Why do you write mysteries?
Writing is how I express myself, how I put the vagaries of my mind into some kind of order, and how I prefer to entertain and inform other people. I write to put language to the best use I can, to satiate my curiosity and abate my ignorance, and to tell a good story. Language for me is not just a communicative tool, but a musical one. Handled well, it has balance, cadence, and tone, and when read with appreciation—be it memo, letter, poem, or book—it can be as satisfying as listening to a good orchestra, with the additional kick that it often carries some useful information. As I write them, mysteries are less puzzle than process, and more about people than any convoluted, sensationalist plot. Aside from being fond of language, I am fascinated by what stimulates people to do what they do, legally and otherwise. Their struggles, passions, and occupations surround us all, often unnoticed, and I take joy, book by book, in choosing a select few, wrapping them up in a compelling tale, and exposing them to both my readers and me.
Who are your favorite writers?
Many of my favorite mystery writers are dead. Doyle, Hammet, Chandler, Maurice Leblanc, Georges Simenon, Ross MacDonald. Certainly, Tony Hillerman is someone I like to read. Michael Connelly, Martin Cruz Smith, Elmore Leonard, Stuart Kaminsky, P. D. James, have all given me hours of enjoyment. But—and here the truth must will out—by and large, I don’t read mysteries any more. I used to, and once in a very great while, I still do, but only rarely. Why? Because I write them all day long, when I’m not responding to real-world emergencies involving human loss and suffering. When I quit for the day, I want a break from crime and chaos. I still want to read, but outside my two occupational fields. I’ll instead read history books (my first love,) the occasional novel, and anything else that captures my fancy, such as a well-tuned science book. I can never read enough. I find it does wonders for my brain and helps my writing immeasurably.
How long does it take you to write a book?
One year. I do this because I want to get a book out just before each Christmas, and also because at the end of every year, I run out of money. My publisher, being very clever, has figured out just how much I need to live on, and pays me only that much for each book. Pretty tricky, and I ain’t complaining. In the real world, that’s called employment, and I’m one of the few lucky writers who can truly say they live off their work.
Are your characters based on real people?
No, although I will sometimes use the names of real people, either with their permission, or at their urging. Thus, my children have appeared, as have other family members, along with a host of friends. But never as themselves (all right—almost never). As things stand in the series, I use real settings, actual police procedures, proven scientific techniques . . . leaving less room for creativity. The plots and characters supply me with that. Both being kept make-believe allow me the space to fictionalize.
How much research do you do?
Lots. Having been both a newspaper writer and historian in the past, I am driven by a compulsion to get things right. I go from expert to expert, sometimes interviewing up to forty of them for a single book, asking what I need to know to make the plot compelling, interesting, and fun to read. As a result, a good part of my writing year is actually spent picking people’s brains. It is great fun, I learn an enormous amount, meet nice people, and with any luck, pass along the best of my education to my readers.
Do you ever have writer’s block?
No. And if I do stall out, as happens to all of us occasionally, I take a nap. It helps separate the good stuff (which survives the nap) from the junk clogging everything up. From my own experience, I’ve discovered that writer’s block is often a self-indulgence, reflecting either flat-out laziness, or an inability to admit that what you’re writing is terrible and should be abandoned. I have found that the more time and effort I put into a certain passage, the worse it is likely to be at the end. Best to kill it. Writing is a craft—not some magical talent handed down from on high. You don’t practice it when the planets are properly aligned and your “muse” is feeling generous, you do it like you would any other job. Got a headache? Having a bad hair day? Tough. If you have a deadline or a self-imposed duty to write, then do it.
Will you ever write anything besides the Joe Gunther series?
Perhaps. I like writing the series. It teaches me things about myself and the real world around me, and people seem to like the results. But I might someday step outside and try my hand at something else — maybe an old-fashioned thriller, or a historical novel. Having written histories once, I think it would be fun to combine the two disciplines.