Monday, March 22, 2010

Interview with Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton's latest book, The Lock Artist, just blew me away. Below, he answers my questions on what it was like writing this book:

Although you've written crime fiction before, including a 7-book series, The Lock Artist seems to have gained you a whole new set of fans. Did you expect this, and what drove you to step away from a series to write this standalone?

Well, I’d actually already taken a break from the series (with Night Work in 2007), so any normal and sane person would have gone back to the series for the next book. But I just had this other idea in my head that wouldn’t go away. And for me the only way to get past that was to dive right in and find out where the story would lead. If I had known it would be two solid years of really being lost, I might have thought twice about it! (But it all worked out, I guess!)

I know why I loved The Lock Artist – it was Michael’s voice, and the fact I really came to root for him, even while he was breaking into homes and safes. How did you come up with this character, a criminal that people would love?

All I knew about him at the beginning was that he had a trauma in his past, that he couldn’t speak, and that he had this special talent for opening locks. As I got into the story, though, I realized that he was really a lot more like a young me than I could have ever imagined. I mean, not with the muteness or the locks, but just the general feeling of being an alien who doesn’t even know why he was put on this earth. When he’s digging that hole and he’s looking up at Amelia, he can’t communicate with her. In Michael’s case, he literally can’t say the words, but believe me, I couldn’t have said the words either. Not when I was that age. So I hope I was able to make him feel like somebody you should root for, because he was just a kid trying to fit in.

Do you always write in first person, and why?

For fiction, it just seems to work out that way. I like to sort of pretend to be the main character and tell the story like I’m sitting down with you over a drink. Whenever I’ve tried third person, I just feel disconnected from it. On the few screenplays I’ve worked on, however, it feels totally natural to be outside everything, looking down on the characters. So that’s how it seems to break down for me now. Prose fiction is first person, screenplays are third person.

In The Lock Artist, you alternate chapters, going back and forth between the past and the present. Why did you use this device?

I did more rework on this book than maybe all the others combined, so it’s hard to go back and remember exactly what I was thinking, but I believe it was originally a worry I had that after finally becoming a safecracker, Michael would spend the rest of the book just going from one heist to another – and that that would become sort of repetitive. That’s why I split the timeline, but as it turned out, the heists were more about the different crews he was working with, and those were so different I really didn’t have to worry about the repetition. But by then I was seeing how the split timeline was working in other ways I had never anticipated – going from becoming a safecracker at home to being a safecracker out on the road, then back again. That back and forth leading to both the middle and the end… And it’s all sounding kind of complicated now, I know. But it’s really not! I mean, I hope it’s not. I hope you just pick up the book and start reading, and it just goes.

The character Michael makes it look easy to pick locks. Is it really that easy? And how much research did you do into lock-picking and safecracking while writing this book?

Cheap locks are easy to pick, good locks are very hard. I got to learn so much from a great lock guy, and then eventually I got to work with one of the best safecrackers in the world. He’s not a criminal, mind you. He’s a totally legal safecracker and that’s all he does. He keeps flying off to new places around the world to open up safes. He was so generous and he really helped me understand what it feels like to open up a safe with nothing but your sense of touch. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and only a few people in the world can even come close.

For those of us who haven't read the McKnight series, can you tell us a bit about that series and those characters?

Alex McKnight is a retired Detroit police officer, living in a cabin in a town called Paradise, Michigan. It’s way up at the top of the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, one of loneliest places I’ve ever seen. He’s a very solitary character, but he’s also a very loyal friend and total sucker for somebody in need, so he’s constantly finding himself right in the middle of other people’s troubles.

You’ve said that you plan to continue the McKnight series, but will you continue to write more standalones? And do you have a working idea right now for one?

I’m working on the next McKnight book now – I think I’ll always want to go back and see what he’s up to next. But at the same time I know I’ll want to keep trying new things, too. It’s all about that next thing that comes into your head. You’ve got to find out where it goes because it won’t leave you alone until you do.

Finally, what authors do you like to read?

I’ve always loved crime fiction and there are so many great authors in the field right now. I can name a few dozen of the usual suspects (Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Harlan Coben, please stop me), but some other authors who don’t get the recognition they deserve would include Ken Bruen, Denise Mina, Steven Sidor, and Tom Piccirilli. It’s amazing to me how you can do work that’s so different and so original and still be on the same crime fiction shelf!

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