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THE STORY
BEHIND

HANG FIRE


A FELLOW
WHODUNIT
WRITER
INTERVIEWS
HENRY ON
THE OCCASION
OF HIS FOURTH
MYSTERY


By Michael A. Black
Crimespree Magazine
Reprinted with permission

In his long career Henry Kisor seems to have stepped through more fires than a centipede with a hotfoot. He is a retired book review editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and the old Chicago Daily News. He lives in two places, suburban Chicago and rural Upper Michigan. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism and also taught at NCrimespree Magazineorthwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is the author of three nonfiction books as well as four mystery novels. He wrote about the romance of the passenger train in Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America. His memoir Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet recounted his retracing of the first transcontinental flight, made in 1911 by a fellow pilot who, like Henry, was deaf.

Henry lost his hearing at age three after a bout with meningitis. He’s a father, a grandfather, and the author of the popular Steve Martinez mystery series, set in the fictional Porcupine County of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve known Henry for several years and not only is he a true gentleman, he’s one of the nicest men you’d ever want to meet. After attending one of his recent book signings, I persuaded him to do this interview.

Q: Once again I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing my friend Henry Kisor, this time about his fourth novel, Hang Fire (Five Star). Henry, how are you?

A: Do you really want to know? I’m getting old with all that entails, including nattering on for hours about ailments real and imagined.

Q: Tell us a little about the Steve Martinez series. It began with Season’s Revenge, correct?

A: Yes, that was in 2003, and the plot driver was murder by bear. Black bear. Hard as it may be to believe, bears can be trained to kill human beings as well as stamp out forest fires.

Q: What are the other books in the series and when did each come out?

A:  A Venture into Murder, about crime in an old copper mine, appeared in 2005, and Cache of Corpses, concerning a grisly game with cadavers and GPS receivers, in 2007.

Q: The first three Steve Martinez books are now available as ebooks, correct?

A. Yes. After my first publisher, Tom Doherty/Forge, cut me loose during the general midlist author bloodletting in the late 2000s, I won all rights back to the books and in 2011 converted them into ebooks myself, even designing new “jacket” art.  The work was painstaking and time-consuming, but it’s not rocket surgery. (The jackets need improving, and this summer I’ll see what I can do.) The ebooks have established a modest revenue trickle that enables me to take my wife out to a nice restaurant a couple of times a month. The recent publicity surrounding the appearance of Hang Fire has just about doubled the trickle. If this keeps up I may be able to treat my wife to dinner every week.

Q: Tell us a little about Steve Martinez.

A: Born Lakota Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, adopted by white missionaries and raised in Upper New York State. Cornell grad, CUNY criminal justice postgrad, Army military police during Desert Storm, several years as a deputy in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and now an elected sheriff there. Now in his mid-forties, still a bachelor but with a gorgeous redheaded girl friend, a U.P. native of Finnish extraction.

Q: Steve’s a very complex man. How did you decide on all the divergent aspects of his character?

A: At first I thought about a deaf hero, but Penny Warner did that some time ago with her character Connor Westphal, a deaf journalist. Besides, I had a police procedural in mind, and a deaf law enforcement officer wouldn’t be convincing. Still, as a deaf person in the hearing world I’ve been something of a square peg in a round hole, and thought making Steve a fellow who also doesn’t quite fit into his world would let me create a unique series character. One of my sons’ boyhood friends was also born Native American and adopted by well-meaning whites, and told me he never felt that he completely belonged in white suburbia.  Like him, Steve looks Indian but thinks white. Steve has a Spanish surname but is no Latino. He’s big and fit but hates violence. People expect him to be what he isn’t. Same with me. I never learned sign language and live entirely in the hearing world. That gave me the opportunity to use some of my own experiences and shape them fictionally for the character of Steve Martinez.

Q: All of the novels are set in the U.P. I take it you’re familiar with this area?

A: Yes. I first visited the U.P. in 1966, when I was courting my wife. We were married a year later and spent time there every summer. Now that we are both retired, we live there five months out of the year in a log cabin on the shore of Lake Superior twenty feet from water’s edge.

 Q: What do you find so fascinating about the U.P.?

A: It is slowly returning to wilderness as its human population shrinks. It’s full of bears and deer, timber wolves returned in strength a few years ago, and now cougars are knocking on the door. Making a living is getting harder and harder as traditional industry disappears. For a while a paper mill provided jobs, but it was closed and torn down a couple of years ago. Yet the inhabitants hang on bravely any way they can. They are tough. They are survivors. They take care of each other in ways we can’t imagine in the cities, casually dropping off a load of groceries or cord of wood for those less fortunate. But sometimes they also murder each other. They ain’t saints any more than you or me.

Q: Each of your books in this series has a unique aspect to it in addition to the U.P. setting. What can you tell us about Hang Fire?

A: I’m always looking for unusual means of or motives for murder that would be natural to the area. A few years ago I visited a rendezvous in the U.P. of historical re-enactors, folks who for a week or ten days live as frontiersmen of almost two centuries ago. They are sticklers for authenticity. They also like to shoot muzzle-loaders, flintlocks and cap-and-ball weapons and even cannon common during Revolutionary times and a bit later in the 19th century. I was entranced by the skill and care they took with those old tools. Shooting a muzzle-loader is time-consuming and complicated, so much so, I thought, that no modern person with homicide on the mind would want to use one. But what if one did? Maybe one unhinged by religious fervor, a state not uncommon in that part of the country. That was the spark for Hang Fire.

Q: You must have done a lot of research on this type of gun as well, correct?

A: Yes. I bought a modern replica of a .54 caliber Kentucky flintlock pistol that was common in the era, and found a local muzzle-loader deer hunter to teach me how to shoot it. He supplied me with lead balls, flints and black powder, and we went to the shooting range behind his house in the woods. I fired the pistol a couple of times and even hit the target once. That was my education in antique weaponry, and afterward I put the gun away. Once in a while I take it out and admire it, then put it back in its box. I’m not really a gun enthusiast. Been a city boy too long.

Q: Also in this book the relationship between Steve and his girlfriend, Ginny Fitzgerald, runs into a bit of trouble. How difficult is it difficult to keep a prolonged romance going in a mystery series? (Spenser and Susan Silverman is probably the only one I can think of, besides Nick and Nora Charles.) Why is it so difficult to have a lasting relationship for mystery heroes?

A: They are very good at keeping house with members of the opposite sex, but for a novelist, full commitment means a dissipation of the sexual tension that adds liveliness to a narrative. That’s why Raymond Chandler said “a really good detective never gets married.” Keeping the fires of love kindled can be difficult from novel to novel; you don’t want to get repetitive.

Q: You’ve written several nonfiction books as well as your novels. Which is your favorite of those?

A: The one that sold the least, Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, a narrative about learning to fly, buying an airplane and having an adventure with it. Pilots seemed to like it, but I’m afraid aviation is no longer a magnet for most American readers. All the same, I loved flying low and slow across the United States in a tiny two-seater airplane. It carried me into a larger dimension outside myself as did nothing I ever tried before or since.

Q: I must tell you, I find the lyrical quality of your prose inspiring. You capture the essence of the remote area so well, and seem to capture every detail so well. How does your fiction writing differ from your nonfiction work?

A: Thank you. Fiction lets me use the tools of that trade—narration, description, the use of simile and metaphor, the creation and development of character, the very sound of language—in ways I never could with nonfiction. Fiction allows more room to swing the imaginative cat.

Q: How would you describe the evolution of Steve’s character through the course of the four books?

A: I think Steve has mellowed. Over the years he has earned a place in the hearts of the people he serves, and he’s no longer quite so troubled by the sometimes stereotyped views they take of him. When they do get under his skin he’s better at controlling his responses. He has simply grown older and more mature. He’s still terrified of making the total commitment to Ginny that she keeps hinting about. He says his Lakota genes mean he needs to be free, completely unfettered, to be a man and an Indian. Of course that’s just masculine vainglory.

Q: You spent over thirty years as the book editor and literary critic of the Chicago Sun-Times. How did your experience as a critic affect your own writing?

A: Sometime in the late 1980s, after having criticized other people’s books for years, I realized that I had never paid my authorial dues. Working on my first book, What’s That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness, gave me insight into the agony of writing. The experience made me, I think, a more empathetic and less snarky critic. Afterward, even if I didn’t care for a book as a whole, I would try to find something good in it, something nice to say about it. As a book writer and especially a mystery novelist, I had to learn to write without looking over my shoulder and worrying about what critics would say. Everybody’s got an opinion, I would tell myself, but ultimately the only ones that count are my own and those of my readers.

Q: Any plans to move Steve Martinez out of Porcupine County in the near future, say on an assignment to Chicago?

A. Maybe not Chicago, but for the fifth novel I’m thinking of having Steve chase the bad guy around Lake Superior and through the wilds of Ontario. He’d be way out of his jurisdiction and would have to throw himself on the mercy of the Ontario Provincial Police, who I am told take a dim view of outsiders mucking about their territory, even a brother officer from the other side of the border. Or maybe he’d go to ground and try to sneak unseen and unheard through the Canadian forest like the stealthy Indian he unfortunately isn’t.

Q: What’s the plot?

A: The western reaches of Upper Michigan are crisscrossed with old and mostly abandoned railroad lines. Just one survives in the general area of Porcupine County, a tattered short line made up of scraps of old major railroads. The little railroad hasn’t enough carload business to keep going, so it stays alive by storing surplus cars from major railroads—boxcars, gondolas, oil tankers, covered grain hoppers among them—along its sidings and main line, sometimes for years and years. One day the skeletal remains of a young girl fall out of a rusty grain hopper being cleaned in Omaha for return to mainline service—and the record shows that hopper had been stored for several years on a deserted siding deep in the woods of Porcupine County. Steve and his crew mount a search there. Another corpse turns up, and the hunt is on.

Q: Not that I’m tired of Steve or anything, but have you got any plans to do a non-series novel or possibly start another series?

A: Once in a while I think about a historical novel involving an adventurous young Philadelphian who follows the brand-new Erie Canal, then Great Lakes schooners to the booming copper mines on the shore of Lake Superior before the Civil War. That’s a period and place of history that hasn’t been well explored in fiction. I’ve done a few pages but would need to do a lot of research to write more.

Q: Who are your favorite mystery writers?

A:  There are so many. Just a few: Edgar Allan Poe, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Donna Leon, Ruth Rendell and especially P.D. James. James’ stately mysteries start off slowly but inexorably build a head of steam as she unearths the evil secrets of her characters. Scandinavians like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo and Arnaldur Indridason mine the same dark depths of humanity in their icy northern settings.

Q. Finally, does the task of the mystery writer get any easier with each subsequent novel?

A. Are you kidding? It gets harder. There are only so many plots in the shrinking world, so many unique characters, so many settings to write about. And we’re expected to do so much more once our books are finished. Thirty years ago publishers took care of publicity and promotion and sometimes sent their writers on lavish book tours. Nowadays we’re expected to go out ourselves and hustle the product, setting up autographings and interviews if we can get them. There are thousands of us out there, all pushing and shoving for a place in the public eye. We’ve become a scrum of scribblers.

Q. How do you handle autographings and presentations?

A. Because I have deaf speech that can be difficult for some people to understand, I project my talks on a screen with a laptop and digital projector, using photographs I’ve taken of the U.P. as background for the text. My wife, Debby, reads passages from the books. The only hard part is lugging all the equipment from venue to venue. Those projection screens weigh a ton.

Q. You have a web site, too?

A. Yes, at henrykisor.com. Blogging is also expected of us, so I do two blogs, one at henrykisor.blogspot.com and the other at hkisorphoto.blogspot.com.

Q. So why do you do all this?

A. That’s what writers do. We have to.

Michael A. Black is a former police officer and the author of 19 books. His newest mystery novel is Sacrificial Offerings (Five Star).