Page Updated: 07/07/2005Author Profile
John Sandford
John Sandford: Tangled Web Interview

Internationally acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and crime writer John Sandford has four US No.1 Bestsellers to his credit already. He is making a rare visit to the UK in July and will be a special guest of the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.
John talks to Tangled Web about his writing.
New Simon & Schuster (2005)
Tangled WebCould you give us a bit of background on your time as a journalist. How this has influenced your present writing? With a highly successful career in journalism, why did you begin writing novels? And why choose crime?
I spent about twenty-five years as a journalist, working first at a small newspaper in Missouri for a year and a half, then at The Miami Herald, and finally at the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press. For most of that time I was reporting, although I spent about three years working in various editing jobs in Miami. The editing experience was valuable, not only because I learned editing techniques, but because I also definitively learned that I was a natural reporter and writer, and not a natural editor. For example, I have little emotional response to the question of adverbs, although I have learned not to use them.
Journalism had a powerful effect on my subsequent fiction (and also non-fiction; I wrote a non-fiction book on plastic surgery and another on art, before I began doing fiction.) As a journalist, I saw and reported on things not normally available to the general public: murder scenes, with the police going about their work; intimate views of various disasters; behind-the-scenes views of three national political conventions. I covered the Pope's visit to Des Moines and Chicago, I covered city, county and state government actions, I wrote feature stories on such diverse topics as pie-making, American Indian culture, burn clinics and prison life. These scenes remain with me and are mined every day in my fiction writing.
As I got deeper and deeper into the journalism, I began to write longer and longer -- I lost interest in the quick, short stories (I'd literally written thousands of them, sometimes three and four in a day) and began to specialize in longer cultural pieces. This tendency to drive deeper into a subject resulted in an interest in developing books. I wrote two non-fiction books, one a relatively short monograph about an American watercolorist, the other on plastic surgery. I enjoyed doing that, and might have continued. At the same time, I'd always been interested in genre fiction -- crime, spy, adventure and historical novels in particular. I read John D. McDonald, Ross Thomas, Jack Higgins, George MacDonald Fraser, John LeCarre, Ross MacDonald and so on. Because I was interested in working longer -- and frankly, because I was burning out on daily journalism -- I decided to try my hand at fiction. My first novel went unpublished, but since then, I've done better. I specifically chose to write crime novels because I had those scenes in my head from my reporting days.
New Pocket Books (2005)
Tangled WebWhat makes, for you, a good crime novel?
I'm a fan as well as a writer, and I know what I like in a genre novel. Explaining what that is, what I like, is harder. I like the sense that the author won't let me down; that I won't say, "Aw, that could never happen." (I know that I've written lots of scenes that cops might read and say, "That's pretty unlikely..." but not that they'd say couldn't happen...) I enjoy tightly plotted novels with solid, likable characters; I like a little romance, I like a really BAD bad guy -- but maybe a bad guy who's aware of his own problems -- and I like a big bang at the end, rather than a whimper.
Tangled WebDo you have the whole plot in your head before you start writing, or does it develop as you write?
When I start writing, I usually have the plot idea in place, but I don't know exactly how it will develop. One thing that fans don't usually think about, but that experienced writers know, is that a writer really doesn't have to see the entire plot ahead of time. This is a project, a book, that will take months to complete. You write five chapters, then you go back and change the five chapters. You write another five chapters, and then you go back and change all ten. You write new characters, you delete old characters, you think up new plot lines and discard those that don't seem to work; life gets a little stale, and you pipe up the bad guy to shoot somebody. What seems like a single piece to a reader is actually a carefully constructed, and massively manipulated, piece of text. A book may be 100,000 words long, but it's written 750 words at a time, over six or eight months. Unlike the case with journalism, with a book you actually have time to think.
Tangled WebWhich of your novels has been the most enjoyable to write? What aspect of writing gives you the most satisfaction?
I don't really have personal favourites among my books, but the two about the Clara Rinker character, Certain Prey and Mortal Prey, seemed almost to write themselves. Sometimes books are nothing but nine miles of struggle. With the Rinker novels, I could write a thousand words a day and go home knowing I'd done some fairly good work. There's something about a really good character that you create, and who becomes so real that you can almost see her, that brings an intense satisfaction. That's one of the most satisfying things about writing: to create new friends, who exist out there like an old pal that you just haven't seen recently. That's how I feel about Lucas Davenport -- that I might bump into him at the grocery store, and have a nice chat.
That kind of relationship doesn't come from research, but from some kind of psychological wish-fulfillment. To know people who are brighter, and more interesting, than life really is. What better than a tough, good-looking, sympathetic hard-working woman assassin? I do some research, however -- in most of my novels there are chase scenes, and they could be reconstructed on the ground. That's because I go to that place, and look at it and take notes. The same with the small towns I describe: the town's name might be fictional, but there are actual towns behind every one I describe. I find that fiction based on reporting has a telling idiosyncrasy -- you simply can't think up, or remember, the small oddities that make a place real in the mind of the readers.
Tangled WebHow are you able to keep a long-running series so fresh and entertaining?
One of the hardest problems of doing a long-running series is to keep it fresh, and I'm not sure that I've always succeeded. The thing that works best is to come up with a compelling story, to better show your heroes in action. If the story is lacklustre, no amount of fine characterization will bail your butt out of trouble. At least not mine; maybe Jane Austin could do it. At the core of my stories you will usually find a single thought, or a situation that perhaps I experienced as a reporter, or read about in a newspaper. For example, I'm a deer hunter -- and it occurred to me, one year while I was hunting, how easy it would be to shoot somebody out in the deep north woods, and have the shooting viewed as just another accident. After all, there are several hunting accidents every year in the big hunting states of the northern plains. Also, in the more rural areas, there is often little effective investigation. So I took that thought, dreamt up on a hunting stand, and embroidered it...and pretty soon, it's looking like a novel. And because I've experienced hunting, the environment, the weapons involved, etc., I can write a solid scene that has at least the pose of reality.
Tangled WebWhat do you read for pleasure? What do you do to relax?
Sometimes I think the need to find new stories keeps me reading. I read several hours, sometimes many hours, every week. I read both fiction and non-fiction -- I read archaeology and art history especially, in non-fiction, and two newspapers every day. I also read online. I read many of my contemporary genre writers: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Robert Parker, Carl Hiaasen, Bernard Cornwell, Randy Wayne White, Chuck Logan, Theresa Monsour, Jim Born, and so on. I also talk to a lot of people; I'm an avid golfer and fisherman, and a photographer, and the involvement in the technical aspects of those pursuits feed into the novels -- how to run an outboard motor, golf jokes, characters who are fashion photographers...
It's not an uninteresting life. I would like to continue it for a few years, God willing and Jesus don't tarry, and then maybe sink slowly into the sunset as the elderly guy who walks along the river with his dog...and maybe a fishing rod or a gun or something.
Tangled WebMany Thanks John.

(Email interview by Liz Lees)

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