P.J. Parrish Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

P.J. Parrish

P.J. Parrish

An interview with P.J. Parrish

Why the pseudonym? Reading "About the Author" -- which so artfully avoided any gender references -- had me thinking "P.J." is a female who feels (or for whom research proved) that male authors sell better. -- Peg Snyder.
I am, indeed, a woman. Or to be more precise, two women (we are sisters who collaborate) and it was pretty much an editorial decision: not enough room on a cover for two names and a title. So we decided to use a nom de plume. As for it being "neuter," that, too, was calculated. Male authors do not sell "better" but unfortunately, there is lingering bias among some, shall we say, less enlightened readers. Indeed, I have had people at signings tell me "I don't read women." It's extremely difficult to break into the competitive mystery genre and our editors also felt that given the gritty, realistic tone of our stories, our books might find a broader audience if readers did not have any preconceived notions of "male" versus "female" books. As an avid mystery reader, you undoubtedly know there are countless wonderful women crime novelists, most of whom have equal male-female audiences. (My own current fave is Minette Walters). Quite a few women who use pseudonyms or initials. (Check out S.J Rozan, author of the Edgar-winning Bill Smith-Lydia Chin series.) Who knows...maybe someday my mail won't come addressed to "Mr. Parrish."

How does your collaboration work? I would think it is hard to have two different minds and styles at work in the same story. -- Ann Crisman.
This is Kristy answering here. Oddly enough, it works very smoothly, even though we live in different states. The hardest part of writing a mysteries is the intense plotting work (leaving the bread crumb trial, I call it) and Kelly and I spend a great deal of time on the phone simply working out story details. Then we give each other "assignments" (like "you take the medical examiner scene in chapter 4, I'll go back and redo the dialogue at the crime scene in 3"). The chapters whiz back and forth in cyberspace over AOL and about once a year we meet face to face for some hardcore work. (We're heading to Fort Myers this month to soak up atmosphere for book three). We have found that we both have strengths we can play to. Kelly is excellent at plotting; I'm good at character development and description. (Kelly's first attempt at fiction at age 10 was "The Kill"; mine was "The Cat Who Understood." Nothing has changed.) When one of us gets stuck, we will lateral to the other. With the pressure in genre writing to produce a book a year, we are grateful for two brains. We also have been able to settle on a style that is a blend of both of our voices. We've always gotten along well as sibs, so the ego thing is not an issue. We seem to be able to tell each other when something stinks. So what you are getting is not a solo but harmony. Hey, it worked for Lennon and McCartney....

I read a lot of mysteries and I think Louis Kincaid is one of the most appealing characters to come along in a long time. Did you base him on a real person? And why did you decide to make him so young and of mixed race?

Louis was inspired by Kelly's great-granddaughters, Charlotte and Jackie, who are biracial. We were interested in exploring the impact of growing up biracial in today's society where race continues to be a polarizing issue. Louis, as he himself has said, "walks in two worlds," which gives him a unique perspective. As for his youth (he is 25 in "Dead of Winter") we wanted to create a cop who was not experienced and already jaded. (Too many of those in the genre already, we think!) He is still idealistic about law enforcement and has much to learn about his chosen job, the world and himself. In plotting our books, we try very hard to weave Louis's character development into the action. Louis learns something about himself through his experiences, just as we all do.

Your books have a strong sense of place. How do you pick the locations you write about?

A. We were born and raised in the Michigan and spent summers around the Houghton Lake and Mio area, the site of the fictitious town of Loon Lake. Kelly also went to college in the Upper Peninsula. So it was natural to have Louis raised in Michigan by his foster parents. We both love the remote beauty of "up north," as Michiganders call it, and the cold isolation of winter there seemed a perfect place for a story about death -- literally and figuratively. As for Mississippi (where the first book takes place), Kelly has lived there for many years and was fascinated by the haunted feeling there. It is a state that has made tremendous strides in overcoming its past yet still is plagued by its ghosts. The third Louis Kincaid book will have Louis relocating to the Gulf coast of Florida, another "small town" atmospheric locale. (Despite Louis's ambitions, we don't see him as a big-city cop) .

How important is research in your books?

Research is vital to any writer of mystery or suspense. Readers are incredibly savvy today about police procedure (thanks to TV shows like Law and Order and CSI, the new drama about a forensics detection unit.) If you get even a small detail wrong, readers will catch it. We have cultivated police sources who can back us up for accuracy, and almost anything can be found on the internet (from diagrams of wound profiles to virtual autopsies). There are also some great police resource books available to laymen -- gruesome but valuable. That said, we still get tripped up from time to time -- as our readers nice enough to point out. In Dead of Winter for instance, we have Louis hearing the a loon's call. As one of our Michigan readers point out, loons need open water and the birds migrate in winter. We used to vacation in northern Michigan as kids but never in winter so were wrong on the bird thing. (Maybe Louis, having one too many that night, heard them in his head? I think not.) Details, details, details...but still very important.

Why did you decide to set your books in the early 1980s instead of the present?

For one very simple reason. We wanted a more "old fashioned" feel to the procedures Louis uses to solve his mysteries and to get this we felt we had to go back to pre-DNA days. The advent of DNA testing has drastically changed law enforcement and the judicial system in recent years (in the last decade, DNA testing has uncovered proof that 65 innocent people have been sent to prison and death row). Also, in the early 80s criminal profiling was still dismissed as a pseudo-science. As the Louis Kincaid series progresses, we plan to deal with these exciting new tools. In fact, the third Louis book, which we are now working on, will feature a young female FBI "profiler," whom Louis, as a "traditional" cop has trouble accepting at first.

About Louis Kincaid

Louis Kincaid was born in Blackpool, Mississippi, on Nov. 18, 1959. (For you astrologists, that makes him a Scorpio with a Libra rising; his mercury is in Aries, which accounts for his love of police work). He is six foot, 160 pounds, with light-brown skin and gray eyes. He drives a rather beat-up 1965 white Mustang, and his tastes in music tend to run to rhythm and blues as well as classic rock 'n' roll. He is the reluctant owner of a stray cat named Issy, which he usually just calls "the cat."

His mother was Lila Louis Coleman, who was a young black woman from Blackpool. His father was a white drifter, Jordan Kincaid, who deserted Lila soon after Louis was born. Louis has two older siblings, a half-sister named Yolanda, and a half-brother named Robert. Lila died in 1984 from cirrhosis of the liver, but no one knows the whereabouts of Jordan Kincaid. Because of the pressures of the small town atmosphere, Lila decided to give Louis up to foster care at age 8. He was taken to Michigan, where, after a series of foster homes, he went to live with Phillip and Francis Lawrence in suburban Detroit. He grew up in the care of the white couple, coming to love them as the parents he never knew. Although he attempted to find his siblings, he was never able to track them down.

Louis attended University of Michigan, where he lettered in track, getting a degree in pre-law in 1980. But influenced by childhood memories of police he had seen in his neighborhood and on TV (especially the Detroit race riots of the 60s), he decided to go to the police academy. He graduated in 1981 and applied to his dream job, the Detroit Police Department. But with city cutbacks at hand, he was forced to accept a job with the Ann Arbor (Mich.) police force. He qualified as "expert" on the gun range, but saw only routine action. In December, 1983, he received news through a distant relative in Mississippi that his mother was dying. Although he had not seen her in nearly 20 years, he took a leave of absence and returned to Blackpool.

There, he took a temporary position with the small sheriff's department led by Sheriff Sam Dodie. After his mother's death, his return to Michigan was postponed by his involvement in the case to identify the decades-old remains of a lynching victim (the case is detailed in Dark of The Moon). He endures a near-hanging himself and an gunshot wound before he identifies the victim as Eugene Graham, a young black man who had disappeared from Blackpool 25 years ago. Louis also testified in federal court in the trial of the deputy who attempted to hang him, Larry Cutter.

Louis returned to Michigan in February of 1984 only to find his job with the Ann Arobor force frozen in budgets cuts. After an idle period, he accepted a low-paying position with the 8-man police force in Loon Lake, a northern Michigan resort town. There, he became entangled in a complex and violent case involving a man bent on avenging the deaths of his children by assassinating the Loon Lake cops. (detailed in Dead of Winter). Louis also falls in love with Zoe Devereaux, an artist. But the affair fell apart under the pressure of the case. Zoe went back to Chicago, accidentally leaving behind her cat, Isolde. Louis reluctantly adopted the cat and renamed it Issy.

In March, 1985, Louis received a call from his ex-boss Sam Dodie, who retired to Sereno Key, on Florida's southern gulf coast. Broke and with no job prospects in Michigan, Louis accepted Dodie's offer to work as a private investigator on a murder case in Sereno Key. (detailed in the third Louis Kincaid novel, still in the works).

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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