Ace Atkins

New York Times Best Selling Author

Let’s Talk Ranger

Q&A with Ace Atkins on THE RANGER

1.      You’ve spent the last seven years creating crime novels based on true events, with White Shadow, WickedCity, Devil’s Garden and Infamous. What brought you back to contemporary series fiction in The Ranger?
The idea of kicking off a new series actually started with my long-time editor, Neil Nyren. Neil edits John Sandford, Patricia Cornwell, Robert Crais, Tom Clancy and Randy Wayne White to name a few. So when he requests that you start a series, you take the idea very seriously.
The first four books of my career were series fiction, and I’m a huge fan of the form. I felt like my standalone novels had allowed me to grow, however, and develop new skills. It was just a good time to go back to the well, especially since I had been playing with a Mississippi-based character like Quinn in my head for a few years now.
2.      So where did Quinn Colson come from, and what makes him someone you wanted to follow?
For the first time in decades, we’re seeing a mass of young men and women returning home from the frontlines of war. These soldiers have experienced things that make a transition back to normal life nearly impossible. I am fortunate enough to know a lot of them, from barely 20-year-old enlisted guys to officers who are my age, and I have the utmost respect for the sacrifices they’ve all made.
So many people of my generation and younger are completely wrapped up in trivial things. Our big problems aren’t really problems when you consider the state of the world. But there’s a subset of us who are different, who are truly heroes: the American soldier. Who better to serve as our fictional hero? And when I thought about the best soldiers, I knew that my hero had to have been a Ranger. They have a deep, rich history that goes back before the Revolution.
3.      Did you have much help in getting Quinn’s Army background correct?
As luck would have it, as I began thinking about the series, I heard from an Army colonel serving in Afghanistan who’d just finished reading Devil’s Garden at Camp Phoenix. Through our emails, we became fast friends, with a mutual respect of classic crime, noir and good cigars. He put me in touch with a colleague, a former Ranger who’d taken part in several missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That Ranger ended up being my advisor for this novel and helped me to ensure that Quinn’s background, skills and experiences were true. These guys pride themselves on being great woodsmen. And that’s perfect for a place as remote as Tibbehah County.
4.      Tell us a little about Jericho, Mississippi and TibbehahCounty, where the Quinn Colson novels are set. Is this a real place?
Tibbehah County could be several different counties in northeast Mississippi. I’ve borrowed from several and made my own county to explore. I wanted a county that would essentially be a throwback to old times, something as lawless and corrupt as a town from the Old West. I mean, if you really want to break down this series, it’s a contemporary Western. And yes, places like Tibbehah County really exist in Mississippi. Highway strip clubs, thieving politicians, meth dealers, corruption, plenty of people willing to look the other way, and some really great catfish joints, too. I read the local newspapers for story ideas and listen to gossip. Tibbehah County is based on four counties that surround where I live and I’ve take all the best – or worst – of each.
5.      So far, The Ranger is built on the experiences of real people, set in a real place. What about its fictional influences? What kind of popular culture is at work in The Ranger?
I am a huge fan of the gritty realism of early 1970s filmmaking. Some of my favorite films of that period were set in the South, everything from Deliverance to Walking Tall. There was also a movement of films now known as Hixploitation films that I love. That includes cult films such as Billy Jack, Mr. Majestyk and White Lightning. Many of these films center on a soldier back from the front facing hard times as home. The premise was that simple and very attractive to me to take into current times.
6.      From Quinn and his troubled sister Caddy to pregnant Lena walking a “fur piece” to find “Jody,” The Ranger is peppered with William Faulkner references. What influence does Faulkner and YoknapatawphaCounty have on your modern crime novel?
First off, Faulkner was not only one of the greatest novelists of the 20th Century, he was also one of the greatest crime novelists.  Intruder in the Dust and Sanctuary are the obvious examples, but Absalom, Absalom and Light in August also have terrific elements now found in the modern crime novel. He also wrote several gripping short mysteries featuring attorney Gavin Stevens. Living in Oxford, you can’t help but soak up these influences; that’s the main reason I live here. People also forget that Faulkner wrote the screenplay to The Big Sleep and was very close to Dashiell Hammett. So you’ll find a lot of Chandler and Hammett and Faulkner in my novels, since those are the guys I’ve been soaking into my brain for the last 20 years or so.
But sure, starting a book with a wandering pregnant girl named Lena and having a bad guy named Gowrie was no coincidence.
7.      What makes this novel different from the thousands of crime novels published every year?
I think the authentic Southern setting makes a big difference.  It’s definitely different than the moonlight and magnolias South seen in most Hollywood movies or in books. This is a pretty gritty world that I try to represent with the utmost accuracy. My favorite films and books are rooted in the real world, and I appreciate authors who get it right. I could drive within 10 miles of my house and show you the real TibbehahCounty. I could tell you dozens of recent stories like the ones you find in The Ranger. And I could introduce you to dozens of guys like Quinn and his friend, Boom.
8.      Boom is one of the most intriguing characters in The Ranger. He’s a wounded veteran who’s definitely having a tough time making a go of it on the home front. How did he come about?
I think a lot of what Boom is going through came from the excellent Washington Post series about the troubles at Walter Reed hospital, and everything we’ve heard and read about battlefield injuries since then. I read about the hundreds of amputees returning home with physical and psychological scars. Thanks to advances in battlefield medicine, they had survived explosions and wounds that would’ve definitely killed them just 20 years earlier. Obviously, that’s wonderful, but what happens next after literally cheating death? Some of them fight back and go on to be recertified to fire weapons and serve, according to a story I read. But many others face a constant struggle to find their place in society after returning home changed forever. I did not want to water down Boom’s experience or his handicap. I wanted someone to accurately represent them in a true and heroic way.
9.      Meth seems to be a consistent plague in rural areas of America. We’ve seen it addressed in countless news stories and even in an Oscar-nominated film, Winter’s Bone. What made you drew you to the epidemic?
Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life in the Deep South. A major methamphetamine operation was broken up by the local sheriff’s office only a couple miles from my house. It’s a cheap high that anyone can make with ingredients from their kitchen sink and some Sudafed. The laws are just getting some teeth in them to help with the problem but not before it’s ruined countless lives. From a storyteller’s point of view, these guys are about the same as the old moonshine runners. There’s a lot of money in a cheap high. And with the money comes the violence and crime.
10.  What draws you to crime fiction? Why not a family drama or a coming-of-age tale?
Well, I think The Ranger actually is a family drama and a coming-of-age tale, and, I hope, a black comedy. I think the possibilities of crime fiction are limitless.
Hero-driven books are the most pure form of storytelling, from the ancient epics to today. In taking readers on the journey of the hero, you get to give a hell of a lot of social commentary. I think the best writers working today are crime writers. We are able to do the job of a novelist with less pretension and navel-gazing. There are wrongs to be righted and much to be learned on the journey.
11.  When will we see a return of Quinn, Boom, and Lillie?
I am halfway into the second book in the series, set for release in summer 2012. One of the most important parts of writing a series is making sure you’ve found a world and characters that have not only a lot of story possibilities but who you also love and respect.  I think The Ranger is just the jumping off point for these guys. They’re young and tough, and there is a ton of corruption and hidden secrets to uncover down in TibbehahCounty.

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