to say the Lord’s Prayer and announcing her family did not read the Bible in their home. “It was the first time I remember having to decide: Do I accept things the way they are, or question authority? I chose the latter, and from that point forward was branded a troublemaker,” she writes. “Once the initial shock wore, it became a badge of honor. I’ve been making trouble ever since – which, to me, means taking on the powers that be, being a thorn in someone’s side, standing up to injustice, or just plain raising hell.”

Some of my favorite parts from the first half of the book talk about Cecile’s early work organizing unions to help nursing home and garment workers in East Texas and working with other activists. She writes something I suspect all activists can relate to: “Fighting for what you believe in can be discouraging, defeating and sometimes downright depressing. But it can also be powerful, inspiring, fun, and funny – and it can introduce you to people who will change your life. That’s the message I want to spread far and wide. That’s why I wrote this book”

As someone long fascinated by Ann Richards, I especially enjoyed Cecile talking about what it is like having your mother run for and win state elections all the way up to the governor’s race. Cecile is frank about all the sexism Ann put up with everywhere while running — from other politicians, the media, etc. I love Ann’s approach and attitude. “My brother once asked how she managed to stay calm when dealing with Clayton Williams (who had joked about women and rape). ‘You know,’ she said, ‘my blood pressure drops. I go into cool mode. Here he is, another guy who lives a privileged life and doesn’t give a damn about women. Now I get to expose that to the world. He doesn’t get under my skin any more than the rest of the people I’ve dealt with all my life.” On that page, there’s a photo of Williams pointing his finger in Ann’s face with the caption: “Ann Richards versus Clayton Williams. He was a classic good old boy who wanted to put women in their place. It didn’t work.”

Cecile describes in detail a story many in Texas know: Wendy Davis’ filibuster. She details her own experiences while in the rotunda of the capitol. Then she tosses off this gem: “At one point even Barack Obama tweeted to a cool 41 million followers, ‘Something special is happening in Austin tonight.’ Someone read the tweet out loud in the rotunda; it was a real morale boost, and possibly the one time in recorded history a president’s late-night tweet actually did some good.”

Sunburn: A Novel Cover ImageSunburn by Laura Lippman – Lippman can do no wrong in my book and this novel is definitely one of my favorites. I have read all of Lippman’s novels (about 25 of them) and even got to interview her for some of her earlier ones, back when she was writing her Tess Monaghan series.

Since Lippman, a former newspaper reporter for the Baltimore Sun, switched to stand-alones her books have garnered her, deservedly, more praise and acclaim as well as getting some of her books on the New York Times bestseller lists. I’d encourage you to check out any of her books as they have fully developed characters, great plots, good twists, and excellent dialogue.

For her latest book, Sunburn, she crafts another great story, set up in a way so you, the reader, have no idea where things are going to go.  As the book starts a guy named Adam is meeting a woman named Polly in a small bar in a dive town, Belleville, Delaware. He’s interested in her from the start and while we think it’s just a brewing romance we gradually realize he’s also investigating her.

Polly has an even more complicated story. She has, we learn, just walked away from her husband and daughter and it was while leaving them that she stopped in this city. We gradually learn more about why she left, why Adam is investigating her and why a third and fourth person are also paying attention to Polly’s actions. It’s a great page-turner, one which is difficult to put down.

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo – This author has written a great new book, White Fragility, a term she coined years ago. In it she not only explains in depth what the term means and how to address people when they are experiencing it but she covers many other issues about racism, specifically regarding white people working on their own racism-related issues.

I confess to having a few “a ha! she said it too!” moments when she said things which I’ve been saying in anti-racism work I do at my church and in discussions about books about race such as this.

Specifically, she notes something about progressives which I also find myself pointing out about too many of the Unitarian Universalist church and social justice related groups I work with, namely that the folks that people of color, and anti-racism educators like her, find the most frustrating are fellow progressives. The problem is the logic becomes “I’m progressive and care about social justice, therefore I know everything I need to know about this topic.”

The reality is those are often the people who need the most work, need the most help. These are the folks making microaggressions, not realizing how their works and actions can be hurtful, people who can and do learn a lot when they accept they can be educated in this area.

One of my mantras in this work is that the focus should be on the impact, not the intent, a topic she also touches on. It’s easy when someone white says or does something racist to retreat to the position of “but that was not my intention.” That good intention, though, does not change the impact on the person harmed. Think before you speak and act about whether your well intended actions may be perceived or taken in other ways.

This is why she and I and others talk about this work being uncomfortable and difficult for it’s in those places where the real work is done. The work done in polite conversations is often of less depth and doesn’t usually go far enough.

I encourage you to read this book, join discussions and conversations about this and other books about race and open yourself up to doing work that may be uncomfortable but can potentially be life changing.

Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan – This is the third in the author’s engrossing series about Esa Khattek and Rachel Getty, who work for Canada’s Community Policing department. In this new book Esa is on leave, traveling in Iran when the Canadian government asks him to investigate the death of a renowned Canadian-Iranian filmmaker. This gives the author an opening to talk about Iranian culture. Parts of the book are based on real life events including the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election. The series does an excellent job of providing a mystery-thriller while also educating the reader.

So You Want to Talk About Race Cover ImageSo You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo – I have read a lot of books about race and racism while doing antiracism work in recent years and this is the best one I have come across yet in terms of being prescriptive. It is by a woman of color who addresses all the questions folks have, from “How do I know when an issue is about race?” (answer: if a person of color says it’s about race then it’s about race), “how do you address those who try to switch debates of racism into debates of classism?” (point out that the tools we need to destroy classism are not the same as those needed to stop racism, not to mention the reasons a white person might be working class might be different than those of a person of color), “What if you mess up when talking about race?” (You will, don’t sweat it,) etc.

I have personally recommended this book to about 50 people and led two book discussions on it.

Honorable Mentions:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman – Reading this was a wild ride. I could not get into the story or the main character of Ove but persevered since I was reading it for a book club. Then the last 30 pages had me all crying and emotional as I realized the book had affected and touched me way more than I realized. Others I know had similar experiences.

Robicheaux by James Lee Burke – One of his best books in years and with my favorite protagonist of his, Dave Robicheaux. All of his books have amazing prose and descriptions to die for but this one has an even better plot than usual. I was lucky enough to interview him about his new book here

Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, And One Intact Glass Ceiling by Amy Chozick – The author covered Hillary’s campaigns first for The Wall Street Journal and later for The New York Times. She does an amazing job explaining what it is like to essentially put your personal life on hold while you, yes, chase Hillary, along with lots of other reporters, from event to event, struggling to find new ways to report daily on the campaign even when the speeches are identical.

For me, who entered into journalism in college thinking one day I would be covering presidential campaigns for The New York Times, the most interesting parts involved having to deal with a campaign staff trying to manipulate her and editors not always on the same page as her, not to mention what it was like when the campaign, and the journalists covering it, realized their polling involving Trump was so off.  

Interview with Nancy Boyarsky on writing in the #metoo era & more

Liar Liar: A Nicole Graves Mystery (Nicole Graves Mysteries) Cover ImageFor her third mystery novel featuring protagonist Nicole Graves, Nancy Boyarsky has written an intriguing thriller that turns what could have been a predictable #metoo movement novel on its head.

In Liar Liar, Nicole is tasked with babysitting a witness who has accused a university’s star quarterback of rape. While the witness, Mary Ellen Barnes, has come off as squeaky clean in public, Graves quickly sees that things are not as they seem.

Soon Mary Ellen goes missing and Nicole, over the objections of her fiancé, gets increasingly in the middle of the case. And then a key figure in the story dies. What follows are twists and more twists.

Boyarsky coauthored Backroom Politics with her husband, journalist Bill Boyarsky, as well as several textbooks by herself on the justice system as well as writing articles of many publications.

She is currently working on her fourth mystery about Nicole in addition to a memoir about growing up in Oakland called Family Recipes for Gastroenteritis.

Scott: Where did this story come from and how did it develop?

Nancy: The plot of Liar Liar involves a rape trial that becomes a murder trial. The idea came to me long before #Metoo got rolling. I started thinking about it three or four years ago when a close friend of mine, who’s a private detective, told me about a rape case at a local college. She’d been hired by the college to interview everyone who had knowledge of the incident and write a report without drawing any conclusions. Normally, her cases are confidential, but someone leaked the report online, and Esquire ran an article about it. It involved two very drunk 19-year-olds, and the fallout from their encounter was pretty interesting. It got me thinking about how difficult it is to determine who’s the responsible party in a “she said, he said” situation.

Of course, I had to change all of the circumstances, since I wouldn’t have had a murder mystery without a dead body. In the real-life case, the parties seemed to be traumatized but no one died. I also changed the locale, setting the college in Malibu rather than in urban L.A.

Scott: How did you create and develop the protagonist, Nicole Graves, for this series?

Nancy: When I wrote the first book, The Swap, I wanted to create a main character who was smart, likeable, curious and doggedly persistent. I’ve read too many books featuring detectives who are emotionally damaged; it almost seems a requirement for this type of character. I wanted my heroine to be a normal, reasonably well-adjusted person. As I went through innumerable rewrites of The Swap, Nicole emerged.

Scott: How would you describe her?

Nancy: As I said, she’s smart, likeable, and doggedly persistent. She’s curious about the people she meets and wants to know everything about them, which is probably one of the traits made her become an investigator. She’s also petite and sweetly pretty with dimples. This bothers her. She feels that some people don’t take her seriously because of her looks. But sometimes it’s an advantage to people have underestimate you.

Most importantly, Nicole is a risk taker, and wants to make sure justice is served. She can’t bear standing by and watching when she knows someone has unjustly been accused of a crime or when the guilty party gets away, leaving an innocent person to take the blame. Oh, and she’s also a romantic. She’s has fallen in and out of love a few times during these stories.

Scott: In what ways are you like her? In what ways are you different from her?

Nancy: Well, I’m certainly not as brave as she is, and I wouldn’t call myself a risk taker. On the other hand, I do share her curiosity about people—what makes them tick, their secrets, their hopes and dreams. I share her desire to see justice done. I’m also petite and (while I don’t have dimples) have a benign appearance that sometimes makes people underestimate me.

Scott: I bet you thought about the #Metoo movement while writing this book in which a character accuses a well known person of rape. What are some thoughts you have about the movement?

Nancy: I’m a big supporter of #Metoo, and it was a lucky coincidence that Liar Liar was published as this movement was snowballing. I don’t know any woman who hasn’t been harassed or sexually victimized at some point in her life. I can remember being a teenager walking down the street and getting cat calls from, for example, construction workers. This was embarrassing and upsetting. But so many much worse things happen to women on a daily basis. It’s good that women are able to come forward and confront abusers about what they’ve done. On the other hand, we have to be careful not to get carried away. For example, there was the woman who anonymously denounced the stand-up comic Aziz Ansari for what many would call a bad date. I thought that was going too far.

In Liar Liar, the story the victim tells is not really what happened. She has been sexually victimized and exploited, just not in the way she says. And the man who’s wrongly accused isn’t completely innocent. But cases like this rarely happen. I believe the vast majority of victims are telling the truth. According to the National Institute of Justice, most rapes, attempted rapes, and other sexual assaults are never reported. Why not? The institute referred to a study that gave a number of reasons: self blame, shame, fear of the perpetrator, fear of not being believed, and lack of trust in the justice system.

Scott: So this is the third in your series — should readers start with the first book or is it okay to start with this one?

Nancy: You don’t have to start with the first one at all. Each book stands on its own. If anything happens that refers back to an event in one of the earlier books, I give a brief explanation.

I wrote the first book, The Swap, as a stand-alone; I had no intention of basing a series on Nicole Graves. When it was done, I’d left a lot hanging in the air. By this time, Nicole seemed almost real to me. I started wondering what would happen to her next. As I thought about it, my second book, The Bequest, began to take shape.

Scott: I understand at one point you were the associate editor of Los Angeles Lawyer magazine. Did that help with writing about lawyers in this book?

Nancy: One of things I always had to offer employers was my ability to translate legalize and legislative language into plain, simple terms that the average reader could understand. So, I guess my experience with L.A. Lawyer helped me out there. I did the same kind of work at ARCO, where I was director of communications for political affairs for many years, mostly writing about legislative proposals that affected the oil industry. But my main resource for the workings of the justice system in Liar Liar was my brother-in-law, Jeff Boyarsky, who is a newly retired criminal-defense attorney. I was always asking him questions about what would happen before and during the trials in the book.

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

Nancy: I hope they’ll be entertained and that the book will take them out of their world for a while. It would also be good if the book could enlighten them a bit about the legal process and what participants in such trials go through.

Scott: How did you research this book?

Nancy: For quick facts, for example how a particular gun would behave in Nicole’s hands, I used Google. The internet makes this kind of research very easy. In the dark ages before the web, I was a freelance writer. To get information, I had to make a lot of phone calls, spend time in libraries, become an expert at using The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature and looking at newspaper microfilms. Yikes! That was a lot of work.

For Nicole’s adventures, I have two main experts I rely on—my lawyer brother-in-law and my friend who’s a private detective. They answer questions as I go along and read the manuscript when it’s done.

Scott: How far out have you planned this series?

Nancy: Not at all. I’m just finishing up Book 4, The Ransom, which is due at my publishers on January 10th and will be released next September. I’m thinking that book 5 should take Nicole to Europe. Maybe London again, which was the setting of The Swap.  I know the city pretty well from our visits there. Or maybe Italy or France. I don’t even plan the book I’m working on advance. I just develop it as I go along. While preoccupied with that, it’s impossible to think about what will be in the next book.

 

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH ALAFAIR BURKE

You Don't Own Me (An Under Suspicion Novel) Cover ImageMary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke have joined forces again for a new book in their Under Suspicion series, You Don’t Own Me.

Longtime mystery writer Clark has joined with younger writer Burke in this series about television producer Laurie Moron who has a television show to solve murders.

With this latest book, Laurie Moran is trying to solve a celebrity doctor’s murder while a mysterious person stalks her. The doctor’s wife, Kendra, is the one under suspicion and acting strangely. The show is her chance to explain herself… and hopefully find the real killer, if it’s not her.

I previously interviewed both writers for The Cinderella Murder, the first in the series. This time I was lucky enough to be able to interview Alafair, who was written some excellent novels on her own.

Scott Butki: How did the story for You Don’t Own Me come together? Was it an idea you had or Mary had?

Alafair Burke: We came up with every aspect of this book together.  We talked through various character and plot ideas we had been playing with individually and wove them together into a single story.

Scott: How would you describe the character, Kendra, who is initially seen as possibly being responsible for the death of her husband?

Alafair: I think Kendra Bell is one of the strongest characters that Mary and I have created together.  She put aside her own promising medical career to be a wife to her successful husband, Martin, and a mother to their two children, only to have her seemingly perfect marriage unravel and then to become the leading suspect in Martin’s murder.  She’s sympathetic and likable in many ways, but flawed enough that she might just be guilty. Without giving away the “who done it,” I’ll say that I think most readers will come away thinking she’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

Scott: How do you and Mary divide up the work on the series you are writing together? Do you write alternating chapters or one has big ideas and the other figures out the smaller details?

Alafair: Neither one of us outlines our own solo books, so we have to change things up when we work together.  What really helps is that we both find plot through character. We talk through every single character — who are they, what’s their backstory, what are their biggest fears and secrets, what’s their journey during the book?  The characters lead us to the plot. Only when we think we have it all do we begin writing, and we start with a synopsis that contains every element of the book. That’s a document we pass back and forth until we basically know the book.  One of us then sketches out a first draft, which we pass back and forth to flesh out. That’s the best I can do to explain the process, but we work together seamlessly at this point. I still have to pinch myself sometimes!

Scott: How do you divide up your work on your own novels versus these done on collaboration? For example, I’ve heard of writers listening to different music for one series versus another?  Do you avoid work on your own books when working with Mary?

Alafair: No, I don’t have any of those kinds of rituals.  Maybe it’s an old habit from lawyering, but I can work on multiple projects at once, though I certainly prefer to be doing the deep work on one while editing or tweaking another.  But the work needs to get done, and that’s the priority.

Scott: How did you and Mary go about researching this book?

Alfair: Most of it takes place in downtown Manhattan, which is my neighborhood, so I like to say that all the hours I spend walking around constitute research.  I don’t love actual research, so fortunately, this book didn’t require much. I think Mary and I are both in the habit of writing from what we know.

Scott: What do you hope readers will take away from this story and others in your series?

Alafair: I got hooked on crime fiction through long-running series characters, especially strong female characters like Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton), VI Warshawski (Sara Paretsky), Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller), Kat Colorado (Karen Kajewski), and Irene Kelly.  I’d like to think that Laurie Moran could hang with that crowd. She’s also surrounded by a rich supporting cast, both at home and work. A good series book is like a visit from an old friend, and I hope readers feel that way about Laurie and her gang.

Scott: Last time I talked to you, in December 2014, you were really into Serial. What crime-related programming are you currently into?

Alafair: I have been cyberstalking a few actual cases myself, but am not deeply into any true-crime programming right now.  I am counting down the days, though, for a podcast Michael Connelly is creating called Murder Book. It’s starting in January.

And though it’s not true crime, I just binged the hell out of Ozark and am about to start (finally) Killing Eve.

Scott: Looking back, was the jump from prosecutor to criminal law professor and novelist a big change or more of a natural progression?

The Better Sister: A Novel Cover ImageAlafair: It all felt normal to me, but I’m sort of a weirdo.  I’ve been both a professor and a novelist for fifteen years. It’s hard to imagine not doing both.

Scott: How long do you see this collaboration going?

Alafair: As long as readers will have us!

Scott: What are you working on next?

Alafair: My book, The Better Sister, will be out on April 16, and I’m working on the screenplay for The Wife.

 

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH TOM SEIGEL

Tom Seigel has come up with a great concept for his first novel, The Astronaut’s Son. It’s an engaging, fascinating work.

The Astronaut's Son Cover ImageJonathan Stein is, as the title suggests, the son of an astronaut, an Israeli man who died in 1974 before he was able to fly into space, the apparent victim of heart problems. Now Jonathan is ready to go into space himself with NASA, its first trip to the moon in 30 years, except he’s hearing rumors and stories suggesting his dad was killed to protect NASA secrets, possibly relating to former Nazis who worked for NASA.

And Jonathan thinks the reclusive Neil Armstrong, who Jonathan has been writing to his whole life without ever hearing a response, may know the answers to his many questions. Some of the questions Jonathan is encountering is coming from people who believe the moon landing was fake.

This is an especially impressive debut novel for someone who got an MFA in fiction writing after 20 years as a litigator. Tom served as both deputy chief and chief of the justice department’s Brooklyn Organized Crime Strike Force, prosecuting members and associates of La Cosa Nostra.

He agreed to let me interview him via email.

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

Tom Seigel: The Astronaut’s Son was born in tragedy. It was 2003, and Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. I was struck, as I’m sure many were, by the fact that both Ramon and Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American in space, suffered the same terrible fate in two separate shuttle accidents. It felt like more than just a sad coincidence or very bad luck. It felt like an atavistic curse: “Let there be no escape.”

Then the notion that “flight” contained elements of both adventure and escape took hold, and I asked myself a question: “If the exodus story can serve as a metaphor for liberation of the oppressed, could the unique, peripatetic story of the Jews serve as a metaphor for the future of humanity in space?” Are we exploring the cosmos as mere intellectual pastime or because we know that another exodus will be needed? As I began to research, I learned about the secret government program (Operation Paperclip) that brought Nazi engineers to the United States after the war to work on rocketry. Many ended up at NASA. The idea of juxtaposing Germans and Jews at NASA captured my imagination, and after more years than I care to admit, my novel is finally ready for launch.

Scott: Which came first, the plot or the characters?

Tom: At least the protagonist came first. I wanted a Jewish entrepreneur (Jonathan Stein) to attempt a return to the moon, and I wanted him to wrestle with the ghosts of his past—his late father, a fictitious Israeli astronaut in the Apollo program, and the ex-Nazis his dad would have encountered. Questions about his father’s untimely death allow us to look back at that time through Jonathan’s eyes. I was not sure when I started writing what he would find, or whether he would make it to the moon. I also wanted Neil Armstrong to be a looming presence in Jonathan’s mind—a reluctant hero, a long-distance father figure and a one-way pen pal. Armstrong’s reclusive behavior and relative inaccessibility created space (no pun intended) for mystery and intrigue. The other characters also took shape before I had the plot finally worked out.

Scott: I realize this is fiction but I have to ask a question I am sure some readers will ask, namely, “Does NASA indeed have a checkered past, any employees who were former Nazis?”

Tom: The short answer is yes. In the 1960s and 1970s, Wernher von Braun was Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, and Kurt Debus was Director of the Kennedy Space Center. Both men were not only Nazi party members but SS officers. And there were others. A few fairly recent nonfiction books detail this shady history of Operation Paperclip. Among them, I would recommend Michael Neufeld’s Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War and Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip. For years, the government whitewashed the history of its German rocket contingent. Their influence was so great that even today, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (the official visitor center for Marshall), has a biergarten on Thursdays in the summer referred to as “Stein and Dine.” I have been amazed that more people are not troubled by the honors given to some of these (opportunistic to say the least) men.

Scott: What kind of research did you do and how did that go?

Tom: I read books about Operation Paperclip in general and the more prominent German scientists and engineers who were part of it. I also read about NASA’s history and astronaut training. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time  helped me get a grasp of basic concepts in cosmology. The more entertaining research included surfing the Internet for outlandish lunar landing conspiracy theories. And of course, I watched Capricorn One. (Yes, I believe we landed on the moon, and so does Jonathan.)

Scott: I was glad you referenced Richard Feynman, someone I find fascinating. What do you think of him?

Tom: Richard Feynman is an American original, a Nobel laureate in physics with a thick outer borough accent who liked to play the bongos at strip clubs. He had a unique ability to explain physics to the uninitiated, much as Leonard Bernstein explained classical music to children. Feynman was charming, irascible and possessed of an insatiable curiosity. He, along with Neil Armstrong, served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster. I actually had something in an earlier draft that was meant as an inside joke about Feynman’s fascination with breaking dry spaghetti, but alas, it was left on the cutting room floor.

Scott: Why did you decide to get an MFA in fiction writing and write this novel?

Tom: I had the proverbial eighty pages in a drawer for years. I pulled them out sporadically and tinkered without much progress. I think the MFA program, in addition to improving my writing, served as source of concrete deadlines. I was also in my forties and ready for a career change.

Scott: How has your past work, including as a litigator, helped you as you made that switch?

Tom: I think being a former prosecutor has been very helpful to me as a writer. Prosecutors are storytellers. They have a cast of characters (witnesses) and have to construct a compelling and credible narrative for a jury. A prosecutor is also always on the lookout for the perilous plot hole. If you have one in your case, you can be sure that a defense lawyer is going to stick a finger in it and make sure the jury sees just how big the reasonable doubt really is. Having an imagining adversary (editor) on my shoulder while writing comes as second nature. Continuity, foundation and authenticity are important elements of any successful prosecution, and they’re pretty good for novels too. A challenge, on the other hand, is the artful use of nuance—great for fiction writing, deadly for a closing argument.

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

Tom: Of course, I want them to be entertained, and while the book has its serious side, I would be delighted if they were to laugh out loud at least once or twice. The Astronaut’s Son is not a traditional whodunit. I won’t spoil the ending, but I hope they come away with meaty questions to chew on—about history, progress, ethics and the future. Small subjects like that.

Scott: What are you working on next?

Tom: As a former mafia prosecutor, more than a few people have suggested I write a book about mobsters. I’m in the middle of writing a second novel that is not about the mob, but it might have a few unconventional wise guys. I think the traditional mob genre, like the mob itself, is mostly played out, but there’s still room for a colorful goodfella or two.