An in-site interview with author Steve Hamilton


Q: How did you get started writing mysteries?

When I got out of college, I promised myself that I’d keep up with my fiction writing, even though I was going off to work full-time for IBM. A good ten or eleven years later, I hadn’t kept that promise to myself. It took joining a writer’s group to get me going again. When I decided it was time to write a novel, I saw this listing in the Writer’s Guide for the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Private Eye Novel Contest. All you had to do was write the best book you possibly could and then send it in! The finalists would all be read by Ruth Cavin, perhaps the most influential mystery editor in America. I figured I had nothing to lose.

So I tried writing what I thought a private eye novel had to be — a tough, wise-cracking gumshoe, sitting in his office, waiting for a client to come through the door. It’s always either the beautiful blonde or the rich guy looking for the beautiful blonde. The private eye takes the case and then goes out looking for trouble. That’s a private eye book, right? With sixteen days off of work, I was sure I’d get a big jump on writing that kind of book.

Well, sixteen days later, I had written exactly two words: “Chapter One.” I went back to work that day, after having failed so miserably to start this book, and then when I came home that night I turned the computer on, more or less just to torture myself. What came to me was the voice of a character who was in as bad a mood as I was. I asked myself why this character was feeling this way – was he angry? Lonely? Maybe afraid? I followed that thread into the story and all the way through, and when I was done, I knew that it wasn’t a private eye novel. He does try out the idea of being a private eye, but he hates it. And it doesn’t work out very well, to say the least. He never really takes a case or goes out looking for trouble. The trouble finds him. In the end, it was really more like a suspense novel. I sent it in anyway, knowing that it wouldn’t win. But somehow it did. Three years and a couple more Alex McKnight books later, I’m still not quite sure if any of this is really happening!

Q: How did it feel to win both the Edgar Award and Shamus Award for your first book?

I can’t even tell you how great it’s been. It’s been so unbelievable. But at the same time, I know that in thirty years, who won which awards for the 1998 publishing year will be a trivia question. I think they’ll look back at that year and say, what a great year that was for first-time mystery authors, people like Krueger, Cosin, Katz, Sacks, Schanker, Farmer, Fiedler, Harstad, Hathaway, Billheimer (and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few more). Look at all the great books they’ve written since 1998. If they include me in that list, then I’ll be honored and I’ll know that I’ve kept up my end of the deal.

Q: Did you think of it as the beginning of a series when you were writing the first book?

I really didn’t think about that. If I had, I wouldn’t have picked a main character who calls becoming a private eye the “second-worst” mistake he ever made. That’ll make it kind of a challenge to keep a series going, because I can’t see him ever changing his mind. But maybe that’s good. I’ll always have to think of new ways to drag him into trouble.

Q: Having won so many accolades for your first book, was it intimidating to begin the second?

Yes, it was, just as many other writers had warned me. You can start thinking about how readers will respond to this one, or editors, or reviewers, or anybody else for that matter. The first book you write for yourself, just sort of telling yourself the best story you possibly can. The idea that anybody else will even read it is still an abstract idea. With the second book, you KNOW that other people will read it. Some are even WAITING for it. It’s scary.

Q: You still work for IBM, you have a family, including a baby. It must be hard to find the time to write. How do you do it?

The people I work with at IBM have been absolutely wonderful, very supportive and very proud of what’s happened. I’ll get most of my writing done at night, after my wife and my little girl and my six-year-old son (the night owl) have finally gone to bed. I’ll work until maybe 2:00 A.M., then drag my butt into work late the next day. As long as I’m holding up my end at work, they don’t seem to mind. Like I said, I’m very fortunate.

Q: People really seem to like the distinct setting and the vivid intensity of it. How did you maintain that same kind of intensity in the second book, WINTER OF THE WOLF MOON?

It’s the same place, just a lot COLDER. In the winter, you can get literally four feet of snow in one night up there. And it’s cold enough to kill you if you’re not careful. I wanted this to be the most miserably cold book I could possibly ever write. I think it worked. Now I just hope that a miserably cold book was a good thing to try to do.

Q: What’s this new book, THE HUNTING WIND, about?

This one is a little bigger and a little more ambitious, involving a teammate from Alex’s old minor league baseball team, and a woman this man is trying to find, thirty years after he last saw her. It really feels like I’m pushing all the chips back out on the table with this book. I hope it works!

Q: Beyond this third McKnight book, what else is on the horizon?

I’m writing the fourth McKnight book right now, tentatively titled NORTH OF NOWHERE. After that, who knows? It may be time to do something different, but I know I’ll go back to Alex eventually. He does have a few loose ends to tie up, after all…