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An interview with Bitch Slap mystery master Michael Craft

by Owen Keehnen, Chicago
May 2005

Gay mystery master craftsman Michael Craft has decided to end his wildly successful Mark Manning series, which includes Flight Dreams (1997), Eye Contact (1998), Body Language (1999), Name Games (2000), Boy Toy (2001), Hot Spot (2002), and Bitch Slap (2004). Mostly set in the sleepy (though certainly homicide prone) Wisconsin town of Dumont, these solid and enjoyable mysteries feature journalist-protagonist-narrator-sleuth Manning, his partner Neil, and a bevy of recurring characters that have deepened and grown over the course of these seven books. Saying goodbye to the series is not only saying goodbye to Mark, it’s also saying goodbye to a group of old friends . . . but what a memorable farewell it is. Not content to rest on his laurels, Craft ends the series with his best-written book to date that also features a doozy of a surprise that blindsided me completely!

In addition to writing the Mark Manning books, Michael Craft is also the author of another successful mystery series featuring straight 50-something sleuth Claire Gray (Desert Autumn, Desert Winter, Desert Spring). His fourth title in the series (you guessed it, Desert Summer) is coming in August 2005. In December 2004, I had a chance to talk with Craft a bit about the Manning series, the art of mystery writing, keeping it all fresh, and what lies ahead for him. Here’s a clue: he’s not retiring from writing.

Keehnen:Bitch Slap is your seventh book in the Mark Manning gay mystery series. Do they get easier and easier to write every time?

Craft: No, not at all. Because a series develops standing characters and stock settings, I suppose those aspects of the storytelling become easier because you don’t need to reinvent the wheel each time. On the other hand, all those “givens” present the writer with different challenges.

You have to tell the new story within a highly structured framework, and you can’t rewrite history along the way. What’s more, every good story should have a theme, and when you focus on the same character book after book, you run the danger of running out of thematic variations that don’t start to feel stale.

Keehnen: This latest one really surprised me. Did you set out to shake up the series—as well as the typical whodunit?

Craft: Truth is, I didn’t intend to write this one at all. I had planned on making Hot Spot the sixth and final installment of the series. Mark Manning, I felt, was fully evolved at that point, and the “serial subplot” of his home life with Neil and Thad had come to a logical conclusion.

But “popular demand,” as they say, dictated otherwise. Both my agent and my editor encouraged me to write a seventh installment, and I agreed. In order to make the story something other than a gratuitous addendum to a series that already felt complete, I knew I would have to push the envelope in terms of both plotting and character development. So I went for broke in Bitch Slap, and the result is the “surprise” you’ve referred to.

Writing Bitch Slap really challenged me. Grappling with Manning’s moral dilemma has also challenged many of my regular readers. If the story has created a level of discomfort for some readers, I suppose that’s a sign that it’s working, that the thematic issues have risen to the surface of the story. So Bitch Slap is not at all a typical whodunit, which would be much more plot-driven.

Keehnen: The Mark Manning series is quite popular. Do you have any idea what sort of crossover readership you have from straight readers?

Craft: The series, I’ve discovered, has many straight readers, women as well as men, who have often written to me through my web site, I like to think they’re drawn to the quality of the writing, but maybe they’re just titillated by the sex.

Keehnen: In that way do you think the books are somewhat political?

Craft: Sex is political? These days, during Term II of Bush II, you may be right. But I assume you’re referring to broader gay-rights issues.

Keehnen: Yes.

Craft: The early books in the series were overtly political. I didn’t hesitate, for instance, to trash the Religious Right whenever the opportunity allowed. But that’s exactly the sort of thematic ax-grinding that can wear thin with readers quickly. So I’ve backed off some, even though readers know very well by now where both Manning and I stand on these issues.

The books are also political in a more subtle sense. As a mature, responsible gay American citizen, I’m an assimilationist. I prefer to describe myself as “unremarkably gay” rather than “openly gay” because “openly gay” suggests the brave defiance of a dirty secret. I have nothing to be ashamed of, and neither does Mark Manning, who is a respected, productive member of his community at large.

In that sense, I’m sending a political message to both straight readers and gay separatists. Manning is a model of assimilation, and his relationship with Neil is more perfect than most marriages. If it’s not quite “real,” at least it’s a laudable goal.

Keehnen: Is Mark Manning your inner sleuth? Is he a fantasy figure/alter ego for you?

Craft: I’ve often said that there’s a bit of me in every character I write, while at the same time, I am not Mark Manning. Still, I think it’s fair to say that I see him as a fantasy figure or alter ego. He’s an idealized or heroic version of the man I wish I were.

I’m referring to his mind, not his body. I’m drawn to his ethics and self-assurance, not his knack for crime solving. And no, I have never once been tempted to meddle in police business.

Keehnen:Flight Dreams, Eye Contact, Body Language, Name Games, Boy Toy, Hot Spot, and now Bitch Slap. Do you have a favorite or one that you think best captures your skills as a mystery writer?

Craft: They’re all “my children,” so it’s not quite fair to name favorites, but three of them do rise above the others, and in different ways.

Flight Dreams was first, so it will always be an emotional favorite. Boy Toy, I felt, was perfectly plotted, and many readers seem to agree that it was a standout (perhaps because, on impulse during drafting, I planted an erotic scene very early in the story, set in Mark and Neil’s kitchen). And since I’d like to believe that I’ve been learning something along the way, I feel that Bitch Slap represents, hands down, my best writing to date.

Keehnen: I agree. This one really displays your growth as a writer. What is the first element you have in place when you begin a new book—the motive, the victim, the killer?

Craft: It’s hard to predict how inspiration will strike, and each book has been different in terms of which element came first. As you suggest, motive, victim, and killer have each inspired some of the books. The specific method of murder has also provided occasional inspiration.

Believe it or not, in two instances, the title actually came first. By the time Flight Dreams, Eye Contact, and Body Language were written, the pattern or cadence of the series titles was well established. I was sitting on an airplane, reading an article about Madonna, I think. The term “boy toy” popped off the page at me, and I thought, “That’s my next book.” So I plotted a story that fit the title. Hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

The other book that was largely inspired by its title is the current one, Bitch Slap. The expression is so wonderfully over the top. Fearing that it might be judged too controversial, I checked with my editor at St. Martin’s before I began work on the project, and he loved the title, so that was that. In the case of Bitch Slap, though, I had decided who the killer would be long before I’d settled on the title or any notion of the plot.

Keehnen: You also write the Claire Gray mysteries (Desert Autumn, Desert Winter, Desert Spring). Is it more of a challenge to get into the mind of your 54-year-old straight female protagonist than her gay male counterpart, Mark Manning?

Craft: People who know me well have joked that Claire Gray seems more “me” than Mark Manning does. In response, I like to point out that straight women and gay men share the same “object of affection.” Humor aside, people are people, so I find little difficulty writing the first-person narration of either character.

This is not to say that Claire Gray is just Mark Manning in a dress. Hardly. Manning is more conventionally “heroic,” and he’s highly self-confident, sometimes to the point of being smug, which is one of the thematic issues he tackles in Bitch Slap. Claire, on the other hand, is more vulnerable and uncertain. Though she’s intelligent, independent, and strong-willed, she is plagued by underlying doubts about the direction of her life.

The difference between the two characters is not a male-versus-female thing. Rather, they represent, to my mind, two different aspects of human nature.

Keehnen: Who are your idols in the mystery genre?

Craft: One critic once flattered me by dubbing me the “gay Agatha Christie.” I guess the influence is obvious. My novels aren’t gritty; they contain very little onstage violence. Unlike Mrs. Christie’s work, though, my novels do contain a fair amount of sex. So if you need to attach a label to my subgenre, you might call it the “erotic cozy.” I like that.

Keehnen: What’s next for you?

Craft: I’ve had some emotional upheaval in my life lately, and 2004 was a difficult year for me. I had been writing two novels a year for a while, but personal issues have put a crimp in both my creative focus and my productivity. Starting a new year, I sense that these issues will soon be resolved, and I’m eager to get busy again.

My next novel is the fourth Claire Gray installment, Desert Summer, which is already written and will appear in August. I’m also working on a new play, titled The Transit of Venus. Beyond that, for the first time in many years, I simply don’t know what my next writing project will be. Perhaps it’s time to think about the “big book” that my agent has been suggesting.

Many readers have written to me mourning the end of the Mark Manning series, some begging me to reconsider. The series is finished; I’m sure of that. But the character is still alive and could possibly reappear in a new context. My editor likes the idea.

Some years ago, when I moved from Chicago to Wisconsin, Manning followed me. I’m now contemplating a move west. Might Manning follow? We’ll see.

Keehnen: Leave it to a mystery writer to end things with a cliffhanger.

Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago-based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist.

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