Experience Matters: Talking with Chester D. Campbell

October 29th, 2011

Chester D. Campbell is a leading light in one of America’s most interesting, energetic and productive American mystery communities, the writers of Nashville, Tennessee, which is where I first met him.  I think some of the freshest detective fiction in the country is coming out of Nashville, and Chester is in the forefront.  He’s given me a lot of reading pleasure.

He’s the author of five Greg McKenzie mysteries and two in the Sid Chance series. The first Sid Chance book, The Surest Poison, won the Silver Falchion Award at the 2009 Killer Nashville conference, and the third, The Good, the Bad, and the Murderous, is out now.  You can follow Chester at is http://www.chesterdcampbell.com.  He was nice enough to answer some of the questions I thought you might ask if you had the chance.

When did you start writing, and what prompted you to do it?

As a teenager, I’d been an avid fiction reader, mostly in magazines, but I never thought about writing until one day near the end of World War II. I was chatting with a fellow Aviation Cadet who had spent a year at Yale before entering the service. He said if he had it to do over again, he’d study journalism. Somehow that struck a chord with me. Maybe my mother was right. She always said if I was going to do anything, it would have to be with my head because I didn’t like to get my hands dirty. I followed up by entering journalism school after I got out of the Army.

Did the work of any writer or writers help you decide to try to do your own book? If so, who were they, and what was it about their work that prompted you to that decision?

During my junior year in college, I went to work as a newspaper reporter. I read a couple of books during that period by Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud. McCoy was a noir writer born in Pegram, a community west of Nashville. The latter book involved a newspaper reporter who suffered the consequences of fighting corruption in his city. McCoy’s dependence on dialogue is a style I’ve since adopted. His books inspired me to pound out a murder mystery in my spare time between going to school days and working nights at the newspaper. The reporter solved my mystery. The manuscript failed to find a taker, but I knew from that start that one day my work would make it to the bookshelf.

You write two private-eye series. Why that specific genre?

It came about by accident. When I wrote Secret of the Scroll, I wanted a professional investigator who could hold his own against hostage takers (who took his wife). Having an Air Force background, I chose a retired Office of Special Investigations agent. By the time I finished the book, I enjoyed the characters so much I decided to use them for a series. In the second outing, they solved the murder of a friend’s son. That led to hanging out their shingle as PI’s. After several Greg and Jill books, which I enjoyed writing, I wanted to do something with a little harder edge. That brought on PI Sid Chance.

Chester with the Good/Bad cover in frosting

Tell us about your two series heroes and tell us how they’re different.  (As someone who’s trying to write to series himself, this is a question of some interest to me.

Greg McKenzie comes from a long line of Scottish fighting men. Now in his latter sixties, he has accepted the reality that he’s better off using his wits than his fists. He also finds a fully-loaded semiautomatic helps. Greg has a reputation for doggedly following leads wherever they take him, regardless of whose toes get trampled in the process. It caused him problems in the Air Force and does on the outside as well. Sid Chance is a bit younger, in his fifties, with experience as a Green Beret, a park ranger, and a small town police chief to lean on. At six-foot-six, he’s not afraid to stand his ground. Something of a loner, he marches to his own drumbeat. Sid’s main motivation is a sense that what he does can put things right for his clients.

When you start a book, what do you generally begin with, and how do you spin that into a story?

I’m not an outliner. I begin with a basic idea for a plot. With the new book, The Good, The Bad and The Murderous, I saw a TV news piece about FBI agents in Miami going after storefront medical equipment operations that scam Medicare. While stewing that around in my mind, I read a newspaper story about a young black man recently out of prison for a murder committed at age twelve. I put a similar character in a medical equipment store where a murder had just taken place. He flees in panic, and the cops arrest him. His grandmother hires Sid Chance to prove him innocent. I got the characters involved, and the story took off from there.

What aspect of writing comes most easily to you? What comes hardest?

Influenced by people like Robert B. Parker, I developed a terse, spare style that seeks to tell the story in the simplest manner possible. I don’t know where they come from, but the words seem to bubble out with no problem. That’s the easy part. However, using minimal descriptions to create the setting and moving the action along at a good pace is where I get into trouble. I wake up one day and find the story getting close to the end, but I’m way short of the normal novel length. In some of the Parker books, the publisher handled it by using broader page margins and other tricks. I’m not so lucky. I have to start digging around for new characters and situations to flesh out the plot and make it into a reasonable-length book. So far it has worked out for the better.

You’ve described your books as “geezer lit.” If that’s accurate, what things about being older are especially well expressed in the mystery form?

“Geezer lit” is a popular term, but I’m not sure I’ve used it. Being a month shy of eighty-six myself, I try to write older people as sensible, fully functional individuals who make use of wisdom gained over the years. Since mysteries, with the possible exception of the old pulp stories, mostly involve characters in a mental tug-of-war to see who wins, being long in the tooth has its advantages. I’ve read a lot of procedural mysteries where a senior detective is the officer responsible for solving the case. Experience matters.

Your mysteries are set mostly around Nashville. Is that by design?

Since this is where I’ve spent most of my life, it makes the research much easier. Of course, Nashville has changed drastically during my lifetime. I recently did a ride-along with a Metro Nashville patrol officer and toured areas I’d never seen before. In my books, I try to combine historical aspects of the city along with current developments. Sid Chance visits a unique restaurant near downtown in the new book, while in another scene he notes changes in an area he frequented as a teenager. Despite its warts and growing pains, I love to showcase my hometown for those who aren’t familiar.

What’s next for you and either Sid Chance or Greg McKenzie?

I’ll soon be working on the sixth McKenzie mystery, the plot as yet unborn. But, meantime, my current project is to put Beware the Jabberwock up as an ebook. This is a post-Cold War thriller in which a disgraced former FBI agent finds himself caught in an international conspiracy involving a rogue CIA faction and renegade KGB agents. This was the first novel I wrote after retiring in 1989. It received some nice comments from editors who, for various reasons, turned it down. It is the first book in a trilogy set in the early nineties. I’ll probably add the other two to my Amazon and Smashwords repertoire. As for the mysteries, my plan is to alternate Sid Chance and Greg McKenzie books, if they’re willing.

I know what you mean.  Nothing is more unsettling than a character who doesn’t seem to want to be in any more books.

9 Responses to “Experience Matters: Talking with Chester D. Campbell”

  1. EverettK Says:

    Thanks, Chester and Tim! Another great entry in the “guest author” interviews.

    As an aging human myself 🙂 I like the idea of a more mature protagonist who can use more wisdom and less muscle. Actually, I prefer that, regardless of the age… 🙂

  2. Mike Schimmer Says:

    Re Greg McKenzie: The following quote has been attributed to John Steinbeck (perhaps you’ve heard of him?): “Don’t pick a fight with an old man. If he is too old to fight, he’ll just kill you.”

  3. Jaden Terrell Says:

    Chester Campbell is one of my favorite writers, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE MURDEROUS is my favorite of his books yet. He just keeps getting better. Thanks for the interview, Tim and Chester.

  4. Pat Browning Says:

    Nice interview, Tim and Chester. I have a bookmark in A SPORTING MURDER (Greg McKenzie) and recently downloaded THE SUREST POISON (Sid Chance). Chester, I’ll get reviews posted, soon, I hope. I always think of the catch phrase from the old “Maverick” TV series, with James Garner sitting on the porch, leaning back in his chair and saying “I’m workin’ on it.” So that’s my motto right now — I’m workin’ on it.
    Best of luck to you,
    Pat Browning

  5. Chester Campbell Says:

    Thanks for the comments, everybody. Everett and Mike, Greg was quite feisty in his younger days. In the first book, he tangled with a couple of ex-Mossad guys and enjoyed near disasters. Since then he’s relied on his wits, a Beretta and a .40 caliber Sig.

    Thanks for thinking I’m getting better with each book, Jaden. And Pat, I know what you mean about “workin’ on it.” I do that a lot.

  6. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I liked your interview, and the fact that you use older people as protagonists. I’m about to make my Kindle fuller, fatter? Way to easy to use, that toy.

  7. August McLaughlin Says:

    Terrific interview, Timothy. Eager to check out Campbell’s work!

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Lil, I agree — it’s great to read about characters who aren’t in the sort of infinitely prolonged adolescence that characterizes so many detective/thriller heroes and heroines, including mine occasionally. And Chester has a great way with a story.

    August, welcome, and I’m glad you liked the interview. Besides being a fine writer, Chester’s a genuine mensch,

  9. Chester Campbell Says:

    Thanks for listing me among the menschen, Tim.

    The Kindle is a handy gadget, Lil. I have 7 books up for it and am about to add another. All I have is the Kindle app on my PC and laptop. Have to get the real thing.

    Tim’s always great to work with, August. Hope you enjoy the books.

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