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Author Interviews

Author Interview: K.J. Erickson

After I read K.J. Erickson's latest novel, The Last Witness, I was so impressed I not only sought out her other books, but asked her to do an e-mail interview with me so I could ask her some questions, which she agreed to. Three books in, this is a strong series - already Edgar nominated - featuring Minneapolis Homicide Detective Marshall Bahr (he's unfortunately known as "Mars" - or "the candy man"). The setting is vivid, the characterizations on all levels are smart and well filled out, and Mars has an interesting relationship with his son who shuttles amicably between Mars and his stay at home Mom, Denise. The plots are something else - complicated and almost Victorian in their clever use of coincidence. I found these novels impossible to put down and went into serious withdrawal after reading them.

Q: Is victimization a special issue for you? Is it satisfying to give power and control back to the women who've lost it?
A: It is a subject which interests me, in part because so many women die violent deaths or lead less than satisfactory lives because they allow a man or men to control them. This isn't to say I think all men are bad or that women don't have a responsibility to assert their rights and make good personal choices. But traditional male/female roles have only started to change in significant ways in the past fifty years. And you're right: it is very satisfying to show women who have found a way of regaining control in their lives.

Q: Why didn't you follow up on the sexual abuse angle in Third Person Singular (first novel in the series)?
A: There are two instances of sexual abuse in TPS: the implied-though-unproven abuse of Mary Pat Fitzgerald by her father and of Mary Pat's friend, Liz Wyman. In the first case, Mary Pat's father received "natural justice" in the destruction of his family life and through an incapacitating illness. To pursue formal justice would, I think, have co-opted the story line. In the second case, I am less comfortable that a satisfactory resolution was defined. Mars offers to help Liz Wyman resolve the abuse problems in her family but when Liz declines his offer, Mars doesn't follow-up. Again, to make a big issue of delivering justice would have waylaid the story line but I don't think it would have taken a lot of narrative effort to leave the reader with the sense that Mars took this problem seriously. (This seems to have been implied in the book, though. - Ed.) I have written Mars as a heroic, principled character; to maintain his credibility, he can't let important issues like this slide. It's interesting to me that in my second book, The Dead Survivors, several readers let me know that they felt Mars didn't give his colleague Danny Borg adequate recognition for Danny's contributions in solving the crime and this left some readers disappointed in Mars. Being fair is an expectation I want readers to have of Mars, so his actions have to match that standard.

Q: How did you come up with a single father as your main character?
A: In my original plan for the series, Nettie, not Mars, was the protagonist. Mars was introduced as a foil to Nettie's character: a nice, well-intentioned guy who was much more interested in his kid than in homicide investigations - someone who was always five steps behind Nettie's technical wizardry and sharp, organized mind. I quickly found out us authors have a lot less control over our characters than one would expect. Nettie would not do what I wanted her to do and Mars was always stepping forward to pick up the slack. So I switched roles: Mars became the protagonist and Nettie his foil. Both characters became easier to write as soon as the change was made. And Chris is important to the equation in that he lets some air into the procedural side of investigations, showing a side of Mars we wouldn't see without Chris.

Q: What kind of research do you do to write a police procedural? Is there a Mars in reality?
A: There's lots of information available to support the procedural details. I took a citizen's academy course given by the Minneapolis Police Department, read lots of forensic texts, did ride alongs, read true crime books for the "feel" of investigations, and watched re-runs of Law and Order compulsively. (Pre-1988 are my favorites). At the end of the day, doing research to support what I was writing got in the way of telling the story, and for me, the story is what it's all about. So I make up the procedural detail, print the page, highlight what I've made up, and when I complete a manuscript draft, I take the highlighted pages and research facts, making changes as needed.

I'd like to think there is a Mars in reality. And I'm sure there are lots of police officers out there who share Mars's principles and ideals. However, I didn't have a real life model for him. He's just someone who does his job the way I hope most police do theirs. I do occasionally base characters on people I know; in The Last Witness, the paramedic Alex Gage is based on a real-life paramedic.

Q: Why is Mars moving out of the MPD to the State Cold Case unit? Where do you see him going from there?
A: In my child-rearing days I remember Dr. Spock saying that there are two kinds of kids: those that like change and have trouble with the status quo or those who hate change and love the status quo. Mars and I are in the former group. We both like change more than business as usual. From a writer's perspective, it's a good way to show character development and for both of us to learn new things. Is Mars going to be happy in the cold case unit? The jury is still out on that one.

Q: Are you a big movie fan (like Mars)?
A: Definitely. I love being entertained. And I use Mars as my mouthpiece for expressing my views about movies and actors. The worst thing about the availability of DVDs/videos for me is that I see fewer movies. Instead of going to a theater, I tell myself I'll see a movie when it is released as a video. Which doesn't always happen.

Q: Both plot and character are strong in your novels - which do you start with?
A: I've always started with plot, but I find plot and structure difficult and characters easy. I've done massive re-writing, restructuring of the plots in all three books, but the characters have pretty much stayed in place as they were written in early drafts. There's a message in [there] that I need to figure out.

Q: What are your influences, mystery-wise?
A: I have many favorite mysteries, but I'd say the biggest influences on my writing have been Jane Austen, Henry Green, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Michael Malone, early P.D. James... the list is long. I agree with something I heard P.D. James say: Jane Austen wrote perfect mysteries, with the exception of there being no murders in her books. And I should say that the authors mentioned above have made me want to write, rather than write like them.

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