Interview: Steve Hockensmith
by Gayle Surrette
Review by Gayle Surrette
Gumshoe Review Interview ISBN/ITEM#: INTSHockensmith
Date: February 2008
Links: Steve Hockensmith's Website / Review of The Black Dove /
Gustav (Old Red) Amlingmeyer and his brother Otto (Big Red) strode off the pages and into my heart. The second book, On The Wrong Track just added to my enjoyment. It maybe all those reruns of Wild, Wild, West, Maverick, Gunsmoke, and The Rifleman and Have Gun, Will Travel but I have a definite liking for the lone hero against the odds. Well, the hero isn't always a loner but the odds are usually stacked against them.
So, when I need to pick someone for an interview for February's issue, I naturally decided to see if Steve Hockensmith would be willing to answer a few questions. Luckily, he agreed.Gumshoe: I've been to your website and can see that Otto has a few words about your name on his books. Does having the characters interact on the website help loosing the creative juices to get into character for writing? Or perhaps this is a time travel bubble.
Steve Hockensmith: Big Red's just such a strong character he takes on a life of his own. It happens while I'm writing the books and stories, too. Yeah, I'm the author, but it's all Big Red's voice -- he's the one doing the yarnspinning. So often things end up being much, much different than I originally planned (usually longer and quirkier) because Big Red hijacks what I'm trying to do. He's irrepressible...and believe me, there are times I'd like him repressed!
Gumshoe: From the first book, I've been intrigued with the Amlingmeyers and the books. What was the genesis for a cowboy Holmes? It certainly seems to work -- the Wild West and the Victorian Era being so close in feel with the clash of old traditions and customs with the new technological marvels? But what drew you to this era and these characters?
Steve: The thing that intrigued me in the beginning was that the Wild West and the Victorian Era are actually the same, chronologically: They overlap almost perfectly. And yet everyone views them so differently. One's rootin', tootin' and...well, *wild*. The other's supposedly repressed and oh-so "civilized." So I wanted to show those two opposites colliding. And who better to represent the Old West than an illiterate cowboy? And who better to represent the Victorians than Sherlock Holmes?
But there's a simpler explanation, too: It's all about my dad. He's both a huge Sherlock Holmes fan and a huge fan of Western movies, so I grew up to both myself. And since I ended up being a writer, maybe it was inevitable I'd try to mix the two.
Gumshoe: I haven't finished "The Black Dove" yet. But I imagine it was inevitable that you'd have to pull Gustav out of his comfort zone of the places and people he knows. Cities are about as foreign to Gustav as the outback would be to most of us. Do you enjoy pulling the rug out from under Gustav -- last book it was trains and motion sickness, this time he's a fish out of water. Or are you mirroring the Holmes cases where he had to go into the English moors and countryside?
Steve: The first Big Red/Old Red book takes place almost entirely on a cattle ranch, so I knew I had to do something really different for book two. That's why the boys ended up in the middle of a train mystery: Being jammed into those tight little compartments is the exact opposite of the wide open plains. The whole motion sickness subplot was just a way to keep the brothers off balance and therefore (hopefully) make things interesting. THE BLACK DOVE grew out of the fact that the train stopped near San Francisco at the end of the second book, and when you put wannabe detectives in the Bay Area circa 1893, why *wouldn't* you send them to the Barbary Coast and Chinatown?
I think you're right, though: I never let the guys get too comfortable, do I? They always seem to be down on their luck and on the verge of disaster. I'll have to give 'em a break one of these days. But not yet!
Gumshoe: Three books out with the brothers, are you still enjoying their company?
Steve: Most of the time, yeah. Like all writers, I have my bad days, and there are moments when I feel like I'm gonna burn out on what I'm doing. But then I'll have a good day, and a good day with Big Red is a ton of fun. So I haven't been tempted to kill the boys off yet!
I am really, really looking forward to writing a very different kind of novel one of these days. Yet with a book-a-year contract for this series, I have no idea when I'll actually have time to do anything else.
But hey -- as problems go, that's a fine one to have!
Gumshoe: Writer's tend to be readers but I always wonder, what was the first book that lit up your mind and opened possibilities? Did you always want to write?
Steve: I was making my own little fiction magazines and comic books way back in the sixth grade, so yeah -- the desire to be a storyteller was always there. It wasn't until high school that I started to take it sorta-kinda seriously as my Destiny though, and that was thanks to Kurt Vonnegut: After reading SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS, I was totally fired up to create off-the-wall stuff like that myself.
Yet while I was a big fan of old mystery movies, I was never a big mystery reader (except for Conan Doyle) until I stumbled across Chandler in my late twenties. THE BIG SLEEP really opened my eyes to the things you could do in the mystery genre with voice and point of view and tone. So it was Vonnegut who initially got me excited about putting words together, but until Chandler I didn't have a clue what those words would add up to.
Gumshoe: What has surprised you most about your readership and their response to your novels?
Steve: The biggest -- and most pleasant -- surprise has been my female fanbase (to the extent a new guy like me can be said to have a "fanbase"). When the series was first starting out, I was worried that the Western angle would scare away female readers. The Western is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a very, very male genre. But most of the readers I hear from are women. That can probably be attributed, to some extent, to the fact that the majority of readers of *anything* are women. Yet I also think (or maybe hope) that female readers respond to my books as historical mysteries with a strong and loving (though volatile and complicated) relationship at their core, and that (hopefully) transcends the whole Western thing.
Gumshoe: What's next for you? Anything simmering on the back burner?
Steve: I'm currently half-way through the first draft of Big Red/Old Red book four. After that's wrapped up, I'll take a little time off to crank out some short stories -- I try to do a handful each year -- and then it's back to the boys for book five. I keep hoping I'll have time to squeeze in a standalone novel, but it never happens. I have two kids under the age of five, so it's kind of amazing I can keep up with my contract as it is. In fact, it's kind of amazing I can get out of bed in the morning!
Sooner or later, I'm hoping to surprise everybody by tossing in a wild and wacky crime novel totally out of left field. But it's probably not going to be anytime soon....
Gumshoe: Thanks, for the time, Steve.