“…Pulled through the mud on a short rope.” — An Interview with James Wade, author of ‘All Things Left Wild’

Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott M., sat down with author James Wade ahead of Wade’s virtual event with BookPeople on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT. The two discuss the novel’s main themes and talk a bit about the narrative choices made. It’s a novel at the top of MysteryPeople’s favorites of June 2020.
Read the interview below.

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All Things Left Wild (2020)

James Wade sets his take on the vengeance tale, All Things Left Wild, in a place and people caught between the fault lines of two periods. In 1910 Texas, Caleb Bently is on the run toward Mexico after his older brother, Shelby, kills the son of Randall Dawson when they attempt to rustle horses from the man’s ranch. Goded by his wife, Dawson, more poet and scholar than gunman and cowboy, pursues them with the help of a ranch hand, Tadpole, and Charlotte, a Black woman who knows her way around a pistol. As the two parties close in, they travel across borders of land, identity, and societal norms.

Mr. Wade was kind enough to talk about his world and the people and ideas he populated it with.

Scott Montgomery: How did you choose the particular time period for All Things Left Wild?

James Wade: I liked 1910 for the book because it’s a great example of the disconnect between the “civilized” America we think of by that point in history and the American West, which stayed wild for much longer than the rest of the country. That was due in part to the geographic challenges and lack of transportation infrastructure, but there were also murky legal standards because much of the Southwest was still divided into territories rather than states. This is also the year when political tensions in Mexico boiled over into the first battles of the Mexican Revolution.
So it was a tumultuous time, but something I hoped to show is how even during historical turning points, individuals are still struggling with very personal, very human issues. We tend to think of people in the past only as they relate to whatever event or movement was taking place at that time. In reality, most people were also dealing with the same issues we face: family, finances, finding a purpose, etc. But those things obviously don’t take up the same historical real estate, so they aren’t focused on as much.
SM: Like Blood Meridian, this book uses a historical period to create an other worldly feel. How did you use research of the time to build your fictional world?
JW: Researching this time period was fascinating. The country was only one generation removed from the Civil War, and yet it was also at the beginning of what would be the most remarkable century of progress in human history. We were essentially trying to find our footing as a nation, while also seeing the world around us modernize at an unprecedented pace. This sort of disruptive technology, disruptive forward momentum, is something we’ve dealt with ever since. And in the Southwest, you had a remarkably large, unregulated swath of land and resources. This became a breeding ground for corruption. And, as a result, we begin to see the gap between rich and poor growing rapidly during this time– much like it has in recent years. From the post-Civil War 1870s through the Great Depression, the country saw a massive income inequality, which led to economic anxieties, which ultimately led to more crime. I tried to create a world where economic tension was always present in the background. For example, almost every supporting character we encounter is poor. And if they are rich or have power, they are most likely corrupt.  
SM: Did splitting the point of view between Caleb and Randall provide any challenges?
JW: I actually believe the split narrative made it a little easier to tell the story, and certainly made it easier to create some of the moral ambiguity I was hoping for. I wanted readers to get to know both characters, and see the flaws and redemptive qualities of both of these men, then have to decide who was right and who was wrong– or decide if it was more complicated than that. The decision to have Caleb tell his story in first-person, and Randall’s story be told in third-person, was based on the evolution of the characters. Caleb, despite his youth, pretty much knows who he is, and pretty much understands the way of the world. So he is competent enough to tell his side of things. Randall goes through a confusing transformation, which makes it more appropriate for someone else to describe, as Randall himself may not quite understand what’s happening to him until much later.
SM: Male identity plays a big part of the novel. What did you want to explore with that theme?
JW: Another great question, and a theme that no one else has asked about yet. I definitely wanted male identity, particularly conventional masculinity, to be pulled through the mud on a short rope. Almost all of the women in the novel come off as more rational, mentally tougher, and more patient, than the men. That wasn’t on accident. One of the real tragedies, in my opinion, is the shift we see that takes place in Randall. He starts out as a kind, sensitive man, but the circumstances and the world essentially turn him into a much different person by the story’s end. The tragic arc of Tad’s character is driven by his need be a conventional, masculine hero. With Shelby, he sees fear as a type of power to hold over others– another masculine trope. Even Randall’s wife plays a role in the perpetuation of toxic masculinity by chiding Randall for not being “manly” enough, which Charlotte later debunks as foolishness. Basically, the pitfalls of male identity are all over the book, and I hope folks take notice.
SM: One of your stand out characters is Charlotte. How did you construct her?
JW: There’s a strength to almost all the women in the novel, but certainly Charlotte is the bellwether of that strength. Her character was built by asking myself: who is the complete opposite of Randall in terms of wealth, privilege, and survival skills? Charlotte– a poor, black female, gunslinger– fit the bill. But once I wrote her first scene, I started to expand on her past and her experiences, and I think it really opened her up more and better informed her eventual relationship to Randall and Tad. Her ability to be a badass, but also maintain a softness for the world, is something that sets her apart from most of the other characters.
SM: Much of the violence is described very swiftly and often happens off page. What prompted this approach?
JW: I went back and forth on this, particularly the shootout between the Lobos and the Rangers, but decided to have some violent portions of the story take place off page for a couple of reasons. One, there is still a good deal of violence that is described, and I didn’t want to lessen the impact or significance of those scenes by having the reader become numb to it. And two, the majority of violence in the world is not some Hollywood, dramatized event. Rather, it’s quick and shocking and then it’s over and we’re left to pick up the pieces. One of the less visible themes of the novel is how we all believe our stories are the only stories or the most important stories, but to everyone else, it’s just another story. One of the few times– maybe the only time– I put my foot down during the editing process was insisting we keep the scene where two nameless Rangers are having a conversation in the aftermath of the big shootout. For readers, something huge has just happened, but for the Rangers– who are much further removed from the story– it’s a pretty casual day at the office. Playing with the notion of what the reader gets to “see” and what they don’t, is another way of driving home the point that the world doesn’t bend itself to our narratives.
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All Things Left Wild author, James Wade

All Things Left Wild is available for purchase from BookPeople today. And don’t forget to register for our free virtual event with James Wade on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT.

NOTE: Because this is a virtual event that will be hosted on Zoom, you will need access to a computer or other device that is capable of accessing and sufficient Internet access. If you have not used Zoom before, you may consider referencing Getting Started with Zoom.

An Interview with Jon Bassoff, author of ‘The Lantern Man’

cover-bassoff-lantern-man-300x450pxJon Basoff’s latest, The Lantern Man, is a mix of different media, created news clippings, repots, and diary, as well as prose that tell a gothic psycho noir story of a family whose three children suffer much dark fate. Jon will be attending our Crime Writing Outside The Lines panel discussion with Scott Phillips and Jason Pinter. He was kind enough to take a few questions from us about this different sort of book.


Scott Montgomery: The Lantern Man is a very unique story, especially in its telling. How did it come about?

Jon Bassoff: I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with the narrative techniques of novels, maybe more so than plot or character or anything else. I don’t have anything against conventional narratives, but I get excited when I read works by Nabokov or Danielewski or anybody who pushes the envelope of what a narrative can be. With The Lantern Man, I knew the basic story I wanted to tell, knew that I wanted it to take place in Leadville, Colorado, but it took me a while to figure out how I could effectively use a multitude of point-of-views in a relatively fresh way. I decided to use footnotes and journals and artifacts. Basically, you’ve got the main narrative, which is a journal written by a girl shortly before a rather awful death, but you’ve also got the detective’s investigation, told through the footnotes and artifacts. It’s up to the reader to put all the pieces together, namely, to determine how much of the journal can be believed and how much of the investigation the detective is getting right.

SM: What was the biggest challenge in writing it?

JB: Keeping all the pieces of the puzzle straight. Different characters know different things at different times. Different characters have different motives for being dishonest (or honest). And, as with every novel, a huge challenge was determining how much to reveal to the reader at various points in the narrative. That balance is tricky. I hope I did it right.

SM: One of the themes of the book is about storytelling. What did you want to explore about telling tales?

JB: One of my favorite lines in the novel is this one: “We all need a narrative. Something to get us through the day.” From the time we’re old enough to understand language, we’re told stories. Hell, religions, entire civilizations are based around them. In a lot of ways, The Lantern Man explores the power of stories, not just how they can be used to comfort, but also to frighten and manipulate. The characters are manipulated by the stories. And so, I think, are the readers.

SM: How did Leadville get chosen as the backdrop?

JB: For the better part of the past decade, I’ve gone up to Leadville every summer to write. It’s an anomaly in Colorado—a living, breathing mountain town without skiing or gambling. It’s got an amazing mining history and plenty of secrets buried beneath the dirt. I always knew I needed to write a story that took place there. And when I stumbled upon this old abandoned railroad tunnel, called Hagerman Tunnel, I knew where I wanted the heart of my story to take place.

SM: Is The Lantern Man based on any urban legend?

J.B. : Well, there are mythical creatures referred to as lantern men, and I expanded on that myth to make it my own. More generally speaking, my particular lantern man is based on the boogie man, which has a place in most societies, and in most children’s imaginations. But it comes back to storytelling. That’s what the boogie man is. A story. An archetype. And in my story, he represents the evil that we all possess, depending on the right circumstances.

SM: You live in Colorado where there seems to be a concentration of dark and offbeat crime authors. What’s in the water?

JB: It’s true! We’ve got a lot of strange ones here. Ben Whitmer and Steven Graham Jones to name a couple of the stranger ones. I don’t know if it’s the water. Maybe the high altitude? Messes with our cognitive functioning? But, yeah, I’m glad to have discovered the crime fiction/horror community in Colorado.


The Lantern Man is available for purchase in-store and online today through BookPeople. And be sure to catch Jon Bassoff alongside Jason Pinter and Scott Phillips for MysteryPeople’s Crime Writing Outside the Lines discussion of crime fiction on March 16th at 7PM!

Interview With Glen Erik Hamilton

Mercy River, Glen Erik Hamilton’s third outing with ex-Army Ranger and ex (for the most part) thief Van Shaw, plays to his military background. When an army pal is charged for murder, a group of criminally bent rangers hold the evidence to clear him and will give it to Van if he helps them locate contraband that was taken from them. The book is topical with a moody, hard boiled attitude. Glen was kind enough to talk to us about it.

Mercy River: A Van Shaw Novel Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: With the previous books, you’ve mainly looked at Van’s criminal past, what did you want to explore about his time in the military?

Glen Erik Hamilton: In Mercy River, Van is among hundreds of his fellow Special Ops veterans, and that offers a chance to show both how Van is similar to his brothers in arms – most notably in his unwavering dedication to protect people for whom he cares – and also how he’s not your average Ranger, if there is such a thing.  That intense military training forged something unique out of the raw ore of Van’s very unusual upbringing.

Specifically, readers get a view into some of Van’s earliest experiences in the Army – the uncompromising selection process for the 75th Ranger Regiment and the leadership program of Ranger School.  These trials formed the foundation for his adult self, stepping away from the criminal perspective of his youth. They also established lifelong friendships, something that the solitary Van needed more than he knew.

MPS: You also took him out of his Seattle stomping ground and put him in a small town. Did that present any challenges?

GEH: Challenges and opportunities. Unlike Van’s established haunts, I had to create the Oregon town of Mercy River and its surrounding Griffon County from scratch.  Which of course means I stole aspects liberally from real places. I visited mall towns (and ghost towns) and dramatic landscapes in sparsely populated counties like Wheeler and Wasco. People might have an image already in their mind when you say Seattle or Portland, but for more remote parts of Oregon, a writer needs to paint the picture of these beautiful and somewhat dangerous environs and provide some insight into a town struggling to survive.

The opportunities, of course, come from playing God as a fiction writer.  Take a gigantic rock formation here, an abandoned mine from there, unique features of the local towns, and mix and match. I get to place Van’s adventures in the most striking locations imaginable. I also get to invent the history, politics, and law enforcement of the community of Mercy River, all of which play into the mystery Van must solve to save his friend.

As someone who has now lives away from your native Northwest, does it give you a different perspective when writing about it?

Absolutely – moving away from Seattle is what originally inspired me to write about it. The city has changed so dramatically in the past decade, it’s hard to encompass all of its transformations. For example, the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a chasm, and large swaths of the city have been razed and rebuilt, for good or ill. I have to – slash – get to visit Seattle frequently just to try and keep a pulse on current events and the challenges facing the Puget Sound area.

MPS: The book deals with both white supremacists and opioids, two things that have been in the news a lot. Is there a responsibility an author has when dealing with current topics?

GEH: First and foremost, a thriller has to entertain.  But when my books involve subjects such as post-traumatic stress, or the opioid crisis, or the encroaching white nationalist movement, then I aim to use those story points as real matters in Van’s world and not just buzzwords.  Van’s fictional fight is grounded in our battles to conquer those very real horrors. And if I’m very fortunate, his endurance might offer readers hope for our own victory.

MPS: You have some excellent action and heist sequences in the book. What do you keep in mind when writing those parts?

GEH: Thank you! First and foremost, any action scene has to be very clear to the reader.* That means understanding the geography of location and characters, the immediate danger, and the intent the protagonist has at any given moment.  There are some rules of thumb: The faster the action, the slower the pace of the writing, and the shorter the sentences. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the writing will feel faster to readers, and action scenes are all about gut feelings.  If my pulse quickens when I’m re-reading a draft – and bear in mind I already know what’s going to happen because I wrote the darn thing – then I’m on the right track.

*The exception to the “clarity” rule is when the protagonist’s head is addled due to getting hit or getting doped.  That can be exciting too, as the hero or heroine scrambles to figure out what the heck is happening.

MPS: As a writer, what makes Van Shaw a character coming back to?

GEH: Van has experienced at least one full lifetime’s worth of drama and action, but he’s still a young man.  While he might never admit it to himself, a part of him did not expect to survive this long. Instinctively, Van approached his time in Special Operations with the mindset of a samurai, being prepared to die any day.  Now that he’s out in the world he’s having to learn skills that aren’t just tactical in nature. For example, forming lasting relationships and being part of a family. He also has to wrestle with his purpose in life, given that what he’s really good at – crime, violence, and ticking off dangerous people – often clash with the moral center he’s trying very hard to hang onto.  That’s a lot of fun for me to write. I learn new things about Van with every book, and hope readers enjoy his growth as much as I do.

INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM BOYLE

I’ll be very surprised if William Boyle’s A Friend Is A Gift You Give Yourself is not on my Top 10 at the end of the year. This humorous and at times harrowing look at a mob widow and retired porn star who connect over a stolen Impala, a bag full of mob cash, and some very bad men is one of the most unique and entertaining crime novels in some time. Boyle steadily building his reputation and in a perfect world, this would put him over the top. Bill was kind enough to take some questions bout it.

A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Rena and Wolfstein are such unique characters. How did they come into mind for the book?

William Boyle: A Friend Is a Gift You Give Yourself started for me when my neighbor in Brooklyn told my mother and me a story about being invited over to our other neighbor’s house on the corner. When she got over to his house, he put on a porno movie and made a move on her. She left immediately, rushing home to her apartment. My brain was lit up with what ifs. What if she’d lashed out at him? What if she was a former mob wife, now a widow, who had felt protected her whole life but no longer had that sense of safety? My brain went there because the apartment she now lived in, the same one I had grown up in, was where the gangster Gaspipe Casso lived for years. What if, on top of that, she was intensely lonely, estranged from her daughter and granddaughter? That’s how Rena Ruggiero came to be.

The character of Lacey Wolfstein grew out of my desire to explore someone who was the polar opposite of Rena in so many ways: someone who had depended on friendship her whole life, someone who had lived hand to mouth, who had flown by the seat of her pants, who had been daring and wild and who could teach Rena to see the world in new ways. I’d always been fascinated by adult film star Lisa De Leeuw, who faded into obscurity and then disappeared, the legend being that she’d used dying of AIDS as a cover to assume a new identity and exist off the grid. I wanted to imagine an alternate history for someone like her, someone who had struggled after being spit out by the adult film industry and then thrived.    

MPS: The thing that sets them apart from most crime fiction heroines is that they are over fifty. What did you want to explore with women of that age?

WB: I love noir about older characters. Louis Malle’s Atlantic City comes to mind. One of my favorite lines in all of cinema is when Burt Lancaster’s Lou looks out and says, “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.” It allows you to do reflection and nostalgia in a different way, to really dig deep with regret. I wanted to explore the mythology of New York City from the perspective of women who know how to survive.

MPS: Your first two novels were a bit more somber. Did you set out to write something funnier?

WB: I like depressing stuff a lot, but I wanted to write something more in line with Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Nice Guys or Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob and Something Wild. Those films are main go-tos, and they bring me a lot of joy when I’m feeling unsure of things. So, yeah, I wanted to write something that—to me, anyway—was funny. I just didn’t know if it’d be funny to other people.

MPS: What I like about the humor in the book is that it plays to the characters instead of the other way around and it is grounded in some very harsh realities in these people’s lives. Can you tell us how you approach humor with the people you write about?

WB: Thanks! That’s a great compliment. I don’t know if I really have an approach of any kind. There’s a lot of humor in the way people talk to each other, for sure. That comes from people I’ve known, my grandparents, my mother, all this drama in the little things. My mom’s not generally a very funny person (I love her, but that’s just not who she is), but one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard is when a light bulb blew out in her kitchen and she said, “Nothing ever works out.” I laughed my ass off. My grandfather and grandmother were both hilarious. As a teenager, there was nothing I enjoyed more than coming home and have my grandfather recap what he’d watched on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood that morning: “Mr. Rogers took us to the crayon factory today,” or whatever. My grandmother was just fun and lighthearted, even when she was worried as hell. I think much of my sense of humor comes from them, this kind of mix of pessimism and joy.   

MPS: Was there a particular reason to set the story in the early two thousands?

WB: Part of the book is set in a Bronx neighborhood where I lived for a couple of years. My wife’s family is all from there. We moved there in 2006. So, for practical reasons, I thought it’d be good to set the book in 2006 since I haven’t been back to that neighborhood since we left in 2008. It’s also a time when not everyone had cell phones yet (I got my first flip phone late in 2006), so I was glad not to have to account for that and still exist a bit in what was left of the old city: getting lost with no map, needing a payphone, whatever. The city’s changed so much in the last thirteen years. It had already started before then, but things really amped up by the late aughts.    

MPS: Your mobster characters have a great feel of authenticity. How do you approach them?

WB: I was really fascinated with mobsters as a kid. Of course, I loved Scorsese movies. I read and watched anything I could get my hands on. I listened to neighborhood stories. As I was writing this book, I reread Jimmy Breslin’s The Good Rat to get me in the right head space. But, ultimately, I was just making stuff up, having fun, building off of the sorts of legends I’ve heard my whole life.

SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH GREG ILES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg: Yes.

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

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

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

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

Scott: What are you working on next?

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

SOMETHING EQUATING THE TRUTH: AN INTERVIEW WITH IAN RANKIN

Ian Rankin’s latest novel featuring John Rebus, In a House of Lies, has the now retired inspector drawn into an old missing persons case he was involved in that has turned into one of murder when the body is finally discovered and assigned to his former partner Clarke. The question is, is he trying to help or throw her off since police corruption is connected to officers he worked with. Ian was kind enough to take some questions from us about the book and his main character.

In a House of Lies (A Rebus Novel) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: How did the idea for In a House of Lies come about?

Ian Rankin: A magazine in the UK published a piece about a real-life private eye who had been ‘executed’ in a car park three decades back.  He had been investigating alleged links between gangland and high-ranking police officers. Well, that got the cogs turning in my mind…

MPS: Clarke and Fox’s investigation gives doubts about Rebus’ reason for his involvement in the case. As someone who doesn’t outline before he starts, did you have your doubts about his motives in writing it?

IR: I always have doubts about Rebus and his motives.  Whose side is he really on? How committed to morals and ethics is he?  How far will he push against legality? Back in the 1980s, cops in real life had fewer qualms about bending and breaking the rules – mainly because there was less chance of them getting caught!  Rebus belongs to that generation…but he’s trying to be good.

MPS: Much of the the book deals with possible police corruption or malpractice. What did you want to explore about the subject?

IR: I’m interested in the past and how it connects to and is different from the present day. Policing has changed radically. There’s a lot of new technology around. Ways of tackling a murder case have changed.  I like to place a question in the reader’s mind: things are different these days, but are they necessarily better? If rules or laws had to be broken before you could get justice, would you want that to happen?

MPS: To me the theme of the book is the relationship between facts and the truth with different lines of investigation and points of view effecting the conclusion each investigator comes to. Do you see a difference between facts and the truth?

Image result for ian rankinIR: There’s maybe a seminar’s worth of discussion in that question!  Heck, maybe even a semester of moral philosophy, social and political theory, class structure, belief systems, et cetera!  But in a nutshell: we live in an age of fake news and distorted commentary. Maybe those were always with us, but we are more aware of them now when they happen (I think/hope).  Back in the day, it was easier for organizations such as the police to control the narrative. But they cannot hope to control what goes on in social media/online these days. There are competing stories, and somewhere buried within those stories lies something equating the truth.  That’s what a detective is always doing: sifting competing narratives or versions of what happened to try to end up with knowledge and closure. And along the way, self-knowledge may also arise.

MPS: What have you enjoyed the most about writing for “retired” Rebus?

IR: I was worried about Rebus in retirement.  The challenge was: how does a ‘civilian’ inveigle his way into criminal cases?  But that challenge keeps me on my toes and also keeps Rebus on his toes. His health is another consideration as he gets older, and he no longer knows many of the (young) detectives with whom he comes in contact.  So he’s having to work harder. But that makes him fun for me to write: he hasn’t grown stale; he is always evolving.

MPS: During part of her investigation Clarke has to watch a film called Bravehearts Vs. Zombies. Any chance you’ve considered pitching that to a studio?

IR: Bravehearts versus Zombies would be a fun B-movie, no doubt about it.  I’ve not pitched it yet, but who knows…

 

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SWINSON

The MysteryPeople Pick Of The Month, Trigger, is the final installment of David Swinson’s trilogy featuring Frank Marr, a private detective who is also a drug addict. We find Frank trying to quit when he is given the job to help clear his former D.C.P.D. partner from an alleged bad shooting. Another part of his past comes into play when he has to work with Calvin, a young black man he mistreated when he was a cop. It is a gritty crime novel with few easy answers but a lot of humanity. David was kind enough to take some questions from us.

Trigger (Frank Marr #3) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: Did Frank Marr’s attempt at kicking his habit inform the tone of the book?

David Swinson: Yes, since it’s written in first person, present tense, Frank’s voice had to change. Being high on cocaine all the time hid a lot of the real Frank, and I tried to bring more of his true character out in Trigger.

MPS: In the opening chapter I felt that Frank was putting his life more at risk now that he was off drugs and what he was replacing the rush with, than when he was using. Is that a legitimate feeling?

DS: I think Frank put himself more at risk while using. He wasn’t hundred percent. He thought cocaine made him one-hundred percent, but it put him more at risk, both emotionally and in certain situations like hitting a dealer’s house, all because of the powerful need for the drug. Cocaine always comes first so that makes it more dangerous. He’s more calculated now, even tests himself. That, and alcohol is his new high. Still risky, though.

MPS: The main plot deals with Frank getting information to absolve his former partner from a bad police shooting. As someone who is a former police officer, what did you want to convey about those situations that the media reports and debates, but doesn’t fully examine?

DS: I want to show the audience that things aren’t always clear cut. There is a lot of gray. I wanted to touch on that, and try to show the reality of both sides, in particular, what a good cop goes through. Also, that smartphones have changed everything because a lot of officer-related shootings are now caught on camera for everyone to see. That’s not a bad thing, just like I don’t think body cams are a bad thing. The difference is that smartphones catch shootings that the media wouldn’t otherwise know about, and justified or not they are put out there for everyone to see. Every case is different. Some are obviously criminal, but most of them are not. It’s hard for the public to understand that, though, because any shooting that involves serious bodily harm or death is a terrible thing.

MPS: I picked up more humor in this book. Where do you think that came from?

DS: Much of it came from the awkward relationship between Frank and Calvin. I also think Frank sees things a bit differently being off cocaine.

MPS: You’ve said these books were planned as a trilogy. As a writer what did you enjoy most about Frank Marr?

DS: Being able to write about a character that is outside of myself. Before I sat down to start writing The Second Girl, I  took tons of notes. Frank Marr was already in my head, but during the course of writing The Second Girl he took on a life of his own, changed a lot. I always knew who he’d be, but the trick while writing was to figure out how to make him likeable. That I think was the most fun.

MPS: You’ve had several different and varying occupations. Any idea of what you’d being doing now if you weren’t a writer?

DS: Since my teens, I have not imagined myself being anything other than a writer. I knew I’d have to work a job because I wanted to pay bills, but being a writer was always there. I can’t imagine not writing because it has been with me for so long – the desire. I suppose that if I didn’t have the desire, I’d remain happily retired (hopefully), spending time with my family like I do now, but with more time on my hands.

 

WRITING AT A DETAILED LEVEL: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL POTENZA

Caror Potenza won the 2019 Tony Hillerman award along with a book contract for her novel Hearts Of The Missing. It also made MysteryPeople’s top five reviews of the year. It introduces us to Nicky Matthews, an officer in New Mexico’s Fire-Sky reservation’s tribal police. When she catches a body with a heart missing it leads to a deadly conspiracy on the rez, involving money, class, and tribalism. Carol was kind enough to answer some questions from us.

Hearts of the Missing: A Mystery Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: The first time I ever heard of The Fire-Sky tribe was in your book. What makes their tribe unique?

Carol Potenza: After much thought, I decided to create a fictional New Mexico tribe: the Tsiba’ashi D’yini or Fire-Sky. I did this for a couple of reasons: one, I didn’t know any of the individual Native Pueblo cultures well enough to select a specific tribe; and, two, I have sources on a couple of pueblos who helped me out with things like traditional practices, Native American sovereignty, and police procedures, but who preferred to remain anonymous. I wanted my protagonist to be an outsider to Native culture so I could emphasize both differences and similarities between the people in my book. In the end, I decided I’d use known elements—details I could find already published or shared, for example—from the nineteen New Mexican Pueblos, and not dig into anything these tribes wanted kept private.

MPS: Nicky Matthews is fresh take on the police protagonist. How did you go about constructing her?

CP: Thank you. That’s a wonderful compliment. I think a lot of authors live in their heads. I know I do. As Nicky’s character evolved, I realized I had a little bit of a “Walter Mitty” syndrome. I’d fashioned my protagonist as someone I admired, someone I wished I could be. Nicky is younger, in great physical shape, has straighter hair, and is much braver than I am. She stands up to bullies and knows what to say to them in the moment, while I always craft that perfect come-back after a confrontation is long over. She’s willing to do the right thing no matter what, even if it means she might lose her job—or her life. Nicky has flaws and personal problems, too, but they’ve come about because her character isn’t afraid to push boundaries, be fearless, expose herself.

Nicky also has “visions”, something she says she’d never had until she started working on the Fire-Sky reservation. I gave her this ability because some of my contacts on New Mexico Pueblos actually saw and experienced the things Nicky sees in the novel—like the old Native woman in the glass. I used their true stories to make Nicky different from any police protagonist I’d read. And I have a lot more ghost stories to weave into my books.

MPS: You use the mystery theme of identity in a wonderful way that is tied to the culture. What did you want to explore about tribal identity?

CP: In Hearts of the Missing, I wanted to explore not what makes people different, but what makes people the same. To do that, I needed a sequestered or separated community. Living in New Mexico, I had a number of cultures to choose from—we are a minority-majority state. I chose Native American Pueblo culture because I had friends, family, and contacts who worked and lived on reservations and pueblos, and, like a lot of Americans, my family lore included Native American ancestors. Then I flipped everything on its head. I wanted my European-American heroine to be an outsider in a Native American sovereign nation. In the Tsiba’ashi D’yini pueblo, ancestry and genetics defined who an individual was. Because of her ancestry, her genetics, she will never be a member of the tribe she’s come to love. Even if you’d lived on the pueblo all your life, like my Ryan Bernal character, you can’t become a tribal member if you had the wrong genetic ancestry. I wanted to explore how the notion of genetic belonging could be both exclusive and destructive as well as inclusive and protective.

MPS: As a debut author, did you pull from any influences?

CP: Oh, yes. I love stories that use science in their plots, whether it’s pandemics or epidemics, forensics, DNA, genetics and genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, ancient cultures, archeology, paleontology, and the list goes on. As I started to gather the pieces of Hearts of the Missing, I wanted science to play a major role. Books like Preston and Child’s Relic, Thunderhead, and Fever Dream, and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Congo were inspirations because they took believable science and twisted it into such amazing, complex, and satisfying stories.

Probably the biggest influence is the writing group I joined when I first decided to write, along with its members. The Land of Enchantment Romance Authors (LERA) in Albuquerque taught me how to craft an emotionally engaging story, one where the reader truly cares for the characters, becomes buried in the pages, and has a stake in the outcome. Romance writing is about emotion and character connection. I took what I’d learned from romance writing—what I’m still learning—and used it in Hearts of the Missing, even though it’s a southwestern mystery with supernatural elements.

MPS: You won the Tony Hillerman Award and I felt some echoes of his work in yours. Is there anything you admire about his writing?

CP: I admire Hillerman’s sense of setting and his description of the desert southwest, so spare yet so evocative. I admire the respect and fondness he had for the Native American cultures he wrote about. And I loved the way he butted cultures into each other: Navajo and whites; Zuni and Navajo; Navajo and Tano—a fictional pueblo culture in Sacred Clowns. He used the outsider/insider themes so deftly to add tension and conflict.

MPS: I noticed you have a background in chemistry and biochemistry. Can you see any way those skills are applied to the way you write?

CP: A scientific PhD trains you how to approach unsolved scientific questions. It teaches you how to gather evidence, assemble it into a coherent story, present it to your peers in the form of written, reviewed publications. It demands huge amounts of background reading and research, the linking together of sometimes-disparate ideas for new revelations. A science background dictates an understanding—at a detailed level—of how techniques work, the ability to find and tie up loose ends. It pushes you not to do derivative work, but to explore some new and unique property or direction to prove your hypotheses. Sound familiar? I think it parallels what an author has to do when writing a police procedural mystery.

MARRIED FOR THE MATERIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH LES EDGERTON ABOUT HIS MEMOIR, ADRENALINE JUNKIE

Les Edgerton’s crime novels careen through humor, heartbreak, and harrowing situations with a voice that seems often worn and and lived in. It comes from the fact he’s lived a lot of what he writes about. When his memoir Adrenaline Junkie came out last year, many of us couldn’t wait to read it, wanting to know what he hasn’t shared. It turns out, there was a lot. His life as outlaw, convict, hairdresser, husband to a few wives, and writer has given him a lot to draw from. I was lucky enough to interview Les about Adrenaline Junkie and get a few stories from him. Warning, Les isn’t a politically correct writer and neither is this interview.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’re someone who always has lived an interesting life and you continue to do so. What made you think this was the time to write your memoir?

Les Edgerton: Actually, I wrote it several years ago, Scott. I was just waiting for the right publisher. I’ve had several publishers who wanted to take it, but I wanted one who could get it reviewed in the right places and get it placed on bookshelves nationally.

MPS: You’ve used a lot of your experiences in your fiction. Did you notice anything changing in the tone or style as presenting them as actual personal occurrences?

LE: Not at all. I use my same writer’s voice on everything I write, be it various fiction genres or nonfiction. That was the primary concept I voiced in my first writer’s craft book, Finding Your Voice, and I believe that today as much as I did when I wrote that book years ago.

MPS: I’ve told some people that many of the more dangerous and exciting times you had weren’t in prison or as a criminal, but as a hair dresser. What was it it about that life style that put you on the edge?

LE: Yep. You’re exactly right. I was single much of the time I did hair and that means I was getting into lots of women’s knickers. Here’s a true story that illustrates the times. I was working at a salon named Snobs in New Orleans when the movie Shampoo came out one weekend. When I walked into the salon on Monday, there were all these guys in the lobby. I asked the owner, Tony Jones, what the heck was going on, and he laughed and said these guys had seen Shampoo and for the first time realized that not all hairstylists were gay—they were here to check out where their wives and girlfriends were getting their hair done. And, they were right to be suspicious—we were nailing lots and lots of women who came in to get their hair done. In fact, Warren Beatty was really mild in the movie. We daily did a lot more than he did in the movie. He was kind of a piker. There’s something kind of magical that happens when you lay a woman back into a shampoo bowl and begin shampooing her hair—it just creates a sexual bond immediately. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of sexual experiences with women whose hair I did.  Their husbands and boyfriends were right to check us out…

Here’s a fairly typical experience. I had just opened up a salon in a small Indiana town and was cutting the mayor’s wife’s hair. I was just about finished and we were just talking about everyday things, when out of the blue, she reached over and grabbed my johnson. So we had sex and then she started to leave and I asked her if she hadn’t forgotten something. What? she said, and I said, you forgot to pay. You want me to pay after what we did? she said. Well, yeah, I said. You don’t want me to think of you as a prostitute, do you? She saw I was right so she paid me. She didn’t tip though…

Another time, I had a shop in South Bend, Indiana, and was going to college at IUSB. One day, I’m cutting this woman’s hair and one of my friends, Bob Wensits, was sitting on a waiting couch when the phone rang. It was a man with a pronounced southern accent who began accusing me of screwing his wife. The truth is, I was doing exactly that. I began saying things like, I think you’ve got the wrong number, sir, and I’d never do anything like that—lame-o stuff like that—and finally, he said, I’m coming over there and I’m bringing my gun. I hung up and immediately swung the lady in the chair so she was between me and the front window and hurried up, finished her cut, hustled her out the door and locked it. The instant I locked it, Bob fell off the couch, laughing so hard he was crying and then revealed to me the caller was one of our friends, Fred Sulok. Bob said, I don’t believe what you did—you got that woman between you and the window. Well, I said, do I look like I’ve got a low I.Q. to you?

There were many, many experiences like that… I’ve been shot at and had women try to disembowel me with knives and lots of things like that…

MPS: You devote an entire chapter to the rape you experienced in prison. It feels raw and true, because it came across as you were still processing it. I’m assuming it was the toughest thing to write, so how did you approach it going in?

LE: Well, it was raw and true, so there’s that. I just approached writing it like I do everything else. Just tell it the way it happened. Any writer worth his salt has that “piece of ice” in their heart that Graham Greene talked about and I’m no exception. I can compartmentalize anything that happens to me and separate out my reporting from the emotion of the experience itself. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I wasn’t capable of doing that.

I guess I could wear a “MeToo” button, couldn’t I?

MPS: The thing I admired most about you in reading Adrenaline Junkie is that you almost always had a close friend around, whether they helped get you into trouble or out of it. Did you learn more or view them any differently when they became part of your writing?

LE: Not sure what you’re asking here, Scott. Do you mean do I view my friends differently when they become part of my writing? If so, the answer is no. All of the people in my life fit what one of my ex-wives said to me after we divorced. She said, you just married me for material, didn’t you? To which I replied, yes. And, that’s the way I’ve always viewed anyone I come into contact with. As material. It’s just what writers do.

MPS: I’ve often heard you say the two things you love the most are writing and talking about writing. What is the most important thing writing has given you?

LE: My life. I wouldn’t care to live a life without writing. What would I do? Mow my lawn and sit around watching TV? No thanks… Have you watched TV lately? Have you ever mowed a stupid lawn? There’s just never been anything else I’ve done that compares to writing. Nothing.

 

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.