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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

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BAKER'S DOZEN for 01/16/2008
Night Moves
Steve Hamilton on Night Work and more

I first encountered the mysteries of Steve Hamilton a few years back, and was simply blown away by how real these books seemed. Everything made sense in a very human, if not in a logical, way without seeming glib or manufactured. I was also impressed with his use of language and the way that those same books--which take place largely in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my native stomping grounds, and feature an ex-cop-turned-private eye of sorts named Alex McKnight--made not just good use of their settings, but also effectively transformed the wilds of northern Michigan into a silent, vital and important part of the proceedings with such power that, at times, it almost seems as if the frozen woods and the chilly depths of Lake Superior had become fully realized characters in their own right.

So, when an opportunity to talk with the author presented itself, I jumped at it. The fact that Night Work, the first novel by Hamilton to feature characters and settings other than Alex McKnight and that frigid northern landscape, had just been released only made me more eager to talk with him. Steve took a little time away from his next, unnamed project to answer via email some questions concerning his working methods, the future of the Alex McKnight series and other topics of interest.

Night Work

Bill Baker: Your most recent book, Night Work, hit the shelves a while back. How would you describe it to those who might not have heard about it?

Steve Hamilton: It's a crime novel, but with a new and different kind of protagonist. Joe Trumbull is a probation officer living and working in the small city of Kingston, New York. So it's all about what a probation officer really does, first of all, and then in particular about this one individual who's been through a tragedy in his life and is trying to start over. And how just when he thinks he's beginning to do that, everything starts to fall apart.

BB: This is the first novel you've released which didn't focus on Alex McKnight. What lead to the change up, and does this mean that we won't be seeing any more books featuring his misadventures?

SH: I will, definitely, absolutely go back to Alex. I can't imagine ever not wanting to know what's up with him next. (And that's exactly what each book is - my way of finding that out. Because I have no idea where it's going when I start.)

The whole reason for trying something new, after seven books with Alex, was the idea that it should never get too easy. It just felt like I should go try something else, as scary as that might be, so that when I go back to Alex (or whatever else I do next), I'll be a better writer.

That sounds good, I guess, but maybe I'm just seeing that in hindsight. Maybe it was as simple as Alex himself needing a break after everything he'd been through. Maybe I just couldn't drag him back into trouble again for a while. Does that make any sense?

Day in Paradise

BB: Actually, yeah, it does. Everyone needs and deserves a break, even from the stuff that they love, if only to remind them why it's so important to them.

Still, that leads to the question of where Night Work came from? What sparked the initial idea, what kind of development process did it go through on the way to becoming a novel, and how different might the results have been from what you originally envisioned?

SH: I met a probation officer a few years ago, and after a few minutes of him explaining what a probation officer really does every day on the job, I knew I should store this idea away in the back of my mind. Because it's an amazing job these guys do. As a PO, you're part cop, part social worker, part guardian angel. For someone on the very edge of throwing their life away, you're often their last best friend, and the only hope of them staying out of prison.

Once I knew I'd finally be writing about a PO, I made sure to spend some time with them. I went to the shooting range (a PO is a badge-carrying peace officer in the state of New York and must be qualified on the range, even if he or she doesn't carry every day). I wore a bullet-proof vest all day (surprisingly comfortable). I even wore a GPS ankle bracelet and let them track me around.

The best experience of all was going to a drug court and seeing a group of convicted drug offenders "graduate" from their court-assigned program. In a very real way, these people were being given their lives back. That's when I realized that these underpaid, under-recognized probation officers were doing some incredible work, and that they were honoring me by letting me be a witness to it. It made me really want to repay them by writing a kick-ass book.

BB: Is that how you typically develop and write your books, or did you deviate from your usual process?

SH: This really was a lot different for me. Alex is an ex-baseball player, ex-cop, basically just a guy lives in a cabin in the Upper Peninsula and tries to keep to himself. I can sit around all day and just daydream of ways to drag him back into trouble. Joe, on the other hand, gets up every morning and goes to work. So really I had to go to work with him to make sure I got it right.

Winter Wolf Moon

BB: How'd you learn to write? Is writing simply something that you seemed born to do, and came naturally, or did you have to work at it?

SH: I'm not sure how to answer that, other than to say that it's something I always wanted to do, ever since I learned to read. It's something I tried doing, off and on, ever since I was like eight years old. Even if I thought I might want to go do something else, it was always there waiting for me to come back to it.

I don't know how I ever got any better at it, other than just doing it. That and growing up, getting a better handle on life, seeing things in a different way. And getting a little lucky, too.

BB: Are there any particular books, teachers or even experiences which influenced your work in some important way, or perhaps taught you certain skills, approaches or lessons--and, if so, would you mind sharing those nuggets of wisdom with us?

SH: I had an English teacher in high school who really encouraged me. She came to one of my events a couple of years ago when I went back to Michigan, so I was glad I got the chance to thank her. For the most part, though, I think I've really found my own way. I'll pick up a good lesson here and there (like Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules, for instance), but probably my favorite quote is this one, dealing with dialog: "Don't put words in your characters' mouths. Just listen to what they say, and then write it down."

BB: I know that your work's won awards for you, both during your time attending the University of Michigan and post-college. How important have those awards been to your career as a writer, and to your life in general?

SH: They're great at the time, because they make you feel like you're on the right track, and that people recognize that. But really, someday these awards will be nothing more than the answers to trivia questions. What matters most are the books themselves, and how they hold up.

BB: If memory serves, you still hold down your full time day job at IBM despite experiencing some real success with your writing. Is that going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, or do you pine for the day you can spend most of your time writing?

SH: The people I work with have been fantastic about everything - they've been very proud and supportive. The environment at IBM these days is pretty flexible, too, so I get to work at home a couple of days a week. As long as they're making it possible to do both, I'm going to hang in there for a while. (Oh yeah, and health insurance. Turns out that's a good thing.)

In any case, everybody I know who has quit the "day job" has told me the same thing - you don't write any faster. Apparently, you just fill your afternoons with other things.

BB: What does writing do for you that you've not found elsewhere? And, aside from a steady paycheck and, ideally, some good benefits, what do you get from your work at IBM that you might not get from writing or other aspects of your life?

SH: That's a good question, and really, when I think about it, I can sort of "retreat" from one world into the other when I have to. The corporate world is relatively stable compared to the sometimes crazy, often fickle world of publishing. On the other hand, I can let the job be what it is without wishing that I was doing something more creative. If I'm stuck in a two-hour meeting about process improvements, I can sit there and try to figure out what's going to happen in the next chapter.

The Shovel

BB: Another thing that some folks might not be aware of is that one of your short stories, The Shovel, was turned into an award winning short film. Is this something you'd like to see happen with more of your work...and how involved would you want to be in that process?

SH: I got to watch Nick Childs make that film, and it was a total blast. It went on to win at Tribeca and a few other festivals - so now Nick has a little more clout as he heads into his next project. His plan is to make a feature-length film based on one of the Alex McKnight books, and because it'll be an independent project, I'll get to be involved. (We've been working on a couple of screenplays already.) Of course, the whole film industry is about to get shut down, so we'll have to wait and see...

The Shovel

BB: Getting back to Night Work for a few more moments, I was wondering if you're basically done telling tales featuring Joe Trumbull, or might there be a chance you'll be returning to his dark world in the future?

SH: I really wasn't thinking about more than one, but if you think about it, here's a guy who deals with people on the edge of criminality every day. And with everything I've learned now about probation officers, I'd be stone cold fool not to go back someday, don't you think?

(I guess I tried to do a standalone and accidentally started another series...)

BB: So what's next for you, in the near term? And what about farther down the road? Do you have a five year plan in place, or do you tend to approach things a bit looser than that?

SH: I usually don't try to plan that far in advance, but if you put a gun to my head, I'd say finish this new thing I'm working on (I can't even say a word about it, for fear that I'll make the whole thing fall apart like a house of cards), then go back for another McKnight book, then another with Joe Trumbull. And if all goes well, help make the McKnight movie.

BB: Anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?

SH: Well, you can always check the website, to see what's coming next. There's all sorts of stuff on there, including a live webcam on Lake Superior. I suppose I'll probably be pretty quiet for the next few months, just trying to get this book done! Please wish me luck because this time I think I'm really going to need it.

You can also learn more about Steve Hamilton and his work by visiting his publisher's website,
<< 01/02/2008 | 01/16/2008 | 02/13/2008 >>

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