There are two topics that inevitably come up during mystery writer Archer Mayor's whirlwind tour of bookstores to promote the latest in his series of Joe Gunther mystery novels, which was released this fall by Grand Central Publishing.
The first concerns the obvious similarities between Mayor, a part-time sheriff's deputy and medical investigator, and his protagonist, a veteran lawman who solves major crimes for the fictional Vermont Bureau of Investigation. Both are Vermont-born and loners to some extent, but the 50-something Mayor insists that he and Gunther, who has been in his early 50s throughout the series' 18-book, 18-year run, are not the same person.
Speaking to a small audience gathered at Warner's Main Street Bookends on a recent Saturday – part of a 60-day, 90-stop tour of bookstores, most of them independent, in New England and eastern New York State – Mayor acknowledges that he and Gunther share more than few traits. Still, he says Gunther is just the vehicle through which he tells his stories of the dark underbelly of Vermont, which Mayor returned home to 27 years ago, after years of moving around.
The other topic, raised by Mayor himself, is that he's not really a mystery writer at all. Also an EMT and volunteer firefighter, Mayor came to novel writing only after working as a newspaper journalist, photographer, researcher, advance man for political campaigns, and writer of history books, which may have something to do with why his novels don't contain swashbuckling heroes nor evil archvillains, but instead focus on relatively ordinary people caught in difficult circumstances. In the case of "Chat," the most recent novel, the narrative stems from the seemingly harmless interactions that take place in Internet chat rooms.
"I'm a social anthropologist. I'm not really a murder mystery writer," he explains. "I'm not a bad puzzle builder, but much more interesting to me are the people involved. How do they resolve crises? What resources do they draw upon to sort out their hash? And some will be extraordinarily rational in that, and others will just go off the deep end in entirely human ways. And this is something, in 25 years of working in the streets in one capacity or another, I witness all the time."
Not that Mayor is exclusively interested in the gory details – far from it. His early career hopping was driven largely by his thirst for fine, and often mundane, details. "I can talk my way into jobs only because I wanted to find out what they did. I really wasn't terribly useful," he says today – a quest that continues not only with his obsession with getting those details right for the Gunther novels, but by making those details themselves critical parts of the story. He typically gathers some of that data by recording conversations and transcribing them later, often running them by the subject to make sure the facts are being represented properly before sending them to his publisher.
"I am utterly reliant on the people I interview to create as much as direct me. People aren't often asked for their creative urges to be voiced," he says. "So I shut up, and I allow [them] to fill the gaps, and that leads to all sorts of cool stuff. You know, Maytag repairmen are rarely interviewed, and when you do, you find that they have stories to tell."
It's those stories that guide the direction of Mayor's novels, which he begins, he says, without knowing how they'll end. He knows who the "bad guy" is, but how they end up is decided by them, not by him, and he doesn't restrict them to a particular outline or route for getting there.
Mayor concedes that having regular people lead the way has its downsides – especially when it comes to commercial success in a business that relies on megabestsellers to stay afloat. Not long ago, after learning that 12 of his 17 previous titles were going out of print, he approached his publisher in the hopes of buying the rights back, which, surprisingly, he says, they agreed to. Mayor then created his own publishing entity, AMPress, earlier this year, mortgaging his home to get the business going. Around the same time, he signed a three-year, three-book contract with St. Martin's Press, putting him in the rare position of working for one large publisher, having another continue to sell some of his back titles, and selling a dozen of his own, an arrangement which one observer says could lift all three parties if the Archer Mayor brand takes off.
"I think that what he's doing could really work," says Judith Rosen, New England correspondent for Publishers Weekly. Most of the time, Rosen continues, it works the other way around – authors self-publish, and then are picked up by a major publishing house. Having Mayor work to promote his own brand also helps. "People are trying lots of different ways to approach the market now, and I think they're having some success."
For his part, Mayor says he'd enjoy having a bit of a cushion for the future, but the main reason he's sticking to his guns – besides the joy he takes in the learning and traveling that are essential to his writing – is that he believes in his work's commercial prospects. More important, real-life people believe in it
"I depend on the experts in the business to give me some guidance, and this is the guidance I'm getting, so if that's true, then wouldn't it be churlish of me to just walk away and say 'I'm going to get a job as a computer repairman, or as a truck driver, or whatever,' " he says. "I think there could be value in this, I think it can succeed."
If the results aren't financially successful, he'll have to evaluate things. But, he says, he's not yet at that stage.
Mayor's readers will also be happy to know that he's also a long way from losing his fascination with the world around him.
"I like to be standing, stock-still, in the middle of the road, in my village, because I can. No car for miles," he says. "I tell ya, this is the coolest thing – I used to work for an ambulance service 25 years ago, and, after a run, I'd roll quietly and slowly through Brattleboro with the windows down, just creep down Main Street, and watch the windows and the lights. Not with any sense of trespass, but just a sense of wonder."