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|The Prey Series|
John Sandford on Shadow Prey
Shadow Prey was the second book in the Prey series, and like most second novels, it was a tough one to write. With a first novel, you've essentially got an unlimited amount of time to tinker and tune nobody knows you're writing it, it's probably junk anyway, so who cares? But if the first one works, there's immediate pressure to come back with a second one, to keep the momentum going. Get it out in a year...
When the first book in the series, Rules of Prey, was published, I was still a fairly inexperienced writer of fiction. Further, I had no idea where the series was taking me, or how to manage a series.
So what did I do with my second novel? This one? Well, I made a mistake I tried to make a thriller into a social commentary. You won't see the mistake, because the first version of Shadow was never published.
A thriller can be a social commentary, I believe, but it's difficult to do. A social commentary needs an argument, needs details, needs explanations. Needs lots and lots of words, big blocks of grey type. A thriller needs velocity and action. Cracking-wise is fine in a thriller; it doesn't work so well in a sober social commentary.
A good thriller should carry the reader along, like a whitewater river. The can't-put-it-down characteristic is critical. A social commentary is naturally dry; and if your reader happens to have a different social opinion, it's also disagreeable. In other words, the book is put-downable.
When I finished the first version of Shadow, I knew that something wasn't right. I sent it off anyway. My editor's reaction was luke-warm. I didn't want luke-warm. I took the book back, tore it to pieces, and then put it back together.
The FBI chief in this book? The focus of the main action? He wasn't even there in the first version...
I did the social commentary because I'm interested in them and I did a lot of them when I was a newspaper reporter. One of the longest pieces I ever wrote (I was the co-author with reporter/columnist Nick Coleman, who now works for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) involved the great Sioux Uprising of 1862.
Because it occurred in the midst of the American Civil War, you don't hear much about it, compared to the later Indian Wars in the West. The Sioux Uprising in Minnesota, however, may have been the deadliest of them all.
There were at least 447 deaths among white settlers, and probably more almost twice as many as in the Custer fight. The number of Sioux casualties are unknown, but directly and indirectly, were very large. During the hostilities, captured Indians were held in a concentration camp less than a mile from what is now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, in the heart of the Twin Cities, and like later concentration camps, it was a place of terror, rape and death.
After the Uprising, Mankato, Minnesota, became the scene of the largest mass execution in American history, when 38 Sioux were hanged in a single drop from a huge scaffold, with the approval of President Lincoln.
Reverberations from the war continue to be felt in Minnesota to this very day, with its large number of Sioux and Ojibwe residents.
The interviews and discussions that Coleman and I had with a large number of Sioux became the background for Shadow Prey. That alone wouldn't have affected the thriller qualities of the book as long as the social commentary didn't become too obtrusive. But because I'd been so heavily immersed in the material, I kept putting more and more of it in.
That killed the original version; killed the speed and the thrills.
I solved the problem by introducing a whole new arc to the book, and, frankly, by throwing most of the social commentary overboard. In the revised version, the Sioux characters carry obvious and deadly grudges, and the reader is given enough to understand them, but no more.
If you really want to get an idea of what happened back then... you're gonna have to read a history book. Shadow Prey is now a thriller.
I do, by the way, think a pretty good social commentary could be written as a thriller. I may try it, and soon. If you should hear of a distinguished white-haired author being flung from the top of the Putnam Publishing tower in Manhattan... check my editor.
His name is Neil Nyren, and he may not agree with my social commentary / thriller theory.
John Sandford, March 14, 2005
20 August 2019
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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