Literary Crime Fiction Interview: Paul Doiron
Stephen King has a lot to answer for. Maine has been the setting for most of his novels thereby fostering a spooky, supernatural view that does not entirely reflect the most forested state in America. Author Paul Doiron is seeking to change that perception with his riveting series of literary crime novels featuring Maine game warden Mike Bowditch.
The first The Poacher’s Son has been brought out by Constable & Robinson in the UK with novels two Trespasser and three Bad Little Falls following before the year 2013 is out. Paul was kind enough to take time out from his busy schedule as a writer and journalist to chat with me via Skype from his Maine home about his Edgar nominated creation.
Matthew: Were the Maine game wardens wary about you when you first started researching for The Poacher’s Son?
Paul: “They were a little bit wary. I am strictly a civilian, but I am a registered Maine guide. The state licences people to take anyone who wants to go out fishing, hunting or camping into the wilderness. You have to pass a series of tests, which are actually administered by the Maine Warden Service who are our state’s off-road police force. That’s how I’ve gotten to know a lot of those guys and that’s why I write about them.
“Whenever you deal with law enforcement, they are aware of the fact that their jobs are interesting to the public and obliged, in some ways, to take me on a ride along if I want to go on patrol. I am also a journalist, which adds another element to it. Everyone is suspicious of journalists!
“My fourth book Massacre Pond is about to come out in the States and I was invited to the Warden Service’s annual meeting and award banquet. That was great because I had wardens that I didn’t even know coming up to me and telling me what big fans they are of my books, which was a great compliment.
“I do my best to get their job right, because it is a very unusual job. I had to do a lot of research in terms of the specific police procedural aspect of it. Years ago I managed to get hold of a volume, which I’m not sure is meant for the public, which is the Warden Service’s manual that they give to new wardens. It’s about 1,000 pages long and everything from how long their sideburns can be onwards. It is very detailed and it helped me get certain details right. Hearing the jargon that they use, that sort of thing.”
Were you consciously aiming for a crime fiction novel out of the gate or did it evolve into one once you had set the character of Mike and his world in motion?
“I started my writing life as a literary writer. I went to Yale and I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. My inspirations were always Hemingway, Fitzgerald and all the modernists, but then about 10 years ago my wife gave me my first PD James novel. I read it and thought this is literature.
“I always had a long interest in crime fiction and one of my favourite series of all were the Sherlock Holmes books. I began to read more and more crime novels and I discovered that there were many books that were being written that were extremely well done and as good as any books that I was reading in other genres. Things came together when I was spending more time outdoors and I realised that the Maine game wardens are involved in every aspect of crime in the state.
“Everything from what we usually think game wardens would deal with like catching poachers to things like apprehending people who are growing marijuana in the woods, to finding lost children, snowmobile accidents and dealing with drowned bodies in lakes. They are partnered with every law enforcement agency, so I thought this is great and the perfect job for a crime series. It’s unique to Maine.
“Game wardens’ job responsibilities vary across the States. In the state of Maine, a game warden is essentially the equivalent to a city cop or a state trooper. They go to the main criminal justice academy and then they go to their own school. They have full investigative and arrest powers, so they can pull you over for drunk driving or investigate rape and murder.”
Mike Bowditch is an intriguing main protagonist. He does not fit the tired, clichéd mould that we see so often in crime fiction. How did you come up with him?
“I was pleased with how people reacted to Mike in the first book. I was very nervous about it frankly. Typically in crime fiction you meet the protagonist in a series when he or she has already established themselves in their profession and found their personality. When you meet Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, he is already Philip Marlowe.
“I was interested in the idea about how someone becomes a hero. How does a younger protagonist, who is a flawed, damaged and very green rookie, turn into a character that you would think of as being more conventional and heroic. I wanted readers to try and cut Mike a little bit of slack because he is very impetuous and headstrong from his upbringing. The book is about and his relationship with his father - a criminal, larger than life man’s man.”
How important then is it to have two characters in Charley Stevens and Kathy Frost that act as father and mother figures in the series?
“Mike’s very much discovering the father that he wished he had had in the retired game warden Charley. He had an emotionally abusive distant father that always made him feel less of a man, who he admired nevertheless because of his woodsmanship and bravado. Charley is equally woods wise, but always wise in the ways of a human being. He’s also funny and sharper than he looks. Mike’s sergeant Kathy is a profane, wise cracking person, who I thought Mike needed in his life to challenge him and call him to task for a lot of his self-involvement and youthful over enthusiasm. It felt important to me to have characters like that to serve to some degree as surrogates for the reader.”
The novel started to stray into literary crime for me when Mike goes back to Charley’s home and sees firsthand the retired life he leads with wife Ora. Those types of scenes peppered throughout the book elevated it into James Lee Burke territory for me.
“It was something that I had allowed myself to write and there were a number of chapters in the book that are flashbacks too. There’s a scene earlier in the book where Mike is nine years old and he goes out on a trapping expedition with his father that is pretty disastrous, for example. If your expectation from a crime novel is that it hits the ground running and then keeps moving forward at this fast pace, it could seem a little disconcerting to have these chapters where they are very much about relationship building and are quieter too.
“I was quite nervous about writing those parts, after the fact. While I was writing them I felt that they were right, but I was fully expecting that when the time came for me to find an agent and publishers that those were going to be troublesome areas. Instead what I found was that everybody seemed to have the reaction that you had, which was that those elements of the book took it out of one territory and put it into another which is what I had intended. My philosophy is that if I am not surprised reading the book, then the reader probably isn’t going to be surprised reading it.”
Let’s move onto one of the most fascinating characters that I have read in crime fiction for a while, Brenda Jean aka BJ. How did you capture the mindset of a fiery, damaged, manipulative young woman with a sting in her tail so well?
“Brenda Jean is a character who comes into this very remote north woods world as a little girl and grows up at a sporting camp. Maine is actually the most forested state in the US and there are parts of it that are very, very remote. This American Indian girl has been put in one such place where her mother has died and her father has an alcohol problem, while whoever is staying at this lodge for the most part is a man. What does that do to her in terms of shaping her? She is attractive, so she learns a lot about men in terms of how to manipulate them but you can also see she is a very troubled person in terms of her unusual upbringing. It’s hard to read her in terms of how much is she a femme fatale and how innocent she is.”
How hard was it for you writing the second, third and fourth in the series after the critical success of The Poacher’s Son and the inevitable pressure of publisher deadlines?
“The advantage that I had with Trespasser was that the publication of The Poacher’s Son was delayed by a year. I had sold it as part of a three-book contract, so I actually knew I was going to have three books to tell what was going to be the beginning of Mike’s story. However, I had this two-year window when my US publisher decided that they thought it was going to be a breakthrough book and wanted to give it a long, lead time to unroll it.
“What that meant for me in terms of the second novel was that I had to fly on my own without a sense of what the reaction was going to be to the first one. Now I am on a book a year schedule, it does change the way you go at these things but what makes it easier now is that I am working with characters that I know a lot better. If Charley or Kathy reappears I know what they are likely to say, but I still try and leave myself room for things.”
An Edgar nomination for your first book helped get momentum behind you. How pleasing was it to get affirmation from such a prestigious body so early in your career?
“The Edgar nomination was amazing. What was even more amazing to me before that was that the early reviews for The Poacher’s Son were all so positive. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop and it never did with that particular book until the Edgars came along. It was a tremendous, affirmative experience for me and it gave me lots of confidence going forward.”
How did you want to portray your beloved home state Maine to the outside world?
“Warts and all, definitely. Stephen King has certainly introduced Maine to a worldwide audience but in a way that people think of as being supernaturally focused. One of my motivations is to render the state of Maine as vividly as possible to people who have never been here before. I live in a special and unique place. Like anywhere in the world it has its flaws and dark corners, but the incredible beauty of the nature here is something that I want to get across. It’s something that I respond to in really good fiction and crime fiction.
“I am open in my admiration for James Lee Burke, who I think is masterful at portraying southern Louisiana especially. He is most associated with the Cajun country. You read those books and you can smell the night blooming flowers. You can hear the thunderstorms rolling in across the Gulf of Mexico. It gives me something to aspire to in my own books.”
Do you think a rising backlash in the face of western society’s obsession with urbanisation and technology has played into your hands with readers?
“The world in general is becoming much more urbanised and as that process takes place people become more disconnected from aspects of country living whether it is something as simple as agriculture. People don’t know where their meat is coming from. They think a steak comes from the store, so I have an audience that is not as familiar with what it is that I am trying to describe. I want to try and educate as well as entertain.
“There is a reality TV show called Northwoods Law, which is about Maine game wardens. I did an article about it for my magazine and I asked them how they got fixated on this themselves. They said they started with this question, “What was Alaska before Alaska?” If you go back 100 years, it was the state of Maine. That was what drew them up here.
“It might feel exotic as it is not a way of life many people are experiencing right now like they used to in previous generations. One of the interesting things for me is to watch where books are being translated and Eastern Europe is covered well. I have sold translation rights to Romania, Czech Republic and Slovenia, and that feels very right for me. I am glad Constable & Robinson are having success with me in the UK too, which is the birthplace of crime fiction. You are the toughest critics!”
Please check out Paul’s website to learn more about him.