Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ken Lewis on The Challenges of Chiefdom, The Pain of Transition, and The Rewards of Writing

Ken, thanks for chatting with me!

I love the title of your book, Little Blue Whales. I haven’t read the whole book yet, though—what does the title refer to?

Hi Julia, and thanks for having me on as a guest. The title of the book has a double meaning, actually. Blue whales, as you probably already know, are the largest creatures on earth. In the novel a small plastic toy blue whale is used to lure the victims down to the beach in hopes of seeing the real thing.

The irony is that blue whales are true creatures of the deep and as a rule never venture in any closer than seventy miles or more of the Oregon coastline, while other more common species, like grey whales, sometimes beach themselves in shallow coastal waters during their winter and spring migrations.

Your novel is preceded by a beautiful quote from Richard Rayner: “Wisdom is what we glean, if we’re lucky, with our minds from the twisted root of the past—so that our hearts can ignore it and proceed at once in the opposite direction.” What made this an important quote to give the readers before they start the book?
Richard Rayner’s 1997 novel, Murder Book, is one of the best pieces of crime fiction I’ve ever read. A murder book is a large, three ring binder which contains all of the investigative reports, evidence sheets, witness statements, crime scene photos, etc. which have been compiled in a homicide investigation.

The story focuses on Billy McGrath, a very flawed L.A. homicide detective who gives everything of himself he has left in order to solve one last big case, even as his personal life is disintegrating all around him. I finished reading the book only months before starting my own novel and when I read that passage—on page 120 of the Harper Collins paperback edition—I finally knew what it was I wanted to write about. So often in life we learn our most important lessons the hard way, and we know what the consequences may be for repeating those same mistakes, but in the end our hearts always seem to lead us forward more often than our heads do. I wanted to write about that…about a tragically flawed man whose past has made him believe he can never truly love, and about the equally flawed woman he falls in love with anyway. In Little Blue Whales police chief Kevin Kearnes is that man, and Britt McGraw is the woman he falls for.

Police Beat says that your book captures "...the real world of police officers...gritty, imperfect, and much more fragile than one would imagine." You have a background in law enforcement. Could you have written this book without that experience?
No, I don’t think I could have written this exact book because it is very much about the way real police officers really are--the good, the bad, and the ugly. When I entered law enforcement almost thirty years ago the police in this country had reached almost folk hero status, and today I consider the quintessential American cop to be almost iconic in our culture. But what people don’t know about “real” police could literally fill a book, and that was one of the goals I set out to accomplish in the writing of Little Blue Whales.

You are a police chief in Rogue River, Oregon, but you have been “a patrolman, a deputy sheriff, a detective, [and] a patrol sergeant.” Was it always your goal to be a chief of police?
Are you kidding? Of all the different jobs and ranks in the police department, being the chief is the absolute worst! Being a chief was never a conscious goal of mine, but not ever having to work graveyard shift again, and always having weekends off, was. So I guess it did kind of work out for me in that regard. Seriously though; I feel good about having earned my way to the top by applying myself and learning all the other jobs and skills in law enforcement it takes to eventually become a chief.

Well, I've learned something today. :)

You state on your website that you were a writer first, but that you entered law enforcement because of “the overpowering allure” of this profession. What is alluring about police work?

The question probably should be; what isn’t alluring about police work? Every person you meet, every scenario you deal with, no matter how similar to other events and people you have already come across on the job, will have a slightly different slant to it. It is both fascinating to see, and to some degree be directly involved with, the entire spectrum of human behavior from the absolutely macabre to the positively wonderful (sometimes all in the same day) every day you go to work.

There is an extended water metaphor in your first chapter. Will water images be important to the theme of this mystery?
You know, until reading your question just now, I didn’t even realize there was! But you are very right. Rivers and oceans are a definite theme in the book because water bears things along on its surface, and water sometimes pulls things down. Water gives life and at times, takes life away. The novel is set on the southern Oregon coast where the western continental land mass ends and the Pacific ocean begins. For Kevin Kearnes, the ocean represents a dead end he has reached in his life long race to outrun his past; he can literally run no further. But what he doesn’t know when he arrives in the small coastal community of Cutter Point, OR to take the position of the town’s new police chief is that this life long race has unwittingly brought him full circle, and he is about to come face to face with the past he has so long feared

How did you come up with the idea for Little Blue Whales?
I had to. I was desperate. In 1998 I found myself, by my own accord, going through a divorce and living in a new town on the Oregon coast 600 miles away from my five sons, who were all still living with their mother in Washington state. In almost twenty years of being a husband and father I had always been able to use the rationale of having to fulfill those roles first as my excuse to never seriously begin writing a novel. I moved to Brookings, OR in July of that summer and one August night, on my birthday, I was having dinner alone in the bar of a restaurant down on the beach called Smugglers Cove, watching the sun set over the ocean. I don’t think I had ever been so depressed before in my life.

I missed my kids so much that it hurt, and the new job I had accepted, at first so seemingly perfect, was turning out to be the job from hell. I was watching the sun sinking lower and lower into the water, wondering just how much worse my life could actually become…and that was the instant the idea for the book came to me. I remember thinking: ‘Oh, that’s how some police chief’s life in a similar situation could get even worse! Really worse!” The main plot, theme, characters, and locations began flooding into my brain and I remember asking the only other person in the room, the barmaid, if I could borrow something to write with. The barmaid’s name was “Britt.” She brought me a blue ink pen and a stack of cocktail napkins and for the next hour, non-stop, I wrote the outline to “Little Blue Whales.” I still have those ink stained cocktail napkins in my dresser drawer, but I never saw Britt again.

But that was the easy part! I “thought” about the novel over the course of the next year and didn’t actually start writing it until August of 1999. I finished writing it in late February, 2006.

Wow! That is a romantic tale.

Writing was, for you, a dream deferred for a time. How long did you dream of writing a book before you actually wrote one?

I am somewhat embarrassed to answer this question, but to be honest? Twenty seven years.

Your writing is very poetic. Have you written poetry?
Ha ha! No, not really. I wrote a couple of poems for my wife, JaNell, a few years ago when I was trying to convince her to marry me; but that’s all. Maybe I’ve always been sort of a poet--who just didn’t know it?

Okay, I take back the poetry question. :)

As a career policeman, do you find that your attitude about humanity is optimistic or pessimistic?

I think it is probably a little bit of both. I take humanity in the form it comes to me, and after all these years of wearing a badge, I know better than to try and classify human nature in terms of absolutes. In fact, as a cop, my own personal belief is that human beings are capable of acting absolutely terrible, absolutely wonderful, or absolutely anywhere in the middle of those two extremes.

You have a new book that came out in December called The Sparrow’s Blade. This is an interesting contrast of images. How do you come up with your titles?

Hey, I only wish The Sparrow’s Blade, had already been out since last December! I’m still writing it, and I believe what it says on the website is that it is due out in December, 2007. But that’s OK, because if you would have checked my website a month ago the available date then was listed as October, 2007. That was a little overly optimistic, I’m afraid, and the date had to be moved forward a bit.

As far as titles go: For me; having the perfect title and the perfect cover art concept is a must…before I even begin the actual writing of a book. They act as a kind of “north star,” something I can get a constant visual fix on in order to move the characters and story unerringly in the direction I wish to go. I spoke earlier in the interview about how the title for Little Blue Whales evolved, and the cover art for this book actually depicts a key scene in the story. In The Sparrow's Blade, which is the sequel to Little Blue Whales, the title refers to an ancient samurai sword carried by a Japanese pilot who dies in the only successful attack on mainland American soil in WWII. That pilot, venerated by his unselfish, heroic act for the Empire of Japan, comes to be known as “The Emperor’s Sparrow.” The story, based loosely on an actual event, the September, 1942 bombing near Brookings, OR by a Japanese naval military plane, revolves around what has become of the sword—-now a priceless war relic some sixty- five years later, and worth over a million dollars—-and the people who are willing to die themselves, if need be, in their efforts to reclaim it.

Pretty cool. Having read the first chapter of Little Blue Whales, I sense that being a parent has given depth to your characterizations. Would you say that this is true?
Yes, I would. I certainly have my own regrets about falling short as a parent. Being a writer allows me the ability to try and make amends, in a way, to my sons. To tell them how much I love them and always did love them. And to hopefully show them how to avoid making some of the same mistakes I made as their parent, as two of them are parents with their own children now. The theme of the bond, and the strength of love between fathers and sons, runs undeniably and shamelessly through both books. And that’s something I am quite proud of.

There are probably a million heartbreaking stories from your police career—but what’s the most heartwarming one?
About three years ago a local guy had just gotten out of prison after serving time for killing a motorist in a drunk driving accident. This man was on parole and he and his two children were living with his elderly mother at her house. On Christmas Eve day I responded to a call of a disturbance at their residence. His mother was the one who had called. When I arrived on scene the mother told me her son had “gone crazy”; yelling, screaming, swearing, and that he had kicked the dryer in her laundry room, putting a large dent in it. I was very wary, thinking he was probably drunk or on drugs and that I would have to arrest him for violating his parole, and he would go back to prison. But when I found him in the back yard he was stone cold sober--and crying.

He was angry, and humiliated because it was Christmas Eve and he didn’t have any money to buy his two little girls something for Christmas. I must have been doing some last minute Christmas shopping myself that day or something, because for once I was actually carrying money with me. I talked with him for a minute about controlling his anger and how important that was going to be in the future if he wanted to avoid going back to jail. Then I gave him two twenty dollar bills and drove him down to the shopping center, which was getting ready to close in about half an hour. I felt so damned good, being able to do that! And not just because I had the forty dollars to spare, either. It was because even though I was there for all the wrong reasons, it turned out to be that I was really there at exactly the right time in this family’s life and for all the right reasons. Things like this don’t happen very often on this job but when they do, they tend to stick with you for a very long time. And besides, I am an absolute sucker when it comes to Christmas! I began writing The Sparrow’s Blade on January 1st of this year, when they were still playing Christmas music on all the radio stations. The book opens during the Christmas holiday season and I am hoping and praying it is finished and published in time for Christmas this year.

That's a great story! How can readers find out more about you and your mystery novels?
You can visit my website at and read an excerpt there from Little Blue Whales and you can send me an email at You can also check out my Blog and reviews at my book’s site on

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Ken!
You are very welcome, Julia. I’ll let you know when The Sparrow’s Blade is finally out and maybe we can do this again! It was fun.

(Photos of Oregon provided by Ken Lewis)


Pat B. said...

Great interview! Little Blue Whales is on my TBR stack, and The Sparrow's Blade sounds worth waiting for.
Thanks to both of you for this interesting interview.
Pat Browning

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Pat! I want to finish it this summer, too.

Anonymous said...

Little Blue Whales was a great read, I have passed it on through my family, some who actually lived in the southern Oregon areas that Ken describes in perfect detail...

I am looking forward to his next, The Sparrow's Blade, I am sure it will be a hit as well... Way to go Ken!

Fred Rogers

Ken Lewis said...

Thank you Pat! It was nice chatting with you on DL this weekend about my recent adventures in federal court.

And look who else dropped by! Hi Fred. How nice to see you here on Julia's blog. I will probably see you at the Conference in August? Hope so.

Cynde Lou said...

What an awesome interview! I'm definitely going to go out and buy "Little Blue Whales" right away; I can't wait to read it!
I loved the part about how Ken Lewis wrote the outline for the story on the cocktail napkins and the barmaid's name was Britt; that was so cool. I really hope Britt recognizes herself in the interview someday and comes forward so that he can say "hello" to her again! Wouldn't that be cool?
The best to you, Chief Lewis. I can't wait for your new book, "The Sparrow's Blade," to come out! It sounds like it's going to be fantastic!
Your fan,
~Cynde L. Hammond

Julia Buckley said...

Wow, Chief--what a great accolade. Your reputation precedes you.

Ken Lewis said...

Well, I guess my reputation has preceeded me, and even by the check I mailed to Ms. Hammond for this glowing review as well! Ms. Hammond if you are reading this, please do not deposit the funds for at least ten days. Thank you.