What better way to celebrate the release of THE BURN (Feb 16), the second book in the Betty Rhyzyk series by Kathleen Kent, than with an interview.
First of all, would you like to tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Texas and attended UT at Austin studying literature and history. What I wanted to be was a writer, but my dad, who was a very practical man, convinced me that being a starving artist was not all it was cracked up to be. Instead, he argued, I should study business, get a “real” job and write in my spare time. Which is what I eventually did. After college I lived and worked in New York for twenty years: 10 years working for the former Chairman of the Commodity Exchange, and then for another 10 years as a civilian contractor to the U.S. Department of Defense in Russia facilitating defense conversion work, converting military plants into civilian use. I wrote a lot during those 10 years, but almost all of it was factual progress reporting to my coordinating CO in Washington.
I did very little creative writing as my job was all consuming, leaving not much time, or energy, to commit to writing a full-length novel. Finally, in 2000, I decided to take an early retirement and move back to Texas to raise my son and tackle writing creatively. That’s when I started my first novel, which was published as The Heretic’s Daughter in 2008. Delightfully, it was successful, which has allowed me to continue writing full time. I’ve just published my fourth novel, The Dime, which, unlike the first three historical novels, is a contemporary crime novel.
What, if anything, made you switch from writing historical fiction, and turn to a life of crime?
I had just published my third historical novel, The Outcasts, set a few years after the American Civil War, when an editor friend called to ask if I would submit a short story for a crime anthology he was putting together titled Dallas Noir. I love crime fiction, but had never tried my hand at writing anything more than a basic outline. My story “Coincidences Can Kill You” was published in the collection and my agent loved it so much she encouraged me to develop it into a full-length novel. As I had already started on another work of historical fiction, it took some time to commit to this new genre. It took half a year to make the mental switch, and change the tone and tempo of my writing.
How did the character of Betty first come about? I heard she featured in a short story first.
I love strong female characters, women who often fall outside of the parameters of what’s considered conventional or “appropriate” societal behavior.
My first two novels, The Heretic’s Daughter and The Traitor’s Wife, are about Martha Carrier, my nine-times great grandmother who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692. As my Carrier grandmother used to say, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women, and I love narratives that include ferocious women. Detective Betty Rhyzyk, the main protagonist of The Dime, is certainly a ferocious woman. Many of my characters are developed slowly over the course of weeks or months while I’m working on a novel. But Betty, like Venus rising from the sea, just seemed to appear solidly whole in my imagination the moment I committed to writing about her. I like to start my characters off facing a strong headwind, confronted with a lot of challenges or disadvantages right out of the gate, and certainly Betty has some challenges the moment she joins the Dallas Police Department: she’s from Brooklyn (therefore, a dreaded Yankee), physically impressive, being almost 6 feet tall and red-headed, fiercely competitive, outspoken and an unapologetic lesbian.
Could you describe a little bit more about Betty’s ‘Voice’ of reason, and mentor, Benny? A wonderful ‘secondary’ character, if ever there was one.
Because Betty is such a strong character, sometimes abrasive, sometimes impulsive, I needed some characters to temper her animal vitality and soften her hard edges. Jackie, her partner, a paediatric radiologist, helps to keep Betty balanced and on track. But it’s Betty’s Uncle Benny, her father’s brother, who is her true pole star. The fact that he’s been dead for a few years when the action really gets started, appearing to Betty in dreams or speaking to her while she’s running, was just one of those “Aha!” moments that I thought would be a unique twist on what might otherwise be a more conventional police procedural. Betty comes from a family of dysfunctional, alcoholic and corrupt cops with the NYPD. But Benny, a decorated homicide detective, was Betty’s early mentor, advocate and protector, pointing her toward being a “good” cop.
And finally, what can you tell us about what’s coming up next, for Betty?
I’m very close to finishing the next book in the Det. Betty series. The action in The Dime took Betty and her partners from Dallas to the Piney Woods of East Texas following Mexican cartel members, and home grown meth dealers. In this next book—title not yet decided— the violence of the dangerous drug cartel, The Texas Syndicate, will take Betty and her partner, Seth, to far West Texas. I have included some of the same characters, but I’ve also introduced a whole new cast of weird and wonderful Texans to populate the story. In The Dime, Betty has been badly shaken, physically and mentally, and she will have to face her own family’s past, as well as the unpleasant aftermath from confronting the drug dealing, religious cult, The Family. But as Uncle Benny would tell her, Betty will have to do her own “Reaping the Grim”, exorcising the demons that are threatening to extinguish her confidence in herself to make the hard choices, as well as her trust in the people closest to her.
Kathleen Kent is the author of three best-selling novels, The Heretic’s Daughter—recipient of the David J. Langum Sr. award for American historical fiction—The Traitor’s Wife, and The Outcasts (set in 1870 Texas) which was the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2014 top choice for Historical Fiction, as well as the recipient of a Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western fiction. Her fourth book, titled The Dime (Feb. 2017), is a contemporary crime novel set in Dallas, based on a short story published in the crime anthology, Dallas Noir. Kirkus starred review says, “Kent’s detective is Sam Spade reincarnated as a brilliant modern woman.” The author lives in Dallas.