Interview with author Allen Eskens

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Allen, a Minnesota-based author of six books that have been translated into 26 languages. The New York Times Book Review called his most recent novel, Nothing More Dangerous, “A stunning small-town mystery.”

Eskens is also the recipient of numerous writing awards, including  the Minnesota Book Award and the Rosebud Award from Left Coast Crime. On top of those honors, he’s been a finalist for the Edgar Award, Thriller Award, and Anthony Award. A retired defense attorney, his stories often explore the criminal justice system.

What prompted you to retire from law and become an author?

I’ve always had a creative side. After I graduated from law school, I turned to writing as a creative pleasure. The more I worked on it, the more it became passion. By the time I was able to support myself with my writing, it was an easy decision to switch.

How would you describe your writing?

I think of myself as literary mystery writer. As an attorney, I know law, police procedures, and how to conduct investigations. So my novels are mysteries, but explore deeper themes.

My favor parts of stories are the relationships and characters. It’s fun to think through the mysteries and their twist and turns, and then set that aside and write the story based on the characters and their emotions. I think people often don’t realize that the reason they like a story, even a mystery or thriller, is because of the characters.

No Country for Old Men is a spectacular thriller, and also a literary novel. The movie DieHard is remembered for its action, but it’s really a love story. The reason other movies don’t do as well as DieHard is because they focus too much on the action.

Can you talk about writing a “community of characters?”

Most mystery writers write about single protagonist. Readers fall in love with the character and can’t wait to read about him or her.

The way I do it is a little different. Lila, for instance, has appeared in three of my stories. I’m now writing her story. I love writing the hero’s journey, where the protagonist at the start of a book is one way and by the end, he or she has gone through a crucible and changed. I don’t think could do that over and over with one character.

By writing about a community, I can take a new character and have him or her go through their own crucible. At the end of the story, they’re changed, but they’re not ready for yet another journey. So, I go to another character.

When I’m giving a book talk and say I’m writing Lila’s story, there’s an audible reaction from the audience. People want to know more about her.

If you could form a writing group or book club with three or four people—living or dead, famous or not, writers or not—who might you choose?

Harper Lee to start. I think Ben Franklin would be interesting. Also Barbara Kingsolver, Dennis Lehane, and Cormac McCarthy.

Where do you get your ideas?

They come from life and day dreaming–I’m a prolific daydreamer and love creating stories, just in own head. When I decided to try my hand at writing, it was a perfect fit—I could hone my daydreams into stories.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Study the craft. I read something early on that said either you have talent or you don’t. And if you don’t, you should move on.

The advice made me mad. My approach has been that if I understand the craft and technique, I can make up for any lack of ability. I’ve spent twenty years studying the craft of writing. I wouldn’t have the same level of success if I hadn’t studied for so long.