STEVE HAMILTON INTERVIEW
If you like reading novels packed with an exhilarating sense of action, adventure and intrigue, then you might already have heard of Steve Hamilton. Steve is a hugely respected and genuinely talented author who is perhaps best-known for his long-running series which follows the fortunes of a semi-retired private investigator called Alex McKnight. All the ‘McKnight books’ are set around a small place called Paradise, Michigan: a cold and bleak place where potential trouble always seems to be festering.
Hi Steve. For those who don’t know, you’re an author of Action-Thriller novels set in the snowy upper reaches of Michigan which follow a former private investigator called Alex McKnight . What on earth was your original inspiration for such a series of exhilarating novels?
I wanted to try writing a hardboiled novel set not in one of the familiar urban settings, but in a place that, for me, seemed more hardboiled than any city. To me, ‘hardboiled’ means lonely, and it means cold. The Upper Peninsula is the coldest, loneliest place I know well enough to write about.
Is Alex based on anybody in particular?
No, not at all. He was just sort of there, if you know what I mean. He’s the kind of guy who would actually live up there. He goes up to sell off his father’s cabins and stays. It’s why he stays, why the place feels like home to him. That made me start hearing his voice in my head. This is someone who’s been through a lot in his life, and the place itself seems to match the way he feels.
When you first sat down to write your debut novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, did you ever think you’d still be ‘following’ Alex’s adventures so far down the line?
I had only the most abstract idea that somebody might read that first book and maybe like it enough to consider publishing it. Everything else after that, especially the Edgar Award, has been beyond my wildest dreams.
Of the books you’ve so far penned, which are you the most proud of? And why?
In a way, it’s the second book, Winter of the Wolf Moon. If your first book does reasonably well, you have to prove to yourself that you can do it again, that the first one wasn’t just a fluke. Winter was colder and darker than the first book, and it had my favourite scene, too… the ice shanty.
It feels like hard work, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. I never have the full story in my head when I start, not even close. I just think of an interesting beginning and go. And I hope I don’t get lost.
You were brought up in Michigan. Is the area around the settlement of Paradise really as harsh as you make it sound when it snows up there?
I was up there this summer, and they were reminiscing about a winter storm in 1995. In twenty-four hours, they got six feet of snow. I think that sums it up pretty well.
Now that you live nearer New York, have you not been tempted to write a book set amidst the hustle and bustle of NYC’s madness? You never know, Alex McKnight might just be glad of a re-location…
I can’t imagine what Alex would be doing in NYC. I am working on a new series set in the Hudson Valley, though. That’s where I live now… about ninety miles north of the city, up near the Catskill Mountains. I can take a train into the city, then come home at night and hear the coyotes howling and bears ripping up my birdfeeders.
How long, roughly, does it take to write a book from start to finish?
Most of a year, usually. I’m trying to do a little bit every night, after everyone has gone to bed.
There are so many great writers working in the Crime field right now… in the states, and in the U.K. Off the top of my head, I love reading Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, James Crumley, Lee Child, Val McDermid, Denise Mina… I could keep going for two pages, believe me. It’s still amazing to me that I get to hang out with these people at the conventions.
If you go back in time and ask the eight-year-old me what he wants to be when he grows up, he’d say a writer. When I was twelve or thirteen, I even sent my first Mystery short story to Ellery Queen magazine. A couple of years ago, they asked me to do a story for them, so that was like a nice valentine to that kid.
Has anybody ever approached you with a view to potentially adapting any of your stories for the big-screen?
People have talked about it, but it’s all talk, and it’ll drive you crazy if you take it too seriously. So-and-so is reading it this week, and all that. Reading in Hollywood does not mean reading, apparently. It means giving it to somebody so they can do a one-page summary. I watched another writer putting together a deal for three years – it all fell apart in one afternoon. It was a valuable lesson. If it happens, it happens. Don’t worry about it!
What do you think are the key elements chirping to be addressed when writing a story of any nature?
I’m not sure you can think about it that way, or it’ll probably show through. You can’t be that focused on how the book is going to be received by people. You just have to write it for yourself and tell yourself the best story possible. Raymond Chandler said that a great writer doesn’t write what people want – he writes what he wants and makes people like it.
What most excites you about the art of story-telling?
Really, it’s just finding out what’s going to happen myself. That’s all I’m really doing the first time through, finding out what the story is. If I’m surprised, I think I’ve got a good chance at surprising the reader, too.
Well, it’s harder for the simple reason that you can’t get there as easily. But I LOVED coming to London, and would do it again in a second. I did a book tour in Germany, too. That was interesting because I ended up doing mostly East German cities, where people don’t speak much English. So it was kind of strange reading from the book to them. Come to think of it, that whole trip was strange. If you see me in a bar, ask me to tell you the whole story.
Finally, what’s the best way for folk to keep up-to-date with any new releases you may have?
That’s easy! Go to www.authorstevehamilton.com and sign up for the newsletter!
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Steve Hamilton)
Steve Rudd’s acclaimed debut book is available here