Monday, July 14, 2014

A Conversation with Crime Novelist Chris Culver

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Chris Culver
with Chris Culver

We are delighted to welcome novelist Chris Culver to Omnimystery News today.

Chris's new psychological thriller is Nine Years Gone (July trade paperback and ebook formats) and we recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his books.

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Omnimystery News: When you start a new book, how do you decide whether it will be a series novel or a stand-alone?

Chris Culver
Photo provided courtesy of
Chris Culver

Chris Culver: To answer this, I have to say a little bit about how I approach a novel. When I sit down to write new book, I don't start with a blank page. I start by creating character biographies. I know who's going to be the hero and villain of a book long before I know anything else. Because of that, I never get into the situation of having to decide whether a particular idea is suitable for my series character or a stand-alone mystery.

Only after I've thought deeply about the characters do I start thinking about the story. And because I start with my characters and because I know both their life goals and what they fear most, I can tailor a plot that forces them to face their biggest fears or risk losing the one thing they care most about. Other writers do things differently, but that works for me.

OMN: Into what genre categories do you place your books?

CC: My series novels are hard-boiled detective stories, and my stand-alone novels — broadly speaking — are suspense novels. As a reader, I like these genre classifications because genre classifications tell me what to expect from a book. And I strongly prefer when authors stay true to the genre's conventions. When I'm in the mood for a cozy, I want a light, fun read. Halfway through, if the heroine starts vivisecting her neighbors because they don't like her cupcakes, we've got a problem.

As a writer, I'm also a big fan of genre classifications. Sure, they lock us into certain conventions and require us to include or exclude certain things, but I find that to be incredibly freeing. They give me limits, but they also unlock my imagination within those limits. Too much freedom, after all, can be quite stifling. Music without structure is simply noise; similarily, a story without some limitations is probably going to be a mess.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

CC: Before I became a writer I taught ethics and philosophy of religion to undergraduates, and I do find that background showing up. My characters take morality seriously, as I do. They worry about the sorts of persons they should be, they concern themselves with the moral conseqences of their actions, and they grapple with ambigious moral situations. They rarely make the same moral decisions I do, but they oftentimes approach the issues with the same serious inquiry.

OMN: Your new novel is Nine Years Gone. Tell us something about it that isn't mentioned in the synopsis.

CC: I wrote it from 12:00am to 2:00am over a twelve-week time period while the rest of my family slept. My wife was the only person who knew I was writing it.

OMN: How did the title Nine Years Gone come about?

CC: It's the story a guy who framed a very bad man for murder nine years ago only to have that come back to haunt him today. That's where the "nine years" part comes from. The "gone" part is a little more tricky. To frame somebody for murder, you obviously need a victim, and in this book, my hero helped his girlfriend, the bad guy's stepdaughter, disappear. She was supposed to stay away forever. She didn't. She came back, and she's not sweet, kind person she once was.

OMN: Describe your writing environment for us.

CC: My writing environment is an absolute mess, and I love it. When people ask me what I do for a living, I typically say I'm a full-time dad and a part-time writer. My first priority is to my family, and nowhere is that more evident than in my office. As I turn around, I see a Baby Einstein activity center for my infant son, a camera so I can quickly take a picture if he happens to walk for the first time in the office, and a blue carpet strewn with plastic balls the size of golf balls. They belong to some toy in the living room.

My desk is no less of a mess. Beside my keyboard is a white ceramic coffee mug, and the air is still redolent with a hazelnut flavored coffee. If I peek around my monitor, I know there's a coffee mug full of pens — none of which actually work — and the proof copy of my latest book. There's a calculator on the ground beside me. My little boy picked it up — I have no idea where he got it, but he loves anything with buttons. Roy, my 120-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever is behind me, panting.

It's a loud, cluttered environment. Somehow, it works for me.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any particularly challenging topics?

CC: I do try to get facts right in my books, and I do my research all over the place. I'm a big fan of the library, but I'm also a big fan of talking to experts in the field. Sure, I can find out about the chemistry of cocaine in a text book, for instance, but it's so much more fun to talk to a forensic scientist. People are full of stories, and I love stories.

The most challenging research topic I've delved into was probably human trafficking. It's easy to find information on the topic, but some of what I read was difficult to fathom. If you want to learn about evil — and this isn't a word I use often — read about human trafficking in Nepal and India. It's shocking.

OMN: Tell us more about the settings for your books.

CC: My books are set in real place. Nine Years Gone, for example, is set in Webster Groves, Missouri and I've tried to be as true to the town as I could. I live in Webster, so that made things a little easier. Steve Hale, my hero, walks real streets, passes real buildings, and goes to real coffee bars for breakfast. Some of the most important events in the book occur on Art Hill in Forrest Park, a real location that really does look like I describe it in the book.

Even still, I've had to make a few things up. My character supposedly owns an Italianate building in Old Webster, but it doesn't actually exist. I considered using a real building, but none of the existing buildings I know of fit my character. Webster Groves and the greater St. Louis metropolitan area play significant roles, so it was important for me to get the feeling right.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world, all expenses paid, to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

CC: Probably Cairo. My series character is an Arab American whose parents are from Egypt. I've never been, and it would be nice to see. If that I did that, I'd more than likely set at least one book there.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

CC: I've never thought of it as a hobby, but I live in a pretty old house that needs some work. When I'm not writing, walking the dog, spending time with my wife, or taking care of my little boy, I'm working on the house. It sort of makes its way into my books, but I don't add it consciously. Sometimes, I find my characters complaining about their houses, and oftentimes, their complaints mirror my own.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

CC: The best advice I've received is the same piece of advice I give to aspring writers: keep writing. It's a real accomplishment to finish a first book, but that's not the time to quit. Learn from your first book, and then start on your second. Then, when you're done with that, start on your third. Writers, the kind who succeed long-term, constantly hone their craft. So don't quit, keep going, and keep learning.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a crime novelist, and thus I am also …".

CC: I am a crime novelist, and thus I am also … probably a little nuts.

OMN: "Chris Culver" is a pen name. Why did you decide to use it instead of your real name?

CC: I started with a pen name because I liked the anonyminity it afforded, but if I did things over again, I probably would have written under my real name. It's amazing how many people have come up to me and said that they heard I write books for a living but couldn't find them when they looked me up.

OMN: What kinds of feedback have you received from your readers?

CC: I love it when readers contact me. Sometimes they ask questions, which is fantastic because it gives me topics for blog posts, but other times they just want to say hello. This doesn't happen often, but occasionally I'll get a letter from a reader that says my books have helped them endure a difficult time in their lives. We all need distractions at times, and if my books can help distract someone from the pain of rehab after surgery, or from the pain of chemotherapy, I feel like I've done my job. Those sorts of letters make me feel pretty good.

OMN: Suppose Nine Years Gone were to be adapted for television or film. Who do you see plaing the key roles?

CC: I'm not really big on character descriptions because I like my readers to form their own image. That said, Steve Hale is an average man from the Midwest. He's in mid-thirties and is in reasonably good shape. Realistically, he could be played by any of actors. Unfortunately, I don't watch enough TV or movies to give a specific name.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

CC: I read mysteries as a kid, but even before I could read, my mother read books to my older brother and me. We started with the Hardy Boys, and I think we read most of the original series. Once we finished those, we read the Boxcar Children. Looking back, mysteries have always appealed to me. I liked stories in which the hero won because he used his brain. That hasn't changed. Those early years have had a pretty profound impact on the kind of stuff I write today. At their cores, my stories are all mysteries.

OMN: What do you read today for pleasure?

CC: I'm eclectic. I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, but I read a pretty wide range of things. Last week, I read The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson. It was a terrific fantasty novel, and I eagerly bought the next one in the series. I also read Good People by Marcus Sakey. It was a suspense novel, the first I've read by Sakey, and I plan to pick up another. And I've just started reading Intensity by Dean Koontz. I read a lot of Dean Koontz and like him quite a bit.

Bottom line, good storytelling transcends genre, and I'm willing to give just about anything a try.

OMN: Do you have any favorite series characters?

CC: Like a lot of readers, I've got a list of authors whose series books I preorder and read the day they come out. In no particular order:

Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller;
John Sandford – Lucas Davenport;
Chelsea Cain – Archie Sheridan;
Jim Butcher – Harry Dresden;
James Lee Burke – everything he writes; and
Dennis Lehane – everything he writes.

I could add about a dozen more, but you get the idea.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any subject.

CC: Everybody's read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and with good reason: their work is foundational to the genre. But there are a lot of writers who wrote superb novels and never received the same commercial success. Here's my list of five excellent [deceased] novelists whose work you should read:

1. James Crumley;
2. Ed McBain;
3. Jim Thompson;
4. Donald Westlake; and
5. Charles Willeford.

OMN: What's next for you?

CC: I'm about 80% completed with my fourth Ash Rashid novel, so I'm hoping to finish that within a month or two. After that, I'm going to try to take some time off. As my wife will attest, the last time I said that, my "time off" lasted about an afternoon before I started on a new book.

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Chris Culver is the New York Times Bestselling author of the Ash Rashid series of mysteries. After graduate school, Chris taught courses in ethics and comparative religion at a small liberal arts university in southern Arkansas. While there and when he really should have been grading exams, he wrote The Abbey, which introduced the world to Detective Ash Rashid. He and his family live near St. Louis, Missouri, where Chris is working on his next novel.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at IndieCrime.com or find his on Facebook and Twitter.

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Nine Years Gone by Chris Culver

Nine Years Gone
Chris Culver
A Novel of Psychological Suspense

Not all absences make the heart grow fonder …

Nine years ago, Steve Hale saved the love of his life from her abusive and very powerful stepfather by helping her disappear and framing him for her murder. Today, that stepfather is dead, executed by the state of Missouri for a crime he didn't commit, and Steve has a loving wife, a little girl who depends on him, a home, a career — everything he ever wanted and believed he could never have. He also has a new voice mail from a woman the rest of the world believes is dead.

A reunion with his former girlfriend quickly sours when Steve realizes that her stories don't match up — the one she told nine years ago and the one she told today.

As he unravels her twisted knot of lies, he discovers that events are already in motion and plans are being carried out. Unwittingly, he's hurtling toward a dark secret — one some very dangerous people are willing to protect at any cost.

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Lance Wright owns and manages Omnimystery, a Family of Mystery Websites, which had its origin as Hidden Staircase Mystery Books in 1986. As the scope of the business expanded, first into book reviews — Mysterious Reviews — and later into information for and reviews of mystery and suspense television and film, all sites were consolidated under the Omnimystery brand in 2006.

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