This evening’s interview is with H. Max Hiller, a prolific writer of detective fiction. Welcome,
Could you tell us about yourself?
I am the author of a political thriller/mystery series set in post-Katrina New Orleans and base a number of characters and subplots on people and situations I encountered living in that marvelous city both before and after the hurricane struck. I now make my paying living, because being an author sure isn’t one, as a training chef for a towboat company and have recently moved further north on the Mississippi River to be closer to my wife’s aging mother.
How long have you been writing?
I went into the restaurant business in 1974 with the idea that I would be able to support myself while I wrote, knowing that far back that this is what I wanted to do. I wound up living the typical dissipated lifestyle of a waiter and cook, and then the overworked lifestyle of a manager, until I happened upon an opportunity in 2014 to cook for small groups of workers as I do now. I work in 28-day rotations so I have entire months to do nothing but write, and nothing much else to do but write in my free time when I am deployed. I have published four books in three years.
Tell us about one of, or your most recent book?
My favorite book is the third of the four I have written. The central character is a state police detective who spent years as an intelligence operative in the Middle East. He has come home in the wake of the hurricane and sees constant parallels between the government’s, both local and national, inability to organize a recovery in either Iraq or New Orleans and brings his unique skill sets to bear on cases he is assigned. Cant Stop The Funk starts as a simple investigation into an anonymous attempt to buy the house his sous chef owns in what has always been viewed as the city’s least desirable neighbourhood. The inquiry churns up multiple subtle, and less subtle, attempts to once again dislodge the city’s poorest and least adaptable citizens for someone else’s financial gain. It is a book with many scenarios being repeated for real in the wake of our three massive hurricanes this year, and is best exemplified by the pitiful recovery in Puerto Rico.
What do you love about writing?
The opportunity to place myself in a parallel dimension, and to fill it with interesting people doing amazing things. I get to revisit places I still love and miss in New Orleans and to have my characters say all of the things I don’t get to myself. It is a great place to lose myself for a while.
How do you get inspired/ where do you get your ideas?
The idea for writing a mystery series where some sort of historical incident complicates or instigates cases grew out of my deep appreciation for the BBC series Foyle’s War, about a WW2 British detective who kept rubbing up against the National Secrets Act and investigating cases that related to the war effort. The central character in my novels came from a mental exercise I perform on long drives. I find that the names of towns on highway exit signs often combine to create what sound like names for people, so I create stories for those people to stay awake. I drove past a sign to the towns of Cooter and Holland for years and was never able to satisfactorily create a story that did Cooter Holland justice until after Hurricane Katrina. I had been kicking around the idea of his being a military veteran or former spy, but after Katrina I was able to use the notion of his comparing his experiences with this country’s horrible record of rebuilding Iraq with the unforgivable response to Katrina in New Orleans. I built a story-line out of actual events by changing names and motivations and have been able to build a series of fast-paced and captivating mysteries while shining a light on very real issues. Readers have responded very favourably to the combination and I am careful to avoid becoming ‘preachy’ about the subplots.
Do you have a specific writing process?
I write a basic synopsis and then let it build itself until I begin to see scenes in my head like miniature movies. I learned early on that my characters were able to write a better story than I could make them live on my own so now I trust them to solve the crimes I create. In the second book, The Blue Garou, the detective actually discovered the real villain was someone I had not even suspected when I began writing the book.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Write. Your early work will be terrible but you will get better and in time find a voice all your own that others will want to hear. Make yourself carve out a set time daily that you are going to write and then make yourself do so. You won’t always feel like writing, and there will be days that all you can do is stare at a blank page, but in time your imagination will develop a rhythm to have something to put to paper if you just follow the routine. Don’t set word goals or plot milestones, but rather fill the specified time with quality work and you will eventually finish something. Once you have completed a project you will discover that writers write, and authors market. Be prepared to spend nearly as much time every day selling your work as creating it.
What are you currently working on? How long before release?
I am taking my detective out of his urban comfort zone and having him investigate the death of a cooperating witness in a case in the swamplands between New Orleans and Lafayette that his girlfriend, a State’s Attorney, has been asked to prosecute after the local District Attorney had to recuse himself from the case. Like every other case the detective handles, this one starts out with a straightforward incident that pulls him into a far murkier situation he has to handle. The previous book, Ghosts and Shadows, started with an arson fire and wound up putting him in a fight for his life with shadowy government agents and a Mexican drug cartel. I am hoping to finish the writing of the current project by March and be able to begin marketing towards a release at the end of May, in time for our Memorial Day long weekend and the start of ‘beach reading’ season. I had hoped to be done in time for Christmas this year, but have found the investigation into our President and the Russians to be a daily distraction. I don’t think anyone could have written a fictional story that follows this real-life story line and had anyone believe it. It’s riveting.
What are you currently reading?
I read The Templars while I was home in October, but I don’t read much while I am on the boat because I want to focus on writing.
Who are your favourite authors?
I owe a lot to James Lee Burke for his own New Orleans/Louisiana detective, but I got my start in mysteries with the writings of Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, and Carl Hiassen. They have each contributed to the wit and wisdom in my own detective’s voice.
Do you have any favourite fictional characters?
Private Investigator Spenser from the Robert B. Parker novels and U.S. Marshal Givens from the Elmore Leonard novels (both of which inspired TV series) are two of my favorites. I grew up watching the TV series Spenser for Hire, and this show was what initially brought me to read mysteries. I also deeply enjoyed Chief Inspector Foyle portrayed by John Mahoney in Foyle’s War.