Between the Lines: Interview with John Sandford by Brett King


For a reader of mysteries and thrillers, the word brings instant and enthusiastic recognition for the celebrated novels of John Sandford. Beginning with RULES OF PREY in 1989, he introduced a series that now spans twenty-two novels featuring charismatic and tough-minded investigator Lucas Davenport.From the beginning, the series proved to be a hit with readers. That same year, he published the successful Kidd series under his real name, John Camp.

As a former columnist and Pulitzer-winning journalist, Camp made a seamless transition to writing fiction at a brisk pace. In 2007, he took Virgil Flowers, a popular supporting character in some of the Prey novels, including Invisible Prey and Storm Prey, and made him a protagonist in DARK OF THE MOON. Breezy yet complex, Flowers is a top-notch agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who often works the southern part of the state. The new series found extraordinary support among his legion of passionate fans, resulting in last year’s #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling novel, SHOCK WAVE.

In Sandford’s latest novel, MAD RIVER, Virgil Flowers is called on to investigate a brutal crime spree that terrorizes rural Minnesota. In a series of reckless crimes, teenagers Jimmy Sharp, Becky Welsh, and Tom McCall manage to elude arrest, much to Flowers’ growing frustration.Set for an October 2nd, 2012 release from Putnam’s, MAD RIVER is a spirited novel that once again showcases Sandford’s distinctive and unflinching style. He consulted with author and columnist Joe Soucheray, a peer from his former days as a journalist, to create a powerful story that remains gripping until the concluding page.

Earlier in the year, Sanford also published the latest Lucas Davenport novel, STOLEN PREY. At a chilling crime scene, Lucas discovers that an entire family has been slaughtered in the small Minnesota town of Wayzata. Finding a cryptic note scrawled in blood on the wall, he sees parallels with the scorched-earth retribution found in drug killings, except that one victim was an executive vice president at a prestigious bank. It doesn’t make sense, until Lucas uncovers the truth behind the murders, a discovery that ignites the darkest episode of his life.

Sanford’s riveting storytelling has been called, “masterful,” “exquisitely paced,” and “at once beautiful and profane” (RICHMOND-TIMES DISPATCH). The CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER found the key to the series’ success in Sandford’s “trademark gifts—realistic, smart-aleck dialogue; laser-sharp characters; and a plot that’s fast and surprising.”

Back in 1998, I attended a John Sandford book signing at the Rue Morgue Bookstore in Boulder, Colorado, during the release of SECRET PREY. His signings are candid and insightful with flourishes of his signature humor as anyone can attest who heard him speak at ITW’s 2012 ThrillerFest last July.

John Camp shared his thoughts about the Sandford books, the relationship between Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, his passion for archeology, and his history of speeding tickets. I also ran a couple of questions by his son, Roswell Camp, who is well known to many dedicated John Sandford fans for his website and social-networking activities on behalf of his father’s books. As forthright as his father, Roswell discussed his work as well as some advice for authors in designing their websites.

As mentioned at the start of this interview, the word “prey” conjures an instant association with your Lucas Davenport novels. How did you hit upon the idea of using it for RULES OF PREY? Did you know from the beginning that it would appear in later books?

I didn’t think of the title. I don’t know where it comes from, except possibly the fertile brain of Neil Nyren, my editor at Putnam’s. But there was a rumor, way back when, that a title maven was consulted, and using the fact that the killer in RULES left little “rules” for the cops to find, taunting them, came up with the final title. There was some discussion, about book ten, of going to a different line of titles, with a subhead that said, “A Lucas Davenport novel,” but that never happened.

In MAD RIVER, Virgil Flowers shows real insight when he calls out Lucas, saying, “I think you’ve been hanging around the capital too much.” While both are exceptional at reading people, what is something Virgil understands about his boss that Lucas doesn’t know about himself?

Lucas thinks of himself as a hunter, and he enjoys the hunt; but he doesn’t have a big image of himself as being really smart. On the contrary, he thinks of himself as being somewhat intellectually challenged. In the next Prey book, there’s a scene (subject to change) in which Lucas looks at a door that was hand-carved by an artist named Kidd, who was the main character in an earlier series of mine, and who is a friend of Lucas’. Kidd told him that he’d carved the door in the style of Gauguin, and Lucas thinks that he wouldn’t know a Gauguin carving if one bit him on the ass. He’s ashamed of that. But Virgil pays close attention to what Lucas has to say, because he understands that Lucas is really, really smart, and regularly has brilliant insights into the workings of a criminal mind.

Aspects of STOLEN PREY and MAD RIVER parallel crimes committed by the Manson family as well as Bonnie and Clyde. How often do you look to real-world criminal events as a starting point for your books?

Not often. I felt the parallel in Mad River, of course, but not in Stolen Prey.

In MAD RIVER, I was fascinated with the odd-man-out dynamic that Tom McCall occupies in his relationship with Becky Welsh and Jimmy Sharp. The tension among the antagonists gives definition to their story. Did that character dynamic evolve as you wrote the book or was it already present in your preliminary outline?

There was no preliminary outline. Joe Soucheray, my writing partner on Mad River, had a manuscript in which those three were actually three men, and I changed one of them to a woman; and then started rewriting from there. That changed the book quite a bit, and, of course, the dynamic between the three of them. It took a long time to get the first several chapters just right because the relationships are so fraught.

I still remember something you said at a 1998 book signing and I’ve shared it with other authors. You mentioned that you try to incorporate all five senses in your opening chapters.It’s great advice. Can you share any other techniques that you use for drawing in readers?

Sure. A couple of things, and I still screw them up and have to go back and redo them – in fact, I sometimes think I have to relearn how to write all over again, every time I sit down to do a book. But, one benefit of having written so many is that you catch yourself, and can redo it. So, here are two.

  1. You don’t need context in the first chapter of a thriller. You need motion, and sensory input – those five senses. One very good way to do that is to show the original crime (or other action) already happening, in the first paragraph. In other words, hit the ground running; you can put the context in the second chapter.
  2. Write the murder. I often try to avoid writing the instant of the murder…I write around it, or look at it retrospectively. It’s much, much stronger to put the reader in the room as it actually happens.

Many diehard fans are drawn to the unconventional side of Lucas’ character and look forward to situations when he displays a casual disregard for rules. In STOLEN PREY, one character describes Lucas’ actions as “legally questionable” and Lucas adds, “But morally correct” (it might be unwieldy, but when reading future Prey books, I’m totally going to call those moments “LQbMC scenes”). I have a feeling you enjoy writing LQbMC scenes as much as we enjoy reading them.  Am I correct?

Sure, and all you have to do is look at the past ten years of economic meltdown to clearly understand the difference between legality and morality – all those banksters, as they’re called, who out of greed damaged the lives of millions of Americans, and paid no penalty at all because what they did was not specifically illegal. It was as if they found crimes that had not yet been defined as such, but that any honest person would have recognized as morally criminal. Lucas knows that crimes often are matters of definition, but he’s a stickler for morality. He’s not above using the discovery of a little marijuana in a person’s pocket as a lever to get information from him, but has no interest at all in arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. He sees possession as a technical crime but not as a moral issue.

Lucas confesses that his “spirited driving” has led to trouble with various state highway patrols. True for you as well?

At one time, yes, back in the 90s. But, the fact that Wisconsin doesn’t (or didn’t, at one time) report speeding violations to your home state or anyone else, for that matter, saved my butt both from the Minnesota DMV and the insurance companies. I usually got caught speeding on the way up to my Wisconsin cabin, where there are lots of interesting backroads where speeding is pretty safe. Every time I got caught, with one exception, I was very polite; I was speeding, and the cop was just doing his job, and I paid the money. I will say that I sped deliberately, and only in safe conditions. Just letting the car out a bit. You know, why else have a car with four hundred horsepower?

The one time I got pissed was in the town of Spooner, Wisconsin, which was, and I suspect still is, a speed trap. There’s a bridge near Spooner that usually has a big graffiti on it which says, “Spooner Sucks.” Every time it’s painted out, somebody paints it back. Not me, but I’d be willing to volunteer, should that become necessary. In any case, a back highway comes into Spooner through a residential district, and the speed limit is like 35 miles an hour. Then you come to a major four-lane highway, and take a turn – but they’ve made the speed limit an entirely non-intuitive 25 miles an hour, actually dropping it from the speed limit through the residential area. So I got caught, and paid a whopping fine. Took me right down to the police station. But, I got back at them, in my own way. A couple years after that ticket, I spent a quarter-million dollars on a new cabin, and not a penny of that went into Spooner; I spent it all in the neighboring town of Hayward. And I never stop in Spooner, even though I go right through town on my way north. Suck on that, Spoonerites.

ITW may have just lost its Spoonerite following, but who cares? That’s a great story.Your characters all have distinctive names. I’ve talked to a few diehard Sandford fans who haven’t heard the inspiration behind Del Capslock’s name. Mind sharing the story again?

I was just stuck on a name, and saw it on the keyboard in front of me. Del (ete) and CapsLock. Names are critical. You don’t want to call your main killer Joe Jones, because it’s not distinctive, and when you bring him up the second time, you don’t want the reader to wonder, “Uh, who was that again?” On the other hand, if you have a throw-away character, like a secretary that Lucas will see once, you don’t want to call her Katerina Rasputin, because then people will wonder what the hell happened to her, when you get to the end of the story and she never came back. In some perhaps subconscious ways, names signal to the reader whether they should pay attention to a character.

When you created Del, did you have a sense that he would become such a critical supporting figure in Davenport’s crew?

Actually, I did. He was a necessary part of the crew, and added a necessary aspect to Lucas’ resources. On the other hand, I had a nun in my first couple of books, who offered varieties of useful advice to Lucas, and then I never really used her in the later books. She just no longer fit with the crew. Hmm. Maybe I’ll bring her back.

I noticed some interesting parallels while reading STOLEN PREY and MAD RIVER. I’m curious if you wrote both books at the same time or in consecutive order?

They were consecutive – I have a hard time writing two books simultaneously. But I’m curious about the parallels that you’re curious about. I don’t see them.

Well, maybe I made associations that simply weren’t there (I’m a psychologist and that’s something of an occupational hazard). Toward the conclusion of MAD RIVER, Virgil has to make a tough choice regarding the actions of a local sheriff. It’s a powerful moment that raises all kinds of interesting issues about retribution and justice. Maybe I’m way off base, but I sensed that Virgil and Lucas were at odds while discussing this issue. Do you envision a growing disparity between the two men in future books?

Oh, not really, but Lucas has a harder, more skeptical view of mankind than Virgil has. Virgil is a basically a nicer guy; he’s got the mind of a hunter, but in his heart, he’s quite soft. On the other hand, Lucas appreciates that quality in him, and is actually curious about how Virgil does so well, with this un-coplike attitude. And he’s frustrated, sometimes, by Virgil’s lack of discipline – like the fact that he often forgets to wear his gun. But the frustration comes out of concern, not because he’s got any big thing about rules. He doesn’t like the idea of Virgil going unarmed into tough situations. He feels that Virgil will someday pay the price – and as happens in Mad River, he does.

After Lucas drops a certain profanity three times, his wife warns, “That’s your daily quota on the f-word.” You make masterful use of the word and, if my Kindle can be trusted, the f-bomb makes 69 appearances in STOLEN PREY. Just out of playful curiosity, what is your quota?

I don’t have a quota; but if you look in an obscure corner of my website, you will find that my son collects statistics on the bad language in my books, and charts them. I’ve been tempted to write a book without a single bit of bad language, just to mess with his charts, but haven’t been able to manage that yet. If I do, it’ll be a Virgil book.

The physical descriptions of your characters are both vivid and idiosyncratic. What advice would you share with aspiring authors about finding compelling ways to describe people and settings?

Same bit of advice for both: report them. Go out on a sidewalk or sit in a restaurant and look at somebody – anybody – and write down what you see. Go to a bar and simply describe it, but describe it in great detail. Doesn’t make any difference what kind of bar, or how colorful or uncolorful it is. If you do that, and then do a modest amount of editing to smooth out the prose, you’ll likely find it’s the best bit of descriptive writing you’ve ever done. Writing is like painting that way: you should try to look at the actual “motif” before you write about it. It’ll bring your writing to life.

Like some Minnesotans, Virgil seems to harbor some unhappy feelings about his neighbors to the north. I gotta ask: after writing MAD RIVER, do you fear the wrath of Canadians?

No, no, I’m actually trying to do Canadians a favor. This has been a continuing theme in many of my books. The fact is, when you say “Canada,” to an American, we get an idea of this peaceful place where lumberjacks sit around in plaid shirt-jacs listening to Mozart on the CBC before felling their timber in an ecologically responsible way. Or in a word, *boring.* By picturing Canada as a land of lowlifes, dopers, gunmen, sexual deviants, desperate men, violent women, bad musicians, etc. – especially bad musicians — I’m simply trying to provide a sense of the true excitement of the place.

In RULES OF PREY, Lucas describes himself as a “gun freak.” He’s mellowed since then and, in the latest book, he mentions that he isn’t “particularly fond of guns.” Still, he is an excellent shot. By contrast, Virgil confesses, “I’m just no damned good with pistols.” Your books contain excellent descriptions of guns, but are you closer to Virgil or Lucas on the range?

Virgil. I keep a few guns around for research purposes, but I don’t shoot them much. I did take my girlfriend, a writer who’d never fired a gun, up to my Wisconsin cabin and had her shoot both rifles and shotguns, and also a selection of semi-automatic pistols and revolvers. A Canadian once wrote to me that I constantly confused pistols and revolvers. Apparently in Canada, a “pistol” is what we call an “automatic” or a “semi-auto.” But in the US, we call both revolvers and semi-autos “pistols.” My Canadian critic was not aware of that; but then, I suppose he doesn’t get out much, with the snow and all, and the wolverines.

You share Elmore Leonard’s talent for razor-sharp dialogue, quirky characterization, and wry observations about human nature. Did Dutch’s work have an impact on your writing?

I don’t know. I’ve read a lot of his books, that’s for sure. I actually think I’m closer to somebody like Larry Sanders, or John D. McDonald.

Like many readers, I’ve enjoyed the character evolution of Letty, Lucas’ daughter, since her appearance in NAKED PREY. The gripping conclusion to STOLEN PREY reveals that, like her adopted father, she may exhibit some mild sociopathic tendencies. Any chance we’ll see Letty Davenport play a bigger role in future Prey books?

I don’t think so. I’m a little embarrassed I used her like that, because it doesn’t seem quite real to me. In my books, I want people to read about some event and say, “Okay, that could happen.” In Letty’s shootout, I was afraid too many people would say, “Aw, that wouldn’t happen.” I also think that too many writers use a cop’s family members to get an automatic shot of sympathy, or to justify whatever action the cop is about to take, or whatever…It’s a cliché.

In additional to writing fiction and nonfiction as well as other ventures, you have served as a primary sponsor for the Tel Rehov dig in Israel, the largest ancient Canaanite and Israelite site in the Beth-Shean Valley. What sparked your passion for archeology in the Holy Land?

An intellectual interest in history, and how it gets made and written. I studied American history in college (I majored in American Studies, which combined American history, literature, political science and so on) and continued reading it over the years. Then I read some British history, and then European history, and then the Greeks, and the next thing I know, I’m reading the history books of the Bible. So I went to Greece and looked at some of the places in their history, and then off to the Holy Land, where I traveled to a lot of famous sites like Jerusalem, Masada, The Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and Megiddo (Har Megiddo – or in English, Armageddon.) I found the story of Holy Land archaeology to be compelling, hooked up with a well-known professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and we went from there. The professor, Ami Mazar, and I both trace part of our ancestry back to Vilnius, Lithuania, though my ancestors were Roman Catholics, and his were Jews. We actually look something alike – like Lithuanians, who are sort of intellectual, sexually magnetic Poles. At least, that’s what some people tell me. Lithuanians, mostly.

Roswell, here’s a question for you. How long have you been involved in assisting your father with website and social-networking activities?

I’ve been doing the website as long as websites were around, first as a project so I could learn HTML (this was in the early 90s, when the web barely existed, when Trumpet WinSock was still the preferred internet connection). We got the official domain in 1997, and I’ve maintained it since then. The Facebook / Google+ / Twitter things are new this year, and so I guess I can add “Social Media Manager” to my list of job titles, but it sounds sort of lame.

Has this experience given you a new perspective on your father’s work?

To be honest, I’m a sci-fi / fantasy fan. If he weren’t my father, I probably wouldn’t have read his books because the genre is not at all my thing. As it is, I know all the books inside and out (along with some of the competition), but it’s more like job-related knowledge than anything I do for fun. I’m not a “fan” at all.

Based on what you have learned, what advice would you share about setting up and/or maintaining an author website?

My advice on websites is probably not good, because author websites exist primarily to promote and sell books, and I set mine up originally as an informational resource (again, early days of the web and all that). Keep the currently-selling or up-and-coming book on the main page, but don’t oversell it. Have pages about the author but don’t make them fawning. Be aware of the competition but don’t insult them (just because it’s bad for business; your honest opinions are irrelevant to the business side of things). But, again, that’s my take on things and I wouldn’t say it’s the best business model ever. It may, in fact, be the worst.

Thanks, John and Roswell! It was terrific visiting with you both.


Brett King is an award-winning professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in 2010 and was released in trade paperback in October 2011. NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part DA VINCI CODE, part 24, THE RADIX is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in his series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be published by Thomas & Mercer. King is currently writing his third novel.

To learn more about Brett’s work, please visit his website and his author page on Facebook.

Brett King

Brett King is an award-winning professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, was described by New York Times bestselling author Jeffery Deaver as “A topnotch thriller! Part DA VINCI CODE, part 24, THE RADIX is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in his series, THE FALSE DOOR, will be published in December 2013 by Thomas & Mercer. King recently completed two novellas and is currently writing his third novel. To learn more about Brett’s work, please visit his website and his author page on Facebook.

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