Q&A with Dana Stabenow, Author of Spoils of the Dead
By John ValeriFebruary 18, 2021
Dana Stabenow is a native of Anchorage. As the story goes, she was raised by her mother on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska before being hooked by the thought of writing, which promised better working conditions. Stabenow earned a BA in Journalism and an MFA in Creative Writing, and then launched an illustrious career in publishing that has included everything from crime novels to science fiction and historical adventures. Perhaps best known for her 22-book mystery series featuring Kate Shugak—the first of which, A Cold Day for Murder (1992), won an Edgar Award—she also writes the Liam Campbell series; Campbell is an Alaska State Trooper demoted from sergeant and exiled to the remote bush town of Newenham in the aftermath of a deadly mistake. He makes his long-awaited return in Stabenow’s new release, Spoils of the Dead.
Recently, the author took a break from her work-in-progress to discuss revisiting Liam Campbell. Topics include his evolution/redemptive journey, the importance of setting to story, the inclusion of telling details, and crafting compelling secondary characters. She also offers a clue to what readers can expect next.
Spoils of the Dead is your fifth book to feature Trooper Liam Campbell. How does the narrative work as both a standalone story for new readers and a continuation of the overall series arc for loyalists? In what ways has your time away from this saga helped and/or hindered in that regard?
It’s been 16 years since I wrote a Liam novel but I did bring Liam into a Kate Shugak novel (Restless in the Grave) which sent Kate on a case to Newenham, Liam’s post. In real life, Alaska state troopers move from post to post often, so Liam remaining in Newenham for as long as he did wasn’t normal, of which I was uncomfortably aware as I wrote that book, which in turn led to the idea of what would happen if I moved him, and especially, where? Spoils/Liam5 is very much a scene setter for what happens next. What’s that, you say? No idea.
Tell us about Liam’s character and his redemptive journey. How did he initially appear to you–and in what ways has he evolved since first being exiled to Newnham?
He was broken, not only in rank but in spirit, in that he didn’t know who he was anymore. He had been, he thought, a happily married man, and one who was professionally and politically ambitious. And then he met Wy, and then a drunk driver wiped out his family, and then he was indirectly responsible for five people dying because he was incapable of picking up the phone. Newenham was his last chance.
Now he has come out the other side (as much as anyone ever does) from all of that. He’s married again, this time to the love of his life. He has a child again, albeit this one is an adult. He’s on the fast track again. He has a new post, hinted at as being driven more by personal than professional reasons, and an assignment he isn’t sure his boss has come fully clean on. He’s wary, and suspicious, and the only thing he’s really certain of is his relationship with Wy.
Speaking of Newnham: Setting is very much a character within these books. In your opinion, how does place enhance plot—and in what ways does the Kenai Peninsula lend itself to the themes you explore in Spoils of the Dead?
I have always believed that setting dictates story. Figure out where your characters live and then you can decide who they are and what they’re up to. That goes from living at Ellfive in high earth orbit (my first book, Second Star) to Alexandria in the time of Cleopatra (Death of an Eye, the first Eye of Isis novel). Alaska, as I never tire of saying, is large, it contains multitudes. Every kind of geographic feature is present and accounted for somewhere in Alaska (a desert full of sand dunes? check), and it is equally diverse in population. It always has been, from the first peoples there—there are seven major Alaska Native tribes and over 220 smaller tribes and they are all distinct from one another. It remains so to this day as people from Outside and around the world emigrate into the state. Take a look at the demographics of Utqiagvik sometime. It’s one of the most ethnically diverse towns in the world, and it’s ours. And then there is the fact that we are a resource extraction state—we pull stuff out of the ground and we pull stuff out of the water and we are all constantly fighting over the sustainability of both. It does keep things lively, in real life and in my books.
Here, Liam is drawn into the suspicious death of an archaeologist. What was your research process like to create a sense of authenticity, both in terms of archaeology and, more broadly, history–and how do you balance the inclusion of “telling details” with narrative momentum?
I remember an interviewer once said to me, in distinctly disapproving tones, “You sure include a lot of detail in your books.” Well, yeah, I do. I like learning the nuts and bolts of a place when I read so it follows I write that way, too. In the case of Liam5, I read a book written by local archeologist Janet Klein about a find of Alaska Native artifacts made on the Kenai Peninsula. I wondered how such a find could screw with life in Alaska as we know it, et voila. Of course, there is more to it than that, as I have to leave room for my characters to have a say. I always have an outline but about one-half to two-thirds of the way through they invariably do.
You create memorable periphery characters. What is your process like to account for their depth and substance–and how do you see these figures as leaving their mark on Liam, despite their transience?
Thank you! I firmly believe that any novel sinks or swims not on its main character but on its ensemble cast. Every character, from the post office clerk to the protagonist gets a backstory, whether it’s one line or an entire subplot. The ensemble cast is what makes a good book and is what gives a series legs. I fell hard for Bluejay myself. My editor loved Ms. Petroff and Sybilla. (As Liam fans know, Liam has a predilection for older women and went head over heels for Sybilla.)
Leave us with a teaser: What comes next?
As soon as I hit send on this email I return forthwith to Alexandria 46BC to work on the second Eye of Isis novel, Disappearance of a Scribe.