Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Archer Mayor author of the highly acclaimed Vermont-based series featuring detective Joe Gunther, which the Chicago Tribune describes as “the best police procedurals being written in America.”
His 28th book, TRACE, is now in stores (Sept. 2017 – Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press). He is a past winner of the New England Independent Booksellers Association Award for Best Fiction—the first time a writer of crime literature has been so honored. In 2011, Mayor’s 22nd Joe Gunther novel, TAG MAN, earned a place on The New York Times bestseller list for hardback fiction.
Outside of writing, Archer Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, a detective for the Windham County Sheriff’s Office, the publisher of his own backlist, a travel writer for AAA, and he travels the Northeast giving speeches and conducting workshops.
Norm: Good day Archer and thanks for participating in our interview.
How long have you been writing, how did you get started and what keeps you going? As a follow up, how long did it take you to get your first major book contract?
Archer: I started my first novel around 1975, perhaps in part to create an alternate universe where I might have more influence. There must be something to that, since I’ve kept at it ever since, throughout an emotionally and physically peripatetic life. Writing, somewhat like motorcycle riding and woodworking, albeit for entirely different reasons, is where I can remove myself from everyday concerns and spend some peaceful time within my own brain. As for landing my first real contract in this often frustrating business, it took me from ’75 to ’88. You learn to bide your time and hone your craft, sometimes whether you wish to or not.
Norm: What trends in the book world do you see and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?
Archer: I’m not sure that I have any insight there—or believe anyone who claims to. The traditional book (or bookstore) is not dead, as earlier forecast, but, by the same token, e- and audio books have settled down in popularity. There appears to be a temporary truce at the moment among such three-dimensional entities. The often unsung extra guest at the table is the large and often elusive world of virtual writing. Call it fan fiction or whatever its roots, it now represents a huge group of people, but whose marketplace is hard to decipher. As a result, I see the book publishing business as being in quite a pickle, at once anchored to the old world created by Gutenberg, while struggling to figure out an increasingly electronic future.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing crime novels? As a follow up, are there aesthetic advantages and disadvantages peculiar to the crime novel? Does it have a particular form?
Archer: Perhaps oddly, I don’t read crime novels. My work in law enforcement, medical examination, emergency medicine, and firefighting has conspired to make me avoid such reading at night. That being said, I write within the genre because I am fascinated by how people act under stress, and I’ve seen a lot of that. When I’m not writing, I’m usually attending scenes of loss and/or violence, surrounded by people in pain. As a closet anthropologist, I find my books at once a healthy outlet and a useful tool to share what I’ve learned with my readers.
I do need to note: I never take my plots from real cases. The emotion of a case, or a small detail may influence me, but I have too much respect for all involved in my cases to intrude.
As for the aesthetics of the genre, along with its pros and cons, because of my reading habits, I may not be the go-to guy there. I will say that to separate crime fiction from reality is often a stretch, given the lively world we all inhabit. I, for one, usually don’t have to stray far from my local front page to be inspired for my next novel. Along those lines, am I actually writing crime fiction, or merely documenting the world around me?
Norm: What makes a good crime novel?
Archer: I tend to see any work of fiction as needing both musicality and a flair for theatrical tension. In fact, when I wrote history books, I thought along similar lines, even restricted as I was by having to stick to the facts. The point to writing is to never forget that we are all readers first and foremost, and thus, the good writer ought to heed how her or his writing will be received by the reader.
Is it interesting, funny, intelligent, engaging, respectful and well-crafted? Did the writer leave enough room in the story for the reader’s own imagination and creativity? We are all story tellers—writers or not—so your writing had better recognized that trait in the reader, and honor it.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?
Archer: Employment. Being a self-employed writer in this culture is a challenge. Having over 30 books published is rare. It may not have made me a household name (yet,) but it’s paid the bills, and as anyone in the business can tell you, that’s no small achievement. I’m proud of that, and grateful to my readers for making it happen.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Archer: Keeping what I do fresh. Especially writing within a single series, the expectations are that you’ll run out of gas or become stale. I’m honored by people telling me regularly that my books are only improving with time, not just because it’s nice to hear, but also because it reflects my own mission to make sure that every new book is treated like a maiden voyage, where nothing is taken for granted.
Norm: Many people have the skills and drive to write a book, but failure to market and sell the book the right way is probably what keep a lot of people from finding success. Can you give us 2-3 strategies that have been effective for you in promoting your book?
Archer: I have almost literally tried everything in my efforts to keep alive in the marketplace, and now have my wife, Margot, there to help me, which has been invaluable. That being said, I am a firm believer that while all sorts of horrible books may find a place on the bookstore shelf—for one reason or another—very few terrific books won’t find a publisher. Sadly, I have heard 1,001 sorry tales of brilliant writers having no luck, only to find out that, as an editor, I wouldn’t have published them either.
Writing is tough. The standards for publishing should be equally tough. We readers want to read books that are well done and well edited. If you are having a consistently terrible time getting your material produced, you might ought to swallow hard and ask yourself if you aren’t at least partly to blame.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Archer: The most useful adages are to learn from your mistakes and to take to heart that practice makes for perfection (or the next best thing). You learn through your failures and rejections, and you accept that you have a lot to learn from others. That also means that the least useful advice usually comes from people who speak in absolutes. Every writer must agree in her soul about what works and what doesn’t. If any advice runs absolutely counter to that, question it! In the same light, don’t let your ego or pride get in the way of your creative clearsightedness.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
Archer: Rigorously editing my work in a never-ending quest to cut out the crap. I was once advised, “Say it once, say it well, and move on.” Truer words were rarely uttered—or more often ignored.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.
Archer: Almost all intuition. I write from ignorance and curiosity, and so I have to interview and research each book extensively. I don’t write a plot or an outline; I let what my subjects inform me about what roads I should be following. It may not be efficient, but it keeps things fresh for me. I once described myself as an air traffic controller with no windows and no radar, which is sometimes how it feels as I’m writing. But I wouldn’t do it any other way. On the other hand, once the manuscript is done, then it’s all audience feedback, where I and my cast of editors are the audience. I get very technical about the facts, the flow, the logic, the pacing, the overall “music” of the book. That’s where the editing and rewriting take place.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer and what helps you focus when you write?
Archer: Both. John Gardner once referred to the fictional dream that is the reading or writing of a novel. Plot and character meld perfectly in my head when I write, and if I ever lose my way, I take a brief nap.
Norm: What is your typical workday like? Do you stick to a writing schedule?
Archer: It doesn’t exist. I have pager on my belt that dictates the course of every day. If it’s quiet, I write, mostly during the afternoons and early evenings. If it goes off, I respond to the case summoning me, and fit the writing in at some other time, including in the middle of the night. I love to write. I don’t need to make myself do it.
Norm: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
Archer: As mentioned above, I hold my readers in very high esteem. They keep me in business, they are thoughtful, smart, critical, imaginative, and deserving of respect. I think a lot of writers forget that.
Norm: How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your books featuring Joe Gunther? Is he based on someone you know?
Archer: Nope. Joe is an amalgamation of many decent, thoughtful, hardworking people I’ve met. I set out to create a series about a solid “Everyman,” which is why I gave him his unremarkable name. He does have some pretty unusual colleagues, however, who allow me to wander into the realm of the eccentrics now and then. But isn’t that a reflection of all of our lives?
I was tired of the hopelessly flawed heroes, or the ones so true and perfect, they should’ve worn a cape to bed. I wanted to write about the sort of people I live around, odd and not so odd. That may help explain, in fact, why the series has been so long-running: Both I and my readers enjoy how “real world” it is, in both the people it portrays and the stories it shares.
Norm: How much research do you do before writing your crime novels and how do you go about it?
Archer: I conduct months of research and interviews, starting roughly every February. I begin with one or more questions, for which I have no answers. I then seek out those more educated than I, and record our conversations. I meet scientists, cops, prosecutors, train engineers, forensic techs, surgeons, computer experts, and so on. Sometimes 30 per book. As these interviews progress, the book gels within my head and the questions become more focused. Finally, I reach a point where I feel I have a whole story in my head, and I begin to write. It sounds a little magical, perhaps. I can only say it feels that way, too.
Norm: Could you tell our readers something about your recent book Trace?
Archer: I was intrigued by the fact that when I worked actively as a cop (I’m all but retired now,) and as I still function as a death investigator, it remains a standard of the business that I and my colleagues will always have multiple cases running simultaneously. And yet that’s rarely the way it’s portrayed on TV or in the movies. When I was working full tilt, I might have had 20 to 25 cases open at once. When did you last see that on NCIS? As a result, TRACE shows three cops working three separate, unrelated cases, running side-by-side. It still isn’t a reflection of reality, but that was my inspiration for writing it the way I did.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your novels?
Archer: MY WEBSITE is a good place to start. Margot is in charge of that and does a great job of keeping it fresh and informative. All my novels are listed there, along with a bunch of other things of interest (I hope!)
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Archer: Book number 29 is in the editing stage right now. I’ve also been optioned by someone who wants to make a TV series of the Gunther books. Fingers crossed there. Margot and I have also written a kid’s book together featuring Joe Gunther’s cat, Gilbert. I have no idea when that will see the light of day, but keep watching the web site. Never a dull moment in my house.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has?
Archer: Can’t think of a thing, Norm. You’ve been terrific and thorough, which is greatly appreciated. You also resisted asking anything about the jacket art of my hardbacks, over which I have no influence whatsoever. So thanks!
Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to interview you.