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Charles Knief

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Author Interview: Charles Knief

Preview SAND DOLLARS
Coming in May from St. Martin's Press
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Charles Knief won the 1995 St. Martin's Best First Private Eye Novel Award for his debut, Diamond Head, featuring John Caine, a rugged ex-Navy Seal who embodies a sliver of James Bond, a cut of Chuck Norris and a huge slice of Travis McGee. High testosterone is the hook here, it virtually steams off the pages.  Diamond Head  has been a great success since it hit bookstore shelves and Partners & Crime is thrilled to offer you a glimpse at the explosive sequel,  Sand Dollars.  Curious about Caine's creator? Read on...

Sand Dollars Cover

Q: Yours is a military background; can you tell us a little bit about your life (catalog of scars, women woo'ed, regimes toppled) before you became the infamous, St Martin's-award-winning author (i.e., subject to excessive flattery)?

A: I never kiss and tell, so the women must remain anonymous. A gentleman would never do that (I save those stories for the novels). The scars are a normal collection for a guy who has been shot, stabbed, survived a helicopter crash, landed a small airplane upside down, fell off a cliff in the rain forest (saving myself by accidentally lancing a sharpened root thorough my left hand, pinning me to the rock face), blundered into a pod of Portuguese Man-o-War jellyfish two miles offshore and having to swim all the way in afterward, screaming into my snorkel, and who has been nerve-gassed at least twice. My wife, Ildiko, says I'm as indestructible as I am clumsy. The Chinese claim that "May you live in interesting times" is both a curse and a benediction. I've lived through interesting times in interesting places. Every few years since I turned twenty I've found myself back in Asia, returning like a bad penny, and each time I go there it has been a life changing event. I have counted Hong Kong, southern China, Singapore, Korea and other islands and tropical ports of call in that part of the world, home at one time or another. And that doesn't count the two tours with Uncle Sam's traveling circus during the time of the Great Southeast Asian War Games. But the best place I've ever lived was Honolulu, Hawaii, where I spent three glorious years at Pearl Harbor and ran the very same streets where Caine runs now in fiction. I don't know anybody else who was run out of town (Douglas, Arizona) and thrown out of a country (unnamed, Middle East). All that has given me enough material for many novels and short stories, if I live long enough.

Q: Do you read mysteries? Who are your favorite writers/books of any genre?

A: Of course I read mysteries, although I have an eclectic taste in my reading habits. I've just finished MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and thoroughly enjoyed the after effects it had on me. My favorite read is a well-written historical biography. Barbara Tuchman's wonderful books about the World War I era are better than spy novels. THE ZIMMERMAN TELEGRAM is as exciting as anything Fleming ever did, and it's all true.

Someone handed me my first Travis McGee when I was in the hospital in the early seventies. I finished reading THE LONG LAVENDER LOOK before dinner and was hooked for life. I scrounged up every John D. MacDonald paperback in the hospital and read everything I could get my hands on over the next few weeks. And no, John Caine is not a new incarnation of Travis McGee, although he lives aboard his boat and ventures forth to slay dragons and the occasional game fish. There was no intent to mimic the Great MacDonald, but I do appreciate it when people compare the characters. For mysteries I enjoy reading Chandler and his sometime-partner Robert B. Parker, who very kindly helped me with a cover quote for my first novel. Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, James Crumley and Michael Connelly are also on my "get it as soon as it hits the shelf" list. I love Abigail Padgett (a fellow 1996 Nevermore recipient) and her work for what she says and how she says it. And of course my friend Charles Todd, who should have won the Edgar last year for his fine novel A TEST OF WILLS, and who should have also won the Anthony and whatever the hell else he was nominated for and didn't get.

Q: What made you decide to write a novel?

A: I began writing in some backwater Third world country with little other available entertainment that didn't make you worry about possible symptoms later on. I had exhausted the local histories and my supply of paperbacks, and partially for my own amusement and partially to answer a self-challenge, I started a novel. I always wanted to write one. From the age of eight I knew I had to do it. Well, I didn't finish that first attempt and lost the manuscript and the disks, which is probably just as well, but I learned about the craft and decided I liked the process. I wrote a second novel, but abandoned that one at around 650 pages, deciding the world would not care that much about the story.

Finally in 1990 I completed KIMO'S RULES, featuring a Honolulu policeman named Kimo Kahanamoku, his family of ten children (six adopted), his 91-year old grandmother, their way of life in the Hawaiian Homelands, and their interaction with his job. It was never published. I tried for two years to get attention, but finally gave up and wrote the novel that eventually became DIAMOND HEAD. KIMO is a dead issue, but I've managed to slide Kimo the character into each of the Caine novels. The reader will meet his wonder kapuna grandmother and his wife and family in the third novel, and as the fourth plot is about the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, Tutu Mae will be in center stage.

Q: How did you get your first book published?

A: I tried for five years to get an agent's attention and did not succeed, except with those who wanted a check sent for their "evaluation," which automatically goes nowhere, boys and girls. No one wanted to read either KIMO'S RULES or DIAMOND HEAD. Almost as a last effort before I took up knitting I entered the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Best First Novel contest in 1995 and then forgot about it. I was having a hot, but interesting, summer at Edwards Air Force Base when I heard I had won.

Q: We'll get back to you later (this is only a slight reprieve, stay alert!), but now let's find out about Caine:   The trend towards psychologically-flawed protagonists allows room for the reader to admire the main character but no room for hero worship. With the recent re-introduction of manly men in novels such as Diamond Head (other examples include Lee Child's Killing Floor or Stephen Hunter's Black Light), heroism is back in vogue. A few of John Caine's daring exploits may stretch credibility (one remembers the harrowing swim through shark-infested waters) but many readers want to escape the day-to-day and, for them, this is fun, exciting stuff. For what level of realism are you striving and how do you keep Caine grounded and three-dimensional while keeping him steps ahead of the ordinary?

A: Caine is a Romantic hero in the paladin tradition, a modern cowboy. Think Hawaiian western. In many ways, he is cast in the mold of the classic western loner-drifter hero, such as those characters in THE PROFESSIONALS and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. He is named Caine for a reason (explained in DIAMOND HEAD). He is the outsider, not of the clan. He drifts, but remains anchored in the Hawaiian Islands as his base because it is the only place in the world where he can find peace. I took some heat from critics who thought Caine a little too mucho macho for their taste, but one has to remember where he came from. Once a SEAL, one of the elite of the elite, he was chosen and trained to endure, regardless of self-doubt, regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the threat. Such men will come through or die trying. Having seen it rough a time or two, having had a history in the trenches, I know there are places deep within us where we can find the ability to keep going, even prevail. So stretching credibility for someone who has never ventured much past the sidewalk, or whose idea of conflict is dealing with an arrogant waiter, is not something I worry about.

I think it's time for the Romantic hero to return, if he or she ever left us. The last time I went to the movies there were long lines for the latest Bond film, and TITANIC seemed to be doing nicely, an exposition of nothing but the heroism of the human spirit. I try not to stretch reality too much. Caine gets lucky, and he gets hurt. He gets tired, he gets cold, he gets demoralized, but he endures. I'd never have him do something that could not be done, given his attitude and level of training and experience. And isn't it fun going places and doing things vicariously that we might not otherwise do?

Caine does not always get the girl, but he does manage to sail off into the sunset at the end of each story. I look for balance. A good story and a good character has both. Mr. Caine has several fatal flaws. He does not have a good woman (he HAD one, but they killed her), and he is not certain he can ever commit. In the third novel he's going to get the opportunity to make the big commitment. And he's probably going to blow it. Now that's a flaw!

Q: Believe it or not, our most requested query is how you write. How many hours a day; do you compose first on paper, a typewriter or computer? Do you write at home or is there some place you go to lessen distraction? Purple pens? Tibetan gongs sounding in the background? Bunny slippers? Massive amounts of caffeine or the promise of a chilled glass of wine at the end of a long day? Be honest, now -

A: For me, writing is a joy. When it's really flowing I cannot wait to wake up and get to it to find out what is going to happen next. When it becomes problematic it's still a hoot to try to work my way through the puzzle and find the way out.

Normally I write in the early morning hours. I get up at four and write for at least two hours every morning while my thoughts are uncontaminated with the news and other static. I live near a lake, so at six I run around the shoreline with Duchess, my eighty-pound German shepherd puppy, to clear my head and anchor my day. After that I lift free weights, crawl off to the shower and do what I have to do for the rest of the day. I compose strictly on the computer, having lost the ability to think on a blank piece of paper some time ago. But I'll print out the work product and take it with me to edit. That I do well, regardless of exterior stimuli. At night, depending on how tired I am (which depends upon how many dragons I've slain that day, or how many times the dragon's bitten me), I might work or most likely I'll spend the time with my wife.

Mr. and Mrs. Knief
Chuck and Ildiko...

I don't have bunny slippers because I don't need them. Duchess usually curls up at my feet, keeping them warm during the winter months.

Chuck and Ildiko
...in their natural habitat

When I wrote DIAMOND HEAD, I worked in the evenings at my Pearl Harbor office because I was alone. Now that I'm married I try to spend as much time as possible with Ildi, although I'll admit that when the muse is about and beating me like a rented mule I'll work ten, twelve, fourteen hours straight through and not pay attention to anyone or anything else. That's good for the writing, but bad for the marriage. Ildi understands. I hope. Sometimes, when I hit a snag or a block, I'll run. Somehow the exercise activates the creative process and the answer usually comes.

I rewrite. A lot. One chapter in SAND DOLLARS had 189 different versions logged in the computer. But I liked the last version. I do my research faithfully. I have to have been there, walked the same ground, swam the same currents, done the deed as closely as I can. If I write about a shipwreck, I've dived on it more than ten times. There is no substitute for going over the area you write about.

For SAND DOLLARS, Caine crosses the border from Mexico into the United States over an established illegal immigrant trail. I wrote it and was dissatisfied with the detail. So I did it. Twice. And learned so much I was grateful that I had done it. For DIAMOND HEAD I purchased a UM-1 bang stick and went hunting sharks. I'm happy to report to you that the UM-1 works as advertised.

I am in awe of the writing process. It's a craft that can be learned, but that's only part of it. The other part, that spark of creativity, is a true mystery to me. I don't know where the connections come from. I'm merely grateful that I've managed to catch a few and ride them until the story is finished.

Q: Can you tell us something about your current work-in-progress?

A: I am currently working on the third Caine novel. It delves a little deeper into Hawaiian family traditions and culture, but it also explores several kinds of spousal abuse. Caine tracks down a woman whose husband abandons her and her baby while he protects a woman from her abusive ex-husband and then from the people from whom she has stolen a load of smuggled emeralds. What Caine does not know--well, we'll let that one slide for right now.

The fourth Caine novel is already underway. Hopefully I can finish it this year, along with a non-series mystery novel that I've just gotta write.

Q: I always hate when this question comes up during a job interview, but I'm going to ask it anyway: What do you see yourself doing - or writing - a decade from now?

A: Hopefully still writing mysteries. At least one a year. I'm not sure how long Caine will be a viable character, although I've got some sketches of early-life Caines lying around and might try one sooner or later. There are four new Caine novels at various stages of development right now, but I've got three other non-series novels in me that I have to finish.

One is a historical novel of the opening days of World War Two. I've been collecting materials over the past ten years, including some exclusive stuff I got while at CINCPAC and some taped interviews with some of the participants. I have the plot, the title, the opening scenes, the ending, the historical background. Maybe after the turn of the millennium I can find the time to actually write it.

Ildi and I are looking for a mainland place to live--somewhere in the mountains with four seasons, somewhere that is NOT California, somewhere peaceful. We'll split our time between this mountain redoubt (to please Ildi) and Hawaii (to please Chuck). Like Caine, I'm looking for a home. And peace.

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