Meike talks to Martin Walker about Bruno, Chief of Police

Martin Walker’s character Bruno, Chief of Police, is a perennially popular figure in crime fiction. We look forward to each new book, and since Taste for Vengeance is just out, we got to talk with Martin about his inspiration, his writing, and Bruno. If you missed our event with Walker, you can buy signed copies of Taste for Vengeance in our store or on our website.

MysteryPeople Meike: You have an extensive background in journalism.  How and why did you make the transition to fiction?

Martin Walker: I was so entranced by the prehistoric cave art that I felt compelled to write about the kind of ancient society that could have produced such masterpieces and wrote ‘The Caves of Perigord.’ (2002) But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to write about the place now, its lifestyle and the its food and wine and the way the history weaves its way into everything so I began to write the Bruno tales.

MPM: You’re originall

y from the UK but now you split your time between Washington DC and the Perigord region of France, which is where the Bruno series is set.  What was it about that region that drew you in originally and what do you love most about it?

MW: At first it was the landscape and the food and wine and the sweetness of life there, but soon I became fascinated with the history and prehistory of the Perigord, the extraordinary work of the cave painters at Lascaux 18,000 years ago. Visiting the 25 painted caves and the hundred-plus caves with engravings, one can never again think of these people as primitive. Their artistic sensibility is instantly and movingly familiar to us.

MPM: What is the biggest misconception that Americans have about France and its people?

MW: That they behaved pitifully in World War Two. I have learned enough about the Resistance to know better. And never forget that under Napoleon, they took Moscow – something Hitler’s Wehrmacht never achieved.

MPM: Food is an important theme in the Bruno stories, and in addition to being a celebrated writer you have received recognition for your knowledge of foie gras and wine.  Can you tell us a little about those honors?

Photo of Martin WalkerMW: I was elected a chevalier of foie gras by the regional confrerie, which brings together producers, vendors and gastronomes and we run the annual competition to find the best. And I was elected a Grand Consul de la Vinee de Bergerac (founded 1254) by the other Consuls, people in the wine trade, so I began making my own wine, Cuvee Bruno, with friends in the region. I chair the jury of the Prix Rageneau, the regional cookery prize, and Bruno’s Kochbuch,’ which I wrote with my wife for the German market, was awarded by Gourmand International the prize of ‘world’s best French cookbook’ of the year in 2016.

MPM: Food and wine are an integral part of your novels, and indeed an integral part of French culture. What led you to explore the cuisine so fully in your novels? What can we Americans learn from the French in our approach to food?

MW: We all have to eat so we might as well take time to enjoy it and make a ceremony of necessity. It is also a sacrament of community; there are few greater pleasures than dining with old friends and pleasing them with your cooking, even more when the fruit and vegetables come from your own garden. The key is to take your time: think about food, find the best sand freshest ingredients, plan your meal and the wines. And remember the old saying that a Frenchwoman takes greater care in choosing her cheesemonger than in choosing her lovers.

MPM: Can you describe your “dream” dinner?  Who would you invite, and what would you prepare?

MW: If it’s summer and we’re eating in the open air, I’d make my own version of gazpacho from the garden, then fresh trout from the river, grilled with lemon slices, then aiguillettes of duck cooked in honey and mustard seeds and served with pommes de terre Sarladaise, with garlic and parsley and a truffle grated over the potatoes at the table, just before serving. Then cheese and salad and finish with a tarte au citron to echo the lemons with the fish. For the first two courses I’d serve a Cuvee Quercus dry white Bergerac from Pierre Desmartis and then for the duck a Tour des Verdots red from David Fourtout.

MPM: Bruno has a penchant for falling for strong, independent women thus he’s still the most eligible bachelor in the area–will we see him settle down any time soon?

MW: Who knows? He hasn’t told me yet. I keep trying to set him up with interesting new women but Isabelle keeps hauling him back. I learned when I tried to have him seduced by a wicked femme fatale (and he refused) that he has a mind of his own and sometime won’t follow the plan. It’s interesting; he’s more real to me than some of my friends.

MPM: Bruno is a marvelously nuanced character–a decorated war hero yet a gentle soul who doesn’t like to carry a gun, volunteers with local youth, and devotes tremendous time and effort to organizing elaborate meals with his friends. What was the inspiration for Bruno and what is it about him that keeps drawing you back to his story?

MW: The inspiration was my village policeman in France, who may be old and fatter than Bruno and has a wife and family, but the skills and character traits are there. He’s also my tennis partner.

MPM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

MW: Once I have the book planned, chapter by chapter and the research and character notes complete, I start to write and set myself a firm target of producing a minimum of 1,000 words a day, wherever I am and whatever else I’m doing. For an old journalist, that isn’t difficult.

MPM: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

MW: Write every day, read what you write aloud to yourself and never stop for the day at the end of a chapter, nor even at the end of a paragraph. It makes it much easier to start again tomorrow.

 

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTEVIEW WITH CHERYL A. HEAD

Cheryl Head is a fresh voice whose mysteries include references to diversity and tolerance, in addition to humor and good plot twists. This is all on display in her new book, Wake Me When It’s Over, the second in her Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series.

The new book is set in Detroit as Charlie Mack’s team of investigators is hired to try to head off any attempts at terrorism during the annual Detroit Auto Show. The book is full of rich characters, a good plot and surprises.

Cheryl Head readingCheryl Head is originally from Detroit but now lives in Washington, D.C. Before writing this series she worked as a writer, television producer, filmmaker, broadcast executive and media funder.

Cheryl, herself a women of color, explores race as part of the mysteries, which feature Charlie Mack, who is black and a lesbian. At one point, for example, a character notes she does not know why terrorists might attack but is “glad that Mack woman is in charge of this. Because in America, I know black people have way more experience with terrorism than white people.”

Her first book in the series, Bury Me When I’m Dead, was a finalist for the 29th annual Lambda Literacy Award for Lesbian Mystery.

Cheryl was kind enough to let me interview her via email.

Scott Butki: How did this story develop?

Wake Me When It's Over (Charlie Mack Motown Mystery) Cover ImageCheryl Head: I’m a real fan of the mystery/thriller genre.  I read quite a bit of it (but there are so many good novels I’m finding it hard to keep up) and I love to watch movies/TV programs in the genre.  I lived in Detroit almost 40 years. I’m quite aware of the city’s influence of my world view on culture, politics, social issues as well as how the city has shaped my personality.  There are cultural events in Detroit that have always brought together a broad cross-section of people who live in the region-one of those events is the North American International Auto Show; known by most as the Detroit Auto Show. It’s a big deal in the city…and in the automotive world. Since my books are set in the mid 2000’s in Detroit, I began doing research on the 2006 Super Bowl.  Detroit had a huge opportunity with the Super Bowl XL to promote a different view of the city at a time when it’s reputation was dismal. It occurred to me that the auto show, a month before the world’s spotlight turned on Detroit for this global sporting event, would be a temptation for people who are up to no good, to create serious mischief. That’s how Wake Me When It’s Over came to be.

SB: What kind of research did you do for this book? Had you been to the auto show before?

CH: Yes, I’ve been to the Detroit Auto Show many times.  Growing up in Detroit, it was the place where anyone could go and see the best cars in the world, and dream about owning one.  The Auto Show brings in three-quarters of a million people during its run, but it also feels intimate. You can touch the cars, see the latest concept cars, breathe in the new car smell, feel the power as you sit behind the steering wheel of a truck. I did a lot of online research on what models and technology were available in 2006. I spoke to a former convention executive to hear what goes into producing a show of this scale, and I made a visit to the area around the Cobo Convention Center, the home of the Detroit Auto Show. Cobo has undergone massive renovation in the last five years, but the area around it wasn’t different, and the show’s general schedule, hype, and activities haven’t changed. What was of great interest to me, and became a plot point in the novel, was 2006 was the first time a Chinese automaker had exhibited at the Detroit Auto Show.

SB: The press materials for your book says you often have “themes of diversity in the broadest sense, acculturation and tolerance, sometimes with a bit of danger and always with a lot of humor, food and music.” I love that. Why did you decide to include those themes in your book?”

CH: I believe race and class are still critical elements of the American story.  I’m also an African-American woman of a certain age, and my experience has been colored (no pun intended) by how I am perceived by the people I interact with in life.  I believe my work as a writer is to provide a fuller picture of what it means to be a person of color in America. I have consciously chosen this path, and my goal is to do this without being didactic. I’m also a lesbian and that brings with it further perceptions, and misconceptions, by people I see, meet, and speak with. I know tolerance and civility and empathy are the values our country needs to embrace right now, and I think that comes with knowing, more intimately, the stories of people who are not like us. I’m writing fiction but my characters are composites of people I know or have witnessed. On humor, food, and music?  You don’t grow up in Detroit without having a street Ph.D. in all those subjects.

SB: What made you decide to use fiction as a way to explore these and other ideas?

CH: I’ve been a non-fiction writer most of my adult life.  I worked in public TV and radio for more than 30 years in Detroit and Washington, D.C., writing scripts, news stories, proposals, magazine articles, reports to Congress, that kind of thing.  I’ve always been a storyteller. I was working as a national executive in public broadcasting when Ken Burns produced his acclaimed documentary series on World War II. What I was struck by at the time was WWII stories always seemed to focus on the heroic acts of courage in battle. Of course, those dramatic stories are important, but those were not the stories I’d heard from my father, and others in the black community, about their WWII experiences. Their stories were of faithful service far away from battlefield glory. Their courage was exemplified in their steadfastness and pride in doing a good job in a segregated, and discriminatory, U.S. military environment.  Regardless of their uniforms or ranks, they were often relegated to a second-class status. I wanted to tell the story of black, U.S. soldiers-men and women-whose acts of valor were carrying out their duties under those demoralizing conditions. That’s why I wrote Long Way Home: A World War II Novel. I self-published this book, I couldn’t find a publisher who would take it on at the time. It went on to become a double finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards in the African-American Literature, and Historical Fiction award categories.

SB: What do you hope readers will take away from these books?

CH: First, and foremost, I hope readers of my books will be entertained. I really do laugh at myself, I don’t take myself too seriously, and I want readers to see and enjoy my writing where it pokes fun at various aspects of the human condition. Not every situation has glimpses of humor, but many do. I also hope to reveal the power of empathy. I often acknowledge to myself that I am writing for white readers. That was certainly the case in Long Way Home.  I wanted to provide an insider’s look at what it’s like to grow up as a black person in rural America in the 1940’s. In my Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series, I hope I’m attracting a broad audience. Not just readers of lesbian fiction (that’s the primary audience of my publisher) but readers who like a complex mystery or thriller. I want to create a puzzle about how human nature and human frailty can create chaos, and then proffer a world in which an African-American woman can be the protagonist in solving these puzzles.

SB: Can you talk about the work you do around diversity? Is it as a speaker, a writer, an organizer?

CH: My diversity work has changed since I formally retired from my corporate work. Before, I was a regular speaker about the merits of a diverse workforce. I wrote position papers, and funded media projects with a focus on diversity and inclusion.  As a volunteer, I’ve been an organizer and board member for organizations doing diversity work. Now I consult, formally and informally, on diversity activities including writing diverse characters, serving as a so-called “sensitivity reader”, and employee recruitment. 

SB: I understand you serve as the Golden Crown Literary Society Director of Inclusion. Can you say more about what that is and why you do it?

CH: The Golden Crown Literary Society (GCLS) is the premier, non-profit membership organization focused on supporting and recognizing lesbian-themed literature.  I applied for this position to help GCLS broaden and diversify its membership, and to increase the inclusion of younger, and more diverse attendees at the organization’s annual conference.  I’m doing that by assisting GCLS in identifying new partnerships and advising on internal processes and practices.

SB: How has your background in public broadcasting helped you as a fiction writer?

CH: I had amazing opportunities in public media to travel.  My writing themes are a culmination of my experiences growing up in Detroit, and the insights I’ve gained through the national and international travel I’ve done.  I’ve been in the room, and often at the table, with national politicians, heads of state, celebrities, academics, community organizers, educators, artists, and engaged citizens who have shifted my paradigms, and expanded my interests.  I’ve been on both sides of the microphone/camera in public (and commercial) media but the best part of that has been to sweeten my powers of observation, and increase my intention to be an active listener.

SB: What are you working on next?

CH: The second book in the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series, Wake Me When It’s Over has just been released and is in launch phase now. I’ll be doing a small book tour this summer. Book 3 in the series is completed, and under contract with my publisher, Bywater Books. It is about an investigation of a series of heinous crimes against homeless people in a neighborhood of Detroit. I’m currently writing the fourth book in the series; it’s set against the backdrop of a grand jury trial.  I’m organizing a dozen short stories –not mysteries — to be published in a collection. I’ve been included in a couple of recent anthologies, and I’ve begun to explore the possibility of re-issuing Long Way Home: A World War II Novel with a publishing house that can give the book more air. I wrote that book five years ago, and I’m still getting requests to read from, and talk about the book. The Amazon reviews also continue to trickle in. It’s amazing to me how much WWII books resonate with the reading public.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH RUTH WARE

Ruth Ware’s fourth book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is another one of her great psychological thrillers.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway Cover ImageWare previously wrote three excellent novels: In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game. The latter two were on the top ten bestseller lists of The New York Times and the U.K.’s Sunday Times. All three books have been optioned for screen.

This book is good, similar fare full of twists and suspense. The story revolves around Hal, a young tarot card reader, down on her luck. She attends the funeral of a woman who has left her a mysterious inheritance. But it appears Hal was not truly the intended recipient which leads to many complications, plot twists and difficult situations

Ware was nice enough to let me interview her by email. My sister, Ellen Butki, helped me formulate the questions. Thanks to both of you.

Scott Butki: How did this story about this young woman develop?

Ruth Ware: I always find it hard to unpick all the threads that come together to make a story, but I suppose that having written three books about women who found themselves in a life changing situation mostly through no fault of their own, I wanted to write something about a character who brings the action down on themselves – someone who sets out to commit a crime. But I found it impossible to write Hal as a true anti-hero. She makes some questionable decisions, but I liked her more and more as the book went on. 

Image result for ruth wareSB: What do you think of those who compare you to Agatha Christie, as both of you not only are famous for twists but also for putting characters into situations that can lead to paranoia and violence?

RW: I take it as a huge compliment! I’m a big fan of Christie and I think her plots are pretty much second to none – so many of the features we take for granted about the genre today, she more or less developed. I would be very happy if I wrote something even a quarter as twisty and genre-defining as And Then There Were None.

SB: In your writing process, which do you see first: the overview (characters/setting/plot), the ending, or the major twist?  Do you add more twists while editing?

RW: It’s really hard to pick apart because they all come together more or less at the time, and different books develop differently. With Cabin 10 I had the ship first of all – the first image that came to me was of a woman waking up in the middle of the night in a locked cabin and hearing a splash. But who that woman was and what happened next developed at the same time, because the one influenced the other.

In a Dark, Dark Wood the physical entity of the glass house only came to me quite late on, about a quarter of the way into the book – but again the motives of the protagonists and their particular characters developed hand in hand. Character is plot, and plot is character. What we do and why is shaped by who we are – and vice versa. The twists are a bit separate – I have to figure those out as I go. Sometimes the pieces don’t fall into place until really quite late.

SB: Identity seems to be a common theme in your books. Is that intentional? Do you want readers to take away something about identity or some other lesson while reading your books?

RW: Do you know, I had never really thought about this before, but you are right! I am not sure why that is – except that I’m endlessly fascinated by people and the versions of themselves that they show to the world versus the people they are inside. I guess it’s that fascination showing. I don’t really write with an intentional lesson or message in mind – I would never presume to dictate to my readers what they should or shouldn’t find in my books, though of course there are always subjects I’m interested in, and I suppose I do often hope to make people think and question some of their assumptions.

SB: Do you believe that deeply buried secrets will/must always be revealed (in books and/or in life)? Where does this belief stem from?

RW: Actually, I am a firm believer in healthy repression 😉 Of course in books secrets usually come out – it’s back to that Chekovian idea of a gun above the mantelpiece. If you reveal that a character has a deep dark secret, there’s no point in putting it in the plot unless it’s going to come out at some point, otherwise you may as well not bring it up at all. In real life, though, we all have secrets – large and small – and bringing things out into the open isn’t always the right course of action. I think my books often show the enormous damage that can be done when secrets surface.

SB: What are you working on next?

RW: Another book of course! It’s a bit too early to talk about it though – I don’t want to jinx myself.

Interview with Joe Lansdale

CrimeReads, the new crime fiction site, spun off by LitHub and partially overseen by our former Director Of Suspense, Molly Odintz, has been getting a lot of attention in the past few months. Recently, they asked MysteryPeople’s Scott Montgomery to interview his friend Joe Lansdale. So, hopped up on medicine for Cedar Fever, Scott discussed politics, religion, and writing. Check it out if you dare to know the results.

 

 

Q&A with Ricky Bush

Ricky Bush puts his love and knowledge of the blues into his crime fiction. In his latest, The Oaxacan Kid, blues collector Foster Cane is on the hunt for a recording performed by a Latino harmonica player. His search leads to a human trafficking ring and his father’s killers. Billy will be joining author and filmmaker John Shepphird May 5th at 2PM, but we caught up with him earlier to discuss writing and music.

The Oaxacan Kid Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Which came first, the character of Foster Cane or the story about the Oaxacan Kid?

Ricky Bush: My story germinated around the idea of a collector of rare blues records intent on tracking down an obscure bluesman. So, I guess I fleshed out Foster Cane first. During the ’60s a folk music revival was afoot and a lot of musicologists began discovering early blues recordings and started scouring the Mississippi Delta looking for those musicians. They recorded them and brought them out of obscurity, which launched a blues revival. The Oaxacan Kid became Foster’s target. Since few Hispanics have recorded blues, I thought I’d add that twist.

MPS: The blues world serves as a back drop for your books and you are an accomplished harmonica player. What do you want to get across to the reader about the music?

RB: Blues music reflects the human condition. The music is much more bipolar than some people realize, swinging from sad and lonely to upbeat and joyful. Yeah, there are a lot of blues about losing a good woman (or man), but plenty more about finding a good woman (or man), and all life experiences in between.

MPS: Do you see anything it has in common with crime fiction?

RB: Crime fiction is all about the blues. The genre reflects the human condition in much the same way. Plenty of blues recordings are crime stories personified. Check out Pat Hare’s version of ‘I’m Gonna Murder My Baby’ from 1954. Sad thing is that he did just that. Another good example is Lazy Lester’s ‘Bloodstains On The Wall’. That’s crime fiction.

MPS: Family runs through the novel with Foster and his antagonists both having to deal with their relations. What did you want to explore in those dynamics?

RB: You’re right. Family dynamics drive the plot and theme throughout The Oaxacan Kid. The Morenos are as tight knit as the Cane family. One is more intent on the preservation of criminal enterprise and the other is intent of the preservation and safety of the family. ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Sopranos’ explored those dynamics in depth. The ‘Breaking Bad’ series dove into the same waters. I think just exploring how far one will go for love of family, whether it’s controlling criminal territory or the attitude of ‘not with my family, you won’t’ will always create the tension needed to drive a story.

MPS: You use Houston well. Other than familiarity what does the city provide you as a writer?

RB: I grew up sixty miles south of Houston and have lived ninety miles east of Houston for over thirty years. My wife’s from Houston, so I know pretty much know the city. Spent tons of time in the excellent blues venues in Houston and my first protagonists are blues harmonica musicians who gig in Houston and those blues clubs serve as models for my first three books. Houston is constantly dealing with human and sexual trafficking and historically has been a conduit for drug smuggling from Mexico. The Oaxacan Kid explores those themes.

MPS: If you were introducing someone to the blues, what three albums would you tell them to listen to first?

RB: Gotta start with the roots. ‘The Complete Recordings of Robert Johnson’ is essential because he’s the most influential for those that followed. Muddy Waters ‘His Best 1947-1955′. He took the blues from Stovall Plantation to Chicago, amplified it, and created the greatest blues band ever. He introduced the world to Little Walter, the greatest harmonica player-ever. Howlin’ Wolf ‘The Definitive Collection’. The Wolf’s blues is gritty, down in the alley, gut bucket blues on par with Muddy’s influence on the genre.

Q&A with John Shepphird

John Shepphird is not only an award winning crime author, he also has spent years as a director of movies in the low budget arena for cable networks like SyFy and ABC Family. He puts that to use in his latest novel, Bottom Feeders. A put upon director struggling to shoot a period drama on a shoe string budget not only has to put up with a diva of a leading lady and tight schedule, but soon someone is knocking off members of the cast and crew with a bow and arrow. It’s a classic whodunnit with a fun insider’s look at the temporary community a film crew forms. John will be here on May 5th at 2PM with fellow crime writer Ricky Bush. We found some time to talk with him earlier about crime fiction and film making.

Bottom Feeders Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: As somebody who worked on film sets in the past, you captured the weird bubble of a society it creates. What did you want the reader to know about film work?

John Shepphird: You rarely see the actual world of low-budget film-making represented and I thought I’d write what I know. Having directed nine TV/straight-to-video movies and hours of television, I’m part of the community of artists that create entertainment found on the fringe of your cable guide–SyFy Channel, Lifetime, USA Network and ABC Family. Contrary to what people are led to believe, there is very little glamour in movie making. You have to get up very early. The hours are brutal and schedules change day-to-day. This is especially true in low budget. There have been plenty of books, movies and TV shows depicting the world of stars, agents, limos and personal assistants. That’s all so cliché. I wrote about the people who aspire to bat in Hollywood’s major leagues.

MPS: While edgier, the mystery is in an Agatha Christie amateur-sleuth. Did a tale with a non-professional investigator in the lead present any sort of challenge?

JS: I love a whodunit. It’s the perfect balance of structure and character. That was my jumping off point. The cast and crew on a set becomes a temporary family with many similar dynamics found in an actual family, including all the dysfunction. I like to put my characters in a pressure cooker, then take a deep-dive into their best and worst behavior. Sondra, the San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff, is the one outsider, a professional investigating the brutal murders — but she is not the primary focus to drive the mystery. She has challenges and flaws of her own and it’s her perspective that serves to escalate enlighten the story.

MPS: While the book has a unique voice and take its roots are hard planted in the traditional whodunit. Did you draw from any influences?

JS: I’d met author Michael Nethercott at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in Albany just as his first novel The Seance Society came out. It paid homage to Agatha Christie, but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. I don’t necessarily read cozies. I write dark suspense and noir, but I liked the book so much I bought copies and gifted it to friends and family. I’d been thinking about starting a whodunit but it was this book that inspired me to take a crack. Bottom Feeders started out as an exercise, then the characters took on a life of their own.   

MPS: Which character is the closest to you or someone you worked with?

JS:. Every character is derived from people I’ve worked with, and not necessarily on the films I wrote and directed but also the projects I was hired on as a crew member. Director Eddie’s perspective is probably the closest to mine as he tries to navigate the treacherous waters, and not go down with the ship. There’s a lot of things to worry about, believe me. Many who work in film and TV are very passionate about what they do. I have great respect for them. We’re all a little crazy, sure, and most of us will admit it. I dedicated this book to them.

I dedicate this novel to the legions of hard-working craftspeople and performers who have carried sandbags, set lights, cobbled together wardrobe, swung microphones, memorized dialogue, painted sets, dusted faces, pulled focus, teased hair, coordinated chaos, hit their marks, and built it all up only to tear it down again—making something out of nothing. To the dreamers and the schemers in the low-budget trenches, this is for you.

MPS: Did writing about a subject you knew so well actually present any challenges?

JS: If anything I wanted to include more of the details baked into low-budget filmmaking but they don’t necessarily advance the story. Once the action kicked in I couldn’t slow the pace to explore nuance. The technology has changed, but the fundamentals of motion picture production has remained the same–cut to the chase.      

MPS: How many times have you wanted to commit murder on set?

JS:. I’ve never had urge to kill cast or crew because they’re like family. There are a few executives and producers I’d considered taking a swing at back in the day. Ultimately nature took its course. In the span of my career three executive producers have been incarcerated for securities fraud including Jordan Belfort, the actual “Wolf of Wall Street” depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Another producer was jailed in a surrogacy/medical-tourism scheme. The world of independent film is ripe with personalities. There are hidden agendas. Get movie professionals together and horror stories will be swapped. We’re all just crazy enough to jump back into the flame.

Interview with Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has written another great thriller, this one called The Escape Artist. It is about Nola Brown, an army sergeant, who is presumed dead as the book begins in a strange airplane crash that begins the book. But while the government has confirmed her death a mortician, Zig, who knows Nola and feels an obligation to help her figures out that she is alive and on the run,  

The Escape Artist Cover ImageMeltzer has a varied career, not just writing thrillers but also writing books about heroes (Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter, I Am Amelia Earhart and I Am Abraham Lincoln) and writing comic books (including Justice League of America), for which he won the Eisner Award.

Brad agreed to do another email interview about his new book.

Scott Butki: How did this story come together?

Brad Meltzer:  Zig is named to honor a real Zig, but he’s an amalgam of all the amazing morticians I met at Dover. These are men and women who rebuild hands (rather than giving a fake prosthesis), so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time…or who spend fourteen straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime. Heart. Heart. Heart.

Image result for brad meltzer

SB: Can you speak to what you say in the preface about how this book was partly inspired by a USO trip?

BM: Years ago, I went to the Middle East with the USO, then a few months back, I took another trip to entertain our troops. Dover Air Force Base is a place I never thought the government would let me into. The Dover scenes in the book are all based in reality: Dover is home of the mortuary for the US government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of well over fifty thousand soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.

In their building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries…and surprises…and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.  Plus, in today’s world, we need real heroes. The people here are the real deal. I knew I found my hero.

SB: I’ve heard the last chapter you wrote for The Escape Artist was actually the first chapter. That sounds counterintuitive. Can you explain?

BM: By the time I reach the end of a book, I always have a new view of the beginning. And as I looped around, I saw that opening scene so clearly. It needed the extra punch in the beginning.

SB: Can you tell us about the protagaonist, Nola Brown, and why she is your favorite protagonist? Do you agree with praise that says she could go toe-to-toe with Bob Lee Swagger, Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and others? This is the first of a new series, right?

BM: I appreciate those compliments, but they’re not fair to Jack Reacher, Lisbeth Salander and the others. To me, Nola is Nola. She was born on a specific trip. We were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History and were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: The Artist in Residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person—an actual artist—who they send out in the field to…paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen. It’s one of the greatest traditions in our military—they call them war artists. They go, they see, and paint, and catalog victories and mistakes, from the dead on D-Day, to the injured at Mogadishu, to the sandbag pilers who were at Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the Artist in Residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter. From there, Nola came to life in my head. Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there. And yes, she’s coming back

SB: What does it mean to you to reach the 20 year mark as a published author?

BM: It means I’m old. And it means I can do one of two things: 1) assume I’m amazing at this and keep doing it…or 2) take a hard look at all I’ve done and try to get better. For this book, that’s what I aimed for: I looked back at which books of mine I liked best. The answers all had one thing in common: amazing characters. So I wouldn’t start this book until I had Nola.

SB: You’ve now done all kinds of different ventures from your thrillers to books about adult heroes for boys and girls do you work on television. How do you keep it all straight and which of those is your favorite to do?

BM: I love them all. The kids books are my soul in book form. But the thrillers are the house I build with my own hands. There’s nothing like building an entire world from scratch.

SB: The quote before the book starts is: “1898, Jon Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Harry Houdini, was put in charge of the United States Secret Service. Wilkie was a fan of Houdini and did his own tricks himself.  It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.” Can you explain the meaning and/or foreshadowing of that quote?

BM: Let me just say it: I loved that detail. It just haunted me for years. And I also loved when I found out where Harry Houdini donated all his magic books after he died. You’ll see in The Escape Artist. I didn’t make that up.

SB: You did a tremendous amount of research about the Dover Air Force Base. What do you want readers to learn and understand about the place?

BM: It’s so easy to see deaths as just numbers in a war. But it never is. When you’re done with The Escape Artist, you’ll never look at a soldier – or a war — the same way again.

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

BM: For twenty years now, all I’ve been doing is telling my own story. Over time, I’ve realized that: 1) my life takes on new hardships and 2) I’m more honest with myself and my readers. So yes, Nola and Zig—and the broken parts of their souls—are a reflection of my own worst moments and fears. Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy.

SB: What are you working on next?

BM: We do have the I am Gandhi graphic novel in May. My new Superman story with artist John Cassaday also comes out in May for Action Comics #1000. Then I am Neil Armstrong comes out in September. And as for the new thriller, I can’t shake Zig and Nola. They talk to me every day. So yes, you’ll see them again soon.

Scott has interviewed about 25 authors a year for more than 10 years. You can see an index of the interviews here.