by Ami Irmen
After a successful career as a Staff Writer for Reader’s Digest, Patricia Skalka turned to fiction, penning the Dave Cubiak mystery series about a former Chicago homicide detective turned Door County park ranger. UntitledTown Blogger Ami Maxine Irmen interviewed Skalka about her work.
UntitledTown: From whom do you draw inspiration? Are there particular writers you’d consider as influences?
Patricia Skalka: I’ve always enjoyed mysteries and growing up, I read all the classics—Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes. But it wasn’t until I discovered Dorothy Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey stories that I realized that a good mystery doesn’t just solve a crime, it provides a window into human character. That changed everything for me.
UT: You began your career as a writer of nonfiction, working in many different formats. What was it that caused you to jump to fiction?
PS: Although I wrote nonfiction for most of my professional career, I read fiction for pleasure and harbored a secret dream of becoming a novelist. I’d always enjoyed reading mysteries, so I thought well why not write one?
UT: As someone who grew up near Chicago and has spent much of my life in Door County, I love the idea of a book (a series) that combines these two things. But I have to ask for those that have yet to read your work—why is it important to the story to have Dave Cubiak, the newly hired park ranger, be a former Chicago homicide detective?
PS: The plot for Death Stalks Door County, the first book in the series, is based on the simple premise that there are sinister forces at work beneath the surface of the picture-perfect veneer of Door County. For the story to work, I needed a protagonist who knew nothing of the longtime residents and their interpersonal histories – the grudges and animosities, the wrongs that had been done years back. Enter Dave Cubiak, a complete stranger from Chicago. But I also needed someone who knew how to solve a series of murders, so it seemed only natural that he’d be a former homicide detective.
UT: The first of the series, Death Stalks Door County, came out in hard cover in March of 2014. The fourth of the series, Death Rides the Ferry, is set to come out May of this year. That is some impressive speed! How long have you been working on this series?
PS: I probably started thinking about the first book fifteen years or so before it came out. I was feeling my way into the mystery of mystery writing, so I wrote a draft, let it sit, revised it, then revised it again and let it sit again, doing this over and over until, finally, the book was ready to be published. By then, I’d decided I wanted to do a series and had the basic concepts for the next few books, each of which took between twelve to eighteen months to complete.
UT: In an interview with Write On Door County, you mention that the first book grew out from the setting, the second book from the characters, and the third from the plot. How would you categorize the fourth?
PS: I seem to be repeating myself because the fourth book also grew from the setting! I was on the ferry with my daughter Julia one sunny day when she looked at me and said, “Mom, what a perfect location for one of your books – death on the ferry!” I loved the idea and immediately started to think about the story line: who dies, why they’re on the ferry, who’s the killer, and what’s the motive?
UT: In the same interview, you mention that for your third book, Death in Cold Water, you had to conduct interviews with the FBI. How did you go about initiating that? I can only imagine it could be an intimidating endeavor – what was it like?
PS: You’re absolutely correct, it was intimidating! I started by contacting the Milwaukee office of the FBI and was told all media inquires had to go through Washington. That put me off for a bit. After a few days of worrying about being in an FBI file, I got up the nerve to send an email. From there, things went very smoothly, and I was given an appointment with two agents in the Chicago office. Interestingly, in this age of electronic gadgets, I was only allowed to come in with a pen and pad of paper – no cell phone, recorder, tablet, or laptop. I entered the grounds through a small guardhouse where I had to put my phone into a locker since I’d forgotten to leave it in the car and only then was I escorted into the main building. The agents I interviewed were very helpful. In fact, they thanked me for talking to them rather than just making things up, as apparently some writers have done. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to mention them by name in the acknowledgements—another FBI restriction.
UT: What other unusual circumstances did writing this series lead you to?
PS: Even in fiction, the facts have to be correct. Thus far, in writing the series, I had to learn how to refit an old wooden sailboat; talk to a “body farm” researcher; interview the Door County sheriff; tour the Sturgeon Bay Coast Guard Station; read official autopsy reports; and delve into the mysteries of the viola da gamba—a musical instrument that predates the violin. And, of course, ride the famous Washington Island ferry.
UT: As you know, this is a conference for both readers and writers. What advice do you have for writers? What advice do you have for readers?
PS: My advice for writers is simple: write and read as much as you can; keep honing your craft; and don’t give up. My advice to readers: Please, continue to read! We are all part of this wonderful literary community and all responsible for keeping it viable.
UT: If there were one book that you think everyone should read (aside from your own, of course), what would it be? Who or what are you reading right now?
PS: Just one? That’s almost impossible, but if I had to name one, I’d start with Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, a tender coming-of-age story that is set in a simpler time and has murder at its core. Then I’d add The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a mystery that’s also not a mystery because the author starts by telling us who did it. If I were permitted to go on, I’d suggest Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (literary fiction); The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell (sci fi); The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan (nonfiction), and Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair (short stories).
As for what I’m reading: I have three books going—A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre, a tale of Cold War espionage that resurrects the ghost of the indomitable George Smiley; Where My Body Ends and the World Begins by Tony Romano, an insightful and moving novel about the aftermath of the 1958 fire at Our Lady of Angels School in Chicago that killed ninety-two children and three nuns; and Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, an episodic, far-reaching novel set in early twentieth century Canada, chosen by my book group.
UT: Have you stopped in Green Bay on any of your trips between Chicago and Door County? If not, what are you most looking forward to experiencing? What are you most curious about? If you have, what are you most looking forward to experiencing again?
PS: I’ve been to Green Bay several times and on each visit I am impressed by the people whose friendliness and general demeanor embodies all that is best of the Midwest. I also like the food and always look forward to seeing what’s new.
Be sure to catch Patricia Skalka at any of the following UntitledTown events:
Friday, April 20, 6 p.m. – Writing the Next Chapter
Saturday, April 21, 12 p.m. – Craft Talk: Building a Great Mystery
Saturday, April 21, 2 p.m. – Book Signing with Patricia Skalka
Saturday, April 21, 4 p.m. – Strange Bedfellows: Coalitions Among Communities, Businesses, Writing, and Arts
Sunday, April 22, 10 a.m. – Advice from Published Authors (Ask them Anything)
Sunday, April 22, 12 p.m. – Wisconsin as a Character in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry