By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, describing it as “Undoubtedly one of 2012’s greatest works of literary fiction.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with New York Times bestselling author Ben H. Winters, where we talk about The Last Policeman, the end of the world and the next two books in this exciting new trilogy!
Hello Mr Winters, thank you for your time and welcome to Alternative Magazine Online!
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
Oh, well, what would you like to know? I was born in Maryland but have lived in a bunch of different places; currently Indianapolis, Indiana, most recently the Boston area. Yours is a UK publication so I will note that my junior year of college I studied at Oxford, and had an amazing time. If any of your readers live there, I hope they will give my best to that marvellous place.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become a writer?
A long, long time ago.
What book would you say you are most well-known for?
Probably, at this point, The Last Policeman, because it’s gotten more press than most anything I’ve done. The great hope with each book, of course, is that it’s yet-better-received than the one before it. So hopefully if you ask me next year, I will tell you it’s the sequel to Policeman that is the book I’m best known for.
The Last Policeman was recently published by Quirk Books. How would you sum up the premise of the book?
The world will be destroyed by an asteroid impact in six months, but one police detective is determined, nevertheless, to solve a murder.
It’s one of those premises that’s so brilliant, I’m amazed nobody has ever thought of it before! Where did the idea for The Last Policeman come from?
Well, thanks. And I have no idea, really: ideas are strange things. I knew I wanted to write a detective story, and I knew I wanted it to play out in an unexpected, or unfamiliar milieu.
How would you describe the main character, Detective Hank Palace? What drives him to hunt for a killer when the rest of the world doesn’t give a damn?
I would say he is in love with his work, except it’s more than that – he is obsessed with his work. He believes deeply unquestioningly in the law, he believes in right and wrong, and he can’t see why anything, even a disaster of epic scope, should moot those values. Other people draw the fair conclusion that there’s something a little wrong with the guy, given that the world is crumbling around him, and he just plods forward on his little murder case.
The majority of the book is set in Concord, New Hampshire. What made you decide to make this Detective Palace’s hometown?
My brother and his family live there, so I know the city pretty well and I feel a real affinity for it. Narratively, it felt right: I wanted Palace to be neither a small-town rural cop, nor a big-city NYPD kind of cop. He’s an ordinary workaday policeman in an ordinary workaday city, like thousands of others across America and around the world. The book, in part, is about how such a place handles the end times.
Although the premise of the book is obviously a work of fiction, there is a firm sense of reality and realism present throughout. How much research was involved when writing The Last Policeman?
A great deal. I needed to read a lot and make a lot of phone calls to really get my head around it all: meaning the asteroid science, but also the crime aspects. There’s a lot of forensic science in there, a smattering of ballistics and drugs, and of course the parts about actuarial science and the insurance business. I think a novelist worth his or her salt wants to get these kinds of details right – even if a reader doesn’t exactly know when something is fakey-wakey, they can sense it.
What would you do if you knew the world would be ending in six months?
Be with my children. Eat delicious things. Read a lot of books. People keep asking me this question, and I keep apologising that I don’t have a better answer.
What would you say are the main themes of the novel?
Moral behaviour. The inevitability of death, and what to do about it. How true character is revealed through adverse circumstances.
The supporting characters are all fully formed and beautifully written – you never really know what anyone is thinking apart from Detective Palace. Would you like to think that the majority of people are inherently good rather than evil?
Thanks so much – I love these characters.
If you’re asking about the majority of people in reality, I think yes, inherently good, sure. If you mean the majority of the characters in this novel, I’d have to count to give you a proper answer, but I think, yeah, most of them are good people, though many have been knocked off their moral compass by current difficulties.
Would you say that The Last Policeman is a pessimistic or an optimistic book?
Optimistic. 100% so. I allow goodness not only to survive, but to thrive, in the darkest times. (Actually, I take that back; it gets a lot darker in the sequel. But Palace soldiers on).
What genre – if any – would you say the novel belongs to the most?
The Last Policeman is the first book in a planned trilogy – what can you tell us about the next book?
It takes place just three months before the asteroid hits, and puts Hank Palace on a missing-person investigation. He leaves Concord and is on the road a lot more than in the first book. The new case plays out against a backdrop of simmering civil unrest, coupled with a massive immigration problem, as people from the Eastern hemisphere (where the asteroid will impact) flee for the West, in a (probably futile) effort to maximise chances of survival.
Do you already have the plots of the next two books figured out then?
More or less.
Quirk Books put together a wonderful ‘film trailer’ for The Last Policeman – would you like to see the book adapted as a feature film at some point in the future?
I wouldn’t say no, of course! But we actually have a television deal, so if things line up right you’re more likely to see Detective Palace et. al. on the small screen. They’re discussing all sorts of interesting ways of playing out this necessarily time-limited story as episodic television. I’ll let you know if and when things move forward.
You mention in the ‘Thank You’ section of The Last Policeman that former NASA astronaut and asteroid expert Rusty Schweickart suggested that you should take on “the vastly more likely scenario of a sub-apocalyptic but still devastating impact.” What made you decide to go against this advice?
What he’s talking about is the much more likely prospect of a smaller asteroid that would wipe out one or two cities, or land in the ocean and cause epic devastation along one coast. It just didn’t suit my narrative purposes the same way: to get the effect I wanted, what my friend Nick called “existential noir,” I needed my detective, and the world around him, to be dealing with the impending death of all and everything.
In my review of The Last Policeman, I described it as: “Undoubtedly one of 2012’s greatest works of literary fiction.” How have you found the overwhelmingly positive response from both reviewers and readers?
I’m delighted you liked it so much. And the write-ups have been pretty positive on the whole, for sure. Slate.com and Amazon both put it on their 2012 best-of lists. Some folks felt there was too much emphasis placed on the mystery, and not enough on the crumbling world, and I can respect that opinion. It’s just that, unfortunately for those readers, Detective Palace sees the end of days largely as an impediment to the smooth forward progress of his investigation. That’s why I love him.
What’s next for you Mr Winters?
Working on the sequel, then the third one, and then I’ll dig up out of my burrow and figure out what comes next.
Thank you for your time! The Last Policeman is one of the best books I have read in years and is by far my favourite book of 2012. I can’t wait to read the next book in the trilogy!
I really, really appreciate it, Martin. My best to you and your readers. Thanks for reading the book.