Curt Wendelboe was a lawman for 38 years before he wrote his first Berkley Prime Crime novel. The Wyoming resident was befriended by another Wyomingite and former lawman, Craig Johnson, who served as his mentor.
Curt, how did your friendship with author Craig Johnson come about? And how did he help your career?
I first met Craig while he was promoting his first book, Cold Dish. He was scheduled to give a talk at our local library, but I was an hour away investigating an accident and missed him. I e-mailed him later and we met in Buffalo. He offered me direction as to how to proceed with marketing once my novel was as good as it could be. Several years later, he asked that I go over the Vietnam sections in Another Man's Moccasins. He agreed to look at my manuscript after that and made suggestions for revisions. I polished it until it reflected moonlight, and he sent the book up the chain where it eventually landed on the Senior Editor’s desk at Berkley Prime Crime.How long where you in law enforcement and do you plan to write about some of your experiences?
I was in law enforcement for thirty-eight years. I guess you could say I was one of the last of the dinosaurs in that profession, being the last Professional Peace Officer in Wyoming that never attended a police academy. I started in South Dakota in 1972, and the academy wasn’t built until a couple years later. I was “grandfathered” and so never had to go. Many of my experiences, and most of my characters, come from places I’ve worked, people I’ve worked with, or arrested, and they lurk within the pages of my books just waiting for someone to turn the page and release them.
Tell us about your debut novel, Along the Spirit Road.
Death Along the Spirit Road forces Lakota FBI Agent Manny Tanno to return to his home in Pine Ridge to investigate the murder of a prominent Oglala land developer. He resents being ordered back to the Indian reservation he fled eighteen years ago, the place where he escaped the poverty and despair. Several attempts on his life throw boulders in his path. But his brother, ex-felon and American Indian Movement enforcer in the 1970s, manages to reconnect Manny with his roots. In the end, Manny established a relationship with a woman, makes a friend, and solves the crime, even if there was no prosecution. And he realizes positive things also roam the reservation.
I know that you wanted to write as a child, but when did you actually begin writing?
My first recollection of writing was in the 7th. grade after my teacher asked each person what they wanted to be. That was the first I thought of it, and the first I started writing. I read every journal and book on writing I could. But where I really learned to write is by reading. See, a writer reads differently than most folks. A writer slows down, analyzing how the writer sets his scenes, how plot twists add or take away from the story, how the author uses dialogue to advance the story or reveal character. Reading like a writer has allowed me to write short stories and numerous books, which Death Along the Spirit Road is my first published novel.
How did your protagonist, FBI agent Manny Tanno come into being? And why a Native American?
FBI Agent Manny Tanno was conceived when I started working law enforcement, though his nine-month developmental phase lasted a bit longer. In the 1970s and 1980s, I was policing in an off-reservation town in South Dakota. Tribal officers, BIA officers, and FBI agents working the reservation would come into town, and we’d talk shop over coffee. Manny’s a composite of many of those men plus a little of me thrown in.
I’ve had a fascination with Plains Indian culture all my life, and Manny naturally became a Lakota. As a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Manny returns to work on what is arguably the Indian reservation in the west with the most history and controversy, Pine Ridge.
Who most influenced your own work and why?
As I kid I practically lived in the Carnegie Library, devouring every Gentlemen Jim Corbet adventure and Ken Robeson Doc Savage pulps. As I got older, I read Micky Spillane and John D. McDonald, both which got me hooked on mysteries. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm developed in me a certain cynicism, while John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath drug me into the Depression-era culture that I grew to love. And when I could sneak it, I read Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road ‘cause good Christian boys didn’t read such things.
How do you research your books?
Being a career lawman all my life, I don’t have to research police procedure or forensics or the way law officers react in certain situations. If I describe a crime scene, for example, it’s accurate and believable because I’ve probably been directly involved investigating such a crime. The research that I do is into Indians in the last century and how they’ve evolved. I’m lucky to live close enough to several Indian reservations that I can drive to, researching contemporary issues, researching the paths my characters follow during their day. If they stumble and trip into a dry creek bed and, for example, I want to make certain that creek bed is there, dry and treacherous.
You had a nice surprise for a debut novelist. Tell us about it.Death Along the Spirit Road got selected for the "Spring Pick" at the Amarillo Reads Program. The Amarillo reads promotes heavily in conjunction with 150 Hastings books stores in the Southwest, and tie-ins with television stations in the area. My agent said it was the first time a first novelist has been selected, and the first time a mystery has been selected.
Advice to aspiring mystery writers of the West?
Read. Successful writers and those that are not so successful. Harry Steven Keeler was a mystery novelist in the 1940s and 1950s that wrote so badly that there are Harry Steven Keeler fan clubs around the country today trying to figure out how he could have possibly published so many novels writing like he did. Reading him, like reading many less-than-stellar writers, teaches how not to write.
And don’t be afraid to get dirty learning the craft. Western writers typically have dirt under the chipped nails, thumbs swollen black where they’ve missed fence staples, manure seeping past holes in their soles of their worn boots. Get dirty to get authentic.
You can visit Curt at his website at: www.spiritroadmysteries.com