Tuesday, April 28, 2009

An Interview with Chester Campbell

Chester Campbell is a former journalist, freelance magazine writer and publisher, and public relations man. He wrote speeches for the governor of Tennessee and commercials for bluegrass musicians Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Fortunately, he made good on his promise to write novels after he retired. He’s written four mysteries in the Greg McKenzie series, and The Surest Poison, his first book in a new series, featuring private investigator Sid Chance, is a tale of deception, pollution, and old conflicts surfacing.PDD:
You now have four books in your Greg McKenzie series. Why did you decide to write another PI series with a different type of protagonist?

I enjoyed writing about Greg and Jill McKenzie, a pair of sleuths in their late sixties. Writing their snappy banter was particularly enjoyable. Several reviewers referred to them as cozies. I didn’t think of the books that way, but they’re certainly not hard-boiled, and I felt I’d reached the place where I wanted to strike out on a bit edgier path.

The Surest Poison deals with the dumping of a large amount of a toxic chemical behind a small plant in a rural community west of Nashville. When the state comes after the plant’s current owner, PI Sid Chance is hired to find the real responsible party. He soon finds himself, and his associate, Jaz LeMieux, beset by three seemingly unrelated murders, an explosion, and shadows from Sid’s past.

I gather Sid has—what’s the current term—issues?

He was formerly a National Park ranger, then spent ten years as a small town police chief. After he was disgraced and forced to resign, he spent three years roughing it in a hillside cabin in the woods fifty miles from the city. Jaz got him out of that cabin, back to Nashville and into the PI business.

Jaz is sharp, sexy, and fourteen years younger than Sid. Do we see romance ahead?

A. Sid has never been married, or even had a serious relationship. He and Jaz clash now and then, but they’re obviously coming closer. Who knows what may lie ahead?

Where did the plot for The Surest Poison come from?

I have a friend in Nashville named Norma Mott Tillman who is a private investigator specializing in finding missing persons. She’s pretty well known, being on Oprah and several other shows. She told me about a case she had investigated in West Tennessee a few years ago that involved a similar scenario. I saw the possibilities, moved it closer to Nashville, and the story took off.

I should have given Ralph Waldo Emerson credit for the title, but I don’t guess he’ll complain. He wrote an essay in The Atlantic back in 1862 in which he said substances like prussic acid and strychnine “are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time.” I thought it fit the story. The actual poison took years to affect the community, while time took its toll on the characters.

The Surest Poison is published by Night Shadows Press, your second small publisher. What are the pluses and minuses of going with a small publisher?

I’ve heard a lot of New York editors are only concerned with acquiring manuscripts. With a small press, I got to work closely with my editors. I learned an awful lot from my first editor.

I’ve also been fortunate that my editors have stuck with my suggested titles. The only change in mine was with the first book, which I called The Secret of the Scroll. I was rightfully told to leave off the first “The.” Covers involve another plus. I have had total input on all my covers. An additional favorable aspect is production time. From the time I sent the manuscript to the editor, it was no more than nine months until the release date.

On the minus side, the chief problem is distribution. The books are available through Ingram and Baker & Taylor and can be ordered through any bookstore. However, the stores do not routinely stock them. They will only be on the shelf at places where I have done signings. Also, the major review sites mostly ignore small publishers. Library Journal is the only one that has reviewed some of my books. However, respected review sites like Midwest Book Review and Crimespree Magazine always come through.

I’m not telling secrets to say that loads of us in the mystery community envy your ability to do top-notch book signings. Got tips for the rest of us?

I’m always looking for any kind of venue where I can sell. One of my grandsons’ school has a Market Place. I went there and to a street fair in a small town not far from here. My book launch for The Surest Poison will be at my church. Church members are always asking, “When will your next book be ready?” So I know I’ll sell a bunch of books there. I do some signings in larger chain bookstores as well, and we have a small mystery bookstore in Nashville that pushes my books and has ordered several copies of the new one.

I’m pulling out all the stops for this new release, primarily on-line. With the economy as it is, I’m cutting back on travel this year, spending more on venues where I can sell books. I’ve recently done the Southern Kentucky Book Fest, and will do the Kentucky Book Fair in November. I’ve always done well at book fairs.

So I guess my tips are get on the road, do bookstore signings when you can, and constantly keep your eye out for other places to sell. Build a team. I’m very fortunate that my wife plays such a big part in all of my appearances. She’s my shill: she passes out small promo folders and directs people to where I’m signing. If you’re not as lucky as I am, with a ready-made co-conspirator, build a team to help you sell.

It sounds like retiring to write books has been very rewarding.

I’d say there are several rewards. The first is that I simply enjoy writing mysteries. I wrote eight before the first one sold, and I guess I’d still be writing away if none of them had. Another is the satisfaction I get when readers tell me how much they enjoy reading my books. And being a bit vain as we all are, I get a charge out of reading a good review, like the one Jon Jordan wrote in the current Crimespree Magazine that ended, “A top rate mystery by a gem of a writer.”

For more information about Chester and his books visit his web site.
Sharon's blog returns next week.


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Enjoyed the interview and thanks for the tips on book signings, Chester.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

iasa said...

Nice interview. I look forward to reading some of Mr. Campbell's work.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Chester, you and Sarah are two of my favorite people, particularly the example you set and how you live life to the fullest. Best of good luck with this new book. With Sarah's help, you are likely to sell a zillion. I always enjoy your books. Many hugs, Lonnie

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Jane, you're one of my faithful tour followers.

Glad you enjoyed the interview, Iasa.

Lonnie, what can I say? You've been there from the start, old friend.

Beth Groundwater said...

Hi Chester,
I've been enjoying following your tour, though I often end up reading your guest blog posts the day after you post them, so I don't comment. I got to this one on the same day, though. I enjoyed the interview, esp. describing your wife as a "co-conspirator." I'm thinking of emailing a link to this post to my husband, who will be going with me on my 2-week northwest book tour. I KNOW he'll soon tire of being a greeter at my signings and go off to drink coffee and play with his i-phone. ;)

Patricia Stoltey said...

Chester, you are an inspiration to many of us who didn't focus on writing fiction (as opposed to reports and project plans) until we retired...I'm looking forward to reading the first Sid Chance mystery. Pat

Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Beth. Your hubby will get to meet a lot of nice folks and, unfortunately, a few not-so-friendly ones. But it's fun. Be sure he knows where the restrooms are.

Hi, Pat. Back when I was working 60-hour weeks it was hard to concentrate on outside writing. It's much easier now.

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