You publish two mystery series: the Edgar nominated Mal Foley books and the Wild Onion Ltd. novels. How did that come about?
I began with the Mal Foley Series, which is a more traditional, hard-boiled private eye series, told in the first person. Mal is divorced and something of a loner, although he has a mentor of sorts, an older British woman. After writing two of those—the first was Fixed in His Folly, an Edgar nominee—I wanted to try something quite different. The Wild Onion, Ltd. novels feature a woman private investigator, Kirsten, and are third- person, multiple-point-of-view stories. I had intended the first in that series, A Ticket to Die For, to be very dark. As it happened, I soon decided to give Kirsten a husband, Dugan, and the two spouses enjoyed each other’s company so much (“Write what you know,” they say) that they hung out together a lot and kept having these happy, rather light-hearted conversations. So the book took on a lighter tone than I expected. St. Martin’s Press bought a third Mal Foley book and the first Wild Onion, Ltd. book at the same time, and issued the Foley book first. Both are set in and around Chicago, which is where I’ve always lived.
In the Wild Onion series, you deal a lot with the clergy in the Catholic Church—particularly in your latest book, All the Dead Fathers, you look at priests accused of sex crimes. Why have you taken on this issue and what kind of reaction have you gotten from the public and from members of the church?
Priests keep muscling their way into many of my stories, as do lawyers and police officers. I don’t get it. Sure, I’ve been a parish priest, an investigator for the Chicago Police Department (a civilian, investigating charges of police brutality), and a lawyer. But I thought I’d left all three of those careers behind. As to priests, I have good friends who are still active parish priests, and there is just no way you can think about priests these days without the whole sad sex abuse scandal looming in the background. There is a great deal of rage against anyone accused of sexual misconduct, especially with minors. There is a tendency to lump all the accused together as evil people who have committed the worst crime imaginable. In fact, there are an infinite number of degrees of guilt, and various levels of seriousness of the crime/misconduct alleged and often (not always) proven. In All the Dead Fathers, a person reads a list of accused Chicago priests in the Sun-Times, and feels a divine calling to rid the world of them—one by one—making them pay dearly as they die. Kirsten feels an obligation to put an end to the savage killing, although Dugan disapproves of her wasting her efforts on such despicable men. I feel that it’s the best book I have written so far, and it got excellent reviews. If anyone has been so repelled by the very issue itself that they wouldn’t open the book, they haven’t told me about it. My goal was to turn out a good read, and if it opens anyone’s eyes to the need to think carefully about a truly horrific problem (one of many) that’s a bonus.
Some reviewers compare your protagonists in the Wild Onion mysteries to the Thin Man movies or the Hart to Hart television series. How do you feel about these comparisons?
I love such comparisons. Of course, I love just getting reviewed. I never set out to write a “contemporary Nick and Nora Charles,” or an up-to-date” Hart to Hart, or Moonlighting. But the give and take, the banter, and the good-natured wrangling between Kirsten and Dugan is just so much fun to write. Incidentally, those are both first names. They have no last names—at least none that they or I am revealing. While writing the first book, A Ticket to Die For, I was struggling with various last names for Kirsten and Dugan, knowing that Kirsten would hold on to her own last name after marriage. When I was maybe half-way through, I realized I had gotten along so far without using their last names; so, why not just leave them out for good? It seemed to work, and it's been kind of fun for me to have to "write around" last names when they might ordinarily be used, without making the omission draw attention to itself.
When did you first know you wanted to write mysteries?
I always loved writing, but thought “other people”—whoever they are—got novels published. When I left the priesthood I wanted to be a writer, but thought it was maybe just a slightly precarious way to pay the bills. I went to law school, thinking I could practice law and write on the side. Ha! I don’t know how Turow and Co. do it. I couldn’t. I finally quit my job as a lawyer and started practicing on my own part-time and working on a novel part-time. Since everything I was reading as entertainment was a mystery, there never was a question about genre.
Do you prefer to write during a specific time of day (e.g. early morning, night, etc.)?
I am definitely a morning person. When I was still practicing law part-time, I got up at 4:10 every morning and wrote before I went to the Loop to my office. Then I’d try to get home early and “re-write” in the afternoon. Now I sleep in—and get up at 5:10. Why not 5:00? or 5:15? Who knows? It just works better. I might be maybe a tad compulsive.
Do you have any superstitious steps you follow when preparing to write?
Superstitious? Not really. But I’m big into positive thinking, affirmations, visualizations, little signs pasted to my Mac, and anything else that will talk myself into believing I can really do this. I get writer’s block about every other day, and need all the help I can get.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started?
Much of what I know now about writing and publishing, I’m very happy I didn’t know when I first started. Otherwise, I just wish now that I had known then to get started before I did. I give lots of talks at libraries and such, and I love to encourage people who want to be writers to just get started…and then don’t stop.
What is your pet peeve?
I hate it that to write a mystery you have to have a plot. And outside of that, all I can think of right now is that it irritates me when the weather person tries to convince me that it’s going to be a terrible day because it’s going to rain, or snow or whatever. That’s no help.
What can’t you live without?
There are lots of things/people I love and enjoy, some more deeply than others. Besides the obvious basics—wife, friends, food, freedom, Dos Equis—there are yoga, walks, staying published, meeting up with other writers at conferences. The list is endless. I know that my happiness doesn’t depend on any of them, but I’d rather not give it a try just yet, thank you.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing writers now?
For published authors, the fact that acquiring editors prefer to take a chance on some new writer who might be a mega-success rather than to keep on building a mid-list author who hasn’t gotten to the mega stage yet. For unpublished authors, the challenge is writing a dynamite book that will attract one of those acquiring editors. Or is it finding an agent? Or not giving up because you can’t find an agent?
What makes a successful writer?
A lot of reading and a lot of hard work. Not to mention talent, but who knows what to say about that? Except that talent probably takes—among other things—a lot of reading and hard work.
Are there ever circumstances under which you think a writer should censor her or his writing?
I wouldn’t bother. There are plenty of others who are perfectly willing to do that for you. Unfortunately, some of them live in my head.
If you could take the place of another writer for the day, who would it be and why?
I was fortunate enough to have breakfast last year with Alexander McCall Smith and, besides being a great guy, he has a “personal assistant”. That would be cool. But did you say for just one day? Then I guess I’ll be Janet Evanovich. I went to the Old Orchard Barnes & Noble one evening and she had people streaming in and standing in lines that wove all through the store—two floors—cheerfully waiting to have her sign their books. That might be fun…for one day. Then, at about five minutes to midnight I’d make out a big check to— Oh, but her personal assistant probably writes all her checks. So I’d like to be J.K. Rowling for a day. She just might be the greatest pop author of all time. I’d like to find out where she gets her ideas.
Do you think the Internet age will lead to a decrease in book readers and buyers?
Call it “Internet Age” or whatever, but I think it already has. I suspect the fact that the population keeps growing at the rate it does—and don’t get me started on that!—tends to hide the fact of the growing percentage of non-readers. Of course, I don’t have facts and figures to back that up. I’ll leave the research to Jim Huang or Sara Paretsky or someone who’s much more organized than I. But it’s got to be true.
Do you believe authors should take on more of a role in marketing themselves to the public so as to generate book sales?
Thomas Harris and Stephen King, maybe not. Otherwise, it’s a necessity. Some authors have even created their careers from nowhere by sheer relentless promotion. I’m not sure how long that can last unless their books are consistently as good as their marketing. So we all have to write good books, but we also have to grab every opportunity to get our names out there, or sink. One of the first things I did after I signed my first contract was to join Sisters in Crime and get copies of their self-promotion books and devour them line by line. They were a wonderful help.
If someone was making a movie about your life, what would be the title of the movie?
The Return of the Thin Man.
What would you want your epitaph to be?
He Created His Own Life.