Home from the Range–An interview with Steve Hockensmith


A few weeks ago I learned that Steve Hockensmith, one of my favourite writers of both mysteries and zombie fiction (yes, odd combo, I know) had released his latest novel, Cadaver In Chief.  However, it hadn’t popped up on Amazon.ca yet, (one of the curses of being America’s neglected big sister), so he was kind enough to provide a copy for me to review.  During the course of our chat, I passive aggressively (yes, that is the Canadian way) suggested maybe–you know–if I was brave enough–I’d ask him for an interview.

Unlike that redhead at work I keep mentioning to co-workers in the hopes that she might notice, Steve took the hint and ran with it.  So, free book AND an interview!    No redhead of course, unless you count the Amlingmeyer brothers…

Okay, awkward introduction aside, I give you…an interview with Steve Hockensmith, writer of the Holmes on the Range series, numerous mystery anthologies and both the prequel and sequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Every hero or villain has an origin story, whether it’s Peter Parker and his radioactive spider or James Moriarty and his superior mind. Or, perhaps the Amlingmeyer brothers and their unfortunate experience with a flash flood. What’s you’re origin story? How did you come to decide to be a writer?

I’d like to say I developed superhuman storytelling abilities after being bitten by a radioactive writer, but my origin’s not nearly so exciting. I’ve just always been into stories and escapism. As a kid, I loved DC Comics, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, The Avengers (the TV show), old movies, new movies, good movies, bad movies and books books books. I was geeky when geeky wasn’t cool, to misquote Barbara Mandrell. (Geeks love obscure pop culture references, y’know.) After college, I thought briefly about moving to L.A. to try to break into TV as a writer, but everything I’d heard about “the industry” made me think I’d hate it. Plus, I was chickenshit. So I decided to tell stories in the way that seemed right for me — in a quiet room, alone, following my instincts instead of notes from suits — and after a decade of that I managed to get a novel published. As origin stories go it’s no “Rocketed to Earth from the doomed planet Krypton…,” but what can I say? That’s how it happened.

Why mysteries?

Because I suck at science fiction. When I first got serious about writing, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write. My favorite novelist was (and is) Kurt Vonnegut, but I don’t think you can just say, “I love that guy. I’ll do what he did.” Ain’t gonna work. So I figured it’d be best to start small, with short stories, and slowly feel my way to whatever it is I wanted to say. I focused on science fiction because I’d read a lot of it as a kid and there were several paying markets — Asimov’s, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in particular. After three or four years of effort, I managed to sell one story to Analog and bupkis to the others. And I couldn’t even get mad at anybody for overlooking my genius because I clearly didn’t have any genius…for science fiction. The stories simply weren’t that good, and I knew it. Then, just as I was about to give up, I was bitten by a radioactive writer, and everything changed. Really! I finally got around to reading The Big Sleep, and that opened up a whole new world for me. My strengths as a writer, I think, are voice and humor and attention to the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. And that’s not what SF’s all about, so it simply wasn’t a good fit for me. Mysteries, on the other hand….

Which brings us to the Holmes on the Range series. How does one come up with the idea of a couple of cowpokes travelling around the west emulating the deducifying style of a certain Sherlock Holmes?

Ten years ago, I decided to write a Sherlock Holmes story for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. (They have an annual Holmes tribute issue.) But I didn’t want to do a pastiche. (A) My ego’s too big for that, and (B) I know in my heart of hearts that I probably couldn’t pull one off anyway. So I had to come up with a way to tell a Holmes story that wasn’t about Holmes. Well, how do you do that? My solution: tell a story about someone who reads about Holmes and how that changes his or her life. And when I thought about the original Holmes tales and when they first appeared, I realized that America was still a pretty wild place at the time. The frontier days and Indian wars were barely behind us, and there were still cow towns and outlaws and bounty hunters and hanging judges and all that. And cowboys, of course. Say…what would they make of a guy like Holmes? Once I asked myself that, it all fell into place quickly, and I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story. Thank god Ellery Queen bought it, or who knows where I would’ve ended up?

Speaking of the Amlingmeyer brothers, I love the dynamic between Gustav and Otto.  Every great detective seems to need a sidekick, whether it’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin or Sherlock and Watson.  Yet Otto doesn’t necessarily seem so much a sidekick as a mutual partner.  Is Otto as much a sleuth as his brother?

Thanks for noticing that! I think because Otto’s such a goofball, some readers don’t pick up on the fact that he’s really a pretty smart, resourceful guy. He’s definitely not a sidekick in the way that S.S. Van Dine is Philo Vance’s sidekick or Capt. Hastings is Hercule Poirot’s sidekick. Van Dine and Hastings are utterly passive observers. They exist solely to provide a window onto the story. Otto isn’t just the narrator, he’s one of the heroes. He helps push the plot forward. Watson rarely did that, actually. Otto’s closer to someone else you mention: Archie Goodwin. I don’t think I’d read any Rex Stout before I wrote the first Holmes on the Range story, but Archie and Otto are definitely two of a kind. Nero Wolfe and Old Red might be the geniuses, but they’d never put any puzzles together if their right-hand guys weren’t out there gathering up all the pieces.

World’s Greatest Sleuth! takes place during the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 and features several walk throughs of the event during the course of their murder investigation.  The same novel features a pair of relatively obscure fictional detectives (King Brady and Eugene Valmont) whose heyday of popularity was the early twentieth century.  How much research goes into a Hockensmith novel?

Probably too much. Not that I do research-based info dumps the way some writers do. I think I’m pretty good at smoothly integrating the background material into the narrative. But sometimes with research I don’t know when to stop. I’m a geek, remember. Research is fun! So fun I’m always tempted to blow an extra week or two on it when it’s probably time to start writing. For four of my five Holmes on the Range novels and both my Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels I spent at least a month on research before I started outlining the plot. I always began with the nugget of an idea — usually just a location and a general situation — then I’d let history guide me where it would. The exception is The Crack in the Lens. I went out of my way to make that one research-light. And it worked. Mostly. I probably spent two weeks on research instead of four or five. That’s one thing I’ll miss if I decide to continue the Holmes on the Range series as an indie thing. When I was getting nice advances, I could afford to spend the time on research. If I’m doing the books for myself, no dough until they start selling, it’s going to be harder to justify so many days at the library.

Personally, I think the Holmes on the Range series would be well suited to television, much as say, the Murdoch Mysteries.  Have you ever talked with anyone about adapting them?

Yeah, there was talk, once upon a time. And I suppose there’s still a remote chance it’ll happen. It’s pretty unlikely, though, which is too bad. I agree with you: It could be a really fun TV show. Maybe if I’d started writing the series in 1964, that would’ve happened. But anything Western-ish is a tough sell these days. The genre’s seen as old-fashioned and it’s expensive and it’s rarely done well anymore. But hey — keep hope alive. Longmire seems to be doing well, Hell on Wheels got picked up for a second season, and Sherlock Holmes and mystery shows have never been more popular. So lightning could strike. Pray for rain.

One thing I’ve noticed over the course of your career is that the hallmark of any Hockensmith novel isn’t so much the storyline (although they are great), but rather the witty dialogue, whether it’s banter between the brothers Amlingmeyer or that of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy as they fend off the affections of various undead dandies.  Does the banter come naturally?

Why thank you, sir! I do think dialogue is a strength of mine, and it’s one of the things I enjoy writing the most. Nothing stops me dead faster than trying to capture the look of someone’s house or clothes or face. Descriptive writing is torture for me. Maybe that’s because of all the hours and hours I spent as a kid watching old movies on TV. When I’m writing a book, it’s as though one of those films is playing in my head and I’m just trying to transcribe it. So the dialogue and action is relatively easy. Finding words to describe the heroine’s hairdo — that’s hard. It might also go back to the moment when I really embraced the mystery genre, though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing at the time. A few years before I read The Big Sleep, when I was still in college, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Thin Man movies in the local library. Man, I watched those things over and over and over. I still pull them out every year or so and watch them again. Not all of them are great movies, yet I always get immense satisfaction from watching Nick and Nora do what they do. Ooo! I just remembered! I had the same reaction to the Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirot movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, too. So if you break down the DNA of the Holmes on the Range books, it’s less Western and Arthur Conan Doyle than you might assume at first glance. Those are in there, but the books wouldn’t be what they are without Shadow of the Thin Man and Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun, too. And to return (finally) to your original question: Those are all films with wonderful, witty dialogue. Coincidence? I think not!

Speaking of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and its counterpart, Dreadfully Ever After, how is it that you went from cowboy mysteries of the old West to Elizabethan debutants fighting undead hordes with crazy ninja skills? Did Quirk Books approach you regarding a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  How did that relationship come about?

Long story short (or as short as I can make it): Word got out that Quirk Books needed someone to write another PPZ book and my editor at Minotaur gave my agent a heads up (god bless him) and she threw my hat in the ring and I managed to get the gig. I think what won over Jason Rekulak, my editor at Quirk, was that I’d written funny historicals that mashed unlikely genres together. He also seemed to appreciate that I made no attempt whatsoever to copy Jane Austen’s style. Who could pull that off? If you tried to fake the feel of a mashup book I think you’d end up with something like Shock Treatment — the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show no one watches or remembers anymore. You can’t set out to be a wacky cult favorite. You just have to tell your story in whatever style you think works best. So that’s what I did.

Since the release of Dreadfully Ever After and World’s Greatest Sleuth!, you seem to have gone the route of self-publishing and ebooks.  Is it an easier medium to work in?

Yes and no. The lull in books from traditional publishers wasn’t entirely of my choosing. To be honest, it’s been a crappy couple years. I’ve had several projects blow up on the launch pad. It’s been a combination of bad luck and lack of direction on my part. I’ve done waaaaaaaaay too much ping-ponging around trying to figure out what to do with myself. The ebooks have been gratifying in that they’re finished and they’re available and I think they’re great. Man alive, I love the print editions of Cadaver in Chief and Naughty! The designer I used, Rick Forgus, is a genius. Those books look beautiful. I’m very, very proud of them. On the other hand, marketing an indie book remains a chore and, frankly, a mystery to me. I was saying to my wife the other day, “I know how to write books. I just don’t know how to sell them.” Unfortunately, if you don’t have that second skill, there are going to be times when the first one doesn’t seem to mean much.

Anything you miss about working with a publisher?

Oh, sure. Free booze at conventions. Getting big boxes of beautifully printed books delivered to my door. Help with marketing and promotion. Insightful editorial input. (I’m lucky: I’ve worked with three editors and I liked and respected them all. That’s a track record some writers I know would envy.) I think it’s the free booze I’ll miss the most…and I’m only partially kidding about that. It’s extremely validating when a publisher buys you a gin and tonic. You feel like you’re in, you made it, you’re real. Of course, you’re a real writer without the free G&Ts, but that can be hard to remember sometimes.

I’ve had a book outline sitting in a drawer for what seems like forever due to both laziness and insecurity. Any advice for amateur authors hoping to break into the field?

I’ve got a standard line that always sounds flip, but believe me — it isn’t. Here it is: Keep writing bad stuff until you’re writing good stuff. That’s pretty brief as secrets to success go, but I can make it even briefer: Keep writing. Or in your case, start writing, then don’t stop. The number-one thing every writer needs in order to succeed is perseverance. After that, you need talent and skill (two different things) and luck. But without the perseverance, everything else is meaningless. The other advice I give is to start small, like I did, with short stories. That was how I turned raw talent into honed skills. It was how I established myself as a professional, too. The agent who ended up selling Holmes on the Range to Minotaur found me via a story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She approached me! Imagine that! You never know what will lead to what. But it always starts at the same place. A keyboard. Write!

Fans of your blog always seem to be mentioning their affection for Hannah Fox, featured in several of your shorter works.  Any chance we’ll see more of this Nancy Drew with attitude?

Hannah actually pops up in my contribution to an upcoming anthology, so fans will get a chance to see what’s become of her. I have a whole book about her in a drawer — she was the star of the still-unpublished novel I wrote before Holmes on the Range. I keep thinking I’ll pull that book out again and rewrite it, since I still like the idea and I’ve gained (I hope) a lot more skill and smarts over the years. Hannah’s definitely alive in my mind. Whether she breaks out into the real world again (or at least the world of stories and books) remains to be seen.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read your latest work, Cadaver in Chief. Tell us how that came about.

I was waiting to hear back from an editor about a potential project and I thought to myself, “God, I hate sitting on my ass. I bet I could write and publish an ebook before I get an answer on this other thing.” So I set out to do it. And because I wanted to do it so fast, so now, I thought that should be reflected in the book. I wanted it to be a ripped-from-the-headlines kind of thing. Super-zeitgeisty. Which is why it ended up being about political manipulation and cultural disruption and the collapse of traditional media. Oh, and zombies! Can’t get more zeitgeisty than that, right? It was a ton of fun to write — it’s as much a mystery and a satire as it is horror — and I think it turned out really well. Plus, I won the race! I did finish before I got an answer, which is another reason to love indie publishing. You can react to trends really, really quickly. Of course, even if you do you’ve still got to figure out the goddamn marketing. Sigh.

I certainly couldn’t end the interview without asking about Gustav and Otto and the chance of further adventures.  When we last left them, they were looking at a bright future and I for one would like a glimpse into that.  After all, nobody fell off a cliff or anything….

I deliberately left the boys in a happy place at the end of World’s Greatest Sleuth! because I wasn’t sure we’d ever see them again. Things were obviously winding down with Minotaur — the series never took off the way they’d hoped — and I was feeling burned out and disappointed. Those books were really, really hard to write, all of them, yet at the end of the day what did I have to show for all that work? (Other than five books I was proud of and some nice cash I was grateful for, of course.) That’s still a question I wrestle with. As much as I’d like to see Big Red and Old Red ride again, I’m not going to write a book about them just for me and 100 other people. That would be too painful, and dammit — I simply can’t afford it. The thing that gives me hope is that the Holmes on the Range short story collection I put out, Dear Mr. Holmes, keeps selling and selling at a very satisfying clip. So we’ll see. At the moment, I’m leaning toward giving it a try. The movie’s already running in my head. I know what happens to the guys next. Maybe I’ll start transcribing soon.

Fingers crossed that the Amlingmeyer brothers ride again!  If you’re not familiar with Steve Hockensmith’s works, I’d suggest you start with Holmes on the Range. It’s a delightful mystery and a great introduction to what you can expect from a Hockensmith novel.  Of course, Cadaver in Chief is on sale now, so if you’re sick of the presidential race yet want some political intrigue (and maybe see a politician or two get their faces eaten off), maybe you should start there.

Steve maintains a blog at the aptly named Steve Hockensmith’s blog, a.k.a. Stevehockensmith.com where he ruminates on all things mystery and, well, whatever meets his fancy.  Check it out!

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