Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I, like all military brats and children of circus performers, am from nowhere. And from everywhere. I was born in Vienna, Austria to a U.S. Army Colonel who was German and an adopted woman from Chicago, Illinois. Since then I’ve lived everywhere, but continue to be from nowhere. Actually this explains what Where They Bury You is really about and…oh, sorry I can’t reveal the rest of that thought. Sorry. About me? I’ve been a professor at Berkeley, an investment banker specializing in derivatives, and now a novelist while serving on several U.S. corporate boards. My passions are family, baseball, movies, and chocolate.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
It’s a historical fiction murder mystery based on an actual murder exactly 150 years ago, August 18, 1863, of a U.S. Marshal serving with Kit Carson in his hunt for the Navajos in the New Mexico Territory. It takes place just as the Texans and the Civil War insert themselves into the Territories’ Apache and Navajo battles, and involves a massive embezzlement scam of the government, the Church, and the Army by a group of con artists that, interestingly, also actually happened. One day, I was innocently reading Hampton Sides’ wonderful history Blood and Thunder, when I came across Kit Carson’s implausible explanation for the Marshal’s murder. Intrigued, I started researching Army Archives and biographies of the times and discovered the con and fell into the fictionalized version of what really happened that day.
How do you create your characters?
I don’t actually. I start them out I suppose, giving them a name and a role in their first scene. And then wham! They and their story take off under their own direction and internal evolution. Some evolve into complex people, some into simple villains or simpletons, and some into greyish heroes (or heroines). In this book, Lily Smoot was a minor fictional character who, to my great surprise took over the men, both good and bad, and then she took over my story.
What inspires and what got you started in writing?
I’ll take those in reverse order. About 35 years ago, I told my wife and two mutual friends that I thought mysteries were a “waste of time.” My exact words. The guy, a colleague of mine at Berkeley, amusingly asked me what I did like in fiction. I told him “characterizations.” He smiled and returned with five books. Said, “read these and then see if you change your mind.” I did, and, well, I did. After that I became a voracious reader of Elmore Leonard, Ross Thomas, Robert Parker, et. al.. Then decided when I retired from investment banking, I wanted to write murder mysteries. So, Charles inspired me and got me started, and now what inspires me is the ability to create interesting characters who can then write my stories for me.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I write in my library at my desk, surrounded by books and family memorabilia. And now, that you mention it, I never write without my IPod playlist as my environment. I tried writing once after drinking, and what came out was……well, let’s just say it’s not in the book. I don’t need quiet and solitude. In fact, I am constantly interrupted by the phone, baseball news on the computer, and people wandering in for one reason or another. It’s like running a trading floor for me, constant activity. Coming in and out of the story. Pretty much like my characters I guess.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Reading and hiking. And then, of course the characters themselves write the stories, as I said.
What do you like to read?
History of the evolution of science, western world history, history of the U.S. West. Elmore Leonard. Michael Connelly.
What would your advice be for authors or aspiring authors in regards to writing?
Yes, don’t read what other authors advise you. Don’t read “how to” books. Don’t take classes on writing. Just read every good book you can get your hands on. And then just write.
Anything else you’d like to share?
There’s a three-legged stool for enjoying a productive, fun life: 1) never lose sight of your ultimate objective; 2) do good work and lots of it; and 3) follow your passions.
About the author:
Steve Kohlhagen is a former, now retired, Economics
professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a
retired Wall Street investment banker, and is on several
corporate boards, most recently elected to the board of
Freddie Mac. While at Berkeley he authored many
economics publications, and he and his wife Gale
jointly published the murder mystery “Tiger Found”
under their pen name Steven Gale in 2008.
Kohlhagen was inspired to write his latest book
“Where They Bury You” after reading Hampton Sides’
“Blood and Thunder,” a non-fiction history of Kit
Carson and the West. Sides’ reporting of the factual
murder of Marshal Joseph Cummings on August 18, 1863 led Kohlhagen to
conduct further research on Carson and Cummings, including at the National
Archives. He also pulled from his own knowledge of the West, as the writer
divides his time between the New Mexico-Colorado border high in the San Juan
Mountains and Charleston, South Carolina.
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