Wisconsin sheriff Heidi Kick has enough to deal with—an ice storm, her tragic past, the lack of support from her rural community—without a murder case to solve. But when she encounters a decade-old corpse while trying to track down a missing girl, the trail leads her to uncover some of Bad Axe County’s dark secrets. We talked to author John Galligan about the allure and the danger of sports, how fly fishing is an excellent hobby for a writer and why Wisconsin fascinates him.
Whew! Bad Axe County is truly a thriller—so many gasp-inducing action scenes, lots of people to whom the word “evil” would apply sans hyperbole, a landscape of drug abuse and sex trafficking, and several suspenseful plot threads to follow. Was the book as much of a heart-pounding endeavor to write as it was to read? Do you have a routine, or mantra or some such, that helps you emerge from your stories as you create them?
To answer your first question in a word, no. I wish that writing a thriller were a thrill. I’m so glad to know that the book worked for you, making you gasp and your heart pound. That’s what every writer wants to hear. But reading and writing are very different experiences, and the old saw applies about eating the sausage versus watching it get made. At least for me, the writing process is slow, layered, recursive and often arduous, usually involving plenty of false starts, frustrations, flushes and back-to-the-drawing-board moments—in short, a grind. Not to say that there aren’t many moments when I feel excited by what I’m writing and get totally immersed in a scene or a chapter or a plot line. There are. But it’s far from the “vivid and continuous dream” (John Gardner) that I’m striving to create for the reader.
That brings us to your excellent second question: How do I maintain a healthy perspective while in the process? This was especially important in the writing of Bad Axe County due to the darkness of the subject matter and some of the scenes. Creating and then revising scenes of sexual violence didn’t feel good, and there were plenty of times, especially when I wasn’t sure the story was working, when the whole thing felt misbegotten and grotesque and I wasn’t sure I could continue. And I was alone with these doubts, since there really is no one else involved in the process at these early phases. So basically my formula for survival is patience (take the long view and trust the process), stubbornness (believe and don’t give up) and clear the mind daily (exercise, fly fishing, etc.).
Heidi experienced a crime in her past that still affects her and seems to drive a lot of her choices in the present day. Although I confess I haven’t read your Fly-Fishing Mystery books (yet!), I did see in a review that your Ned Ogilvie character also struggles to reconcile his very different past. What about that—the persistence of our past selves, let’s say—has inspired you to explore it in your work? Do you think a need for closure helps make for good case-closers in the ranks of law enforcement?
My protagonist in the Fly-Fishing Mysteries is dealing with overwhelming guilt and grief, and my line about him is that he is “crisscrossing the country in an old RV trying to fish himself to death.” But somebody always beats him to the “death” part, and that’s what keeps him alive. You put it well: We are all about the persistence of our past selves, and our happiness or lack thereof is a function of the relationships we maintain with those selves. What I think happens with Ned Oglivie and to an extent Heidi Kick is that their pasts are unresolvable, their past selves are unforgiveable, and this directs relentless energy at the solutions to “proxy” problems that can be solved. The cases they get involved in are both projections and diversions, and there is always sadness (but also sequels) that comes with resolution, because the protagonist then returns to his or her own original torment.
Heidi Kick is the first female sheriff in Bad Axe and your first female protagonist. What made you decide to write her, and really go for it, by putting her in a setting so rife with misogyny, from daily workplace sexism to heinous crimes against women? Did the recent increase in women speaking up about their experiences spark something for you?
You’re right that the cultural moment had an influence on Bad Axe County. I researched harassment in the workplace, and some of the things that were said/tweeted/posted to/at/about women in positions of power just took my breath away. In Bad Axe County, the horrific tweets directed at Sheriff Heidi Kick (“why dont you drink bleech ill buy the bleech”) are actual tweets from my research. Also . . . Bill Cosby? And then to find out that it’s not just him, but this is a thing, there is a drug you can get, and a whole bunch of men make a practice of drugging and raping women? How much do you have to hate women to get satisfaction from that? How powerful is the patriarchy that this goes unnoticed, unprosecuted, that the victims stay silent? I didn’t set out to catch the cultural wave so much as the wave arose while I was writing about sexual harassment and sex trafficking, and that groundswell of women’s voices telling dark truths gave me the confidence to continue. Like I said in the answer above, there were tough times for me in the writing process, but at a certain point I knew I was being real. Having the wind of the zeitgeist at my back really helped.
Heidi and her office ally, Denise, preemptively crack sexist jokes as a way to vaccinate against said chauvinism. Was it a challenge to calibrate the jokes, to ensure that they landed as sardonic rather than self-flagellating? Do you think there’s hope for change in the workplace, for a day when such inoculation won’t be needed quite so much?
The jokes were a huge risk . . . yet somehow as soon as the idea occurred, I knew it was a winner if I could pull it off. You would not believe how many hours I spent combing through bad sexist jokes to find just the right ones for the moment. Fortunately, I’m the kind of person who cannot remember a joke to save his life, otherwise I think I would be permanently brain-damaged. The jokes had to hit just the right note: appropriate to the moment in the story, the particular flavor of sexism at issue, strong enough to have a bite, funny in their disgusting way, and overall they had to leave both Heidi Kick and the reader feeling refreshed and empowered. Sure, I have hope that the workplace will improve, with respect not only to gender equity but also to race and sexuality. I think improvement will be slow and painful, though, with plenty of backlash, as we are witnessing on the national stage. I think at some point we reach “peak white male” (or “peak orange male”—please don’t quote me), go through an excruciating transition and emerge in a more balanced place. I mean, if I can’t hope for that, then . . .
Sports are a strong throughline in Bad Axe County: Heidi’s husband Harley is a local legend; a central character, Angus Beavers, is a gifted player; and the corruption in town flows directly through the baseball team. I see that your earlier books have hockey and fly fishing in them, too. What do sports represent for you, and why is it important for you to include this in your books?
I grew up as a full-on jock, so my connection with sports is deep and personal. To me, sports represent institutionalized masculinity and both the strengths and dangers of that. My understanding, I think, is nuanced, paradoxical, maybe conflicted. A lot of successful male athletes are misunderstood and unfairly judged. They are complex people who are good at sports because their intelligence and discipline make them good at everything they do. I think “dumb jock” is mostly wishful thinking practiced by people who can’t or don’t play sports. So there is that.
But on the other hand, all-male sports teams, at least in my day and in my personal experience, were hotbeds of misogyny, racism and homophobia, and much of this was passed down and reinforced through the leadership of older players and coaches. Clearly I have strong feelings all over the map about sports, so it’s fertile ground for me as a writer.
I wouldn’t call fly fishing a “sport” in the sense that I’m using the word above. But to me it involves much of what I love about sports—physical skill is required to do it well, and you can always get much better than you are—and it strips away the team and all the negatives and replaces those with the challenge to be present and immerse yourself in nature. Lots can go wrong—both outside and inside the self. You get to be a fool on a regular basis. You also get to touch what feels to me like the source of life. Fly fishing is also very fertile ground for me as a writer.
Honesty (and the lack thereof) is a theme that resonates throughout your book. There are old, buried secrets that affect the present day; lies and shame passed down through generations; and present-day secrets among Heidi and her husband, colleagues and more. The fate of many in Bad Axe County are excellent testaments to the ways in which secrets and lies can be debilitating and damaging. Did a desire to explore this motivate you to write the book? Are you good at spotting liars (or spinning falsehoods) yourself?
I think I’m about average in terms of both promulgating and spotting b.s. I do think that shame, especially, is a powerful and fascinating engine for a character and a story, and I think that shame involves a secret world inside the self, an epic struggle hidden from others, and the perfectly solved crime for me means not so much the capture of the criminal but the reader’s epiphany as to what dark yet universal force, in all of us, drives the crime.
We often hear that Manhattan is itself a character in a story, or Hollywood, or Paris . . . the usual cities. Bad Axe is the newest entry in that category! Online images of coulees convey just how dangerous nighttime car chases, let alone daytime jaunts, can be in such a landscape. Did you travel to that area in order to really capture what it might feel like to grow up and/or live there? What stood out to you the most? Do you think it’s harder for people to leave or to stay?
Yes, the Driftless area, or coulees, of Wisconsin is my favorite place to be, and I spend as much time there as I can. I have a camper, and I stay out there to write and fish. I immerse myself in the landscape and the culture. Bad Axe County is a fictional county inserted between two real ones. The region’s beauty and its challenges fascinate me. There are hundreds of miles of spring creeks where wild trout still thrive. At the same time factory farms and sand-fracking outfits are moving in, and climate change is having a devastating impact, with seven “100-year floods” in the last 10 years. That region is losing family farms faster than any place in the state and perhaps the country. At the same time, it has one of the highest concentrations of Amish people anywhere in the country and the highest concentration of organic farms. Hunting is a religion. The military is a fetish. Neighbors look out for each other. Meth is a scourge. You can find a pancake breakfast or a brat fry on any day of the week. People both leave and stay with equal degrees of passion, but my reading (of what high school graduates say about their futures) is that most kids who grow up there are taught to love the place and the lifestyle and want to stay (i.e., go to the tech college for diesel mechanics or dental hygiene). For sure the economy and the culture are shifting, and the ecosystem is under threat.
Per your website, you’ve had some interesting-sounding jobs. After reading Bad Axe County, “freezer boy in a salmon cannery” sure did catch my eye. Did you draw from any of your own experiences, whether lived/observed/imagined, when creating the book?
I have deep connections and experiences in the region, and I have a background in sports and in baseball in particular that informs some of the story. I can identify with Angus being channeled a certain way by adults in his life, for their own purposes, and belatedly coming to the realization that this is his life to live. My experience as a parent, for sure, informs my relationship to Heidi as a mother. It just feels so easy for me to relate to the challenges she faces in being a mother and a wife while handling a pressure-packed job. (As for “freezer boy,” I rode on tender ships out to meet fishing boats in the ocean off Alaska, jumped into holds with dead salmon up to my armpits and one-by-one heaved those fat, slippery suckers out over my head. Later, after they were gutted, I would ice-glaze them together in triplets and file them in boxcar freezers for shipment to Japan.)
You teach writing at Madison College. Do you think your teaching informs your writing and vice versa? Do your students read and give you feedback on your books?
Yes, teaching informs my writing. Imagine the human experience, the characters, after 32 years at a rate of about 250 students per year (wow, 8,000 in total!). The coolest thing about teaching where I do is the diversity of students, especially non-traditional students, whom I have the privilege of working with—literally from every corner, both local and worldwide. No . . . I don’t even let on to my students that I do what I do. They get a link to my website, and if they’re curious enough and interested enough to discover it, great, I’m happy to meet them as John Galligan, author of Bad Axe County. But I’ve never felt comfortable wearing that up front. Serious writing students have it all figured out and take my classes for that reason. The rest are free to see me just as the guy standing between them and three credits.
What’s coming up next for you?
I have a two-book contract with Simon & Schuster, and I’m working on the next book set in the coulees featuring Sheriff Heidi Kick, tentatively titled Dead Man Polka.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Bad Axe County.
Author photo by Ya-Ling Tsai.