Q: Tell us a little bit about THE BITTER SEASON.
A: In THE BITTER SEASON I return to my old friends, Minneapolis homicide detectives Sam Kovac and Nikki Liska. Nikki has left Homicide to be part of the new cold case unit, a move she’s making to be able to spend more time with her two sons. Her first case is the twenty-five year old unsolved murder of a decorated sex crimes detective. Meanwhile, Sam is having to adjust to life without Liska, and having to break in a new partner. Their first big call-out is a brutal double homicide—a university professor and his wife who have been killed with antique ninja and samurai warrior weapons from the professor’s collection.
Q: Ninja and Samurai warriors? Where did that come from?
A: I have long had a fascination with ancient warrior cultures. One of my passions is mixed martial arts fighting, and of course, the heart of martial arts goes back to the principles and disciplines of those cultures. So this was my chance to indulge and to share my knowledge with readers.
Q: Kovac and Liska have been partners for a long time. How are they adjusting to their new roles?
A: The change is hard for Nikki because she’s an adrenaline junkie. She misses the urgency of working a fresh homicide. She’s also a very social animal. She misses the oddball camaraderie of her Homicide team. Life is much quieter in Cold Case, and she has to work with a misogynist dinosaur on top of that, but these are the sacrifices she’s willing to make for her family.
Kovac’s adjustment is different. He and Nikki have forged a partnership that is almost like a marriage. He misses her. He even misses her nagging him about his smoking. Also, his new partner, Taylor, is damn near perfect—young, handsome, smart—which Kovac finds irritating in the extreme.
Q: Family is a strong theme in this book, but not necessarily happy families.
A: Happy families are boring to write about. I prefer complex characters. I love delving into the psychology of the characters and the dynamics of their relationships. We are all a product of our pasts and of the impact our relationships have on us. I’ve known many people who grew up in difficult family situations or were tossed some terrible curve balls by life. The interesting thing is to see the choices they made in those circumstances. Did they let that baggage drag them down, or did they find a way to move past and rise above?
Q: THE BITTER SEASON opens with the murder of Ted Duffy, who is shot from a distance. One minute he’s chopping firewood and the next he’s dead on the ground. But the murders of Professor Chamberlain and his wife are up close and horrific. How do you decide how much of that violence to show the reader?
A: I am of the firm belief that violence should be depicted for what it is. It should be shocking and sickening. I never write violence for the sake of violence, but I want people to read a scene like that and be shocked and sobered by it. I want them to think: “oh, my God, what if this happened to me?” The seemingly impersonal nature of Ted Duffy’s death is shocking in how simple and efficient it is. The murder of the Chamberlains is everyone’s worst fear: faceless evil invading the place we should feel most safe—our home.
Q: Does living in the head of a character that would commit a crime like the murder of the Chamberlains keep you up at night?
A: Not at all. I’m very good at compartmentalizing and keeping those dark characters at arm’s length. What literally keeps me up at night is work, because I often work very late when the world is quiet and there are no interruptions.
Q: The plot of THE BITTER SEASON interweaves several stories and a host of characters. Did you map that all out before you started the book?
A: No. I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer—a pantster, if you will. I knew some key points of each storyline going in, but I write an outline. I need the story to progress organically or I get bored. I want to be surprised. Somehow it all comes together in the end, and along the way I learn things about my characters I might never have if I had made a blueprint from the beginning.
Q: For example?
A: For example: Early on in THE BITTER SEASON, Liska goes to the home of Barbie Duffy, her victim’s widow, and Barbie makes an off the cuff remark about her oldest daughter. At that point, I hadn’t thought about the role of that daughter at all, but she ended up being an important character.
Q: You say that as if you were having a conversation with a real person: “Barbie makes an off the cuff remark.” But the remark was what you wrote. How could that be a surprise?
A: That’s a very good question. That’s the mystical-magical part of this process for me. As I envision a scene, I feel like I’m watching a movie in my head. I’m watching these characters and writing down the things they say and do. If it feels like I’m trying to put words in their mouth, I know I’m going down the wrong road. I want the characters to tell me the story. That’s when the story feels genuine and authentic.
Q: Do you not feel in control of what’s going on during the writing process?
A: The notion of control is stifling to my creativity—and mind you, I am, in all other areas of my life, a serious control freak. I want the direction of the story to be dictated by the characters, not by me.
Q: So, you must have been one of those kids with imaginary friends, right?
A: Not in the “set a plate at the dinner table for my imaginary friend, please” kind of way. But I always had characters living in my head. I was always imagining elaborate stories.
Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
A: Write. I hear from a lot of people who believe they have a story to tell but they’re intimidated by the blank page. Just start and keep going. It doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try, but you have to get it on the page. You can always change it, improve it, rearrange it later. Then, once you have a story and think you want to send your baby out into the big world, you have to educate yourself about the business of publishing. Writing is an art, but publishing is a business with specific rules and requirements. You might have the next great American novel, but if you don’t know where to send it or how to present it, you won’t succeed.
Q: Do you have any rituals to get yourself in the mood to write?
A: Yeah. It’s called Put My Butt In The Chair and Get To Work. That’s what it means to be a working writer. You sit down and you work.
Q: What do you do when you get stuck?
A: Get up and move around. I brainstorm on a giant white board. That usually helps. Sometimes I have to just walk away and go do something else—ride a horse, work out, go see a movie. But you can’t make a habit of that or you won’t get anything done.
Q: What distracts you most when you’re trying to work?
A: Let the dogs out, let the dogs in. Let the dogs out, let the dogs in.