By Steph Cha
M. P. Cooley is having a good summer, thanks to a frosty winter thriller of a debut novel. ICE SHEAR launched just last week, to much praise and fanfare, including a nod from the one and only Oprah (it was listed as one of the best reads of this summer by O, the Oprah Magazine). The novel, per a starred review in Publishers Weekly, offers a “strong, fast-paced narrative and an intriguing heroine” as well as a plot that encompasses “politics, a burgeoning meth industry, and biker gangs.” It features glittering ice and lots of bad people, and you know you’ve been missing your fictional meth fix since the end of Breaking Bad.
It’s been a busy week in Cooley’s corner, but she was nice enough to sit down with THE BIG THRILL and answer some questions:
Congratulations on your new book! How does it feel? Did you do anything fun to celebrate?
It feels wonderful. I’m writing a series, and it’s easy to get caught up in the next target and the next deadline. I try to celebrate the milestones in small ways, but for my publication day I had a huge party and book launch!
What’s been the most exciting part of the process?
Finding my people, definitely. My agent Lisa Gallagher and I bonded over our love of the same crime writers. A passionate belief in female heroes who are strong yet vulnerable led to long discussions with Rachel Kahan, my editor, and was one of the main reasons I signed with Morrow. And conferences are incredible, meeting readers and writers who are as passionate about crime writing as I am.
It sounds like you’ve had all kinds of jobs. Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to writing? When did you manage to bang out a manuscript?
I’ve always been a book person, and for years I worked in professional publishing, doing tax, law, and accounting. While that is at the far opposite end of publishing crime fiction, it is still filled with people who are passionate about books. A boyfriend I dated back then said, “You and all your editor friends think all the answers are in books, and if you have a problem, it’s just that you haven’t read the right book.” To which I responded, “Well, yeah.”
But that didn’t leave me with a lot of mental energy for writing myself, so I got a job at a nonprofit. It’s hard work, but it uses different brain cells from editing. I’m not a person who can do that two-hour-a-day method of writing, since it takes me about forty-five minutes to get into the writing zone, so I carve out one day on the weekend and two evenings a week to dedicate to writing, and of course add days, especially around deadlines.
ICE SHEAR follows a cop through a twisty murder investigation—how much research did you have to do to write about police work comfortably?
Tons, including ride-alongs with a small town cop, conversations with lots of local, state and federal law enforcement, and enlisting two police officers to read the whole thing. The readers caught the procedural points, but also the small details, from how June would approach a drugged out suspect to interrogation tips. All of them were insistent that police had better have a life and death reason to pull their gun. I argued with them about a scene where some bikers were going to riot—it seemed like a situation that required a gun—but they talked me out of that, too.
Researching the outlaw bikers was interesting. A lot of them have day jobs and families—its not all drug running and weapons. They really care about “please” and “thank you,” although threatening to kill a guy for failing to say “thank you” for a beer is huge misinterpretation of Ms. Manners. And in their mind, the reason they’re targeted by police is not their illegal activity, but rather because the police and are jealous of the freedom and brotherhood they have.
I had a bit of luck in one area of research: A group of bikers started coming into the coffee shop where I do my writing every Thursday night—definitely an unlikely biker hangout. We started talking one evening, and they told me that they were The Saints and Sinners, a sober biker gang. A lot of them had been part of the Bandidos or Hell’s Angels, but the drinking, drugs, and general mayhem became too much for them. But it’s not like they could just leave, they had to go through a brutal beating, and if they lived through that, were stripped of their patches. One guy described the time after as his “time in the desert,” cut off from friends and family. What they told me became the basis of the character Marty.
The kick-off corpse in your book is a young woman impaled on an actual ice shear in the fictional town of Hopewell Falls in upstate New York. You spent years in that part of the country before moving (correctly) to California. I take it you don’t like the cold? (And feel free to comment here on the role of setting in your book, as well as in crime fiction in general.)
I spent most of my childhood in upstate New York, and when I started this book I was a little homesick. Fall in New York is gorgeous, and I felt nostalgic for the idea of snow, although had no desire to go back to digging out my car and navigating tricky roads. The wintry setting plays a big part in both the crime and its aftermath, but also reflects that place that June finds herself at the beginning of the book, frozen over, and cut off from a lot of the world by grief.
In so many of the best books, the setting is almost a character in itself. Hopewell Falls is fictional, but it has qualities that you see in a lot of former mill towns in the region, where Main Street is empty and most of the employment is service jobs that don’t pay. And to me, it reflects who June is. It may look like it is past its glory days, but there is a streak of something solid and right in June and in these towns, and while June would never describe herself this way, there is heroism. In addition to the everyday heroes, I was also interested in everyday villains. Most of June’s suspects are people who she knows, strong, kind people who help their neighbors—including June—in their time of need.
Who are your literary inspirations, overt or otherwise?
I was an English major, and developed a real appreciation for Frederick Busch. He writes about upstate New York quite a bit, and his language is direct and elegant. I rarely pull off elegant, but as an author I like to disappear behind the story, which in my opinion should be front and center. When I was in high school I read Sue Grafton, and had an “I want to write books like this!” moment, but also fell in love with Kinsey Milhone, damaged but doing the right thing. After that I looked for crime novels that had strong female leads. Laura Lippman’s books were a big influence, and I really admire Jeff Abbott. His pacing and use of language are pitch perfect, and I love going on an adventure with his everyman heroes.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Andrew Gross’s EVERYTHING TO LOSE, and I’m in the middle of Rachel Howzell Hall’s LAND OF SHADOWS. My reward for finishing my second book will be Karin Slaughter’s COP TOWN. The glimpses she gave us of female cops in the seventies in CRIMINAL were riveting, and I can’t wait to dig in.
A native of upstate New York, M.P. Cooley currently lives in Campbell, California. She studied literature at Barnard College, and went on to work in tax and law publishing, acquiring business, accounting, and economics books. Currently, she works in administration at a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley. This is her first novel.
To learn more about M.P. Cooley, please visit her website.