Like many good crime novels, the career of Twin Cities mystery writer David Housewright started with a bang.
After brief careers in journalism (including at the Minneapolis Tribune) and advertising (he started his own agency), his first book – well, second if you count the one he wrote when he was 10 years old – won an Edgar Award, the mystery writers’ version of an Oscar.
He’s gone on to win three Minnesota Book Awards, as well as being nominated for five more.
His latest novel, “Something Wicked,” is being released Tuesday, with book launches at Next Chapter in St. Paul and Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis. It’s another installment in his series about McKenzie Rushmore, a sort-of-retired detective – he’s retired from the police force but keeps stumbling into murders. This time, he and his wife are settling in for a quiet visit to a resort in western Minnesota when his attention is diverted by a mysterious death.
We talked with Housewright about his award-winning career, the meticulous planning he puts into his books and the fickle nature of fame. The interview has been edited for length.
Q: Does having won multiple awards add to the pressure to produce another successful book?
A: The reason the awards were really important to me was because they happened so early in my career. The Edgar was for my first book. And because of that I had instant credibility. People would answer my phone calls. [Trade journals] Kirkus and Booklist and those people would review my books. I was invited to a lot of events that I would not probably have been invited to except that I was the award winner.
So in that regard, the awards have been very important to me. All my books have “Edgar Award winning author” on the cover. But I do not look at it as pressure. I do not look at it as now I have to live up to this. I might have when I first won it. But not now.
Q: Did it spoil you? Did it make you think that winning more awards was going to be easy?
A: It did, because I won the Minnesota Book Award for my second book. And then I’m thinking, “Hey, I might be onto something.” And then I did not get nominated for my third or fourth books, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. What’s wrong here?”
Q: You’ve written 25 books in 25 years. How do you maintain that level of production? Do you have rules, like you must be at your desk working by 8:30 in the morning or write a certain number of words a day?
A: No. I’ve been fortunate enough to know a lot of writers, and everybody has their own system. I know guys who get up at 6 in the morning and they write until 10 or 8 or whatever their time is. And I know guys who demand that they write 1,000 words a day, or 1,200 words or 1,500 words or 3,000 words – which I think is insane.
I do not have that. When I’m starting a book, I’ll sit down and I’ll work for an hour, an hour and a half, and then I’ll jump up and go, “Well, golf does not play itself.” As I get deeper into the book, I spend more and more time with it. Towards the end – when I’m 60,000 words in – I’ll sit down at 10 in the morning and all of a sudden it’s 8 at night and I’m going, “Shouldn’t someone have fed me by now?”
I work from outlines. When I started, the outlines were a necessity. I did it because I was running my own advertising agency, Gruber-Housewright, and writing time was at a premium. When I had very extensive outlines, I always knew where I was. I never stared at the page saying, “What was I thinking two weeks ago when I started this chapter?”
After things went my way and I was writing more or less full time, the outlines became a little less extensive. I still use them. But they are more living documents than they used to be. I make a lot of changes as I go along.
But I still know how the book is going to end before I start. I still know how it’s all going to play out. I’m not sure exactly how I’m going to do it, but I know what’s going to happen. I will not write the first sentence unless I know what the book is about.
Q: McKenzie is a bit of a smart aleck. Is that your personality creeping onto the page?
A: Probably. I know my daughter does not read the McKenzie books. She reads all the other stuff, but she does not read McKenzie because she says, “You know, it just sounds like you telling me a story.”
I’ve had this question come up many times over the years, and I answer pretty much the way all writers do: I’m not that guy. And I’m not all these other characters I write about. But yes I am. The things that come out of the characters’ mouths, that comes from me.
Q: You have said that you did not choose mystery writing, that it chose you. What did you mean by that?
A: Over the years, I had tried to write several books, and they were really awful. When I was outlining [the first published book] “Penance,” when I was trying to figure out what I was going to write, originally it was going to be about political corruption. It occurred to me as I was plotting it out that if I would throw a couple of dead bodies on the floor, this would be a great crime novel.
The reason I thought that, in retrospect, was back in those days, I would read five or six mysteries for every non-mystery. Now it’s the opposite. But I was pretty immersed in the conventions of the crime novel. So that’s what I did: I turned it into a crime novel.
Q: You’ve also said that your books are about more than murder, What are some of the issues you touch on in “Something Wicked ‘?
A: First of all, it takes place during COVID. I know a lot of writers who will not do that. They will not write about it, they will not put COVID in their books. And I kind of get it. Part of it is that you do not want to date the books. And my response to that is no, your books take place in a certain time and in a certain place. You have to incorporate that.
I make references to George Floyd and the unrest in Minneapolis, and I do that through the observations of a former Minneapolis police officer, and why so many officers quit their jobs and why so many of them did what they did. It also deals with some white supremacy in rural Minnesota because – guess what – there’s some white supremacy in rural Minnesota.
I deal with that because that’s the world that exists when the crimes take place. My argument is that the best crime novels have to be about more than whodunit. They have to be basically about life and the people who live it. And I think that’s true of every book.
Q: On your website, you tell a story about being assigned a publicist – whose job it was to make your name known by the public who did not know your name. These days, does dropping the name David Housewright get you better tables at a restaurant?
A: No. [At a used-book sale] I saw one of my books on the table and picked it up. When I put it back down, a woman reached across in front of me to grab it. I said, “Ma’am, that’s my book.” And she said, “No. You set it down. Those are the rules.” I took the book back and said, “You do not understand.” I opened up the book jacket to show her my picture and said, “It’s my book. I wrote it.” She said, “I do not care. I’m going to buy it anyway.”
Every time since then, when I start to think I’m the best thing since sliced bread, I’ll remember this woman.
Jeff Strickler is a writer and editor at the Star Tribune.
Town: David Housewright.
Publisher: Minotaur, 320 pages, $ 26.99.
Events: 6 pm May 26, Next Chapter Bookseller, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul; noon June 4, Once Upon a Crime Bookstore, 604 W. 27th St. Mpls.