My guest here today is Harry Hunsicker! I met Harry briefly last year in LA, while we were both filming our Kindle Most Wanted segments. Harry is the former executive vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America. His work has been short-listed for both the Shamus and Thriller Awards and his story “West of Nowhere,” was selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories 2011.
Q: Hello Harry! Welcome. I read The Devil’s Country not so long ago and loved it. Arlo Baines is a fascinating character. I loved the way that his backstory was gradually revealed, giving us an understanding of his trauma, and his reasons for hitting the road. What was it inspired you to write about him?
A: I am drawn to the notion of a wanderer, someone looking at places and people with fresh eyes, unburdened by any past history with a certain location. I decided to put a twist on that idea, a character who is forced by his own emotions to wander, trying to come to terms with the grief he feels over the death of his family.
Q: The little town of Piedro Springs was especially vivid. Is it a real location? If not, is it based upon somewhere you’ve visited?
A: Piedra (stone in Spanish) Springs is a compilation of several places in West Texas. In the book, I kept the location vague—the badlands between Midland and Sonora, as I recall—just to keep the emphasis on the remoteness. The important part is that the town is a long way from anywhere, not necessarily cut off from the rest of the world, but operating on its own. I also wanted to give the area around Piedra Springs a certain type of terrain (rocky foothills giving way to small mountains) that is not present in the actual location where I (vaguely) placed the town.
Q: Sheriff Quang Marsh was an interesting choice, I thought, in that he’s of Vietnamese descent. Give a little background to that decision. In a way, it felt like you were acknowledging post-Vietnam War America by including him in the novel, without calling it out specifically. It makes perfect sense, of course, that he’d be the Sheriff—and yet, at the same time, it makes you sit up and take notice.
A: The story needed a cop, and in fictional rural Texas, that type of character would most likely a racist redneck. But that’s a stereotype, so I decide to put a twist on the character and make him Vietnamese, which carries its own burdens. Like Arlo, he has parallel issues working on his psyche—the fact that he is a minority in an area not known for its diversity, and the despair he feels watching his part of the world wither away economically. The latter drives much of the plot.
Q: When did you start writing? How did you get started?
A: Must have been in 2002 or 2003 when I took several creative writing classes at the continuing education department of Southern Methodist University. (http://www.smu.edu/Simmons/CommunityEnrichment/CreativeWriting) I had always wanted to be a writer and somewhere in that time period I had a moment when I was reading a book and thought: “How hard can it be? This guy did it.”
Q: What’s your routine like? Do you have to fit it in around work, kids, things like that?
A: I think Maya Angelou put it best when she said that she “wrote on the fringes of the day.” That’s me. On the fringes.
Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A: Plotter. Sort of. I have to know the ending, the twist of the story. I’d like to know the in-between stuff, too, but that portion of a book changes as you go. But I need to understand what I am writing toward. (Other than a deadline.)
Q: You were the executive vice-president of the Mystery Writers of America. How did that come about?
A: Former EVP (and Agatha Award-winning author) Dan Hale recruited me. There was a fair amount of work involved but overall it was a great experience. I met a lot of interesting people and learned a great deal about the industry.
Q: I’m still chuckling (even now) over the tweet you sent, last year some time, that went something like: ‘Is it me, or does Michael Moore look like the den mother of a girl’s college?’ And of course, he was rocking that long hair . . .
There is a lot of your humour in The Devil’s Country. How do you balance that, while maintaining tension and a propulsive plot?
A: The more I write, the more of the humour I pull out. The story is the important part, not the wisecracks. That said, I do love a good wisecrack.
Q: Every writer has that dream project they’d like to do some day—what’s yours?
A: The Godfather set in Texas.
Q: What advice would you give to writers starting out?
A: Never give up. Never.
Q: I believe that with every book I write, I should try to explore something new. Whether that’s a philosophical thing, a political view, a moral quandary, or something that relates to me on a personal level. In my latest book, Storm’s Edge, it’s political corruption, and personal sacrifice in pursuit of what’s right.
What do you want your readers to take away from The Devil’s Country? And how does that relate to you on a personal level?
A: I don’t approach a book with a theme in mind. I come at the story from the character’s place, and then I see what happens. The Devil’s Country, when it was finished, ended up being a neo-western, which was the farthest thing from my mind when I was writing the story. Looking back, I realize the book is about grief as much as anything, which makes some sort of sense as I lost both my parents while I was writing the novel.
Q: What can you say about the sequel to The Devil’s Country? You’ve recently signed with Thomas and Mercer for it.
A: Arlo has stopped wandering for the moment. He’s back in Dallas, working security at a business owned by his friend Javier. In his free time, Arlo looks after an eleven-year old street kid who reminds him more than a little of the son he lost. A nice, easy life, at least until people in the neighborhood, Mexican-American businessmen like Javier, begin being murdered.
Approached by an old colleague from the Texas Rangers, Arlo reluctantly accepts an off-the-books assignment to investigate the seemingly random deaths. As the investigation heats up, Arlo uncovers a connection between the victims and an ultra-violent drug cartel trying to set up operation in North Texas, one that puts his surrogate son straight in the crosshairs of some very dangerous people.
Q: Was it always the plan to write more Arlo Baines stories?
A: Not particularly. I created the character to go either way, a standalone story or a series.
Q: Well I for one will be looking forward to the sequel. You recently were on set for the filming of the material for the enhanced version of The Devil’s Country. What is the enhanced version, and how did it come about?
A: The enhanced version is a new e-book format called “Kindle-in-Motion.” Imagine a film within a book. Or a graphic novel where the graphics are moving images. The Kindle-in-Motion is best described as an enhancement to the reading experience. Snippets of film are embedded in the text at the point where they match each other. If the text reads “A guy walks into a bar,” a short looping video will play at the top of the page showing a man entering a bar. There is no sound—too much of a distraction to reading—so there is no dialogue.
My editor at the time felt the story had a cinematic feel, so she pitched the book to the Kindle-in-Motion team. And the rest is history, as they say.
Q: Barry Eisler just had it done for his John Rain prequel, Graveyard of Memories, and it looks sublime. Do you see it taking off, with more Amazon Publishing books getting the enhanced treatment?
A: I don’t know whether Kindle-in-Motion will take off or not. Amazon plays the long game so there’s no telling how things will end up.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Q: Favourite novels you think deserve a wider readership?
A: The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott. A brilliant debut.
Q: Is there a TV series you’ve been impressed with lately?
A: Trapped on Amazon, an Icelandic crime drama.
Q: Who is your literary hero?
A: Dennis Lehane
The Devil’s Country is OUT NOW.
I’d like to thank Harry for agreeing to this interview, and wish him continuing success with The Devil’s Country and, in the near-future, its sequel.
You can order The Devil’s Country by clicking the following links:
And you can find out more about Harry at his website, www.harryhunsicker.com and you can also connect with him on Twitter: @harryhunsicker and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harryhunsickerwriter/