(Kate Flora: As MCW readers know, one of our favorite things here at the blog is introducing new Maine crime writers. Today’s interview is with a writer I have known for years, a terrific writer who has demonstrated the importance of persistence in his 13-year journey to publication!)
KF: Tell us a little about your book, Sniper. First, the obvious question—where did you get the idea for this book?
VH: The idea for the book came to me twelve years ago. I was following the manhunt for the Washington, D. C. sniper and thought about how vulnerable the average citizen is to a random act of violence. I’ve also always been enamored with the reluctant hero. The character who wants nothing more than to be left alone, but is placed in a situation where he or she realizes that only they can fix the situation. This is the underlying premise of Mike Houston. He left the Marines believing that he also left the sniper behind, only to be forced back into that world.
KF:Can you give us a quick plot summary?
VH: Four people lie dead on Boston Common and to Det. Mike Houston’s trained eye, the evidence points to an experienced sniper, someone trained, as Houston was, by the U.S. Marine Corps. When Houston’s ex-wife, Pamela, falls to the assassin’s bullet, he knows that the lives of his family and friends are at stake. Allying himself with criminals, Houston takes on his unseen opponent in a game of cat and mouse that leads to a bloody showdown on an isolated Maine island.
KF: You begin each chapter with a quote from the Sniper training manual. Were you a sniper yourself?
VH: No, I was not a sniper. When I enlisted in the Corps, the concept of scout/snipers was in its infancy. People such as Carlos Hathcock, were just then establishing the first school in Quantico, VA. One thing the Marine Corps has always emphasized is that every Marine, no matter what rank or military occupation specialty, is first and foremost a rifleman and every Marine goes through intensive infantry training, including annual trips to the rifle range. I read a number of books by and about Marine snipers and interviewed several people who had either been snipers or had worked closely with them. As for getting inside the sniper’s heads…as they say “Once a Marine; always a Marine…”
KF: Some of the reviews suggest that this book is not for the faint-of-heart, that it’s a violent book. Is it?
VH: I guess the best way to answer that question is to say snipers are trained for a singular purpose…to inspire fear in the enemy by killing certain key personnel, such as officers and radiomen. Police deal with violence on a daily basis and one of my major characters is a gangster. These are all people who live by violence. The challenge was to make their world as realistic as possible without including a lot of gratuitous violence. So, the short answer is yes, there is violence. Which I tried to offset with a more human side of each of the major characters…heck, even my antagonist has some, no matter how minor, redeeming features.
KF: Your book is set primarily in Boston, but you live in Northern Maine, so how did you research your settings?
VH: I grew up in Caribou, ME but lived in the Boston area for over fifteen years, returning to Maine after cancer took my wife of 36 years from me. I have walked every Boston location in the book and have hunted or hiked through the northern Maine woods from which I drew the scenes of the island. (Although there is no Aroostook Lake in Maine, there are many that are similar.)
KF: You have two protagonists in your book, Mike Houston and Anne Bouchard. Since Mike is an ex-military man like yourself, was he easier to write? What are the challenges of writing a pair of detectives like this?
VH: Actually, I found both of the characters to be equally difficult to write, although Mike’s mental processes more closely parallel to mine. I did, however, seek help from several women in the formulation of Anne’s personality and to get a better perspective on how women cope with pursuing a career in a predominantly male field. I can’t speak for all male authors but I find dealing with the emotional aspects of a female character to be very challenging. I’m thankful that I’ve had several women (my late wife, Connie among them) who read my work and said, “This is Bull…” I learned a long time ago that the important people in my life tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.
KF: Follow-up question: Are you planning to make this a series, or this is this a stand-alone?
VH: My agent is currently proposing a follow-up, THE FISHERMAN, to the publisher.
KF: This is your first book, but you’ve been writing for a long a time. Can you tell us something about that journey?
VH: Seeing as this is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival in America, I think you could say my journey was a Long and Winding Road. I started out thinking I knew how to write and then spend a turbulent twenty years learning how to write. If it was not for a long list of writers, including you, I might still be wandering around without a clue.
There are times when a rejection, especially when the rejecter takes time to tell you why, is far more valuable than an acceptance. I believe that my road to being published began when I started attending meetings of the New England chapters of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. I made up my mind that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to surround myself with people who have already achieved it and listen to them.
Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence (and I’m paraphrasing here) says that it isn’t enough to just listen. We must learn to listen naively. He stated that in our own way we are all experts and that when we listen to people we don’t hear what they’re saying because we are too busy formulating our expert answer. We must listen as if we know nothing about the topic. Of course, once we listen then we have to be willing to try what we heard. All I can say is that listening to writers, such as yourself, and trying their suggestions taught me more than any college course ever would.
KF: Following up on that last question, we often hear from writers who’ve tried to get published, gotten discouraged, and given up. What are some of your strategies for not giving up?
VH: I don’t think there is a strategy per se. You just have to keep at it. The publishing industry is like any other, they’re looking to make a profit and stay alive. They have cut out layers of assistant editors and first readers, dumping all that workload onto the literary agent. The best strategy I know is to network like crazy. It’s no different than looking for a job. You don’t find a job by going to the unemployed, you go to the employed and ask who they know that may need you. Getting published is no different. Attend MWA and SinC, SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), or RWA (Romance Writers of America.) Talk to published writers, ask them to evaluate your work (then listen naively) and try the things they say.
There is an element of luck involved, too. You have to find the one person (preferably an agent) who likes your work and will champion it. (For what it’s worth, I almost gave up…I wrote my first novel in 1989 and was awarded second place in a literary contest. I knew nothing of the business and invested my prize money with a predator agent, who charged me two bucks a page editing fee because I was unpublished (I think stupid was a better way of saying it) and got nothing for it. I became discouraged and it wasn’t until I attended my 35th high school reunion that something happened that fired me up again. Several ladies, who had read my truly amateurish stuff when we were in 7th grade, cornered me and wanted to know why they weren’t seeing my books on the shelves. I had no answer. But I asked myself “why aren’t they?” Then I got serious and began networking…caution for all of you aspiring writers, it still took me thirteen years to get a book deal!)
KF: And another follow-up. Now that Sniper has been published, is there another book in the pipeline? And if so, can you tell us a little bit about that?
VH: My agent is currently offering THE FISHERMAN to my publisher. Mike Houston is asked by an elderly couple from Kittery to help them find their granddaughter who disappeared while attending college in Boston. He soon learns that not only is she missing, but over fifty other women have disappeared over the last four years and each and every time a truck carrying seafood was known to be in the area. This one is based, loosely, on a true case out in Vancouver, British Columbia.
KF: Something that always fascinates readers and writers is your writing process. Are you a disciplined write every day type? A write in bursts when the ideas come type? Do you outline?
VH: I wouldn’t recommend my writing process to anyone. I can best describe it as prolonged periods of procrastination interspersed with frenetic periods of writing. I don’t outline, although I’m trying it on the novel I’m currently working on. I do find that it helps to keep me in the chair when the call of a Bruins game reaches out to me! I find that being in an active writer group helps me…if I feel that I have to bring something every week, I have to write something.
KF: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
VH: I was born in Caribou, Maine and have been all over the world. I was a rebellious kid (some people will say that hasn’t changed) and was prone to being reckless (ditto). I left home at the age of 17 and bummed around Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey for a year and then joined the Marines. My first trip abroad was to beautiful South Viet Nam. After the service I came back to Caribou and married the woman I would torment for 36 years. After I completed technical school and got a BA, we moved to the Boston area. I got a job with Wang Labs and they sent me to Chicago, where we lived for twelve years. The Chicago experience was best described by my wife who upon being told we were returning to New England said, “I made a home in Chicago, but Chicago was never my home.” My writing started in junior high school when I wrote a series of terrible vampire stories! Thank God none have survived… I always wanted to write a novel about how screwed up I was, sort of a mix between The Catcher In The Rye and Battle Cry. The result was a book entitles THE WAR WITHIN, which I entered in a literary contest and won 2nd prize (a cash reward of $1500.00). I am currently considering rewriting it and seeing if it will sell now. In the late eighties and early nineties anything related to Viet Nam was impossible to sell. I spent thirty years in hi-tech, only to learn that I hated it. I wanted to write. When my wife passed away, I only had me to worry about so I moved back to the county where I could afford to live and write full-time. So here I am in wonderful Stockholm about five minutes from the end of civilization as we know it and loving every minute of it.
KF: A couple of Maine-specific questions. Some of us were talking recently about the dark side of Maine, and how it leads naturally to the writing of crime novels. Do you feel that Maine plays a role in how you look at crime? Is there something about the rural nature, or our character, or the way people live closer to the land, or more isolated lives, or have to scrabble for a living that influences you as a writer?
VH: I think there’s an element of truth in all of what you say. I also think that Maine has more than its share of people with low self-esteem so we always seek out and are fascinated by the darker side. All one has to do is look at the most famous writer ever to come from our state—he writes horror. I can’t speak for the southern part of the state, but up in the county winter is four-fifths of the year (you are either living in it or getting ready for it) and there has to be a lot of things that go bump in those loooong winter nights. What better time to write about a heinous crime than at night with the wind howling and snow blowing up a real jeeser of a noreaster?
KF: And now for the light-hearted question: Can you share with our readers a particular Maine place that’s special to you that most people might not know about?
VH: Wow, there’s so many. Let’s just say that anyone who wants to come up here can join me on a real camping trip. We’ll go by boat and pitch a tent where the only electricity is during a lightning storm and drink coffee by the campfire (I’ll bring the pistol to drive the bears away). Sorry ladies, not a facility in miles…and the only mirror is the lake surface.
KF: Thank you, Vaughn. I’ve known you for years, but this has been really illuminating. I can’t wait to read Sniper.