OK, here’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you. You’re a lawyer. Why no courtroom series? Why not go the John Grisham route?
Great question, Gerry. I realized early on that if I made my character a lawyer, I’d constantly be checking to be sure I’d gotten the law right, the courtroom procedure right, etc. and I’d end up doing research and reading cases instead of writing. So I followed the “write what you want to know” instead of the “write what you know” route. For the Thea Kozak series, I picked my next door neighbor’s job—consultant to independent schools—which provided geographic mobility and a flexible job schedule, gave it Thea, and I was off and running.
How I got into writing police procedurals and true crime is another story.
So when in your life did you realize that you were drawn to crime (writing about it, not doing it, I presume).
It was a lovely moonlit night. I was walking on a beach in Bermuda. We’d just passed through one of those round, oriental gates, heading back toward the hotel, and this idea just popped into my head. I turned to my husband and I said, “I’ve got the plot for a mystery.”
Of course, the desire to write came a lot earlier than that. Probably around the time I could first hold a pencil. My first job, at 11 ½, was assistant to the librarian at the Vose Library in Union, Maine, and my passion for reading just spilled over. Every now and then, Elizabeth Coatsworth—tall, elegant, and a REAL WRITER, would come into the library. I was in awe.
Do you think crime/mystery novelists are closet criminals? Or closet cops?
I think some of us are one; some the other. Someone who can write The Silence of the Lambs? Probably a closet criminal. Tess Gerritsen could go either way. I’m so rule bound it’s ridiculous, so I guess I’m a closet cop, and Joe Burgess is definitely my alter-ego. But I think to write credible bad guys we need to be able to understand their points of view and rationales. Otherwise, they’d stick out like rhinos at a deer park. As I often tell my library and bookstore audiences—most bad guys don’t look into the mirror when they’re brushing their teeth and think…oh, I am sooo bad. Except for our sociopaths, most bad guys think they’re justified in what they’re doing.
You write from the point of view of a homicide detective, Joe Burgess. And Thea Kozak has a detective in her life, too. Have you spent a lot of time with real-life detectives?
Not nearly enough. I’m a huge cop junkie. Though it’s getting to the point (awkward confession here) that all the ones I know well enough to hang around with are retiring and the new ones are young enough to be my kids. But that’s okay. I like hanging around with my kids.
Seriously—I learn stuff for a book and then it drops away when I find myself learning another world, and then I have to go back and take a refresher course. Do a ride along. Get arrested. Shoot a handgun. Go into the interview room. Because if I don’t make the time to have those late night conversations, driving around Munjoy Hill, about what the officer is seeing, about why he became a cop, about the scary things and the rewarding things, Joe Burgess won’t be the dimensioned character I want him to be. And I won’t know how to make Terry Kyle different or the many ways that Stan Perry’s impulsive nature is going to get him into trouble. And I won’t understand so well the tension between Thea Kozak, with her determined, “gotta fix it” nature, and Andre Lemieux, whose job is to serve and protect.
Do your cop sources like your books?
One of the greatest compliments I ever got was when Hugh Holton, the first black commander in the Chicago police department, told me I wrote good cops. He even said so in an article in the Edgars program book. (Unless it was the Bouchercon program.)
Another source told me he thought I should have been a cop, because I included so many little things that only a cop, reading the book, would see and understand. And I’ve done interviews with sources where they’ve told me things, and I’ve gone back to the detectives and said, “Did you know this?” and it was something they’d never been told.
I know I’ll get things wrong…but I try hard to get them right. And then, as you know from writing your rookie, the rule-bound, SOP-driven nature of police work, and the structure of the command staff, can get in the way of a good plot. We have to take some liberties.
Here’s another one I’ve wanted to ask you. You’ve written from the POV of both men and women. Any challenges in getting inside the head of a man? I’ve written one book with a woman protagonist. It was tough and I’m not sure I got it right.
Lots of challenges, Gerry. And this is another thing I think I learn, forget, relearn, and have to work hard on when I’m in revision. In general, men talk differently than women. They’re more certain. Less likely to equivocate and qualify. And they may see things more concretely, while women often tend to focus on the emotions of the situation, men will focus on the solutions and results. But there’s a broad spectrum. So yes, I’m challenged by writing men, but I’m challenged by writing all kinds of characters. By how to make them distinct and diverse, with voices and lifestyles and backstories and worldviews that are uniquely theirs.
I think it’s part of the job. The part I love and the part that never stops being a challenge.
OK, on another subject, you’ve been international president of Sisters in Crime. Do you like spending time with other writers?
I love my colleagues in the mystery field. I’ve been the beneficiary of so much generosity over the years from writers like Mike Connolly and Tess Gerritsen and Laura Lippman. If I can pry myself out of the house to go to a conference, I always have a great time seeing people I’ve known for decades. I love the feeling of being among others who understand about the voices in our heads and the challenges of story-telling, and also about the awful feelings of insecurity when we’re among the “big name” writers. It’s great to hang out in the bar and bitch about the business. I love teaching. I love speaking at libraries. I’m happy to be one of the founders of the New England Crime Bake conference, our regional mystery conference that we hold every November.
That being said, I’m a deeply solitary writer. I don’t join stuff, I don’t hang around with my friends. I probably have lunch with someone two or three times a year. I don’t go to meetings. I’m either at my desk or I’m out doing research, like last week when I was up in Gilead watching the Maine wardens train search and rescue dogs. I am, truly and insanely, addicted to writing.
How on earth do you find time for organizing panels, workshops, and an excellent mystery writers blog?
I don’t have a life, except a life of the mind?
No, that makes me sound so uninteresting. I guess that I believe in community (might come from being raised in a small town?) and so I make the time to contribute to it.
The blog? Well…I kept waiting for someone to organize one and invite me to join, and that didn’t happen. And since I love trying new things and I didn’t know anything about organizing a blog, I decided to try it and see what happened. (Which is either courageous or a prime example of ignorance is bliss.)
Trying new things, after all, led me to Level Best Books, and seven years of editing and publishing crime story collections by New England writers, one of the most rewarding and wonderful things I’ve ever done. (Our co-blogger Barb Ross and three others have now taken over that project.) Trying new things led me to co-write Finding Amy, with Portland’s then Deputy Chief Joe Loughlin—a terrifying undertaking that resulted in a book I’m very proud of. It was wonderful to give Amy St. Laurent that legacy. And now the blog….?
Isn’t organizing writers like herding cats?
Do you learn from your teaching?
So much I sometimes think it’s unfair to charge them for the classes. I started teaching a new Grub Street class on Wednesday and I’m already crazy about them. They’re so hopeful and so talented and they say things that just blow me away. Last night there was a nugget about embracing process that just went to the heart of things. If we don’t love the process—even when it makes us sweat blood—it’s hard to stay in the chair. And story will only happen if we stay in the chair long enough to let it develop. To try, and retry, and listen to our characters, and let them take us in new directions. And nothing happens if we don’t take chances, which is what they’re all doing with their dream of writing.
OK, back to the books. You’ve written some on grim topics, like the killing of a young boy in THE ANGEL OF KNOWLTON PARK? What draws you to what some people might see as a subject to avoid?
For me, story arises out of character, and Joe Burgess is a guy whose bad experiences have made him hate investigating child killings. That’s his story. I’m just telling it. Okay…I know. I control the horizontal and the vertical. But it often doesn’t feel that way. It feels like the story is there and it’s my job to discover it. Kind of what sculptors say? The statue is there, they just have to carve away what doesn’t belong.
And maybe sometimes I have an agenda, like how it can be folly to leave kids in toxic households in the name of “keeping the family together.” Something Mike Chitwood and I agree about. Or it might be trying to illuminate worlds of people less abled or fortunate than we—characters like Iris, in The Angel, who is deaf, or the little boy with spina bifida, possibly the result of his father’s exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, in Liberty or Death.
When I write cops, I try to reflect the world they inhabit, where they see a lot of ugliness and some of the worst things that humans do to one another, and I try to show their struggle to preserve their own humanity and decency in the face of that.
And you’ve written true crime. That’s one I haven’t tackled. Was it more difficult than making it up?
There seem to be two schools about fiction vs. nonfiction. Some people find nonfiction easy, because
you don’t have to make it up. I find it extremely difficult. It’s an incredible challenge, writing something knowing that most of the people in the book are going to be reading it, so you have to get it right. And for me, at least, it takes a long, long time to get the story. I’ll think I know it and then someone will say, “Did anyone tell you about the night we….?” and I’m off to reinterview and revise.
The challenge of true crime, for me, is best summed up by this quote from Philip Gourevich’s book about the Rwandan massacre, We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.
He writes: “This is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.”
It’s what the cops have to do to recreate the crime, to understand what might have happened, and it’s what the writer must do again to recreate it for the reader.
Are people who meet you casually surprised to find that you’re a mystery novelist? (But you seem like such a nice, cheerful person!)
One of my all-time favorite quotes, courtesy of my mother-in-law: That lovely girl. Those awful books.
What are you working on now, if you don’t mind me asking?
Although I believe in working on only one thing at a time, right now I’m seriously fragmented. I’m finishing a true crime story set up in Miramichi, New Brunswick, that came to me via the wardens who found Amy St. Laurent. I’m editing a suspense novel that needs serious deflabbing. I’m writing a non-mystery novel in linked stories about how people deal with loss. And then there are the short stories and the screen play.
Confusion about how to prioritize keeps sending me out to the garden.
And lastly, if you could offer one tip to an aspiring mystery writer, what would it be?
Believe in yourself and the value of your work. Respect your writing time. And give the work it’s due, so that when you send something out, it’s absolutely the best you can make it. And of course—from someone who spent ten years in the unpublished writer’s corner: Don’t give up. I guess that’s four, isn’t it?
Gerry/Kate – thought provoking look into an unbelievably varied writing career. Thanks.
Kate — you’re always open for a new challenge, and that’s always inspired me. I recall so clearly hearing about REAL WRITER Kate Flora at my writer’s group in Union many moons ago. I guess that makes you my Elizabeth Coatsworth (although maybe not so tall.)
VIcki…I would be so thrilled to be someone’s Elizabeth Coatsworth…or Kate Barnes…though I do not aspire to write poetry.
I love it that Maine is such a community. Yes…varied. And yes…it would be some drive to pop down to Eastport to have lunch with Sarah…but we do feel a sense of connection.
Imagine a writer’s group in Union. I could have used that, back in the day. Although my two best friends, Pam Boggs and Karin Knudsen, served that function pretty well when we were in the now-defunct Union High School.
That’s one of the best interviews I have EVER read.
Bravo, Kate. You are such an interesting lady anyway. Wonderful interview.
Great interview. I’ve known you longer than almost anyone and I learned new stuff.