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Sunday, January 20, 2013

'Just Go for It!'--An Interview with Michael Harvey

Note: Michael Harvey is a writer, journalist, and documentary producer, as well as the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the Prime Time Emmy-nominated television series Cold Case Files™ and a former investigative producer for CBS in Chicago. He will be a featured guest at Love Is Murder, Feb. 1-3. 2013 in Chicago. Go to for details. Visit Michael at

1.      You’ve talked about shoving 50 pages of a manuscript into a drawer and leaving them there until you were encouraged to finish your first crime novel. What would you say to all the other would-be authors who have 50 pages lying in wait? What did you learn from that experience? What challenges did you overcome to write your first book?

I’d tell them to go for it...but only when they’re ready. I think all writers, especially with a first novel, have an internal clock that goes off when it’s time. They’ve thought about the story, maybe written a few chapters, and thought about it some more. Then one day it’s just time. The idea has ripened and is ready to be plucked. All the writer has to do is open the drawer, pull out those fifty pages and go for it. Once one does that, there’s no looking back. Don’t worry about what other people say. Don’t worry about how crowded the bookshelves might already be. Your voice is your voice. And it’s important. But only if you believe.

2.      Your work on Cold Case Files has informed your writing by giving you a lot of material and ideas. How is your work on that documentary significantly different from the work you do when writing? What skills from your TV work help you write better—and what holds you back?

Television is, by its nature, collaborative. You’re working closely with a group of people, each of whom has a part to play in telling the story. As a novelist, it’s just you and you’re responsible for everything. A huge amount of creative energy goes into creating plot, dialogue, character development, etc. Even simple things like getting a character from Point A to Point B.  The  novelist has to make it all happen and make it seem natural... almost inevitable.

I think my work in television has allowed me to write in a very tight, cinematic style. In TV, we’re always fighting the remote, trying to make sure our audience doesn’t click over to one of the 800 other shows on at any given time. There is a premium on grabbing the audience by the throat in the first minute of the show. It doesn’t have to be action per se, but that first minute or two has to be intriguing... something that will force your viewers to hang around. My books probably reflect that sort of thinking. I try to make the novels accessible and engage readers early on so they hang on for the ride. Also, when you write for TV, you’re working with pictures so your language tends to be tight, concrete and physical. I think I’ve probably adapted that sort of writing style in my books as well. As for drawbacks...probably too much of a good thing. Sometimes, I need to slow down the pacing.. and allow the story to draw a breath.

3.      Your first book was about vigilante justice. The NRA has just called for more guns in more places, and more armed citizens. What’s your take on this? Do you think the result will be safer communities or will we have more  George Zimmermans prowling our neighborhoods?

I don’t think arming our citizens is a good idea. I’ve seen a lot of violence and interviewed a lot of bad guys. Most of them will tell you one simple truth. Upon encountering an armed citizen, the criminal fully expects...and often does....disarm the citizen. The bad guy then either uses the gun on the citizen or just put it in his pocket and walks away. Leave the guns, especially handguns, in the hands of law enforcement professionals who are trained in using them and in apprehending criminals.

4.      You’re a guy with a Boston accent writing about Chicago. Why? And yes, you’re now writing about Boston, but why did you choose Chicago as the first setting for your first book?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in Chicago. As an investigative reporter, I covered Chicago, from the west side ghettos to city hall. The Kelly books are about this world – a grown-up place where nothing is as it seems, the waters run deep and there are sharks everywhere. My childhood was spent in Boston. That book will reflect the neighborhoods of my youth. There will still be a lot of danger and a lot of bad guys... but it’s seen through a dramatically different lens.

5.      You’ve made a conscious decision to include social issues in your work. But you’re careful not to let them slow down your storytelling. Can you give us some tips about including social issues without sounding preachy or slowing down the pace of a book?

I try to let the social issues bubble just below the surface. What I want to avoid is stopping the story in its tracks so I can hop up on a soapbox and pop off for a page and a half about some issue. It’s annoying to the reader and bad writing. Not sure how well I succeed, but I’m trying.

6.      The process of writing your first book sounded very “seat-of-the-pants.” Since then, have you stuck with that process or have you done more advance planning?

Not much advance planning. I just start somewhere and see where the characters and the story takes me. I’ve tried to some “planning”, but I always wind up writing chapter instead of outlines!!

7.      You mentioned the backlog of rape kits found in Boston. A similar situation happened in St. Louis, but the police made a conscious decision NOT to process kits collected from women they deemed to be prostitutes. Can you explain why this is such a bad idea? Have you seen similar examples of prejudiced decisions by law enforcement officers? What can we do as a society to help keep our law enforcement officers from becoming jaded or letting their personal prejudices determine their commitment to justice?

It’s an absurd decision... unless as a society we somehow believe that a case where a prostitute has been raped is not as important as others in the system. I don’t believe that. As a practical matter, however, that is the de facto decision made by a lot of communities. And it’s not just prostitutes.  Chicago is in the middle of a horrific run of murders, but do we see a lot of outrage? In the newspapers? From the mayor? City council? We see some gestures of concern, but little in the way of concrete action. Why? Because most of the victims are black, poor and live in areas that barely exist in the minds of most affluent or even middle-class Chicagoans. Is this attitude unusual or unique to Chicago? No. It just is what it is.

8.      Please tell us about your newest work and any work in progress.

My next novel, THE INNOCENCE GAME, will be released this May. It’s about three Northwestern students who get involved in a death penalty case the Chicago PD would prefer be left alone. It’s not a Kelly book...but he might make a cameo!

The next Kelly book, THE GOVERNOR’S WIFE, is written as well. No release date yet, but we’re thinking either the end of 2013 or early 2014. The book is about an Illinois governor who’s sentenced to thirty years in jail for corruption (can you believe it!!). He disappears from the Dirksen building on the day of his sentencing. A manhunt ensues, but this guy is just gone... a la Whitey Bulger. The book opens three years later. Kelly gets an anonymous email hiring him to find the guy. Kelly starts off by talking to the governor’s bitter, angry and generally pissed-off wife. This is probably my favorite Kelly novel. A lot of fun to write.

I am currently writing a book set in Boston. Also playing around with another Chicago book set inside 26th and Cal... as well as a screenplay that has nothing to do with crime!!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

When My Grandmother Shot My Grandfather

Yep. It happened like this...

Granddaddy had served in WWII, and like many servicemen, he brought home his pistol. He must have kept it loaded and lying around the house, because one night when my mother came home from a date, she found the police there...

Seems that my grandmother had accused my grandfather of cheating on her.

The argument grew heated.

She picked up the gun and shot him.

I think her aim was off, because she got him in the leg. Knowing her, she probably aimed higher. Oh, about 24 inches higher.

True story.

Granddaddy and "Gar gar" (my grandmother) on their honeymoon.
Keep it in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that we're all safer with guns in our home. Some of us might be, but not all of us are.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Nine of Wands: Safeguarding My Energy

Every year my sister and I host a New Year's Day party at my house. We invite Karen, a local psychic, to come and tell people's fortunes. Karen is completing her dissertation in biology. She's whip-smart and very, very talented. Although she has many psychic talents, Karen prefers to use Tarot cards when working with clients.

This year, while Karen was doing my reading, the Nine of Wands showed up.

At first glance, it's easy to misunderstand what the card means, because it looks like the man is imprisoned by the wands. But on closer inspection, you can see that he's built a fortress of them. They safeguard him. He is not a prisoner.

Karen told me, "You need to protect your energy. Too many demands on it are sapping you. For you to continue the success you've got going with your career, you need to do a better job of keeping people at bay--and saying no."

I knew that. I felt that. The run-up to the holidays was very busy for me. I've had a house full of people, people I love. But I've also felt drained and been unable to concentrate on my work. I do my best thinking when I'm alone in my house. I also need to refuse to answer the phone. Well-meaning people say, "Oh, I'll only talk a minute," but that minute has cost me an hour of momentum or more.

It's difficult for others to understand, but my job is not nine-to-five. I don't start and stop at obvious times. When I'm on a roll, I work around the clock. Even if it looks like I'm doing laundry, I'm thinking. I'm plotting. I'm planning. A phone call seems innocent enough, but it's like being dragged through one of those black holes they had on Star Trek. I'm yanked out of my reality and into the real world.

I told Karen that I understood what she was saying. She continued the reading, but as she did, I had this urge to get up and pull out my own set of Tarot cards. I mean, I could NOT sit still. Since we were in my office, it wasn't hard for me to locate my deck.

I handed the case over to Karen, and as I did, all my cards fell out. Face down. She helped me retrieve them.

"One of them is vibrating," she said calmly, as she plucked it from the pile.

It was this card, the Nine of Wands.

Okay! I get the message!