John Sandford was a journalist for 25 years, he was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980, and he won the Prize in 1986. But he’s best known for his “Prey” novels, the first of which was released in 1989. His latest—his 27th—is “Golden Prey,” and it is largely set in Texas. This article appeared in the April 30 Houston Chronicle. Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.
John Sandford: About 25 years. I began at my college newspaper at the University of Iowa, and then was drafted into the Army, where I went to the Army Journalism School. I intended to become a lawyer, but I liked journalism so much I just went into newspapers.
MY: You won a Pulitzer in 1986. What did a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist make in the mid-1980s?
JS: A little more than $60,000 per year, or something like that.
MY: How did you transition from journalism to writing novels?
JS: The plan was to do both journalism and novels. But after a couple of false starts, I got the concept down, and “Rules of Prey” sold well. Once I strung a few successes together, I switched to novels more or less full time.
MY: After “Rules of Prey” succeeded, did someone say, “let’s brand the ‘Prey’ title?”
JS: Yes, exactly. Series books were big then: Tom Clancy, Sue Grafton, and others. But, now, 28 years later, we’re running out of adjectives for the titles!
MY: Lucas Davenport is your protagonist, and he’s a millionaire who works in law enforcement. That’s unusual.
JS: Creating a protagonist is something of an exercise in engineering. I wanted a likeable character, one who could be credibly involved in action of the sort I wanted to write about. It doesn’t make sense to have a teacher as your protagonist in a series about crime. It’s hard to imagine a series in which you have 20 serial killers for them to catch….
MY: …Well, there are some schools…
JS: Well, that’s true, but it’s more credible to have a private investigator, police, or FBI in an environment with lots of crime. I also wanted a protagonist who could appeal to men and women readers. Davenport is good looking in a rough way; he likes fashion—a tough guy who also enjoys shopping. He likes women and pursues them, but not indiscriminately. The women he likes are smart. Traditionally, protagonists in crime fiction are a bit rumpled, but Davenport has a bit of Hollywood in him.
MY: Tell us about “Golden Prey,” your latest in the Prey series.
JS: Davenport has taken a new job as a Deputy US Marshal, and he winds up in Texas chasing two guys who have committed a horrific crime: they kill drug dealers, steal cash, and kill a little girl who was a potential witness. And these bad guys are chased by Davenport and by the drug dealers’ accomplices across Texas, culminating in a showdown in Marfa, TX.
MY: A lot of your books have nasty villains, but two of the characters in this one are particularly villainous.
JS: Court and Soto are the kind of villains who are willing to do anything for a buck. Soto is the kind of asshole that makes life hard for people. Court is one of those women ruined by life. Her parents were a mess, now she’s a mess, and she takes revenge on life by hurting people because she’s been so badly hurt.
MY: Despite the villains, there is a lot of humor in the novel, including satire on Marfa and modern art.
JS: I liked Marfa, and I like art generally. I was curious about Marfa and what Donald Judd had done down there. I am not a fan of Judd’s art, but I thought that if I saw all of his installations at once, I might have a different perspective. But I didn’t. I still don’t like Judd’s art; I don’t like Carl Andre’s art. A Whirlpool Washing Machine Factory would have been more interesting. I’m serious. The art isn’t good. In some ways, I think it’s a scam, and I am kind of embarrassed for it and that’s why I was making fun of it.
MY: Yet you liked Marfa.
JS: It’s an interesting town, and it has a couple of nice hotels. I told my wife that one of the hotels reminds me of New York, because there are all these people dressed in black talking about art.
JS: I live in New Mexico now, but if I didn’t, I would probably live in Dallas. I like the DFW area. We have friends there. I like Houston, too. Books set in Texas are also interesting. James Lee Burke just wrote a book set in Houston that’s one of the best books he’s ever written. Texas is an interesting place. More than any place in the US, it is its own place.
MY: You are a Texas Country music fan and you give Texas singer-songwriter Delbert McClinton a nod in “Golden Prey.”
JS: He’s one of my favorites. I listen to Texas Country; it’s a mix of story telling and country music. I like Robert Earl Keen, and there’s another Texas guy, Terry Allen, who is also an artist. He has a song called, “Bottom of the World,” and it’s a fantastic song. Steve Earle is up in Nashville, but he’s really a Texas guy. And Townes Van Zandt may have been crazy, but he was a terrific song-writer. I’m serious about this; I really like Texas music, and it’s one of the reasons I like Texas.