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New Scotland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 8, 2005

Bestselling author comes to Voorheesville
Mayor revolts against cliché... He write ‘not who done it, but why’

By Holly Grosch

VOORHEESVILLE — A Best-selling mystery author Archer Mayor, says that, as a whole, he doesn’t really like murder mysteries.

He doesn’t read that many of them; he doesn’t care for complex puzzles and, he said, "I don’t find them well written."

Writing well is why Mayor is coming to Voorheesville this weekend. He’ll read and discuss his work on Friday night and then run an all-day writing workshop on Saturday at the Voorheesville Public Library.

He likes writing about conflict resolution, "not who done it, but why," Mayor said.

"My belief is that, as we go through the educational system...when you choose your college, you do so based on the absence of math requirements," Mayor said, adding that’s exactly what he did and he has gone through life successfully with limited mathematical ability. But, he said, "It seems most of us are stuck with language usage."

Regardless of what job you have "no matter who we are," including a man who pumps gas, Mayor said — success will come down to putting a pen on paper.

Whether filling out a job application, writing a grant, or e-mailing — a person’s writing determines "rejection or causes the grinding of teeth," Mayor said.

He’d like to "further just a hair," people’s ability to write elegantly and properly, he said. And, at writing workshops where he is teaching the art and craft to aspiring professional writers, he sees it as an opportunity for writers to share their angst.

One thing he tells aspiring writers right off the bat is, "your angst is shared by everyone."

Writers are insular, Mayor said, locked away in a room, writing day after day; they begin to reflect back into themselves, and have self doubt. "This is as common to writers as paint splatter on pants is to a house painter," Mayor said.

For an art practiced in isolation, he said, "It’s fun to get out there and meet people." He doesn’t really get that much time to indulge such fellowship.

But also, he said, he doesn’t really seek out the company of fellow professional writers very often because, as with all like professionals, when they get together, all they do is complain about the pay and publishers.

Gunther still going

Archer Mayor is the author of a popular fictional detective series following the life and career of Investigator Joe Gunther, originally of the Brattleboro Police Department and, in later books, the Vermont Bureau of Investigation.

Mayor’s 16th book of the series, St. Albans Fire , is due out in November.

The first Gunther book came out in 1988 and Mayor has been pumping out one just about every year.

On top of all the writing, he works as a police officer and a death investigator. All three careers are really the same, he said, but just seen from different aspects.

Mayor is a death investigator for Vermont’s chief medical examiner, and a part-time patrol officer for the Bellows Falls Police Department.

All three jobs all have to do with social anthropology and the human condition, he said.

His two side jobs he said "feed his habit of writing." While he is well-known across New England, he is not that popular across the nation and he "struggles like crazy to put tofu on the table," Mayor said.

He lives with his family in Newfane, Vt, outside of Brattleboro. He is also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician for his local rescue squad.

Finding home

Mayor said he came to where he is in his life through the chaos theory of living, he said. While he didn’t have a set plan, now, looking back, he can see how all the pieces fell together.

As the youngest of six children, his family moved regularly, he said; his father was a restless guy who held a variety of jobs. Mayor became a storyteller, he said, to entertain his family and to try to be noticed.

He lived in Canada, across the United States and in Europe, with different cultures and languages. Around age 29, he said, he had a desire and urge to have a place to call home, because, at that point, he had lived in about 30 different places.

He was searching for a greater sense of identity. "Where can I go, where I won’t be a stranger"" Mayor said was the question he asked himself.

His mother is from South America but his father’s heritage is rooted an old New England family, Mayor said.

It’s often said you can’t choose your parents or where you come from, but Mayor said in his case he was able to choose what place he wanted to call his: "Vermont is home to me," Mayor says now.

He settled near Brattleboro and Brattleboro is the setting of many of his books because it’s a "quirky and fascinating town," Mayor said. In a way, Brattleboro is his laboratory, where he watches the quirks and crankiness of the town, he said.

Humans like to believe they are fancy, and the most complex species on earth, "but we are not all that complicated," Mayor said; in fact people are endlessly redundant.

Mayor draws on the commonality, looking for something that triggers imagination. A good author is able to write a book where the reader doesn’t know he is flipping the pages, he forgets that an author is even part of the equation, Mayor said.

A book should turn into a movie in the reader’s head, Mayor said, so that the reader intimately knows a character and can say, "I know what he is thinking, what he smells like."

‘The leftover stuff’

This vividness is achieved in Mayor’s books through his distinctive imagery. One such example of this in his most recent book, The Surrogate Thief, in which Mayor describes Gunther’s brother as having "a habit of shaking your hand and kneading your arm simultaneously, as if judging both your character and your fat content."

In The Surrogate Thief, Gunther is chasing after a case from 30 years ago that was never solved. His exploration begins after the weapon resurfaces during a domestic dispute that turned fatal. Back on the trail again, his failures of the early days as a naive new cop are conjured up, and also the heartbreak of his wife’s death from cancer. This woven with the drift of his current love, a girlfriend pursuing political office.

Mayor said he has handled tons of cases where a loose end nags at the back of his head.

Investigators have come to a conclusion based on the weight of all the evidence, Mayor said. At the same time though, they never forget that one bothersome thing. "It bugs everyone I know that’s an investigator," Mayor said.

"And as a fiction writer I can write about it...the leftover stuff," Mayor said.

His mysteries are in no way realistic, Mayor said. Most crooks do stuff right out in the open and the pieces come together very easily, Mayor said. But, as a writer, he can take a small leftover little thing, something that was lighter weight in the investigator’s conclusion, and run with that small detail to make a good fiction story.

Mayor said it would be unprofessional to bring a real case to fictional life, and called that being dishonest. However, he has done this enough years to draw on the human commonality, he said.

One of the reasons he started the series was in revolt against the cliché of the corrupt cop, Mayor said. He doesn’t believe that corruption is rampant in police forces; instead cops are courteous and upright, he said.

The Surrogate Thief does have some passages that do not put cops in the best of light, however.

In some scenes, the investigators are manipulative, deceitful, and lie to trick suspects into telling them information.

There is one scene where a young Joe Gunther is practically suffocating a subject while interrogating him on a pile of sand salt. This scene comes to fruition after a foot chase, which includes the man threatening Gunther with a piece of rebar. Gunther drops fistfuls of salt onto the criminal’s face to get answers.

Mayor said he purposely included that scene to show that Gunther was once young and overly aggressive.

Mayor tries to inject realism into his characters, and cops have their bad days too, Mayor said.

When a police officer starts every day by putting on a bullet-proof vest, "it colors your view of the world," Mayor said.

In his career in law enforcement in Vermont, Mayor said, he has never seen any corruption to write home about.

But did include this salt scene to show that officers are human — that they make mistakes, Mayor said.

Mayor has never gotten any slack from co-workers about his portrayal of officers, because he said his portrayal is absolutely accurate.

‘Like visiting friends’

Mayor’s characters are moral, and believe in their work, said Voorheesville librarian Suzanne Fisher.

Mayor doesn’t write a bleak story. "His characters are so dedicated, good and upright," she said.

After getting to know the characters in the series, it is "like visiting friends," with each book, Fisher said.

Fisher recruited Mayor for the weekend, and secured a grant for the events through the Community Arts Connection, a program funded by The Arts Center of the Capital Region.

Fisher said she is excited to have Mayor come to Voorheesville because of his experience as an author; often workshops are run by academics not best-selling professional authors, she said.

Mayor is the 2004 recipient of the New England Booksellers Association’s award for best fiction. It was the first time that a writer of crime literature was recognized.

"I’m not a writer...I admire writers greatly," Fisher said as she went on to say that the library is offering the public a special opportunity to meet and talk to an author, to pick his brain, and learn from his expertise.

Fisher said she particularly chose Mayor because his books are of local interest to readers. "People have been to these places," Fisher said of the Vermont setting.

Mayor gives insight into some interesting views on Vermont life: the plight of small farmers, troubled small towns, and drug dealers coming in through Massachusetts, Fisher said.

Mayor is enmeshed in the life of the state, whether it be Vermont politics or law enforcement, she said.

He is "very engaging to talk to and has a lot to say about writing," Fisher said.

"You can tell by his book he is very interested in people," Fisher said. He doesn’t just write action adventure mysteries, but about relationships, she said.

* * * * *

Archer Mayor will give a reading on Friday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. at the Voorheesville Public Library. His fiction-writing workshop will be Saturday, Sept. 10, from 9:30 am to 3:30 p.m. The workshop will cover various aspects of fiction-writing, including action, characterization, plotting, scene and setting, the business of writing, editing, and suspense. Registration is required for the workshop; call 765-2791.

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