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"...always any association with romance and you're going to get slammed because people want to denigrate that genre. They think it's an easy target and they think that it's somehow -- you know -- not worthy of notice because it's about relationships. That it's somehow not valid. Kind of makes a commentary on our society when dealing with relationships is not a valid topic."
She laughs a lot. A rich, velvety laugh that invites you to laugh along. She laughs at life's little comedies and seems able to ferret out the humor in almost any situation. The laughter in no way prepares you for her work.
A friend of mine read Tami Hoag's latest book, Ashes to Ashes, before I did. That is, she started to read it and stopped. "I'll have to save this for some other point in my life," she reported. "This is too gruesome for where I am right now. Too frightening."
Like other of Hoag's bestselling suspense novels, Ashes to Ashes does deal with frightening subjects in a frank, unblinking way. This time it's a serial killer the press has dubbed the Cremator because he incinerates and sometimes decapitates his victims: not pretty stuff.
Knowing this about Hoag before I met her, and knowing also that this prolific wunderkind has been cranking out bestsellers at a rate that would almost put Grisham to shame, I had some expectations about Tami Hoag. All of them were wrong. No tough-talking harridan, this author. Hoag has a sweet mien -- she looks quite a lot, in fact, like actress Annette Bening -- delicate features and a gentle way of speaking.
If you were to meet Hoag on the street, it's possible you'd think she was a grammar school librarian or a teacher. More: if that's what you thought, she wouldn't bother correcting you. Quiet, shy, well-spoken and articulate, the 40-year-old author of blockbusters is protective of her privacy and her own space. And then there's that laugh...
Linda Richards: There is some darkness in Ashes to Ashes.
Tami Hoag: Oh yes. It's a dark book. No doubt about it.
Where did it come from?
This book started for me with some actual crimes in Minneapolis. There was a case where a man was killing prostitutes and setting their bodies on fire. These cases caught my attention and the media was on it right away because of course that's a very horrific and sensational kind of a crime. But I noticed in talking with people in the city, that they weren't all that concerned about it or paying that close attention because the victims were prostitutes and they felt that it was removed from their lives and that this was in a way of no consequence to them. And that attitude interested me. And I thought -- you know -- what if suddenly one of the victims wasn't a prostitute. Then what? You don't know any more about that person then you knew. It's all in your perception and the stereotypes that you've held about this victim. You don't know anything about them.
Prostitutes might have horrible lives, but they have families too. They have friends too. Their deaths impacted the lives of other people too. You know, just because they weren't school teachers or accountants or something doesn't mean that their lives didn't have a value. So I was interested in exploring that aspect of it: how we deal with victims. How we perceive victims. And then the whole procedural aspect was interesting to me. Putting together a task force. How do you go about finding a killer? Where do you start? Where will it take you?
How much research did you do to get in the mind of the killers and the police officers for Ashes to Ashes?
A lot. And that's something that I really enjoy doing. I've done a great deal of reading on criminal psychology and the minds of serial killers and sexual psychopaths and so on.
It must have been disturbing.
Yeah: it was. Scary. Because you know those people are walking up and down the street. I spent a lot of time reading up on profiling and the techniques that the FBI use and interviewing people who do the jobs. I've got a good friend now at the FBI from having done the research on this book. He does profiling in the Minneapolis field office and also teaches at the national academy. I had an opportunity to sit down with some of the profilers and talk about cases.
Where are you from?
I'm originally from Minnesota. Now I live in Charlottesville, Virginia.
There's a softness to your voice that I wouldn't have pegged as Minnesotan.
No: I don't have a Minnesota accent. I watched too much television as a child, I think. Or something.
This book is set in Minneapolis.
Yes. This is the first book I've set in Minneapolis proper.
I've been reading some of the reviews of your work in general and you kind of get it from both sides. Because there are people that say -- and it's sometimes the same people -- well, she's a romance novelist and so, it's pretty romantic. But it's so morbid.
Yeah: it's true. You can please all the people all the time and some of them you can't ever please.
But the thing is, you're selling bazillions of books. I don't have sales figures, but bazillions seems pretty close. So you're pleasing a lot of people. I mean, people are buying it...
Well, always any association with romance and you're going to get slammed because people want to denigrate that genre. They think it's an easy target and they think that it's somehow -- you know -- not worthy of notice because it's about relationships. That it's somehow not valid. Kind of makes a commentary on our society when dealing with relationships is not a valid topic. So that always gets a slam. I just roll with it.
Was it a conscious switch?
It was a gradual progression in my work. I started adding bits of suspense to the romance back when I was doing little short romance books and as I grew as a writer and wanted to do bigger, more complex deeper stories that was the direction that was natural for me to go was to suspense.
And you like it?
I do. I love it.
So, like 20 romance novels and then five New York Times bestselling suspense novels?
And five New York Times bestsellers in 20 months! That's phenomenal.
It is. Apparently that hadn't happened before. I keep thinking that someone must have done that before, but, I guess not.
Did you write them that quickly?
No, in point of fact, I did not. I know it sounds like I'm just a machine sitting there and going, but that's not the case. What happened was Night Sins came out in hardcover. That was my first real suspense. And things started happening. It was made into a mini-series and everything just exploded. So then Bantam went back and in between new books they'd re-issue the romantic suspense books. I re-edited them to make them a little more geared to the suspense audience and a little less romance language. Because the language is quite different between the two. And then they repackaged them in more suspense-looking covers.
Who was in the first miniseries?
Valerie Bertinelli and Harry Hamlin. They did a really good job. It was really moody. It was really in keeping with the tone of the book. They changed things I wouldn't have, but of course: I wrote the book. But they did a really good job.
Do you get a lot of mail?
Well, I don't know how much mail other people get, but it seems like quite a lot. I had to answer a big stack of it before I left the other day so...
Has the tone of the mail changed since you changed genres?
Yeah: I have people who weed out the really crazies. And I get a lot more mail from men than I used to, which is neat. Hearing from male readers and hearing what they like about the books and what draws them to the books, so that's fun. And I get a lot more mail from police than I used to get. That's a great treat, to hear from cops. And they'll write and say, 'Oh you must have grown up in a family of cops,' or 'You must have been a cop, because you really nailed the details of the job, and the way cops interact and talk to each other,' and that's just really high praise for me.
And did you grow up in a family of cops?
No. I didn't. My dad sells life insurance.
So, you started out as a designer toilet seat salesperson in Minneapolis... tell me a bit about your background.
I come from a town of about 1000 people with no stop light. A little town in southeastern Minnesota. Grew up there, went to school there. Met my husband. Got married there. Had a lot of strange jobs. Trained show horses. I worked circulation in a newspaper. I was the only clerk/typist for a company that hired me knowing I could type 30 words a minute and half of them would have mistakes. I had a lot of strange little jobs like that, but what I always wanted to do was be a writer. I eventually got around to giving it a shot.
Do you have an educational background that prepared you for writing?
No. I never went to college. I meant to but I never got around to it. My husband had a year left of college when we got married and the deal was that I would support us while he finished school and then when he got a job I would go to school. But then when he got a job, he got a job in a town that didn't have a college, so it just didn't work out.
So you guys met in high school? High school sweethearts?
No! I have all I can do to manage myself.
So you have the horses?
Three right now. And I have a dog and I have a bunch of cats.
What was your first book?
My very first book was called The Trouble With J.J. It came out in 1988. It was a Bantam Loveswept. Short category romance.
How did it do?
It did well for them.
So, you were making a living as a writer with that novel?
It was officially my job by then. I had quit all my other -- quote unquote -- normal jobs by then. And that's what I was doing fulltime. You know, starting in category romance it takes a while before you are making enough to really be making a living at it.
What does your husband do?
He now works for me. He was a computer programmer for IBM for 17 years and now he deals with all the business stuff.
It was a place that I'd been years ago and really just fell in love with.
Lots of trails!
Yes: a super place for horses. Mild climate. Beautiful place, which was important to me because I sit and stare out that window quite a lot. I want something nice to look at. And life is too short for half of it to be winter when you're not a skier or a snowmobiler. If you're into winter sports it's one thing, but I don't like mucking those frozen stalls. It's a very moderate climate.
You're on an acreage?
I've got 70 acres. It very much resembles England: lots of big old estates and plantations. Horse farms.
Are your family and friends amazed at your success? Or did they know it was coming?
They're not surprised that I succeeded, but it's sometimes hard to reconcile with, you know: there I am with [former] President Bush and Mrs. Bush doing a reading at her literacy function. I had lunch at their house. And no one where I grew up would ever dream of having lunch at the house of the president. They just wouldn't.
When did you start getting a sense of that celebrity? Because, you know, that's fun. There you are, wanting to go to college and then selling toilet seats and now you're a star. When did you get a sense of that?
That really didn't sink in until everything started hitting the Times list and then everything was sort of bam, bam, bam and all this stuff was going on and people were saying, 'Well, how have you changed your life?' and I'm like, 'Well... not.' I hadn't changed anything because it just didn't compute yet. It's only just starting to. Well, it started to compute when I went and bought my dream car.
What was it?
A Porsche Carerra Cabriolet. So, I got to buy a really neat car.
Are you working on anything now?
Yes. It's a kind of spin-off of Ashes to Ashes. It's called Dust to Dust. That's the working title anyway. I always go through tortures with the damn titles.
It's fun, because we're talking a bit about your notoriety. Your fame. And yet, you go shopping and I guess people don't recognize you.
Not by sight. I usually get mistaken for somebody else.
Do you plot heavily in advance? Do you know where you're going to go?
I'm not an outline person. I'm not a plot-oriented person. It's all character driven for me. So what I do is I know the setup, I know the catalyst of the story and I'll have some ideas of where I want to go with it. But I pretty much turn the characters loose and let them run with it. And I just sort of fly by the seat of my pants. Because possibilities start opening up that I didn't see.
I've talked to a lot of crime fiction writers who figure out who did it and then sort of write the whole thing backwards. You know: very carefully plotted before the writing really gets going, but you don't do that?
I've tried going that route, but it just wasn't for me. I became very unhappy and I felt very confined by the outline and it wasn't fresh to me because I'd know who did it. I've now just gotten to used to thinking I know who the killer is going to be and then having that change half way through the book. That's not uncommon at all.
Do you write in longhand or on the computer?
I work entirely on the computer. I'm not really a draft writer, I polish as I go. So when I start out in the day I'll read back over what I wrote the day before and tinker and fuss and then jump off from there and write new stuff and then the next day go back. So when I reach the end of the book all I need to do is go back to the beginning and read it through once and do my final touches and it's done.
You work very fast.
Well, I used to. I don't work as fast now -- by any means. I became this complete workaholic. I used to average I'd say about 10 pages a day. Though that's when the books were not quite as complex as they are now. Now to hit a day when I accomplish that much is unusual.
But that's kind of delightful though. Because what I'm hearing is that you're feeling the need to be more than you were.
Yeah. I enjoy that part of it. Really making it complex and getting into the heads of the characters and having the luxury to work on the craft and work on the prose and concentrate on that aspect a little bit more.
When's your next book out?
They're talking about summer of next year . It's about Kovac the cop who is head of the task force until he gets kicked off.
I liked that character a lot.
I did too. He was great fun to write. That's sort of a little ploy on my part. 'If you were fun to write in this book, you're going to be fun to write!' | April 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.