In today’s Michigan author feature we meet Henry Kisor, who considers the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to be another character in his mysteries.
Tell me a little about yourself.
I’m an old ink-stained wretch, having been the book review editor at the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times for 33 years. In that time I wrote three nonfiction books, and toward the end of my newspaper career decided to branch out into mystery writing.
My wife and I spend half the year in a little log cabin on the shore of Lake Superior in upper Michigan and the other half in a condo in Evanston, Illinois. Our hearts long have belonged to the U.P., and in the early 2000s I decided to try to tell the story of that region’s western reaches in the form of a true-crime novel. The only trouble was that I couldn’t find a suitable crime to revisit, and that idea fizzled.
One day I was looking at my thick files on the failed plan and wondering idly whether a black bear could be trained to become a murder weapon. After checking the biological literature, I decided it could. Now I needed an interesting hero to solve such a murder. It so happened that my elder son had a friend who was born Lakota on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and adopted as an infant by a white family who brought him to Evanston and raised him in white culture. He once told me he looked Indian but thought white, and sometimes had trouble navigating the world with that split identity. That spoke to me, a profoundly deaf person who has lived entirely in the hearing world. I could use some of the bicultural tensions in my own life in the person of a Lakota deputy sheriff in an all-white jurisdiction called Porcupine County. And so Steve Martinez was born.
Season’s Revenge was the first novel, followed by A Venture into Murder, Cache of Corpses and Hang Fire. The fifth, Tracking the Beast, will be published by Five Star Mysteries in 2015, and perhaps a sixth, tentatively titled The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, in 2016.
In all these novels, the U.P. is a leading character in the person of Porcupine County. I have tried to mine the region’s fascinating history and culture as “furniture” that bolsters the mysteries. A great deal of research, both of the going-to-the-library and schmoozing-with-the-natives varieties, is required, and that’s great fun—much more so than setting words to paper (or, rather, computer monitor). Writing always has been hard work for me. But the mental labor, I think, keeps my aging mind (I’m going on 75) as nimble as possible.
You have a fifth Steve Martinez mystery coming soon. Tell me a bit about Steve Martinez and how the character has evolved through the series.
Martinez has aged and matured since the years have passed. He was in his early forties in 2003, when Season’s Revenge was published, and is now in his early fifties. Over the years, I think, he has grown less testy and more philosophical about how white people view him as an Indian. Once in a while a tactless remark might raise his hackles, but if he thinks it was made in honest ignorance he’ll give the other person a pass. He will not, however, tolerate actions born in racial hate, and that is the subject of the sixth novel, tentatively titled The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, to appear in 2016. I’m nearly done with the first draft,
Is mystery your favorite genre of books to read?
Yes, because I work in that genre, but I also enjoy biography and general nonfiction, especially investigative journalism. Old newspaper war horse, you know.
Your mysteries are set in the Upper Peninsula. How important is the Michigan setting to your writing?
I am a regional novelist, therefore the Yoop is a character in all the novels. I like to think of the books as a fictional framework for telling the story of Upper Michigan, its history, people and especially its eccentricities, which I love. I don’t think I could write about any other part of the world, even Chicago, where I spend half the year.
What is your process as a writer?
Sadly, I’m undisciplined. I’ll go for months without writing a word, then sit down and churn out chapter after chapter, then run out of steam until the energy starts up again. When I’m writing, I set myself a goal of two pages, or 500 words, a day. When things are going well I’ll write four or five pages instead. I make myself stop in the middle of a sentence so that starting there the next day will bring back the memory of what I have written and push me on down the trail.
Did you have any special mentors or teachers who encouraged you along the way?
Quite a few Chicago newspapermen, but nobody remembers them anymore. We’re praised at the wake and forgotten after the grave. (I think I used that sentence somewhere in a book.) The writer who most influenced me was Walker Percy, the Southern novelist who had a deaf daughter, She and I shared a miracle-worker teacher of the deaf when we were children. Before his death Walker, whom I had interviewed a couple of times for my newspapers, urged me to tell my own story, and helped me get it published. A few days before his death he was able to hold a brand new copy, fresh off the press, of What’s That Pig Outdoors?
You have written a book about learning to fly. (My father was also an author and pilot.) What was the appeal of flying for you? Does it provide inspiration to you as a writer?
Flying lifted me out of landbound cares, in the romantic old phrase. It also refreshed my self-confidence at a time when my youthful energy was flagging. Becoming a pilot is always a boost to the ego. I gave Steve Martinez flying skills in a couple of the novels, and they helped advance the plot. I no longer own an airplane, having had a heart attack and a triple bypass in 2009, but I still fly radio-controlled model planes.
In the introduction your memoir about deafness, What’s That Pig Outdoors? you wrote “Deafness opens up a huge social chasm between sufferers and nonsufferers.” Was bridging that chasm a big part of what led you to become a writer?
That’s a very perceptive question, Laura. I’ve realized lately that the act of writing and publishing has helped me bridge that chasm. It’s an important way of overcoming difficulties in communication. Through my books I speak and am heard.
When is your next book going to be released? Any other books in the pipeline?
I don’t yet have a pub date for Tracking the Beast but I think it’ll be in the late spring or early summer of 2014. The Riddle of Billy Gibbs, if all goes well, will come out about the same time in 2015.
You can read more about Henry Kisor via his web page.