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Interview: July 2, 2009

July 2, 2009

Ridley Pearson is the author of over 20 novels for both adults and young readers, including THE DIARY OF ELLEN RIMBAUER, PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS (co-written with Dave Barry), KILLER VIEW and KILLER WEEKEND. In this interview with's L. Dean Murphy, Pearson discusses what prompted him to write his latest, KILLER SUMMER, as a heist novel, and describes the real-life inspirations behind the book's setting and characters. He also gives insight into his writing process, professes his love for villainous characters, and explains how he got started writing children's books. KILLER SUMMER marks the return of Sun Valley sheriff Walt Fleming, following KILLER WEEKEND and KILLER VIEW. What inspired you to write these intriguing mysteries? Did you know KILLER WEEKEND would be the start of a series, or did you consider it to be a stand-alone novel at the time?
Ridley Pearson: Several years ago my agent, Amy Berkower of Writers House, and I were discussing subject matter for my crime novels and I mentioned an annual business conference in Sun Valley that brings in the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (no relation to Jimmy). Amy had read a piece in the New York Times that same week about the fire power at the conference and she suggested I tie it to a thriller and that I start a new series based on my 25 years of living near Sun Valley. I've known the real-life sheriff there for years, and have served on boards with him. Since I'm a research nut, I thought having that kind of insight into law enforcement in a small but very wealthy and diverse community could make for a long series of exciting novels. I hope that turns out to be the case!
BRC: Why do you make your villains such despicable, unlikable characters at the beginning of each novel?
RP: Do I? Since writing the Lou Boldt series (that I hope is continuing) I've tried to paint villains as full characters, not cardboard cutouts. In some of the novels, the villain is even sympathetic in a creepy way (KILLER WEEKEND comes to mind). But at the same time, I have a real love for villainous characters --- the selfish, willing-to-do-anything, desperate geniuses who see law as an elective, not a required course.
BRC: How can Sheriff Fleming be so cool when his deputy is romantically involved with the mother of his children before the divorce is final? How does this affect the psyche of Fleming?
RP: Walt Fleming's deputy is sleeping with his ex-wife, which didn't help their marriage any. Fiction is about conflict. The Wood River Valley is a very small place. There's a lot of "inbreeding" in terms of relationships. I thought about offices where people have relationships and then cool them, and in building Walt's fictional character, I wanted to give him a couple of real hurdles to overcome. One of these is Tommy Brandon and his wife Gail having a relationship. Another is the unexplained death of his brother, Robert. He struggles with his father who thinks he isn't living up to his potential. Hopefully all of this helps shape Walt into an interesting character that you want to come back to. I know that I do as the writer.
BRC: Without giving away too much of the plot, what inspired the Learjet idea? Did US Airways Flight 1549 fuel the idea? Or was it the D.B. Cooper skyjacking?
RP: My story lines have had the odd fortune of overlapping with reality. This has been happening for a long, long time now. I write about something, and six months later it's on page 1, often just as the book is publishing. Who knows exactly why or how it happens, but once again, I was well into the third draft of KILLER SUMMER when a scene involving a bird strike played out in the East River of New York City.  My editor, Christine Pepe, and I immediately exchanged e-mails --- "It has happened again!"
BRC: Why do you choose wine as one venue of intrigue? Why specify the wine being a gift to John Adams from Thomas Jefferson, when Adams defeated Jefferson in the 1796 election and narrowly lost in the 1800 election? Is this a spoof of the 2000 presidential election?
RP: It's not a political comment so much as a reflection of the research I do. I stumbled upon a story about a pair of TJ-owned bottles of wine selling for six figures. Since Sun Valley hosts one of the most lavish wine auctions in the country each summer, I immediately knew what I wanted to write: a heist novel involving the wine auction. I love heists, and I've never written a heist novel. It was a lot of fun for me.
BRC: You painfully examine the passing of the father of Fleming’s teenage nephew, Kevin, and how Kevin wants only to remember his father’s life, not death. This is personal for me. Do you draw upon a specific incident for this philosophical exploration?
RP: I lost by own father last year. I've been working with the theme of Bobby's death for several books now, and when I lost my dad I finally had the emotional depth to draw upon and try to write about it. It's a short passage --- the dinner scene --- but maybe my favorite of the novel.
BRC: Is photographer Fiona Kenshaw based on someone you know? Was there a specific real-life incident regarding the logging truck, and Fiona’s observation?
RP: The Stevie Wonder accident was, in part, responsible for the use of the logging truck. I tell the story of his recovery from that accident, and nearly always choke up doing so. (Look it up! It was something like 15 years ago now.) Logging is a big part of that area, and that log home business is right in the heart of Bellevue, and I've known Bob Parker for what seems like forever. "Write from what you know."
BRC: Is likable John “Cowboy” Cumberland based on a real person?
RP: I have a dear friend, Clarence Stillwill, in the Sun Valley area, and I've been trying to work him into the books for years. John has a lot of Clarence in him. 
BRC: You live part-time in the Sun Valley area and may interact with Sheriff Walt Femling. Is he a friend? How much do you identify with the fictional Walt Fleming? Is your life in Idaho a comfort zone in which real-life incidents spur ideas?
RP: Walt is a long-time friend of mine. He works with me, almost on a daily basis, on the books, which I hope brings a realism to the events. Mind you, his real life is nothing like Walt's in the books. We joke about that, but I know it's hard on Jenny, his wife, and Jerry, his father, both of whom are direct opposites of the characters I've painted in the novels.
BRC: Did the story change at all along the way, or did it roll as you conceived it? And with that in mind, do you outline?
RP: I'm an outliner, yes. The stories don't always follow the outline exactly, but they're pretty close. Invariably, plot points and character issues reveal themselves along the way; the writer has to pay attention to that, and I do. I seem to often rewrite the ending, even though I start with one in mind. 
BRC: I take it that writing novels is more satisfying than your career as a musician and songwriter, but then again I might be wrong. I know you still play with the Rockbottom Remainders. Do those moments of music strike a chord with another side of your creativity?
RP: Playing in the Remainders has been one of the highlights of my life. I *love* those moments. Becoming friends with the members of this band has been a blast. We are still an awful band, but don't tell anyone.
BRC: What led you to become an author?
RP: Starvation. Good thing no one told me that most writers starve the same as musicians....
BRC: Do you have a favorite novel that you’ve written?
RP: I think your most recent is always the one you attach to: KILLER SUMMER!
BRC: Can you share a bit about how you came to write children's books? How do you divide your time between your adult and children's projects, and do you work on both projects simultaneously?
RP: My kids grew up. You read to them every night and as a writer, you think: "I can do that. Maybe.... "
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
RP: The follow-up to KILLER SUMMER --- its working title, KILLER SILENCE.

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