Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Crime Writer Michael Harvey on Chicago: The L, The Cops, and The Watering Holes

Michael, thanks for chatting with me about The Third Rail.

Your narrator tells his story in first person, but we get a bad guy’s perspective in third person. Why did you choose a double point of view?

Good question. My first two books, The Chicago Way and The Fifth Floor, were both written in the first person, from Michael Kelly’s point of view. I enjoy writing in Kelly’s voice and wanted to keep him in the first person. My plot for The Third Rail, however, called for multiple crime scenes that unfold almost simultaneously across the city. In order to maintain and feed the dynamics of that story line, I felt it was critical to get into the killer’s head at certain points and allow him to drive the action forward. So I kept Kelly in the first person, and used the third person for my killer.

This decision is not without risk. But I figure nothing ventured, nothing gained. I will be interested in readers’ reaction to the switching. Did it bother them? Did they like it? Did they even notice? We’ll see.

Your plot involves some real-life events, including a 1977 el-train crash that I remember seeing on the news. Were you around when this crash happened? When did you decide you wanted it to be a facet of your novel?
I was a kid living in Boston, so, no, I don’t remember the 77 L crash. I first heard about it when I was working as a journalist for CBS in Chicago. At that time, I took the L just about every day and certainly recall many days when I thought our train was going off the edge as it negotiated a turn in the Loop.

I decided I wanted the accident to be part of the novel about halfway through writing it. I knew my spree killer was going to attack the city through the L system. I just didn’t know exactly how. Or why. As I ran through different possibilities, I remembered the old L accident. I was especially intrigued with the idea that the accident could be used as a vehicle to tie into Kelly’s childhood, and help strip away a little more of his character. Once I saw that possible tie-in, I knew the 77 crash was going to be part of the book.

Many a cop (both fictional and real) is willing to walk into danger despite the wishes of their loved ones. The same is true of Michael Kelly, a former cop and now a private investigator. What makes Kelly determined to do it despite his girlfriend’s desire for him to find a safer job?

The easy answer is... that’s just Kelly’s job. The better answer is... that’s his nature.

I have interviewed a lot of cops, firemen, EMT workers, military personnel -- people whose job it is to put themselves in harm’s way. They understand the risks inherent in what they do and, for the most part, don’t assume those risks lightly. Their comfort level comes from a belief in their own abilities and an implicit trust in the people they work with every day. They figure if everyone does their job, chances are nothing bad is going to happen. Do bad things happen? Yes. Do people die? Yes. Do these folks realize that? Yes. But they don’t dwell on it. Their nature allows them to tolerate a considerable amount of risk, and do the jobs no one else in society wants to think about.

Interesting! One of your more evil characters saw active duty in Afghanistan. Is the reader to deduce that he was twisted by war, or was he a warped individual before he went overseas?

That’s up to each individual reader to decide.

One of the great things about writing (and reading) novels is that each reader brings his or her life experiences to the novel, and essentially completes the story with their own interpretation of events and character.

I believe Robles was twisted well before he hit Mogadishu. As I said in the book, he was born in a toilet in a Greyhound bus terminal. And it went downhill from there. His experiences overseas probably didn’t help things, but he was already in trouble before he joined the military. At least, that’s my take.

The mayor of Chicago is fictionalized in your book, but he’s very similar to Mayor Daley—-especially with that intensity that seems to border on insanity. Did one inspire the other?

Wilson is based on my impressions of a number of different politicians. Most tend to be highly driven and a little paranoid, with an unsettling mix of ego and insecurity. These folks like the spotlight, crave power and know how to use it. Scary? Sometimes. Interesting? Without a doubt.

You paint a negative, almost a sinister vision of the Catholic church. Is this Michael Kelly’s perspective, or is it yours?

It’s Kelly’s experience, more than perspective. And it’s an evil that is not limited to the Catholic Church.

One of the subsets of the Kelly series is the idea that the major institutions of society -- government, big business, the Catholic Church etc., -- are morally bankrupt, act only in their own self-interest and are not to be trusted. I think this reflects a feeling many people have when they look at the real world these days. Katrina, the war in Iraq, Wall Street’s meltdown, the Catholic Church’s ongoing abuse scandal -- the examples are, unfortunately, almost too numerous to list.

Kelly, in some ways, represents the little guy whose job it is to jump in the water and swim with these sharks. He gets bitten a lot, and is understandably wary. But he wins some of the time. At least enough to pay the bills and keep him in beer.

Everyone in your book has an agenda, either political or personal. Is this Kelly’s cynicism, or is this the way you view Chicago?

Both. In my experience as a journalist and documentary producer, I have found most people in positions of power tend to act in their own self interest – with the prime directive being save one’s own skin at all costs. There are exceptions -- but that’s what they are....exceptions.

Did you study the history of Chicago’s elevated trains before formulating your plot, or after?

I knew about the 1977 train crash, but did not initially think I’d use it in the book. As I got into the writing, I kept coming back to the crash both as a way to tie Kelly’s past into the plot and as a tool to strip away more of his character.

Overall, I have always thought the L would make a wonderful crime scene. It’s a huge, mobile, daily undertaking that runs through the heart of the city and connects all its component parts. It’s a place where a killer can find anonymity – be it on a crowded platform, in a dark tunnel, or tucked up in a building that overlooks the tracks. It’s an exciting place, a place every Chicagoan recognizes, and, whether we like it or not, a sometimes dangerous place.

One of your scenes takes place in a ruined building in Cabrini Green. Did you visit this site? The details seem very specific.

I lived in Cabrini for three days as a journalist. We did a report documenting living conditions in the housing project in the early nineties. Cabrini was a dangerous place. It was also a place a lot of wonderful people called home...a place where a lot of families lived, loved and cared for each other. Gunfire be damned.

Such a sad truth. You have a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University. Do you live in the Chicago area?

Yes. I live about a half mile from Wrigley Field. Another place of great tragedy in the city.

Haha. I'm married to a Cubs fan, and he's either angry or sad for most of the summer. :)

The Third Rail is the third Michael Kelly crime novel; will there be more in the series?

Yes. The Third Rail leaves a couple of story lines unresolved. Some people probably won’t like that, but it was done intentionally. Why? Because that, more often than not, is how life works. Even when a homicide detective clears a case, it’s rarely tied up into a nice, neat package. It might appear that way, but appearances can be deceiving. There are usually questions in even a closed file that linger; certain facts that still don’t make sense; suspects that might not have killed anyone...but are suspicious nonetheless. Homicide detectives look at all of this as extraneous and a headache. They usually just want to catch the killer, close the file and move on to the next case. As a result, these lines of inquiry often remain open, unresolved and, for lack of a better word, messy. That’s just how it is.

Anyway, the next book in the Kelly series takes one of these unresolved, messy story lines from The Third Rail and follows it to its logical...or perhaps illogical conclusion. I guess that’s the long way of saying the next book is a bit of a sequel to The Third Rail.

Kelly’s girlfriend is a judge, and sometimes in the narration she is referred to as “the judge” rather than by her name. Is this symbolic?

I don’t think so. “Judge” is just more likely to come up when Rachel is being talked about in her capacity as...you guessed it... a judge.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer said you have “done for Chicago what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles and Dashiell Hammett for San Francisco.” Wow! Were you surprised by this accolade linking you to the biggest names in crime fiction?

Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald essentially created the private detective genre and were three of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. I could write another five lifetimes and not touch any of their work. But it’s a nice thought, and I appreciate it.

Your novel contains a great many details that only Chicagoans might recognize: Tom Skilling giving a weather report, someone reading Michael Sneed’s column, the typical behaviors of Irish south-siders. How do you decide which details to include? Do you ever put in homages to your personal favorites?

I own The Hidden Shamrock, Kelly’s favorite watering hole, and get my coffee at Intelligentsia, so I guess those are two favorites. Otherwise, I try to find places in the city that people might relate to, or find interesting. I especially look for scenes that convey the intangibles and atmospherics of Chicago. It’s a great city, so why not!

Good question! How can readers find out more about Michael Harvey and the Michael Kelly novels, especially The Third Rail?

They can go to my website www.michaelharveybooks.com or my Facebook page.

They can also follow me on Twitter at TheChicagoWay, and can go to Knopf’s home page.

Thanks for the conversation, Michael.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Books and Society

"A great writer is, so to speak, a second government in his country. And for that reason no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones."

--Alexander Solzhenitsyn

"To read too many books is harmful."

--Mao Tse Tung

(photo: South Haven, Michigan, 2010)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Thriller Writer Mark Terry on Good Novels, Recurring Dreams and Charmed Life

Mark Terry's new Derek Stillwater novel, The Fallen, comes out this month from Oceanview Publishing. Terry lives in Michigan.

Your new book, The Fallen, has received much praise, and the Lansing Journal suggests that you write “like Lee Child on steroids.” Is this true? Are your books about action first and foremost?

That was a particularly flattering comment from the Lansing State Journal. Well, “action first and foremost,” I’m not sure. But they are very action-oriented and I really have no problem calling Derek Stillwater, my main character, an action hero. I tend to describe them as action-adventure thrillers, although they’ve been called political thrillers and even espionage thrillers.

This book is your third Derek Stillwater novel. Tell us a bit about this character.

Derek Stillwater, PhD, is a troubleshooter for the Department of Homeland Security. His particular areas of expertise are chemical and biological terrorism. He is a former Special Forces expert in biological and chemical warfare. That’s his resume, but he’s a bit neurotic, something of a hypochondriac, has some superstitious tendencies (he believes in luck, both good and bad, wears ju-ju beads, a St. Sebastian’s medal (patron saint of plagues), and a four-leaf clover). He has panic attacks. His parents were missionary physicians, so he was raised on missions in various countries around the world like Congo and Sri Lanka. He lives on a cabin cruiser on the Chesapeake Bay and routinely puts in his letter of resignation, but always comes back when called on.

He lives on a boat; is this an homage to Travis McGee?

Sort of. I've always found the concept appealing, and in my novel, Dirty Deeds, the character of Jack Bear lives on a boat as well. I don't know if I'd like living on a boat or not, but I do like boats, and I think it says something interesting (perhaps it means different things for different people) about the character. There must be something satisfying in knowing that you can just haul anchor and move your home anywhere you want without a lot of planning.

Will Derek be back for a fourth book?

Yes, the fourth book is written and scheduled for September 2011 by Oceanview Publishing. The title is THE VALLEY OF SHADOWS. It takes place over a 48-hour period leading up to election day in November as Derek and a terrorism task force attempt to prevent attacks in Los Angeles that they have intelligence about.

You yourself are a very action-oriented person; when not writing, your website informs me that you “study sanchin-ryu karate, lift weights, bike, run, and kayak.” Would a novel about Mark Terry have an exciting plot?

I seriously doubt it, since I otherwise spend most of my time in front of a computer screen. I didn’t always used to be this active, but since I became a full time writer about 5-1/2 years ago, and my schedule freed up a bit, I started going to the gym and just kept adding other things that I liked to do. I’d studied the American Karate System in college for a year or so and had to drop out when I got too busy. Then life took over. Then about six years ago my kids started taking Sanchin-Ryu. About a year later when my schedule permitted I started going, too. I’m now a first-degree brown belt. The next level is black belt. My youngest son has dropped out, but my wife has started. That black belt is probably on the near horizon.

On your blog you wrote about some recurring “stress dreams.” The first one, ‘the college final exam,’ I’ve experienced before (although sometimes it’s high school). But I’ve never experienced your second one, the ‘writing career’ dream. Can you expand on this one?

Hmmm. Sure. There appear to be two varieties to it. First, it’s probably helpful to know that I worked for 18 years in a cytogenetics laboratory at a major metropolitan hospital. I really didn’t like the job or the work, although for the most part the people were fine. My “day job” now is as a freelance writer—I write magazine articles and market research reports and newsletters and many, many other things, in addition to writing novels (I’m also collaborating on a nonfiction book).

I love it, as a matter of fact, at least as much as the novel-writing and sometimes even more. So my two versions of a stress dream involve, 1) the writing didn’t work out and I had to go back and work at the hospital doing cytogenetics. Ack! And 2) for some reason my wife and I decide to go back to college full-time and I have to look for a job and I typically find myself looking for a cytogenetics job (there’s a lab at Michigan State, where we both graduated). But usually that dream ends with me realizing that I can still freelance write and don’t have to look for the lab job. Our brains are funny things.

Agreed. You live in Michigan. Have you lived there all your life? Have you ever fantasized about living somewhere else?

I have lived in Michigan my entire life and went to college at Michigan State University in East Lansing. And yes, I’ve fantasized about living somewhere else all the time, especially from about the month of November through April when winter strikes Michigan. There are many places I’d like to live, including Texas and Florida, and who knows, maybe someday I will.

You have a dog named Frodo. Does this mean you’re a Tolkien fan, or someone else in your family is?

Well, yes, at least, I’m a fan of the movies. I’d read the trilogy and The Hobbit a couple times when I was in high school. And the films are pretty much favorites. I think it was my sons who named him, though. He’s a very good dog, a chocolate Lab.

Will you be very busy while promoting The Fallen?

Yes. At the moment I’m scheduled for 8 or 9 signings. I’m doing a blog tour for a couple weeks. I did a cable TV interview show last week and we’re still in the process of scheduling some other events and interviews.

What’s the best fan response you’ve received to your books?

I loved your book and I’m going to go out and buy the others.

You mentioned on your blog that Sue Grafton’s I is for Innocent influenced you greatly, as well as a couple of Robert Parker and Stephen King books. What makes Grafton’s letter I novel so influential?

I’ve often thought that “I” is for Innocent was the almost perfect mystery novel. A lot of it has to do with the structure, which is this beautiful three-part story structure. Kinsey is hired to review a murder case for an attorney, and about a third of the way there’s a major reversal, then about 2/3s of the way there’s yet another major reversal, and then it wraps up with a very exciting finale, which is not always the case with a Grafton novel. I just think it’s a beautifully crafted novel that does everything right.

If you have any spare time for reading, what are you reading right now?

I just finished Erica Orloff’s FREUDIAN SLIP and started reading Jonathan Kellerman’s DECEPTION. I’m also reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams.

Like you, I have two sons, and I find that I borrow heavily from their expressions for my dialogue. Do you ever do this with your own boys?

Not so much. They’re 12 and 16 and I don’t have too many kids in the Derek Stillwater novels. I spent some time the last year writing some books aimed at middle grades, but they never got picked up. They were fun to write, though, and I think I learned a lot, not only about writing for kids, but by writing for kids, probably learned a thing or two about kids in the process.

If you could have your fantasy, what would be an ideal day for you?

In a lot of ways I’m already living it. I get up, take my youngest son to school, come back, walk the dog, then head for my home-office to write for a couple hours. Then I go to the gym or go outside for a bike ride, depending on the day and the weather, have lunch somewhere, walk the dog again, then back to the office. I write for a couple hours, then pick up my kids, then work for another couple hours. Then I’ll have dinner with the family, practice the guitar, write if I need to, hang out with the family or go to a karate class or some other activity like a band booster meeting. It’s a charmed life. Aside from that, I wouldn’t mind being on a tropical island in a hammock with a tropical drink close at hand.

Both versions sound great! How can readers find out more about Mark Terry and The Fallen?

Visit my website at www.markterrybooks.com

Thanks for chatting with me, Mark!


Sunday, April 04, 2010

Reflections for the Day

"Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!"

~Thomas Blackburn, "An Easter Hymn"

The stars shall fade away, the sun himself
Grow dim with age, and Nature sink in years;
But thou shalt flourish in immortal youth,
Unhurt amid the war of elements,
The wreck of matter, and the crush of worlds.

~Joseph Addison

(photos: South Haven, Michigan April 2010)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

That Idiot April

Edna St. Vincent Millay said that April "Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers." So here it is, beautiful in its foolishness of flowers and green buds. This is a day that one should inhale the air and examine one's weltanshauung.

Did I know what weltanshauung meant ten minutes ago? I did not. But I am a subscriber to Wordsmith's word of the day, and my vocabularly is expanding mightily thanks to their intelligent daily e-mails.

Today my weltanshauung and I will be enjoying spring by getting away from it all; glorious pictures to follow. :)