Chester's Interviews


Cruse’n With Lonnie Interview

by Lonnie Cruse

LC: Please tell us a bit about your Greg McKenzie series.

CC: My lead characters are Greg, a retired Air Force investigator, and his wife, Jill. They’re in their mid-sixties. A bit younger than me, but I can still relate. Secret of the Scroll, the first book, is technically a “thriller.” Not the “hard-boiled” type (don’t you love all the weird jargon publishers and reviewers use to categorize our stories). When Greg and Jill return from a Holy Land tour, he discovers the “souvenir” he bought is actually an ancient Hebrew scroll worth millions. The terrorist group that used him unwittingly to smuggle the parchment into the States takes Jill hostage when they fail to find the scroll at the McKenzies’ home. Greg is taxed to the limit in the chase around Nashville and back to Israel to rescue his wife.

I didn’t have a series in mind when I wrote Secret, but I was so intrigued by the characters I couldn’t abandon them to the oblivion of terminated fictional folks. So I followed with a whodunit titled Designed to Kill that saw Jill helping Greg solve a murder in Florida. It takes place around Perdido Key, where the landscape looks a bit different after Hurricane Ivan. I enjoyed writing the lively give-and-take between husband and wife (people want to know if some of it comes from personal experience—it does).

The saga continues in the newest book, Deadly Illusions. That one is a PI novel as the McKenzies have opened an investigative agency. They take on a client named Molly Saint who says she’s afraid of her husband and wants him checked out. Then she disappears. While pursuing Damon and Molly Saint, Greg gets drawn into the Metro Police investigation of the Federal Reserve Board chairman’s assassination at a Nashville hotel. One reviewer likened it to looking in a funhouse mirror. “The images shift and alter. Just when you think you have it figured out, the picture changes again.”

LC: Please fill us in a bit about your fascinating background, and how it led you into writing.

CC: Actually, my background involves just about every form of writing imaginable. I started out as a newspaper reporter while studying journalism at the University of Tennessee. That was in 1947. Uncle Sam sent me on a Far East cruise in 1951, where I wrote intelligence reports for 5th Air Force in Korea. I came back to another newspaper job, then did freelancing for magazines, PR for a Nashville mayor, speeches for a governor (one reviewer said “he’s a former political speechwriter, so he obviously knows how to write fiction”), started a local magazine in Nashville, wrote advertising copy and edited a trade magazine while working as an association executive. Sounds like I couldn’t keep a job, doesn’t it? What got me hooked on mystery novels was a couple of books by Horace McCoy I read while in college -- They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and No Pockets in a Shroud.

LC: With your varied life experiences, do you still have to research? If so, how do you go about it?

CC: You can’t live this long without absorbing a lot of stuff. Admittedly, I have a headful of trivia. Unfortunately, I don’t know everything (although our live-in grandson sometimes thinks I do). Leaning on my newspaper experience, I depend mostly on the interview technique. I also use the library, on-scene visits, Google (the internet’s a great resource), whatever snooping opportunity comes my way. I love research and have to watch myself or I get carried away digging up a lot more than necessary.

LC: How long did it take you to become published, and how hard was it? Was age a factor at all for you?

CC: I guess you could say it took about 54 years. I wrote my first mystery novel while going to college and working at the newspaper. I cranked out the second in the 1960’s. After retirement in 1989, I got serious. I had four agents with the first seven books and got nowhere. I sold the eighth to a small press, unagented, getting a three-book contract. Was age a factor? Well, I sure as heck aged a lot in the process.

LC: You are known among authors as the King of Promotion. And for your “secret weapon,” Sarah, who hands out postcards and directs readers to you at signings. What other methods do you use to get your name out there and sell books? Envious authors want to know!

CC: I’ve appeared at libraries, book clubs, a Kiwanis Club, Senior Citizens centers, about anywhere I can coax a few people to hold still. I designed a website to promote my books and run contests every few months. I publicize the contests on various internet lists and use them to recruit subscribers for my quarterly newsletter. I write articles for internet and print mystery magazines. And I volunteer to work in organizations. I’m currently West Area Representative for Mystery Writers of America’s Southeast Chapter. And would you believe I’m really an introvert? I’d rather stand aside and listen to other folks. But I can’t sell books that way. P.S. Sarah handing out our promo folders at the door is the key to my signing success.

(see Authors Info)

LC: Please give us a glimpse of your travel schedule. I know you get around a lot, selling and signing your books, how do you keep up with it all? And HOW do you write when you travel so much?

CC: I attended four mystery conferences and a book fair in the spring, ranging from Texas to Florida to the D.C. area. During the summer I’ve had 21 events, traveling to East and West Tennessee, South Alabama, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Beginning to feel like I have wheels for shoes. Sarah and I carry pocket calendars. I print out large monthly calendars for the refrigerator door and my desk. Still, we’re not always sure where we’re supposed to be. As for writing, that’s the real bummer. Until I started work on the fourth Greg McKenzie mystery recently, I had done no new fiction writing in about a year. I did extensive revision on an old manuscript titled Hell Bound, however, which I’m submitting to agents. The story winds up outside New Orleans as a hurricane approaches (but it’s 1999, not 2005).

LC: Do you have any other series going? What are your future writing plans?

CC: I haven’t braved the idea of another series yet. I’ll probably keep tracking Greg and Jill as long as the readers continue to find them interesting. Number four, now in progress, is tentatively titled The Marathon Murders. Though it takes place in the current time frame, there’s a bit of historical perspective. Marathon Motor Works produced a popular line of touring cars in Nashville from 1910-1914.

LC: What advice would you give to “older” . . . should we say Baby Boomer authors about writing and finding a publisher?

CC: My first advice is to finish writing a novel. Then query reputable agents who market fiction in the genre you’re writing. I subscribe to Publishers Marketplace and check their daily “deals” email for mystery sales by agents. If you can find a good agent who sells your book to a major publisher, great. If you reach the point you’re tired of knocking your head against the wall, start querying small presses that don’t require agents. Their numbers are growing and some do a great job. Whatever you do, don’t despair. Many major writers took a long time to make a sale. James Lee Burke once sent out 101 queries.

LC: Anything else you’d like my readers to know?

CC: If you enjoy writing, as I do, then by all means write. My tenth book was the first to be published, though I’d probably be writing still even if none had found themselves in print. But nothing spurs you on like holding that first book in your hands and having people ask you to sign their copy. Just don’t expect big financial success. Hope for it like the devil, but don’t hold your breath.

Thanks, Chester! Very informative interview!

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Bellaonline Interview for Designed to Kill

by Carolyn Chambers Clark

I'm interviewing Chester Campbell, mystery author of DESIGNED TO KILL, today.

Carolyn: Tell me about your new mystery, where it's set, what it's about, a little about the protagonist(s) and who's publishing it.

Chester: DESIGNED TO KILL takes place around Perdido Key, FL, near Pensacola, where the glistening white sand beaches are crowded by high-rise condominiums that keep shooting up like poppies in the spring. The morning after a 15th floor balcony collapses at a new luxury condo, killing two people, the project's young architect/engineer is found dead of what the authorities rule a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His father in Nashville says no way. He asks retired Air Force investigator Greg McKenzie to find out the truth. Greg and his wife Jill encounter lots of knotty problems, including a shady contractor, a devious developer, a vengeful inspector and a deputy sheriff who wants Greg out of the picture. The book is published by Durban House.

Carolyn: What obstacles did you have to overcome to write this mystery and how did you do it?

Chester: I don't do detailed plots, but since this was my first "whodunit," I quickly saw the need to determine where everybody was at the time of the murder. I used a chart and developed the story around this timeline. There was another factor that I wouldn't exactly call an obstacle--more likely a happy circumstance--but I needed to do most of the research around Perdido Key. I live in Nashville. However, my wife and I spend a couple of weeks each fall and spring at my brother's condo on the Key, so I used it as a base of operations for the research and some of the writing. Tough duty.

Carolyn: How do you breathe life into your characters and make them seem real for this mystery?

Chester: DESIGNED TO KILL is the second Greg McKenzie mystery. I had already established Greg and Jill, plus a few of the other characters, in SECRET OF THE SCROLL. I added more to their backgrounds and further developed Greg and Jill through their interactions. I try to show people doing everyday things as well as the sometimes outrageous acts that help build tension. My aim is to let the reader know them as well as I do. Several reviewers have commented that they seem like real people, so I seem to have succeeded.

Carolyn: What about writing this mystery appeals to you?

Chester: What appealed to me most was the opportunity to make Jill a central character in the book. Other characters talked a lot about her in SECRET OF THE SCROLL, but the reader only got to see her at the beginning and the end. She plays a major role in solving this case. I enjoyed writing the lively banter that Greg and Jill indulge in throughout the book.

Carolyn: What else would you like to tell readers about your book?

Chester: It has a surprise ending that most readers don't anticipate. Check it out and see if you can predict how the story will wind up.

Carolyn: Will we see Greg and Jill McKenzie in another mystery?

Chester: You'd better believe. DEADLY ILLUSIONS, third in the series, will be out next year. It involves the assassination of a public figure and the disappearance of a woman who hires Greg and Jill to check into her husband's background.

Carolyn: Do you have a web site where readers can find out more about you and your books?

Chester: There's lots more info at Incidentally, you may not find DESIGNED TO KILL on the shelf where you live, but you can order it at any bookstore or online.

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The Writers Room Interview

by Pamela James

TWR: Chester, tell us about the kind of books you write and how it all began for you.

My fiction efforts go back to my junior year in journalism at the University of Tennessee. And that’s a long way back, like 1947. I went to work at a newspaper that fall and a few months later began banging out a novel about a reporter titled Time Waits for Murder. After a couple of rejection slips, I stuck the manuscript away in a brown envelope. Fifty-five years later I pulled it out and found the first chapter titled "Murder, He Says." Angela Lansbury eat your heart out. I didn’t get back to fiction in earnest until retirement. I had become a fan of the spy story and began writing suspense/thrillers. That’s the genre of my first published novel, Secret of the Scroll, though it doesn’t involve espionage. I’m getting back to murder mysteries in the sequel, Designed to Kill, due out in fall 2003.

TWR: How long does it take you to write a book?

Roughly, about a year. But I could finish one a lot sooner if I had to. I generally research as I go, sandwiching forays into the library or to various locales between times at the computer. When I get on a roll, I can write quite a bit at one sitting. What slows me most is constant editing. I start out correcting what I did the day before and occasionally go all the way back to the beginning.

TWR: What type of writing schedule do you have?

I don’t know that you could really call it a schedule. My wife and I go to a nearby mall and walk two miles every morning. We usually have errands to run before we get home, so it’s normally after noon before I start writing. I do most of my writing on a laptop while sitting on the living room sofa. I write while my wife watches TV. As a newspaper reporter, I developed the ability to block out everything around me while I work. It comes in handy. I do a lot of writing at night.

TWR: What advice can you give the novice mystery writer?

When I was in journalism school, they pounded into our heads the need to cover the five "w"s. I’d change the words to "write, write, write, write, write." The more you write, the better you get at it. But you also need to read - lots of good mysteries, as well as books on the techniques of mystery writing. If there’s a critique group in your area, join it.

TWR: What happens when the words won’t flow?

Happily, I’ve never been confronted with that problem. Each time I sit down at a keyboard, I read back through the last few pages I’ve written and then charge on. I guess with more than 70 years of memories in the bank, something is bound to come tumbling out through my fingers.

TWR: Where might fans and readers contact you?

E-mail me at or check for on-line sources.

TWR: What is the best and worst part of writing your books?

The worst part is when you discover you’ve written yourself into a corner and there’s no way out. Then you go back and start adjusting earlier parts of the story. I’d say the best part is when all the pieces of the plot suddenly fall into place and you realize you’ve finished a book.

TWR: What’s next in your author journey?

As I said earlier, I’m taking my character Greg McKenzie into the pure mystery field. In Designed to Kill, a friend asks Greg to look into the reported suicide of his son. He decides it wasn’t suicide, of course, and goes after the killer. The next book, which I’m working on now, has Greg as a full-fledged private investigator. I still have a couple of old suspense story manuscripts I’d like to get into print.

TWR: Tell us your publishing story including who your present publisher is.

I had a succession of agents who accomplished nothing with my earlier novels. When I finished Secret of the Scroll, I began a new agent search. After many rejections, one showed a real interest in my work and made some helpful suggestions. She worked primarily with non-fiction but gave the manuscript to her husband, who heads a small press called Durban House Publishing Co. I’m quite happy with Durban House, which will also publish Designed to Kill.

TWR: Let’s talk character, plot and motivation.

I think character is the most important element. Your characters must come off as real people, even the most minor ones. I have a waitress who appears briefly in only one scene of Designed to Kill, but she was fun to write. I hope readers can see her the way I saw her in my mind. In a mystery, of course, plot is crucial. It’s like in a football game. The players may wander all over the field, but you have to keep them pointed toward the goal line. Surprises are great, but they must flow logically from earlier events. As to motivation, I try to give my characters backgrounds that will lead to their actions in the story.

TWR: Do you use an outline?

Not a formal one. I usually start out knowing how the story begins and ends, then let the characters drive the plot. I use timelines mostly, to show where the characters are as the story unfolds. It helps keep somebody from slipping in where he shouldn’t be. In the book I’m working on now, I’m plotting a few chapters at a time, with just a sentence or two for each.

TWR: What about character sketches?

They’re quite helpful. I use more detailed sketches of the main characters. Not everything makes it into the book, but most does.

TWR: Leave us with some mysterious words of wisdom.

A memorable book is usually the result of a memorable character.

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