Awhile back I posted a review of John Larison’s great book Holding Lies. Truly, this was one of the best books I have read in a long time. Well, John was kind enough to submit himself to an honest-to-goodness Desert Rat interview!

1) I get the geographic connection – why did you choose a murder mystery?

Like most anglers I know, I can’t sit still. (My wife sometimes jokes I have a disease she calls “WHAD,” or Weekend Hyper-Activity Disorder). I love books, love exploring their places and learning their mysteries, but I have trouble occupying a chair long enough to read one. So for a book to keep me reading–especially when the steelhead are running or the elk are bugling–it has to be pretty damn intriguing.

When I was first writing Holding Lies, I was maybe eight pages in and felt like the story was slowing. I knew I was coming to like this guy Hank, and I could already feel his story brewing, but the novel itself wasn’t moving like the river Hank was fishing–if I was a reader, I would have been starting to think about the flies I wanted to tie or the lines I wanted to splice. And then something strange happened: Hank and his client came around a corner and saw an empty boat stranded on an island, its anchor up.

I didn’t know if the boat had been lost in a rapid or if its occupant was injured, and I certainly wasn’t thinking ‘murder mystery.’ (I actually never considered this book a ‘mystery’ until the publisher called it one). I learned of the death, of the crime, of the guilt party as I wrote the story, at times a couple moves ahead of the reader but usually in stride with the reader. In that way, this book was great fun to write; I couldn’t put it down, so to speak.

2) This is your 2nd book right? Is the 2nd easier than the 1st, harder, or just different?

My approach to the first novel, Northwest of Normal, grew from the lessons I learned writing a long how-to book on steelheading a year before, called The Complete Steelheader. With that book, I outlined things ahead of time and thought of the book as a finish carpenter might a cabinet: at times using a jig saw and others a pad of sandpaper but all the time working toward a preconceived goal. As a result, writing Northwest of Normal felt like a labor of sorts.

Writing Holding Lies, on the other hand, felt like entering a dream, lingering there, taking the reins, and steering it where it wanted to go. Writing it felt–this might sound weird–like exploring a mountain stream, actually. In that respect the book was great fun to write.

3) How did you decide to start writing books? Was it a natural evolution from your other writing? A lifelong goal? Spur of the moment?

Spur of the moment. I was loading my drift boat for a day of guiding and thinking about how someday I wanted to write a book–then and there I had a little epiphany: If I didn’t write a book then, I never would. So, I quit guiding, quit teaching (my other job at the time), and entered the MFA program at Oregon State University where I knew Ted Leeson (author of the brilliant HABIT OF RIVERS) taught. Best move I ever made.

Then began the hard work: first, two years of half-starts and dead ends, not to mention the sometimes brutal “workshop sessions” with my fellow grad students. But those two years conveyed ten years worth of self-taught lessons. The next five have proven that writing–like fishing or hunting–is an activity with limitless potential for learning; everyday you ‘go’, you learn something new and important.

4) What advice do you have for someone who wants to write a book?

Tell someone you’ve already written it, and ask them if they will read it. When they say, Sure, you’ll be committed, and you’ll have to buckle down and get it done.

Nah, actually, writing a book is brutal work–all those hours sitting at a desk…all the indecision…all the anguish as publishers reject. Writing might be the least efficient activity known to humanity. My advice: ask yourself if you want to ‘be a writer’ or if you ‘need to write a book.’ If you want to be a writer, come to your senses. If you need to write a book, free up two to four hours every day, and get to work. And keep your head down until you have a complete draft.

5) How are sales going?

Superbly. A review published in the Oregonian newspaper claimed Holding Lies is this generation’s A River Runs Through It. (DesertRat note – I just might agree!)
Publishing a book is a little like throwing a rock into a lake: you give it your best heave, then watch to see what kind of splash it makes. At this moment, Holding Lies is still landing. But everyday, a new review appears or I’m asked to do a reading or an interview. Readers too have been contacting me, and the book seems to have unleashed passion within them. If Holding Lies didn’t sell another copy, I’d be still be content with this splash.

But more than immediate sales, I’m most interested in writing a book that stays alive. Most books arrive, are read by a few, and then fade away. I hope that Holding Lies, well, ‘holds’ its place on people’s nightstands. Only time will tell.

6) Have you had any unexpected challenges in marketing your book(s)?

Interestingly, the “mystery” label has caused some unexpected challenges. Mystery novels are often read by special mystery reviewers, not literary ones. Those books take a different path, so to speak. But the publicity folks at Skyhorse (the press that published Holding Lies) have been on-the-ball, and the book is in the hands of all the reviewers I would have sent it to and more.

These are strange times for books though; there are too many books coming out each year. The market is flooded. The biggest challenge in marketing a book these days, then, is finding a raft for your book to ride–otherwise it will drown in the flood’s undertow. A book like Holding Lies has an advantage, I think, because its raft is built in: outdoorsy folks are naturally readers, and we’re always looking for a book that celebrates our spectacular lifestyle.

7) What’s next for you?

Fishing (the summer steelhead are grabby now). Then bowhunting (elk season opens next week). And then back to work finishing a new novel, this one called Finding Bigfoot, about a wilderness paramedic and fifth generation hunting guide who becomes entangled in a violent revolt against Big Oil in the forests of Washington.

I would sincerely like to thank John for taking time out of his schedule to answer my questions. He’s a stand-up guy, and I can’t wait to read his next book! ~Desert Rat