Steve Hamilton Creates a Different Kind of Private Eye e-interviewed by Martina Bexte (September, 2006)
By day Steve Hamilton is an information developer for IBM but once everyone in his household is fast asleep, his alter ego takes over to conjure up complex and intriguing plotlines for his popular Alex McKnight mystery series. His first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise (1998), was a winner in St. Martin's Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. The judges recognized the potential in Hamilton's story about an ex-cop whose career hits the skids after a violent shoot-out that leaves his partner dead and Alex with a bullet lodged next to his heart. He retires to northern Michigan and takes ownership of a string of hunting cabins built by his father. But it doesn't take long for trouble to find Alex, as much as he tries to avoid it.
ACold Day in Paradise garnered instant acclaim and went on to win the Edgar Award for Best First Novel as well as the Shamus Award. To date Hamilton has written six more Alex McKnight mysteries: Winter of the Wolf Moon, The Hunting Wind, North of Nowhere, Blood is the Sky, Ice Run, and A Stolen Season. The latter finds Alex once again facing danger and death after the seemingly innocent rescue of a trio of boaters triggers a series of events with shocking - and deadly - consequences.
Q: Was becoming a writer, and in particular a mystery writer, always something that you planned on fitting into your life?
A: Well, it's what I've always wanted to do when I grow up, put it that way. I've been very, very lucky.
Q: Had you initially envisioned a series starring a lonely ex-cop still burdened with survivor guilt after the death of his partner and a man who ends up becoming a rather reluctant private detective?
A: I didn't envision anything other than one single book about this guy who was living all by himself in a cabin and somehow figuring out what happened to him to put him there. After trying to write what I thought would be a traditional private eye novel and totally failing at it, Alex was sort of just there waiting for me, if that makes any sense. I got this feeling about him and tried to follow it, with no idea in my head about what kind of book it would be, and certainly no idea it would turn into a series.
Q: The first book in the Alex McKnight series, A Cold Day in Paradise, struck a real chord with critics and readers and went on to win both an Edgar and a Shamus award. Has winning such instant recognition influenced your initial vision of the series?
A: I still just try to find one interesting thing to start a book, and then follow it. As much as I can, I try to shut out everything else publishers, editors, sales, even how readers will respond to it. I figure if I start thinking about that while I'm writing, it'll be like looking down from a tightrope.
Q: Alex lives a rather reclusive life in the small Michigan town of Paradise renting out cabins, hanging out with his two best friends and contemplating his failed marriage and the failure of two careers: pro baseball and Detroit cop. He doesn't set out looking for trouble, but he's constantly getting himself involved in complicated, life-and-death situations. How much time do you spend coming up with your intriguing and complex plot lines?
A: Bottom line, Alex is a sucker for a friend in need. Or really for anyone in need. As long as he's that way, something or somebody will come along and drag him back into trouble, even in a little town like Paradise.
Q: Is it correct to assume that you, like Alex, prefer certain Canadian institutions like hockey - and beer? Or is Alex's preference for Molson Canadian just a quirky character trait?
A: Canadians might hate this, but there's a reason why they call Detroit, Michigan "Hockeytown." (It started with a certain player named Gordie Howe, whose autographed puck is sitting right in front of me as I type this.) As far as the beer goes, and here I'll try to win back any Canadians I may have offended go to Canada, buy a real Canadian beer (not an import) and taste it. I think even a Martian could tell the difference.
Q: On the flip side, Alex has a real aversion for snowmobiles - why?
A: Well, besides getting dragged behind one in the second book ... he just likes peace and quiet. And snowmobiles are all over Paradise in the winter, making a hell of a racket.
Q: Tell us a bit about Jackie and Vinnie, Alex's two best friends and confidantes. How did these two characters evolve and how important are they to the series?
A: In Jackie's case, he sort of came with the building. I wanted the kind of bar that Alex could realistically spend every evening of his life, but a typical American bar would make him (or anyone else) pretty damned depressed. A real Scottish pub, on the other hand, is the kind of place you can genuinely look forward to going to, night after night. So I dropped one in Paradise, with Jackie along for the ride.
As for Vinnie ... Alex lives in Ojibwe country, so I wanted to deal with that head on. I could never portray their way of life as an insider, of course, but I figured I could do it with Alex being close to Vinnie but ultimately an outsider. I take great care to be as accurate and respectful as possible.
(And by the way, you mention Jackie and Vinnie here, but not Leon He's gonna be ticked off.)
Q: The often deadly beauty of northern Michigan winters is as much a trademark of your series as the real flesh and blood characters. Was it a conscious choice on your part to portray Mother Nature as another of Alex's constant adversaries?
A: Absolutely. Part of making Alex a solitary figure was putting him in the loneliest place I know, which is Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's a different world up there. In the winter, you can get a few feet of snow in one day. And in the spring and fall ... Well, let's just say that Lake Superior can turn into a monster without giving you any warning. (Now you're going to have that Gordon Lightfoot song running through your head for the rest of the day. Sorry about that.)
Q: You tackle two very timely themes in this installment: the growing problem of illegal handguns and automatic weapons showing up on Canadian streets and the cross border prescription drug dilemma. In today's "real" world, where do you think these two issues are headed?
A: Both are probably offshoots of the same basic problem. As long as there's a market for illegal drugs, you're going to have everything else that goes along with it. Where is it headed? You got me. If I had to guess, I'd say in the exact same direction. How long has this "War on Drugs" been going on, anyway? I have no special insight into this at all, believe me but it seems like common sense demands we try something totally different.
Q: What's next for Alex McKnight?
A: He gets at least a book off to recuperate while I work on something new, a book about a Probation Officer in upstate New York that might be the start of a new series. But I know I'll go back to Alex at some point. I'll always want to know what happens to him next.
Q: I've come across very few authors whose books have such eloquent titles: Blood is the Sky, North of Nowhere, The Hunting Wind, Winter of the Wolf Moon, A Cold Day in Paradise - A Stolen Season - do you build your stories around a title or vice versa?
A: Blood Is the Sky and The Hunting Wind are from Ojibwe lore. (Winter of the Wolf Moon sounds like it must be, too, but it's not. The "wolf moon" is a Celtic thing.) I usually have a title in mind when I begin, but it often changes. The Hunting Wind was originally Southpaw Spring, for example. And Blood is the Sky was Lake of Fire. Sometimes I'll make the change because the working title just doesn't "feel" right anymore. Sometimes my publisher politely asks that I consider changing it. (That's a whole hour-long story there. Stop me in the bar sometime and I'll tell you.)
Q: You still hold a full time job with IBM - how do you balance work life, family life and the writer's life?
A: My wife Julia is great and amazing, first of all. My two kids are great and amazing. When they all go to bed, that's when I do my thing. I'm upstairs in my office, telling these stories to myself and leading this secret fantasy life as a writer. I still can't quite believe that I get to keep doing it.Find out more about Steve Hamilton, his background and his books, and look through his Scrapbook at his Website.
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