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HENRY
KISOR
INTERVIEWS
HENRY KISOR

Following is the transcript of an audiotape in which Henry Kisor (Q.), book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, interviews Henry Kisor (A.), author of the new mystery Season’s Revenge.

Q. Good evening, Mr. Kisor.

A. Good evening, Mr. Kisor.


Q. Is there an echo in here?

A. You tell me. I’m deaf, you know.


Q. Sorry. I forgot.

A. Doesn’t it take one to know one?


Q. I guess.

A. Anyway, Mr. Kisor, I’m glad to be interviewed by a distinguished prize-winning book critic of 30 years’ experience, one who has actually taken the trouble to read my novel and think about it and devise sensitive, intelligent and searching questions, not the stupid empty-headed powderpuffs that blow-dried TV talking heads lob, especially “What’s your book all about?” This is going to be an interesting evening, I can tell.


Q. Thank you. But this is about you, not me. No reason to suck up to your alter ego.

A. All right, sorry.


Q. Quickly, what’s your book all about?

A. Idiot!


Q. (Laughing.) Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

A. (Exasperated sigh.) Okay, okay. Can we get down to business?


Q. Very well. Whatever gave you the lamebrained idea to use a bear as a murder weapon?


A. Haven’t you ever heard of foreplay?


Q. Please answer the question.


A. Look, bears are big critters, even black bears. They’ve got enormous teeth and huge claws.  Some of them are more than twice the size of a full-grown man. They’re the Schwarzeneggers of the woods. They can uproot whole trees and rip doors off houses, and they can—


Q. Yes, yes, but I thought black bears were shy creatures and avoided human beings.


A. Ignorant backwoods bears do. But the bears I’m writing about are college-educated. In Upper Michigan, they hang around state park hiking trails and campgrounds and haunt roadside restaurant dumpsters. They’ve discovered that putting on a menacing act will cause a tourist to drop his lunch and skedaddle in the other direction. That’s learned behavior. They’re smart animals. Because of that it’s quite possible to teach a bear to kill.  I don’t know why that doesn’t happen more often. Think of the money one could save on ammunition.


Q. Aren’t black bears too unpredictable?


A. The ones you don’t know are. The ones you do know aren’t. Bears are creatures of habit.  Just ask a field biologist who studies bears.


Q. Is your fictional Porcupine County based on a real county?


A. Yes, Ontonagon County, the westernmost county but one in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.


Q. What makes you an expert on that place? You’ve been there?


A. Thirty-seven consecutive summers. My wife’s folks own property up there, a cabin on the shore of Lake Superior. Ontonagon County is hundreds of miles from any sizable city, so isolated that it has neither a Wal-Mart nor a McDonald’s. It’s slowly turning back into deep wilderness. It’s a great retreat for a city writer easily distracted by urban attractions. There’s nothing to do up there but eat, drink, read, hunt, make love, skinnydip in the summer, shovel snow in the winter, and write.


Q. (Ostentatiously riffling through notes.) I see that the 2000 U.S. Census defined Ontonagon County as a frontier county, one with fewer than six people per square mile. “Frontier” suggests cowboys and Indians.


A. You’ve done your homework. Very good. Yes, there are a few Indians of the Ojibwa nation, but mostly the inhabitants are whites, and they own guns. Everybody has a rifle. Everybody gets his deer every year. These people don’t hunt for trophies like drunken rich guys from Chicago and Detroit—they hunt for the freezer, and some of them hunt to survive.  They’re remarkable folks.  They’re not wealthy people—unemployment is endemic up in a place where the forests have been logged out for decades and the mines closed down for years—but they take care of each other in ways you never see in the city.


Q. You are a hunter?


A. No. I’ve been a city boy too long. I’d shoot off my big toe. But I’d love to go along on a deer hunt, perhaps with a camera as my weapon, to experience that ancient bonding ritual of frontier life. It’s a kind of odyssey in which the adventure is as important as the objective.


Q. Your sleuth, Deputy Sheriff Steve Martinez, is a Lakota, a Sioux.  Why? Why not an Ojibwa or a Finn or an Irishman or a Cornishman or a Croatian? All those groups have deep historical roots in the Upper Peninsula.


A. Mainly to introduce a certain inner tension as personal baggage for the hero. Steve was adopted as an infant at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota by missionaries and brought up in the East essentially as a white kid. He looks Indian but thinks white. He feels out of place. But he knows the Upper Peninsula was the original home of the Lakota before the Ojibwa drove them out onto the Plains in the 18th century to become horse Indians. As a Lakota he feels an emotional tug to his ancestral land, but at the same time he’s too much of an European rationalist to believe in that attraction.


Q. Hmm. You’re a deaf person who uses only speech and lipreading to communicate. You don’t know any sign language, although most people think you must—they expect every deaf person to be able to speak with his hands. The really ignorant ones think you must be uneducated, probably unemployed. You’re deaf but you were brought up in the hearing culture. Does that have anything to do with Steve Martinez?


A. You’re smarter than I thought. Of course it does.


Q. Thank you, I think. Could you elucidate?


A. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I suspect many if not most deaf people of the “oral” persuasion feel caught between two stools, as I have all my life. Out of my experience I drew some feelings, some incidents, and refashioned them to fit Steve Martinez’s life. Maybe they make him a more interesting hero. I hope so.


Q. You don’t really know much about Indians, do you?


A. No, no more than Steve does.


Q. Then you didn’t have to spend a lot of time researching Indians.


A. Hey, I wouldn’t say that.


Q. I’ll keep your secret.


A. It’s not a secret!


Q. All right, all right. But other secrets have a lot to do with Season’s Revenge.  For instance, I’d never known that in the 1930s the Soviets sent agents to the Upper Peninsula to recruit skilled Finnish-American craftsmen to return to Karelia, the Finnish-speaking part of the Soviet Union. And that many of these reverse migrants were executed or disappeared into the Gulag never to be heard from again, while their American homes were seized and sold for unpaid taxes to greedy land sharks.


A. Yes. People have strong feelings about land. That can make a motive for murder—just one among many. The woods and streams of the western Upper Peninsula are full of murderous history.


Q. Why isn’t the Karelia episode better known?


A. It’s not unknown to historians, but even third- and fourth-generation Finns are reluctant to talk about it. Their parents and grandparents were suckered, after all.


Q. Change of subject. Are any of the characters in Season’s Revenge based on real people?


A. That’s a dumb question. Characters spring from a novelist’s brilliant and fertile imagination.


Q. So you want us critics to believe. Still?


A. One is. That’s Ginny Fitzgerald, Steve’s gorgeous girl friend, the director of the Porcupine County Historical Society. Her commodious filing-cabinet mind is based on that of a real Upper Peninsulan who amazed me with her ability to recall all sorts of obscure facts instantly, as if her brain was hard-wired to Google. She directed the Ontonagon County Historical Museum up until her death a couple of years ago. Somebody like that makes the perfect consort for a backwoods cop who’s not native to his jurisdiction. In fact, she’s the brains of the outfit.


Q. Let’s talk about your writing habits.


A. Do we have to? That’s such a banal subject.


Q. I’ve run out of penetrating questions and we still have a few minutes of tape to fill.


A. All right.


Q. Computer or typewriter?


A. Anything I can get my hands on, including Magic Marker on the backs of envelopes.


Q. Really?


A. And once in a while a double-bitted axe on a tree stump.


Q. Wise guy. When do you do your writing?


A. Every day between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., before I put on your book editor’s hat and go off to your day job at the Sun-Times.


Q. We’re at the end of the hour. One more question. Is another Steve Martinez mystery in the works?


A. Upper Michigan is full of interesting secrets. I think I’ve only scratched the surface.


Q. Thank you.


A. Thank you.


Q. Is there an echo in here?


A. You worked that gag already.


(End of tape.)

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