PW: This is your third mystery novel. How long have you been writing?
MS: I've always wanted to write. Like everyone else in America, after I read Catcher in the Rye I thought "I can do this." It's not cocky but, like people who can sing know they can sing, I could always write, although I didn't. I don't have a drawer full of short stories. When the health care company where I was general counsel merged with another company, I took a course at the university here [in Birmingham, Ala.] and they had the bad judgment to say I could write. I'd already written an introduction, so I quit my job and in eight months I finished Sins of the Brother [his first book].
PW: What happened next?
MS: I had no idea how difficult it is to get published. I sent the manuscript to several agents. They told me it was really well written but they couldn't sell it. Finally I called one, who said since Grisham every lawyer in America has written a legal thriller. But my books aren't legal thrillers. I made Tom an attorney because I know what an attorney eats for lunch—I could have made him an architect. A friend in children's publishing introduced me to an agent, Sally McMillan, who sent the book to five of the largest publishers and three wanted it. The editor at Putnam moved so quickly, she spent a day reading it on vacation.
PW: Who do you read, and what writers influence you?
MS: I'm heavily influenced by 20th-century American literature. Of course I've read all of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald. I and the rest of America have been more influenced by Hemingway than most Americans will admit. I've read every mystery ever written, starting when I was 13 with John D. MacDonald. I like Robert B. Parker, especially the early Spenser novels; Dennis Lehane; James Lee Burke; Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels—When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes is one of the best mysteries. They've all influenced my writing.
PW: How much of your own experience is in your books?
MS: I practiced law about 10 years and used private investigators and had my life threatened, although basically I was a corporate litigator. I know about firearms from having grown up in the South, in a small Alabama town. For Dog Island I hired a guy to take me, my wife and kids to Dog Island for the day and went to Tate's Hell Swamp. I did some research on poisons for A Clean Kill, but generally it's life experience. I'm trying to show a side of the modern South most people don't know. I have a Cajun character in A Clean Kill because I love New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It's an interesting culture with its French heritage. I'm not glossing over injustices, I'm trying to address the way we get along and the way we live in the South now.
PW: Why are your villains so vicious?
MS: There are two schools of thought on bad people. They've had a tough life and we have to understand them or, there is evil in the world. That's my view. From a storytelling perspective, the level of evil equals the level of suspense. If you're not afraid of the guy, why should you continue reading the book? I work very hard on the writing and the characters, and try not to forget that I'm a storyteller.
PW: What's next?
MS: In the future, keeping people out of trouble becomes Tom's specialty. The next book is about the intersection of gambling and religion. What got me thinking of it was the Indians setting up casinos. People are "discovering" their Indian roots to get permits, but many southern religious leaders are against gambling.