Wednesday, May 14, 2014

An Interview with KM Rockwood

I’ll admit, until KM Rockwood started blogging at WWK, I hadn’t known of her books or read them.  Book reviewers have given her an A+. If you like cozy reads, these books aren’t your cup of tea. Although KM’s main character, Jesse Damon, isn’t especially violent, whenever he’s around, violence happens and more often than not—to him. Jesse aroused my sympathy. He’s had a hard life. But to investigate and clear himself, there’s no way he can help but get into trouble. KM's new Jesse Damon novel, Brothers in Crime was released on May 2. Welcome to the other side of WWK, Kathleen.                                 E. B. Davis

I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.        

Would you give our readers a series description?

After almost twenty years in prison on a murder conviction, Jesse Damon has been released on parole. He has no family or friends to turn to, but has managed to find a job as a laborer on the midnight shift in a steel fabrication plant and a basement apartment. Adjustment to life outside prison in not easy, but he’s determined to make it.

What happens to Jesse in Brothers in Crime?

After nearly twenty years in prison, Jesse Damon is just trying to make it on parole. But nothing comes easy. The cops say they have a video of him breaking into an ATM. He’s in trouble at work over a toxic chemical spill. A runaway wife shows up on his doorstep, dead broke and needing somewhere to stay. And his sometimes-girlfriend Kelly seems to have met someone new. Sydney. At an AA meeting, of all places. When Jesse goes to Sydney's office and finds his dead body, he’s pretty sure the guy has been murdered. And that he will be the prime suspect.

Your main character, Jesse Damon-a parolee who received a forty-year sentence for a murder he didn’t commit, evokes sympathy from readers. Is he based on anyone?

As a fictional character, Jesse takes on a life of his own, but he’s based on  several people I know. I worked in a large medium security state prison, running the library and providing legal reference services. While I was supervising, most of the work was done by an inmate work crew, and Jesse is based on some of the people with whom I worked, many of them convicted as adults of crimes committed while they were still in their mid teens. In Jesse’s case, he was convicted of murder that occurred when he was sixteen and standing lookout for his older brothers while they robbed and shot a drug dealer. Anyone who is involved in a felony in the State of Maryland in which someone dies is guilty of murder. So, despite the fact that Jesse wasn’t the triggerman, he’s technically guilty as charged. And he’s very aware of it.

The town where Jesse lives, Rothsburg, has a depressed economy and is old and run down. Must
Jesse live there? Is the town based on any one place?

Rothsburg is an old rust belt town, where once-thriving industries have moved out or gone
overseas. A few of the smaller operations are left. Now the prison complex outside town is the major employer. The town is roughly based on Hagerstown, MD, which lost huge manufacturing plants like Mack Truck, with bits of Taneytown, MD (lost the rubber factory,) and Fairmont, WV thrown in. While on pre-release status, Jesse was interviewed for and landed a job. When he was released, he had the $50 gate money all released prisoners get and the job offer. He has no reason to go anywhere else, can’t leave the state, and as long as he can hang onto the job, Rothsburg is where he will stay.

A damp coldness permeates your stories, KM. Will Jesse ever have a dry May day?

Jesse doesn’t feel as if his life is all that tough. Life is a struggle, but he’s not locked up. He figures life is tough all over, and he has hope that if he can make things work out, he can have a decent life.

The rules for parolees are very strict. It’s almost impossible for Jesse to keep out of trouble. Yet his Parole Officer seems experienced enough to give Jesse latitude. Is he nice, or does he give Jesse “just enough rope to hang himself”?

Mr. Ramirez, Jesse’s parole officer, has been at this for a long time and knows how difficult it is for someone with no money or family support to avoid becoming a recidivism statistic. He sees Jesse’s success as his own success. He’s also aware of how much each incarcerated inmate costs the taxpayers—over $30,000 a year—and he’d much rather see the people on his case load out paying taxes  than being financial drains on society. However, he is realistic and isn’t about to overlook anything he perceives as a danger to the community.

People’s assumptions about Jesse get him into trouble. Jesse was a virgin until he was thirty-six. Why do people assume Jesse is a sexual offender?

In the beginning of the first book, a fellow worker accuses Jesse of being a sex offender, which starts a rumor that he is. That kind of taunting comment is fairly common, and to deny it only makes things worse. He sometimes challenges people to look him up on the sex offender registry, available online, but most people don’t care enough to check. His sentence structure—a long sentence picked up when he was very young—certainly appears to fit the profile of one that would be meted out to a sex offender. People aren’t aware that he was paroled fairly early, which would be unusual for a sex offender.

Beaten down by the system without control over his life, Jesse almost seems passive, not that he can’t fight, but even though he’s been in prison for twenty years and should be tough, he can’t stand up to authority. I see this as a contradiction, do you?

Jesse’s learned to keep his head down. One of the inmates working for me once told me, “When my walking papers come through, my goal is for the regular CO (correctional officer) to go looking for me to tell me and say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ even though I’ve been on the cellblock for ten years.” There is no point in standing up to authority—those in positions of authority are going to do what they are going to do, and inmates are going to go along with it. The easy way or the hard way. Most staff is trying their best to be professional in a very difficult job. Firm, fair and impartial.

Jesse seems to get beat up by the police more often than from any other source. Most of the violence is due to the police anticipate or expect Jesse might do. It’s an overreaction because he doesn’t warrant the violence. Is there a solution to this violence?

With the major exception of Detective Belkins, who is a border-line psychopath and an alcoholic, the police are doing their jobs as conscientiously as they can. When dealing with a convicted murderer, they should be reacting to him as “armed and dangerous.” He gives them no indication that he will resist or cause trouble, but that is exactly what someone who is awaiting an opportunity to escape will do. Sometimes their judgment calls are off and they are rougher than they need to be, but Jesse understands the situation and doesn’t bear them any ill will. He’s used to situations where physical violence is a norm.

Everyone will be glad when Belkins can retire.

Is being unable to read the biggest educational problem you encountered in prisons?

Illiteracy is certainly a problem but a worse one is the defeatist attitude that “There’s no place
in productive society for me, and no matter how hard I try, I won’t ever be able to make it.” That, of course, leads to people making no effort to improve their skills, reading or anything else.

In what subgenre do you categorize your mysteries?

Good question. I think of them as crime novels, where there is a mystery, but it’s not really the central issue of the story. Jesse doesn’t really care if he finds out who the killer is, as long as he’s not going down for it. There is an element of psychological suspense. They are cozies in a noir setting, if there is such a thing.

Is Detective Montgomery a good guy/cop or does he use Jesse? Do they have a symbiotic relationship?

Detective Montgomery is a good police officer and a shrewd man with political aspirations. He is pragmatic and works with Belkins, aware that he needs to walk a thin line between acting respectfully toward the more senior detective and watching his reputation by keeping investigations professional enough to present to the courts. He and Jesse are both cautious in their interactions, but they understand each other.

What’s next for Jesse?

Problems pile up for Jesse in Brothers in Crime, the next in the series. He’s accused of breaking into an ATM, there’s a potassium cyanide spill at work his foreman thinks he may be responsible for, and his sometime-girlfriend Kelly has met someone new. Of course someone is killed and when Jesse discovers the body, he’s once again the first suspect. It’s due out in ebook on May 4, and I’ll get the print copies sometime over the summer.

Are you a beach or a mountain person, KM?

If I have to chose, I’d say mountain. We live on a few acres in the foothills of the Appalachians, near South Mountain, and I love it. Every few years we have a family reunion in Ocean City, NJ, and I get my fix of beach then.


Jim Jackson said...

I had the pleasure of sharing a panel at Malice Domestic with KM. Andrew McRae has coined a term that may apply to your work: "cozy-noir." I first heard of it at Left Coast Crime this spring, but have since seen it bandied about on various online discussion groups.

Best of success with your latest Jesse Damon release.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

KM as you well know, I'm a big fan of your series and am eagerly waiting for your newest to come out in print. My heart goes out to Jesse making me want to mother him. I especially like that you write from a background that makes your books real; the prison system, the small town and the factory Jesse works in. These are all areas that make your books so real and believable.

Warren Bull said...

It sounds like you describe a life situation not often covered in writing. I have worked with paroled individuals. In Missouri they are by law ineligible for food stamps and it is hard to find employers willing to hire them. It is a hard way to live.

Linda Rodriguez said...

KM, it's excellent that you're showing the life of a parolee who's really trying to make good. I've worked with prisoners and with pre-release and diversion programs, and I've seen how difficult we as a society make it for someone who's trying to go straight. I'm pushing for Jesse to beat the odds.

Shari Randall said...

Hi KM,
Enjoyed the interview, and I enjoyed meeting Jesse Damon in SEND OFF FOR A SNITCH. You pushed the boundaries of cozy (I like "cozy noir") in a way that is respectful of the traditional mystery's conventions but also gives us a fresh worldview and setting. I wish you much success with your series.

KM Rockwood said...

Jim, I'd considered my work to be cozy in a noir setting--and I think they may very well fit in the emerging cozy-noir setting. Thank you for pointing that out.

Gloria, Brothers in Crime should be out in print over the summer--and you know you'll be one of the first people to get a copy! I would be happy to give a copy to anyone else who would like one.

Warren, so many doors are closed to those with a felony conviction. And heaven forbid one should end up on the sex offenders list (especially for something like being an 18 year old who had consentual sex with an underaged girlfriend)It's almost like we as a society want parolees to fail, and lock them back up at a cost of around $35,000 each per year.

Linda, I do feel compelled to give a voice to people who live on the margins of our society. Jesse will make it, but his conviction will hover over his entire life.

E. B. Davis said...

One of the reasons I rarely will tell a story from the antagonist's POV is due to lack of credibility. I've lived a sheltered life and have little contact with real criminals. You have a credible voice because of your work experience. I'm glad you've told Jesse's story, which represents all excons. Your books are good reads, Kathleen. I loved reading them back to back. Thank you for supplying them to me.

Kaye George said...

I think your work is wonderful and very different, KM. As you said on your Malice Domestic panel, you're trying to represent people who don't often get written about, or understood by others. I hope for many more Jesse Damon books.

Where did you get that jacket with the skulls? Love it!

KM Rockwood said...

Shari, I'm so glad you liked the book and the character. That's really more important to me than any income I might earn from the series (although I'm certainly not turning that down.)

E.B, I'd always be happy to help you any time you wanted to try to write from a criminal's point of view. Of course, my experience is not universal--I would have trouble getting inside the head of a lot of people, excons or otherwise.

Kaye, thank you for the kind words. I found the jacket (it's really more of a shirt-jacket) in a catalog, but I did see a very similar one in a Mexican store around here near the Day of the Dead. And one of the few times I watched the cat whisperer guy on TV, he was wearing an identical one. It's made by Scully, a western apparel company that's been in business since 1906.

Kara Cerise said...

KM, it's wonderful that you are using your talent as a writer to give a voice to people who are usually overlooked. I wish you much success on your newest release.

LD Masterson said...

Jesse sounds like a complex and very different sort of protagonist. Best of luck on your newest release.

KM Rockwood said...

Kara and LD, thanks for your encouragement. I just gave a copy of the latest book to one of the "models" for Jesse (supervised release after 30 years in prison on a conviction for murder committed when he was 17)He doesn't read much, but he likes these books, and says, "You know what it's like, and you tell it right," which, as far as I am concerned, is high praise.

Vonnie said...

Kathleen, you know I love the Jesse Damon series for its reality and grittiness. It's great to see the momentum gathering for this series as time goes by. About time everyone caught up with me!

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan as you know. Love your work!
Emma Lane

HL Carpenter said...

Very much enjoy this series. Interesting how you define it, KM, but whatever definition you use, you've certainly captured the voice of Jesse.

KM Rockwood said...

Vonnie, Emma, Helen and Lorri, Thnaks so much for the support! It's great to know that people like the series, but especially great to hear it from great writers whose own works I really enjoy!