Friday, August 8, 2008

All The Way From Hawaii...

I bring you Thomas Holland! I am so incredibly excited to have this interview to share with you all. I put a letter in the U.S. postal mail to Dr. Holland, having no idea if it was even going to the right place. So, when I had an e-mail pop up from him in my inbox one day, it took everything inside me to contain myself and maintain my "professional composure" since I was at work. What I really wanted to do was jump around and scream like I'd won the lottery.

And why, you ask, was I so excited about this e-mail that said he would be happy to answer my questions for this interview? Because he is an absolutely astounding writer, and it always gives me great pleasure to share such writers with fellow book lovers.

When I was reading the "Acknowledgements" section in One Drop of Blood, Dr. Holland says that few people knew he was writing the book. But included in the few people were the "slew of literary agents who rejected the manuscript with constructive criticism such as 'unimaginative,' 'boring,' 'trite,' and (my favorite) 'don't make me get a restraining order because I will.'" If THEIR supervisors know they said these things about One Drop of Blood, I surely hope they've been fired by now because they obviously have no idea what they are talking about. This book was so far from "unimaginative" and "boring" - not even in the same hemisphere with those adjectives. I was hooked and entertained from page one! And both One Drop of Blood and K.I.A. are in contention for my Top 10 list of books read in 2008 because they are "witty," "suspenseful," "exciting," "creative," "unique" and "fun." K.I.A. has one of the best endings I've read all summer. "TOP NOTCH!"

Both books center around Dr. Kel McKelvey, the Scientific Director of the U.S. Army Central Identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI). Dr. Holland held this position until CILHI was changed/renamed; now he is the Scientific Director of the Department of Defense Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Their mission is to "recover and identify America's war dead." I won't go into too much more because Dr. Holland is going to share more details with us in the interview.

I know you are going to LOVE this interview as much as I do, so without further ado, here he is...Thomas Holland!

Q. Was writing always an ambition of yours? If not, what prompted you to create Kel?

Tom: Lord, no. I was a fine art major as an undergrad and an anthropology major in graduate school. Writing was not anywhere on my "to-do" list as a grown-up. But then I moved to Hawaii...

One of the things about living in Hawaii is that you're a long way from anywhere - from everywhere, actually. A few years ago, I was traveling back and forth from Hawaii to Bosnia and Iraq on a frequent basis, and the total one-way transit time from Hawaii to the other side of the world is about 49 hours. You quickly burn through any books you brought along, and in desperation I started buying whatever was available in airport book shops. As an avid reader, you know that the selection available in the airport leaves much to be desired, and when I returned home from one of these odysseys, I mentioned to my wife that I'd just read several awful, awful books and casually said, "I think I can write a book this bad." She blessed my heart - she's one of those southern women who bless people's hearts with the same well-meaning intent that you might put down a wounded dog - and informed me that she had all the confidence in the world that if I put my mind to it, that I could indeed write a book every bit as awful as the one I'd just finished. Armed with that ringing support, I took her advice, and the next trip I made to Bosnia, I took my laptop and instead of reading a bad novel, I wrote one: One Drop of Blood.

What prompted Kel? Hmmmm, I guess I get a bit tired of seeing and reading depictions of forensic scientists as wearing lab coats, working in a lab filled with high-tech gadgets (though no one ever seems to have enough money to buy light bulbs, since the labs are always dark and they have to examine everything with flashlights), and being "cool" people with tattoos, body piercings, and torrid love interests. The reality is that there's a great deal of bumbling that actually is involved with what we do. We solve problems; we assemble complex jigsaw puzzles. Think of how many times you try the wrong piece in a puzzle, or how many times you erase your entry in a crossword - that's what forensic science is - a lot of dead ends before the final "Ah-Ha" moment. I wanted a character that made mistakes, got all wooled up in administrative red tape, and who - at the end of the day - was forced to make decisions, moral and ethical decisions, that he was ill trained to make and less well equipped to understand. That's the forensic field that I know, and it's not one you see too often. (Maybe for good reason.)

Q. Do you dislike the phone the way Kel does?
Tom: The ability to be out of touch is a rapidly vanishing act - and we'll all rue its loss. I see people constantly on their cell phones, and I think, Who the hell are they talking to all the time? I can't imagine wanting to talk to someone so badly (my wife, bless her heart, excepted, of course) that I can't wait until I get out of the crosswalk before I call them. Of course the fact that 90% of the calls I get anymore take the form of problems being plopped into my lap doesn't help my attitude. I can't remember the last time Publisher's Sweepstakes called.

Q. Are there more capers in the works for Kel?

Tom: Capers? That sounds exciting. I'm not sure that Kel would describe anything he does as a caper. Actually, I just finished a third McKelvey book - Holy Ghost. It reunites Kel and Levine, the FBI agent from One Drop of Blood, back in Arkansas. Several years ago, I ran across a book describing the death of a German POW at a prison camp in Oklahoma. Within the prison, the German POWs organized a vigilante group - called the Helige Geist (Holy Ghost) - that tried to make sure that each prisoner stayed loyal to the Nazi ideal. In this case they beat a fellow prisoner to death. A trial ensued and five of these "Ghosts" were convicted and subsequently executed, but what really caught my attention was a footnote in the book that pointed out that this was not an isolated event - that another prisoner had been murdered at the POW camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas. That's my home town. As events would have it, the old military base at Fort Smith is being turned over to the city and state for their use. That got me thinking about what would happen if a skeleton turned up while the area was being developed for fast-food restaurants and strip malls. I combined the bits and pieces of cases we've had in the lab. We'll see where it goes.

Q. Obviously your job influences your writing. How much of Kel's exploits are based on experience and how much is a figment of your imagination?

Tom: It's all based on my experience working in the business of forensic science. My imagination is so pathetic, I couldn't possibly make this stuff up. That said, I'm not Kel. For one thing, I like to think I'm smarter. It usually takes him until page 300 or so before he figures out what's going on. I can usually guess the ending by page 200 - give or take a chapter.

Q. Which writers, if any, have influenced your writing style?

Tom: Faulkner. I like the lazy circularity of his sentences. If anything captures the South, it's the way that his sentences roll on and on and loop back upon themselves and seem constantly to be straying from the point. Having said that, I can't stand reading him. He can't ever get to the point, and when he does, you've forgotten why you wanted to get there in the first place. Is that a contradiction?

Hemingway. I like the directness; the no-nonsense way of getting to the point. Having said that, I can't stand reading him. His words are too direct and have no magic. Okay, that's two contradictions.

Mark Twain. Could anyone understand the English language better? Certainly, no one could be funnier. I'll go with Mark Twain.

Q. Have you personally read anything in the last six months that you would recommend to people who enjoy your work?

Tom: Hmmmmm, I read a great deal of technical material. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone not sitting on death row looking for a way to make the time go slower.

In terms of what I read in airports, when I'm not writing, there're a few names that I'll pick up without even reading the synopsis on the back cover: John Connolly, Lee Childs, Nelson DeMille, John Sandford, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben - but then everyone picks them up without reading the cover. Of course I have to plug fellow University of Missouri Alums - James Lee Burke and Jeffery Deaver - though I have to admit that I've stopped reading Deaver. Having worked some less-than-pleasant cases in my career, my interest in reading books involving torture has waned.

I make a habit of reading To Kill a Mockingbird every so often. Can't go wrong with that no matter what your interest are.

I'm sure all these folks would prefer to spit on me than acknowledge me as a writer - but, hey, they probably aren't much in the way of forensic scientists...

Q. Between writing and all your job responsibilities as the Scientific Director of the Department of Defense Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, do you have time for any hobbies or outside interests?

Tom: Writing is my hobby. When my sons were smaller, and when I had more energy, I was involved in Boy Scouts - hiking, camping... Over time, given some of the places work sends me, my enthusiasm for camping out has diminished. I'm a big proponent of flush toilets.

Q. Your job with the DoD Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command must include some depressing experiences as well as rewarding experiences. What's been a unique experience that you can share with readers?

Tom: On the contrary, it's the most uplifting experience I can imagine. I often say that it's the best job I can imagine having. It has all the intellectual satisfaction of solving some of the most-complex puzzles imaginable - we identified the Vietnam Unknown Soldier from Arlington, for example - but with the added emotional satisfaction of healing (in some cases) decades-old wounds for the families of these men.

Unique experiences? They all are. The WWI soldier killed in 1918, the WWII single-seat aircraft crash with two people in it (one turned out to be a Red Cross nurse), men lost at Pearl Harbor - some of the first of the war, the last man shot down in Vietnam. Each is a fascinating story. Two, however, always stand out in my mind. One involved a pilot shot down in Vietnam. We needed DNA testing to resolve his
identity but faced the problem that he had been adopted at birth and no one knew who his biological parents were. We eventually were able to solve the case by using a locket of his hair from his first haircut in 1927. It had been saved by his adoptive mother and passed on in a scrapbook to his widow. Another case, also from Vietnam, was solved when we obtained DNA reference material from the only viable source - love letters that he'd written to his wife from Vietnam in 1965. Those two cases, to me, capture the essence of what we do. I've always thought that nothing could be more fitting than to use these two acts of love and tenderness - a baby's first haircut and a young husband's letters to his wife - to bind up the awful wounds of war.

You can't possibly make up a fictional story that captures the wonder of my job.

Q. You don't need to name names, but was there ever an actual inspiration for "Col. Botch-It"? Someone who made you want to submit your resume?

Tom: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." That's what the lawyers say. Having said that, oh yeah, I get talked in off the ledge fairly regularly. One of the things I've come to appreciate working for the federal government is the mandatory waiting period to buy a handgun.

Q. And the last question: There is a book out called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. What would be YOUR six-word memoir?

Tom: One of my father's favorite expressions dealing with ridiculous situations (and difficult people) was, "There ought to be a goon squad." I guess I'd rephrase it as, "There should've been a goon squad."

What an absolutely fascinating, and funny, guy! Anyone who counts Mark Twain as an influence and regularly reads To Kill a Mockingbird is tops in my book! This Q&A was so much fun for me. Thank you SO MUCH, Tom! I know your time is limited, so the fact that you spent some of it answering my questions humbles me.

And I was overjoyed to hear that a new McKelvey novel is on the way...and it's set in Fort Smith, Arkansas!! I have family in that area, too! I doubt Tom and I would need six degrees of separation - Ft. Smith is a rather small place! While we're all waiting for that third book to come out, check out the first two: One Drop of Blood and K.I.A. And also check out Tom's website. The "Photographs" link is a must see!

I'll share release news on Holy Ghost as soon as I hear about it. Until then, Happy Reading!!


beauvallet August 8, 2008 at 9:49 AM  

What a great interview and congrats on getting this one, Jen. It is a diamond. And I've added Holland's name to my 'must read' list. Not only does the book sound fascinating but his answers to your questions are both touching and funny. And I love his comments on Faulkner and Hemingway.

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