This piece started as one thing, but then it became something else entirely. Let me explain.
Thirty years ago this month, John Sandford’s first novel, Rules of Prey, was published. It was originally called The Maddog’s Game, but we thought it needed something bigger, so I came up with the title and told John we’d use either rules or prey on whatever he wrote next. I guess we know how that came out.
I was lucky enough to be John’s editor then. I am luckier still to have been his editor ever since. It’s been three decades of friendship, jokes, dinners, and publishing gossip; it’s also been an unparalleled opportunity to watch a master craftsman evolve.
That’s always the hardest part of a long-running series, isn’t it? How do you keep your books feeling new and surprising? We’ve all at some point read the latest installment of a venerated series and thought, “Really? Hasn’t he done this book before?”
This was where I was going to outline some of the things John’s done over the years to escape that trap—how he transformed Lucas Davenport from an unpredictable, sexy, rich womanizer into a grown-up (though still an unpredictable one); how he kept enlarging the scope of Davenport’s activities, from city to state to the whole damned country; how he invented Virgil Flowers to supplement Davenport, for those who missed the sexy; how he constantly varied his style, from more thriller-ish to more mystery, from more humorous to hair-raising all the way, from unveiling the bad guy on the very first page to holding the reveal, and holding, and holding. New locales, new subject matter, new ways to commit mayhem.
I wrote a bunch of things like that and sent it off to him. He replied thanking me and said that it was lovely and flattering and all... but he noted that I’d left out some of the most important parts.
I’d left out the time he’d written a standalone titled Dead Watch, and after reading it, I’d replied that, well, I hadn’t liked it as much as I thought I would. At that point, we had exactly one month until deadline. During that month, we were communicating via phone and email constantly—throwing out stuff, changing characters, completely shifting the time frame from the near future to the present. At the end of that month, by god, we had a book.
Or the time he killed off a child at the end of one of the Prey books, and I told him that it was probably not the best idea he’d ever had, and together we devised a last-minute rescue that was much more satisfying.
Or the time his final manuscript started with a muddy, complicated first chapter, and I said, “Didn’t you send me a chapter a few months ago that worked better?” and he said, “Yeah, now I don’t remember why I threw that out,” then stuck it back in, and it was perfect.
Or the time he actively proposed killing off Davenport’s wife, the wonderful Weather Karkinnen, because it was getting difficult to write her into the books, and I said if he did that, a massive contingent of his women readers would be on his front lawn with pitchforks and torches.
“All of these times, and many more,” he said, “were just as important to how the books had changed and evolved and stayed relevant as the changes that affected all the books. It wasn’t just him evolving; it was the writer-editor collaboration. It was what we’d done, and what we still do, together: speculating, analyzing, bouncing ideas around. Put that in there.”
“But, John,” I said, “this is a piece about you.”
“Exactly,” he replied.
So here it is, John. Thirty years in, and I’m still learning from you. Happy anniversary—and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Oh, wait, I do know: Bloody Genius, with Virgil Flowers, due this October. It’s a hold-the-reveal novel—with a new way to commit mayhem.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive v-p, associate publisher, and editor-in-chief of G.P. Putnam’s Sons and is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award.