Back from My Visit to The Poisoned Pen

gray ghost cover Just returned from Scottsdale, Ariz., where I had a great time with the wonderful folks at The Poisoned Pen. They put up a great webcast audio stream here: Listen to the webcast!

And here their review of the book:

The delightful sequel to The Royal Wulff Murders, continues the sort of River-Runs-Through-It/Spenser blend—plus fishing and collectible lures. When the graves of two men are discovered on Sphinx Mountain, Sheriff Martha Ettinger suspects murder. But with the only evidence a hole in a skull that might or might not have been caused by a bullet, she once more finds herself turning to private investigator Sean Stranahan for help. Stranahan already has a case, having been hired by a group of eccentric fly fishermen called The Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club to find a valuable fly that they suspect has been stolen. Could the disappearance of a vintage Gray Ghost from a riverside cabin in the Madison Valley be connected to the gray ghosts who haunt Sphinx Mountain?  Montana may be the main character here but Field & Stream columnist McCafferty—already working on books three and four—has the journalist/sport background of a Randy Wayne White and is a whiz with characters and dialogue, and he’s sure enough a Spenser fan. Think also CJ Box, Craig Johnson, William G. Tapply, and Peter Bowen.


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The Second One’s The Hard One (or is it the third?)

hard at work on gray ghost-2

Hard at work on The Gray Ghost Murders, feeding a wild blackbird raised from a hatchling and later released. It returned a year later to visit and get a free meal.

When I got contracts to write the first two books of the Sean Stranahan/Martha Ettinger series, I’d already finished “The Royal Wulff Murders.”  My literary agent, Dominick Abel, said he didn’t envy me my position. “The first one’s easy,” he said.  “Nobody expects anything of you, there’s no deadline pressure.  You sit down at the typewriter — tap tap tap tap tap — ‘I’ve written a book.’  And guess what, It’s pretty good and it’s going to be published by a major publisher.”
The only problem is that the publisher wants a series.  Stand alone mystery novels, stand alone novels of any kind, have about as much chance of making money as I do of beating out Peyton Manning for the QB-one spot on the Broncos next year. But sell that first novel and you find yourself in the big leagues of a totally different sport, one that nothing in your life has prepared you for. The publisher takes you to lunch in the Village; she broaches the subject of the second book.  When might she see it?  And a week later you’re back home staring at a blank piece of paper or the electronic equivalent.  You only had your entire life to write the first one; now you’re looking at a year for second.  They like to keep these things coming.  It’s the way to build a readership and after all, this is a business.
“No, I don’t envy you the second one,” Dominick reiterates.  “But if you can get through it, the good news is the third one is relatively easy.  You tell yourself, “I’ve done it twice, I can do it again.”
That’s the conventional thinking, anyway. My own experience was that the second book, the Gray Ghost Murders,” which will be published less than a month from now, was the easiest.  I was 20,000 words into the story when I got the two-book contract and never let myself feel the pressure and never looked back.  I give myself credit for being smart about the head start, but luck was involved as well. I had a good premise, a hook, the bare bones of the story already in mind when I started it.  And, and I think this is important, the first book had yet to be published.  I was still in that period when it’s all a bit of a miracle.  There was pressure, but it took the form of worrying whether the Royal Wulff Murders would sell or die a thousand deaths, taking me down with it.  I didn’t worry so much about writing the  second book.
For me, the third book, Dead Man’s Fancy, was the tough one.  Tough like “The Royal Wulff Murders” was but with this difference — I had a deadline.   Dominick says one of the pitfalls of the second novel is the writer overthinks it, tries to outline, which is a joke (more on that in a future blog), and as a result becomes paralyzed.  I made this mistake with the third book, which I began last spring. I didn’t become paralyzed, but I lost time and came to realize that I was in for a very hard slog.  Such is the nature of professional writing, which differs from hobby writing in that your livelihood, not just your image of yourself, depend on it.  As I write this, I’m about halfway through the rewrite. The deadline looms.  Wish me luck.


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A Big Thank You to Nevada Barr

Today, I’ve been incredibly flattered to receive a “Valentine” on the homepage of Nevada Barr, the New York Times Bestselling Author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries, which include her 2012 release The Rope. She’s a fantastic writer, the winner of numerous awards, and her endorsement means a heck of a lot and is an exceptional honor for me. Check out her site, read the “Valentine,” and if you haven’t already, start digging into the Anna Pigeon mysteries. Thank you Nevada!

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Some Unexpected Help

black birds

Two summers ago, during a Fourth of July celebration, I discovered four baby blackbirds in a nest.  The nest had been driven on a flatbed trailer some 150 miles, and it was only after the planting of the tree, a densely branched fir that a friend ordered from a tree farm, that anyone realized a family had been uprooted as well.  This occurred in the Madison Valley that is the setting for the “Gray Ghost Murders,” which will be published this February, and I was well into the writing of it when I first heard the nestlings squawk.
With twilight casting a spell over the Gravelly Range, I took a shovel to the river to dig worms.  Until that night I had never bought into the concept of novelists as people who lead interesting lives, as writing is largely a business of going into a room and shutting the door and telling lies that would put a politician to shame, engrossing enough to the one doing the lying but hardly the stuff of envy.  But as I returned from the river to drop worms down the greedy mouths, I suspected that the writing of the Gray Ghost Murders might prove an exception. That was made abundantly clear when I contacted the nearest wild bird rescue person, who told me to call her Captain Marvel.   When I asked Captain Marvel if she would take over the rearing of the nestlings — after all, that’s what these people do, I naively thought — she said, “Honey, that’s how we all start.”
So began the most demanding artistic endeavor of my career, for nestlings must be fed every fifteen minutes and heretofore I had aligned myself with that school of writing championed by Oscar Wilde, whose idea of a morning’s work was to insert a coma, and in the afternoon to take it out.  With the birds summoning my attention — and the squawking of a Brewer’s blackbird is not to be ignored — I found that in order to avoid feeling a total failure I had to insert more than punctuation during the intervals of silence.  And so, sitting under a sun umbrella near the chicken wire enclosure I had built to house the little darlings, the “Gray Ghost Murders” was coaxed to life, and, in the process, I discovered that if you actually put words down as they came into your head, so that you might weigh and weed them later, rather than endlessly editing in your mind before committing so much as a period to the screen, then writing need not be a tortured blood letting of a drop at a time, but could move and sing through your veins, or at least emerge onto the page in complete sentences.
In three weeks the birds had feathered over to become the terror of the neighborhood, soaring to parts unknown every evening, but usually perched on the top branch of a giant spruce in the morning, four little sentinels sitting side by side.  For another month they continued to need supplemental feeding and I would have to place a hand over my head to avoid being mobbed the moment I walked out the door. But what started as an act of mercy became a privilege as the summer grew  short, for not only had these birds taught me a lesson about my craft, but they gave me a gift rarely awarded humans beings, a personal glimpse of the indomitable wildness of spirit that is heard not only in the voices of wolves and elk from the mountain folds, but in the songs of our backyards.
By fall the siblings had become part of a larger flock wheeling in the sky, peeling off to visit me once or twice a day, the runt I called Blackie still hopping onto my laptop to take mealworms from my fingers.  On October 12th, I saw them together for the last time and two days later Blackie came alone.  He spoke in a querulous voice I had never before heard from a blackbird and then he, too, was gone. In the span of several days the raucous singing of the flocks was stilled, as thousands of blackbirds darkened the sky, and were seen no more.  I finished the novel later that week.
And so it was with an eye to the sky that I worked last summer, hoping for their return. Blackbirds are colony nesters and do not invade town to forage until they have raised their broods, but as the fireworks of the Fourth burst forth and died my hopes began to fade, and when I sat down to breakfast on July 7th I was resigned to the likelihood of never seeing them again.  Compared to most songbirds a blackbird’s voice is unmusical, but to me it is as lovely as the whistling of a thrush, and with the first grating “aawk” I was running to the door.  Blackie was perched on top of the cage, showing me his bold white eye. I wanted to tell him that the book was finished and he and his brothers and sisters deserved credit, but he no longer had much use for a blackbird who couldn’t fly, and after letting me admire his iridescent plumage, he flew to the top of the spruce where I had so often seen him herald the dawn.  I had but a fleeting glimpse, his fearsome countenance silhouetted against the sky, and then he was gone, this time, perhaps, forever.

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Turning Stones: The Education of the Writer


A small bullsnake found along the banks of Oregon's Deschutes River.

“How did you come to write?”


This is probably the most common question asked of writers and puts the cart before the horse, because all of us received our initial inspiration from reading.  The more revealing question is, “How did you become an avid reader?”  Was it because you liked to hear stories told when you were a child? Was it because your mother read to you from a very young age? I grew up in a family of story tellers and my mother did indeed read to me when I was very young.  But when I look back, I can trace the path I took to becoming a reader, and in time a writer, to a single day of my childhood.  It was a summer day, and I was playing with a neighbor girl in my mother’s rock garden when a snake slithered out from under a stone.  Marty screamed “Copperhead!” at the top of her voice, a scream my mother still recalls, because it scared her.   She came running outside, but by the time she reached the rock garden, the snake had disappeared.  That is, it disappeared from our sight.  But it did not disappear from my mind.  It fascinated me, that snake with its elegant movement as it crawled among the stones, its straw colored stripe that ran the length of its back, and the utter magic with which it disappeared, like liquid rope pouring into a seam of the earth.


My mother recalls that in telling the story that night to my father, he remarked that it was probably just a garter snake and entirely harmless.  Now my father only knew a little about snakes, but enough to know that a snake described as having a stripe down its back was certainly not a copperhead. In the Appalachian hollows of my childhood, nearly every snake was accused of being a copperhead, for the simple reason that copperheads were the only venomous snake in the region and ignorant people tend to assume the worst. Marty of course was not to blamed for the mistaken identity.  She was simply repeating the dreaded name that she had heard from adults. I would like to believe that people today are more enlightened about snakes than they were when I grew up, but I fear that most are not.  Snakes remain the least understood, most feared and most persecuted animals on the planet.


And, for me, from that day forth, the most fascinating.  Shortly after the excitement in the rock garden, my father caught a garter snake near the foundation of the house.  He handed it to me and taught me to pay it out like rope, letting it slip from one hand to other before it settled down and no long tried to escape.  I was surprised to find that it was not slimy as popularly believed, but its coils were cool, smooth and dry to touch. I also, for the first of what by now must be thousands of times, experienced the tickling sensation of a snake’s forked tongue flicking against my skin.  Eventually my father took it from my hands and released it into the grass, having no idea that the experience had transformed my life forever.


After that day, I determined to learn everything there was to know about snakes. How could I gain this knowledge?  I couldn’t learn much from adults.  My father only knew a little about snakes, which was a little more than almost anyone else.  Snakes were to be avoided, to be feared, to be awarded superstitious powers, to be exterminated from the earth.  Or at least from the Appalachian foothill country where I grew up in southeastern Ohio. My grandmother Inez, or Nanal as we called her, was so steeped in superstition that she believed “hoop” snakes would bite their tails, turning themselves into circles like bicycle tires, in order to roll down the hill and strike people dead.  She also believed milk snakes would crawl into a baby’s crib, bite the baby on the mouth and suck the air out of his lungs, turning the baby blue. “For pity’s sake, child,” she’d tell me, “I seen it with my own eyes.”  When she stayed with us, she would stuff towels under the door to keep the snakes I kept from crawling into her room.


In the face of such pervasive ignorance, the only place I could turn for accurate information was books.  There was one problem.  I was not yet in kindergarten and couldn’t read.  My mother, who was a children’s librarian, came to my rescue.  She began to teach me how to read, despite her misgivings about my motive, and by the age most children in my class were just starting to learn the a,b,c’s, I was reading Raymond Ditmar’s “Snakes of North America,” the most advanced and comprehensive book on snake identification, distributaries and behavior that the local library carried.  The lessons I learned from my fascination were as much about people as about snakes.  At an age when most children thought adults infallible, I grew to suspect them.  Many were ignorant, prejudiced and so fearful of a boy who played with snakes that they would not let their own sons and daughters near me.  This gave me an outsiders perspective on life, and helped form me into a person who suspected common wisdom and asked questions — traits that are very desirable for a future writer.  Life could be mysterious, beautiful, and misunderstood, as mysterious and as beautiful and as misunderstood as the snakes that hid under stones and in the folds of the earth, and I wanted to get to the truth.  I turned thousands of stones in search of snakes; later the stones I turned for the truth would be in my mind.  I became a devout disciple of that great sleuth and stone turner Sherlock Holmes, an avid follower of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — a reader, a searcher, and, in time, a writer. It all began with a garter snake in a rock garden.

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Local News Updates


The author ties on a fly on the Madison River in 2009, about sixty miles north of where a body turns up in The Royal Wulff Murders.

My son and web editor Tom keeps bugging me for a real blog post, which will be coming soon. In the meantime, however, I wanted to link to a few tidbits that have come up on the publicity trail, which has been rather foreign though interesting to me. I’ve had the honor in the past couple weeks of doing my first TV interview, which was with NBC affiliate KECI-TV in Missoula, and also of being interviewed for my hometown paper The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.


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Rick Holmes reads The Royal Wulff Murders

The audiobook cover.

I had the pleasure of working with Rick Holmes as he went through the process of making an audio recording of The Royal Wulff Murders, and he even caught a few errors in the text that we were able to fix before the book went to print. I think his reading is exceptional, the voices dead-on, and I’m thrilled that it’s now available to the public. You can check out these links to buy the audiobook and listen to a sample of the reading.

Simply Audiobooks

Books on Board


And here are links to Rick’s pages:



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Win a copy of The Royal Wulff Murders! is holding a contest to give away two copies of The Royal Wulff Muders. All entries due before February 29th.  Click here to enter. You can read their awesome review of the book here.


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Welcome to the Deadwater Blog


In the next blog, I will start at the beginning and discuss the long road I took to becoming a writer, but I think this questionnaire, which I filled out for Penguin, is a good way to introduce my work.  The cat in the photo is a stray who lived through a Montana winter eating voles and mice and freezing the tips of his ears off.  Now that he found a soft mark in me and has wormed his way into a warm home, he won’t let me out of his sight.  As far as he is concerned, any future books will be written with his help!  We call him Rhett because if you look closely, you’ll see he wears a little moustache.

A Conversation with Keith McCafferty

1.  This is your first novel. In what ways did your editorial work for Field & Stream help prepare you to write it?

As a reporter, columnist and essayist, I learned long ago to be professional — meet deadlines, write to point and write to length. As a novelist these traits are double-edged.  If my editor suggests that the book will benefit from minor restructuring, a change in tone regarding a character, and cutting 9,000 words to bring the manuscript in at a reasonable length, my background gives me the  discipline to do the revisions and bring them in on time.  On the other hand, I’m an instinctual writer who tends to explore.  I have a general outline in mind, write the first sentence, the first sentence leads to the second and so on; I never had the patience to outline in minute detail, nor the discipline to follow the outline if I did.  In magazine work, that’s okay.  Whenever I wrote myself into a corner, I just backed up and wrote myself out of it.  But it’s one thing to find yourself in a blind alley in a 2,500 word essay; it’s quite another to get lost in a book of 100,000 words.  E.L. Doctorow famously said that writing a novel is like driving at night.  You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.  I agree, but the danger, at least for me, is that I’ll exhaust the reader’s patience enroute.  So one thing I’ve had to learn is that it’s not enough to begin with a vague idea. I need to have a sense of the novel and a little more structure than I’m used to before proceeding.  I still allow myself the license to follow where the characters take me, but they are telling their story within a framework.  If I do my job the reader can’t see the reins on the horse, but having them in hand is the difference between storytelling and just a lot of talking.


2.  How much of the plot of The Royal Wulff Murders is based in fact. What’s happening with whirling disease in Montana right now?

When I moved to Montana, the upper Madison River was one of the world’s greatest trout streams, so good that my friend built his house there just for the fishing.  No sooner had the walls gone up than whirling disease struck and the roof collapsed on the fishery, the trout population plunging from 3,300 per mile in the late 1980s to 300 per mile only a few years later, a decline of 90 percent.  Land values stagnated.  I remember thinking then that this could be an interesting plot line in a novel, for trout fishing in Montana is a $500 million industry, and by some estimates as much as half of that was generated in the Madison Valley.  By the time I got around to writing the book, the rainbow trout population had rebounded to about 60 percent  of its former population and I wondered if I still had a story, for some people were quick to say that the native trout were building a resistance to the disease.  However, some experts on whirling disease believe that the trout population has been artificially boosted by the introduction of trout from nearby Willow Creek and Willow Creek Reservoir.  The Willow Creek fish, unlike the Madison strain of trout, do show some — I stress the word “some” — resistance to whirling disease.  But to say the fishery is recovered is wishful thinking and largely propagated by those who have a financial stake in the river.  If you are a trout shop proprietor or a guide on the Madison, do you really want to tell your paying clients that the river you’re going to float is an anemic version of its muscular past?  Anyone familiar with the Madison in its glory years knows that the river is far from recovered and that whirling disease, which affects 150 streams and rivers in Montana alone, is a huge problem throughout the West.  Next to habitat loss, introduction of non-native invasive species including the spores that cause whirling disease, didymo algae (called rock snot), Zebra mussels, New Zealand mud snails and many others pose the greatest threat to our rivers and fish.


3. You must be an avid fly-fisher. How much of the novel comes out of your own experience?

I was the same little boy Sean Stranahan was, endlessly fascinated with nature, and a dedicated fisherman from a very early age.  Each birthday, my parents asked me what I’d like to do, and all I ever wanted to do was go to Clendenning Lake and catch bluegills.  Watching that bobber dance on the surface as the fish nibbles the worm —  there’s more suspense in those few moments before the bobber goes under than in any movie I’ve seen or book I’ve read.  I began fly fishing on Michigan’s trout streams when I was four or five, and by eight I was tying flies for an entire campground of fisherman at Burton Landing on the AuSable River, along the first fly fishing only stretch of trout stream in the country.   We fished at night for brown trout.  The big ones were ate creatures like voles and mice, so I’d spin fur to imitate them; one camper had caught a trout with feathers in its stomach and he wanted me to tie a fly for him that looked like a nestling grouse.  To this day I don’t have the patience to tie a standard fly pattern; I’m always turning something new out of the vise. In the book, I felt it was important to convey the passion so many have for fly fishing, as well as to use the correct terminology.  I had to compromise some so I wouldn’t alienate readers unfamiliar with the technical jargon and fishing shorthand, while at the same convincing accomplished anglers to nod their head, yes, this guy knows what he’s talking about.  In a similar vein, I felt strongly that the fly depicted on the book cover had to be accurate.  Although it is a highly stylized version of a Royal Wulff, the colors and proportions are correct, as is the knot with which it is tied to the leader.  If the fly on the cover was wrong, I’d lose credibility in a trout fisherman’s eyes before he got as far as the dedication.


4. What made you choose the Royal Wulff for the fly pattern at the center of the book’s mystery?

The Royal Wulff is America’s best-known dry fly pattern.  Its stately elegance makes a splash of vivid color in practically every fisherman’s fly box I’v e seen. I had the great privilege of tying flies with its originator, Lee Wulff, at a convention for the Federation of Fly Fishermen back in the early 80’s.  But that is not why I chose this pattern for the name of the book.  In fact, I did not choose the fly at all. It chose me. Before putting the first word on paper, I had a vision of a dead fisherman in the Madison River with a trout fly stuck in his lip.  In my vision that fly was a Royal Wulff and I wrote the prologue without knowing where the plot would take me, only that I thought it would be interesting and worth my time to find out.


5. Discussing how technological advances have affected fly-fishing, you write that “Stranahan knew that success rested upon touch more than it did on technology, and that technique took a backseat to concentration and desire” [p. 57]. Could you talk more about why touch, concentration, and desire are more important than technology in fly-fishing. Do you think those qualities are also more important in detective work? Has our culture generally devalued intuition in favor of technological superiority?

When I started fly fishing, the tools of the trade bordered on crude. Split bamboo rods had given way to fiberglass, which cast waves in your floating fly line, which after an hour or so became a waterlogged line, and most fly patterns looked nothing like the aquatic insects they were supposed to represent.  The reason we caught fish was because presentation of the fly — struggling across the surface, rising in the water column, floating naturally without hindrance — has always been more important than exact imitation in coaxing a trout into opening its mouth. Today’s angler is so overwhelmed with technology that presentation takes a backseat in importance.  But the best gear in the world wont catch trout unless your fly is in front of the fish.  Desire cannot be underestimated.  Fish the wrong fly hard enough and sooner or later it becomes the right fly.

Similarly, there have been huge strides in technology with regard to police work, especially forensics.  But most crimes are still solved by getting people to talk. In the second book, Harold Little Feather compares Sheriff Martha Ettinger’s working method to a dog worrying a deer bone, gnawing with its head to the ground.  She’s a good investigator not because she has access to technological wizardry, but because she cares and she is determined to close a case.

Americans are a hard working people.  But we also have become a lazy people, especially with regard to sport and leisure.  Today, many anglers use trout guides like Sam Meslik as a crutch.  Instead of taking the time to learn how to read water, decide what trout are eating, select the fly and carefully wade into the proper position to cast, they are content to stand in the front of a drift boat and cast where the guide’s finger points. The pioneering spirit and pride in self reliance that Martha Ettinger and many Montanans bring to the table seems to be casualty of modern life, where instant gratification is the prevailing appetite.  I would much rather fail on my own as an angler than succeed on someone else’s merits.


6. Which is more compelling for you as a writer, story or character? Or are they inseparable?

I think the trend in suspense is a heart pounding story that leaves little space for fleshing out character. Chase your hero up a tree, shake a stick at him for a few hundred pages and let him climb down in time to whack the bad guy and kiss the girl. As a reader or moviegoer, I can enjoy this kind of story if it’s well done, but as a writer, I find it hard to put words on paper unless I have characters that I care about.  That said, nobody wants to wade through a novel that is constantly interrupted by backstory.  The challenge is to tell the story through the characters without putting on the brakes, so that character development is enmeshed in the fabric of the narrative rather than being something apart.  I also believe you should write to your strengths, and inventing highly idiosyncratic characters is for me the easiest part of novel writing — my wife would say it’s because I’m a natural born tall tale teller, to put a charitable spin on a four letter word that ends in “r.” Perhaps inventing is too strong a word, because most of the cast strolled onto the page of their own accord. I didn’t even know if the sheriff would be male of female when I started the second chapter.  Martha Ettinger happened, that’s the best way to put it.  Similarly, Rainbow Sam started throwing his rough bulk and weight of personality around unbidden by me, and Vareda Beaudreux sashayed and sang her way into the book with very little prompting.  They all just are.  I wanted to surround myself with characters that amused me, that were people who would be interesting to hang around with, and if they are memorable, part of the credit goes to the state. In Montana, story telling is a part of the culture and you don’t have to look any farther than your friends and neighbors to find page worthy characters.


7. How important is a sense of place for your writing, not just for setting but for your own creative process?

In The Royal Wulff Murders, Montana is a character as much as any human.  It is a landscape that is a presence, that opens the mind and pulls at the heart, it is a sky so big a human feels small, but it also is a land in transition, as its ranching/mining history grudgingly gives ground to out-of-state ownership, land subdivision and tourism.  The sparse population means that men and women of all walks of life walk together and many find common ground in the outdoors.  This is the only place I know of where you find yourself standing in line at a ski swap with a bunch of powder hounds, not a few of whom sport world-class dreadlocks, to discover that the major topic of conversation is elk hunting.  In Montana, people still take road trips just to enjoy the wonder of the landscape they live in, and perhaps have beer or two in some of the funkiest bars in the country.  Like mermaid in glass aquarium funky, or a ceiling hung with the dropped antlers of single bull elk through its life span of 20 years.  You couldn’t make it up.

I am inspired by nature and my work habits reflect that.  Often, I drive to the Madison River where this novel was set, plug my adapter into the cigarette lighter of the old Explorer and write from the passenger seat, rising trout a short cast away. I also write on a bench under a covered bridge over a stream that’s about a mile out of town. This past summer, I undertook the job, or rather should say had the privilege of raising four Brewer’s blackbirds that for the first weeks of life needed feeding every twenty minutes.  I ended up writing under a sun umbrella in my backyard to be near the cage.  Later, when the birds were flying free, they would come to the table to take mealworms from my fingers; the little runt I called Blackie liked to perch on my computer while I worked.  They have now flown south with a flock of other blackbirds and so, in winter, I have to content myself with working indoors, my link to nature the feral cat we adopted, sleeping on my lap.


8. Most American murder mysteries, both novels and movies, make killing someone seem like the easiest thing in the world to do. Why did you go out of your way, in the speech McGill delivers to Stranahan on p. 238, to show just how psychologically damaging killing someone can be? McGill says that even if it’s legitimate self defense, “you’ll still have to live with what you did. It will change you. It’ll distance you from your wife, your kids, your good mother” [p. 238].

 I am, thankfully, no expert on murder.  But I used to be a nightside reporter for the Bakersfield Californian, which means I was the crime reporter, and I attended scenes of violence seemingly every night I worked.  Violence has very real physical and mental consequences.  You don’t lose a bar fight and walk away with a black eye.  You lose teeth and get your jaw wired shut and you may suffer mental lapses the rest of your life.  And you certainly don’t send a bullet into someone and watch the blood bubble out of his mouth without it deeply and permanently affecting you. I have watched people die.  It is not something to quip about or turn a heel on and I want my books to reflect that reality.


9. The novel leaves the relationship between Stranahan and Vareda, and between Martha and Harold Little Feather, up in the air. Will you pick up those threads in your next novel? Is this the beginning of a series?

My contract with Penguin is for two books and most of the major characters make a return in the sequel, which is scheduled to be published in hardcover by Viking next February, coinciding with the release of “The Royal Wulff Murders” in softcover.  I plan to write at least several more, so god and publisher willing, there should be plenty of time to develop relationships as the series progresses.


10. What writers have most influenced your work? What other Montana writers would you recommend?

My earliest influences were Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle  — I still have my boyhood copy of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” —  Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Jim Corbett, who became famous for hunting man-eating tigers in his native India and who, more than anyone else, pushed for conservation and habitat protection for these great cats.  In the mystery slash suspense genre I have always gravitated to the stylists, starting with the incomparable Raymond Chandler.  Modern day practitioners I greatly admire include James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Alan Furst, who writes so evocatively of wartime Europe.  Montana is a magnet for good writers, among them A. B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Richard Hugo, Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane and William Kittredge, who encouraged me to keep writing. C.J. Box writes a fine mystery series set in neighboring Wyoming.  As the landscape is similar, I claim him for us as well.


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