The first part of
this interview was conducted following Crime Scene 2001, over the course of
a long afternoon spent walking with Steve and his wife Julie across
Hampstead Heath, and recuperating from said walking at the Spaniards and the
It got lost for three years at a magazine, and then I did a follow-up, which
missed the publication of Ice Run and sat for another three years. With
sincere apologies to Steve, I reclaimed the piece for my own column, and
offer it now in the light of his excellent 2007 stand-alone NIGHT WORK.
Part One (2001)
HIS HEAD FRAMED BY A SOFT HALO OF GYRO GEARLOOSE
CURLS, STEVE LOOKS LIKE AN INVENTOR, AND IN FACT HE STILL WORKS FOR IBM AS A
SOFTWARE DESIGNER. BUT HIS ENTRY INTO THE CRIME WRITING FIELD CAME ABOUT IN
AN UNUSUAL MANNER:
His head framed in a halo of Gyro Gearloose curls,
Steve Hamilton looks like an inventor, and in fact he still works for IBM,
as a software designer. But heís also one of the best new crime writers to
come out of America, and his entry into the field came about in an unusual
I was born and raised in Detroit, went to the University of Michigan, it was
all very midwestern. Iíd won a writing award at Michigan, and when I moved
to New York to work for IBM I said ĎIíll keep writing in my own time.í Iím
sure lots of people make that promise, they tell themselves theyíll keep up
the dream, and like most I just didnít do it. Ten or twelve years went by
and I just hadnít kept that promise to myself. But someone at work was in a
writerís group, they met in a cold basementÖ
SORT OF LIKE AA MEETINGS?
Yeah, it had a strange feeling to it, but all sorts of
people, and I began bringing stuff there because the others expected it. I
was writing Ďliteraryí short stories, but I also published a mystery short
in a small mag called Pirate Writings, they paid a penny a word, $44, and I
thought, Ďhey, big bucks! Iím a pro!í That felt more exciting, the
fulfilment of a dream Iíd had since I was 12 years old. I fell in love with
Agatha Christie then, the Poirots were the first mysteries I really loved,
and I didnít start on the hardboileds until later.
I wanted to write a novel, I felt maybe I could do
this, but it seemed like youíd have to have been 50 and lived a hard life to
write hardboiled. Then I read Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben, and I was
St Martinís Press had this competition for a first private eye novel, a
great idea, no agent, just a cover letter, sample and synopsis, and then the
judges narrow it down to six. I figured I knew how to do it, it had to be
straightforward, right? Chapter One, the eye at his desk, gun, bottle,
beautiful blonde, wisecracks. I figured you had to honour the formula.
Well, I had 16 days off, with nothing to do, and after
those 16 days Iíd written two words: Chapter and One. I felt like Iíd
failed. I went home on a Monday night, it was January, there was no
football, and I thought, ĎIíll write about someone in as bad a mood as I am,
why heís in such a bad mood, heís in a cabin in the woods.í I didnít know
how to deal with it, but I made him a cop and an athlete, a baseball player,
got an image of a catcher, with a bullet inside him, and I just followed
that. Heís from Detroit, but he has to leave the city, get away. He gets
manipulated, and he has to face his past. The writing just flowed.
THE RESULT WAS A COLD DAY IN
Right. Bob Randisi called to tell me Iíd won, Iíd get
the prize at Bouchercon in Monterey, and it was overwhelming. Then the Edgar
Award (ed. Note: for Best First Novel), and Iíve been lucky ever since. St
Martinís launched the new Minotaur imprint, the Edgar came and they
redesigned the covers, itís been amazingÖ
BUT YOU KEPT YOUR DAY JOB?
IBM, and my boss, have been very accommodating. I
couldíve quit a BAD day job, in fact Julie quit HER bad day job, but I stay
partly because the benefits are nice.
YOU MENTIONED REDESIGNED
COVERS. THEYíRE SO IMPORTANT BECAUSE THE SETTING, MICHIGANíS UPPER
PENINSULA, WHERE MC KNIGHT HAS RUN AWAY TO, IS LIKE A CHARACTER ITSELFÖ
Thatís rightÖthough you should see the cover they used
in Italy: a doctor with a surgeonís mask, a scalpel in one hand and a gun in
the other! Thereís not even a surgeon in the book!
But when youíre in the UP it feels like youíve left the country, youíre not
in Canada, but youíre not in Michigan any more. Itís a different world, so
remoteÖall pine trees, cabins, Indian casinos and little else. And itís
dominated by the Lake. They should call Lake Superior a sea, itís huge and
dark, and so cold you canít swim in it even in August, there are hundreds of
ships and thousands of men lying at the bottom. But for a couple of months
itís so beautiful. Itís so natural, but itís unforgiving.
THE THIRD MCKNIGHT BOOK IS ALREADY
In America, yes, itís called Hunting Wind. It comes
out in the UK in November 2001. I tie up some of the loose ends in the third
one. I told my agent that and she said if I tied up ALL of them sheíd hunt
me down like a dog. But Iíve already turned in the fourth book, whichíll be
out next year. Eventually all the fish will end up in the boat.
THE THING I FIND MOST INTERESTING
ABOUT THE FIRST TWO BOOKS IS THAT IN BOTH THERE ARE CHARACTERS WHO THINK
ALEX IS THEIR BEST FRIEND, BUT HEíS NOT
No, thereís very little reciprocity, because Alex
doesnít know exactly how bitter or twisted he is, heís retreated into his
shell, Jackyís the one to drag him out, but there is no easy answer, you
donít just snap out of it.
IN COLD DAY, ALEX IS RUNNING AWAY,
BUT ITíS HIS FRIEND WHO ACTUALLY DOES RUN AWAY
Itís kind of a quintessential noir, everyone else
benefits, or manipulates, or at least moves towards their own ends, but Alex
THEREíS A MORE COMIC EDGE IN WOLF
MOON WHICH SUGGESTS HE MIGHT BE STARTING TO SNAP OUTÖ
Well, I donít know where the storyís going. Itís like
driving a car in the fog. Iím still terrified, Iíve pulled it off four times
but I have less and less idea of where Iím going. I know people who work
from detailed plot outlines, I both hate and envy them! I see other people
writing stand alones, Lehane and Michael Connelly, and I admire them. But if
you do it for the wrong reasons, youíd fall flat. If another story came to
meóit has to make itself felt and refuse to go awayóthen Iíll write a fifth
Alex novel. But heís definitely NOT going to Florida or California, he canít
live anywhere else but the UP!
Update: Alex most definitely did NOT move away from the UP, but there were
signs his character was beginning to lighten up. In the fifth McKnight
novel, the excellent Blood Is The Sky, Alex meets Ontario Provincial Police
officer Natalie Reynauld. Like Alex, her partner has recently been killed,
and in the course of the novel her police career suffers another set back.
But Alex comforts her on New Yearís Eve, and it is after that point the
story picks up with the latest book in the series, Ice Run. I talked with
Steve by phone in August 2004 about where itís going and where itís been,
and the novel that was to become NIGHT WORK, which was already in
Part two (2004)
THINGS REALLY TOOK OFF SINCE 2001?
Yes, Blood was a bit of a breakthrough book; it had
more going on and was received better. I just signed a contract for the
Russian translation today!
BUT DONíT GIVE UP THE DAY JOB?
Well, Iím still hanging in with IBMÖtheyíve continued
to be great.
BLOOD IS THE SKY IS REALLY A STORY
ABOUT FRIENDSHIP AND LOYALTYÖ
How a friend becomes a brotherÖin fact, the bookís
dedicated to my brother.Plus romance is a whole new thing for Alex, to be
involved with somebody. Itís funny how readers reacted to it,to Natalie, a
lot of women especially didnít like her. I was doing a reading and a little
old lady put up her hand and said Ďsheís a bitch!í
SHEíS SORT OF A FEMALE VERSION OF
But there are abuses, and itís interesting to see that
process, of overcoming them, become hyper real
WHATíS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH ALEX?
I wish I was more like him, and that he could be more
like me in some ways!
THEREíS AN ELEMENT OF MASOCHISM
He gets beat up. Thereís nothing fun or noble about
it, he just canít help himself.
AND A SORT OF ROSS MACDONALD
I loved reading those novels, where the past came out
of the ground, and still comes back to find you. Thatís the stuff I love to
read. I go to the UP every summer for two weeks, and I drove all over this
time, sort of to say, thank you, Michigan. My next book wonít take place
thereÖit will be a stand-alone, set it upstate New York. But in Michigan you
can drive for so long, you can drive forever, to the loveliest, loneliest
little places. Itís just beautiful in summer. I did a small book tour, not
like the one that nearly killed me the summer before, and did a few key
spots and anywhere in Michigan that wanted me. Iím amazed when Iím on tour,
because everyone knows me. Iím not a celebrity in the real world. And the
readers in the UP love them, because Iím halfway OK as a Michigan boy, but I
donít make fun of the UP, the half-Canadian accent, the slowness--you could
perceive it as a backwater. They treat me like Iím one of them, not even a
hint of resentment. Not even in Paradise. I spent the whole day there, and
probably met half the town in a bookstore while Eddie did his chainshaw
sculpture and Pete from Shreveport played country music.
HOW ABOUT THAT NEXT BOOK?
Itís not with Alex, as I said. Heís got to be tired,
and heís got to be at least half happy.
He needs a break and I did too. I didnít want to be mailing it in, you know,
drag out the same old guys and throw something new in. Dennis Lehane once
said Ďno one ever tells you that the twelfth book in your series was the
best!í Iím sure Iíll go back to Alex, but after something different. The
other big thing is to write it in a different style, in the third person,
with a multiple point of view. When I go back to Alex itíll be first person,
and heíll have a new problem.
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