CHRISTY: When I mentioned colorful characters, I immediately thought about Big Bass, the chief of police in your Panorama Beach stories. Is he based on anyone you knew, growing up in the South? I know I've heard stories about a lot of the people that lived around you when you were a kid, but I don't remember any law enforcement people specifically.
STEVE: In Alabama (about 15 miles from the Florida line) we were so far out in the country that we didn't see the law much. State troopers would cruise through once in a while, and being a fan of cops on TV (re-runs of the old series "Highway Patrol" were a special favorite) I always paid special attention to the cop-cars and motorcycles around city hall. But as for actually having much to do with actual officers, I don't much remember it.
No, Big Bass is more based on an idea than a person. Thinking back about the south in that part of the 60s, the legality of segregation in every aspect of society had been broken, but it was still deeply ingrained in the culture. It struck me that for anyone with visibility to be at all fair-handed with blacks, you had to be something of an outlaw. Somebody like Big Bass could only survive if he hid his true nature, played the good-old-boy game, and kept enough political dirty tricks up his sleeve to keep himself on top. So in some ways Bass is that hoariest of southern cliches, the crooked Sheriff. But he turns that cliche on its head in that he is (sometimes, anyway) a force for good. Certainly he sees himself as the hero of his story, and he does try to help people and keep his beloved beach from being despoiled. But his methods are questionable, and he stumbles over to the dark side if there isn't somebody there to turn him back. Fortunately, there are people to do that, and one of them is Deputy Mustang Sawtell.
Mustang is based on a lot of people I knew, and on some level, he's based on me a little, too. And I think there's some of my late uncle Wayne in him. But there's a little of every good-hearted southern boy I've ever met in him. That's his core. I just feel that at the core, the character of southern people is kind and generous and hospitable. But it's also got this strong tradition of intolerance that, to my mind, seems completely incompatible with that. That dichotomy isn't a southern thing, it's a human thing, and that's a big theme of the Panorama Beach stories. It's about doing the right thing the best you can when there's nobody to show you the right way, and everything is trying to steer you wrong. And it's about how good people sometimes do things that are unspeakably evil.
That's really the biggest difference between our two series I think. In some ways, 1967 and 2012, they might was well be different planets, even through we're talking only a few miles apart.
CHRISTY: And yet some of the themes you're working with are so universal that they fit any time, and any place. In writing murder mysteries, we're dealing with characters who do things that are unspeakably evil, who violate the biggest taboo: the taking of a human life. It doesn't get much worse than that.
But if we are to create a believable bad guy, he has to have an understandable motive. He has to think he is doing the only possible thing to achieve his goal, whatever that goal is. The path that the character takes to the point where he (or she) commits murder has to make sense to the reader. Similarly, a character like Big Bass has to make sense within the context of his world, within his definition of necessary actions.
In my books, the victims are killed for a reason. It might not be what you would call a good reason, but nevertheless the killer must come to a point where killing another person seemed like the only logical path. And unlike Big Bass, there isn't anyone to pull them back from that murderous impulse.
As you said, however, the South of the 60s and the South of today are definitely different. Race certainly continues to be an issue within our society, but it does not dominate our social interactions the way it did fifty years ago. In the Haunted Gift Shop series, I barely touch on the issue, except in occasional historical context. In fact, I have an interracial couple as secondary characters, and their race is hardly an issue. The fact that they're gay, well, that may occasionally create problems.
I've noticed something else about your characters, something that certainly reflects the time in which your stories are set. Many of your characters are military veterans. What drew you to that background, and why do you think you've made that a central part of so many characters?
Early on I had the idea that Mustang Sawtell's best childhood friend would have been killed or be MIA in Vietnam, that he would have left him with this Mustang convertible that he drives, that Mustang had never served in the military, and that this would be a source of guilt and conflict for the character. But as I started writing, it kept coming up again in different ways.
First of all, the military was really pervasive in that part of Florida in those days (and still is). Panama City had Tyndall Air Force Base, and Eglin Air Force Base near Ft. Walton takes up a huge part of the panhandle with its bombing ranges and satellite airfields. Then there's the huge Naval Air Station in Pensacola. It's a very important place for the military, especially military aviation, and it was really buzzing in the 60s, what with Vietnam and the cold-war both in full-swing. There were military planes in the skies all the time, and you saw military personnel everywhere.
But it's also a matter of history. In 1967, the WWII generation was in charge of the world, but they were graying, and the world was starting slip from their grasp. Sheriff Bass is an example of that generation. We're going to learn that he was a great hero in the Pacific in WWII, saved a lot of lives, and has a lot of friends who remain very loyal to him because of it. But he also did a lot of bad things in the service of good, and it damaged him in many ways. He's a danger junkie, and in many ways ruthless. He's killed many times, and he won't hesitate to kill again if he thinks there's just cause.
Then there's Korea, "the forgotten war," dismissed by many of the WWII generation as "not a real war," and the veterans often treated poorly in a way that echoes the later experiences of Vietnam vets. My next Panorama Beach Mystery, "The Beat of Angels Wings," delves deeply into this. It's about a tight group of helicopter pilots who flew air-ambulance missions in Korea, a secret they all share, and how the war has changed them all. We're also going to reveal that one of our established characters is a Korean vet, someone people might not expect, and their experiences there play a big part in their life.
And of course, Vietnam is looming, not just in Mustang's lost friend, but in the growing unrest in the country that will figure into future installments.
|Goofy Golf, Panama City Beach, 1960s|
CHRISTY: Keyhole Bay is a modern-day tourist town, with all the plusses and minuses that go with an economy based on a constant flow of strangers. In that sense, it has a lot in common with tourist towns across the country; only the geography changes.
The first time I visited Florida, and traveled through the Panhandle, I was astonished. I'd grown up near the beaches of Southern California, and thought I knew what a beach was all about. Boy, was I wrong! The sand was whiter than anything I had seen on the West Coast. It looked like snow!
All along the coast there were touristy places; restaurants and lodging, of course, but also go-karts, mini golf, souvenir shops, T-shirt shops (LOTS of T-shirt shops), and assorted other attractions. The wacky, kitschy, slightly tattered tourist attractions had not yet given way to high-rise condos, and I felt like I was a teenager again, at some of the places I'd known in Southern California in the 60s.
In Keyhole Bay, geography has shaped the history and personality of the town. The small harbor supports both commercial and recreational fishing, and the proximity of the Gulf provides amazing scuba diving opportunities. So, while it shares much with other tourist towns, it has its own unique attractions. In Florida, it's all about the water.
One of the places that intrigued me most was DeFuniak Springs, not only for the Chautauqua connection, or the beautiful houses, but for the almost perfectly-round lake.
STEVE: I loved that lake the first time we saw it. I'd been driving by it several times every summer, but until a few years ago while visiting with you, I'd never gotten off the main road to see it. It's like stumbling into some kind of fantasy: the placid, round lake, the historic building, the quaint little small-town main street, the railroad station, and then there's the library.
Sometimes it's that way. There's a place that's already so special, it just requires just a little twist to turn it into something really special. I think we both found that in the Florida panhandle...
NEXT: Christy and Steve talk about how writing about fictional towns is still about "keeping it real."
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