Rules of Prey

John Sandford on Rules of Prey

It's tough being a street reporter much past the age of forty. The body can take it, but the mind begins to go. Your fiftieth murder, your twelfth flood, your ninth tornado, your one-hundredth multiple-fatality car accident (we don't report the lonely deaths, man intersecting with phone pole), your two-hundredth political stupidity.
At some point, it all becomes routine and uninteresting; you begin to fail not only your readers, but your sense of ethics. You can't just write yada-yada-yada two dead, you actually have to pay attention. Because, really, it's important stuff. You have to read the budget, look at the bodies, talk to the cops, get estimates on the damages, find new words for describing the state fair, the biggest porker, the proudest chicken, but you find that you can't.
A small tornado — or maybe it was an in-line wind, I can't actually remember — once messed up a small Wisconsin town and the farms around it. I was sent down to do the story, and I did it, talking to victims, asking if the wind sounded like a locomotive, searching for tales of good luck and the peculiar, noting the growing prevalence of pink fiberglass insulation over the old custard-colored stuff (lots of it around when the houses blow apart) and finally wound up in the farmyard of an elderly dairy farmer.
The barn had been pushed over, mostly; or had slumped, anyway. Part of it had fallen on a large mottled black-and-white dairy cow and had broken her front legs. She would have to be shot. She sat in a lump in the middle of the barnyard, in pain, her big cow eyes suggesting that she knew what was coming. The grizzled old guy who felt obliged to do the shooting — who considered the cow an old friend — told me about it and then sat on a stump and cried.
I almost couldn't bear it; and knew I was getting to the end of my reporting rope. I was sure of it when the next bad tornado came around. The storm had hit in Southwestern Minnesota, and as soon as I heard of it in the newsroom, I headed for the doors. I knew some editor would be looking for my ass, would want to send me on an overnight trip to look at busted-houses-broken-lives-weeping-children yada-yada-yada.
I hid out. Very bad attitude for a reporter.

I didn't want to stop writing, I just wanted to stop getting hurt. I tried writing a novel; it didn't sell, but I learned a lot. I wrote an essay on the artist John Stuart Ingle, published in book form as part of a major retrospective of Ingle's work. Most of The Eye and the Heart, The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle consisted of reproductions of John's paintings, of course, so it really wasn't my book. But it had hard covers, a slick jacket, and said John Camp (my real name) on the cover.
Hmm. Non-fiction.
I spent a good part of a year doing medical reporting, and turned that into another non-fiction book, called Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut.
But non-fiction too closely resembled the reporting I was trying to work away from. I decided to try fiction again.and from that decision came, first, a novel called The Fool's Run, with its hero Kidd, and then Rules of Prey.
The Fool's Run took a year to write, because I was learning how to do the work. In novel writing, a publisher doesn't want to hear that you're working on character development this time, you'll do plot next time, and three books down the road you'll try to pull it all together. They want all right now, in this book, or try again.
I learned how to do the work with Fool's Run. When she'd sold it, my agent, the estimable Esther Newberg, told me in a typical one-minute phone call, "You could probably make a living at this. You ought to write bigger books. You'd make a lot better money."
What's a bigger book? "You know — one with more character development, back story, more plot twists."
I began Rules in the middle of the summer and delivered it to Esther at Thanksgiving. She sold it over the long weekend.
I pretty much wrote it in a trance. Because I had to work if I wanted to feed my family, I was reporting all day and writing the novel all night. I would walk like a ghost through St. Paul's skyways, failing to recognize friends and familiar politicians, bumping into posts. I'd lose my car in the parking garage. I couldn't hear people talking to me; I'd go to political events and make notes on the book.
Everything in the book came from my experience as a newspaper reporter. I don't know how many dead bodies I've seen, or crime scenes I've attended, but it's a lot. I've covered dozens of court cases, spent weeks in the state penitentiary talking to killers, most of a year watching a variety of surgeries, including crime-related emergency surgeries.
I put it all in there.
None of it's real, of course.
Cops don't act like Lucas Davenport — they'd be fired or even imprisoned if they did. They aren't rich, they don't drive Porsches, most could give a rat's ass about fashion. Lucas Davenport does all of that. Nothing better, Lucas feels, than a really good-looking new suit. He's like that because he's a cross between cops and movie stars. I wanted him to be a star. I wanted him to be different. I wanted him to be a mean, tough cop that women liked.
Listen: a lot of writing comes out of you in a burst, our of your heart and your experience, but there's a good deal of calculation, too. I wanted to make people like Lucas Davenport. And when it came to thrills, if I had to make a choice between a good thrill and good police procedure, I didn't hesitate to throw the procedure overboard.
I found, when I was done, that cops mostly liked it. There was enough reality layered in the book — mostly stupid stuff, the kind of stupid stuff that is the fabric of the lives of most street cops — that they approved. Terrific. I got the same reaction from street reporters. Even better.
When I wrote Rules, it never really occurred to me that this one guy, Lucas Davenport, was going to be a second career for me. I thought Rules would be a stand-alone book, and that my next book might involve, say, a female FBI agent.
Still have her in my mind, but I've never gotten to her. Davenport has carried me on through fifteen more novels, and it's been a hell of a ride.
Enjoyed most of it; had a few bummers.
Gonna do a few more, I think.

— John Sandford, December 2, 2004