Chester Campbell is the author of two mystery series featuring private investigators. The Surest Poison, first book in the Sid Chance series dealing with a chemical pollution case, came out in 2009. He has written five Greg McKenzie novels featuring a retired Air Force investigator and his wife. Prior to turning to fiction writing, Campbell worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance writer, magazine editor, political speechwriter, advertising copywriter, public relations professional and association executive. An Air Force intelligence officer in the Korean War, he retired from the Air Force Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. He lives in Madison, TN.
KN: You worked in journalism for many years. What was your path to publication as a mystery writer? And why PI novels?
CC: My path had more curves than the Cumberland River, which is known for its many bends as it wanders through Nashville. I wrote my first novel in 1948 while studying journalism at the University of Tennessee and working as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal. During my career in newspapers, magazines, advertising and public relations, I wrote another in the mid-sixties. Neither of those made it into publication. I retired in 1989 and turned to writing mysteries in earnest. After four agents and eight manuscripts, I finally made it into print in 2002.
As for why PI novels, I started out writing post-Cold War spy thrillers and books featuring ordinary guys caught up in life-threatening situations. When I came up with the idea for Secret of the Scroll, my first published novel, I needed an experienced investigator as a protagonist. I decided to make a series with Greg McKenzie and his wife, and the logical move was to make them private investigators.
KN: How have your years as a journalist influenced your writing?
CC: As a reporter and a magazine journalist, I perfected my methods for interviewing subjects and conducting research in other ways. I particularly enjoyed feature writing. I found it easy to shift into fiction using some of the same techniques. My somewhat terse writing style probably stems from experience as a journalist.
KN: What was the inspiration for your first Greg McKenzie novel, Secret of the Scroll?
CC: I went on a group tour of the Holy Land in November of 1998. We flew via Royal Jordanian Airlines, and on the way home I read an in-flight magazine article about caves found around Bethany in Jordan. They had been occupied by Christian monks in the first century. I thought what if someone found a cave that contained an ancient scroll with a secret worth millions? So I created one, though it hasn’t been quite that lucrative for me.
KN: Greg and his wife, Jill, have had a number of adventures together. Can you give any hints about what’s in their future?
CC: Their sixth adventure is still bubbling in the cauldron of my head. I’m sure the witches’ brew will stir up something to test their mettle.
KN: After several well-received Greg McKenzie books, you’ve introduced a new PI series featuring former park ranger and small-town police chief Sid Chance. What led you to create a second series?
CC: I enjoy writing about Greg and Jill, particularly playing them off against each other, but I wanted to do something with a little harder edge. Sid is more likely to step into the middle of a melee.
KN: How are Greg and Sid similar to and different from each other?
CC: Sid is several years younger, not quite sixty. Greg has been happily married for more than thirty years, while Sid is single. And Sid is a definite presence, at six-foot-six. They’re both ex-military, Greg a retired Air Force officer, Sid a Special Forces non-com in Vietnam.
KN: Do the series attract different audiences, or is your fan base the same for both?
CC: I think it’s a split-decision. Some readers appear to enjoy both series, while others prefer to stick with Greg and Jill.
KN: Both your protagonists are seniors. What do you think accounts for the current popularity of senior sleuths?
CC: As the population ages, the ranks of seniors make up more of the reading public. I think older characters bring a broader perspective to the story, and older readers like that. However, my seniors aren’t caricaturish “old.” I think age is largely a state of mind. I’m eighty-five and I don’t consider myself “old.”
KN: Does the fact that your detectives are seniors create any special challenges to you as a writer?
CC: They say write what you know best, and the senior ranks sure fit that. But I think the main challenge is to keep the characters within the limits of their physical capabilities. I disagree with a couple of reviewers who thought Greg was not realistic in some of his actions. I suspect the reviewers were much younger.
KN: What’s an ideal writing day for you?
CC: An ideal writing day for me is a day when I can find time to sit down and write. That doesn’t always happen. Life seems to get in the way. I’m doing better lately, but not good enough.
KN: What’s been the most surprising thing about being a full-time novelist?
CC: That the writing is the least difficult part of the job. Marketing and promoting your work is much more difficult and takes an inordinate amount of time. I keep hoping to win the lottery so I can hire a fulltime publicist to take care of those chores.
KN: Your books have won several awards, including the Silver Falchion Award bestowed by Killer Nashville. How does it feel to be able to put “Award-winning Writer” by your name?
CC: Not being the pushy type, I have trouble billing myself that way. I probably should do it more, but I don’t know how impressed readers are with that sort of thing. I hope they read me because they like good books.
KN: You’ve been called “the King of Promotion” by your local Sisters in Crime chapter. How did you come by that title?
CC: I don’t know that it was all that well deserved, but when I got my first book in print I tried to accomplish everything I had read about promotion. I did lots of signings, got stories in newspapers, articles in magazines, did TV interviews, lots of radio interviews, attended numerous conferences. The inimitable Del Tinsley crowned me with that title.
KN: What do you do to promote your books?
CC: I don’t do as much of the things previously mentioned now. I do more on the internet with a fairly sizeable website (http://www.chesterdcampbell.com), a personal blog and regular contributions to two others, Facebook, Goodreads, and way too many email lists. For signings, I’ve turned more to area festivals and book fairs.
KN: Your books are all available as e-books. Any thoughts on how the explosion of e-readers and e-books will affect the future of publishing and small-press authors in particular?
CC: It’s a great opportunity for writers, and particularly us small press types who don’t get all the brick and mortar exposure. The proliferation of smart phones and a variety of e-readers can only increase the popularity of e-books. I’m sure there will always be a demand for printed books, but the digital revolution is bound to go only one way—up. For writers, it’s an opportunity to earn higher royalties.
KN: What writing advice would you give to aspiring authors?
CC: Never give up! If I had decided to heck with it after failing to place seven novels, I would not now have six in print, with more on the way. But prepare yourself well. Read the kind of books you want to write, learn all you can about fiction writing, and glue your bottom to the chair.
KN: And what marketing and promotion advice would you give to published authors looking to sell more books?
CC: Everybody goes about it a bit differently. Try as many of the ways you’ve read about (see above) and use what works for you. Good luck.
KN: You’re the president of your local Sisters in Crime chapter and have served on the SEMWA (Southeastern Mystery Writers of America) board. How has your involvement in professional organizations helped your career?
CC: I have met dozens of great writers and made numerous contacts that have been helpful in pursuing my career as a mystery writer. I spent the last eighteen years of my working life in the association management business, and I’ve tried to follow my own advice—if an organization is worth belong to, it’s worth getting involved in. Volunteer and you’ll get the most out of your membership.
KN: Is there anything else you’d like to say that we haven’t discussed?
CC: We haven’t talked about our sponsor. I missed the first Killer Nashville because of an out-of-town signing, but I don’t intend to miss another. It’s the perfect size, the perfect program mix, and the perfect place. Y’all come!
KN: Thanks for that, Chester. Once again you prove that you are truly a class act. Okay, last question: what’s our topic of the week?
CC: Are we really going to have a Spring this year?