Books

John Sandford says he's planning to slow down, but ideas keep coming

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Former C.R. resident, UI alum to speak Wednesday at Iowa City Book Festival

Cedar Rapids native John Camp — known to thriller readers far and wide as John Sandford — earned a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the farm crisis in the 1980s before trading journalism for fiction writing in 1990. Since then, his Prey series, featuring Lucas Davenport, has been a consistent presence on best-seller lists. The 29th entry in the series, “Neon Prey,” was released in April and the 30th is scheduled for next year. The 12th book in his Virgil Flowers series, “Bloody Genius,” is scheduled for release Tuesday, a day ahead of Sandford’s event during the Iowa City Book Festival.

For years, Sandford was one of many thriller writers who maintained the book-a-year pace that the genre has come to require. And in recent years, as in 2019, he’s upped his output to two titles per annum. At 75, he’s ready to back off that schedule.

“I think this next year I’m going to write one book,” he said during a phone interview while vacationing in New Mexico. “To tell you the truth, the pace sort of wore me out. It seemed like I couldn’t ever stop. I would go on vacation and I would always take the computer with me so that every evening I could write. I’m supposed to be going around Paris with my wife and I’m spending four hours a night, you know, trying to write to keep things going. So it was nice while it lasted, but I think probably I’m just going to stop now.”

While Sandford acknowledges that the two-book pace “becomes a grind,” he said he doesn’t lack new ideas.

“The thing about plots and stuff is that that’s not really that much of a problem. At any one time I might have half a dozen stories kind of cooking around in my head. I mean I’ve got two of them that I’ll never write right now that I’m really kind of interested in. But I’ll never write them.”

He describes one potential protagonist in detail: “One of them has a completely new character in it. And he’s such a good character that I don’t know what to do about it. The character is a former lieutenant colonel in the army but he’s kind of a lazy lieutenant colonel. They were going to make him a colonel and he just decided, you know, that he didn’t want to do that, so he retired as soon as he could. And now he lives in the north woods and down in Vero Beach (Fla.) in the wintertime, and mostly fishes and walks around and talks to people. And he’s not like a killer type. He doesn’t jump out of airplanes or anything like that.

“But as I developed it, I really liked the guy. I was just kind of typing away in my spare time on it and I’m pretty sure it’s never going to see the light of day,” he said.

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He hadn’t pitched the new idea to his publishers. It is just an idea he’s been kicking around in his head.

“(I)t’s just one of those things you kind of fool around with, and I like it, but ... I can’t really see myself finishing it. I mean, I’ve still got to do a Davenport book so then I’d be back on the two book treadmill.”

Sandford credits an idyllic childhood in Cedar Rapids and his University of Iowa education for providing him with both material upon which to draw and the skills he needed to become a successful journalist and writer. For example, he points out that Virgil Flowers’ adventure happen in Minnesota — the state where he now resides — but in a part of Minnesota that’s a lot like his boyhood home.

“Well, I mean, everybody digs back into that sort of a history for their stuff,” he said of his past and its relationship to his writing. “Almost all the stuff that Virgil Flowers in southern Minnesota — you know Minnesota should have started about Minneapolis, it should have started up there when the glacial moraines are south of Minneapolis, because the first two counties north of Iowa are really Iowa. And so all of Virgil Flowers’ territory is essentially Iowa.”

He can pinpoint the moment that led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and the institution that facilitated it.

“The main thing in my life was the Cedar Rapids Public Library. I read a huge, ungodly number of books from the library. When I was in kindergarten at All Saints School over on the east side, the nuns marched us out to the parking lot and signed us up for library cards at the Bookmobile. And that was an absolutely critical moment in my life.”

When the future Pulitzer-winning journalist left for college, being a reporter wasn’t in his mind at all. He studied American literature and history for his bachelor’s degree and later got his master’s in journalism when the Army, in which he served between his undergraduate and graduate years, sent him to journalism school.

“I was going to be a lawyer. But the Army sent me to journalism school and I started thinking, ‘Hey, I kind of like this. This is good.’ And after I got out of the Army, I did I short spell in Cape Girardeau with the Southeast Missourian in Missouri right down on the Mississippi and did some civil rights reporting and some other stuff in Caro, Illinois. And that just confirmed what I thought, which was that journalism was what I wanted to do. And then I kind of burned out on it 20 years later, but it was good while I was doing it.”

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Writing thrillers has been good for Sandford, too. He handles his ongoing success with a light touch. When I asked what I’d forgotten to ask him, he replied with a laugh, “Whether or not the new book is any good, and I have to tell you it’s wonderful. Probably everybody in America should go and buy a copy. I say that for the benefit of my publicist.”

Whether it’s journalism or fiction, writing is truly what drives him. He has other hobbies — playing guitar, photography, golf — but nothing that consumes him in the same way.

“I’ve got all of that stuff going on ...” Sandford said. “But, you know, I don’t think I could get away from writing. I think if I die when I’m 94 years old, it will probably be sitting in front of a keyboard.”

If You Go

• What: John Sandford will speak as part of the Iowa City Book Festival

• When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

• Where: Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A, 123 S. Linn St., Iowa City

• Cost: Free

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