Katy Munger’s Pseudonymous, Paranormal Return to Crime Fiction
Katy Munger’s name doesn’t get mentioned here nearly often enough, even though I have spent quite a lot of time over the last few years wondering when she would publish another book. When I started reading crime fiction seriously about a decade ago, her Casey Jones series – warm-hearted, tart-mouthed, fast-talking gems that they are – quickly found a place in my heart, where they have remained ever since, confirmed by a recent reread of the series a few months ago. But I also have a soft spot for Munger’s earlier books published as Gallagher Gray, featuring the elderly but spry amateur sleuths Hubbert and Lil going about their mystery-solving ways in late 1980s New York.
Now Munger is back with a new name, new series and a startling change of direction. DESOLATE ANGEL, which will be published next month, bears the byline Chaz McGee, and it features what seems the ultimate extension of the tortured, angst-ridden detective all too common in contemporary crime fiction. But this time, McGee’s anti-hero, Kevin Fahey, is dead, his soul in a state of unrest to fix the myriad of mistakes he made as a cop and as a human being while still alive. It’s also a terrific mystery featuring a very creepy villain, a strong female character in the form of newly minted police detective Maggie Gunn, and a cast colorful characters who – whether they know it or not – are aiding Fahey’s road to redemption.
Suffice to say I’m very glad Munger has returned with something new, but the Casey Jones novels have found new life as well. Munger discusses series new and old and what she’s been up to the last few years in this Q&A, conducted by email earlier this month.
**Many people in the crime world, me especially, missed your voice quite
a lot. You explain on your website why you took such a long break, but
what finally prompted you to return to writing, and how are you better
able to balance all of your different commitments, from being a single
mom to freelance communications writing to the political activism?**
I went through some profound internal changes after becoming a mom – I’d had a chaotic, unstable childhood and at least 50% of parenting is confronting your own childhood demons. Once I dealt with those, I found I was ready to return to writing and had a very different outlook on many things. I’d also taken enough time away from the world of publishing to better make the call on what I would or would not put up with going forward, which helped my attitude immensely.
From a practical standpoint, I made the first real adult decision of my life. I sat down and thought hard about what I wanted to do with th rest of my life, and I decided to combine two of my careers – the freelance communications writing and political act ivism – onot one and find a paying job in that field instead of giving all of my time away to volunteering in politics. I found my dream job within months, which was a miracle, and they even made it part-time for me so I would still have time for writing. I now work as communications director for a very, very cool organization called Democracy North Carolina. I make a lot less money than I used to, but my old high-paying Wall Street clients are gone anyway and I have found a way to combine two things I really, really love into one life: political activism and writing fiction. Best of all, I have my nights and weekends back, which has made my personal life so much more fulfilling. I’m feeling pretty lucky these days.
**You started your publishing career pseudonymously, as Gallagher Gray,
then wrote – and still write – the Casey Jones novels under your real
name. Now you return to the book world with a brand-new name, Chaz
McGee. Granted, all three series are different in subject matter, tone
and style, but what specifically prompted the name switch, or was it a
variety of different factors?**
At some point, I realize using pseudonyms gets a little silly, given that everyone knows it’s really you. The prevailing theory is that it helps your book sales because anyone perceived as “new” has a better shot at big orders, but, honestly, I think only a lightning bolt can do that these days. I think the biggest reas on is I use pen names is that I have always been very sensitive (perhaps overly sensitive) to the covenant between author and reader when it comes to a series. You promise them certain characters, a certain tone, a certain outlook on life. And all three of my series are as different from one another as they could be! I just wanted readers to know that. Beyond that, I’m thinking this is probably a symptom of the way I tend to compartmentalize my life, certain friends in one corner, other friends in another, the different hats I wear. Maybe I just like re-inventing myself and not being typecast. Or maybe I’m just a pain in the ass. (Let’s not take a vote on that.)
I have to say, after reading DESOLATE ANGEL, I was a bit taken aback
that it’s being published by Berkley Prime Crime, which is better known
for mysteries of a more traditional and categorical bent. Kevin Fahey
isn’t exactly a master gardener or knitter or chocolate-maker, and that
isn’t to knock such books at all, more that the typical audience might
be surprised once they start reading. How did the book end up at that
When I wrote this series, I knew I was writing a book with a very specific voice – one that would not appeal to some readers but really hit home with others. I knew I was taking a chance, but from the very beginning, including the first moment I had the idea for the character, I knew how I wanted him to be and what the tone of the series needed to be. I have never wavered from that vision. I had faith the book would resonate with an editor who responded to the voice and understood what I was trying to do. I found that editor in Natalee Rosenstein at Berkley. Other editors liked the book but asked for changes. (In fact, one of the most ironic moments in my life came when a very well-known editor, who loved the concept, asked if I had a sense of humor and would I be willing to make it a comic series. It is a credit to my sense of humor that I was able to actually laugh at that moment… after 12 years of being told NOT to write comedy because it limited your reader appeal!) Natalee did not ask me to change the character or the book. She loves it as is. That’s how it ended up at Berkley. And I’ve been so out of it, I honestly did not have any idea of who their typical reader was. But I will say that this is a mainstream book – it goes to dark places, but there are definite parameters and Kevin Fahey is a gentle narrator. You can go to dark places with the right reassurance. I’m hoping Desolate Angel does that.
**The tone is dark, but what struck me especially about DESOLATE ANGEL is
how you pull no punches on Kevin’s reckoning with past sins and attemps
to atone for those mistakes. He truly is on the road to becoming a
better man, regardless of whether he has a corporeal body, and it’s a
narrative arc we don’t normally see in paranormal fiction, though it is
obviously quite common in detective fiction. What specifically, if
anything, were you responding to in conceiving and writing the book? Is
it too much to interpret that Kevin is the natural extension of
Nieztsche’s “when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into
you” or, more recently, Wambaugh’s line that instead of writing about
how cops work on a case, he writes about how a case works on a cop?**
It’s funny you quote Wambaugh – he is my favorite writer, by far, and I so admire his humanity and affection for even the most flawed and minor of characters. It is that same love of flawed humans that drives the darkness in Desolate Angel. The truth is that I have spent a lifetime attracting and caring for a steady parade of often embattled, depressed and emotionally fragile human beings. Yet I have never been that way myself. I was born ridiculously cheerful – my father tells me he used to sit and watch me sleep because I’d always laugh in my sleep and he wanted to know what the hell it was that made me so happy. So here I have been, my entire life, a person who is genuinely happy to be on this earth, filled with a keen sense of gratefulness at what I have, yet surrounded by people caught in dark places and unable to see their way out. Then I met and became involved with a person who was so mired in his inabilities and so determined to squander his potential that even I admitted defeat and moved on.
Desolate Angel, I suspect, comes out of this personal history of mine. It is a culmination of this pattern in my life. It’s a way to make sense out of the flawed beauty in humans. It’s a way to tell myself that these people who have wasted their days might, one day, come to appreciate life the way I do. Maybe I will open someone’s eyes to what they have. Maybe not. But at the heart of it, I suspect this book is trying to convince myself that all the love and empathy I have showered on people just like my character Kevin Fahey has not been in vain, that it has brought me to a wiser understanding of human beings: what we fear, what we need and what we want. I think everyone does the best they can, I really do, but that sometimes other people get hurt in that process. I also believe that, in the end, there is no judgment other than that which we visit on ourselves. We are all connected and this life is not an end, but a beginning.
Heavy stuff from the author of Casey Jones, I know. But my hardcore Casey readers probably spotted the seeds of this mindset in her adventures and in the characters I’ve been creating my entire career.
**There also appeared to be a conscious effort to keep things as close to
real as possible, since the main conceit of Kevin being dead was
established from the getgo. How much of a challenge was it to make sure
that the reader was only privy to what Kevin was, even as you
essentially created a mix of omniscient and limited first-person
I was so busy loving the fact that I had created a über-first person point of view, I’m not sure I paid much attention to drawing boundaries! He is able to move about, pretty much at will, without a lot of limits on what he can observe and overhear. His particular limitations lie elsewhere, in the realm of physicality. My real challenge lay in making sure things never got goofy. If you believe, as I do, that there is life after death but accept, as I do, that we have no friggin’ idea what form it takes, then the concept of ghosts and spirits and all the clichés we build around the afterlife cheapen the whole concept. To me, it’s not about what we look like after we are dead, is about what we’ll understand. So I tried to downplay a lot of aspects of the fictional reality I created – how he moves, what he sees when others die, etc. I don’t avoid it entirely, but I kept a light hand. The last thing I wanted was Casper the Friendly Ghost with a badge and a bottle. Kevin Fahey is a being in pain and in search of redemption. The focus is on what’s inside his soul.
**Going back to tone, what is common to all your series is how colorful
and fleshed out the supporting players are – here, in particular, the
banter between Maggie and her cop father rang true, as did the moral
dilemmas facing Kevin’s old partner Danny. But unlike Casey, it’s not
like Kevin has a whole crew of loyal friends and recurring players
running in and out of his life; he’s the ultimate lone wolf. What do
you have in mind for future books to assemble some degree of newfound
makeshift family for Kevin, or will it be his destiny to be truly alone
in the world?**
Kevin Fahey will always walk alone. That’s the nature of his existence and, even more important – that’s what gives him his perspective and his ability to view the world from a detached, and so wiser, viewpoint. But the series will always have those secondary characters, and always richly developed ones, I hope, because I also want this series to be about the connection between the past and the here and now. There will always be a dual mystery at work – a present day crime and a past case of Fahey’s – with the truth lying somewhere in the connections between the two crimes. Solving the present day crime will definitely always involve the living characters like Maggie and her father and Peggy Calhoun, bless her heart, with her orange lipstick smeared on her teeth. I love slightly eccentric people and, obviously, slightly eccentric characters. So much so I think that I go out of my way in both realms to seek out and amplify what’s different about the people I meet and create. It makes life interesting!
**Any number of storytelling possibilities present themselves at the end
of DESOLATE ANGEL, but should we expect future installments to look at
other cases Kevin may have fumbled while he was alive?**
Absolutely. As he seeks redemption, his past mistakes will be at the core of each story. It may not always be the main mystery – and he may not always learn his main lesson from examining the past – but I think that looking back will always frame the portrait I paint in each book.
**You also recently ventured into the waters of publishing with [Thalia
Press]5, and soon you’ll be bringing out a new Casey Jones novel (and
hopefully, more after that.) What prompted you to pursue this and what
plans do you have to publish other writers?**
I started Thalia Press with Lise McClendon because I had to take back some control over my writing career. I had gone along like a good little girl with all of my books to date, thrilled I was being published at all, making the best of things, putting on a good face and finding some positive reason for every disappointment or broken promise or nonexistent marketing campaign. Bu when I heard that my publisher’s sales reps were not even letting mystery book store owners know the new Casey had come out – much less recommending my books – I thought to myself, “Basically, all they are doing is physically publishing the book and getting it into a distribution channel. I can do that myself.” So I decided to grow up, face the music and take more responsibility for my writing career. I turned down their offer to publish the next Casey and decided to do it myself.
I will sell less books, they’re in trade paperback format and cost a bit more now, but they will be distributed through Ingram, so bookstores can easily stock them. More importantly, I can take a series I love and give it the care and life that the series deserves, and do the same for my first series written as Gallagher Gray. I can’t tell you how good that feels.
It’s a complicated business, though, and it takes a lot of effort to get it off the ground. As soon as we have year of smooth operations under our belt and we’ve introduced all of my reprints and one new book each (the new Casey will be out in early July) then we’ll start talking about bringing back the series of other established midlist authors who find themselves in the same position I was in and who would like to see their old series given a chance to find its readership niche. In the meantime, people can visit the website if they want to order from the handful of reprints we’re kicking things off with (or order Lise’s new book, Blackbird Fly.) And, like I said, look for Bad Moon on the Rise in early July.