You know how it is when you walk into a room for the first time? When you’re not sure if you belong or who will talk with you? But then one person comes up to you and says, “Welcome! Come on and meet everyone. Let’s share some stories…” Well, Kate Flora is that person. A veteran of big publishing and small, nonfiction/true crime as well as mystery, Kate has done it all and is always willing to reach out and share. Plus, she’s a kickass writer, as her numerous honors will attest. It is my honor, then, today to introduce her – and to grill her about her many books and ongoing projects.
How does a book start for you?
Books usual begin with an idea that stirs wondering. Who is this character? Why is she or he in this situation? What happened before that caused this situation. From there, the plot starts to build. For example, in my Joe Burgess police procedural, Redemption, the story came from wondering what the experience of Vietnam vets was when the country got into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sent another generation of American youth off to ill-reasoned conflicts. My character was a vet who had never fully recovered from his experiences in Vietnam and his troubles were exacerbated by these new wars. That question shaped my victim, and then the question was: why kill someone so harmless and who has nothing? Or the wondering for my Thea Kozak mystery, Death Warmed Over, involved a murder victim, Thea’s realtor, who turns out not to be who she says she is, and no one knows anything real about her. She’s using a dead woman’s name and her life, on paper, has started only three years before. Are there clues to her identity to be found in careless comments she’s made in conversation? What happened in her past that fueled this need to disappear, and is it something from her past that caused her death?
Usually, I do what I call “cooking” where I carry the plot and characters around for a few months, imagining them, before I actually start writing the book.
Who in your latest book has surprised you most – and why?
This is a fascinating question, Clea. I think I’ll have to answer for the forthcoming (some time in 2019) book, book 6 in my Joe Burgess series, A Child Shall Lead Them. The central character in that series, Burgess, is a gruff long-time detective in Portland, Maine whose monkish life being devoted to his work is derailed when he falls for a woman who wants children, and in short order, finds his house full of kids. Burgess has a team including two other detectives, Terry Kyle, divorced and marriage-shy, with custody of his two daughters, and Stan Perry, who is the young, hot-shot stud and womanizer. Perry’s life is rapidly being turned around when his girlfriend, Lily, gets pregnant, but until the day she gives birth, he’s still on the fence about marriage and family. The arrival of his daughter, Autumn, is transformative. Even as the writer (and thus the inventor) of Stan Perry, I didn’t know until that event how he would react to parenthood.
When and/or where is your latest book set and is there a story behind that setting?
My latest Thea Kozak mystery, Schooled in Death, takes place at a boarding school in Massachusetts that has a very green, very ethical culture. The story opens when a sophomore girl gives birth in a school bathroom and discards her infant in the trash. The baby is rescued by another student, but the girl who gave birth insists that the baby can’t be hers because she has never had sex and never been pregnant. I wanted to work with the challenge of explaining the girl’s reality and how she could be telling the truth in the context of a truth-telling culture where taking responsibility is highly valued and she appears to have violated many of the community’s norms. Thea, as a consultant to the school brought in to handle this crisis, has to explore what has actually happened, how Heidi’s certainty that she’s never had sex could be true for her, and in the midst of the investigation, Heidi disappears and the question becomes whether the person responsible for that pregnancy has done her harm. Part of the fun/challenge of working with a closed community like a boarding school is exploring how information spreads, who has secrets, and whether the “grownups” in charge are being positive role models.
What are you working on now?
I’m about eight chapters into the next Thea Kozak mystery, Death Comes Knocking, where I deal with the challenge of having a rather pregnant protagonist, and how that handicaps Thea, who has previously had no hesitation about mixing it up with bad guys. Now, responsible for another life along with her own, how will she go about solving the mystery of the pregnant woman next door who has suddenly disappeared, and the ill-tempered men in a black SUV who are looking for her.
Which question didn’t I ask you that I should have?
I suppose that one thing about my writing career is how nonlinear it has been. I started out thinking I was writing strong women mysteries with amateur protagonists who rescue themselves—think Nancy Drew comes of age. Along the way, I was sidetracked by the adventure of moving to the publishing/editing side of the table with Level Best Books and seven years of short story collections, and then, when the Thea Kozak series was dropped, venturing into police procedurals. With the Joe Burgess series, I moved from a female protagonist to three male protagonists. I was just learning my way around writing police procedurals when the police lieutenant who was my “go-to” guy for answers had a real murder he was supervising and he wanted to write about it. That led to my collaborating on a true crime, Finding Amy. After living with the victim, Amy St. Laurent, constantly in my head for a couple years, I went back to fiction, until one of the Maine game wardens who had helped find Amy’s body said he had another story for me. That one, up in Miramichi, New Brunswick, took five years and produced another true crime, Death Dealer.
Then I was truly done with nonfiction, until one of the game wardens who had used his cadaver dogs on both searches retired, wanted to write a memoir, and asked for my help. Help involved riding around in a pickup truck on Maine’s backroads, holding a tape recorder while he talked. That became A Good Man with a Dog. Then I truly retired to a life of fiction, included getting to write a really fun story called Michelle in Hot Waterfor an anthology called The Obama Inheritance, and had Maureen Corrigan read my story on NPR. One last nonfiction project, and I’ve retired to the world of fiction. Most recently, that has included a collection of short stories, Be Careful What You Wish For, and a novella about a woman’s book group taking revenge on men behaving badly called Be My Little Sugar.
But the question that rambling discourse answers is: What is your writer’s journey, and how did that journey come about?
Kate Flora’s fascination with people’s criminal tendencies began in the Maine attorney general’s office. Deadbeat dads, people who hurt their kids, and employers’ discrimination aroused her curiosity about human behavior. That curiosity led her to the world of crime. The author of twenty books and more than twenty short stories, Flora’s been a finalist for the Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. She won the Public Safety Writers Association award for nonfiction and twice won the Maine Literary Award for crime fiction. Death Warmed Over, her 8thThea Kozak mystery, was a finalist for the Maine Literary Award. Flora’s nonfiction focuses on aspects of the public safety officers’ experience. Her two true crimes, Finding Amy: A true story of murder in Maineand Death Dealer: How cops and cadaver dogs brought a killer to justice, follow homicide investigations as the police conducted them. Her co-written memoir of retired Maine warden Roger Guay, A Good Man with a Dog: A Game Warden’s 25 Years in the Maine Woods, explores policing in a world of guns, dogs, misadventure, and the great outdoors. Her latest nonfiction is Shots Fired: The Misconceptions, Misunderstandings, and Myths about police shootings with retired Portland Assistant Chief Joseph K. Loughlin. Her latest fiction is Schooled in Death, her ninth Thea Kozak mystery. In 2019, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the New England Crime Bake. Flora divides her time between Maine and Massachusetts.