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John Sandford Interview

On April 9, 1997, THE BOOK REPORT welcomed John Sandford, the journalist turned thriller novelist. The Book report interviewer was Sean Doorly (Bookpg SD). BookpgXena was our online host.

BRC: Welcome, John. Why NIGHT CREW and not another PREY book?

JSandford: Because I got tired of doing PREY books. I had done one a year for eight years and, at the time, that was enough. Now I've started another PREY book and it's going very well... better than if I just continued with the PREY books without a break.

BRC: Your main character in NIGHT CREW is a woman. How was it writing a female hero?

JSandford: Very different. But the differences weren't what I expected them to be. I expected there to be a problem with love scenes because the differences are so peculiar to male and female. Now I had to think like a woman in the love scene. Though I feared that problem, it wasn't a problem. In the books that I write, love scenes are usually just indicated instead of being long and drawn out. I do that for a technical reason... books develop their own cadence and my books are very fast. A love scene by the sense of it is very slow, so I very quickly indicated the love scenes and that was no problem. But the problem that I didn't expect was the different ways men and women deal with violence. This a violent book. And Anna has a hand in the violence in NIGHT CREW. So there's a psychology that I had to work out of how a woman would relate to taking part in these very violent acts.

BRC: Are you going to continue with the characters from NIGHT CREW?

JSandford: The next two novels I think will be PREY novels. Three novels from now, I'll continue with NIGHT CREW.

BRC: Video crews are everywhere today. How do you think that affects journalism?

JSandford: It's not really journalism. Television is like looking out an electronic window. Journalism is much more digested.

BRC: So you have a Pulitzer and bunch of bestselling novels --- what's next?

JSandford: Get taller and better looking! I work on an archeological dig in Israel near the Sea of Galilee and I've been spending a lot of time there. I went to a technical school to become a land surveyor. I work as part of the survey crew and as the photographer. If anyone would like more info about the dig, we have a web page at www.rehove.org.

BRC: Are you planning on setting any future novels on an archeological dig?

JSandford: I don't know yet. Possibly because it is part of my experience.

Question: What kind of formal education have you had and how has that affected your writing?

JSandford: I have a B.A. in American History and a Master's in Journalism. The history degree, which involved a lot of American Lit, probably had more effect than the Journalism degree, which was vocational.

Question: Will you use what you've learned in Israel in a future novel... something maybe more exotic than Minnesota?

JSandford:I like to write about what I can see. Israel is a different place for me. I find it exotic. It's not a place I'm ready to write about.

BRC: So why a pen name? Any story behind it?

JSandford: Without going into details, it was a marketing device. I was writing for two Putnams --- they wanted to be separate from each other. One was putting a lot of money into me and didn't want the other riding on those coattails.

BRC: Have there been any movies made of your novels? Any interest in that?

JSandford: No, not yet. The first book, RULES OF PREY, was sold to a movie company. They own the rights to the characters until a movie is made. Because they were unable to make a movie and weren't selling the rights, then no movie could be made. Now another company has bought the rights from the bankrupt company. It looks like a television or HBO movie will be made of MIND PREY.

BRC: How did you research NIGHT CREW?

JSandford: Spent a lot of time in L.A. I don't know if those crews exist on a bigtime freelance basis. So I just made that part up.

Question: How did you come up with Lucas Davenport?

JSandford: It was mostly engineering. For me, the creation of a new character is an intellectual process. It's not simply a matter of finding one. It has to be a character who will naturally find himself in trouble; therefore, a cop or media person. Or with other authors, you have intelligence agents or military men or private detectives. Or, with Cornwell, a pathologist. They are people who deal with conflict in their daily lives.

BRC: Who do you like to read?

JSandford: I read a lot of non-fiction. I am a Civil War buff and I have a large Civil War library. I also read a lot of archeological stuff. In fiction, I read mostly my competitors --- commercial thriller writers. Robert Parker is phenomenal and the new one is the best Parker in several years. I like Carl Hiaasen. He's a friend of mine. I like Robert Crais, Randy Wayne White, Patricia Cornwell, and a lot of people... Grisham, Clancy, King, I read them. Most of the writers I like are commercial writers.

BRC: Was this true before you wrote?

JSandford: Most of the people I really like are former journalists. I think we understand each other's writing, is what it amounts to.

BRC: Do you miss journalism?

JSandford: I still do some for the Pioneer Press in St. Paul.

Question: Of all of the PREY books which was your favorite?

JSandford: I don't have a favorite. The second one, SHADOW PREY, which I believe was the least successful commercially, is the one I think was the most distinctive. I have a soft spot for it.

Question: When you began to write your PREY novels, did you begin keeping "bio's" on your characters, or did they just evolve? Do you keep bio's on them now?

JSandford: They just evolved. And sometimes they got out of control. Sometimes characters I didn't see as major characters became major.

BRC: Can you give an example?

JSandford: I would like to find out how many people picked up a major Prey character, whose name was taken off of a keyboard... it's Dell Capslock. I think I may have been up a little late. I always liked it, and I always make a point of having both his first and last name in the books, but never together to see if people pick up on it. A few have noticed it.

BRC: You write about serial killers? Ever interviewed any?

JSandford: Yes. Actually I've done a lot of work with killers in my career. And I've even known a few before they were known as killers. It was a very public event. I had written a long article on the front page a few weeks before it was revealed the man I profiled was a murderer. My article was very laudatory, so I was somewhat taken aback.

Question: Are there parallels between your archeological work and your writing? Do you use it as a respite from the writing, or does one feed off the other?

JSandford: Mostly as a respite. I need some other kind of a life. I'm almost reluctant to write about archeology because I'm afraid of the crossover.

BRC: I surfed the internet today and came across a few of your sites... have you surfed?

JSandford: I'm on the internet constantly. I've been involved with computers since 1979. I've always had a linear relationship with the Net. Surfing is jumping too much. My son has a little site about me.

Question: Do you ride with Minneapolis Police as part of doing research?

JSandford: Not as part of my research. But I've ridden with cops numerous times as a journalist. I have friends in the force.

BRC: What is it like riding with them?

JSandford: That depends on the circumstances of the ride. Sometimes it's very routine, but if you're going out with a SWAT group... that is pretty intense because they don't know what will happen. If you go to a murder scene after the fact, that's usually just pretty gross.

Question: THE EMPRESS FILE characters are a real change from the PREY books. Which did you write first?

JSandford: Those were my first two books and they are very out of date --- written in the late 80s. I'm now embarassed that most of the forward-looking computers mentioned in those books are now gone.

BRC: How is your book tour going?

JSandford: Really very well so far. I've been seeing a lot of people but I've got a feeling I'm going to be wrecked by the time it's finished.

BRC: What is your favorite bookstore to read at?

JSandford: I really like the fan stores, the mystery bookstores. I know a lot of people don't like Barnes & Noble and Borders because they're so big. But I've had a series of really good talks at them and I'm really impressed.

BRC: Were you always a writer... even as a child?

JSandford: Yes, I was. I wrote, like all kids. In 5th grade, I wrote most of the class program. That's when I became aware that I had the skill. I realized the effect that words had on people.

BRC: Did you have encouraging teachers?

JSandford: I was just talking about my teachers tonight. At the end of 11th grade, one teacher, who had never said much to me, said, "You have a nice talent for writing. I think you could make a living at it." That felt very nice and it came at a time when you're just starting to think "What am I going to do with my life?"

Question: How long does it usually take for you to write a PREY book?

JSandford: About seven months for the writing and two more for the editing.

BRC: What is your writing day like?

JSandford: I write late at night --- 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. When I work on a book, I work every day. Basically, I try to physically write four hours a day.

Question: What made you decide to be a writer?

JSandford: It just sort of evolved. I could have been a lawyer. I entered the Army and they sent me to journalism school. After leaving the Army, there were jobs open as newspaper reporters... so I took one.

BRC: How did you like the dailiness of writing for a daily paper?

JSandford: Alternately, I would write huge long project pieces that would take weeks to research and write. Then I would go back to daily assignment journalism. I liked having a few months of the daily and then the few months of a longer piece. The daily work is more exciting because you never know what will happen. It's hard to do after about 40. You lose the stamina or something.

Question: Do you keep a journal?

JSandford: No. I think it's neat, and I've tried several times. I can usually get 3 days, then day 7, then day 15, then day 326... then I lose it.

BRC: Have you ever used anything from these, though?

JSandford: No, never used anything.

BRC: Have you ever thought of writing a non-fiction book?

JSandford: I've written two already. One on art and one on plastic surgery.

BRC: What prompted those?

JSandford: I'm an art freak --- and I was offered the job by an art museum. At one point in my career, I got interested in medicine and started watching a lot of plastic surgery and wrote a book.

Question: Do you plan to expand the parts of any of the minor characters from the PREY series? My interest is in Sloan.

JSandford: That question has been asked before. At this point, I don't think so. Sloan would make a good character in an Ed McBain novel though.

BRC: Thank you, Mr. Sandford, for coming.