Interview by Jonathan Wilhoit
Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Michael Bigham, author of the debut novel Harkness. It’s a mystery novel set in 1952 on the Oregon High Desert, and after leafing through his book, it’s definitely one that I want to read. But before diving into the text, I thought it might be fun to talk to the author himself and learn a little bit more about his book.
Michael has been gracious enough to accept my interview invitation and joins me here today. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Michael.
MB: Thanks for having me. I appreciate you taking the time to interview me.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Q1) First, the basics. Tell the folks a little about yourself.
MB: I grew up in a small timber and cattle town in
Central Oregon, Prineville. It’s
off the beaten track, almost lost in time. While attending the University of
Oregon, I spent my summers fighting range fires for the BLM at a guard station
50 miles up the Paulina Valley. We had no phone, no television, no radio, just
a reel to reel tape recorder filled with Hank Williams tunes. There I fell in love with the high desert and
that’s stayed with me ever since. After college, I drifted into police work and
eventually made it my career. My other passion has always been writing and
after retiring from police work, I went back to school and got an MFA in
Creative Writing from Vermont College.
Q2) And now on to your book, Harkness. Give us the spiel.
MB: My protagonist, Sheriff Matt Harkness isn’t your typical Western sheriff. Cowboy boots make his arches ache, he’s scared of horses, drives an old battered pickup he’s named Hoopie and his faithful companion is a wiener dog named Addison. Life in the small town of Barnesville has been easy-going for Matthew until a star-crossed teen-aged couple disappears. Harkness is the keeper of secrets in his little town, but to solve this crime, he must decide which secrets to keep and which to expose. One secret involves Judge Barnes, the county’s most powerful man. But Harkness has a secret of his own: he’s in love with the Judge’s wife. How much is Harkenss willing to risk to catch the bad guy?
Q3) Harkness begins with a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Why did you choose this passage, and how does it tie into your novel?
MB: Great question. The quote reflects on Harkness himself. He’s a man borne of violence, physically abused as a child and tempered by battle in the jungles of New Guinea during World War II. The quote refers to a warrior who now capers in a lady’s bedchamber. In the opening scene, we find Harkness in bed with another man’s wife. He’s put aside the violent part of himself for a brief moment.
MB: Harkness was based to some degree on my father. As with Harkness, my dad was from a dirt-poor Irish family and left home when he was thirteen to find his way in the world. He also fought in New Guinea during the War. That’s not to say that Harkness is exactly like my father. There are many more unresolved issues with Harkness, the dichotomy of his love for another man’s wife versus his inability to commit, his sense of justice and the passion and anger that lie just below the surface.
Q5) Harkness is set in 1952. Why did you choose to go the historical fiction route rather than a contemporary setting?
MB: I find the era fascinating. A lot was happening then: Korea, flying saucers, the hunt for Communists and the beginnings of social change. Competing forces were working to shape our society. There was almost a casual racism that existed then that I wanted to explore. Central Oregon was almost completely white. Native Americans were confined to the Warm Springs Reservation. Barnestown, like many towns west of the Mississippi, had enacted a sundown law. A person of color could not spend the night in the city limits. I wondered what would happen if an African American man stumbled into town during the murder investigation of a young white girl. After World War II, attitudes started to slowly shift. Women and people of color had been given a taste of another life, one where they had the opportunity to break out of their traditional roles. That shift is still in progress, but it started then.
Q6) I loved how you included a lot of classic literature in your fiction—Shakespeare, Browning, etc. (I was an English major, after all). What are some other classic authors that you particularly enjoy or helped to inspire your work?
|Click here for the Amazon listing|
MB: I’m rereading Anna Karenia at the moment. Tolstoy was a master at the omniscient point of view and I’m looking for tips. Shakespeare has wonderful plots and exquisite language. Believe it or not, I’m looking at Verne and H.G. Wells for inspiration for the sequel to Harkness.
Q7) What is the central theme of Harkness? Or, phrased a different way, if there is any one thing you would like the reader to walk away with after having read this book, what is it?
MB: Harkness as a man finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. His best friend, an elderly doctor, is a holocaust survivor, the only Jew for 100 miles. Many local folks would drive 35 miles to another town rather than have him do their doctoring. I mentioned the African American man, Thomas Stewart, stumbling into town during a murder investigation. Harkness knows that Stewart isn’t involved in the murder and has to overstep his authority to protect him. Harkness also stumbles on two prominent gay men who are in the closet. How does he handle their secrets? Also, his lover, Kate Barnes, wants to be a cop. Women weren’t really accepted into police work until the mid to late 70s. I was curious how he would handle all this. It would be easier for him to react with intolerance and bias, but he struggles to accept what most of that era wouldn’t.
Q8) What’s next for Sheriff Harkness and Michael Bigham?
I’m working hard on the next book in the Harkess series, Thunderhead. Seven months have passed since the end of the last book. Harkness is on the wagon, but just barely, locals report flying saucers over Grizzly Mountain, the FBI comes to town looking for commie sympathizers and someone is murdered in a log grinder at a local lumber mill. Harkness has to haul what is left of the poor soul to Doc Silverman’s office in buckets.
And that’s that. Thank you so much, Michael, for speaking with us. It’s been a real treat to talk with you. Take care, and good luck with your next project.
My pleasure. You’ve got a knack for asking relevant questions. Thanks for having me.
If you would like to find out more about Michael or his work, you can visit him at michaelbigham.com.
About the Reviewer: He makes a living in the world of corporate IT, but he gets his jollies through the nirvana of armchair literary criticism. Blame it on a liberal arts education and liberal quantities of whiskey. It's a dangerous combination, one that has resulted in a blog called I Read a Book Once, where Jonathan can express his cantankerous inner literary critic to the fullest extent. When not reading, writing, or getting his geek on (i.e. working), he mostly hunkers down in the bunker with his redhot smokin' wife and tries to survive the hurricane that is his half-crazed toddler.