The Fictional County: An Interview with Mike Miner

Mike Miner is back for his third book with All Due Respect, True DarkHere’s the pitch:

On a warm, quiet morning in a speck of a town near the Mexican border, an old man stops at an airstream diner and orders coffee. When the owner of the diner appears, the old man shoots him to death, pays his bill, and drives away.

The sheriff, Leo Murphy is called in to investigate the murder. His instincts lead him to his brother, Ryan.

The black sheep of the family, Ryan Murphy lives just south in Mexico. He makes a living as a coyote, moving illegal cargo across the border. The brothers have an arrangement regarding Ryan’s illegal enterprise: Don’t ask, don’t tell.

When the old man’s car breaks down in the middle of the desert Leo takes him into custody. If only things had gone according to Ryan’s plan.

Now a cold-blooded killer named Wicked Bill is on his way from Miami to help Ryan clean things up.

The Murphy brothers need to redefine the lines they will and won’t cross to protect each other and those closest to them from interlopers on both sides of the law.

In True Dark, Mike Miner has created a vivid and dangerous world.

All Due Respect: True Dark’s desert Southwest setting plays a large role in the novel. What made you choose this setting and how did you want to represent it?

Mike Miner: I think in True Dark, more than any of my other novels, setting is hugely important. So much so that I invented a fictional county to control it. I’ve spent hours driving through some desolate stretches of the American Southwest and I’ve always been drawn to it. First the raw beauty of it, the big skies, the endless desert, the rocky mountains. It couldn’t be more different from where I grew up, in suburban New England. What would it be like to live here? To grow up here?

I wanted an isolated place with a small population where the sheriff was literally the law of the land – for better and worse. I wanted to explore how that might work. How a man with no real oversight would operate. Would he bend the rules from time to time, or break them if necessary? What lines wouldn’t he cross? I needed a place in the middle of nowhere but still on the border of Mexico. I did a ton of research but nothing in reality quite worked.

Thus Oscuro County was born.

It was a new experience for me. I’ve always prided myself on being able to capture real places in my fiction. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Boston, rural New England, even Afghanistan in Hurt Hawks. But with True Dark, I needed to create a world for this story that didn’t exactly exist. A funny thing happened. I really enjoyed the process. I fell in love with Oscuro, California. With its history and its population. The more I explored it, the more details I found waiting for me. I had to be careful not to get carried away with local color.

I don’t think this story could have occurred anywhere else. The setting causes a lot of the action in the novel and affects nearly every situation. Beginning of course with two young boys alone in the desert on a moonless, starless night. Alone except for a rattlesnake.

ADR: Much of your work centers around family dynamics, an unusual trait in noir. Prodigal Sons focuses three brothers and a sibling relationship is also at the center of True Dark. What draws you to writing about this? What role do you see family playing in your writing?

MM: Family can bring out the best and worst in people.

It does seem common in noir to see a lot of lone wolfs with no strings attached to them. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with severing family ties. Family bonds can be a heavy burden. I’m interested in what happens when those bonds are strained.
I am one of four brothers. Sibling relationships are something I’m intimately familiar with. Prodigal Sons was basically a semi-autobiographical look at what might have happened in my family under certain extreme circumstances. One man tries to
escape his family while his brothers attempt to rescue him. I wanted to explore the consequences of that dynamic.
In True Dark, three generations come into play. One very bad decision will affect every member of the Murphy family. In this
novel everyone is trying to protect each other. I was interested in the lines people would and wouldn’t cross for family. That’s
where a lot of the conflict in the novel comes from. Saving your own skin is one thing but trying to keep your child or parent or
brother safe raises the stakes even more.
For my characters, the worst thing that can happen isn’t something that happens to you but to someone you love. At the end of the day, I guess I’m interested in the worst things that can happen. So my characters need family around them.

ADR: What interests you in writing about the worst things that can happen?

MM: Are there people who write about the best things that can happen? How boring. That is a question I ask myself from time to time. I don’t know if it’s a morbid streak or personal experience. I find that life can be relentless and I suppose that gets reflected in my work. I’ve been accused of having a bleak streak. I’m interested in how people react to the worst things happening. Do they surrender? Do they try to overcome it. Do they turn bad? Nobody is safe in real life. Why should they be safe in fiction? I hope that this constant sense of danger or risk is what makes my fiction entertaining. It’s certainly what I’m looking for in the fiction I consume.

ADR: What did you find most challenging about writing True Dark?

MM: True Dark was the first time I used a completely invented setting. The town and the county of Oscuro is not a real place. In the past I’ve tended to use cities like Los Angeles or Boston or, as in Prodigal Sons, a thinly veiled copy of my hometown. Places I know like the back of my hand. I found with True Dark that I needed to build this world. I drew maps. I knew the population, not just of the main town but the whole county. I needed to research how truly small municipalities work. How does the legal system operate, the medical system? Once I opened the door it was a lot more work than I realized. It needed to feel real to me to make it authentic for the reader. I hope I succeeded.

ADR: What was your favorite book you read last year?

MM: Just one? I read so many great ones. I finally discovered Joy Williams. What a weird and wonderful writer. Can’t get The Visiting Privilege out of my head.I thought Panowich’s Like Lions was even better than Bull Mountain. Tom Pitts blew me away again with 101. Joe Clifford really stuck the landing in his concluding Jay Porter novel, Rag and Bone. Denis Johnson’s posthumous collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, hit me as hard as Jesus’ Son did years ago. Any year that Peter Heller and Tim Johnston have books out those will be my favorite. They both did. The River and The Current both ripped my heart out. That’s all I’m looking for in a book.

Check out True Dark at Down & Out Books!

MIKE MINER lives is the author of six books, including True Dark, Hurt Hawks, and Prodigal Sons. His short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies as well as two collections, The Hurt Business and Everything She Knows. His stories have twice been listed as “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in the Best American Mystery Stories series. He lives in New England.

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