Interview with Henry Kisor

Henry Kisor is an interesting fellow. Besides being the author of the recently released and well received mystery novel Season’s Revenge, he is the book editor and literary columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times. Deaf since the age of three, Kisor has written an award winning book about his experience entitled What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness. In 2001 he was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. Kisor lives in Evanston, Ill., with his wife Deborah Abbott and their dog Hogan.

Given his new book and his fascinating background, I though it might be interesting to pick his brain a bit. Mr. Kisor graciously agreed to answer some questions and the result is what follows below. (The interview was conducted by email, questions in bold answers in plain text)

– What makes a journalist and non-fiction author decide to write a mystery novel?

I had done a great deal of research for a nonfiction book about the Upper Peninsula. I’d had in mind telling the broad story of the UP in the form of a true-crime book centering on a serial killer, but the only serial killer I could find murdered just two people. Not much of a serial killer there. After five years of work I was left with a filing cabinet full of apparently useless material. Then I realized that any of the the various small stories of treachery and betrayal I had encountered, as well as the truly interesting history of the UP, could form the thews and sinews of a mystery novel. The UP is full of bears, and one day the idea that a black bear could be turned into a murder weapon occurred to me, and I was off.

– What are some of the unique challenges of fiction writing and mystery writing in particular?

Thirty years as a nonfiction writer and journalist makes it easy to do research, but I have found as a fiction writer that it is not easy to shape that research into fictional characters and events. A lifetime of stifling imagination and focusing on facts made the breakout difficult. So far as mystery writing is concerned, there seems to be a necessity to please readers, to persuade them that not only is the plot plausible but so also are the characters and the furniture of setting. You have got to get everything right; mystery readers won’t suspend disbelief if you stumble over facts. The little things are important, such as how many cartridges a Winchester Model 70 carries in its magazine.

– How did you find time to write a novel with such a demanding day job?

An hour or two in the morning before going to work, weekends and vacations — a few pages here and there, with several straight days of nonstop writing interspersed among long periods of inactivity — and it finally came together.

– The Upper Peninsula of Michigan provides such a great setting. What attracted you to this unique place?

I’ve been spending parts of my summers up there since 1967. My wife’s family has a cabin on Lake Superior that became Steve Martinez’s cabin on the shore. As a city boy I grew to value the remote semi-wilderness of Upper Michigan. “But there’s nothing to do!” a highly urban relative once complained after his single visit there. “Exactly,” I replied. One learns to amuse oneself in a place — Ontonagon County, the model for my fictional Porcupine County — that is so remote and unpopulated it has no mall, no Wal-Mart, no Starbucks, no McDonald’s.

– It seems to me that if you are in Chicago or Detroit you are in the Midwest but if you are in the UP you are in the North (in fact you point this out when discussing the sports loyalties of the UP). At what point do you think the Midwest becomes the North? Are there important differences between the inhabitants of the two regions?

The line of demarcation is not exact, but it seems to me it follows the edge of the deep woods. Those who dwell in what used to be the Northern Frontier of the United States seem to me to be both harder and more tender than those who live farther south. They must work hard to survive on little money, and they must reach out to each other as well. There’s a strong sense of community in places where there are few people. Those who live in the Midwest, especially urban and suburban areas, tend to be more isolated, philosophically and emotionally, from each other even though they are comparatively crowded together.

– As a city dweller you seem able to portray the rural people of Porcupine County without either idolizing them or demonizing them. How does a person from Chicago get into the hearts and minds of people living in one of the most scarcely populated areas in the country?

A journalist’s curiosity helps. And I learned early on that these people, far from being unlettered and unsophisticated, have a fierce native intelligence and knowledge about nature that helps them survive. I found them utterly admirable and fascinating. And maybe these people sensed my interest in and respect for them and reciprocated. I reached out to them and they to me.

– The main character, Steve Martinez, allows you to talk about race in a unique way, one seemingly unconnected to the political correctness or rancor of most discussion on this issue. What informed this discussion or narrative? Your personal experiences or insights gathered from your journalism or both?

As a deaf person I’ve always been conscious of being something of a stereotyped outsider. People expect me to know sign language, which I don’t, and to belong to deaf culture, which I don’t either. I simply applied some of my experiences to Steve’s life as a biological Lakota in a white culture, and invented others from the feelings I had had. Sometimes such experience makes us more sensitive to the experiences of others — and sometimes it also causes us to react in a knee-jerk sort of way. As I get older I realize that sometimes I cause people to react to my deafness in untoward ways simply because I expect them to. Steve Martinez has had to learn this, too. One doesn’t always have to play what in other areas has come to be called the “race card.”

I guess that as a journalist I’ve thought more about race than most Americans since the subject is such a prominent one in my trade. But I don’t claim to have any more insight into it than they do. It’s not a simple subject.

– Besides the mystery of Paul Possoja¹s death, a key component of the book is Deputy Martinez¹ love interest Ginny Fitzgerald. Did you make a conscious effort to include a love story or was that just an outgrowth of Steve¹s character or a plot device (she is a key source of information)?

A mystery novel is a commercial novel, and a large part of the mystery audience is female. They expect a love story as well as a whodunit. And that is tough to bring off in an unsentimental and un-hokey sort of way. But the love interest gave me the opportunity to meld two actual women — my wife, who is a librarian (the perfect consort for a journalist), and the real-life director of the Ontonagon County Historical Museum, who had a celebrated filing-cabinet memory of UP history. The result made a good sidekick for a county deputy not native to his jurisdiction.

РNot to spoil a unique plot twist but what exactly inspired the m̩nage-a-trois scene?

Damned if I know, really. I needed a device to pull together the two women and the oaf they controlled in such a manner that Steve Martinez would discover their connection and their crime, and that seemed a good one. Sex, after all, often is the driving motive for murder. Besides, the UP is full of gossip about sex. There’s a local joke about there not being much to do in the UP except drink, make love and move snow. It just seemed natural.

– How did the story of the Finnish re-immigration and ultimate exploitation in the Soviet Union become part of the story? Is this just another example of the unknown and untold history of the UP?

There are many motives for murder in the UP, and the consequences of the Karelia controversy are just a few of them. It was because even the grandchildren of those caught up in it wouldn’t talk about it that I became curious. The reverse Karelian migration isn’t unknown, especially to historians, but those it affected are still reluctant to discuss it. To a journalist that was red meat, and I found a good motive for murder there.

– As a book editor and reviewer you must surely be aware of the snobbery that exists about popular novels let alone mysteries. How do you view the dichotomy between the literary novel and the average mystery? Is the divide black and white with Art on one side and entertainment on the other?

Apples and oranges, really, and there is no real line of demarcation. I often am struck by the high polish and craft with which many mystery novelists tell commercial stories — a polish that is often lacking in literary novels. Some of the best mystery writers, like P. D. James, can elevate the formula of the psychological mystery to art. Art and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive. In either case a good story well told is the object of the exercise.

– It seems to me that you have blended the ideas and issues of a novel with the plot device of a mystery. Were you aiming at this sort of thing?

I just thought I was writing a mystery novel and adding some interesting furniture to the plot. That you think those tables and chairs amount to the ideas and issues of a novel is a nice compliment, and I thank you for it.

– Were you at all worried about what your colleagues and fellow journalists might think of the book?

Oh, hell, yes. Everybody wants approval. And if they tell you they don’t, they’re lying through their teeth.

– Can we expect another Steve Martinez mystery?

Yes. I’m now at work on “A Venture into Murder,” and you can expect it from Forge sometime in the fall of 2005.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).