Mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker has come a long way since his days as a reporter in the early '80s, stealing typing paper off his desk to write fiction on the weekends.
Over the span of 18 books, the New York Times-bestselling novelist has won two Edgar Awards for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery.
Parker's 19th book, "The Jaguar," will be released Tuesday, Jan. 10, two days before his appearance in Scottsdale, where he will sign the new novel from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore.
"The Jaguar" is Parker's final installment in the six-novel Charlie Hood series. This time around, the lawman must help a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy save his kidnapped wife from a Mexican drug cartel. While holding her in captivity, the cartel leader orders the woman, a singer-songwriter, to write a folk ballad about his life.
Parker, a Los Angeles native who began his career as a reporter for the Newport Ensign and then the Daily Pilot, will be signing "The Jaguar" alongside fellow acclaimed mystery writer John Lescroart, who will be signing his latest release, "The Hunter."
The Republic spoke with Parker about his longtime appreciation of Mexico and his newfound appreciation of songwriting.
Question: What was your inspiration for "The Jaguar?"
Answer: "The Jaguar" came about from a few interests of mine -- one being music, one being the writing of a good thriller and one being the Mexican drug cartels and the lives they live. I threw all of those things in the mix and wrote a story about an American songwriter who has to write the best song of her life to save her own skin.
Q: How has your background in journalism affected your fiction career?
A: It's one of the best educations a fiction writers can have. It puts you into the real world, and it trains you to be observant.
I wanted to be a writer ever since college, maybe late high school. I got a degree in English and then a job as a reporter shortly after. I would write fiction on evenings and weekends -- I was stealing a lot of typing paper off my desk at the close of the work day.
I stuck with it. I honestly didn't know if I'd have any success, but I began working on a novel. It took a damn long time to write it -- about five years. I thought it was pretty good, but I didn't really know if it'd be published or not. I got lucky. That book, "Laguna Heat," did pretty well and really established me as an up-and-coming mystery writer.
Q: How influenced are you by headlines and current events?
A: Headlines influence me a lot. I have big bins of newspapers and magazines that I've saved over the decades. I like news and I pay attention to the news, but none of my books are ripped from the headlines, as some authors like to claim. Those crimes and events and headlines help form the atmosphere and the zeitgeist of the books.
One of my goals as a pop-fiction entertainer is to get the times right and the details of our times right, even if I've changed them drastically for a story. If readers pick up "The Jaguar" 50 years from now, I want them to be able to recognize the world.
Q: "The Jaguar" is your 19th book. Was there anything different about the process of writing this one, compared with the other 18?
A: I had to write a song -- the song that the heroine composes for the cartel leader. But I didn't know how to write a song. I was completely lost, but I did my best.
After I finished the book, I gave the manuscript to my former brother-in-law, a musician. He rewrote the lyrics and added to them with some friends, and then they put it to song and recorded it. I got to watch that song go from these feeble first few lines to an actual song fleshed out by musicians far greater than I am.
It was kind of like the feeling of my very first book, "Laguna Heat," being made into a TV movie by HBO. I not only had the book, but a year or two later I had a movie.
Q: What do you think sets you apart from other crime writers?
A: There are so many mystery, thriller and crime books out there, so it's a really competitive market. And regular readers only have so much time to spend on books. I think I generally manage to write unexpected, unusual characters. I steer away from the clichés of the mystery-thriller characters, like the tough-talking PI. I write characters are more non-genre.
All the books I've written also have had to do with the problems of the U.S. in relation to Mexico and the border strife -- that witch's brew of commerce and criminality. I think that whole story is oddly under-reported.
Q: So you spend a lot of time near the border?
Yeah, I grew up going to Mexico, from family vacations as a kid, all the way up to college, when I would find any excuse to go down there. I still go down to Baja California a lot to fly fish. I love Mexico a lot, and it breaks my heart to see the cruelty and greed overwhelming the border area.