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Interview: June 20, 2013

What if a tragic but routine car accident is really a case of premeditated murder? That's the question Linda Castillo asks in HER LAST BREATH, the latest installment in her Kate Burkholder series. In this interview,'s Joe Hartlaub asks a few questions of his own, including how much of the events in the book are based on real incidents and what kind of skeletons are still lurking in Kate Burkholder's closet. Castillo also discusses the fascinating and thinly veiled tension between the Amish and the "English," how daydreaming during a citizen's police academy workshop led to a key plot point, and the thrill of challenging her characters by putting them in worst-case scenarios. I have enjoyed every book in your Kate Burkholder series, but your latest, HER LAST BREATH, is by far my favorite to date. The novel begins with a hit-and-run incident in which an Amish buggy is struck at high speed by a motorized vehicle. It is certainly one of the more emotional passages I have read in a book this year. I have to confess that the accident and its aftermath --- the notification of the next of kin, the treatment of the lone survivor --- brought tears to my eyes at a number of points. Was this based on a real incident? If so, why did you decide to make it the basis for a work of fiction?

Linda Castillo: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the book. If you’ve spent time in Amish Country, you know that sometimes there’s an uneasy relationship between the Amish and the “English.” I believe that’s particularly true with regard to traffic. An impatient driver and a slow-moving vehicle are never a good combination. During my first trip to Ohio, I rented a car and was driving around and taking in the sights. On a curvy backroad, I happened upon an Amish buggy. Many of the roads in Holmes County are curvy and hilly, which makes it difficult to see ahead and even more difficult to pass. I was cautious because I have horses at home and I know it’s smart to keep your distance, which I did. Unfortunately, there was an impatient driver behind me who ended up passing a string of cars and the buggy at a high speed, blowing his horn as he passed. Luckily the horse didn’t shy and there was no incident. But it could have been much worse. 

Last summer, when I was on tour in Ohio, I got the opportunity to not only visit an Amish family, but they invited me to drive their buggy. It was an amazing experience. At that point, my imagination went to work and I started thinking those fateful two words that are the beginning of so many books: “What if?” 

While in real life there have been terrible buggy accidents, some of which I’ve researched online, the events in HER LAST BREATH are based solely on my imagination.

BRC: The scenes I found to be most impressive are those dealing with the investigation at the crash scene and the vehicle reconstruction. The details made both extremely realistic, even for a police procedural novel. With whom did you consult for those details? And were you permitted to attend a scene reconstruction similar to the one presented in the book?

LC: A few years ago I graduated from a citizen’s police academy, which offered a presentation on motor vehicle accident investigation. I found the concept of accident reconstruction fascinating. My writer’s mind kicked in, and of course, I asked the question: Could a traffic accident be made to look like murder? Could a killer pull it off without getting caught? While real-life traffic accidents are terrible, as a writer I enjoyed putting those questions to the test.

BRC: Another aspect of HER LAST BREATH that I thoroughly enjoyed occurs a bit after a third of the way through the book when a subplot that has been lurking throughout the series suddenly comes to a head. Burkholder shot and killed a rapist in self-defense as a teenager. When the attacker’s remains are suddenly discovered here, the nightmare that Burkholder has been holding at bay for over a decade begins to come true. Have you decided how you will ultimately resolve this issue? And does Burkholder have any other skeletons --- literal or otherwise --- hanging around in her closet?

LC: I so enjoyed writing that part of HER LAST BREATH. Kate has devoted her life to her career in law enforcement and the people of Painters Mill. Everything she holds dear is threatened by the discovery of those remains, including the reputation of her family. As a writer, I enjoy putting my characters into worst-case scenario situations and then taking them through the struggle of overcoming whatever they’re faced with. With HER LAST BREATH, Kate really shows us what she’s made of, and I was pleased with the way that particular thread played out. 

BRC: Burkholder and John Tomasetti take another step or two forward in their relationship during the course of the book. Have you had their relationship plotted out since you started the series, or has it taken on a life of its own?

LC: Normally I’m a plot-driven writer. I write a synopsis of the book before I sit down to write the actual pages, so I know what’s going to happen. The relationship between Kate and Tomasetti is different. These two characters are so complex and damaged and flawed that they’re hard to predict. They seem to have minds of their own, and when I begin writing certain scenes, there are times when I don’t know how they’re going to react or what’s going to happen next. Basically, I have to sit down and write the scene and go through the emotions right along with them. There has been more than one occasion when they have surprised me. As a writer, I love that. 

BRC: Tomasetti buys a house in Wooster, Ohio, that gives new meaning to the term “handyman’s special.” Does this house actually exist, or what drove you to include this plot element?

LC: When I was a kid my dad used to buy old houses, fix them up and sell them. My sisters and I spent many a Saturday helping (or maybe we were just underfoot!). When my husband and I were first married, we bought an old fixer-upper and spent countless weekends working on that old house. With that kind of personal experience, I know the ins and outs of the “handyman’s special.” With HER LAST BREATH, I wanted to portray John Tomasetti in a slightly different light. I wanted readers to see another side of him, the side that is healing and once again in control of his life. There’s a certain symbolism in that the rebuilding of this old house parallels Tomasetti rebuilding himself, perhaps into a better man. He’s in love, and he’s ready to take his relationship with Kate to the next level --- he’s building a new life for himself.

BRC: What do you most admire about Amish life? If you were to join an Amish community, what aspect do you think you would find easiest to adapt to? And what would be the most difficult?

LC: This is such a terrific question. Speaking in general terms, I have to say what I admire most about the Amish is the closeness of the family unit. When you’re part of an Amish family, your family members are the center of your universe. That’s one of the things that makes excommunication so very difficult. If I were to join the Amish community, I believe the thing I would adapt to easily is the amount of work. I’m somewhat of a workaholic, both indoors and out of doors. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, and I usually don’t quit until the job is done. I think I’d fit right in in that regard! The thing that would be most difficult to adapt to would be living without electricity and my computer. 

BRC: The television movie “An Amish Murder,” based on your first Kate Burkholder book, SWORN TO SILENCE, recently premiered. Are there any additional TV adaptations of other books in the series currently in development? If so, when can we expect to see them?

LC: I thoroughly enjoyed watching “An Amish Murder,” and I think Lifetime did a wonderful job in every way. Neve Campbell portrayed Kate Burkholder with absolute perfection. I spoke to the producer recently, and while nothing is set in stone at this point, she is looking at adapting the books into a series of four two-hour original movies per year, similar to the Jesse Stone television series. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

BRC: Have you thought of an ending to the Holmes County series? Or do you intend to keep writing the series and developing the characters for as long as readers want them?

LC: I’m enjoying this series so much. Kate Burkholder and John Tomasetti are wonderful characters to work with. They are complex and flawed with backstories that bring so much to me as a writer. In addition, the Amish are such a fascinating culture, I’ll never tire of setting the books there. I will continue to write the series as long as readers are enjoying the books. 

BRC: While HER LAST BREATH has just been published, we are always curious as to what our favorite authors will be publishing in the future. What are you working on now?

LC: I have two projects in the works at the moment. Currently, I’m working on the sixth book in the Kate Burkholder series. The main plot has to do with a brutal cold case, and there are hints of a ghost story. The subplot is related to Tomasetti’s past, which I’m finding quite fascinating. My second project is a stand-alone novel that’s been calling to me for quite some time. It’s set in West Virginia and features a slightly shady female private detective.

BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

LC: I’m always reading something, and it’s usually a thriller. For me, it’s the perfect way to wind down at the end of the day. I’ve read several wonderful books recently, but two that absolutely captivated me: RAGE AGAINST THE DYING by Becky Masterman and Paul Doiron’s MASSACRE POND. Both books are fabulous reads.

BRC: Let’s close with a question that is definitely a current, real world one: Do you own an eReader? If so, which one? And how often do you use it?

LC: I resisted buying an eReader for a long time. I love books. Real books. The smell of them. The feel of the paper in my hands. The beauty of the covers. Finally my husband, who is a bit of a gadget guy, bought me a Kindle Fire and I reluctantly have to admit I love it. While my Kindle will never replace a book, it has some advantages. For example, if I finish a book at midnight and need something else to read, all I have to do is cruise over to Amazon and hit the buy button. The book is delivered in less than a minute. How cool is that?