NANTUCKET COUNTERFEIT, Steven Axelrod’s fifth Henry Kennis mystery, takes readers into the closed, gossip-riddled, backstabbing world of Nantucket’s community theater. In this interview, Axelrod talks about his inspiration for making his protagonist a police chief who writes poetry on the side; details his writing process, explaining why he tends to outline his novels while at the same time being a “pantser” (writing by the seat of his pants); and discusses why there is no shortage of plot concepts to come up with as it relates to Nantucket, despite its tiny size.
Question: Your protagonist, Henry Kennis, has to be the world’s most literate police chief, bar none. How did you decide to create a cop who writes poetry on the side?
Steven Axelrod: First of all, I write poetry myself — very much like the accessible reality-based verse that Henry composes, which is not really in fashion now. The wife of one of my MFA program professors, a very prominent modern poet, read NANTUCKET FIVE-SPOT (which was written as my creative thesis) and remarked, “I love the fact that hero is such a bad poet! So charming.” I guess I couldn’t resist the urge to let some of these “bad” poems see the light of day. But it’s an appropriate hobby for a detective. Crime solving and poetry require the same leaps of intuition, the same ability to make and recognize odd connections and relationships. Beyond that, a poem is a good x-ray of a character’s heart and soul. The poems help the reader get to know my police chief a little better.
Q: The backdrop of your new book, NANTUCKET COUNTERFEIT, is the backstabbing world of local theater, in this case Nantucket’s. The vicious confrontations between the characters who populate this novel feel quite authentic. Have you yourself participated in local theater and experienced this level of drama?
SA: I did a fair amount of community theater acting when I was Henry’s age, and I saw my fair share of high drama and low comedy in that milieu. The theater scene on the island seems much more serene these days. But that’s okay — inventing conflict and setting crazy characters at each others’ throats is part of my job description.
Q: You spent a portion of your childhood in a Hollywood environment, with your father being the famous writer/director George Axelrod. Although you’ve lived in Nantucket for many years, do you still have some Hollywood ties? It would be nice to see a Henry Kennis miniseries shot on location.
SA: My Hollywood ties have frayed somewhat over the years, though I remain a member of the WGAW thanks to a development deal some years ago with a big TV producer. There is currently some interest in the Kennis books as a series from different “content providers,” I guess I should call them, to be as vague and cryptic as possible, but it’s hard to tell how serious any of them are. I keep my fingers crossed, though it tends to interfere with my typing.
Q: When you prepare for a new novel, do you first outline everything from soup to nuts? Or are you a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of guy?
SA: I’m a combination of the two. I’ve always envied writers like Stephen King, who apparently just charge into a book and let the plot details sort themselves out, with what Nabokov called “the velocity of intuition.” I tend to be more cautious. I need to know the ultimate outcome before I start — who done it and why, and at least some of the clues, red herrings and detours that will lead Henry to the culprit. You’re always telling two or three parallel narratives in a mystery, with several of those scenarios throwing suspicion on the wrong people. The links between these versions of reality are the clues, which can be interpreted different ways. Gregson and Lestrade assume the RACHE written on the wall in blood to be an almost completed name — Rachel — but Sherlock Holmes knows it’s the German word for revenge.
So within that macro-structure, the big picture of the novel, I attack the story one chunk at a time, carefully outlining the piece I’m working on and usually emerging from it with only the vaguest idea of where I’m going next. I read through the notes, refresh my memory about the larger story, and start outlining the next bit of the plot. This gets simpler as the story goes on. Tales narrow down and pick up speed as they approach their climax, and the writing becomes easier as more and more decisions have already been made. My father always told me, “If you have a problem with act three, the real problem is in act one.” He referred to those final blissful writing days that sweep to the end of the story as “picking the daisies” — flowers you meticulously planted many pages ago.
All that being said, the actual content of each scene remains wildly improvisational. Except for a few essentials, I really have no idea what my characters are going to say to each other, or which way their conflicts will go. And that makes every writing day fun.
Q: With Nantucket being so tiny, is it a challenge to come up with new plot concepts that don’t tread on the ground already covered?
SA: I wrote a thriller 20 years ago, and my agent at the time warned me, “You better know what your next couple of thrillers are going to be. I’m branding you as a thriller guy.” That scared me. I had literally used every idea, gimmick, action set-piece and plot device I had ever come up with in that book. I had been pebble collecting for it since high school. Now I was supposed to write another one? I had nothing and told her so. Maybe I should have faked it, as the book never sold.
Anyway, it’s just the opposite with Nantucket. The little resort island teems with stories, plots, feuds, grudges, history and conflict. I’m always learning new things, from the existence of secret cockfighting clubs (which I used on the first page of the new book) to the fact that the dump was built on a Wampanoag Indian graveyard. Spooky! The material seems inexhaustible. Nantucket is America in miniature, with all the wealth inequality, immigration issues, opioid addiction, gang crime and bureaucratic malfeasance a crime writer would wish for. The island is experiencing massive tectonic social changes. The larger aim of my books is to chronicle those changes — and try to make sense of them.