Ask the Author: An Interview with John Hansen
Author and AutoCrit user John Hansen is a man with many stories to tell. A Vietnam veteran who subsequently went on to serve more than two decades with the police before becoming a private investigator, John has been relaying his experiences through the fiction-based lens of his series The Bluesuit Chronicles.
Given the recent release of the fifth book in the series, titled Unfinished Business, we grabbed the chance to sit down with John to talk about his turbulent history, the genesis of his writing career, and what may lie in the future.
A native of the Seattle area, John moved to the hotter climes of Arizona in 2002 – “we have more days of sunshine per year than Florida or Hawaii do… more sunshine than we actually want,” he laughs.
“I got used to seeing the sun when I was in the service and it was hard to go back home, where it was cloudy all the time. My late wife was also a Seattle area native but she had also lived in a sunnier climate, and she was reaching the point where [the drab atmosphere] was just too much. So we just moved down here with the kids in their early teens, not knowing anybody – nobody.”
But the weather ideal does come at a price. “We have killer heat. We don’t have earthquakes, we don’t have tornadoes, but we do have heat that kills. People die in the desert here every year. It has a mystique in our culture and it’s still kind of the Wild West in a lot of respects. So people wander off in the desert, hiking and to be able to experience [it] before they go home… and a lot of times they disappear and they’re never found or sometimes they’re found days later, dead from dehydration or snake bites or something like that.”
This idea of a risky, but rewarding, environment seems like a good place to start digging into John’s background. His extensive experience as a police offer informs the setting and events of his ongoing series, The Bluesuit Chronicles, and his work as a private investigator has seen him travel the world in pursuit of the secrets behind the cases he takes on. But it all started with one of modern history’s most infamous wars…
“I’m the oldest of four kids from a well-to-do, but dysfunctional, family,” John says. “I was a rebel. I got kicked out of the public school system in seventh grade. The only place there was to put me was in a Christian parole school and I was there for eighth and ninth grade. On the last day of ninth grade, I got kicked out for starting a fight when I thought the principal wasn’t looking. So he took me down to the office and bent me over with a paddle, and after about 10 swats with that he called my mom and said ‘John can’t come back.’
“So I went back to the public school system. And then I graduated from high school in ’65 when the Vietnam War was heating up. Some of my classmates had quit school to join the military, thinking – well, we all thought – it was going to be over [soon]. We grew up on all those heroism stories from World War II, things our fathers did and we wanted to be in on it before the opportunity passed by. So my best friend from high school – who is now the artist for all the covers of my books in this series – we were neighbors, we were running mates together and we were getting bad grades and chasing girls together, so we decided let’s go to Vietnam. College isn’t working; we’ll just go to Vietnam before it’s over. That was in 1966.
“So, a couple of young pups, we signed up. I went Navy, he went Army, and we wound up in Vietnam at the same time, but we were disconnected. I did two tours over there between 1966 and 1970. I was in and out of the country a lot during both of those tours, and during that time I realized my calling was in law enforcement. So when I got out in 1970, my hometown department was the first one that gave me a job.”
But it wasn’t quite as easy as it sounds – because while John was serving overseas, a massive cultural change was sweeping through his homeland. “I came home to a very different America than the one I’d left,” John says. “We didn’t have flag burning in the streets and that kind of stuff when we left. We didn’t have people calling police officers pigs, we didn’t have attacks on officers – all this stuff was really unheard of in middle-1960s America. So a lot of what happened while I was away happened in the late 60s. I was overseas when the major events of 1968 took place. Martin Luther King was killed and Bobby Kennedy was killed and all that. We were just reading about it in the paper on the ship. We were almost afraid to go back – [the media] made it sound so bad.
“I got hired on my department and it was a real shock. I was arresting people I had gone to high school with – that had gotten into the drug scene. I saved lives a couple of times for guys I grew up with, that were overdosed on heroin. That’s in one of the books in The Bluesuit Chronicles – it was a high speed run down to the hospital with this friend of mine with his mom and him in the back seat. He was overdosing and I was doing almost a hundred miles an hour through city streets to get him there. We didn’t even have an ambulance service yet in my town.
“I began writing The Bluesuit Chronicles after I retired. I did 21 years in the department – 10 years in patrol, and 11 years as a detective. After that, I retired and I went into private investigation, which is still what I do now. I’ve had cases where I’ve worked in Estonia, Saint Petersburg, Russia; I’ve been around the Caribbean and Guatemala, Mexico, Alaska, New York City, Florida.”
With such a wealth of experience and real-life scenarios to mine from, it seems only natural for John to use them as the basis for his stories. But what were his initial motivations for sitting down at the keyboard – and why choose historical fiction over the more direct approach of a memoir? “I think that cops today are getting a bad rap politically, and it’s not fair,” John explains.
“One of my goals in writing this series is to show that these are events that really happened. I’ve just changed the names and created some fictional characters to portray what really happened. And I’ve changed the names protect the innocent as well as the guilty – and I’m including myself in that. We weren’t angels but we were society’s protectors. We took our job seriously. If we’d have been too angelic, we wouldn’t have been effective in dealing with the bad guys.
“I wanted to do something for my country beyond what I had just done. By the time I got out of patrol and was promoted to detective, I averaged 10 arrests a month for 10 years – pretty close to 1000 arrests total. The 70s was the transitional time. There was a lot of civil disobedience – I got spit on in my military uniform, I got spit on in my police uniform by my own generation and I kind of got hardened to it.
“I’ve always been a reader. Since I was able to read, I loved reading and I loved reading stories about the Old West. I read everything I could find about the Apache tribes, the last wars, all the Indian wars but especially the ones in the South West. And when I was in high school I was really a bad student, but the only good grade I ever got was an A++ for creative writing class. I took this class and I wrote a short story called Prairie Moon and the teacher liked it so well that she shared it with the vice principal, who called me into his office.
“I was so used to being in trouble that I went in there thinking they were going to kick me out again, you know? But he went on and on about this story, and he looked at me and he said ‘you’ve got a gift here. I think what you need to do is read Jack London and read Earnest Hemingway and maybe some Rudyard Kipling and then go live life for a decade or two, come back and write.’ Well, I just logged that away and went through the military, then I went through law enforcement. I went through almost a decade and a half of private investigation… and then my wife of 28 years, I lost her to cancer in 2009 here in Arizona.
“That broke me. I was really busted and during my grieving I began to realize we had a really, really unusual marriage. A very colorful marriage. She had been a Playboy bunny in New York prior to our meeting. We were five years apart in age and it was a love at first sight type of deal, but she was engaged to another guy – a millionaire – when I met her. Two weeks later we went out to dinner, and she was within a week of flying down to be with him to plan their wedding in California.
“This was up in Seattle and I asked her out, went out to dinner, she cancelled her flight to California because of me and a week later I asked her to marry me. She accepted – and people thought it was so intense that it wouldn’t last, so I decided to write a book about how we kept our marriage with a honeymoon edge on it all the way down to her last breath. I was [still] there, 28 years later, as she drew it.
“So I wrote that book and it’s called Song of the Waterwheel. After it came out, people were asking me ‘what are you going to write about now?’ and I hadn’t any idea. People were telling me you should write about your life experiences – you lead a colorful life, you’ve travelled, you’ve been to war, you’ve been on the streets as a cop, you handled a lot of homicides as a detective, you travelled the world as a P.I. You need to write this stuff up.
“So I began to write The Bluesuit Chronicles, and I realized that the 1970s was an extremely important transitional period for the United States. I wanted to write about it from the perspective of the [kind of] police department that’s just little bit outside the focus of the big city departments. My department was a suburban department. We were across the lake from Seattle, where a lot of heavy stuff was going on but it was spilling over onto us – and we were less prepared for it than they were. My department was very unprepared and inexperienced for all this sudden growth, so there was a lot of conflict within the department and there was conflict within the city.
“A recent reader of Unfinished Business nailed it just right. She said the elements of this are conspiracy, corruption and crime, and that’s what the series is about. And that’s what I began to uncover – all these plots and schemes against the department by certain elements in the city hall, certain elements within the department itself, as well as the disfavor we had with the general public. It became very fashionable for even mom and pop type, Ozzie and Harriet type, families to be sneering at us and calling us pigs and this kind of stuff… and yet they called us when they had a problem.
“It was a very interesting time. I’m glad I lived it; I’m glad I came through it unscathed. But I want to pass this on now. My generation, we’re the Vietnam generation, and every year there are fewer of us. We’re starting to slip from the scene. Most of us are entering into our 70s, or are already there. So it’s time to put some of this down, and I’ve got a lot of readers who are millennials and quite a few are police officers now, and they’re fascinated to read about what it was like back then.”
With so many stories to tell, we wondered if John had initially set out to create a running series of novels, and where the end may lie – if that is even something that’s on the cards right now. “I had started the series with the idea that I’d carry this through with the same characters – so there is a flow to it and one book leads to the next,” John tells us.
“I’ve had to explain to people that these are not novels in the sense that you have a formula or an arc and you have a beginning and middle and a closure at the end. These are raw life; these are not something I’ve scripted. I don’t use an outline, I’m an organic writer. When I begin these books, I have a setting in mind, a period where they are – so in the 70s – and you bring the reader right back to that time period.
“But the characters, I pretty much let them develop themselves. I have a direction I want to go in, but the characters I’m pretty much there to observe and report on for the readers. With this organic feel I’ve had a couple of people [say] ‘I’m left hanging at the end of this’ and I said, ‘well you’re supposed to be.’ How many times do you really get all your problems solved and every question answered in life? It doesn’t happen. These guys are not working on one crime at a time. They’re chasing down serial sex offenders and Ted Bundy the serial killer. He’s bubbling in the background. He began [his killings] up there in the Seattle area. It never happened in our city limits, but it happened within less than a mile.
“A lot of this kind of stuff is coming up in the series. It’s a chronicling. This is what I want readers to understand: I’m chronicling an era in American law enforcement and police work. And I’m giving you guys the nitty gritty stuff. I’m not holding anything back. One thing I am holding back on is these books are free of F-bombs and free of sexually explicit language. I hold to the older standard when it comes to sexual encounters. You can put the pieces together yourself as to what they did.”
This raises an interesting point, given that the subject of John’s Bluesuit Chronicles – by modern standards – would appear to be the realm of the hard-boiled, rough-talking, hard-drinking Hollywood detective with a vocabulary bluer than the sea. Was it a choice of personal preference and aesthetics that he avoided that – or is it, in fact, part of the authenticity? “I was in police work for 21 years,” John explains. “Most of us were servicemen, ex-military, and I cleaned up my language before I came into the police department because I was going to be around civilians.
“I cursed like crazy when I was in the service. I cleaned it up when I got amongst people. I can’t walk in on a bar call or something like that and be talking like I used to talk. Even together we didn’t use those kinds of words – we would drink together after work, after night shift, and we’d drink from four in the morning till eight in the morning and go home and go to sleep. And it just didn’t happen.
“I think [the Hollywood types] just want to add the spice. That’s what the people are paying for, but in reality a lot of these guys were family men, and they were having trouble staying married because of the pressures on the wife and the kids. A lot of wives just couldn’t hack the social isolation, the crazy hours. And even when I went into detective [work] and I was supposed to be working nine to five, Monday through Friday, I worked a lot of weekends. I missed a lot of my kid’s games and major events because I got called out on a robbery or a rape or a homicide or a suicide or something like that. It was constant. So that was the nature of the beast.”
When it comes to drafting, different writers have different approaches to the page – especially when working on the continuation of a previous volume. Given John’s situational approach to his storylines, we ask if he maintains focus on any particular goals throughout the first draft, or whether the proceedings become more of a free-for-all within the confines of the story’s scope. “First of all, I’m picking up where the last book left off,” John says. “And I do have a cast of characters. There’s going to be some minor characters I’m going to introduce into that particular book to be there temporarily, and this is going to be [the same] in terms of time and place.
“In this last book I exposed a lot of the conspiracies against the department and against the officers from different angles. It’s from within the city, within the department itself and also from outside the department. It’s actually an organized crime group at work. So these young guys are not that sophisticated, they’re kind of stumbling along the way. Now I don’t know the full extent of what they’re up against! That‘s how I plan.
“Book six, I’m working on now. I haven’t even got the title out of my head yet. I’ve been working on promoting Unfinished Business and I had a lot of readers complain that book one was too short. It was 116 pages. So I took the time to insert or restore deleted scenes I took out of the original. It’s just come back out; it’s the same cover but the colors are different and look much nicer, and it’s now 152 pages. It’s available in either hard cover or online, and it’s called The War Comes Home. It sets the stage for the series, but now it’s a more satisfying read.”
And while the writing is a challenge all its own, what about the editing? “I find it harder than the writing is,” John tells us. “It’s like herding cats. It’s like I go through it and I go through it and I go through it, and I think I’ve gotten rid of the unnecessary words and repeating words… and now I go to AutoCrit and I feed it into there and feel my hair stand on end!
“I look and I think holy cow, I’m glad I didn’t pay some editor to look at this [straight away] because it would have been very expensive. AutoCrit has been extremely valuable to me. I mean extremely valuable. I don’t see how writers can make it without that, because it’s a time saver and a money saver. Personally, I have a tendency to use or reuse certain words, whether it’s an adverb or an adjective or even a pronoun, I tend to overdo it. And in this last book I used [Bluesuit Chronicles protagonist] Hitchcock’s name too many times. I did a lot of cutting out of that because of what AutoCrit pointed out for me. I think it’s a very good read, [and] I’ve got emails from readers who said, ‘I started reading it and it was 3:30 in the morning when I finished. I’m kind of mad at you.’
“I learned a lot from writing book five. I hired an editor [who] warned me ahead of time that she was very heavy handed, very rough, and I said ‘I’m a two time Vietnam veteran – when I came back to the States in my uniform, I got spit on by my own generation and then I became a cop. Pretty much the same people were spitting on me then and when I became a police detective pretty much the same people were suing me for false things. So what can you do [to top that]?’
“So I give her the draft and I’m telling you… she was like Don Rickles in a dress. I mean she nearly reduced me to tears with ripping the text of Unfinished Business apart. She was so rude, but she saved the book. She said you have too many characters, you have too much going on, if somebody is going to pick this up they have no idea what Hitchcock looks like, what Otis looks like. You say Hitchcock is a former boxer, but you haven’t said whether he is buff or he’s bald and fat or what? I thought holy cow, I didn’t put any of that in! I just assumed everybody knew. So I had to redo the whole book, thanks to her. But I don’t need to pay somebody money to tell me this is such a rotten book and if I read it I’ll put it on the internet warning people away from it, and I want my money back, blah blah blah. I don’t want to hear that. I thought that part was too unprofessional… but without her input – or caustic input – this book wouldn’t be a success.”
And what about the writing process itself? Does John have a specific routine, ideal setting, or kind of inspiration that sets him up for a good day of writing? “My best writing time is in the early morning,” he says. “That’s when my creative juices flow best. I’m disciplined enough because of my past with military and police, where I can turn on those juices – so I can write any time of the day – but it works best and my mind is clearest in the morning.
“My mind is most clouded by the afternoon into the evening, so I don’t write that well [by then]. I wrote Song of the Waterwheel because I was grieving so much. There were all kinds of hours I [worked on] that and I had to stop sometimes because the grief was literally overwhelming me. My daughter would come in and she was worried that she would find me dead in there one morning. So it was really hard to come through that – it took two years to write that book and it’s about 400 pages long.
“That’s my only nonfiction book at this point. There are some others I want to do, but I chose fiction to write these stories because I wanted to be able to get into the heads of other people besides one main character, myself. And my own memory is not that reliable. This way I have the freedom to call the guys I’m still in touch with that served in the department back then, and ask them what do you remember about this, what do you remember about that, and they’ll say oh yeah, I got news clippings from back then, I’ll email you a copy or something like that. I have that kind of latitude and also I can get into the heads of the bad guys [this way].
“So I think it gives the reader a more complete picture, because one guy is not going to see everything. These are scenes and settings where there is quite a bit going on at one time and the trick for me as the author is to not overwhelm the reader with too many characters, not overwhelm them with too much detail, keep it streamlined and flowing. There has got to be a sense of timing and clarity, and I’ve listened to my readers when they told me I have too many characters in here – I get in there and I make the change. Even if I have to pay for it, I’ll make the change. They’re my boss. They’re the ones I write for.”
So what lies beyond The Bluesuit Chronicles for John? Has the series been mapped to any kind of endpoint, or does he see himself branching out to other genres or settings before he brings the adventures of Hitchcock to a close? “Book six is on the way,” he says. “I’ve only written the first page of it. I still haven’t decided on a title, but have considered borrowing a phrase from one of the people who wrote a really good review of book five. They said that ‘the key elements are conspiracy, crime and corruption’ and I thought that will make a great title. I have to see.
“Right now I’ve got a very full plate plus a book signing coming up next month, but I want to start getting on book six. So it’s on the agenda. I hope to have it out in less time than book five took.
“I’m debating right now whether The Bluesuit Chronicles will stop at seven books or stop at 10 books. I want to keep it within the 70s decade. When I retired from the police department, I took my case log with me and I have a list of all the cases I worked from day one. I’ve thought about writing another series. I don’t know if I will use the same characters, getting promoted to detectives or [something like that], but right now I would like to do something I call a ‘detective case log’ for a series – because I had a lot of fascinating cases.
“I participated in others where I was the secondary detective. We had a small detective unit and I worked crimes against persons most of that time. My specialty came to be in finding missing people that were murdered; the bodies were hidden, sometimes under water and that sort of thing. These are written up in the paper. As a detective I became fairly well known in the immediate region [for this]. I have had some great P.I. cases with a lot of twists and turns in them, too, and I like that kind of thing. I’ll probably do more of that and then I would like to, down the road, do modern westerns. I live here in the South West, and after my wife died I joined the sheriff’s posse here at Maricopa County. I did search and rescue work on horseback for six years. I rode with the best horseman I’ve ever ridden with. These guys have forgotten more about it than I know, and I’ve ridden for a long, long time!
“There is a lot of action here [in Arizona]. We have a lot going on. We’re a border state with Mexico and I’m not kidding you, there are a lot of homicides and people disappear here all the time. I’ve been in on some of those things, and I’ve been involved with the volunteer border security group. [We’ve] encountered smugglers in our own desert, and parts of dead bodies – you have absolutely no idea who they are. Arizona has maybe 200 people a year disappear in the desert here and they’re never found or not found for years. We don’t count those as homicides – those are just ‘desert deaths.’ That’s what they are called. We run around 500 homicides here a year in the state. So it’s a busy place.
“I want to write about that. I’ve got one chapter, I think it’s in book three, to do with the modern western where Hitchcock goes to a ranch for some R&R [following] a fatal shooting. He’s given some time off while [the police] do their investigation, and his girlfriend invites him to her parents’ ranch out in Eastern Washington near the Idaho border. They wind up solving a case with modern day cattle rustlers and the whole deal. And the reader response to that chapter lit a fire.
“But right now I’m committed to commemorating my own generation. Some light needs to be shed on the fact that most of my generation voluntarily went into the service, went over there in harm’s way, and came home and didn’t burn the flag or get involved in demonstrations. They married, they had kids, they built families, they built businesses and they retired. They did just like the previous generation. Some attention needs to be paid to that, I think.
“That’s one of the objectives of this series – to tell the truth and [show] the other side of the coin. And the other thing is, the FBI statistics for that period in the 70s showed a shocking statistic that over half of the attacks on police officers, assassinations of police officers, weren’t in the big cities. Over half of them were in the suburbs and the rural counties, out in the countryside. And that sort of thing is not what sells newspapers. So while the public doesn’t really know it, the greater risk was to us.”
And with that, we set John free to return to his latest private investigation case and work on book six of The Bluesuit Chronicles – a series that appears, from top to bottom, both extremely close to, and entirely fuelled by, its author’s heart.
We’d like to thank John for taking the time to sit with us and talk in such depth. You can find out more about The Bluesuit Chronicles at the official website, and pick up the books in the series through Amazon.