In his 14th novel featuring retired police chief Kevin Kerney, Head injuries (WW Norton & Company, 320 pages, 2020), novelist Michael McGarrity’s beloved protagonist plays a supporting role alongside the character’s son, Detective Clayton Istee. But that doesn’t mean 70-year-old Kerney doesn’t have wisdom to pass on from his years on the force. McGarrity, 81, who introduced the character to the world with the publication of her first crime novel, Tularosa (WW Norton & Company, 304 pages, 1996) has them too, and not just from his own years in law enforcement.
It has something to say to aspiring fiction writers. Some of them may be hard to hear, but it’s important if a writer wants to make a career out of writing their stories on paper.
McGarrity, a 2004 recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in Literature, established the Hillerman-McGarrity Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of New Mexico, the N Scott Momaday at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the Richard Bradford Memorial Creative Writing Fellowship at Santa Fe Community College. On Tuesday, February 15, he is giving an online talk aimed at aspiring novelists: “How Writers Sabotage Themselves and What to Do About It.” The event is sponsored by the Santa Fe Community College Library.
McGarrity spoke with Pastime about his own transition from various roles within the criminal justice system to that of a full-time writer. With a slew of Kerney novels under her belt as well as a prequel trilogy, the nationally bestselling author can talk about the one thing that gives her novels authenticity: experience.
Pastime: Long before becoming a novelist, you spent over 25 years in the criminal justice system. Undoubtedly, this experience helps you write police procedurals with some authority.
Michael McGarrity: I have a background in clinical social work. My wife and I have been in Santa Fe for almost 60 years now. When I came back from college, out of state, we came to Santa Fe. We lived in Albuquerque before that. Before returning to New Mexico, and after my return, I worked closely with the criminal justice system. It was my professional goal as a social worker.
Pasa: You also worked for the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department. How did that happen?
MM: I was recruited by an acquaintance. At the time, there was a rather forward-looking sheriff who wanted to make some improvements to the department and how it worked. I had to help in the development of certain critical services and modernization attempts.
Pasa: I understand that you helped create a sex crimes unit as part of this process.
MM: Yes. It was not a full time unit. What we had to do was pick some pretty good field officers, patrol officers who were interested in this, and train them to kind of operate on the ground, just because we had a huge increase in some high profile cases. sexual assault and domestic violence cases in the county. A rape crisis center had recently developed, so we were able to work with them. It was really a great collaborative effort from the community agencies and the sheriff’s department.
Pasa: And such an important service.
Pasa: What prompted you to change your career direction and turn to writing?
MM: I worked for the New Mexico Department of Corrections. After the infamous riots of 1980, I was appointed head of the department’s adult mental health services. My job was going to be to help them rebuild those services across the correctional system. It was a real work of exhaustion. Then I went to work managing an inpatient program for the chronically mentally ill. I decided at that time – it was in the early 80s – that I wanted to take some time off and see if I could tell a story. I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been good at writing. I’ve written professional articles and a lot of annual reports, things like that.
Pasa: And you were majoring in English at the University of New Mexico, so literature was something you were familiar with.
MM: In fact, I had a double major in English and psychology. I was working as a writer for an educational publishing house in Albuquerque that had been started by one of my psychology professors. He hired me as a junior editor. As I finished my first year, he decided he wanted to move the operation to Palo Alto, California. I accompanied for the ride. After working there for a while, I quit and graduated from San Jose State University.
MM: I guess I had this itch to see if I could tell a story, to see if I could actually write something that made sense. It was like a great experience.
Pasa: Has it become Tularosa?
MM: Oh no. The first two manuscripts I wrote sucked. There was very little that could be salvaged from either. But it was a learning experience. Storytelling is not an easy task. It’s a monster of a task to be able to do it properly. I discovered that I could do badly better than anyone. But I decided I could learn. I could work my way through this. There were things I was good at. I was good at description. I was good at character development. I totally yearned for dialogue. I had all kinds of gaps in my story. But it was great fun for me to try.
Pasa: When Tularosa was finally released, were you surprised by the success?
MM: Oh yes. I was absolutely surprised. I had somehow gotten the brass ring. I had done something that I knew was remarkable because it was something that very few writers had ever experienced, getting a book published by a New York publisher. I thought, “That’s great. I just have to keep working and see if I can do another book. I had a second manuscript. But the advance was not so great. Then my publisher turned around and sold the paperback rights to Simon & Schuster for a six-figure deal. When I saw that, I said, “Maybe I can try that.” I quit my day job when Tularosa was released in 1996, and I haven’t looked back since.
Pasa: What was your day job at that time?
MM: I worked for the New Mexico Department of Health, basically doing what I would call inspector general work. I worked with many establishments that had problems with customer neglect and abuse, petty theft, administrative issues, and supply issues. I would kind of be sent to a lot of field ops to look at it and then report back to headquarters.
Pasa: I’m interested in how law enforcement influences the way you write, not so much the narrative aspects, but the technical aspects.
MM: One of the things that was important in all the agencies I worked at was actually gathering knowledge about how things work, how they work, and the intricacies of it all. It helped inform my stories. One of the things I want to talk about when I do this event is when beginning writers have an appreciation for a topic, or they get insight into a certain situation or experience, they think they know it, but they really don’t know it. Their knowledge is not hard earned. It is not solid knowledge. It is a kind of surface knowledge.
Many people who dream of writing fiction have read a lot, seen a lot of detective shows, watched movies and read New York Times best-selling authors in the genre, and think, “OK, I can relate to that. It’s a recipe. If I understand the recipe, then I can make my own version of a detective story or detective story. In reality, it’s not that simple.
Pasa: Ken Kesey used to say that you should never write what you know.
MM: Kesey was stoned most of his adult life. But he was able to take that experience and do a really wonderful job of it. There are a few writers who can create something from their imagination that is all fabric. Ray Bradbury is a fine example. He wrote absolutely amazing, brilliant science fiction about things he had never experienced. Where he got that out of the cosmos, I’ll never know. Maybe Ken Kesey has it all right. For my part, I believe that a really grounded experience will pay off a lot for anyone who wants to write fiction.
Pasa: Like you say, it must be hard earned.
MM: You must pay your dues. It doesn’t mean doing that as a writer. It means doing it as a human being. It means doing something that will give you a broader perspective on the world. It can be idiosyncratic as hell. It may just be a strange point of view that you develop, within yourself, by yourself. But it must have substance. ◀
▼ Michael McGarrity: “How Writers Sabotage Each Other and What to Do About It”
▼ 6 p.m. Tuesday, February 15