|By Michael A. Black
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Black: Do you see doing as many books in your series as say, Robert B.
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
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
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
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
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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