Happy publication day to Karin Salvalaggio! Today sees the launch of her gripping mystery Walleye Junction, the third in a series of mysteries featuring Detective Macy Greeley and set in Montana. She talks to fellow Prime Writer Alison Layland (Someone Else’s Conflict) about the novel and some of the inspiration behind it.
About Walleye Junction:
When outspoken radio talk show host Philip Long is kidnapped and murdered, Detective Macy Greeley leaves her young son in the care of her mother and heads up to remote Walleye Junction, Montana to take charge of the investigation. It is initially believed that Long’s murder is the result of a controversial radio show he’s done on the rise of far right militias in the state. Within days the two kidnappers are found dead following a massive heroin overdose, and the authorities are hopeful the investigation is finished. But there are too many discrepancies for Macy to settle for obvious answers. The kidnapper’s bodies have been moved, their son is on the run and a series of anonymous emails point investigators toward the murky world of prescription painkiller abuse. Macy soon finds herself immersed in small town intrigues as she races to find who’s really responsible for Philip Long’s murder.
Meanwhile, Philip Long’s daughter Emma is dealing with her own problems. It’s been twelve years since she left Walleye Junction after her best friend died from a drug overdose. Emma finds that little in Walleye Junction has changed in her absence. She is also becoming increasingly uneasy as the familiar surroundings stir up memories that are best forgotten.
I love the way your novels have two main threads – the case that forms the central plot, and the underlying issues facing Macy Greeley in her personal life and her relationships with her colleagues, which are cleverly interwoven with her investigations. Are you a meticulous planner, or do aspects of the storyline evolve with the characters?
I don’t plan much ahead of time and I never outline. Macy is the central character in the series and I’ve been working with her for a long time now, so I’m keenly aware of her state of mind when any novel begins but that goes for most of the central characters. Once I have their starting point it’s simply a matter of seeing how they will react to the situations that arise. Those reactions are important, as they are often where the real story lies. While characters sometimes surprise me, I never allow them to act in a way that is counter to their natural abilities. Macy is human, not superhuman. What she has in spades is true grit and determination and I believe that’s what sets her apart. Yes, she gets it wrong sometimes, but she never wallows in self-pity, she learns from her mistakes, adapts and quickly moves on.
In Walleye Junction she’s recently made a lateral career move and is now working as a special investigator for the Justice Department. This is largely due to her ill-fated relationship with her former boss who was once the head of the state police. She’s worried she’s lost the respect of her colleagues and is working flat out to prove herself even though this sometimes undermines her role as a mother and as a girlfriend to Aiden Marsh, a man she began ‘dating’ in Burnt River. I think it’s a credit to Macy’s mother, who takes on the brunt of the childcare, and Aiden Marsh, who changes careers to adapt to Macy’s circumstances, that they both recognise what is at the core of Macy’s personality. This is a woman who should never live in the shadow of any man, be it her son, her lover or her boss.
As well as writing gripping stories and exploring the lives of your characters, you are clearly keen to raise awareness of certain issues in your novels. In Burnt River it was the plight of PTSD-afflicted veterans; in Walleye Junction the plot centres on drug abuse and illegal prescribing by the medical profession. What sparked your interest and how did you research it?
Inspiration for Walleye Junction came from many sources but it was an article I saw in The Atlantic about the rise of heroin abuse in my home state of West Virginia that most sparked my interest. I kept on researching, eventually coming across a lengthy exposé in the LA Times, which specifically examined criminality in the medical profession itself. Both articles listed all their sources. By tracking down these sources I was able to build an accurate picture of the problem. Up until 1999 opiate-based prescription painkillers were only prescribed to post-operative patients and those suffering from cancer. They are as highly addictive as their street cousin heroin and yet the US government neglected its duty of care and caved in to lobbyists. The pharmaceutical companies flooded the markets with Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycodone to name but a few of the lethal derivatives. Financial kickbacks pushed doctors to take on so-called patients who ‘shopped’ multiple surgeries for the same drugs to feed their addiction or sell on the streets. Pill mills in Florida sold prescriptions online. At their peak in 2007, pill mills accounted for 47 million of the 53 million Oxycodone doses prescribed. Deaths from overdoses are more common than car crash fatalities; entire families and communities have been wiped out; and now that the source is drying up and drug treatment programs are scarce, people are turning to heroin in droves. Elected officials, pharmaceutical companies and medical institutions have been grossly negligent and yet very few people are going to jail. This makes me incredibly angry. It takes a great deal of willpower to write a full-length novel. Rage makes me type faster.
That anger and desire for justice certainly shows through. In this context, I particularly liked the portrayal of the so-called pillars of this tightly knit community. Small-town life, as well as the vividly-described Montana landscape against a backdrop of the Whitefish Range mountains, are an essential part of the novel. You live in the UK now but Montana obviously means a lot to you. Which do you feel is home? Do you revisit the US to write?
Lately I’ve been giving this a great deal of thought. I’ve lived in the UK for almost half my life and my children were born here.I’ll never be fully British but this feels more like home now. When I visit the states I feel like an outsider. I have to read US based newspapers, follow American authors and watch US produced films and television programs to stay abreast of what’s happening over there. When I write about small towns in Montana it sometimes feels like I’m doing it through a very long lens. At times this works well, like Macy I am an outsider but the constant striving for authenticity is exhausting and there’s only so many trips to Montana I can afford to take. It seems I’m destined to live in limbo; one foot firmly set in nostalgia-tinted America and the other here in London. Once I’m finished writing the 4th book in the series I will try my hand at a standalone set here in the UK. I’m looking forward to a new challenge.
Your novels, Bone Dust White, Burnt River and now Walleye Junction are part of a series, although each can be read independently. What do you think are the pros and cons of writing a series, compared with a standalone novel?
I’ve never written a standalone so I’m not sure I can answer your question fully, but I do have some hard won wisdom I’d like to impart with regards to writing a series.
Location, Location, Location
I’ve set my novels in a place I do not live. This makes life tricky. I want to be authentic but I can’t be in two places at once. I travel to Montana as often as possible but that’s no substitute for actually living there. To get around this I set the novels in fictional towns but keep the geographical locations real. This gives me scope to fudge things a bit. Without this scope my creative drive would suffer enormously as I’d have to be constantly fact checking. So, if you’re embarking on a series make sure you know your location well and that location has enough opportunities for you to create good stories. There are always ways to liven things up. My main character Macy Greeley never works in the same town. As a state-wide investigator, she’s assigned to mainly rural law enforcement agencies as and when she is needed. With each book there is a new community, supporting cast and landscape. Even the seasons change! Bone Dust White was set in winter; Burnt River, summer; and Walleye Junction, spring. The forthcoming and tentatively entitled Silent Rain is set in autumn.
Oh, why oh why did I give Macy a child to look after? I love little Luke to bits, but I constantly have to make sure he’s cared for. Macy’s childcare issues are therefore my childcare issues. Yes, this gives her character more depth but I’ve had to work as hard as she does to find some semblance of balance. Single motherhood is something I’m keenly familiar with so I am hugely sympathetic, but when I have to drop my plotline so Macy has the required ‘mummy time; I can’t help but feel frustrated. So, be careful going into a series. If you give your characters lots of baggage you will have to carry it with you in every single one of your books. Macy can’t erase her affair with her married boss with whom she had a son, a man who is now serving time in prison no less. Sadly, both she and I are going to have to deal with the ramifications of that failed romance until the series ends. With each book I have to explain Luke’s paternity and fill in Macy’s backstory as best I can without slowing down the momentum. This is tricky when your character is carrying a lot of baggage so pack lightly and remember to remove all sharp objects.
And, finally, will we be seeing more of Macy Greeley in future?
Yes, there’s at least one more book in the series though I’m hoping for more. The fourth instalment Silent Rain will be published in May 2017. Instead of heading north to the Flathead Valley, Macy’s assistance is required in Bolton, a thriving college town that is located further south toward Wyoming. The book reintroduces Grace Adams, a central character from Bone Dust White. While she’s matured since Macy first interviewed her in Collier 3 years earlier, Grace has not been able to shed her past and is forced to deal with a series of stalkers fascinated with her association with the crimes that took place in her hometown. When a best selling author, with a weakness for women half his age, turns up murdered in his fire ravaged home, Macy comes into contact with Grace once again. It turns out that a lot of people wanted him dead, Grace included. It’s up to Macy to sort through the evidence. There are lots of twists and turns and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to nail the surprise ending. Watch this space!
I look forward to it! But first and foremost, I hope readers will enjoy Walleye Junction as much as I did.