WHAT THEY YEARNED FOR WHAT THEY FEARED: MEIKE ALANA INTERVIEWS LAURA LIPPMAN

Laura Lippman is a MysteryPeople favorite, particularly of our Meike Alana. She interviewed the much lauded author about her latest, Lady In The Lake, a period newspaper thriller that deals with class, race, and gender issues in sixties Baltimore.

The central character in Lady in the Lake is Maddie Morgenstern Schwartz, a privileged Jewish housewife who leaves her husband to pursue her dream of being a newspaper reporter. The book is set in 1966 and Maddie encounters a number of barriers to her ambition. Can you talk a little bit about her struggles and how those may have been informed by your own experiences as a reporter?

Lady in the Lake: A Novel Cover ImageThey were more informed by my experience as a woman, if that makes sense. I think of myself as a second wave-second wave feminist—there were a lot of women in front of me, who did the heavy lifting. This was true in newsrooms and PI fiction. Maddie is about the same age as my mother and—I’ve literally never made this connection before—my mother went back to school in the late 1960s, early ’70s, got a master’s in library science and became a school librarian. That was a “safe” way for a woman to enter the work world. She didn’t have to leave her family, her hours were very family-friendly. But, as it happens, my mother loved to browse at The Store, LTD (a location in the book) and she had dresses made from Marimekko fabrics.

Maddie pursues her ambition, and at times she has little regard for how her methods may affect others. Women are often disparaged for being too ambitious, and we’re taught that we need to put others’ needs and considerations before our own. You make no judgment about Maddie’s actions, but I wonder if you can share your views on how this dilemma can play out for women.

I’ve never heard a woman described as ambitious in a positive way. Even with men, we sometimes struggle with the idea that ambition is positive, but, boy, do we hate it in women. I own the fact that I’m ambitious, competitive, driven. Once a man on a train asked me if the file I had open on my laptop was the Great American Novel and I said, “It just might be.”

But, you know, there’s that famous Joan Didion edict, the one that Janet Malcolm somewhat misrepresented, about how a reporter is always selling someone out. It’s true and it’s not true. People who write obituaries are doing a public service. I’m not joking—if I had stayed in newspapers, that’s the job I’d have now. I loved writing obituaries. It combined everything I loved—reporting and writing on deadline, writing about people who weren’t necessarily famous—but it often made people happy.

I’m really big on women giving up self-deprecation and doing what I call “Sing out, Louise.” Because you know what? No one else is going to do it for you.

The title refers to the body of an African American woman that was recovered from the fountain of a park lake in Baltimore, and Maddie sets out to make a name for herself by investigating the case. What was the inspiration for this story?

So in 1969, a young girl was murdered and the newspapers were all over that story and I never forgot it. But the same year, an African-America woman was found dead in the fountain at Druid Hill Park and I never even heard of the case until I went to work at the Evening Sun in 1989. It was the juxtaposition that fascinated me, the girl whose disappearance and death was Page One news, the woman whose disappearance was ignored by the daily papers, whose death was presented almost as a curiosity. (It wasn’t even ruled a homicide.) By the way—I don’t think things have changed that much, 50 years later.

There are a number of African American characters throughout the book, and you explore a variety of ways racism can play out. Can you elaborate on where you derived your inspiration for these characters and their situations?

I grew up in Baltimore, live here now. It’s a majority black city, yet one that remains extremely segregated. Racism is a big part of the history—and present—of Baltimore. Not all my books center on race, but it’s hard to write honestly about Baltimore and not write about race unless you keep it to a very narrow world.

The structure of this book is just brilliant. You tell the story from alternating viewpoints of different characters—some are the central characters, others are “bit players” who appear only briefly. For me the pacing was lightning quick with extraordinary detail. What unique challenges did that present?

Those chapters came about because I wanted to showcase all the stories that Maddie was missing while looking for THE story. I very much belonged to the school of journalism that you should be able to find a story in almost anyone’s life. Rob Hiaasen, to whom this book is dedicated, was also one of those reporters. There’s a line that I’m not sure remained in the book, but it was the first impression that Donald Weinstein had of Maddie, when they meet in a bar. He thinks she’s like a greyhound and that’s Maddie—practically quivering, ready to chase that mechanical rabbit around the track. She missed so many stories along the way! And at the end of the book, when we have that little glimpse of her in the future, she knows that about herself.

Oh, but you asked about unique challenges. Well, it was finding the voice, but not falling back on lazy, old-fashioned tricks like dialect. And, I think, finding the dignity in each character, recognizing what they yearned for, what they feared.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?

I write in the mornings, I try to get 1,000 words done minimum. I’m a pantser, but I usually know the big secret.

Last summer you gave us Sunburn, which made our top 10 list of books for 2018. This summer we have Lady in the Lake which will no doubt make our list of favorites again. Can we expect another great summer read in 2020?

Possibly, but the nature/genre of that read might surprise you. There’s a novel under way, about as different from Sunburn and Lady as possible. But there are some other things cooking.

REVIEW: PAPER SON BY S.J. ROZAN

The return of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith is great news to many private eye fans. Lydia, a first generation Chinese American, and Bill, a former Navy man, operate out of New York, trading off points of view with each book. The unique pairing allows them to travel through many of the sub genres and crime and detective fiction. Now after close to a decade long hiatus, the two are back in Paper Son, a novel that drops them in a different environment.

Paper Son: A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel Cover ImageLydia’s mother, who has never been proud of her profession, shocks her by telling her she needs to help a family member Jefferson Tam, arrested for killing his father. She’s even more surprised when she learns she has relatives in Mississippi. Her mother insists she take “the white baboon”, so Bill tags along.

They are met by Lydia’s uncle, Captain Pete, a professional gambler who definitely looks like a relative of Lydia’s, but who could out southern Strother Martin. Pete acts as a guide through the territory and Mississippi Chinese culture. When he takes them to the grocery store Jefferson runs with his father, they find it ransacked. Soon they get word Jefferson has broken out of jail.

The book is an exquisite work of craftsmanship dealing out two different kinds of information. A seasoned pro in the genre like Rozan can lay down the clues, misdirections , and piece meal dirt with an organic ease moving the plot forward at an ever accelerating pace. Here she gives us a southern potboiler involving on line gambling, meth dealers, race, and politics. She also unearths a little known part of Chinese American life in the delta and their place in the state’s economics and racial tensions, facts that become as intriguing as the fiction they are presented in. She skillfully dovetails both in a climax involving where the story gets it’s title.

Paper Son provides a wonderful return for Bill and Lydia, ranking as one of the best in the series. The banter between the two of them is like comfort food with a Chinese barbecue rub provided by Captain Pete’s interjections. It also serves the function that a great mystery can take you into another culture. Welcome back, you two.

12 BEST OF THE YEAR… SO FAR

2019 is proving to be a great year for crime fiction. Authors are stretching themselves in creative ways. Nobody’s timid. I’ve already read three books over five hundred pages. There was also great work in a range of subgenres. I couldn’t just pick the usual ten in what I see as the standouts from January to June .

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself Cover Image1. A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself by William Boyle

One of the freshest pieces of crime fiction to come around for a while. Also one of the funniest, with a mob widow and an ex-porn star on the road to Florida in a stolen classic Impala with a bunch of mob cash and several unsavory men on their trail. Every character is fully drawn out, and the relationship between these two ladies who find each other is complex and nuanced.

 

Metropolis (A Bernie Gunther Novel #14) Cover Image2. Metropolis by Philip Kerr

A beautiful swan song for the late Kerr and his character Bernie Gunther. Ironically, he delivers a fitting ending by taking him back to his beginning on his first homicide as a KRIPO detective, hunting a killer of prostitutes and homeless vets. It puts him in touch with many of Berlin’s artists of the time and provides heartbreaking foreshadowing of things to come.

 

Conviction Cover Image3. Conviction by Denise Mina

Mina delivers a suspenseful and often humorous thriller with wonderful touches of humanity in a tale of a dumped trophy wife with a secret past and a male anorexic former pop star out to solve an old murder through podcast. A great example of an author delivering a more accessible novel without compromise.

 

 

The Border: A Novel (Power of the Dog #3) Cover Image4. The Border by Don Winslow

Winslow puts an end to his Drug Wars epic with one big literary exclamation point. Populated by characters who live in a world where the choices are between bad or worse, no matter what side of the law you operate, this book serves as a great argument for legalization.

 

 

Trigger (Frank Marr #3) Cover Image5. Trigger by David Swinson

Swinson wraps up his trilogy with drug addict PI Frank Marr, with Frank trying to clear his former police partner of a bad shooting. Full of human and thematic ambiguity that defines a great detective novel. Here’s hoping Frank Marr can pick up another case now and then.

 

 

This Storm: A novel Cover Image6. This Storm by James Ellroy

The second installment of Ellroy’s World War Two L.A. quartet explores the allure of fascism as it continues to follow the investigations, crimes, and sins of his LAPD members and the women drawn to them. A huge, big picture kind of book that gives a wild ride through a Hollywood Hell.

 

End of the Ocean Cover Image7. End Of The Ocean by Matthew McBride

Elmore Leonard meets Graham Greene in this tale of an American licking his divorce wounds in Bali, who becomes involved in smuggling to be with the island woman he fell in love with. Use of finely drawn players, an intriguing setting, humorous dialogue, and harrowing suspense create a character driven thriller that probes the idea of love.

 

The Book Artist (Hugo Marston #8) Cover Image8. The Book Artist by Mark Pryor

Pryor’s latest Hugo Marston novel, has the head of our Paris embassy’s security trying to clear girlfriend Claudia of murder and teaming up with buddy Tom Green to put an end to a ghost from their past. A well crafted, cleanly written mystery and thriller that also looks into the complications of relationships.

 

 

A Risky Undertaking for Loretta Singletary: A Samuel Craddock Mystery (Samuel Craddock Mysteries) Cover Image9. A Risky Undertaking For Loretta Singletary by Terry Shame

Police Chief Samuel Craddock tries to find his missing pal Loretta, taking him into the world of computer dating. Shames’s knowledge of small town life and her characters help create a believable, suspenseful, and at times humorous mystery.

 

 

Night Watch Cover Image10. Night Watch by David C. Taylor

Fifties New York cop Michael Cassidy returns, catching a homicide that leads to the CIA, former Nazis, and a tenacious assassin. Once again, Taylor brings time and place to vibrant life.

 

 

 

Murder Once Removed (Ancestry Detective #1) Cover Image11. Murder Once Removed by S.C. Perkins

An Austin genealogist gets involved in politics and murder when she discovers the ancestor of a senate candidate possibly murdered the relative of his opponent in the past. The beginning of a light mystery series that shows richness, humor, and promise.

 

 

The Elephant of Surprise (Hap and Leonard) Cover Image12. Elephant Of Surprise by Joe Lansdale

In this stripped down and relentless Hap and Leonard yarn, the boys try to protect a young albino Chinese American woman from an ever growing number of killers during one of the biggest storms in East Texas. The actions and banter are non stop as Joe gives us pure pulp pleasure.

INTERVIEW WITH J. TODD SCOTT

J Todd Scott’s latest novel, This Side Of Night, has his returning protagonist Sheriff Chris Cherry dealing with the politics of his first election and a possible cartel war spilling over the border. Teaming up with DEA agent Joe Garrison and backed up by his deputies like America, takes on bad men from every side. Mr. Scott will be at BookPeople July 18th to discuss This Side Of Night, but took some questions in advance from us.

This Side of Night Cover ImageI felt Chris Cherry has grown some since The Far Empty.

I’d say he’s definitely “growing into” the badge he wears. And, frankly, he’s a little more world weary by now. He never wanted to wear a badge and struggles with both the authority and the responsibility, neither of which he takes for granted. In each of the three books, I’ve given Chris a mentor, an older cop he can learn the job from, both the good and the bad. In The Far Empty it was Stanford Ross. In High White Sun, it was Ben Harper. Now, in This Side of Night, it’s Joe Garrison. These are men whose lessons and philosophies Chris can emulate or reject, so maybe what we’re really seeing is Chris grow into his own.

It’s interesting you and Don Winslow both used the same true life massacre of a busload of protestors in Mexico as the inciting incident for your books this year. What did you want to explore with that crime?

We’re both writing about Mexican cartels and the border, covering some of the same terrain (literally and figuratively), so it’s no surprise we were both drawn to that tragic event.  For someone like me, who’s worked on the border for nearly half of my DEA career and, until the Ayotzinapa massacre, truly believed I had seen it all, I discovered I can still be horrified by cartel violence. Nothing I could ever write could ever explain what happened, or honestly, add much new to the conversation, but I hoped by including it in This Side of Night, I could—in some small way—draw attention to those still lost and the families who still grieve for them.

America has become one of my favorite characters in the series. As a writer, what do you enjoy about her?

I’ve said it in other contexts, but America has always been the “center of gravity” of the books, and when we optioned them and began the long (and still ongoing) process of bringing them to the screen, every discussion at every studio has involved America’s prominent role as a “co-lead” with Chris Cherry. Also, as the father of three girls, I wanted to portray a strong female character who has her own agency, and I hope I’ve done that with America. She’s tough and determined and easy to root for, but she’s far from infallible, and that’s the best sort of character to write.

As a DEA agent who works with local law and other agencies, what do you want to convey to readers about those in law enforcement?

It’s tough because I don’t want my career to serve as a broad-brush generalization of law enforcement or those who carry a badge and gun. My only experience is twenty-five years as a federal agent, both overseas and domestic, with about half of that on the Southwest border. I’ve never been a homicide detective or state trooper or a patrol officer; never had to notify or interview the next of kin in a murder investigation or answer a domestic violence call. However, I’ve known many, many, others who have done all those things and more, and all of us in law enforcement share a certain bond through our unique calling. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best criminal investigators in the world, and by and large, all of them have been a credit to the badge they wear—unfortunately, those aren’t the ones I tend to write about!

As grim as things get, I noticed more humor in this book, than the previous two. What do you think allowed for that?

I’d like to think I’m far funnier in person than ever comes across on the page, but I don’t know that I tried to “lighten up” in this third book! I do think this story had a few more characters who lent themselves to that. Cops and agents—and criminals—often have a gallows humor, and since this book more than any of the others really deals with “cops and criminals,” it’s no surprise that more of that sharp-edged humor found its way to the page.

Have you discovered anything that both your profession as a writer and your one in law enforcement share?

Patience. Drug cases aren’t made overnight and neither are writing careers. That being said, there’s also a fair amount of creativity involved in catching people who desperately don’t want to be caught, and before I started writing again, catching bad guys was my only creative outlet. However, it’s a helluva lot safer writing about cartels and criminals than facing that out on the street.

Interview With Alison Gaylin, Author of Never Look Back

Never Look Back: A Novel Cover ImageAlison Gaylin’s latest thriller to deal with family, media, and murder, Never Look Back, centers on the the crime spree by two young people dubbed thrill killers in the seventies, Gabriel LeRoy and April cooper, and the effects of their crimes on the present. Quentin Garrison, whose aunt was murdered by them, is doing a podcast about the two. His research leads to the possibility that April may still be alive under a different name. His investigating leads him to Robin Diamond, April’s possible daughter. Not soon after he gives Robin the news, someone breaks in and attacks her parents, leading to an unraveling of dark secrets. Alison is a good friend and I’ll be interviewing her at BookPeople July 15th. She was kind enough to take some early questions from me though.

The story of Never Look Back is a mix of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Branch Dividian, pop and podcast culture. How did it come about? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the Starkweather murders, mainly because it seems to me that Caril Ann Fugate was so clearly a kidnapping victim, yet she was tried and convicted—at barely 15—as an accessory to murder. I wanted to explore this type of destructive, consuming relationship, though I couldn’t make April the way I perceive Caril to have been—a true victim in every sense. I wanted to create somebody who was a bit more of a survivor, someone a little more empowered by the hate she feels for the man who abducts her, someone who changes drastically with each murder. There’s definitely a Branch Dividian element to the Gideons too—that’s a great observation on your part. I think with all of these other elements in the book, it’s just the case of me writing about things that I’m obsessed with. As you know, I’ve always been obsessed with pop culture, and I really, really love so many of these true crime podcasts—particularly the very personal way in which so many of the stories are told.

What spurred the devise of April’s story by her writing the journal for her future child?

I had initially thought about making those entries diary entries, but one of April’s most telling qualities is that she sees herself as motherly and longs to be a mother. She has these protective, maternal feelings for her little sister, and I feel like the person she would find it easiest to talk to wouldn’t be herself (as in a journal/diary.) It would be her future child. I think she sees her future child as her ultimate confidante. I also liked starting it off as a school assignment. It intrigued me, the idea of this young girl trying to focus on a school assignment as her entire life has been pulled out from under her.

This is the third book in a row where examining the media is part of the book. What about that subject draws you to it?

I have my masters in journalism and have been a magazine writer for years. So, in a way, for me getting into the head of a journalist is “writing what you know.” I also have long been fascinated by the way things like magazines, TV news, social media and more recently podcasts relay “facts”—how these media are often the most subjective and unreliable of narrators.

You have an odd structure that works where one protagonist sort of hands the story off to another. How did you deal with that challenge?

I realized that the story is equal parts Quentin’s, Robin’s and April’s. (with a few others thrown in for reasons that are spoilers.) I like choosing the point of view of a character who has the most at stake, and in this story, it’s definitely these three. I initially began telling the story from Robin’s point of view, and then went back in time a little bit when I switched over to Quentin. But then I realized that the story is already so complicated, it made a lot more sense to give it a simpler, more linear structure. That meant starting off from Quentin’s point of view.

I was happy to see Brenna Spector pop in a cameo. Ever plan to use her again in the future?

I’m glad you liked seeing Brenna! I was happy to be able to include her and Nick Morasco, and I definitely will continue to do that when my setting allows. I keep thinking I want to pick up on Brenna’s story, but these standalone ideas keep coming to me!

What other authors would you recommend to fans of your work?

There are so many great psychological suspense authors out there that everyone knows about, but as far as someone who might like me wanting to find someone new, I just started reading a new book called No Bad Deed by Heather Chavez—I think it comes out early next year. I am really finding it very suspenseful and love the family relationships she explores.

Scott Butki interview with Andrew Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: What are you working on next?

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

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

Andrew: Who are your literary parents?

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

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH JOHN GALLIGAN

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

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

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

Galligan let me interview him via email.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott: How has teaching affected your writing?

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

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

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