Novelist Archer Mayor talks about research, motivation and plot twists

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BENNINGTON — Archer Mayor was doing some fieldwork for his new novel, as he always does, visiting with managers at C&S Wholesale Grocers in Keene, New Hampshire. What had led him there, he said, was a reader's suggestion that he incorporate more groceries into his stories.

After learning about how the warehouse operations worked, Mayor told his hosts that he was "far more interested in how you destroy it. Well, their faces lit up! At last, something fun to talk about! 'Well, this is what you do to ruin our company.' And they ran me through all the paces."

What he learned, he employed in writing "Bury the Lead," his 29th Vermont police procedural featuring his longtime protagonist, detective Joe Gunther. Mayor talked about the book, writing and an array of related subjects with an audience of 75 or so rapt fans at the Bennington Free Library on Monday night, part of his promotional tour. He will be appearing at the Northshire Bookstore on Saturday at 6 p.m.

By a show of hands, most of the readers in the room had heard Mayor, a resident of Newfane, speak at least once before. His presentation was a half-hour talk about his research for the new book, followed by more than an hour of answering questions from the audience.

Why does he write murder mysteries? "Because I love it," he said. "I'm a closet anthropologist. I write about us. I actually could care less about who done it or car chases or the caliber of the gun that shot the bad guy . I'm far more interested in why we do what we do with such amazing regularity."

Mayor's writing is complemented by his work as a death investigator for the Vermont Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. His investigations take him behind the scenes, opening doors that are closed to members of the general public. Though the work is reflected in the books, he explained that he's careful to camouflage actual cases, lest he violate HIPAA privacy regulations.

Mayor seemed taken aback by the first question from the audience, a fan's recollection that Mayor had said he intended to retire one of his fictional investigators, Willy Kunkle. "No, I think your medications are off-kilter," he replied, to the audience's laughter.

It's not only Kunkle who's around for the long haul, Mayor said. When another reader speculated that Gunther must be in his mid-80s, given that he served in the Korean War, Mayor explained that he's expunged that detail in the more recent books, making him simply a combat veteran of an unnamed conflict.

Thirty years ago, in the first book in the series, Gunther was considering retirement, Mayor noted. "He's stopped so considering," he said. "Joe has taken on a life of his own he's permanently arrested in time."

In response to another question, about why Gunther's girlfriend, Lyn, was killed by a sniper's bullet, Mayor revealed that even he can be surprised by his novels' plot twists.

"I liked Lyn a lot," he said. "She is not who I thought would receive the bullet. I guess that's what makes this something other than a vastly calculated effort on my part. [The sniper] moved the rifle at the very last moment. I wrote that sentence, and I killed her. And then I realized that, okay, we're all going to have to deal with that, and I kept going.

"She was gone — no plan, no reason, no nothing. Welcome to my world."

He does sometimes have second thoughts about what he's written, he said. Twice, he's realized after reading a first draft that he's chosen the wrong character to be a "bad guy." Rewriting the book to make a different person the guilty party is less difficult than you might think, he added — the changes take him about two hours.

"Murder lurks in us all. It doesn't take much," he said. "Who in this [story] has legitimacy to go lethal? There's always going to be somebody," he said. "It's not all white or black — there's a whole world of gray, right down the middle. That's the life I occupy."

"I don't write much about evil, you're probably not going to find 'Hannibal the Cannibal' in my books," he said. "But you are going to find people who do really bad stuff. They'll always do it, because they think they are on the side of the angels. But they are dark angels."

Note: Mayor will talk about "Bury the Lead" at the Northshire Bookstore, 4869 Main St., Manchester on Saturday at 6 p.m.; Bartleby's Books, 17 West Main St., Wilmington on Friday, Oct. 12, at 6 p.m.; and at Battenkill Books, 15 East Main St., Cambridge, N.Y. on Saturday, Oct. 20, at 2 p.m. A complete listing of appearances is at archermayor.com.

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