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Interview with "The Minnesota Crime Wave"
by Jon Jordan

Minnesota Crime Wave's Web Site

Interview with The Minnesota Crime Wave:
Ellen Hart, Carl Brookins, William Kent Krueger, and Deborah Woodworth.

July 2002

DW=Deborah Woodworth
CB=Carl Brookins
EH=Ellen Hart
KK=William Kent Krueger

JON: So the first question that comes to mind is how did the four of you hook up?

KK: We had the same parole officer.

EH: Kent and Carl were the first to travel together. Then Deborah entered the mix, and finally me. The mystery community here in the Twin Cities is fairly large, but most of us know each other. When we decided to come together as the Minnesota Crime Wave, we began with meetings at my house. We planned the press packet, the poster, and our first major tour. Since my partner is a graphic designer, she was able to help us with our design needs, and she has since produced the first two MCW newsletters.

CB: We knew each other, or knew about each other. I certainly knew about Deborah and Ellen before Kent and I met at a writing class, pre-publication. Through mutual friends I met D&E. Deborah and Kent had toured together, Kent and I later. When we started talking about combining forces with somebody, a fit developed. After we wiped off the foam, a connection seemed natural. Once we discovered we enjoyed traveling together, creating an entity (The Minnesota Crime Wave) seemed a natural next step. The came the newsletter and our web site.

DW: It was a dark and snowy night. The four of us were out (separately), as usual, cruising downtown Minneapolis, but this night our collective luck ran out. One by one, we were picked up for loitering and found ourselves in the same holding cell. Well, we got to talking, you know how it is in a holding cell, and we discovered that we all write mysteries, so we vowed that if we ever got out, we'd show them all, we'd hit the road together and...... Oops, sorry, this fiction habit is hard to break. Actually, we all knew each other and were looking for new book promotion ideas, and it all just sort of happened.

JON: You all write series that are different from each other, the only common theme is that they are mysteries. How would you describe your series?

CB: INNER PASSAGES is a sailing mystery series featuring a Seattle PR guy named Michael Tanner. I like sailing and my character will sail where I have or will sail. As long as my publisher, Top of Plano, Texas, likes my work and the reading public buys it, I figure Tanner will have at least a dozen adventures around the world. His next adventure is called CHEQUAMEGON BAY and will be released in September. The sailing community is a lot like the mystery community, only larger. Mostly nice people of an independent mind who are genetically bound to help you out of trouble when you need it. It is said that sailing can be described as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I try to spice up the hours with a murder or other chicanery, some great scenery and some real people. Entertainment. But if Tanner goes aground some day, I have some other stories waiting in the wings. Like this short dude. A PI named Sean Sean.

KK: "Father Knows Best" meets "Twin Peaks."

DW: My Sister Rose series is set in a fictional Shaker village in Depression-era Kentucky. I dislike the labels often used to categorize mysteries, so I'll just say that mine are character-driven, which means that the mystery itself emerges from the characters--their personalities, their motivations, and their relationships with one another.

EH: I write two series. The Jane Lawless mysteries are niche marketed in New York as gay mysteries. Jane is a restaurateur, an amateur sleuth, and the series started out fairly cozy, but has gotten quite a bit darker over the years. IMMACULATE MIDNIGHT is just out, the eleventh Jane Lawless mystery. My other series, the Sophie Greenway mysteries are marketed as culinary mysteries. Again, they're more traditional -- not hard-boiled, but to stay with the food idiom, perhaps "soft-boiled." Sophie is a restaurant reviewer, hotel owner, and an amateur sleuth. I've just completed the seventh in this series -- DEATH ON A SILVER PLATTER, which will be released in 2003.

JON: What are the benefits of traveling together? Any disadvantages?

CB: Some obvious ones, it's cheaper to share expenses. Kent and I are compatible roomies, but don't ask me about his tattoo. I'm not a lonely sailor type. I like to share. So traveling with companions who have had similar touring experiences is a good thing. We get along and have a good many laughs. On the other hand, we're probably learning far too much about each other. Wait until one of us hits it big. I mean really big! You ever read any of those "tell-all" exposes?

DW: The benefits are numerous--We share the work and the expenses; we share experiences and information and publishing gossip; we give one another support and ideas. We've been able to do far more extensive traveling, in terms of geography and cost, than any of us could manage on our own. Being Minnesotans, we find it easier to toot somebody else's horn than our own, so this way we can praise one another's work. Disadvantages? Well, I'm not sure I'd call this a disadvantage, but as in all close working/friendship relationships, we've all had to do some adjusting to one another's personalities. And then there's the problem of SOME people wanting to get up and going at the crack of dawn.

KK: Benefits: Good company, stimulating conversation, and a lot of laughter. Disadvantages: A roommate who snores.

EH: The benefits are many. The obvious are that we get to split costs, driving duties, and bookstores or libraries can advertise four authors instead of just one -- so they get more bang for their promotional buck. We also happen to like each other a good deal, and since we're all pretty entertaining, we have a great time together. Kent and Carl have a great sense of direction -- I don't. But I can read maps, and I love to drive. In terms of personal promotion, I'd pretty much lost my momentum. Hooking up with Kent, Carl, and Deborah has brought me back to life. Promotion has become fun again. When we get together for a Crime Wave meeting, it's clear that we have more ideas then we have time to act on. And that's good. I think we feed each other creatively, and since writing can be a solitary, sometimes lonely profession, it's invaluable to have other writers -- who know the stresses and stains -- to talk to. These people are my buddies, my supporters when I'm down, and my cheering section when something good happens. I really can't think of any disadvantages. Seriously. We work very well together.

JON: What kind of things did you do before writing?

EH: I was a professional chef for fourteen years.

CB: What, you want a list? I was a college faculty member, and a counselor. I produced and administered a lot of television, both broadcast and cable. I was a free-lance photographer and I've been in business. At my age, I 'm starting to forget some of my past careers and jobs, probably a good thing.

DW: I started out as a candy-and-popcorn girl at my local theater, progressed after college to one of the three jobs available to women at that time--secretarial work. Then I went to graduate school, became a sociologist, and did research for about ten years. I've also done some freelance editing and worked in a bookstore.

KK: I logged timber, worked construction, and collected baby spit. Writing is the cleanest work I've ever done.

JON: What made you decide to write, and why mysteries?

KK: I always wanted to write. Unfortunately, I thought that when you write, the purpose ought to be to create the great American novel. Then I began reading mysteries by authors like Tony Hillerman, Sarah Paretsky, James Lee Burke, and Michael Connelly, and I realized a person could write a damn fine book, and it could be a mystery. I like writing in the genre because I believe that a good mystery writer does everything a good mainstream novelist does-that is, create complex characters, riveting dialogue, a profound sense of place-and on top of it all, a mystery writer must create a puzzle that keeps readers guessing and that, in the end, comes together in a way that is satisfying. Zowie, is that a challenge, or what?

DW: I never made a conscious decision to write, I just did it from the time somebody put a fat pencil in my hand. It's how I've always expressed myself. Writing is so much a part of me, I can't imagine life without it. So I write all sorts of things,
not just mysteries--short stories, children's books, nonfiction.... I've loved mysteries since I was a child, so it seemed natural to write one. Besides, I wrote my first mystery while in graduate school, when I needed an outlet for my deep desire to murder my professors.

CB: I've always read mysteries, westerns, adventures. My careers have always included writing--often fiction, although that's not what it was labeled. So as I approached retirement from a formal career, I wanted something a little less physical than lugging photo equipment around the countryside. More writing, I thought. Telling stories, what a deal. In addition, if I have an opinion about some aspect of life, I can put the words in the mouth of a character without doing detailed research or including footnotes.

EH: I love to read. I have a sneaking suspicion that with people who love reading, you'll find a fair number who harbor the desire to write. I was one of those. I knew that if I didn't try to write a novel at some point in my life, I'd get to the end of my life and have a very real regret. I've always loved mysteries. After reading P.D. James and Kate Green, I was so impressed by the quality of the writing and the scope of the work, that I thought, "Yeah, that's what I should write." I was working as a kitchen manager at a sorority at the University of Minnesota at the time, and I thought a sorority house would make a good setting for a mystery. HALLOWED MURDER, my first novel, followed about three years later.

JON: Not unlike Wisconsin, Minnesota has full blown seasons, hot summers, and cold snowy winters. Do you take advantage of the diversity or do you hibernate in the winter and play in the summer?

DW: Summer is just as bad as winter, in my opinion. I hate heat! Though I'm not so fond of cold either. I write all the time. It's the only way to make the tight deadlines imposed by publishers these days.

KK: In winter, I cross country ski, play hockey, ice skate, mush sled dogs, and train for the Nordic Biathlon. Summers I usually spend naked in front of the fan.

EH: I love winter. Hate hot humid weather. If I'm going to hibernate, it would be during the dog days of July and August.

CB: I love hot weather. Nothing I like better than sitting in my skivvies at the keyboard working away with the sweat dripping off my nose. Actually, it's the seasonal changes that continue to charge me up. Hibernation is for other people.

JON: What kind of writing habits do you have? Do you follow set schedules or write when the ideas hit you?

EH: If I waited for inspiration to strike, or for the muse to whisper in my ear, I'd never be a published. I have deadlines that require disciplined work at least five days a week -- sometimes more -- at least five hours a day -- sometimes all day and late into the night. Since I write two series, one for St. Martin's, and one for Ballantine, and commercial speed in New York is a book a year, I have two presses that both want a book every year. I can't write that fast, so I'm always behind. Always pushing. To be a successful writer, you have to be disciplined. Someone once said to me that they thought they'd enjoy the "writing life" because of all the down time. Funny. I've never been able to find that "down time."

DW: I try to write every day, between about 10:00 and 6:00, though some days are interrupted badly. I find that I get ideas when I'm working steadily, and they dry up if I'm away from the writing for too long.

KK: I try to write every day. I start my morning at a local coffee shop, a place called the St. Claire Broiler, where I drink coffee and write while the sun comes up. Then I go home and do the grunt work-putting my longhand scribble into the word processor, answering emails, praying to the muse. Most days I try to take a break to work out at my local YMCA, then it's back to the Broiler for a stint in the afternoon. If I've done well, I reward myself with a cold beer just before dinner. If I've done really well, I might have two.

CB: I do write when the ideas hit me, but those times of inspiration are extra. Writing requires discipline, a constant flow of words and revisions. It requires research although not always in a formal sense of that word. I write every day, usually in the mornings, then do writing related business for part of the rest of the day. You have no idea how much work it is to coordinate three undisciplined authors! My family is important and occupies a persistent part of my daily life as well. But when things are really going, particularly in the initial phases of getting the story down, I may work twelve or fifteen hours at a stretch.

JON: Do you set any limits on your writing? Certain things you won't write about?

CB: Not subject wise, but I have to know something about the subject. I don't put any limitations on what I write about, but there are certain activities my characters won't be subjected too, such as rape or serious physical torture of Mary Whitney. I don't get overly detailed about Tanner and Whitney's sensuality, although they certainly have an active and creative physical relationship. I don't intend to get overly graphic or detailed about gore. I just don't see the need. But I've been known to change my mind.

EH: I don't write about the Mean Streets. I don't live there -- don't know any drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes. I don't go to sleazy bars, flop house hotels, etc. So I write about what seems real to me -- the tensions that exist in personal relationships, especially families. I don't do lots of blood and gore. I don't do sex scenes in any great detail. I'd never kill a dog or a cat. I guess you could call my style, "maximal suspense and minimal gore."

DW: Not really. I follow the requirements of the plot and the characters. I sometimes find myself writing a scene I never anticipated. Since my current series is about Shakers, there seems to be an old-world quality to the content, but I'm working on other projects that elicit quite different styles and topics.

KK: Sometimes I think there are places I won't go. Exploitative violence, for example, or very graphic sex, or a cat that solves the mystery. But then I think that writing about what you believe you can't or won't write about, and being able to do it in a way that is artistically and ethically satisfying, is a tremendous challenge. So in the end, my answer is: Probably not.

JON: What's your favorite way to spend free time?

CB: Reading, soaking in my hot tub, watching television, growing my lilies, listening to good music.

KK: I have no free time. All the time I have is stolen from other things I ought to be doing.

DW: Apart from sleeping? I like to do nonverbal activities like music, pressing flowers from our garden, growing and cooking with herbs--oh yeah, and sleeping.

EH: Reading. Going for walks. Cooking. Eating. Watching movies. Listening to music or going to the theatre.

JON: If a movie was made of the four of you, who would be in the movie?

EH: Me, oh...I suppose, Bette Davis. Not exactly gorgeous, but with a definite edge. Kent...hum, maybe the young Marlon Brando. You know, smoldering. Carl...well, let me think. Caesar Romero. Handsome. Suave. Virile. And Deborah. Ah... Barbara Stanwick Beautiful and smart. Nobody tells her what to do. That should do it, I think. (I like old movies. Can you guess?)

CB: Us. We would be. I mean you're talking a documentary, right? Nobody's ever gonna do a fictional film on the Minnesota
Crime Wave. Never. No way.

KK: Moe, Larry, Curly, and Shemp.

DW: can see it now. . . Come join us for the Minnesota Crime Wave--the musical! Let's see, I think Sean Connery should play Carl, definitely. For Kent, maybe a younger Clint Eastwood. Susan Sarandon would make a wonderfully mad earth-mother chef, so she should play Ellen. As for me, I'm not sure. Somebody who is willing to appear in a heavy cloak rather than something more elegant. Jessica Tandy? No wait, she's dead. Okay, Jessica Tandy if she were alive, that's the best I can do.

JON: What are some of your favorite recent reads?

DW: I've been on a John Irving kick lately. I've finished A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY and THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, and loved them. And I've been rereading Ngaio Marsh with delight.

CB: Past Imperfect by Kathleen Mills
Cold Hunters Moon by K.C. Greenlief
Fury by Gerry Ford
The Reeve's Tale by Margaret Frazer
I'm deliberately not mentioning books by my fellow Wave-ers, you'll notice. As a free-lance reviewer I'm a little cautious about answering a question like this.

EH: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
A Drink Before the War, Dennis Lehane
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
A Widow for One Year, John Irving
The Witness of Combines, Kent Meyers

KK: Outside the genre: Peace Like A River by Leif Enger,
The Witness of Combines by Kent Meyers,
The Cape Anne by Faith Sullivan (all Minnesota authors).
In the genre: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane,
One O'Clock Jump by Lise McClendon,
Overkill by Susan McBride, and
Daredevil's Apprentice by Letha Albright.

JON: What's the one thing always in your refrigerator?

EH: Carrots. I'm part rabbit.
KK: Hungry teenagers.
CB: Milk. I love milk!
DW: Fat-free half and half for the constant cups of tea I drink
while I'm writing.

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