Interview with Paul Hall author of Places the Dead Call Home iUniverse (2006) ISBN 0595410715 Reviewed by Richard R. Blake for Reader Views (4/07)
Today, Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views talks with author/writer Paul L. Hall about his latest book “Places the Dead Call Home" winner of Bronze, West-Mountain - Best Regional Fiction in the 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards.
Paul L. Hall is the author of the award-winning “Our Father” and its sequel, “The Big Island. ” He is also a prolific business writer, public relations counselor and writing instructor, and has published poems, stories, and articles in a variety of publications including The Paris Review, The Sun, Reader’s Digest, and numerous trades. He lives in Troy, Michigan, but spends much of his time in the American Southwest (the setting for “Places the Dead Call Home”) and Rome, Italy.
Juanita: Welcome to Reader Views Paul, and thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about your new mystery novel “Places the Dead Call Home. ” This is your third book, how long was it in the works?
Paul: I wrote the first draft of the book quickly—in perhaps six weeks. The research actually came after the writing of the first draft. Then the revisions. Six weeks stretched into two years.
Juanita: Paul, you have had a long history of writing in many genres. Would you give us a little background? What drew you to this industry, and what keeps you going after all these years?
Paul: I won my first writing contest as a six-year-old in grade school. I continued to win contests like that right through college, where I won writing awards both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. After college, I was drafted into the army (among the last to benefit from that quaint ritual) where, with logic that rarely prevailed in the military when it comes to assigning occupations based upon aptitudes, I was trained as a journalist. That evolved into a job promoting the All-Volunteer Army. After my discharge, I stayed it the media/public relations/advertising field (with several excursions into academia as a teacher and Ph. D. student in English). I stay with it because it’s interesting and it’s what I make a living at (although not as much of a living as I’d like).
Juanita: Is there a common theme that weaves its way through your work?
Paul: The limitations of human comprehension.
Juanita: Hmm, what does that mean exactly?. . . . ;-)
Paul: Nominally, I write mystery stories, but they’re not exactly conventional. They aren’t neatly resolved at the end. The tension that I see in my books is between the human need to have things explained and the recalcitrance of the world in satisfying that need. It’s not a “good against evil” thing. It’s more about how human beings delude themselves into thinking that eventually everything will be revealed.
Juanita: Paul, it appears that you like to set your novels in places you’ve lived or visited. Would you comment on your use of familiar settings and how important you feel it is to bring this element of reality into a novel?
Paul: I am simply unable to write about places that I have not actually set foot in. I’ve tried it, and it hasn’t worked. It feels fraudulent even as I’m writing it.
Juanita: What happens in “Places the Dead Call Home”?
Paul: On a summer night in 1958, bullets tear through the body of a young man on a lonely Oklahoma highway. Nineteen years later, a soldier lies in the pool of his own blood on an army base in Virginia. Josh Kincaid is a common link to both events. In 2002, when Kincaid’s cousin proposes an urgent trip to the Anasazi ruins of Mesa Verde to resolve the riddle of one of these deaths, Kincaid reluctantly agrees. Soon, he and a van full of misfits are on the way to the cliff dwellings of the “ancestral enemies, ” where more contemporary enemies await them among the ruins.
Josh Kincaid is happy with life in Phoenix where he manages a bar and sells a few drugs on the side. His serenity is soon shattered, however, by a call from his cousin, Frankie McKnight, who claims to know why Josh’s father died far from his Detroit home in the parking lot of a gas station in Oklahoma City.
General Herman Endicott is looking for Josh, too. The highlight of his military life was winning the Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam, followed a few years later by his promotion to General. But between those events, the death of a friend and the betrayal of an old comrade have brought disgrace to a bereaved widow and her unborn child. This secret could destroy the General, and Josh Kincaid may know that secret.
General Endicott hires Tommy Three Hands, an Indian living in the Phoenix area, to kill Josh and Frankie, along with a reporter named Jeffrey Bonus and his traveling companion, Jeanette Koskos, who have also shown up with questions about the death of Bonus’s father. Tommy is an ex-con who distrusts and hates whites, enjoys a reputation for violence and betrayal and has a cruel streak when it comes to women. He also has a grudge against Josh and his cousin Frankie.
All of these characters converge on Mesa Verde, where the secret of the mysterious—and perhaps violent—disappearance of the Anasazi still seems to inhabit the ruins. As Josh and Frankie seek the answer to Jimmy Kincaid’s destiny in the park’s mythic heritage and Bonus hopes to learn the true fate of his father, Tommy and the General are making plans of their own to ensure that the dead stay where they belong—the places they call home.
Juanita: The mystical setting of the American Southwest – Four Corners region – backdrops this story. Would you elaborate on your connection with this region and how it plays into the mystery?
Paul: I have a preference for the area based on many trips I’ve made over the past 20 years or so. I think that a sense of place is important and this area of the country does evoke for me a timelessness and continuity with the past that I find somehow comforting or reassuring (although no doubt illusory). I wanted that kind of environment to tell this story.
Juanita: Would you tell us about your main characters?
Paul: Two of them, Josh Kinkaid and Frank McKnight, are related. Kincaid is a transplant to the Phoenix area, but his life, like his choice of locales, is random. He’s an orphan who has essentially never outgrown his orphan status. His cousin Frank is a former Detroit cop with a hero/quest mentality encumbered by an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. Jeffrey Bonus is a young reporter who wants to find out how or why his father, a career military officer, committed suicide while Bonus was still in his mother’s womb. Jeanette Koskos is a failed model, a vagabond, a former drug addict/prostitute and a life force. Now that I think about it, this book is an orphan’s crusade, because each of these characters has either physically or psychically lost his or her parents.
Juanita: Paul, your novel provides much back-story into the lives of your characters. Would you comment on this facet of your writing style and the character-driven aspect of this novel?
Paul: For me, everything starts with the characters. I try to see them as fully as I can and let them loose in the narrative. In the case of “Places the Dead Call Home” the first character that I had was that of Jimmy Kincaid, the father of Josh, who died in a robbery attempt in 1958. At the time, Jimmy’s girlfriend, Gretchen, was pregnant with his only son. She actually suffers a fatal wound at the robbery site as well, but she continues to exist in a comatose state until Josh’s birth. So, from there, I wanted to see how this “miracle child” would turn out. His cousin, Frank McKnight, had worshipped the older Jimmy Kincaid as a child and was perhaps more motivated to find out what drove Jimmy on what turned out to be a suicide run from Detroit to the Southwest.
To sort of balance this story, I introduced General Endicott and his lackey, Gary Grote (who had been a military policeman with Josh in an earlier life). In the novel, that fact that Josh and Grote knew each other, if only on the most casual of terms, is pivotal to the plot. Another “couple” in the book is Jeffrey Bonus and Jeanette Koskos. Bonus also has lost-father issues (he had died before Bonus was born, just as Josh’s father had) and Jeanette is the wild card in the group. As a defense mechanism, her identity is always provisional. She gives the narrative much of its vitality. Finally, I saw in Tommy Three Hands, the overt villain in the book, as playing against type. He’s an Indian, but at least in his mind he’s a victimizer rather than a victim and there is not much noble about him.
Juanita: Jeanette Koskos is the only female in “Places the Dead Call Home. ” How does she offset your predominantly male cast, and what was it like to write through the voice of a woman?
Paul: Jeanette Koskos is perhaps the most important character in the book, as opposed to the “main” character. She’s quirky (at least from the point of view of her male co-characters), but incisive. The male characters tend to behave conventionally, that is, the way even they expect themselves to behave. She provides spontaneity, intelligence, and danger. She makes everything happen. I envisioned a character who had to be both wary and risk-tolerant, idealistic, but practical. My sense is that women are more psychologically agile than men. I have now idea how true that is, but that’s the “voice” I had in my head for Jeanette.
Juanita: The intertwining stories of your characters and the various murders all come together in Mesa Verde, CO. What can you tell us about this convergence?
Paul: I can tell you that I didn’t work it out beforehand. The “revelation” at Mesa Verde just came to me at that point in the writing of the book.
Juanita: Is there significance in the travel theme or “moving towards the truth” as played out in this story?
Paul: Yes. I saw this from the beginning as a road book. I wanted a sense of nomadic temperament among the characters. They are restless for the truth and that truth is endlessly elusive.
Juanita: What is the underlying message of “Places the Dead Call Home”?
Paul: I guess I would prefer that readers determine that for themselves; however, I wanted to say something about the ultimate futility of trying to reconcile or justify history.
Juanita: Any plans for a sequel? Do you have any other projects in the works?
Paul: Nothing has stirred me in that direction of a sequel yet. I have finished the third in a series of books that began with Our Father and continued with The Big Island. All three of these books involve a reluctant “detective” named Stephen Fargo. I’m also at work on novel about a writer whose almost universally ignored works have inspired a violent underground society, much to his dismay.
Juanita: What did you enjoy most about writing this story?
Paul: This book was a lot of fun to write. Since I had no idea how it was going to end, I was writing it and reading it at the same time, if that makes any sense.
Juanita: How was the experience of writing your first mystery novel? Did you encounter any notable aspects unique to this genre?
Paul: Whereas mystery is involved in my books, I never see them as conventional mysteries like whodunits or detective stories. My books are never plot-driven. I just like to see how things play out when I put the characters I’ve developed into a certain situation.
Juanita: Do you feel that you’ve grown as a novelist through the progression of each of your books?
Paul: I try not to make the same mistakes, with varying success. I think you do get more confident, not necessarily that you’re becoming a better writer, but that things will work out. The nightmare for most novelists, I would think, is that a book will just go on forever, and will never resolve itself.
Juanita: How can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
Paul: They can visit the book’s website at www.placesthedeadcallhome.com.
Juanita: Paul, it has been great talking with you today, thanks for the opportunity to interview you for your new book “Places the Dead Call Home. ” We certainly recommend readers look for all of your books at local and online bookstores. Before we depart, do you have any final thought for your readers?
Paul: As I think about how I describe Places, and all my books, for that matter, I always think that what’s missing is the humor in them. Of course, it’s always dangerous to announce what’s funny—you don’t hear comedians alerting their audiences that they should prepare to laugh—but I always shoot for humor among the tales of woe that I produce. Thanks for the opportunity to make that point and for this chance to talk about my work.