Michael Craft is the author of a dozen prior novels and three stage plays. As a mystery writer he has been known for many years as the author of the popular “Mark Manning” series, set in the Midwest, as well as the “Claire Gray” series, set in California. Three of his novels have been honored as national finalists for Lambda Literary Awards. His latest mystery novel, The MacGuffin, features a new protagonist, architect Cooper Brant. In recent years, Michael Craft has broadened his creative focus to include playwriting and screenwriting. He lives in Rancho Mirage, California.
You can visit his website at www.michaelcraft.com or connect with him at Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001138388778&sk=info.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Michael. Can you tell us what your latest book, The MacGuffin, is all about?
I like to describe my new novel, The MacGuffin, as a classically plotted mystery. In a nutshell: A cold-case murder fifteen years ago halted promising developments in the quest for clean energy when the rumored prototype of a groundbreaking water engine was stolen or destroyed. Now the race is on to repower America, and Cooper Brant, still grieving that long-ago murder of his father, suddenly finds his family visited by a second violent death, raising the stakes to unearth lost secrets. When Coop discovers how the two crimes are linked, a grim message becomes clear. He’s next.
The central character is Cooper Brant, an architect who has married into the Emery family, which has amassed a fortune in the oil business. Coop is also the story’s sole viewpoint character; only his thoughts are known to the reader. Coop’s wife, Stasia Emery-Brant, is the daughter of Bix Emery, an old oil tycoon and patriarch of Emery Energy.
A fourth leading character in the story is Arcie Madera, a sheriff’s detective who is reopening an investigation into the cold-case murder of Coop’s father. Arcie has long considered Coop himself to be the prime suspect, so the two are natural antagonists—a perfect setup to sow the seeds of an unlikely but intense romantic attraction.
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
It’s surprising how often this question comes up. Do I base my characters on real people? Of course not! Well, sort of. I don’t think any writer is capable of creating a fully developed three-dimensional character out of thin air. So naturally, I draw on people I know, or know of, in patching together the characters for my stories. That’s the essence of it—each character is really an amalgam of many people I know, with a good dash of myself thrown in. At the same time, no single character is “me.”
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
I am fully aware of the plot before I begin writing my novels. I always work from an outline (actually, it’s a brief narrative scene-by-scene description of everything that happens in the book), which is an especially valuable tool while working in the mystery genre because there’s so much riding on the plot. It surprises me that so few fiction writers work this way.
A few years ago, while approaching the task of outlining the first book in a new series, I rediscovered a technique that had been preached to me since fifth grade: 3-by-5 cards. I was amazed by the organizational flexibility this allowed, and I now begin each new outline with this important preliminary step. The outline itself may go through a revision or two (which is immeasurably easier than making bone-deep changes to a manuscript), so when it comes time to do the intensive work of drafting, there’s never any doubt as to “what’s next.” As a result, I never get writer’s block in the midst of a draft.
Q: Your book is set in the Palm Springs area of California. Can you tell us why you chose this setting in particular?
Simple answer: That’s where I live, just down the road from Palm Springs, in Rancho Mirage. I moved here from the Midwest six years ago, and I’d been a frequent visitor over many years prior to the move. The setting is so utterly different from the one where I grew up, I was enchanted by it from the outset and quickly decided that this is where I would ultimately settle. Yes, the summers can be tough here in the desert, but the other nine months are flat-out fabulous.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Definitely. I have set four prior novels here in the Palm Springs area, and readers have frequently noted that the setting seems almost like a character in the story, rather than just a backdrop. I have tried to capture the setting through the wondering eyes—and wonderment—of a newcomer. Even though I have now lived here for six years, when I wake up each morning, I still can’t quite believe that I’m lucky enough to call this place home.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
Coop and Stasia have just arrived at the Emery family’s mountain retreat in Idyllwild, where Bix has made a mess of the kitchen preparing for Sunday dinner. Still to arrive is Stasia’s adult son from a prior marriage, Kavanall Emery Follet.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
Since we’re on page 69, we can pick it up right there:
Bix laughed, thinking aloud, “Kavanall—up, dressed, and on the road by Sunday noon—who’d have thought? I’m surprised he wasn’t out all night.”
“I’ve no idea,” said Stasia, “but we had some excitement last night.” She turned, adding, “Didn’t we, Coop?”
Coop had learned to recognize her cues. She wasn’t asking for a nod of agreement; she was telling him to chime in and help amuse her father. So Coop told the story of the waiter and the Bruce Rollo glass sculpture—“smashed to smithereens, crème fraîche everywhere”—but as he spoke, he marveled at his and his wife’s differing perspectives on what had made the night memorable. For her, the main event had been the accident, while for him, the evening had climaxed moments earlier when he learned he was being drawn into another investigation of his father’s murder, an investigation that threatened to change his life irreparably. He had somehow managed to pick up the pieces and start over—once—but he was certain he couldn’t do it again. He had neither the emotional strength nor, most likely, sufficient years remaining to struggle back, once again, from ashes. Stasia had asked him about Arcie Madera in the car, riding home from the museum, but when she learned of the new investigation and the request for a DNA sample, her only comment had been “She certainly cleans up well, for a cop. But I can’t imagine what Bruce Rollo sees in her.”
Hearing about the museum guard slipping on the melon ball, Bix roared with laughter. Coop concluded, “It was like something out of a Marx Brothers farce.”
“Yes,” agreed Stasia, dabbing a tear of mannerly amusement from the corner of an eye. “I nearly died.”
Thank you so much for this interview, Michael. We wish you much success!