By Michael A. Black
Crimespree Magazine

M. Black: Today I’m interviewing Mr. Henry Kisor, who’s the book editor and literary columnist of my favorite newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. After having read Henry’s reviews for a number of years, I was surprised to find out in 2003 that he’d written a mystery novel. I picked up Season’s Revenge and enjoyed it immensely. This past December his second novel, A Venture into Murder, was released. It features the same character, Porcupine County Deputy Sheriff Steve Martinez, a Native American lawman who has a healthy respect for the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mr. Kisor, thank you the opportunity to interview you.

H. Kisor: Many thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed!

Black: Let’s get right down to brass tacks. You’ve spent your whole life as a newspaperman. Plus, you’ve written three nonfiction books. Why did you choose to write a novels rather than more nonfiction, and why mysteries in particular?

Kisor: I had a filing cabinet full of research for a nonfiction book about the Upper Peninsula—it was going to be my fourth book—but I could not find the heart, the core, of the story. I thought perhaps the tale of a serial killer could be the framework on which I could hang the book, but the only serial killer I could find dispatched just two victims. Not much of a serial killer. Then one day it came to me that I could create my own story, and the mystery genre seemed the best to work with. I’ve been a mystery reader for a long time and felt comfortable writing one. Besides, I’m getting on in years, and field research for the kinds of nonfiction books I do—about railroading and aviation—is getting physically harder. Writing mysteries comes more from the imagination than it does research, although the latter is of course important.

Black: And why did you decide to write about the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? Isn’t it a lonely and remote place where not much goes on?

Kisor: You remember the movie “Fargo” and its advertising tagline: “A lot goes on in the middle of nowhere.” The same thing is true of the U.P. It’s lonely and remote, but a remarkable lot goes on there. I discovered that over 37 summers on the shore of Lake Superior.

Black: Your protagonist, Steve Martinez, is Lakota Sioux by birth, but he was adopted and brought up in a white culture on the East Coast. Why did you choose to give him that kind of background?

Kisor: I’m deaf, but was brought up in the hearing culture. People expect me to know sign language, but I don’t. Often they find that hard to deal with because it upsets their expectations and assumptions. Steve is also caught between two stools. He looks Indian but thinks white. People often don’t know how to take that—and sometimes he doesn’t, either. I had a good time transferring some of my experiences, both good and bad, as a deaf-man-in-the-hearing-world to a Lakota-in-the-white world.

Black: Your mysteries seem almost low-key, with little of the breakneck plotting we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Why is this so?

Kisor: I’m a dinosaur, I guess. To me, character development, building of detail and honing of prose style are as important as the plot. The Upper Peninsula is a character in my novels, not merely a vague background setting, and it’s important to me to paint its details. I try to emulate one of my favorite writers, P.D. James, whose stately mysteries move slowly in the beginning but grab you by the throat at the end.

Black: I’ve noticed that your books involve things that happened long ago that are tied into the mystery in the present. Sort of like the sins of the past coming back to roost. Would you care to comment on that?

Kisor: It’s true. Present-day life does not exist in a vacuum. It is deeply affected by what has gone before. Much of the history of the Upper Peninsula is dark and violent. The place is full of fascinating secrets, and people have long memories. All this is gold for the mystery novelist.

Black: The description of Steve’s experience in the absolute darkness of the Venture Mine in your second book is both frightening and fascinating. How did you research such a scene?

Kisor: Some years ago my wife and I took our boys deep into a cavern in the Black Hills. It was a beautiful, mesmerizing place—until the guide, to show us what pitch blackness was really like, turned out the lights. I very nearly lost my cool. And, many decades later, when as a student pilot I flew into dense cloud—which you might call pitch gray, so featureless was it—I experienced exactly the same intense discomfort, the sensation that I did not know which way was up. For Venture I pulled out those two memories and melded them.

Black: In your first novel, Season’s Revenge, which has just been released in paperback, you have a very unusual murder weapon. Have you had any personal experience with bears?

Kisor: All my experiences with bears have been at arm’s length, fortunately, watching them in the zoo or behind a fence at roadside restaurants in the U.P. I do believe in experiencing the things one writes about, but so far as bears are concerned, I’m happy just to observe from a distance instead. Not that they’re dangerous animals—they’re not, so long as you allow them plenty of room.

Black: You mentioned that you have the third Steve Martinez novel finished. Can you tell us a little about what’s in store for him next time out?

Kisor: He’s stumped about several corpses found secreted in different places in the woods at different times. They are all missing their heads and their hands—and they are embalmed. Exactly what crime is Steve looking at? Murder? Body-snatching? Or just illegal disposition of human bodies? Who put them there—and why? And why are they missing heads and hands?

Black: That sounds interesting. Why did you choose to write a series rather than a stand-alone novel, and what are the benefits and disadvantages to doing the series?

Kisor: Writing Season’s Revenge was so satisfying I wanted to try another, and I wanted to find out what happened to Steve Martinez and his friends, because they had become so real to me. The advantage of a series is that your main characters and their setting have already been established, and the task here is just to develop them a bit more as well as come up with new plots. But in a series you are constrained by the history of what has gone before—you have to make sure the details in a new book don’t contradict those in the older book. Continuity must be maintained.

Black: Do you see doing as many books in your series as say, Robert B. Parker?

Kisor: Wouldn’t I ever love to! Parker is one of my inspirations. I enjoy the witty byplay in his novels. But he’s got a hell of a head start on me. I would consider myself lucky if I managed to get six or seven novels written before hanging up the laptop.

Black: Do you have any plans to have Steve visit Chicago in a future book?

Kisor: The idea has occurred to me. I had a dream once in which Steve walked into a working-class Polish bar on the Northwest Side and was challenged to a fight because of his Indian looks. He was able to defuse the situation without having to resort to violence. Something like that happened, however, in Season’s Revenge, so I don’t think I can use it again. But I’m intrigued about what might happen when a deputy sheriff from the North Woods comes down to Chicago seeking information about a case.

Black: Your day job is as a book editor and literary critic for a newspaper. Has this helped or hindered you as a mystery writer?

Kisor: It’s allowed me to read a lot of mysteries and get paid for it. I’ve been able to absorb some of the tricks and techniques of other mystery writers, and to appreciate the huge range of the genre, from the genteel literary mystery to the slice-em, dice-em whodunit. But I’ve had to be careful who I read. I’d like to read other North Woods mystery writers like William Kent Krueger and Steve Hamilton, but I don’t, for fear of unconsciously stealing something from them that I shouldn’t.

Black: Having been a book reviewer for a number of years, what was it like to be on the other side of the situation, waiting for the critics to review your first novel?

Kisor: Terrifying. Don’t let anybody tell you they don’t read their reviews. They do, and they’re elated when the reviews are good and crushed when they’re bad. One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of reviewers get things wrong—they misstate facts about the book, get the plot cockeyed, and get nasty because that morning some other critic has been unpleasant about one of their own books. It makes me realize that maybe I’ve done the same thing in my reviews of other people’s books. Getting reviewed, I hope, has made me a more careful and compassionate reviewer.

Black: What mystery authors do you enjoy the most, and who do you feel has been your greatest influence as a writer?

Kisor: This is a tough question, because there are so many. I’ve mentioned P.D. James and Robert B. Parker. I also like Ruth Rendell, I admire what George P. Pelecanos does with his Washington, D.C., setting and what Michael Connelly does with his plots. Sara Paretsky and Barbara D’Amato are also favorites. They have all influenced me greatly.

Black: Henry, I’ve enjoyed meeting you and doing this interview. I admire you greatly, both as a writer and as a man. Thank you for your time.

Kisor: Likewise. Many thanks for doing me the honor of an interview.

Michael A. Black is a Chicago area writer. His latest novel is Freeze Me, Tender (Five Star). Copyright 2006 Crimespree Magazine (No. 11, March/April 2006).

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