Wisconsin author Jerry McGinley of Waunakee has written poetry, flash-fiction and novels. His latest mystery, “A Driftless Murder,” was published in September by the University of Wisconsin Press. In the book, a former Army medic finds human entrails while hunting in western Wisconsin. What follows is a chilling mystery involving humans hunting humans in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area and a retired cop who seems incapable of doing things by the book.
Q: What is your writing background?
A: I taught high school English for 34 years and worked summers at the UW teaching workshops for high school AP teachers. In the ’80s, I started writing poetry. Later, I edited Yahara Prairie Review, a poetry magazine, featuring Wisconsin poets. Then came two online magazines of poetry and flash-fiction. Trying fiction writing came with the evolution of word processors. I’m such a horrible typist, I could never type a 300-page story. In the ’90s, I decided to try creating a novel. I ended up writing several.
Q: “A Driftless Murder” is your sixth book. Are there overlapping characters from your previous works?
A: Two earlier books had characters who appear in “A Driftless Murder.” Actually, my first novel, “Joaquin Strikes Back,” was about a high school soccer team. It was published in hardcover and was also recorded as an audio-drama. My second novel, “Miles to Go Before I Sleep,” introduces Pat Donegal. He starts out as a minor character but eventually becomes the main character. That book was published 20 years ago by The Fiction Works. Years later I thought about reviving Pat Donegal’s career. I put together 10 stories called “Lake Redemption.” I wanted reader reactions to my characters. I published it myself, only about 100 copies. Then I put Pat Donegal and Shea Sommers to work again. That’s how “A Driftless Murder” came about.
Q: While this is your sixth book, it’s the first to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press. What was that process like and how was it different?
A: It was totally different — in a good way. With previous publishers, I’d send them a manuscript, and they’d say, “I like this, I’ll print it.” A month later, there’d be an e-book and a paperback. This new book first got the attention of Dennis Lloyd (director at UW Press), who liked it enough to send it to three of his established fiction writers. Two really liked it, one didn’t like it very much. All three wrote extensive reviews with suggestions for revisions. That was incredibly helpful. I rewrote the manuscript and thought I was done. I wasn’t. The next editor, Michele Wing, was just wonderful. She questioned everything. I couldn’t believe how thorough she was. I took about 99 percent of her ideas and revised the story again. It was a long process, but it was amazing. Then Adam Mehring, the managing editor, took a close look at it. He had some more good ideas that I utilized. I’ve never had that kind of teamwork before. I stressed peer-editing in my high school writing classes, but I didn’t appreciate the concept until I worked with UW Press.
Q: I read that you enjoy writing at the Waunakee Library. What is your writing process?
A: I spend a lot of time in the library and at coffee shops. I easily get distracted when I work at home. Unfortunately, I don’t do much outlining when I start a project. With a mystery, I try to set up a lot of people who could have committed the crime. Then I let the story develop itself. I don’t always control where it goes. There are plot twists that surprise me — that’s especially true with one particular event in this book.
Q: You’ve also worked with the Waunakee Writers Group. How important are these local groups for writers?
A: The Waunakee Writer’s Group meets once a month. Whoever are present share ideas about what they are working on and discuss problems they may be encountering. We sometimes have a 100-word assignment to break the ice. It’s good to bounce ideas around. At least three in the group have published books. It’s nice to have people with similar interests.
Q: It seems like as the characters in “A Driftless Murder” are working to find the murderers they also are fighting their own demons. Was that your intention?
A: Exactly. To me, the stories are more about the characters than the plot. Especially with the primary characters, they have real-world situations that they’re struggling with. They don’t always make good decisions. They don’t always win. And even though Pat Donegal and Shea Sommers get good results, they often butt heads and end up never quite capturing the prize.
Q: In the book’s “Acknowledgments” you talk about how the character Zach was inspired by an Army medic who fought in Vietnam. Have you always wanted to make him a character?
A: That was purely by chance. The remains had to be found by somebody who had medical experience to identify them as human. I tried to figure out who that would be. At first, the character was an undertaker, partly because I know a funeral director in the Driftless who’s a writer. But then I talked to a friend who served as a medic in Vietnam. After hearing his stories, I realized Zach had to be a medic.
Q: The murder in this book revolves around people who potentially hunt each other. That is a deep and scary idea. What made you think of it?
A: I’m not sure how I thought of that. I do use a line from Hemingway in the story. I was a big Hemingway reader. He said something about the thrill of hunting other people. He didn’t mean it in the context that I used it, but I think that’s where I got the idea.
Q: The book makes it clear at the end that main character Pat Donegal is finished with police business for good. He’s rented a cabin on the Mississippi River and wants to be alone. Will he stay that way?
A: I’d rather not discuss Pat’s future. You’ll have to wait for the next book to find out.
Q: Do you have plans for another novel?
A: There are two related manuscripts that are semi-finished. I’m also working on a short story. The medic from “A Driftless Murder” is the main character of the short story.
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