Q and A with Henry Kisor

Henry Kisor is the book editor and literary columnist of the Chicago Sun-Times as well as the author of three nonfiction books and two mystery novels. He is also the co-author of one children’s book.

He is the author of What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness, Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America, and Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet.

His most recent books are two mystery novels, A Venture into Murder (2005) and Season’s Revenge (2003).

He has been the book review editor and literary critic of the Chicago Sun-Times since 1978, after five years in the same position with the old Chicago Daily News.

Mr. Kisor was gracious enough to answer my questions on the release of Season’s Revenge, so I thought it would be fun to ask him some questions on the release of his latest mystery. He was again kind enough to reply. The questions and answers are below.

What was the hardest part about writing a sequel?

Keeping the facts and details straight between the two books. I discovered a number of times while writing Venture that I’d unconsciously moved an event or a location to a different place or time from Season’s Revenge. Mystery readers care about this stuff and they have long memories.

What was the most enjoyable?

Discovering what happens to the characters as time goes on. After the first book they became real to me, not just figments of my imagination. Sitting down at the computer every morning to work on the book was like hanging out with old friends. They kept me from feeling lonely. Writing is a very solitary occupation and having imaginary buddies around helps one keep one’s sanity. I found myself talking aloud to them as if they really existed. (This helped with the dialogue, by the way.)

How do you come up with the idea for, and the details surrounding, plot elements, particular settings, characters, etc.?

I wish I knew! Maybe it’s a kind of creative osmosis. I don’t block out chapters and have the plot all figured out the way many mystery writers do — I never know what is going to happen from chapter to chapter. The story unfolds onstage as I write it. The downside to this is that I have to keep going back to earlier chapters to synchronize the facts. It’s not a very efficient way of writing, but it does get the job done. The detail work isn’t too difficult — after all, I’ve been a journalist all my professional life and know how to do research and to ask questions of people. Characters and settings take quite a bit of work but the Upper Peninsula is full of wonderful eccentrics to base fictional characters on, and making sure I’ve got a setting described accurately means I’ve got to spend a lot of time there looking — a task I enjoy immensely.

Coming up with ideas isn’t all that difficult. I just ask myself what I might do that nobody else has done — make a bear a murder weapon, set a drug empire deep inside a mine, etc. Maybe other writers have done these things but if so I haven’t heard about it.

Are the details on the hydroponic greenhouse in the mine accurate? Do these types of operations exist?

I believe that they are. There is an actual old copper mine in Ontonagon County, the model for Porcupine County, where pharmaceutical plants are grown underground. Some of them are indeed hydroponic (grown in water) and some of them are grown conventionally in special soils under grow lights. The mine’s called the White Pine Mine, and it’s near White Pine, Michigan. It closed as a copper mine more than a decade ago. It was the direct inspiration for “Venture.”

The Upper Peninsula can be a tough place to live. What do you think attracts people to that part of the country? Why do people choose to live there?

It’s isolated semi-wilderness within a day’s drive from Chicago or Minneapolis. It’s hiker country, snowmobile country, hunting country, fishing country, outdoor sports country. The people who live there are into all these things. True, making a living is hard, but it’s still possible if you’re willing to accept less. But if you want to raise a family and have a professional career, you’ve got to leave. Many people do, and when they retire, they come home to the land they love.

Your books seem to balance action and mystery with personal and community relationships. Is this intentional? Is it important to be able to attract a wide readership?

Yes, it’s intentional. Maybe you could say I look for deeper motives and relationships in my characters than do most plot-driven novelists. I’ve always admired the deep and thoughtful writing of P. D. James, whose novels move slowly, so carefully does she parse her personalities and examine their motives, but at the end she always delivers a bang all the more powerful for the careful setting up of her explosives.

I don’t suppose my novels appeal mightily to those who prefer breakneck plotting to careful literary explication. True, those folks are the ones who make best sellers of books, but the fact is I only know how to do what I do already, so I write for people like you instead. I’m not going to get rich at this, but I’m having an awfully good time.

What were/are your inspirations? What genres or authors do you enjoy reading?

I try not to think too much about inspirations, because I’m afraid if I do I’ll unconsciously steal from them. Practically speaking, it’s better not to question where ideas and characters come from, but instead concentrate on doing something you think is new with them. I like reading biography and history, and sometimes other mystery writers. I was a big fan of Dick Francis because every new novel of his explored not only horse racing but also some interesting business or profession or industry, like winemaking and glassblowing. He once said his heroes were extensions of himself, the kinds of men he would have liked to be, and as a result Steve Martinez in many ways is an extension of me — he’s the man I wish I were. I particularly enjoy Tony Hillerman’s use of the Navajo milieu and spirituality in his novels. Now there’s a guy who knows how to use setting.

Do you have a particular process or schedule for writing? (Specific time, place, tools, habits, etc.)

Usually early in the morning, 4 am to 7 am, but when I’m deeply into a manuscript I’ll work on it as time permits. I often take rail trips and work on the train and at hotels at my destinations. Being on the move often jolts me out of a block.

Do you play a role in the marketing of your book? If so, how?

Yes. My wife and I have a little dog and pony show in which she reads from the book — she has a mesmerizing storyteller’s voice — and I talk about it at autographings and the like. But I don’t go on tours anymore — I would if the publisher sent me on them, but mystery writers in general don’t go on tours. They do local stuff. I’m happy to do that. Writers love to talk about themselves and their books and I’m no different.

What types of things do you think make an impact on book sales?

Who the hell knows? If I knew that I would be filthy rich. This business is a crapshoot. Of course, Oprah. Being a celebrity helps a lot.

I went to the nearest large retail chain bookstore and sadly your book wasn’t in stock. Where do you think your readers, and buyers, come from? Independent book stores, online retailers, libraries (the local library had multiple copies)?

My books are regional rural mysteries. You won’t find them in most big city chain bookstores except Chicago and Milwaukee and Minneapolis and places like that, where the outdoors is important. I think the indies are very important for my books. So are libraries, which look for books having to do with minorities.

You have a website, ever thought of starting a blog? Do you read blogs?

Writing is hard enough for me without doing it for nothing. Samuel Johnson said it best: “Only a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” I do read blogs if they’re about me, but the sad fact is there are so many newspapers to read, so many books to read, that I just don’t have the leisure for reading anything else. But I know they’re very important today and I’ll probably read them every day when I’m retired.

Why do you think newspaper coverage of books is shrinking?

Lack of book advertising, and a slow decline in print literacy.

Are too many books published? Are readers overwhelmed?

Hell yes. And hell yes. I’m overwhelmed. 200,000 new titles every year, and every one of them seems to end up on my doorstep.

If you had to name one thing publishers could do to improve the quality of books being published what would it be?

Do a better job of line editing and copy editing and proofreading. Those jobs are being outsourced to people who are paid very little, and it shows. But publishers are owned by corporations ever seeking to cut costs.

Is there another Steve Martinez book in the works?

I’ve completed a third, “A Cache of Corpses,” that is presently being evaluated and I hope it’s accepted. I have an idea for a fourth that involves a weapon that cannot be traced by customary methods, but won’t start on it until “Cache” is accepted.

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).

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