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“You see it clearly, and it’s horrible” — An Interview with Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton is known primarily for his adult mystery series featuring Alex McKnight. When he recently branched out to write a standalone mystery – The Lock Artist – he promptly won the Alex Award!

The Lock Artist is the story of Michael, a teen rendered mute by a terrible childhood experience. In addition to his total silence, Michael has two talents that set him apart – art and lock-picking. The first talent will help him get to know Amelia, a girl with scars of her own. The second will plunge him into a world of crime, violence and terror.

I was lucky enough to chat with Steve Hamilton one fine morning, and after a rambling discussion about Mondays and University of Michigan Hockey (Go Wolverines!), we got down to business:

You are no stranger to awards — (congratulations on your Edgar nomination, btw). Were you surprised to get the Alex Award, which focuses on books that have appeal to teens? Did you expect The Lock Artist to have teen appeal?

I was very surprised. It’s kind of ironic, because I always thought I’d try to do something in the YA market, eventually, but I was doing my adult mystery thing, and just taking a break from the McKnight series…doing this standalone, which turned into this big ordeal, trying to find my way to end of this book, with the protagonist who never says one word out loud. (Great idea, by the way — take away the one thing you do best, i.e. dialog, for your biggest book yet.)

But anyway…When this book was finally done, I sent a copy to Maggie Griffin, my friend and former webmaven. She’s a part owner of a bookstore, still does Lee Child’s web, just one of the most smart book people in the world. And she literally said to me when she was done, “Do you realize you’ve written a YA book?”

I swear, it never occurred to me until she said that. I’m that oblivious.

Do you think teens will get something different out of the book than your adult readers?

Well, yeah, and that was sort of her whole point. You’ve got this young guy, 17 going on 18, feeling like a total alien. Which was really how I tapped into that character to begin with, just putting myself back at that age. Feeling like you don’t fit in, you’ll never find your place in the world, etc…

Was it hard to get back into the mind of a teen protagonist?

You know, it really wasn’t at all. Not one bit. I just turned 50, which is like a science fiction number to me. I’m not 50 inside. I’m still the same person I was when I was in high school, I swear.

So there are a lot of detailed descriptions of lock picking and safe cracking in The Lock Artist…how did you research this? Do you have actual lock-picking experience yourself?

For the combination lock hacking and lockpicking, I consulted with a lock expert who had sent me emails in the past. He helped me to get all of that stuff right. But then when I got to the actual safecracking stuff, I went for the big gun.

Dave McOmie is one of the top safecrackers (if not THE top safecracker) in the world. I found him online and just emailed him and explained what I was doing. He turned out to be a totally cool guy and he was very generous with his knowledge.

It wasn’t so much getting every single little detail right (in fact, he asked me to leave like one thing out so I wasn’t actually writing a how-to manual), it was more like just getting the “feel” right. This is what it feels like when you’re breaking into a safe. It’s the most quiet, delicate thing in the world, if you do it the right way.

I loved how emotional the safe-cracking parts of the book were. (If that makes any sense.)

Yes! It really can be that way. You have to have a very intimate relationship with that safe if you’re going to get anywhere with it.

Dave’s a totally legitimate, legal safecracker, by the way. I didn’t have to talk to him behind thick plexiglas or anything.

Lol! Speaking of intimate relationships (check out this segue), I also loved how Michael and Amelia send those graphic novel love-letter-diaries to each other. What inspired that choice?

Necessity, really. How else is Michael going to communicate with her? It’s hard enough being 17 and wanting to be with somebody that badly… If you can’t even talk, I mean, it’s just impossible.

So are you a graphic novel fan yourself?

Enough to appreciate it. I know some people who are REALLY into that stuff.

To get more into the fact that Michael can’t speak…In a previous interview you mentioned “hearing a character before you see him.” Was it hard to “hear” a character who can’t actually talk?

No, not at all. He’s actually a very “chatty” person, for somebody who never says a word. If that makes any sense. He’s talking to you as he’s writing, after all.

True. Do you have any “mental image” – so to speak – of what Michael’s voice sounds like?

That’s a good question! I guess I sort of do, although I’m not sure how to describe it. Young and smart, and just totally inside his own head. The kind of voice that always has thought bubbles around it.

I think I’ve had friends that meet that description. :-)

Yeah, it sort of fits, doesn’t it? You know what I’m saying…

Word. Your work really gives off a “classic thriller” vibe…

I hope that just means it GOES. Despite the weird split timeline, I hope you just pick it up and it grabs you and then zoom.

It does! and it has that psychological intrigue element. Were you a Hitchcock fan? (Or are you one now?)

Huge Hitchcock fan, then and always. He did the most with the least. The absolute suspense of nothing happening…That was the best. He was the best, I mean.

I agree! For our readers who might be Hitchcock n00bs, what should they watch first?

Yowza. Let’s see…Rear Window, maybe? Very tight story, but it all works perfectly.

I like “The Lady Vanishes.” One more tough question. The Lock Artist deals with some seriously intense material…


…and yet it has a sense of emotional restraint and never gets melodramatic. How do you maintain that balance? (When so many books just go off to angst-land.)

I think I always try to be aware of that danger, in anything I do. But in this case, especially, with a young kid, away from home, trying to find his way back, etc… I think I was probably extra aware of the danger of slipping into that. With Michael, being such a survivor, I just felt like he would keep his head on straight, no matter what happened to him.

Plus, you know, there’s enough really serious stuff going on, with the violence, with the horrible story of what had happened to him as a young child, all that stuff being slowly revealed as the book goes on. You have to let that kind of thing stand on its own. It’s dramatic just because of what it is. You don’t have to help it along. At all. In fact, if you try to get heavy with it, it just takes away from the effect.

You see it clearly, and it’s horrible. I don’t have to convince you. You know what I mean?

Yeah. One more fun question. Do you have any advice for aspiring teen writers out there?

Two years ago, I would have tried to be encouraging, but knowing in my heart that things have never been tougher, I mean in terms of breaking into the publishing business, actually getting your story out there, etc. That’s just two years ago. As of right now, it’s a whole new world.

Ebooks have made such a huge difference. Publishers are really, really scared right now, because many authors are taking control and publishing themselves, using the platform primarily. Used to be, “self-publishing” meant having a vanity press print up 500 books and you trying to sell them to your friends and relatives. Now, it means going to the ebook format as a first strike, finding your audience, and having a fair shot at really getting somewhere. Nothing is ever guaranteed, but quite a few writers are doing amazing things that way. All in the span of two years, like I said. It’s incredible.

But of course you still have to write a great story! That’s the one thing that never changes. But at least now you don’t have so many hoops to jump through, once you get there.

Cool. Thanks so much! And before I go, I just want to say that I really enjoyed The Lock Artist. It affected me strongly — it’s the kind of book that sticks with you, emotionally.

Thank you! I’m glad it worked for you. That’s all I was trying to do, make it feel like that.


–Maria Kramer is currently reading Honey Blonde Chica by Michele Serros.