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Hot Shot Debut: M.P. Cooley on 'Ice Shear' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes M.P. Cooley.

Ms. Cooley is the debut novelist of Ice Shear (William Morrow, $25.99). A native of upstate New York, she currently lives in Campbell, California. She studied literature at Barnard College, and went on to work in tax and law publishing, acquiring business, accounting, and economics books. Currently, Ms. Cooley works in administration at a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley.

Out today, Ice Shear was named one of the “Best Books of Summer 2014” by O, The Oprah Magazine. The title also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly: “A strong, fast-paced narrative and an intriguing heroine propel the believable twists in a plot involving politics, a burgeoning meth industry, and biker gangs.” Further, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark Award-winning author, praised, “Captivating, original and brilliant. Seamlessly natural—ICE SHEAR shines with the remarkable confidence and authority of true talent.”

From the publisher:

A small town cop’s murder investigation turns deadly when she uncovers a web of politics and drugs linked to an outlaw motorcycle gang in this gripping debut suspense novel for fans of Winter’s Bone, Frozen River, Breaking Bad, and Sons of Anarchy.

As a cop on the night shift in Hopewell Falls, New York, June Lyons drives drunks home and picks up the donuts. A former FBI agent, she ditched the Bureau when her husband died, and now she and her young daughter are back in upstate New York, living with her father, the town’s retired chief of police.

When June discovers a young woman’s body impaled on an ice shear in the frozen Mohawk River, news of the murder spreads fast; the dead girl was the daughter of a powerful local Congresswoman, and her troubled youth kept the gossips busy.

Though June was born and raised in Hopewell Falls, the local police see her as an interloper—resentment that explodes in anger when the FBI arrive and deputize her to work on the murder investigation. But June may not find allies among the Feds. The agent heading the case is someone from her past—someone she isn’t sure she can trust.

As June digs deeper, an already fraught case turns red-hot when it leads to a notorious biker gang and a meth lab hidden in plain sight—and an unmistakable sign that the river murder won’t be the last.

Now, Ms. Cooley breaks the ice ...

1) What inspired you to write ICE SHEAR – and how did the story evolve throughout the creative process?

As a reader, mysteries and thriller are my favorite. Before ICE SHEAR I had been writing a historical mystery set in post-Civil War New York City. I worked on it for several years, and by that point nothing in the book was a mystery to me, and I found myself having a hard time finishing. I put it in a drawer and wrote a short story about a woman watching the Salvation Army take her dead husband’s belongings away. That character became the basis for June Lyons.

2) Your protagonist, June Lyons, is a widow with a young daughter. How did you go about understanding her motivations – and achieving a believable balance of strength and vulnerability?

June doesn’t share her thoughts and feelings with most people. Being in her head, the readers may know more about her than a lot of her friends and family. Her family has given the strength and hope to get past her husband’s death and solve the murder of Danielle Brouillette. From her father she got a strong sense of duty and a refusal to give up a case until it is solved. Her daughter gave her a reason to live and a reason to hope. Even grieving, she works to make sure her daughter feels safe and loved, and that includes solving the crimes that could destroy the town where they live.

3) What was the research like re. procedural aspects of the book – and how are you able to use the relationship dynamics between a former FBI agent and less sophisticated local cops to intensify conflict?

Local law enforcement had so many different attitudes towards the FBI. One cop made a point of telling me how the FBI were called “fibbies” because if you lied to them, even if you were in law enforcement, you could go to prison. Most were positive, viewing collaboration as a big positive. The FBI agent I spoke to enthusiastically listed all the reasons he appreciated working with the local force, including their ability to identify informants and criminals, and shared that he would sometimes deputize local law enforcement. That detail became something I used as a plot point, when Special Agent Hale Bascom deputizes June. Some of the local folks resent her, thinks she’s a spy, and she feels a huge conflict between her old life and her new life, local law enforcement and federal.

The police reviewers gave me great insight into how they walk through both their job and their life. Some comments made me laugh—“Why is she resting her hand on her belt? Does she have a bad back?” There was one consistent thing that all of my police reviewers hammered home: An officer better have a life and death reason to pull their gun. There were three scenes in the early draft where I had June use her weapon, and all were all cut from the book. Law enforcement understands the gravity of pulling the weapon, and I used that sense of responsibility in developing the character of June.

Researching the outlaw bikers was fun, and I had a bit of luck. A group of bikers started coming into my favorite coffee shop on Thursday evenings—full leathers, big Harleys, the whole deal. I wouldn’t have expected Peet’s to be a biker hangout, but they sat next to me one day and we started talking. They called themselves “The Saints and Sinners”, and were a sober biker gang. A lot of them had been part of the Bandidos or Hell’s Angels, but decided to leave when their lives got out of control, and the booze and drugs became too much. But getting out wasn’t easy. They lost their friends and family—their whole life—and to exit they had to be beaten by the entire gang. If they lived through the beating, they could leave. A lot of what they told me became the basis of Marty.

4) Tell us about Hopewell Falls. Why did you decide on a small town setting – and how does that enhance the overall impact of the larger themes that emerge throughout the narrative?

The rustbelt extends across upstate New York, where I grew up, the Erie Canal dotted with dead factories. Albany was spared because of the state government, but my family lived in Auburn in the 1980s, and while we were there Columbia Rope, P&R Spaghetti, and the biggest employer, ALCOA, either shut down or drastically reduced their workforce. People were fighting for jobs as prison guards.

In Hopewell Falls, Main Street is empty, and the Mills that drove the city are closed. Like Hopewell Falls, June thinks she is past her glory days, that she is a failure because she has lost everything—her husband, her career, her home. She knows she made the right decision returning home, but she still feels the loss of her old life. While June would never describe herself as a hero, I think she is, showing up for her family, friends, and city and doing the right thing, day after day.

In addition to the everyday heroes, I was also interested in everyday villains. Most of June’s suspects are people who she knows, strong, kind people who help their neighbors—including June—in their time of need. Serial killers and psychos are monstrous, but I was interested in the everyday evil. The small town setting gave me that.

5) As a debut novelist, what did you find to be most surprising about the publishing industry – and what advice would you give to aspiring writers who have yet to muster the courage to follow that particular dream?

I have a great publisher and agent, but the mystery community has been what helped me get to the point where I could say that. International Thriller Writers, Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters in Crime all nurture people from the point they are thinking of writing a book all the way up to when they are big names, and the more established writers are generous with their time and experience. Craig Johnson, who writes the Longmire series, did a critique on an early draft at a conference. I ran into him a year later, when I was muddling through the middle, unsure if I could finish. He was so kind to me. “I remember it being a good book,” he said, and despite the fact that he had his own books and a TV show, he asked to see the new draft and encouraged me to keep going. My career so far has been filled with stories like that, and I’m not the only debut author who’s had that experience.

6) Leave us with a little teaser: What comes next?

In book two, June gets the opportunity to close her father’s last case once and for all. He mentions it in books one—a double murder where the bodies of the victims were never found—but June’s investigation ends up uncovering more questions than it answers, and opening old obsessions for both June’s father and her partner Dave.

***

With thanks to M.P. Cooley for her generosity of time and thought and to Camille Collins, Publicist at HarperCollins, for facilitating this interview.

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