Articles

For Sandford, everything feels right but the timing
by Curt Schleier
The Grand Rapids Press
June 23, 2002

John Sandford is perturbed with Jean Auel [1].
Auel is the author of The Shelters of Stone, widely considered this summer's hot book. It took her 12 years to write, and Sandford wants to know why she couldn't spend just a few more months at her typewriter.
Auel's cavewoman saga combined with various Star Wars books probably will keep Sandford from getting where he wants to go.
"I'm not going to go No. 1 (on the best-seller list), and I want to," he said on the phone from his home in Minnesota.
Sandford, 57, is the author of 13 bestselling Prey novels, including the just-released Mortal Prey (Putnam, 369 pages, $26.95). All feature Minneapolis police detective Lucas Davenport. Sandford is used to the books becoming great successes, a trend he'd like to continue, if only for bragging rights with fellow mystery writers.
"James Lee Burke, who is probably the most literary of the bunch of us, and Michael Connelly, we all think about the money, and we're all competitive," Sandford said [2].
Sandford is a pseudonym for Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Camp. He adopted a pen name (Sandford is his middle name [3].) when his fiction first found favor with the public and two publishers vied for two series of books he was writing.
The first featured a protagonist named Kidd — an artist, tarot-card-player and karate and computer expert who used his hacking abilities to solve crimes and build a personal fortune [4].
Shortly after it was sold (under the name John Camp) but before it was released, another publisher, Putnam, bid on Rules of Prey, the first Lucas Davenport book. Camp's agent, Esther Newberg, told him Putnam, "is not going to want to publish (the Prey books) under the Camp name."
So Sandford it was. When the Davenport books took off, it was goodbye Kidd.
Sandford liked the Kidd character, but it was a matter of pure economics. "I got $15,000 for the first Camp book and $40,000 for the second [5]. But Putnam gave me $400,000 for two Davenport books. I was just a newspaper reporter. I'm not making big bucks. People were giving me a lot of money to write the Davenport books, so I just took it."
Truth be told, Sandford wasn't just a newspaper reporter. He'd won a Pulitzer in 1986 for a series in the St. Paul Pioneer Press about the Midwest farm crisis. He was also a finalist for the prize in 1980, for an article about Native American communities in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Before that, he worked alongside Edna Buchanan (also a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter-turned mystery novelist) at the Miami Herald.
In short, Sandford was living out his childhood dream.
"When I was growing up (in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), I wanted to be a newspaper reporter," he said.
But by the late 1980s, "I was burning out on newspapers," Sandford said. "I'd been doing it for 20 years. I never really wanted to become an editor. I didn't want to work my way up the ladder. And you can only be a reporter for so long before your brain starts to shrivel up."
So he tried his hand at fiction. He sent a novel called "Chippewa Zoo" to agent Newberg, who liked his writing style but thought the book lacked focus. As Sandford recalled, she told him "it was science fiction, Western, social commentary, feminist track [6]. She was right, and it made me realize I had to sit down and think about the way books are written."
"I read a lot of mystery fiction, and the ones I gravitated to has a kind of outsider.
He created two, first Kidd, the artist/computer expert, and then Davenport.
"I kind of thought of him as a sociopath, almost on the edge of being a little bit crazy," Sandford said about Davenport's early appearances.
For example, in Eyes of Prey, the third in the series, Davenport viciously pummels a pimp who disfigured a snitch. When Internal Affairs investigates, Davenport dismisses the incident, telling his bosses "the street understands" his actions. These "things have to be done by somebody."
It's exactly this strong moral sense of right and wrong Sandford's fans admire.
Samantha July, a manager at Book World, in West Caldwell, N.J., says, "I've read every book he's written. I think what makes the books appealing is Davenport is a no-nonsense type of cop who'll do whatever he has to to get the job done. Also, he's human. He takes the crimes personally. That's why he tries so hard to solve his cases."
Davenport has changed over the course of the series. He's mellowed. And he's also become more difficult to write, to keep fresh.
But Sandford's experience as a crime reporter helps.
"I got to know what (crime scenes) look like, and that actually adds to the reality of the books. Actually having seen murdered bodies lying around on the street helps. I had an idea for a series of crime novels based on sports that I thought would do well. But I'd never done sports, so I couldn't do it. I didn't know what it feels like."
"But I have hung out with cops and I know what that feels like."



Footnotes

1. And I was perturbed first. I told him a month before the book came out that, "Hey, this could mess up the list for you." Interestingly, she also had a Twin Cities signing on the same day my dad had his opening-night signing in Minneapolis. Coincidence... or conspiracy???

2. The way he says it makes it sound like they're all old buddies, or a club, or something. They're not. Just so you know.

3. Augh. Nobody gets this right. It's his father's middle name. It actually goes back quite a long way. And for the record, my dad's middle name is "Roswell". I should just post a family tree somewhere to sort things out once and for all.

4. Except for the "solve crimes" and "personal fortune" part, I suppose that's a fair assessment.

5. For some reason, I remember $65,000 as the advance he got for The Empress File, not $40,000. But it's been a decade, and I'm probably remembering inaccurately.

6. I think this is supposed to be feminist tract.