Family dynamics play a huge role in Steven F. Havill’s 23rd Posadas County mystery, LIES COME EASY, as Undersheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman and her entire department work to pull the right threads out of a tangle of seemingly small lies. In this interview, Havill explains his decision to develop the series in real time, discusses how he learned to dramatize the exhaustive process of police work so realistically and where his expertise in firearms originates, and names some of the authors who he holds in very high regard and whose books he reads on a regular basis.
Question: LIES COME EASY is now the 23rd entry in your Posadas County mystery series, dating back to HEARTSHOT, the 1991 debut. Over the years, you’ve had some of the original lead characters age out of the series while new, younger ones are introduced. Do you feel it’s important to have a series develop in real time?
Steven F. Havill: I think it’s more interesting that way. When I wrote HEARTSHOT way back when, I wasn’t thinking series, but that’s how it developed. This way, we get a snapshot of entire career paths over 25 years or so. And Bill Gastner, at age 85 with his backcountry wheelchair, is fun to write, as is Estelle at 50+. Too many people are afraid of age.
Q: The police work that is described in this story—which involves a possible murder, the shooting of a deer and a missing person—is meticulous, to say the least. How did you learn to dramatize that exhaustive process so realistically?
SFH: I really believe that, genetically, a person is either a storyteller, or he’s not. I’m a cinematic storyteller. I see the events in my mind. Plus, to me, the devil is in the details. You can’t just say, “He had a terrible accident with a metal lathe.” If you’re going to use that in the story, you have to show the reader the lathe, the victim, the injuries—even the way Estelle cleans herself up afterward. Too much, and it’s belabored, like a boor who tells a joke and then keeps repeating the punchline to make sure you “get it.” The balance needs to be just right. There is nothing inherently fascinating about a lathe, or a gun. It’s how we use those gadgets that matters. An enthusiastic reader once asked me what kind of knife Estelle carried. Good grief, man. Sure, as a cop, Estelle carries a knife, as most cops do. But I won’t know what kind of knife, nor will the reader, until she actually pulls it out to chop a seatbelt. The knife doesn’t matter. The gun doesn’t matter. The shop tool doesn’t matter. It’s how it’s used by a character that matters.
Q: You seem to possess an intimate knowledge of firearms, which in LIES COME EASY has a direct bearing on solving the case. Where did that expertise originate?
SFH: Firearms have been a part of my life since I was four years old. That means almost 70 years of learning about firearms. I used to shoot competitively, but don’t anymore. I enrolled in the famous gunsmithing school at Trinidad State in Trinidad, Colorado, when I was 60ish and enjoyed it immensely…and learned even more. They’re fun to shoot, to repair, to admire as works of art. When some jerk uses a firearm for nefarious purposes, it’s the nefarious purposes that are interesting and must be dealt with, not the gun itself.
Q: Every mystery writer began as a mystery reader. Who were some of the authors who most influenced you, before you became a crime writer yourself?
SFH: Actually, I began as a “medical western” writer, with four westerns before turning to mysteries. The history of medicine is a hobby of mine, and a physician plays an active part in each of those long-forgotten westerns. (Maybe Poisoned Pen Press will republish them…that’d be a hoot.) Right now, I think highly of James Patterson and one of his recent sidekicks, Maxine Paetro. I can’t wait to read the Patterson/Clinton tome. I like John Sanford and Lee Child, and at this very moment am reading my way backward through Sue Grafton’s Alphabet series, with a J.A. Jance thrown in now and then. I like Michael McGarrity, Anne Hillerman and Nevada Barr. I’m easy to please.
Q: With more than two dozen novels under your belt, do you ever indulge in hindsight, and look back at the early books and think about some element you wish you had approached in a different manner?
SFH: Of course. We grow in skills as we write; the constant practice makes us more adept—hopefully. To think that something I wrote 25 years ago is engraved in stone and can’t be improved would be silly. That’s why republishing the old westerns, even if PPP agreed to do it, would mean lots of work for me, correcting some of the really DUMB mistakes. My God! Did I really write that? But with some tweaking, they really are mysteries of a sort.
Q: You have worked as a writing instructor over many years, including a stint at Writer’s Digest. What is the single most common mistake that you found your students tended to make?
SFH: Not putting “butt to chair,” as John Grisham once said, and FINISHING a manuscript. Unless you finish a rough draft, you can’t edit properly. Editing is far more than correcting spelling and comma splices. I see them rewriting chapter one so many times they get sick of it…and never finish the manuscript. They inflict the first chapter or two on friends—and what’s the friend supposed to say? FINISH the #$#@!#$ thing. That’s where the momentum comes from. And remember the happy news: As soon as you fire off the completed manuscript of your first novel to your editor, you start with page one again of book #2! That’s the process.