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Interview: November 23, 2007

Novmeber 23, 2007

Award-winning mystery/thriller author John Lutz has written over 40 books and five times as many short stories, and is probably best known for his novel SWF SEEKS SAME, which was adapted into the hit movie Single White Female. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Lutz describes his childhood inspiration for the particularly vicious villain in his latest work of fiction, IN FOR THE KILL, and explains how his stint working for the St. Louis PD gave him insight into how those working in law enforcement handle witnessing crime and violence on a daily basis. He also elaborates on the familial relationships established in the book, compares and contrasts writing novels with short stories and reveals when readers can expect a new Frank Quinn novel. IN FOR THE KILL features the welcome return of Frank Quinn, last seen in your novel DARKER THAN NIGHT. What inspired you to bring Quinn back for another novel?

John Lutz: The novels I’ve been writing have featured a sort of ensemble cast. Though they’ve been different characters, my team of detectives has always been the same in most respects: an obsessive and relentless former homicide detective who was of some rank in the department; a scrappy and volatile female former detective who is his present or former lover; and his retired partner and friend from the NYPD, a more traditional middle-aged cop. When I decided it would be best to use the same trio of characters in each book, I chose the team I considered to be the one with the best chemistry --- Quinn, Pearl and Fedderman.

BRC: The Butcher in IN FOR THE KILL is one of your more memorable villains. His grisly methodology and the manner in which he selects his victims makes him particularly unforgettable. Was there a specific occurrence or individual who inspired The Butcher, and his interesting background, for you?

JL: Possibly the altogether decent man who owned and managed a butcher shop a few blocks from home where I grew up. The juxtaposition of severed animal parts (think hog’s head with apple in mouth) and food (think display of cupcakes and Twinkies) struck a kind of puzzled horror in my young mind. It was when I first connected dinner with dead animals and thought it kind of bizarre that this was so commonplace, a part of the mundane world. I can still recall the smell of the place. Its refrigeration might have been better.

BRC: Some of my favorite passages from IN FOR THE KILL involved the crime scene descriptions and Nift, the irreverent medical examiner. How have you gone about developing your forensic expertise as it relates to crime scenes? Is Nift based on any particular real-world individual?

JL: When I was young I worked for the St. Louis Police Department as a civilian employee and was intrigued by the cops’ black humor, and every once in a while glimpsed what was behind it. I understood it better when a friend who was a crime scene photographer would show me grisly copies of his photos. When dealing with that kind of horror on a regular basis, you can either somehow isolate and transcend it or, like Nift, try to get beneath it. If you can show it contempt, it can’t hurt you.

BRC: I liked the way you explored familial relationships, not only between The Butcher and his mother, but also between Quinn and his daughter Lauri, who shows up unexpectedly as Quinn is in the middle of a murder investigation. The Butcher leaves his mother abruptly; Lauri shows up unexpectedly after an absence of over a year, while Quinn is in the middle of a murder investigation. The behavior of each parent is a textbook example of how to, and how not to, parent. Did you deliberately set IN FOR THE KILL around this contrast, or was it something that developed very gradually while you were in the middle of writing it?

JL: At base, the novel is about parenting. I suspect it’s parenting that creates the crucible wherein serial killers are forged. The Lauri character was created in part to show the contrast in childhoods, and the consequences. Also, I try to use ordinary life/family concerns as a counterpoint to the violent and sometimes insular world of the homicide detectives. Each helps to make the other more real. The graph of suspense isn’t a straight ascending line, but stair-steps up. I think the reader needs a break now and then to be reminded of the normal world outside the book so the suspense --- instead of flagging --- gathers energy to attain the next and higher plane.

BRC: As with most of your recent novels, IN FOR THE KILL is set in Manhattan, a city that you know intimately even as you live elsewhere. Do you have any plans to set a future book --- such as a new Alo Nudger novel --- in St. Louis, your present residence? Or perhaps a new Fred Carver novel in Delray, Florida?

JL: It’s always in the back of my mind that I might do another PI novel, most likely a Nudger. Unfortunately, he’s probably my fictional character most like the author. The author on a bad day, anyway. Nudger, of course, is having a bad life.

BRC: On a related note, do you have plans for another Quinn novel in the near future?

JL: Another Quinn novel is already completed and in the breech. It should be published in October of next year. And, there are plans for at least one more beyond that. I think Quinn and his detectives, and Harley Renz --- the bureaucratic climber who employees them --- have lots of room to grow.

BRC: If you were not working as an author, what would you see yourself doing?

JL: After playing center field for the Yankees, I’m not sure. I think I could be happy being a diamond cutter, a movie reviewer, a watchmaker, a bush pilot, a psychologist, a hedge fund manager, or a charter boat captain. None of these occupations seems to have anything to do with the others. I don’t know what that means.

BRC: Two of your novels --- THE EX and SFW SEEKS SAME --- have been adapted for film. Of all of your other novels, which one would you most like to see on screen?

JL: I wrote a novel in the ’70s, BONEGRINDER, about a small-town Ozarks sheriff who has to cope with a possibly supernatural creature that occasionally rises from the lake and kills fishermen. It was under option for years to a television production company but was never produced. On the other hand, I can think of lots of actors who could play Quinn.

BRC: You have written dozens of novels, two of which have been adapted for film, and hundreds of short stories. Is there any professional accomplishment that you have yet to complete?

JL: I don’t think of it quite that way. I truly enjoy writing. For me, the work really is its own reward. Not that I don’t want to be paid.

BRC: Of novels and short stories, which do you prefer writing? Which do you find easier? Do you have any plans to publish another anthology of your short stories?

JL: Both forms require some of the same skills. As to which is easier, I think the novel is the more forgiving discipline. The short story only seems easier because it takes less time and doesn’t nag like a novel. It’s really a high-wire act; one misstep and it will fall flat. I would like to publish another anthology. I’d also someday like to edit a collection of my favorite short stories by other writers, but not necessarily all mysteries. I’ve always been kind of mystified as to why short stories weren’t more popular. They seem a perfect fit for a fast and busy world.

BRC: What are you working on now?

JL: I’m in the beginning stages of another Quinn/Pearl/Fedderman New York novel, having a good time.

BRC: You’ve amassed an incredible volume of work, the quality of which is exceeded only by its quality. What is your daily writing schedule like? Has it changed appreciably over the years? And what do you do for inspiration?

JL: I usually compose in the morning, revising as I go, as writers do when using a computer, so that my first draft is actually more like a second draft. Then I revise in the afternoon what I wrote that morning. Then, when I have a completed manuscript, I revise again. And again. I enjoy it, and usually end that process when I suddenly realize I’ve changed something back to the way I originally wrote it.

As for inspiration, I don’t wait for it. Seems to me the trick is more about learning to think in story form. What if, what if, what if…

BRC: Almost all of your work has been in the mystery and suspense genres. What draws you to these genres?

JL: Mystery fiction in all its permutations –-- suspense, espionage, deductive puzzle, private eye, police procedural, amateur detective, historical, etc. --- is what I’ve always most enjoyed reading. Even fiction without crime deals in mystery, but crime seems to add spice.

BRC: You are regarded as a writer’s writer, and have exerted an understated --- and perhaps under-acknowledged --- influence on the mystery genre. Are there any authors in particular who have influenced your own work or who inspired you to begin writing?

JL: It was while reading Ray Bradbury’s story, "A Sound of Thunder" (a mystery in its way) as a 13-year-old that I suddenly realized words could be used for something much more profound than the simple conveyance of information. It was a revelation. Years later, I met Bradbury at a banquet in Los Angeles and told him this. He was very polite, said he appreciated knowing this, then we shuffled our feet, made small talk and went our separate ways. No doubt it was a bigger moment for me than for him. I’m glad I got to thank him.

It was impossible for me to read an author like Bradbury and not be influenced. Also in that group are H. H. Munro (Saki), Graham Greene, Hemingway, Chandler, Highsmith, Joseph Conrad, Stanley Ellin, Eudora Welty, Eric Ambler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich, Flannery O’Connor, Ross MacDonald…. I can’t call all of them to mind right now, but they all left their mark and I’m the better for having read them.