It's one of the reasons I love being a writer, interviewing people famous and not, and writing articles. Whether it's getting to know a different side of a celebrity (I prefer to uncover cool, universal and positive things we can learn, rather than hidden secret controversies), or learning about someone who is lesser known but well worth reading about.
So thanks for letting me share more about some cool authors with you here via Crime Watch and the 9mm series. I hope you enjoy the interviews, and find some things you connect with along the way. Today, for the 76th instalment of 9mm (now we're rolling again!), I'm pleased to share my recent interview with Canadian military historian and mystery novelist Mark Zuehlke.
As I mentioned in a Crime Fiction Alphabet post (Z is for Zuehlke) back in 2010, I first became aware of Mark Zuehlke when I saw him at a Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Awards evening at the Vancouver Public Library in early 2008. My partner and I were staying with a friend in the city as a month-long stopover from our yearlong round-the-world travels. I'd fluked upon a notice about the evening when I'd been at the library earlier that week; the shortlists for the 2008 Arthur Ellis Awards were being announced, and several highly-regarded British Columbia-based mystery writers would be in attendance, including William Deverell, and Zuehlke (neither of whom I'd heard of before that evening) - both previous winners.
Zuehlke is a former journalist who has turned his hand to writing acclaimed non-fiction works delving into Canadian military history, and an award-winning mystery series starring Vancouver Island coroner Elias McCann. His first of three mysteries starring McCann, HANDS LIKE CLOUDS, won the 2001 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, and this was the book I managed to get my hands on a week after I met Zuehlke - coincidentally purchased from a great little bookstore near Victoria, on Vancouver Island.
When I spoke with Zuehlke by email recently, he mentioned that he was contemplating bringing McCann back in a new novel at some point. Fingers crossed that's the case, as it is an intriguing series. In the meantime, he now stares down the barrel of 9mm.
1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
I keep coming back to Dave Robicheaux in the long-running series penned by American author James Lee Burke. This series inspired some of my approach with Elias McCann. The rich atmosphere of the Louisiana Bayou providing the kind of setting texture that I wanted to evoke in descriptions of Vancouver Island’s west coast. Elias and Robicheaux are very different characters, the bayou differs vastly from the rain forest and stormswept beaches of west coast Vancouver Island, but there is a similarity in how Burke and I make the landscape a character in which the story/mystery unfolds.
2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I devoured the Hardy Boys in Grade 2 and onwards. Lots of suspense and actually pretty fair plots. There was another series where a couple young people were part of a family that travelled around the world capturing wild animals for zoos and would get swept up in a mystery. I don’t recall either the author or the series name, but that was a keeper for me at a young age. I lived in a very small Canadian logging village hemmed in by mountains. Anything that offered exotic escape and adventure was grist for the mill.
3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I trained as a journalist and initially worked in radio and newspaper as a reporter. Eventually I started freelancing newspaper and magazine articles in 1980 and did that exclusively for 12 years. But I was always writing novels. I wrote my first piece of fiction in Grade 3—a terrible, derivative western full of brave American cavalry fighting off hordes of wild Indians. As the years passed I like to think I got better and the work became original. There are a number of thrillers in the drawer that won’t see the light of day, but writing those was part of honing skills. In 1992, I published my first non-fiction book (a magazine writing how-to that amazingly is still in print called Magazine Writing from the Boonies: co-authored with Louise Donnelly). After a few other quasi-reference books I wrote a popular history about British Remittance Men who came to Canada between the 1880s and 1914 called Scoundrels, Dreamers & Second Sons. That history did fairly well and encouraged me to start writing military history, which is now what primarily puts bread and butter on the table and is also personally extremely rewarding. But Scoundrels also provided the spark for the Elias McCann series. Having finished the book, I realized I wasn’t really finished with Remittance Men. So I started imagining a story about the life of a modern-day remittance man. Where would he live? The end of the continent—Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast. What would he do? Well, the thing about Remittance Men is they didn’t generally do anything but try to live as Victorian British gentlemen because they received these remittances of money from family back in Britain who were desperate to prevent their returning from the far reaches of the Empire.
There’s a quirk in my Canadian province of British Columbia whereby community coroners don’t have to be doctors or otherwise suited to investigate homicidal deaths (any death that is not natural). They just have to be under the Coroner’s Act a member in good standing within the community. So it seemed natural that reluctantly Elias could be convinced to be the coroner because nobody else in little Tofino wanted the job and somebody had to do it. A character was born and presented with endless opportunity to investigate mysteries. But not by being all CSI, rather by using his wits and talking to people - all those interesting people who dwell in a remote place like Tofino where people go to escape or be reborn or…
4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
I’m probably a bit dull. Spend a lot of time gardening, walking and hiking in Victoria and elsewhere on Vancouver Island, cooking, reading insatiably, travelling (quite a bit to Europe both for work and pleasure, camping in the hard, hot desert country of southern Utah—which is so unlike my coastal environment here).
5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
Go for a walk on Willows Beach in Oak Bay. I’m just back from taking a picnic lunch there and it’s gorgeous on a sunny day with the ocean in front of you and the volcano of Mount Baker hulking in the distance.
6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Probably Harrison Ford as he can play a good everyman. AKA The Constant Gardener.
Probably the third Elias novel, Sweep Lotus. I think it was the most fully realized of the three novels. But I’m also extremely pleased with the soon to be 11 volumes of the Canadian Battle Series because that’s leaving a lasting legacy of remembrance of the role the Canadian Army played in World War II - a role that was largely forgotten not only by Canadians but also by non-Canadian military historians writing about the war.
8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a online or physical bookseller’s shelf?
This is tough because my publishing career evolved from a newspaper background, so there wasn’t that “Wow” factor when the first book, or the first mystery, or first military history book landed on a bookstore shelf. It felt more like another step forward or upward, but not a giant step. We celebrated the publication of Hands Like Clouds in the only way appropriate. By stealing away for a weekend in Tofino to walk the beaches of Pacific Rim National Park and see if we might spot Elias McCann and/or Vhanna Chan, or the dog Fergus wandering the sand as well.
9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
It happened at a reading of Elias McCann at the Vancouver Public Library in 2001. I was reading from Hands Like Clouds which had come out the year before. There was another mystery writer reading as well. The event was a dismal failure with only about 8 people (mostly consisting of some of my family and my agent). There was one young woman in the front row who seemed out of place and was visibly bored. As the question and answer period dragged on, she put her hand up. “Can we have the coffee and cookies now?” she asked. That’s why she was there, to get some free food and drink. We hurriedly complied with her request and adequately satiated she went on her way. I might have drawn on her a little for some of the homeless young people who figure in Sweep Lotus.
Thank you for speaking with Crime Watch Mark. We appreciate you taking the time.
You can read more about Mark Zuehlke here:
- "Z is for Zuehlke" on Crime Watch
- Mark Zuehlke author page
- Interview in the Toronto Quarterly about his Canadian military series.
Have you read any of the Elias McCann mysteries, or Zuehlke's military histories? Are you a fan of Canadian crime fiction? What other authors would you like to see featured in upcoming 9mm? Comments welcome.