SCOTT BUTKI’S INTEVIEW WITH CHERYL A. HEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Butki: How did this story develop?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB: What are you working on next?

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

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Interview With Don M. Patterson

Don M. Patterson’s Sierra Blanca ended up on my list of favorite Texas crime novels and thrillers of 2017. It features CIA operative Hank Copeland teaming up with a handful of  Lone Star lawmen to take down a Russian plot involving drug cartels on the border in 1984. Its swift storytelling, action-packed plot, and fun characters made it one of last years’ most entertaining reads. Don will be joining us on February 10th with Alex Berenson but was kind enough to answer come questions for us earlier.

MysteryPeople Scott: Sierra Blanca is one of those rare pieces of entertainment that is fresh yet a throwback to earlier books and movies. How did it come about?

Don Patterson: Sierra Blanca began with the idea of creating a spy character that is as Texan (specifically West Texan) as James Bond is British; and that became Hank Copeland.  Once I started playing around with story ideas for a West Texan spy, doing a Western, or neo-Western, was a natural conclusion.  Westerns – the spaghetti variety in particular – and espionage have always been favorite genres of mine, so I set out to create a story that took the recognizable tropes from each and co-mingled them into something new: a Spy-Western.

MPS: You have classic buddy dynamic with Hank Copeland and Sheriff Clearwater. How did you approach that relationship?

DM: The Howard Hawk classic film Rio Bravo was a major influence on Sierra Blanca and I looked at Copeland as Dean Martin to Clearwater’s John Wayne.  Copeland’s lackadaisical attitude to his job provides a foil to Clearwater’s tough lawman demeanor.  But I think what really makes the dynamic work is that I didn’t write Copeland as the driver of the story’s action, but rather the facilitator for other characters to act.  The real heroes of the story are Texas Ranger Burgos and Sheriff Clearwater; Copeland is mostly along for the ride and to hopefully make you laugh.

MPS: Besides the necessary place for the plot, what did the Texas-Mexico border offer to the story?

DM: For me, the golden era of spy stories is unquestionably the Cold War.  I looked for a way to bring the Cold War to West Texas in a somewhat plausible way, and proximity to Mexico and Latin America provided that in.  Latin America in the late 70s and early 80s threatened to become the next major theater in the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union.  That tension bleeding up to the Mexico-Texas border became a major plot driver.

Growing up in West Texas, I always held a romanticized view of El Paso & Juarez as an international community rife with intrigue, like the Casablanca of the southwest.  So you have this historic metroplex straddling an international border, a perfect setting for a spy story.  And surrounding the cities are beautiful mountains, a sun soaked desert, and the hard-scrabble stretches of the Transpecos region; the perfect setting for a Western.  I’d argue no region could be a better host for a Cold War Western.

MPS: This book felt like one of the best seventies or eighties action films never made. Were you influenced by movies as much as books?

DM: Absolutely, probably more so.  For the spy elements, I was naturally influenced by both the film and literary versions of James Bond – I used Ian Flemings’ books as a style guide as I was writing.  But the Western elements were mostly inspired by film (and some Cormac McCarthy).  As I’ve said, Rio Bravo in particular was a major influence, as was John Carpenter’s modern take on that movie: Assault on Precinct 13.  I wanted the feel of a gritty Sam Peckinpah Western or a grind-house B-action flick packaged as a modern pulp.  Even the cover art was inspired by the title cards of old movies.      

MPS: One reason for that cinematic feel is you write kinetic action passages that the reader can always follow. Is there anything you keep in mind when writing those parts?

DM: Physics, human anatomy, and logic mostly.  People,cars, and things should react realistically when acted upon and the motion should be described in a way that makes sense and is unambiguous.  I viewed my role as the play-by-play announcer calling a game the listener couldn’t see; it’s good to use some flourish, but it has to be clear who’s rounding which bases.  

MPS: Was there anything you had to keep in mind when setting the book in the eighties?

DM: I did more research than one might think is necessary for a short, action novella.  I wanted there to be accuracy in the types of cars law enforcement used in 1984, the weapons and gadgets in use, the politics and cultural touchstones of the time, and even inconsequential things like what was on TV in the summer of ’84.  I found that the 1980s, or any pre-cell phone era, actually helps a great deal with story telling.  Think about how many classic plots would be ruined if the characters had access to a cellphone or the internet.  

 

Q&A with Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson’s John Wells espionage series often uses the headlines or predicts them for novels dealing with our county’s involvement in the geo-political game. His latest, The Deceivers, has John and his team dealing with a Russian plot to put their man in the White House. Alex will be joining us at 2PM on Saturday, February 10th with fellow thriller writer Don M. Patterson. MysteryPeople’s Scott Butki intercepted him earlier for a one on one interrogation.

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MysteryPeople Scott Butki: How did this story, the latest about John Wells, come about?

Alex Berenson: Over the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in false-flag operations, where an intelligence service tries to carry out an attack and blame it on another country or a third-party. False-flags are obviously tricky, but if they succeed they can wreak havoc. In The Deceivers, the false-flag comes with a twist – the Russian spy agency isn’t trying to carry out the attacks itself. It wants to use Americans against the United States in attacks that will look like Muslim terror. And to do so the Russians need some buy-in from semi-witting Americans. I tried to make the Russian scheming plausible, and I hoped I succeeded.

MPSB: This has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel (that’s a compliment), where you took some current issues, like the question of whether the Russians meddled and influenced the election and took it to a larger but, hopefully, fictitious level. What was it like dealing with current events in your plotting?

AB: From The Faithful Spy, I’ve always dealt with current events. I like to say my books are reality-adjacent. In some cases they’ve turned out to be surprisingly prescient – notably The Secret Soldier, which focused on succession in Saudi Arabia – six years before the current crisis.

MPSB: As a fellow former newspaper reporter for, among other publications, The New York Times, i’m curious how your background affected your work as a novelist? Was that background helpful when dealing with current events in this novel?

AB: I do like to make my novels feel as real and authentic as possible, and I think being a reporter drives that impulse. Sometimes I have to remind myself the books are an escape, and Wells occasionally needs to. In general, I research my books thoroughly; over the years I’ve traveled nearly everywhere I’ve written about, including Afghanistan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. I’ll talk to folks in the intelligence community (though they are more likely to be retired than active employees, given the risks people face if they discuss classified information).

MPSB: Do you miss being a journalist?

AB: Only when I see a really, really good story that I wish I could tell.

MPSB: What was the timing on this book? You definitely captured the anti-Muslim fervor of politicians including President Trump. Was that happening – those speeches -while you were writing the book or did you accurately guess that it’d be happening more often

AB: I started writing the book in the summer of 2016, so Trump’s comments were in the news by then. There are a lot of reasons Trump won the presidency, but one is the attacks in Paris in November 2015 – which propelled him to the top of the Republican polls. The Orlando attack clearly helped him too.

MPSB: As someone who wrote about government intelligence, what do you think of how Trump has famously refused to hear part or all of his intelligence briefings, treated intelligence officers awfully, etc?

AB: Trump isn’t entirely wrong that a lot of intelligence work is throat-clearing and that sometimes leaders just have to go with their gut instincts. But the disdain with which he treats the intelligence community is unconscionable – and bad for US national security.

MPSB: How did you go about researching this book?

AB: As with all my novels, a combination of traveling to the most important locations in the book, a ton of Internet research and reading, and finally talking to people in the intelligence community (though I don’t want to overstate how much they will say).

MPSB: Do you want readers to take away something from this book? If so, what?

AB: I wouldn’t presume to tell my readers what they should take away from my novels.

MPSB: Should people read your John Wells books in order or can they start with this one, the 14th in the series?

AB: The 12th! He’s not that old yet. I write each new book knowing that some readers will be new to the series, so anyone who happens to pick this one up first will be fine.  That said, I tell readers who have read one of the books and feel committed to the series that they should go back to The Faithful Spy and read the rest in order – the books do build on each other, so reading them that way will give them the best idea of how John became who he is.

MPSB: What is a question you wish people would ask you? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it.

AB: What’s harder, journalism or fiction? Fiction, I think, because as a journalist you can always just return to the facts – as a novelist you have to look within yourself.

NOT SUCH A TOUGH GUY PRIVATE EYE : INTERVIEW WITH MATT COYLE

Matt Coyle brings that classic trope of the tarnished knight/errant private eye to his Rick Cahill series. In the latest book Blood Truth, things get even more emotional than usual when an old flame hires him to follow her possibly cheating husband and he discovers an envelope full of cash and a safe deposit key in his father’s safe. One leads to the murder case that ruined his father, the other to a body in a car trunk. Before Matt joins us for a panel discussion on December 7th with Con Lehane and David Eric Tomlinson, he took some questions from us about the new book and the emotional journey of his hero.

41rq-ux6bul-_ux250_MysteryPeople Scott: What made this the book for Rick to go into his father’s past?

Matt Coyle: I’m not a great planner, so I can’t say this was always going to be the book that solved the mystery of Rick’s father. However, his father’s fall from grace has been a continuing thread, one of the dark clouds hanging Rick’s head since the first book Yesterday’s Echo. I go by my gut a lot and the father story felt right here. The writing and the emotion of Blood Truth was made all the more poignant when my father died suddenly three months before I began writing it. I’d already settled on the story before my he passed, but obviously, his passing made the book more personal than all the other books I’d written.

MPS: What does Moira provide for him other than a partner?

9781608092871MC: Moira is a PI like Rick, except better at it. I introduced her in the second book, Night Tremors. She was in a few scenes and in the next book, Dark Fissures, she had a very small part. I needed her for an early scene in Blood Truth and then she was supposed to go away. But she didn’t. She forced her way into the story and gave the book much more depth and meaning than it would otherwise have had.

Moira gives Rick balance. She looks at all sides while Rick may only see three. In Blood Truth, she is really the conscience of the book. But, her most important contribution to Rick is her friendship. Rick has an ex-girlfriend and an ex-partner, but he had no real friends until Moira showed up. She tries to keep Rick in line and gets angry with him, but she never fails him.

MPS: You really tap into that classic mood of a private eye novel. Who would you consider major influences in the genre?

MC: For me it all starts with Raymond Chandler. I read him as a kid. Of course, I loved the writing and the language, but what first grabbed me was Philip Marlowe. He lived by his own code. He did what he knew to be the right thing even when it pitted him against the police or more powerful entities. I’m a big fan of Ross Macdonald, too. Through Lew Archer, he examined all levels of society just by following clues. Contemporary private eye influences are Robert Crais and Walter Mosley.   

MPS: Besides familiarity, what makes La Jolla a strong setting for the series?

MC: In the first draft of what became my first book, I fictionalized La Jolla. My brother-in-law read it and told me people like reading about real places, so I went with the real town and just fictionalized the police force and a couple other things. Best advice I ever received. La Jolla is a little slice of coastal paradise and is known as a vacation destination around the world. Thus, it attracts a wide variety of people and a lot of wealth. But even wealthy people have problems. They just have money to try to cover them up. When I’m writing about La Jolla, I sometimes think of the opening scene from the movie Blue Velvet with the wide swath of a perfectly manicured lawn…and the dark beetles churning underground. Sometimes paradise is only skin deep.

MPS: The book moves along through many well crafted reveals and reversals that all have a natural feel. How much do you plan out a novel?

MC: Thank you. As mentioned above, I’m not much of a planner. I don’t outline. I start with character and try to find the right catalyst that will move the plot forward and also reveal character. I try to find a case that will force Rick to become emotionally invested. The story really builds around that. I try not to force the plot and let the reveals and plot twists flow up from my subconscious. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I try to let the story come to me instead of chasing it. Sometimes an idea will bubble up in a sentence and I’ll drop it in a scene and I don’t really know what it means. Sometimes it can lead to a whole new angle on the story and other times it’s nothing. I call that dropping anchors. Sometimes, I have to go back and pull up the anchors, but, more often, they stay and improve the story and lead me to the deeper meaning. I know, weird.

MPS: This book I felt Rick came to terms with a lot of the things he was dealing with in the previous books. Do you have a new direction planned for him?

MC: I wish I could tell you I have his whole character arc planned out, but I don’t. He will be carrying a little less baggage than before, but he’s not going to all of a sudden have his life together. Plus, in book five, the one I’m writing now, he’ll have to deal with something that flares up in Blood Truth. However, I do see his relationship with Moira growing and the potential for happiness somewhere down that dark lonely road.

 

MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limón

Today is the release of our Pick Of The Month, The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón. The book deals with Sueño and Bascome, his Army CID cops stationed in Seventies-era South Korea, going after a killer who uses the title weapon on Army personnel. Martin Limón was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his writing.


MysteryPeople: How did the idea for the sickle killer come about?

Martin Limón: In addition to my years spent in Korea, I still read a lot about Korea and the Korean War.  Most recently, I’ve been reading post-war Korean literature translated into English by friends of minE, Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, much of it centered around the lingering trauma of the war.  Also, I was influenced, and appalled, by reports of the massacre of Korean refugees at the village of Nohgun-ri.  In addition, I remembered the naht, the short-handled Korean sickle used by farmers to harvest rice and by gardening crews on the American Army compounds to cut grass.  It all came together in this story.  Still, I needed a person to wield the iron sickle.  A person mad enough to use it and an event, or series of events, that drove him to this extreme level of madness.  Gradually, the story and the characters came together.

MP: It was great to see Mr. Kill back.  What made you want to use him again?

ML: Partially, he is a device to get George Sueño and Ernie Bascom off compound.  They are always in trouble with their superiors and thus always relegated to the “black market detail.”  That is, busting Korean civilian dependents for re-selling American-made products out of the Army commissary and PX.  But when Mr. Kill, the highest ranking homicide investigator in the Korean National Police, asks for their assistance, they are freed up from their more mundane duties.  Nothing irritates a military officer more than having one of his subordinates temporarily detailed outside of his or her direct control.  But when the directive comes down from the 8th Army Chief of Staff, their boss has no choice but to comply.

Also, Mr. Kill is highly educated, not only in the States at an Ivy League university but also in the ancient arts of calligraphy and Classical Chinese literature.  It’s fun to bring these elements not only into the resolution of the mystery but also as a counterpoint to modern Korean society and the anti-intellectual American military world in which George and Ernie live.

Finally, and most importantly, people tell me they like reading about him.  I like writing about him.

MP:  Much of the book’s last half takes place out in the mountain area of Korea.  Do you have to keep some things in mind when Sueño and Bascom are out in the wilderness?

ML: Well, they are both city boys.  Ernie grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and George was an orphan who lived in foster homes throughout Los Angeles County.  George had never seen snow—other than in photos and movies—until he went on his first field maneuver in the army.  In the book, they are surprised that the amenities they’re used to—public baths, mokkolli houses, noodle shops—aren’t available in the Taebaek Mountains but the training they received from the army helps pull them through.

MP: The friendship between Sueño and Bascom is both unique and real. What do they provide each other?

ML: They provide complete loyalty.  Both of them are unabashed “lifers,” career soldiers.  Yet they are in constant rebellion against the restrictions of military life and, more often than not, the go-along-to-get-along attitude of most of their superiors and fellow soldiers.  Since they share these qualities, they look out for one another.  Also, Ernie is focused strictly on the moment.  He does what he wants to do, when he wants to do it.  He never looks back or even ponders anything he’s done, much less regret it.  George, on the other hand, is constantly evaluating every decision he makes and is riddled with regrets about the past and anxieties about the future.  Both of them admire the opposite qualities they see in one another, although they don’t fully understand them.

MP: You were pretty much self-taught as a writer.  Did you draw from any influential writers?

ML: There are four writers who made me realize that the type of stories I had to tell might find an audience.  First, was Herman Melville.  I once got in trouble (I know, it’s hard to believe) and was restricted to compound for one week.  I was so angry at myself that I decided to add to the punishment by spending the week reading a classic (like the ones I wouldn’t read when I was in high school).  At the base library I found Moby Dick.  To my surprise, within the first few pages, I discovered that the young man, Ishmael, who was venturing off to see “the watery parts of the world” was much like me.  He craved adventure and, aboard ship, he hated officers.  I flew through the book, enjoying every word of it.  The next was Jack London, a fellow native Californian.  Read “To Build a Fire.”  That is, in my opinion, the greatest single piece of prose writing in the English language.  Third was Richard McKenna.  After serving 30 years in the Navy, he retired as a Chief in the late 1950s and proceeded to write The Sand Pebbles which won the National Book Award.  It was about common sailors and their day-to-day problems.  Not the heroics that most military stories try to shove down our throats.  Finally, was Darryl Ponicsan.  He wrote The Last Detail.  That book showed me that one could write a story about the real lives of enlisted men in the military, with all its beauty and all its squalor.

When I first set out to start writing, I had these four writers in mind and I was still on active duty in the military.  My goal was to tell the story of the day-to-day life of American soldiers in Korea, and the day-to-day lives of the Korean people who dealt with them.  It was a world that most Americans didn’t even know existed.  In order to show that world, from the cultured environs of cocktail parties hosted by the American Ambassador to the lowest rat-infested back alleys, I figured the mystery genre was the way to go.  I focused my reading on the genre:  Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, Robert B Parker, Ross MacDonald and many others.  Fortunately, I stumbled on my all-time favorite:  the Matt Scudder series written by Lawrence Block.  For my money, they’re still the best mystery stories in print; especially the first half dozen or so books in the series.

MP: As with several of the books, The Iron Sickle deals with repressed history.  What is the danger of not knowing all of our past?

ML: The Korean War is often called the forgotten war and for good reason. People forget that Korea had a huge impact on the American strategy in Vietnam.  In Korea, we were able to fight the Communists to a standstill and left the country divided into north and south.  In Vietnam, the goal was the same.  To keep a supposedly democratic South Vietnam and leave North Vietnam under the Communists.  Many people correctly pointed out that to win the war we should invade North Vietnam (either that or withdraw completely).  But the lesson of the Korean War had shown that if we threatened to overrun the north, the Communist Chinese would intervene; as they had in Korea with an estimated two to three million “volunteer” soldiers.  Nobody wanted that, so years of stalemate ensued.

We also forget how much damage was done to Korea.  Our bombing campaign left only “rubble bouncing on rubble.”  Those the words of an American pilot.  Even Winston Churchill criticized the U.S. for “splashing” napalm all over North Korea. Two to three million people died in a country of a little over twenty-five million.  The trauma was inestimable.  And it lingered for years, even to this day, which is what The Iron Sickle is all about.


You can ask Matin Limón your own questions when he calls into our Hard Word Book club discussion of his first Sueño-Bascom novel, Jade Lady Burning, on September 24th, at 7PM.

MysteryPeople Q&A With Megan Abbott

megan abbott
~interviewed by Molly

Megan Abbott’s The Fever is one of the most talked about books of the summer and is the Statesman Selects pick for June. It portrays a tight family of father, son, and particularly daughter caught in the hysteria of a small town when several of the teen girls suffer mysterious seizures.  Though Megan will be in-store with Alison Gaylin, Thursday, June 26 at 7PM, we took the opportunity beforehand to speak with Megan about her new book and the writing process.

Molly O.: I was struck by the similarities between the behavior of the girls in The Fever and the actions of adolescents during the Salem Witch Trials. I was then surprised to learn that you were inspired by a true story. Were you also inspired by the Salem Witch Trials?

Megan Abbott: I’ve always been fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and have been reading about them since I was a kid, so I’m sure that
was hovering there somewhere. And the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson. All these tales of American small towns or communities under siege, with the assault somehow coming from within. I’ve always loved stories where there’s an unidentifiable danger==and because it’s unidentifiable, everyone projects their own fears and desires onto it. Whatever theory a character has for what’s afflicting these girls says a great deal about the character.

MO: You hit on some edgy, controversial topics (vaccines, pollution, teen sexuality) as your characters theorize about what could be making a group of teenage girls sick. Did you set out to write a novel tapping into the zeitgeist? What are you worried about in the world right now?

MA: No. I guess I don’t really write that way—from an intellectual place. I write more from an emotional place. I have loads of thoughts about
the world (too many!) and how hard it is to be a teen or a parent of a teen, but when I write it comes from a different part of my head. I
follow character, and just keep on digging. The nature of the characters in The Fever—in particularly, this close-knit family of father, son and daughter. I saw them as the three investigators and just followed their paths.

MO: Traditionally, noir fiction has incorporated quite a bit of the “male gaze” in terms of a sexualized way of viewing women through a
male character’s eyes. In The Fever, I thought you did an excellent job of reversing that trope through the character of Deenie’s brother
and the way in which girls at his school approach him as an object of desire. This is just one aspect of your complicated and nuanced
approach to sexuality and sexual agency. Is this a life-long mission, to bring female agency, especially in terms of sexuality, to noir
fiction?

MA: If I’m honest, my only mission is to tell stories that feel true. But I am beyond thrilled with this question—and flattered by it. I really
did see Eli as a kind of “homme fatal”—through no fault of his own (just as it’s not the femme fatale’s fault that males keep falling for her). I really wanted to write about the way girls look at boys. How they foist all kinds of fantasies onto them, just as boys do with girls. And I really wanted the girls in this book to want, to desire… as we all know girls do. I think we’re still so uncomfortable as a culture with girls having sexual desires and acting on them. We either make a joke out of it or make it horror show, instead of just letting it be real, authentic, awkward, overwhelming—all the things that being a teenager is.

MO: Your last few books have all focused on the dangerous lives of adolescent girls. Why this age group?

MA: I guess because there’s so much rich territory to mine there, and it’s still pretty “under-mined.” That age is so powerful, on the cusp of
adulthood but with all the frenzy of youth. Each day is such a whirlwind of emotion, everything matters so much. It’s the perfect place to find character, story.

MO: You come to noir both as a creator and an academic – a rare combination in today’s world of specialization. Which came first, the
urge to write or to analyze? How would you like to see your own work analyzed?

MA: They’re really two separate parts of my brain—and they never speak to each other! I’ve always done both kinds of writing and thinking, but I never apply my analytical lens to my own work if I can help it. In my case, I think that’s deadly to the creativity. As for how I’d like my
own work analyzed? The real answer is any way any reader likes. There’s no “solution” or “right interpretation.” We all bring our own fascinations and experiences and personal histories to whatever we read, and that’s why reading is so intensely personal an experience. And it’s why it matters so much.


Megan Abbott will read from & sign her new novel here at BookPeople on Thursday, June 26th at 7PM. You can pre-order signed copies of The Fever now via bookpeople.com, or find a copy on our shelves in-store.

MysteryPeople Q&A with J. A. Jance

~Q&A Conducted by Scott Butki

Let me start this with a confession: This is my first J.A. Jance book. I have seen her books at the library and at the bookstore and always made a mental note to read her books. I’ve finally gotten around to it. I read her latest, Moving Target, and the stride she’s hit after publishing forty-nine other titles over the last thirty years produced a really fun read.

So, when I was given a chance to interview her for MysteryPeople, I made sure to ask where readers should start when jumping into one of her four current mystery series.

All that aside, Moving Target is a great novel with some interesting twists and fascinating characters, and it didn’t seem to matter much that it was well into an established series. An added bonus: part of the book was set in Austin and the Austin area.

I would like to thank J. A. Jance for the chance to interview her, and School Librarian Mary Zell for help with the questions.

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MYSTERYPEOPLE: How did this story develop?

JA JANCE: The story started with my husband sending me an article about the dark web — how to access it; what’s available on it.  That put me on the trail of Lance Tucker, a kid who develops GHOST (Go Hide On Server Technology) which is a program allowing users to access the dark web without leaving any cyber footprints.

MP: How would you summarize this book?

JAJ: From what I said above, it sounds like a techno-thriller, but it’s really a story about the people involved- some good and some very bad. Lance Tucker, the teenaged hacker who invented GHOST, is targeted by people who want to control his program.  He’s in a juvenile detention facility and facing a bleak future at the beginning of this book. It’s up to Ali Reynolds and her fiancé, B. Simpson, to keep him safe and get him on track to a better future.

MP: One part of the story is about a school district requiring students to wear GPS devices so they can be tracked, watched or helped. What do you think about such policies?

JAJ: Lance Tucker and I are on the same page on this one.  (Since I created Lance Tucker, that’s hardly a surprise!)  I personally feel that the kinds of programs that compel students to wear any kind of tracking device is an unfair invasion of their privacy.

MP: This is the first book of yours I’ve read and it’s several books into one of your series (the Ali Reynolds series). Where should readers new to you start? At the beginning of the series or can they just jump in anywhere?

JAJ: I always recommend readers start at the beginning, in this case with Edge of Evil.  In that one, Ali, a long time news anchor in LA, is booted off her news desk because she’s considered to be over-the-hill. When her marriage ends at the same time her career does, she goes home to Sedona as she looks for what she’s going to do with the rest of her life.  This is a book about losing your dream in middle age and going about finding another one.

MP: As an Austin resident of five years I got excited at the events based in and around Austin. Have you been here?

JAJ: Yes, I was there a year ago in November for the first F1 race on the Track of Americas.  Loved the race; loved Austin.  I was also there this past September on the book tour for Second Watch.

MP: How does your police-trained protagonist differ from many other protagonists in the mystery genre?

JAJ: I think my protagonists are people first and cops second.  They live complicated lives with family, friends, church and community commitments, and pets.  A lot of the other police procedural folks seem to be loners living lonely lives and living only to work.  I strive to have balance in my life, and I want my characters to have the same thing.

MP: What kind of research do you do for books like this?

JAJ: As much as necessary.

MP: This is your 50th book in 30 years. That’s an amazing output. That comes out to almost two books a year. How are you able to write so fast? Or is there another reason you’re able to put out so many books?

JAJ: I’ve always loved writing — it’s been my dream since second grade — and most of the time, since I’m living my dream, it doesn’t seem like work.  But I agree, 50 books in thirty years is pretty remarkable; especially for someone who wasn’t allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona in 1964 because I was a “girl!”

MP: Is Wikipedia accurate in saying you use your initials for your pen name because a publisher told you that disclosing your gender would be a liability for a book about a male detective?

JAJ: That is correct.  That’s what I was told by the marketing folks at Avon books in 1983.  Going by J.A. Jance rather than Judith Ann Jance has saved me a ton of time over the years.  J.A. Jance is much easier to autograph than Judith Ann Jance.