SR: First off, let’s introduce Bad Samaritan to everyone. Can you give a short elevator pitch of what the book is about?
DK: Chicago PI Nick Forte is asked to stop the harassing e-mails a woman author is receiving. Along the way he encounters a beautiful former prostitute from a previous case who has cleaned up her act but needs his urgent help. This is the fifth Forte book, and he gets darker in each. He may have finally gone past the point where he can effectively do his job.
SR: Now, on the surface, this is a PI story with several different cases overlapping. When you get into the different stories there’s a lot more going on here. Given the timeline for writing a novel and editing it and preparing for publication you had to have written this before #MeToo and #Time’sUp. Was there a particular event or experience that got you thinking about sexual harassment that made you want to explore this topic in your fiction? Or were there a number of things that inspired these story lines?
DK: Two things primarily. I can’t remember the exact event, but a men’s rights advocate killed a woman in what became a news event. Around that time I became aware of the problems female writers in certain genres encounter if their names get too well known. While working out those stories it seemed different aspects of how women are treated in society demanded my attention and worked their ways into the story.
SR: One of the things that you and Nick share is that you both have a daughter. How much does being the father of a daughter factor into your interest in the subject matter of this book?
DK: A lot. It probably sounds corny but the first time I interacted with my daughter I knew things had to be different. Before then she’d been an abstraction in many ways, but there on the warming table, five minutes old and already recognizing my voice, I knew I had to look out for her until she could do it herself. That made it a lot easier to put myself in her place to try to anticipate situations. That was my introduction to the idea that girls and women have things to worry about that boys and men do not.
SR: I noted from your acknowledgements that you did a fair bit of research. You specifically mention C.J. Ellison. Anything you can share about how C.J. influenced this story?
DK: I met C.J. at the Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference a few years ago where she spoke about how she protected her name because of the kinds of books she wrote. We got to talking and she told me the story of a friend of hers who had some serious problems after her identity leaked out. I was shocked, but at the same time knew there was a great Forte story there somewhere.
SR: You also referenced The Southern Poverty Law Center as a source. How did that come about? What kind of help were they able to provide you with?
DK: I just kept tripping over them on Google searches. At the time I thought of them as a Civil Rights group, but the SPLC has expanded to track hate and discrimination of all types. They keep extensive files on men’s rights advocates—MRAs in the vernacular—and were also gracious in pointing me to other resources. They fight the good fight on multiple levels and my admiration for them is boundless.
SR: Often there’s a lot of information that comes up in research that doesn’t literally get included in the story, but it provides an atmosphere to the writing that impacts the tone and the authority of the author’s voice. Can you share any of the things you learned about “men’s rights” groups through your research that surprised you?
DK: I learned that there are more detestable people in the world than MRAs, but it takes effort. I didn’t do half the research I’d planned, partly because I found that to include the most egregious examples of their behavior risked the book jumping the shark for people who weren’t already hip to these pieces of shit. Another reason I cut short the research was because I could only bear to read it for twenty minutes or so at a time.
SR: Now, my husband has children and had to fight for custody and I know several other great guys who’ve been shut out of their kids’ lives for no legitimate reason. And you’re a dad and devoted to your daughter. So how hard is it to walk the line between showing some really scummy men and showing that not all men are scummy?
DK: It’s a hackneyed phrase but still true, that everyone is the hero of his own story. The MRAs were hard because there was a risk of them coming off two-dimensional because we really only see them from Forte’s perspective and he only sees them as assholes. I tried to work around that by keeping things as factual as I could. Much of what they say and do I lifted almost word for word from the web.
SR: You actually have Forte mention at one point that the courts don’t want to take dads out of their kids’ lives. Do you think Forte’s belief in that is a key factor in his world view concerning custody? The one custody case he’s on he said he didn’t want to take, but he did do his job. I actually think that’s a wonderful feature of your writing, because the complexity of the situation and how he feels about it makes it very realistic. How do his feelings compare to your own? How much of what you think about these issues informs Forte’s world view?
DK: Nick Forte is the first character I created years ago when I started writing short stories for my friends’ amusement. He’s more me than any of my other characters. James Ellroy once said Raymond Chandler wrote about the man he wanted to be and Dashiell Hammett wrote about the man he was afraid he was. Nick Forte is the man I’m afraid I could be under the wrong circumstances and with a different skill set.
SR: Now, as a man, you’re writing about some very tough issues. What kind of concerns did you have about approaching the issue of sexual harassment of women in your fiction?
DK: I knew I couldn’t be perfect but I wanted to be fair. I think it was Dennis Lehane who said—and I’m sure he wasn’t the first—that it’s not the author’s job to provide answers. Our job is to ask the questions that people will think about after they put down the book. There’s no arguing the pros and cons of sexually harassing women. It’s a one-sided argument, yet it happens. All the time. Every day. What was I going to say that would help? “This is bad. Stop it.” It would be like dropping a string quartet into a heavy metal concert. No one would hear it. My biggest concern was not to come across as too heavy-handed.
SR: In our email exchange you left it to me to decide if you were “mansplaining” or not. Now, I didn’t think that in the slightest. But I have to ask you about how men are treated these days. I know all the reasons for the pendulum swinging as far out as it has. If you had a son what advice would you give him on how to conduct himself in this day and age?
DK: Treat everyone as you’d like to be treated and take a few seconds to think about how you’d feel in their current situation. If you ask a buddy if he wants to play ball and he doesn’t want to, you don’t drag him to the field and stitch a glove onto his hand. Pay attention and put yourself in the other person’s position, then act accordingly.
SR: One of those phrases that gets thrown around in author circles sometimes is cultural appropriation. I personally think it’s pushed too far, but I’m wondering about how you approach writing characters of different genders and races. You don’t shy away from it and you present some incredibly vibrant women, like Sharon, and you have this rich tapestry of supporting characters of different ages, lifestyles and races. How much do you worry about writing outside the white male lines? What steps do you take to ensure your characters are authentic instead of stereotypes?
DK: I’ve always been drawn to strong women, both romantically and platonically. Half of writing my female characters comes from wondering what one or more of the women I’ve known would do or say in this situation and the other half comes from thinking of how much shit they’d give me if I got it wrong. I read every book to The Beloved Spouse twice. Once as I finish the first draft of each chapter, and once again at the end. She keeps me honest.
Characters of different races sometimes give me a little more trouble. I grew up in semi-rural Western Pennsylvania. We had six black kids in my high school of nine hundred-plus. I had no idea of what might be insensitive and I think back on some of the things I said thoughtlessly in those days and I cringe. The Army was a real eye-opener for me. At least half of my basic training company was black, and about a third of the band I was in. I lived in a working-class apartment complex that had about a thousand residents and I might have been the only white guy there. At least I never saw anyone else. You know what? I got along fine. I learned that people in general want the same things. To be treated decent, have a fighting chance, and for things to be better for their kids. Is everyone like that? No. Are the differences in who wants that racial? No. Some people are just criminals or assholes. Race doesn’t enter into it so much as the culture around them. A white author who wants to try to write black characters should watch The Wire or read The Corner. We’re all just people. What makes someone mobbed up or another person a banger is peripheral.
SR: You didn’t present only one side of the issue in your story. While Forte is clearly against men who prey on women, at the same time he’s being manipulated by a woman. One the one hand, I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a lot to unpack here. First off, why was it important to you to show Forte being sexually manipulated?
DK: I don’t know that it was so important at first. The story needed her to use Forte and he’s not easily swayed by bullshit. She’s a beautiful and extremely sexual person and he can’t help but be attracted, especially based on how he met her in a previous book. He’s in a difficult period and she’s able to see that and take advantage. Once I saw where it was going I knew it was an opportunity to show how even a level-headed man can be led around by his dick if he’s not careful.
SR: Why do you think it is that Forte never sees himself as a victim in that situation?
DK: Forte never sees himself as a victim, period. To him, a person becomes a victim when he or she is unable or unwilling to take action. Forte is always willing to take action. He’s just not always right about what that action should be.
SR: The truth is, Forte is victimized in several different ways in the story. You get into doxxing and false accusations. Is the fact that Forte doesn’t avail himself of the potential protection of the police more about him not taking the harassment seriously or about him feeling he can take care of himself because he’s a man? Or a bit of both?
DK: A bit of both. It’s part of his self-image that he takes care of things himself. He also doesn’t like to feel beholden to anyone, so help pretty much has to come to him.
SR: Of course, there’s also the question of whether Forte’s one client is the victim of a crime. Why do you think it’s important for people to think about what actually qualifies as harassment? Do you think the definitions should be expanded?
DK: I saw a great quote a couple of months ago: Where do we draw the line between sexual harassment and a clumsy pass? This is always going to be a problem. It’s human nature that harassment is in the eye of the beholder. I don’t think the definition needs to be expanded so much as it needs to be refined. I think unintentional harassment is a real thing, and not always because the harasser is an insensitive asshole. He might just understand his motivations and not understand how his actions are perceived by the woman. It’s a huge gray area. Changing attitudes from “No means no” to “Only yes means yes” is a good start.
SR: There’s a lot of subtext in this story about gender roles and I mean that in a very good way. This story really got me thinking. There has definitely been a school of thought out there that supports men as protectors, that they should take care of women. On the one hand, Forte definitely believes in that because he believes in paying child support and looking after his daughter and being involved in her life. However, he’s divorced, so he’s lost that role in his wife’s life. How much do you think he’s drawn to female clients who need his help in order to feel as though he’s fulfilling the protector role? Is that an important facet of his personality or is it a subconscious way for him to justify some of his actions?
DK: Forte mentions near the end of the book that he had been a grown man for some time before he realized he was big. He grew late as a child and the imprint of being the smallest kid in the class stuck with him. He identifies with the smaller, weaker person in a confrontation, and in his world those are most often woman and children. Not that he thinks women are weak, but physically they’re not as strong in general. He’s willing to step up and, having been bullied by those larger than him in the past and having a vindictive streak to his nature, his “resolutions” can get nasty.
SR: There’s no denying that Forte has some anger issues. How important do you think it is to contrast his own tendency to solve problems with physical force against his defense of women who are being harassed and intimidated?
DK: He understands at a visceral level that he has that option and women, by and large, do not. He’s also gotten darker as the series progressed and he sees that trying to do the right thing doesn’t always make things come out right. In fact, it can go horribly wrong when faced with a person who doesn’t play by those rules. So now he tends to take action based on the principles of his adversary and will sort things out later.
SR: Why do you think this particular story was a good fit for Nick Forte instead of a new protagonist? What is it that Nick brings to the story that makes it truly his story?
DK: Forte is the classic Chanderlian hero: he fights for the underdog. This book is full of them. What he learns is that not all of them can be helped, nor should they all.
SR: You don’t portray the police in the most sympathetic light. In fact, there’s a question of complicity in willfully ignoring potential crimes. Was there something that inspired that aspect of the story for you?
DK: Not right away. Doing the outline I needed something to make things harder for Forte. As I got into the writing it occurred to me we’re dealing with something here that society and its institutions don’t always see as a problem and individuals were going to have to step up if anything was going to get done.
SR: What is it about Bad Samaritan that you think will appeal to male readers?
DK: Forte is a man who likes to take direct action. And the humor, especially between Nick and Goose.
SR: What is it about Bad Samaritan that you think will appeal to female readers?
DK: What I hope female readers will like is the different kinds of female characters in the book. They’re all strong women, but in different ways, even Caroline. I also hope that they’ll like the idea that men like Forte—and Goose—are on their side.
SR: What insights do you hope readers will take away with them from reading Bad Samaritan?
DK: That this is a serious problem that requires serious thought if we’re going to solve it. It’s also so tied up in human nature we may never find a “cure,” so we’d better establish ground rules. It’s more than just deciding it would go away if all men stopped being assholes and got woke. We have to understand there are different degrees of assholiness in men, running from very little to damn near pure. It’s also not victim blaming to say that women do themselves a disservice by not looking a little deeper at some things before passing judgment.
SR: You may (or may not) be familiar with the Staunch Book Prize and the ensuing controversy over it. (http://staunchbookprize.com/about-2/ – https://rebeccatinnelly.com/2018/02/05/my-two-cents-on-the-staunch-prize/) Clearly, Bad Samaritan wouldn’t be eligible for the award. What do you think about the Staunch Book Prize? Do you think it has a place or do you think it’s glossing over serious issues crime fiction was meant to address?
DK: I was involved in a spirited discussion about this on Facebook when it was first announced. I think it’s probably going to be irrelevant. People who submit for it already aren’t writing the kinds of stuff the award is trying to discourage. And, as you mentioned, ignoring the problem isn’t going to help. Crime fiction may be the primary genre that addresses social issues at levels people can relate to. Look at The Wire and writers like Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Walter Moseley. We should be encouraging writers of any genre to write about these things in a fair and thought-provoking way.
SR: On a totally different subject, I had to laugh at the Taco Bell ordering scene. You’ve got to have a Taco Bell story that inspired that. Share.
DK: The story in the book is taken damn near verbatim from something that happened to my daughter—aka The Sole Heir—and me when she was about twelve or thirteen years old. I didn’t give the high school girl behind the counter as much grief as Forte did, but I was thinking about how that could appear in a story before we even got to the car.
Stay up to date with the latest news from Dana King by checking out his official author website and learn more about Bad Samaritan and other books by Dana King.