Lee Killough: Killer Cross-Genre
Vampires and werewolves and -- a thoroughly male, future cop named Mama? Oh my, that cast of characters could only derive from the books of Lee Killough, the queen of science fiction and fantasy police procedurals.
Killough discovered mysteries and science fiction at age 11, the year she finished reading all the horse stories at her local library. She started writing shortly afterwards, terrified that she would soon run out of books to love. Her affection for both genres -- and the police shows she watched on her parents' TV -- made it natural to combine the elements of mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, years before cross-genre stories became fashionable. Her angsty vampire cop, Garreth Mikaelian, predates Forever Knight's Nicholas Knight by nearly a decade. This month, Killough's Killer Karma introduces a new kind of detective -- Cole Dunavan, dead guy -- and sets him the task of solving a double murder…as a ghost.
Crescent Blues: Part of the fun of Killer Karma is watching Cole Dunavan adjust to his "condition" -- almost like a superhero coming into his powers. How did you decide which abilities he would have and how he would be able to use them?
Lee Killough: As I did with my vampire and werewolves, I first made a list of "traditional" characteristics. What do people expect of ghosts? Then I kept what looked fun to play with and best served the story. For example: cold spots are associated with ghosts. That makes sense if heat from the air is an energy source fueling the ghost's existence. I liked the idea and used it for Cole. Going a step farther for the story, while ordinary activity needs nothing more than room heat, anything as difficult as materializing into a visible image has to require much more. So Cole's search for a heat source let me walk him through fire, and imagine how the heat in an internal combustion engine feels. Once I picked what traditional characteristics to use and worked up logic to explain them -- i.e., the cold -- or put my own spin, then I added whatever else seemed necessary to make the character work.
Early on I decided to make ghost abilities basically mental. After all, it's thought in the shape of hate, unresolved problems, etc., that supposedly keeps spirits on earth. They exist because they want or need to. The mental aspect shaped Cole's interaction with the material world. He comes with a mind set from life. Surfaces feel solid to the touch because they've always been so before, and walls and doors are impenetrable. He has to overcome that and realize solidity is just in his head. Once he does, he can turn around and imagine a solid surface anywhere he wants one. The mind-set-from-life also determines how he moves in the world. Until he works out the mental trick for short cuts, travel requires him to go through the motion of walking or running. His freedom from gravity let me have fun walking him up walls and across ceilings. I decided against floating objects ala Topper because 1), I couldn't accept someone who's immaterial picking up material objects, and 2), if he can't page through records and such, he has another obstacle to overcome. Materializing is a mental effort, too.
Writing rules say to engage as many of the reader's senses as possible. But in Killer Karma the reader experiences the world as Cole does, which is pretty much just through sound and sight. I thought hard about what physical sensations a ghost might logically have. Of course, I needed him to see and hear, and since he doesn't have "real" eyes and ears, I didn't let darkness restrict his vision, and he can hear beyond human limits. But if he has to see objects in order to touch their surfaces, is there any real tactile sense? I decided no. The impression of touch is there but without texture; silk "feels" no different from brick. Pain? Mental, yes, of course; but physical, no. I decided against taste and scent, too. Depriving him of them cuts him off from a rich sensory source and emphasizes that he's just an observer of this world, no longer part of it.
Crescent Blues: What first attracted you to the idea of combining elements of police procedurals, science fiction and fantasy?
Lee Killough: The answer I usually give people is that combining them meant I didn't have to choose between writing mysteries or SF. And while that's true, maybe it's more accurate to say that they naturally converged. Maybe it was inevitable. I discovered both SF and mysteries at age 11 because my home town library shelved them next to each other, and since the library didn't bar me from checking out adult books, I read from both sections. So [science fiction and mysteries] always had an association in my mind. Books like Asimov's Caves of Steel reinforced that. From the beginning I also had a preference for mysteries with cop heroes...thanks to the police dramas my family watched on TV -- Dragnet, Naked City, Highway Patrol. At 15 I wrote a little story where the villain used a matter transmitter to send himself to the locked laboratory, commit murder, and go back to where he came from, a hemisphere away. Giving himself a supposedly perfect alibi.
The first published crossover, Doppelganger Gambit, came about because I'd been reading some of Joseph Wambaugh's books and started speculating what future police work might be like. It struck me as a perfect combination. Mystery provided a plot. SF let me make up gadgets and think of new ways to do someone in. Later, when I became fascinated by Fred Saberhagen's version of Dracula and thought, yeah, why can't a vampire be a good guy...and what would a real vampire be like? mystery again gave me a plot framework. Then when I wanted to do werewolves, I made it another procedural because I was tickled by the idea of ordinary people walking around unaware that they were being protected by their nightmares.
Crescent Blues: Speaking of your werewolves, Wilding Nights has a different take on shapeshifting. How did that come about?
Lee Killough: The clothes question always bothered me. Transforming ripped them up, or they had to be discarded, so the individual returned to human form naked. That just seemed so inconvenient. There had to be a better way. So I came up with the idea of an energy field creating the perception of a transformation. Once I hit on that, though, it seemed incompatible with the traditional means of becoming a werewolf. It made more sense for these shapechangers to be born with the ability to access this higher level of energy. Developing that thought eventually led to making the volke a branch of hominids that did not die out when Cro-magnons came along, but survived by passing as humans. But not before competition for territory and resources left humans with hatred and fear of the volke. To explain why they continue hiding their nature, I made them a small minority...and condemned to remain so because their evolutionary penalty for being superb predators is a low birthrate.
Crescent Blues: Your acknowledgments make it plain that you check the mundane details of police work with professionals. How hard was it to find cops willing to read outside the box?
Lee Killough: Not hard at all, but it helped that I didn't have to hunt for an officer reader and ask cold. From Doppelganger Gambit to Bloodlinks, I'd gotten by on reading extensively about police work and pumping a couple of campus cops I knew and other officers I met at SF cons. With the Brill/Maxwell books being set in the future and Deadly Silents on an alien world, I felt free to make up stuff and not sweat details. It succeeded well enough that an officer at one con asked how long I'd worked in law enforcement.
When I started Blood Games, though, the details worried me. It had been over ten years since I'd written a procedural. So I enrolled in our local Citizens Police Academy course -- a program many cities have and which I highly recommend for anyone who wants a good inside look at police work. During the course I met a number of officers, one of them an aspiring writer himself. In return for help with his own writing, he vetted Blood Games and, later, Wilding Nights. Since he was in Iraq when I needed a reader for Killer Karma, I turned to the officer in charge of the Citizens Academy. He knew what I write. After Blood Games came out, I gave him a copy as thanks for a valuable experience. He'd dropped me a note later saying that while leery when starting the book, he ended up thoroughly enjoying it. So I had no qualms asking if he would go through Killer Karma, and he had no qualms about doing so.
Crescent Blues: Beyond checking the facts and plausibility of the novels, what are some of the ways your police sources contribute to the stories? For example, how did former detective Jeff Stratton contribute to the character of Cole Dunavan?
Lee Killough: I use or adapt war stories they've told me. Calls I've heard on my police scanner provide inspiration for bits in the books. The police magazine I subscribe to keeps me up to date on technology that's available...though not necessarily affordable for many departments. Hanging around officers lets me observe the walk and talk, which I can then use in my police characters. Giving him a different name, I cast my detective reader as a pair of twins working for the Lincoln Police Department. And I've used the last names of other officers I know for bit-part officers.
Jeff Stratton, now...you could say made an honest cop of Cole Dunavan. Originally Cole was the ghost of a dirty cop, cursed by the mother of a man he faked evidence against, forced to remain on earth until he atoned for his wrongs (good for several books, I thought). But my agent didn't like the idea of a dirty cop, and I realized I didn't really feel comfortable with it, either. What to do.
Then I remembered that on the DorothyL mystery list, author Gene Stratton posted about his son as part of a thread on police personalities. He described his son as completely honest, happily married, and a thinking man who read a great deal. But who had begun his police career gung-ho...always the first man in when they cornered a suspect. He wasn't the kind to back down. When his size made taller, heavier suspects think he couldn't arrest them, the fight would be on. He gave as good as he got, and it landed him in a full body cast several times. "His department took him off the street and made him a detective because it was easier on their budget," Gene wrote.
Aha! Obsession can land someone in as much trouble as corruption. I changed Cole into an obsessed cop, borrowing bits of former detective Stratton, as described by his father. I sent an [advance readers copy] to Gene to pass on to his son. I haven't yet heard what either of them think.
Crescent Blues: Who or what served as the inspiration for future cop Mama Maxwell?
Lee Killough: A Lou Gossett, Jr., role in a movie called The Laughing Detective. I don't remember much else about the movie, except that it's set in San Francisco and starred Walter Matthau, but the Gossett character sank into my subconscious. For Doppelganger Gambit I wanted a mis-matched pair of detectives. I'd made Janna Brill a tough, by the book female, so I her partner needed to be as opposite as possible. This character leaped instantly to mind. Shortly afterwards I realized where he came from...I've never figured out the name's origin. He just arrived named Mama and left me to come up with a reason for it. Interestingly, though I never mention the name Lou Gossett in the books, Mama's description must be enough. The cover artists always draw him as Gossett.
Crescent Blues: African-American legends and culture form another important thread in your SF and fantasy. What prompted you to mine African legends for Leopard's Daughter?
Lee Killough: Marion Zimmer Bradley had announced an anthology called Swords and Sorceresses. She wanted stories with female warriors. In trying to think of something different to write about, it struck me that I didn't remember anyone using African characters. Could there be female warriors in Africa? Research told me there had been, and once I started reading about ancient Africa, it hooked me. Though Bradley didn't buy the story, Asimov's Magazine did, and later I realized it would make a good first chapter for a book. Leopard's Daughter was such a kick to research and write, and is one of my books that I'm particularly fond of. Though interestingly, I've never felt moved to use the setting and character again.
Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga stories draw on Africa. It's too bad more authors don't. They're ignoring a whole rich range of cultures, legends, monsters, chivalry, poetry, sagas. The quest was a traditional form of story, just as it is in modern sword and sorcery fantasy, and like our fantasies the hero is a noble or discovers he's of noble birth. I used that form for Leopard's Daughter, thinking it would help readers connect to the African setting and characters. Unfortunately it didn't. The book sold miserably. But I'm happy to say that it may have another chance, in a small way. The independent publisher Yard Dog Press is reprinting it next year. And this time I'll have actual Africans on the cover.
Crescent Blues: Fiction should know no boundaries, but preconceptions remain. Do your readers ever express surprise when they meet you in person?
Lee Killough: I haven't encountered that in the past decade, but for a few years after the Brill/Maxwell books started coming out, people meeting my late husband and me at conventions assumed Pat was Lee Killough. One guy refused to believe I was. A friend reported hearing the guy say, "No woman could have written Janna Brill."
Lee Killough: I'd have to say that my werewolves have more fun. They're born as they are and happy with their nature. They pity us weak and sensory-handicapped humans. Garreth Mikaelian is stuck with all that angst. He hates being a vampire and thinks being human was a happier time. He needs to get over it...or maybe I should focus the next vampire book on Raven. She's more at ease with what she's become. Even though being an accessory to the murder of a police officer does make her a fugitive for life.
Crescent Blues: Who's more fun to write?
Lee Killough: They're both fun. But the werewolves have a little edge...if only because I've just begun playing with them. There's still plenty to explore. It's almost a shame that Killer Karma is a one-off. Cole was really fun to work with. My late husband used to say that I write novels so I'll have an excuse to world-build. And he was right. I do love it.
Crescent Blues: How did the details of Garreth Mikaelian and Allison Goodnight's respective universes shape your vision of vampires and werewolves? Alternatively, did your vision shape the details, or did the characters and stories grow in a different way entirely?
Lee Killough: My vision of vampires and werewolves came first. Once I worked out their rules and details about their existence, I fitted them into our world as unsuspected sub-cultures.
Crescent Blues: Who or what first inspired you to write?
Lee Killough: Fear. But before I explain, I need to tell you that years of storytelling came first, born -- laugh if you want -- of my bedtime. In the summer it was still light outside at the official lights out. But there my sister and I lay, stuck in bed, and not a bit sleepy yet. To pass the time, I started making up stories for her...based on our official bedtime story at first, then later influenced by comic books and radio and TV shows. I didn't start actually writing until after I discovered SF and mysteries, then fear drove me to it. I found those books because I'd run out of horse stories. Now I had terrifying visions of running out of SF and mysteries, too. The only way to prevent that, I decided, was to write my own.
Crescent Blues: How did popular culture (movies, TV, etc.) figure into the mix?
Lee Killough: They fed my storytelling. Once I had the habit, I used the characters from my favorite radio and TV series in the stories. Yes...way back then radio still broadcast shows like Sky King, Wild Bill Hicock, The Lone Ranger, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. For a while they were both radio and TV series. With careful timing, I could watch Wild Bill Hickok at the home of a friend who had a TV, then race home in time to listen to different episode on radio. To bridge the interminable wait until next week's episode, I'd make up a Wild Bill story of my own. Or of whatever series was my favorite at the moment.
Crescent Blues: How have your sources of inspiration changed over time?
Lee Killough: TV stopped being a factor once I starting writing to avoid the No More SF/Mystery doom. I switched to being influenced by the books I read. After a C.L. Moore book, I'd try a Northwest Smith or Jirel of Joiry type story. Read Murray Leinster and I'd do space opera. They were all very derivative, or course...but I was a kid, and it did let me experiment with a range of writing styles until I fell into a style of my own. The stories grow out of something I've read in a paper or magazine, an overheard remark, a mental snapshot of a scene...or me sitting down and thinking: What can I do to Garreth next?
Not that other authors have stopped influencing me. My Aventine stories grew out of my love of J.G.Ballard's Vermillion Sands stories. While writing Doppelganger Gambit, once in a while I'd ask myself how Joseph Wambaugh would handle a certain scene or character. Most recently, my fascination with Simon Greene's Nightside stories has influenced a new plot I'm trying to work out. I also study writers I admire to see how I can use their techniques to improve my own writing.
Crescent Blues: How has the Internet affected your writing habits?
Lee Killough: It's increased my writing time by letting me do research right there at my desk. So far I've avoided falling into the lure of surfing. Mostly. I log on with a specific objective in mind, then I'm off again and back to writing. It's definitely wonderful being able to check facts in the middle of a chapter at two in the morning, or look up information the library can't have...such as 360 degree city cam shots of Union Square or Embarcadero Center in San Francisco.
When I walk through library for a committee meeting of the mystery convention we're putting together, I feel a stab of guilt for how rarely I'm in there anymore. The Internet is so much more convenient. Sometimes I think about Asimov's The Naked Sun and worry that I'm becoming like those people, a hermit closed up in my own little world. On the other hand, e-mail keeps me in contact with more people than I would ever manage by regular correspondence.
Crescent Blues: How did you and Meisha Merlin discover each other?
Lee Killough: Well...actually...I'm one of the two reasons Stephen Pagel started Meisha Merlin. The other is Storm Constantine. Stephen wanted to bring Storm's books to this country, and he wanted to see mine, which he loved, back in print. He grew up in Wichita, so through science fiction conventions, he and I have known each other for mumble-mumble years. Back then he was a clerk at the local Barnes & Noble. I helped see him off to New York to manage B&Ns there, cheered for him becoming their national SF and fantasy buyer, and cheered again when he moved on to White Wolf and won awards for his Bending The Landscape anthologies. Meisha Merlin's first year I sat behind their table at DragonCon with the art director Kevin Murphy and tried to spread out copies of two publications, my Bloodwalk and a chapbook by Storm, to look like a full table. Now they've been given Robert Heinlein's Virginia Collection to publish. Amazing. They've come a long way.
Crescent Blues: What's next for your fans' favorite series characters?
Lee Killough: I'm sorry to admit that there's nothing in the works at the moment. I'd love to do another werewolf book but, frankly, Wilding Nights' sales figures don't warrant it. If all you readers out there would buy the book and demand a sequel, I have material for one. Garreth Mikaelian is going to have to go some new direction but I haven't found it yet. I'm not comfortable with the erotic tone in so many of the other vampire books out there. So...I'll have to see.
Crescent Blues: What are you working on then? Could you, please, give our readers a teaser?
Lee Killough: Since Cole Dunavan was so much fun, I thought I'd play with ghosts some more. Different ghosts, different approach. Until everything gels, I don't know if it will be another one-off or the beginning of a series. I'd like the latter. Assuming the current idea does turn into a book. With that caveat...consider...everyone's familiar with the idea that ghosts are created by a violent death or unquiet spirit. But what if that applies to cities as well? Say...San Francisco, traumatized by the 1906 Quake. Add vengeful spirits from the Barbary Coast days and foggy noir sections born of images that movies have created in the mass consciousness of the world, and the ghost could be a dangerous place to stumble into. Someone could leave much more than his heart. A few people might know their way around the ghost city, though. Such as a guy at ease with ghosts because he's grown up among those of prostitutes who died in his building during its brothel years. Stay tuned for further developments.
Crescent Blues: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we forgot to ask? Soap boxes provided free of charge.
Lee Killough: Everything I can think of right now is covered. Except...thank you for the visit. It's been fun talking to you. And let me close with the words of one of my favorite people in the world, author and Yard Dog Press editor Selena Rosen: BUY MY BOOKS!
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