Q. The publication of I, The Sanibel Sunset Detective marks ten years of writing Tree Callister novels. How are you feeling?
A. Disbelief, I think sums up my feelings. It’s a cliché to say, I can’t believe ten years has passed. But I can’t believe ten years has passed. When I started these books, I had no idea what I was getting into. My aim was to write a novel a year, and to my amazement, that’s exactly what has happened—sometimes more, given that there is now a separate Canadian series of novels.
Talk about how the Sanibel Sunset Detective came about.
By accident, really. My closest friend, Brian Vallee, along with a couple of partners had started a publishing company, West-End Books. They published a couple of books, but then things fell apart and the company was lying dormant. Both Brian and I were frustrated with traditional publishers. I suggested we resurrect West-End Books and publish our own novels through the company. Then my brother Ric chimed in suggesting I write something set around Sanibel and Captiva, barrier islands off the west coast of Florida where, at the time, he was president of the local chamber of commerce. I knew if I waited long enough, Ric would become an invaluable asset, and sure enough, it finally happened. I say all the time that I couldn’t do these books without him. I think he’s beginning to believe me.
What made you decide on mystery novels?
In addition to genre icons such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I grew up reading the great pulp writers of the 1950s and 60s: Mickey Spillane, Brett Halliday, Richard S. Prather, Erle Stanley Gardner. These guys and others churned out short, smart, sexy novels designed to entertain and keep you turning pages. They were no-nonsense practitioners of a certain kind of literary art. I thought it might be fun to produce something along those lines. Also, I knew there was a huge market for the mystery genre.
But your detective, Tree Callister, is not exactly in the tradition of such tough gumshoes as Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Shell Scott or Mike Shane.
That’s for sure. When I looked around Sanibel and Captiva, I couldn’t help but notice no one was wearing a trench coat or a fedora. Also, these islands are not exactly filled with the mean streets of traditional detective fiction. I started to think about what kind of person would be crazy enough to be a detective on a sun-drenched island where nothing much happens, and who had no specific talents or background for the job.
And who was that person?
Tree became a kind of surrogate for what I was doing as a writer. Who would be crazy enough to abandon traditional publishing in favor of a tiny company with no real experience publishing books? Me. I was at a point in my life where I was willing to cast my fate to the wind and see what happens, much as Tree does. Like Tree, I kind of muddle through and somehow come out all right at the end. Also, like Tree, I am married to the most beautiful and wonderful woman in the world.
How is Tree different than you?
He’s much more courageous than I am. If someone shot me—as a number of people have shot Tree over the years—that would be the end of it. I’d find something else to do. But Tree, fool that he is, keeps coming back for more. He’s undaunted while I am most definitely daunted.
And Freddie is based on your wife, Kathy?
Kathy denies she is like Freddie. But I know differently. The big difference between Kathy and Freddie, is that Kathy is even better than Freddie.
Is Rex Baxter, Tree’s best friend, based on your brother, Ric?
Partially. But the real inspiration for Rex comes from a guy I met in Detroit many years ago. Bill Kennedy, like Rex, was a former B-actor who had never had much success in Hollywood (he burned Ingrid Bergman at the stake in Joan of Arc). In Detroit, Bill became a local icon hosting an afternoon movie show on an independent TV channel. As a young journalist I interviewed him a couple of times and found him a sardonic, larger-than-life delight—like Rex.
Ten years and ten novels later, has Tree changed his creator’s life?
Tree’s certainly given me a new lease on my professional life, no doubt about it. I’m not sure what I would have done as a writer, had it not been for him, not to mention brother Ric, and Brian Vallee, who tragically died just as we were moving into high gear with West-End Books. He is much missed.
What’s been the best part of the whole experience for you?
Writing the Sanibel Sunset Detective continues to be fun and on a certain creative level, rewarding. But I must say the best part of all this has been the readers who enjoy the novels in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. When I first began writing books in the 1980s, I don’t think I even saw a reader. Nowadays, I meet and communicate with them all the time. It’s has been unexpected and tremendously satisfying. I so appreciate the people who read these books. They invariably are intelligent, articulate, and the women, especially, are wonderful, determined to enjoy life, and possessed of great senses of humor.
So, there is going to be an eleventh Tree?
As I keep saying, writers never retire. Next up is The Kiss of the Sanibel Sunset Detective.
Finally, from your perspective, is there more to the novels than entertaining page-turners?
The more I think about it, the more I come to the realization that while these are mysteries, yes, they are, at the end, a series of love stories, the evolving and enduring love between Tree and Freddie. That is the essence of these books, not mystery necessarily, but love. That love is tested in various ways, but Tree and Freddie always survive, more in love than ever.
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