Interviewed by Sandra Parshall
Lori Armstrong, the Shamus Award-winning author of Snow Blind and three earlier novels in the Julie Collins private eye series, introduces a new heroine this month with the release of No Mercy, featuring former Army sniper Mercy Gunderson.
Lori’s first Julie Collins mystery, Blood Ties (2005) was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First Novel by the Private Eye Writers of America. The second book in the series, Hallowed Ground (2006) was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original and a Daphne du Maurier Award, and it won the Willa Cather Literary Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction. Shallow Grave (2007) was nominated for a 2008 High Plains Book Award and a Daphne du Maurier Award and was a finalist for the 2008 WILLA Award. The fourth book, Snow Blind (2008) won the Shamus Award for Best Paperback Original. Lori is a fourth generation South Dakotan and lives in Rapid City with her family. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in the firearms industry. Visit her website for more information about her books and her appearance schedule.
Q. Congratulations on your Shamus win! What does the award mean to you as a writer?
A. Since my character Julie Collins is a PI, for me, the Shamus Award, given by the Private Eye Writers of America, is “the” big award in the mystery world. Snow Blind was the third book that’d been nominated over the last four years, so I guess third time’s the charm! I was thrilled and stunned to hear I’d won. I couldn’t attend Bouchercon due to deadlines, and I accepted via cell phone when my name was announced at the award banquet. At first I thought my friend Judy was pulling my leg. She said, “You won, I’m on my way to the podium right now, what would you like me to say?” I sort of fumbled through thanks etc., because I honestly hadn’t expected to win. When I heard afterward that all my writing heroes, like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, had been in the audience, it was probably a good thing I wasn’t there as I might’ve gone all geeky fan girl on them.
Q. Tell us about the first book in your new Mercy Gunderson series, No Mercy.
A. Mercy Gunderson comes home to South Dakota on medical leave from the army. Her father just died, leaving the fate of her family’s large 100-year-old ranch in her hands. Problem is, Mercy left home at age eighteen because she wanted nothing to do with the ranch or that lifestyle. A body shows up on their land and the local sheriff is dragging his feet investigating, so Mercy gets embroiled in all sorts of situations that are just as dangerous as the ones she faced in war, but the stakes are higher because it’s personal.
Q. Has the Julie Collins series ended?
A. Snow Blind is the last book in the Julie Collins series. Hopefully I’ll be writing Mercy books for a few years. Right now I’m contracted for one other book in the Mercy Gunderson series, which I’m working on now.
Q. How do Mercy and Julie differ? What kind of stories can you write about Mercy that you couldn’t write about Julie?
A. Mercy is as cool-headed as Julie is hot-headed. As career army, Mercy is used to following orders. Julie doesn’t like anyone telling her what to do. Mercy worships her recently deceased father and holds herself to his standard. Julie’s relationship with her father is irreparable and she refuses to be anything like him. As far as similarities, they both lost their mothers at an early age. They’re both loyal, opinionated, tough and smart. They both like to drink and are attracted to men that maybe on the surface aren’t the best match for them. Mercy is one quarter Sioux, but she’s never embraced that part of her heritage, so I can explore that racial identity aspect more in this series.
Q. Both your series have Native American characters and themes. Are you drawing on personal knowledge, or do you have to research the culture? Do you have Native American friends you can turn to for advice?
A. I do a ton of research, hands-on mostly. One of the things I love about living here are the opportunities to do research, either formally, talking to Native people, or observing them in social and public situations. What’s been both enlightening and disheartening is the learning curve I’ve undertaken in the last ten years. To be honest, when I started research, I realized I didn’t know much about the Lakota culture after being a South Dakotan all my life. I’ve tried to rectify that. I have several friends who have helped me out immensely with Lakota language, traditions, and are willing to answer my oftentimes bizarre questions. I try to make everything as accurate as I can, but that means touching on some of the issues on the reservations and within the culture that aren’t pretty.
Q. What kind of work did you do in the firearms industry? Has that background come in handy in your fiction writing?
A. My husband’s family owns a firearms manufacturing business and I worked as a bookkeeper for ten years. On one hand, it’s great because I have gun experts at my fingertips; on the other hand, some people look at the words “firearms industry” and think I’m a gun-toting redneck. But the pros definitely outweigh the cons and my husband doesn’t balk at my bizarre questions any more.
Q. A lot has been written and said recently about violence against women in crime novels. Is this an issue you ever consider when you’re writing? Do you have any strong feelings one way or the other about crime novels in which women are usually the victims?
A. No. I have to turn off the internal editor, aka, worrying about what family, friends, readers, etc. might think when I’m working on a book and stay true to the story/characters/plot as I see it. I don’t back away from detailing violent acts. In most instances everything happens right on the page, rather than having my main female characters “hear” about a murder. Why? Because for me as a writer, it makes the stakes and reaction to the brutality more real, more immediate, and more dangerous, especially since I’m penning a darker rather than a lighter type of mystery. Violent death is horrible, regardless if the victim is a woman or a man.
Q. In addition to crime fiction, you’ve published a number of contemporary erotic western romances under the name Lorelei James. Why do you use different names in the two genres?
A. I get that question a lot, if I took another name because I’m embarrassed to write erotic romance (erotic romance is completely different than erotica, by the way). My answer? Absolutely not, I am just as proud of the romances as I am of the mysteries. The books have a plot, intriguing characters, a believable conflict and a world I can explore since I’m in essence writing a western saga, featuring members of the same family. I took on a pen name for the romances strictly for shelving purposes in bookstores and libraries.
Since I started writing toward publication in 2000, I knew I’d need a counterbalance in my writing life; switching back and forth allows me to write in first person point of view (mysteries) and multiple third person points of view (romances). Plus, writing mysteries takes me to some dark places. I figured if I was going to write about the worst aspects of life and humanity, murder, hatred and violence, then I wanted to write about the best aspects too, finding love, happiness with a happily ever after and the added bonus of some smokin’ hot sex scenes. I’m lucky I don’t have to choose one genre over the other and can write in both, but it does make for incredibly tight deadlines.
Q. Do you feel at all constrained in the way you can depict sexual relationships in your mysteries?
A. Yes. I took some hits on Shallow Grave for the very explicit sex scene. But it wasn’t gratuitous, and I won’t apologize for it because the scene furthered several important plots in the story line. My (former) editor at Simon and Schuster requested changes in the early edit stage of No Mercy, regarding a scene or two and I had no problem changing them. So the level of intimacy allowed in a series is subjective based on individual editorial preference. I’ll be working with a new editor for the second Mercy book, so it’ll be interesting to see what her editorial style will be when it comes to allowing me to explore the intimate side of relationships.
Q. What are your writing habits?
A. I write every day, without exception. I’ve been under extremely tight deadlines for the last few years, so I’ve had no choice but to hit a certain word count every day or risk being late on my deadline. I’ve taken very little time off. But with the state of the publishing industry, I will be the last person to complain about too much work! And I love it; I have the best job in the world.
Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are still struggling to break into print?
A. There is no muse. Don’t wait to be inspired. Sit down, get to work and finish a project. Edit. Then edit some more. Rinse, repeat!