Author of New York Times bestseller Close Pursuit and Arthur Ellis Award winner Sniper’s Moon, Carsten Stroud has been writing and publishing novels for over thirty years. Writing from his home in Toronto, Ontario, Carsten mostly draws on inspiration outside of the freezing province. While his early works explore the underbelly of 1980s New York, his most recent work, Perdido Key, ventures into the Florida Panhandle to uncover the ramifications of a historical nautical disaster. His award-winning novels span the genre gamut from crime thriller, sci-fi, and horror, to Southern gothic.
In our interview, Carsten discusses how his experiences in a New York City homicide squad effected his writing, the inspiration behind the Niceville trilogy, and what makes the crime thriller so timeless.
AW: Could you tell us about your latest novel?
CS: It’s a book called Perdido Key. In the summer, I spend a lot of time in the Florida Panhandle in the area of Destin and Fort Walton Beach and Panama City. My wife and I go there every winter, which we’re lucky to do, by the way, because Toronto is ghastly in the winter. It’s a frozen tundra. It’s like where you go if you’re getting sentenced to something. That’s Toronto in the winter. What was my crime? I don’t know. So, we go to Florida. I know something about the history of Florida. In the summers of 1941 and 1942, the German U-boats were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. In 1941 and 1942, they sank over 63 ships, cargo ships and regular ships. German submarines were working that area. One of those ships was a ship called the Heredia, this is a true story, and it had a Viennese family on it called the Arnsteins. They were a Jewish family from Vienna, which is Austria. They had managed to get all of their wealth onto a ship and get it to a place called Puerto Barrios in Guatemala. We’re talking about several million dollars’ worth of belongings that they were getting out from underneath the Germans back in 1941 and ‘42. Well, a German U-boat sank the Heredia and sank everything that they had. This, again, is based on a true story. In Perdido Key, salvage operators working out of Pensacola and various ports along the Florida Panhandle went down, found the boat, found the Heredia, and took everything. They established a political fortune based on the money that they had stolen, not stolen, taken from the wreckage. So, the book I’ve got called Perdido Key is about the modern-day repercussions of that particular theft, and how a modern family that became part of a sort of Floridian aristocracy had their fortune predicated on a massive theft. So, it just kind of works its way up through that. That’s the story. It’s called Perdido Key.
AW: Some of your more recent works like The Shimmer and Niceville explore different genres like sci-fi and horror. What is your perspective on genre and how it factors into the writing process?
CS: Niceville is a mythical little town in the South, but it’s kind of based on Savannah, Georgia and the South with its old live oaks and Spanish moss and its really complicated history. There’s a line of writing called Southern gothic and there’s always this element of the supernatural or the ghostly or the mystical. So, I’ve told a lot of straight up stories, espionage stories, and I was writing for a while under the name of David Stone. I had written a series of espionage novels and I enjoyed that, but I’ve always been drawn to not the supernatural, but the world that is not quite visible. It’s fun to tell some simple bank robbery story, but I find it challenging to put in an element of the supernatural just because, well, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it at work. I know that sounds kind of odd. I’m not religious and I’m not mystical, but I think that there are forces at play that we don’t always know about, and I’d like to attack that in a book. Niceville, which, by the way, is why I’m in L.A., I’m hoping will be developed as a series, as a TV series. Who knows who the streamers will be, but Niceville is that kind of a story. There’s a power in those subterranean elements of Niceville, the town itself, that is the force for darkness, and then there’s a force for good. Now, this is not God and Satan or anything like that. It’s just a power for good and a power for evil, and they’re kind of at war in this town called Niceville. I just find that you can get into moral and spiritual and narrative issues that are more interesting than just simply telling a good crime story. So, that’s kind of the reason why. It expands your range; it gives you something more challenging to write about.
AW: Ghostly and supernatural stuff is hard to write about. It can easily be too ghostly, or not ghostly enough. It’s weirdly hard to balance.
CS: Okay. There was a show a little while ago called Midnight Mass by Mike Flanagan.
AW: Yes. I’ve watched that.
CS: What did you think of it?
AW: I really loved that one.
CS: When I was young, and I mean really young, I was an altar boy. Did that at Catholic Mass for eight years. I don’t pretend to be anything like a practicing Catholic, but the memory remained. When I tuned into Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass, the first thing it did was scare the hell out of me. I was shocked immediately. The idea of a vampire being behind the priest and the sacrament of the mass being turned into a sacrament of death and ruin? It was a very terrifying story. And I bet it was for you too, right?
AW: Yeah, it was terrifying.
CS: So, you understand completely. What I loved at the end of it, and in a way this is why I like the supernatural, at that last scene where they all go to the to the beach and wait for the sun to rise and they sing “Nearer, My God, to Thee”, you know that when the sun rises they’re going to be burned because they’ve been touched by the vampire. It was a very powerful and almost redemptive moment. In the middle of all that horror and all that darkness, he managed to create something quite beautiful. So, I’m hoping that Mike Flanagan will do Niceville. His people have our material right now. I would open a vein to have him do Niceville.
AW: That would be so exciting.
CS: Honestly, I’d love it. But I’m glad you like Midnight Mass. Did you watch things like Bly Manor and The Haunting of Hill House?
AW: I watched halfway through Bly Manor, but I watched all of The Haunting of Hill House and it was fantastic.
CS: So, you get what I mean. I’m not fond of supernatural stories that are just sort of predictable. I don’t like violent, bloody horror. I don’t respond to that at all, but I like a subtle, slowly developing dread. And you think, why is there that darkness at the top of the stairs? We’re all wired to get that because we’ve all grown up in the jungle or in the village and we know what darkness is. So, we have this root kind of feeling about what the threats are that are unseen. They get blended into a supernatural story where you can talk about those fears in a way that, like I see with you, it stayed with you. There’s a lot of power in the supernatural as long as you’re subtle about it.
AW: Yeah, exactly. So, you live in Ontario, but many of your early books focus specifically on the NYPD. How did you research for those stories?
CS: Okay, I’ll tell you the story. I had done a couple of books in Canada on the police department. I used to be a cop, so I had an in on running around with cops, which was fun. I knew if I stayed in Canada, Canada is a limited country, you can be a big shot in Canada, but you’re still playing in the Little Leagues. I wanted something more, and I’d seen something of New York when I was a younger guy, so I thought maybe I could do a book on homicide squads in New York City. So, I get a contract from Bantam Doubleday Dell in New York City. This is the other thing I loved about Americans. In Canada, it takes them forever to say no. In America, you can get a no in half an hour. But that’s not a small thing because it means you’re free now to find another buyer. In Canada, well, we’re looking at it. We have a committee. Fine. In the meantime, you’re starving to death because nobody said yes or no. So, I went to New York City and talked to Steve Ruben at Bantam Doubleday Dell. He said, “Do you want to do a book on the homicide squads?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, how do you know you can do it?” And I said, “Well, this is why.” He said, “Okay, done.” So, the next thing I have to do is I have to call. I did it in New York and I got an advance. I’m staying at the UN Plaza Hotel. Have you been in New York?
AW: I’ve been there once or twice.
CS: So, you know what it’s like. It’s just steel canyons, right? So, I’m staying in this hotel called the UN Plaza, and I call up this guy. He’s the head of the NYPD Public Affairs. He’s the guy who gives you permission to go hang out with cops. So, I called him up and said, “Hi, I’m Carsten Stroud, and I’m in town. I’d like to do a book.” I’d already sent letters and they’d said, “Sure, come down.” So, I get him on the phone and he said, “Yeah, yeah, I got your call. Carsten Stroud. Yeah, no, I got it right here.” So, I said, “What I’d like to do is I’d like to hang out with a homicide squadron.” “Yeah, yeah. Well yeah, I’ll tell you something, Carsten. We got writers coming out of our ears.” And I said, “Really?” He says, “Yeah. So, you know, no offense.” My voice is getting a little high at this point because I’ve already spent the money. I said, “Oh, what would you want?” “Well, no offense, but I want you to just … take off.” That isn’t exactly what he said, but you get the idea. “Yeah, why don’t you just … take off?” And I said, “Well, the trouble is I can’t … take off.” “Why?” “Because I got a certain amount of money to come down here and do the book, and I already spent half of it.” Then he said, “Ah geez, really?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Ahh, all right, come on down.” So, that was New York. And he said, “Okay.”
It was such a wonderful New York thing. Okay, I see you’re in a box. Fine. Come on down. So, I ended up getting to spend two years with a New York City homicide squad in the South Bronx during the days when the crime rate of New York was 2,400 homicides a year in all five boroughs. And that made the New York Times bestseller list. But the secret that I had, as a young reporter you’ll get what I’m saying, one of the guys I was working with said, “You know, you know what your skill is, Stroud?” I said, “What?” He said, “You know how to suck up in a manly way.” I ingratiate myself. I’m still manly, but I know how to suck up. If that’s a secret. I don’t know.
AW: How did those experiences in New York shape Close Pursuit and your other earlier works?
CS: Darkness. During those two years I was there at the South Bronx 46 detective task force, there was about a homicide a day. Some of them were just one drug dealer beating another dealer to death or something like that, but some of them were domestic violence or random. I don’t want to bring the conversation down, but I got a look at the heart of darkness. Really. You’re standing in a hallway talking to another couple of cops, and you’re waiting for the paramedics to come out and say, “Okay, it’s now a homicide”, because they weren’t able to save the person. I won’t give you the details because you can imagine them. We knew, we were standing in the room, that this person is not going to survive this. But it’s not a homicide until that person is dead. So, they come out into the hallway and say, “Okay, you’ve got a homicide.” But what it did for me was it changed that surfer boy. It darkened my heart. So, writing about it in a way that doesn’t just depress the hell out of people meant I had to find a light in the middle of the darkness. So, for me the light was the homicide guys. Many of them said, “We speak for the dead. That person’s dead. We can’t help them, but we can find out who did this and do something about that.” So, there was again, like Mike Flanagan in Midnight Mass, darkness and there was redemption. I’ve always loved that in the middle of darkness there can be redemption. There can be beauty in the middle of all of that. So, that’s how it affected the story. Also, I think it’s intriguing to just listen to people. You know, I’m tired of the sound of my own voice, I was early, but what I loved was you ask somebody a question and then shut up and listen. It’s amazing what you get from them.
AW: I’ve experienced that a bit just from doing this. I get to talk to all these writers and they all have these crazy life experiences.
CS: Yeah, you’re doing that too because you’re in the business of asking good questions. You have to be able to do that, and I admire you for doing it. I remember being your age and starting out at this whole thing and asking that first question, making that phone call. Okay, I don’t know who the hell Carsten Stroud is, but I’m going to have a conversation with him in a little while. It takes nerve.
AW: What do you think makes the crime thriller so timeless? And why do people love it so much?
CS: Because of what’s at stake. The moral issues are never more clearly defined than in a crime. In other areas, they can get really foggy. In universities, the questions are all diluted with ideology, but there’s nothing more clearly defined than a crime. The issues at stake are very clearly defined. It’s a struggle between good and evil. Sometimes you don’t know which side good is on or which side evil is on. Sometimes the cops are not good. Sometimes who we call the criminals are the guys and the women who are on the wrong end of the stick. But it’s clearly delineated and the forces at play are really brought up in intense contrast. It’s always puzzled me, and maybe you can answer this for me, that the large contingent of readers for true crime books are women.
It sounds counterintuitive, but maybe you can address that, and these are things I’m sure you’ve thought about. Why do so many women find themselves attracted to the crime genre? I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.
AW: I don’t know if I know the answer to that either. I know a lot of people that are women that listen to or read true crime, and I think sometimes it comes down to knowing the threat. When they read crime stories, for some people, they feel like they’re more prepared.
CS: I never thought about that, but maybe it’s true. Maybe for women, who tend to be, sadly, on the wrong end of this a lot, it’s, okay, now I know the face of the tiger and I know how this works. The woman who wrote a lot about Ted Bundy, he was a serial killer back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the woman who wrote about him had worked with him, had a professional association with him. What she tried to describe was how deceptive he was, how clever he was, and then the underlying darkness. It’s an interesting point. Maybe women think, okay, I want to know what the face of the tiger is.
AW: If I listen to true crime, I’m always mentally taking note of what I should or shouldn’t do or things to be careful about.
CS: Yeah, I have two daughters and I remember when they were your age. I was ferociously protective of them, but they had to go out into the world. They negotiated it, but they had their bad times. But the fact that they knew what was going on, it is important to know what the dangers are but not overestimate them and to be awake and to be aware.
AW: Your series Niceville is a pretty big change from your past novels. It combines the supernatural and the Southern gothic, like we were talking about, and also juggles a lot of plotlines. What inspired you to write Niceville? And what was that writing process like?
CS: I was writing a series of espionage novels under the name David Stone. I think it was Doubleday in New York that was publishing them, and I was having a wonderful time writing them. They were funny. They were dangerous. I had great female characters in it, all of whom are based on my wife actually, who is dangerous and wonderfully so. You know there’s an old saying about if she doesn’t scare you a little bit, she’s probably not the one. My wife is definitely the one. Anyway, so we were traveling somewhere and we came back in, and I’m expecting a check for $75,000 from Doubleday for my next book in the David Stone series. Instead, what my agent tells me is, “Well, they’ve decided not to continue with that. So, what would you like to do?” So, instead of getting a check for $75,000 as part of a contract for $150,000, I got a bag of sand and an “All best of luck.” I got angry. I did. It’s true. I got angry. Why am I trying to please you hammerheads when you can kick my series aside, which is getting all sorts of great reviews and doing well, because of some whim on your part. It made me angry. So, I thought, what do you want to write about? What’s at your core right now? What do you really want to write about? You, right now? Presuming that it never sees the light of day, what do you want to write about? And I had been in Savannah, Georgia with Linda, my wife. Savannah is a haunted place and it has the echoes of the Old South in there. There’s a park next to the hotel. We’re staying in the Mansion on Forsyth. It’s on Forsyth Park and that is where the first of the Confederate soldiers gathered to go fight in the Civil War. So, it’s full of ghosts. Savannah is full of ghosts, and there’s a darkness underneath Savannah. Based on the things that have happened there that really caught my imagination, I thought, I want to write a story about a Southern town that’s got the forces of darkness buried beneath it and the forces of light somehow working through the trees. I wanted to just write that story. So, I wrote it. Didn’t ask my agent. I said, “I’m damn well writing it.” And I sent the first 150 pages to Barney Karpfinger, my agent at the time, and he said, “Can you finish this book in, say, 30 days?” I said, “Yeah.” So, he said, “I can sell it if you can finish the book.” So, I wrote it in a fury. Really! I wrote it with a grudge. I wrote it saying, “I’m going to tell the story that I’ve always wanted to tell and to hell with the consequences.” No worrying about whether they’re going to like it or not. I’m just going to write the damn thing. And it turned out that that trilogy was, in my opinion, the very best writing I’ve ever done, and it was because I was angry and I didn’t give a damn.
AW: For Niceville, how did you come up with all the characters names?
CS: First of all, there used to be a thing called a phonebook, like Yellow Pages or White Pages, and everybody was in the phonebook. So, you cannot come up with names that real people have. Right? So, I would sometimes just go to the phonebook and say, “There’s a name I like”, and I’d take that name. Maybe I should have called him and said, “I’m taking your name”. Also, some names just sound good. One of my favorite people in the Niceville trilogy is Mavis Crossfire. Now, she’s based on a lot of female police sergeants that I’ve met who are just big-shouldered, dangerous women. In Mavis’s case, she was a lesbian and proudly so. She didn’t give a damn whether you liked it or not. I’ve known cops like her. She was a really serious street cop. So, Mavis Crossfire is just one of those names that just had cadence. It had power and it was based on a woman I knew who was exactly her, and I admired the hell out of her. She was, again, dangerous. I like dangerous women apparently.
And I liked other names like Lemon Featherlight. Did you read the Niceville trilogy? I’m sure you couldn’t have yet.
AW: I haven’t yet.
CS: At one point I got a guy named Warren Smoles. He’s a lawyer. I’m not always fond of lawyers, so I set Warren Smoles up to get eaten by his cats. Sorry, but he deserved it. So, I had to give him a name that sounded like a guy who would get beaten by cats. Warren Smoles is that kind of a name, right? Lemon Featherlight. I liked that name. That’s actually a Cherokee name. You know a name just kind of resonates with you. Amy Walsh is a good name.
AW: Thank you
CS: It’s got cadence. It’s got rhythm. It’s got presence. You remember it.
I don’t like my name, Carsten Stroud. It’s been my name forever, but I always wanted to be called, I don’t know, Lawrence or something like that. I’m struck with Carsten.
AW: I think Carsten’s pretty cool name.
CS: Thank you.