In conversation with award winning author, Keenan Powell

James:                  When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Keenan:               Writing has always been a part of my life. I was an avid letter writer in high school. In college, I majored in broadcasting which necessitated a lot of writing. Then law school. I’ve been practicing law since 1983 which means I write every day. So, when the idea struck me for my first book, DEADLY SOLUTION, I thought, “Why not?” Then when I couldn’t get past the third chapter because I had no idea what I was doing, I knuckled down and began my ongoing study of the art and craft.

James:                  Your journey seems like a very natural and logical progression.

James:                  What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Keenan:               Fear. Everyone has it, even the most seasoned and accomplished authors. Fear has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of what you’re producing. Fear is a function of internal processes. But you can use it to motivate yourself to study the art and craft.

James:                  Well put, Keenan, and very insightful. One of the biggest killers of productivity and success is fear.F.E.A.R. has two meanings: ‘Forget Everything And Run’ or ‘Face Everything And Rise.’ The choice is yours. Your attitude, not your aptitude will determine your altitude. Focus on things you can influence and set goals. A goal set is halfway reached.

James:                  Does a big ego help or hurt writers?

Keenan:               To be honest, it seems to be serving certain writers quite well. But I think in the long run, bluster will only get you so far. You have to produce. And the writers who do really well are, by and large, people who are genuinely motivated to participate in the writing community and support other writers.

James:                  Great advice, Keenan.
                              You can feed your ego or you can feed your family but you can’t do both. All writers should constantly be working to challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zones. This is not only because doing so makes you think in new ways that can inspire your storytelling, but also because stepping out of your comfort zone creates in you a sense of vulnerability thus forcing your ego out of the way.

James:                  How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

Keenan:               My third Maeve Malloy, HELL & HIGH WATER, was delivered to my publisher a few weeks ago with an anticipated release date in March 2020.  I’m currently polishing a first in a new historical series, yet unsold.

James:                  I know your readers are anxiously waiting.

James:                  What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Keenan:               Book Passages Mystery Writers Convention, without a doubt. This year, Steve Cavanagh will be one of the presenters. I’m missing it, sorry to say. Here’s the link: If you go, follow David Corbett around like a puppy dog. Everything that comes out of his mouth is a jewel.

James:                  Thanks for the recommendation, Keenan. I’m sure all the authors will appreciate your advice.

James:                  How do you select the names of your characters?

Keenan:               I selected the names for Native Alaskans by cruising through local government websites and local news sites. In HEMLOCK NEEDLE, some of my Yup’ik characters are Esther Fancyboy, Xander Alexi, and Ana Olrun. For DEADLY SOLUTION, I raided my family tree heavily. Maeve Malloy, my protagonist, was named for my maternal grandmother. Another character, Eli Coffer, is a name in my paternal line. For my third book, HELL & HIGH WATER, I auctioned off a name at the local library fundraiser and it was a lot of fun writing that character’s backstory.

James:                  It’s always interesting to learn the thought processes of other authors. You employ a very interesting and unique approach to character name generation.

James:                  Do you feel like it’s most important to have A) Strong characters B) Mind-blowing Plot twists or C) Epic settings?

Keenan:               Strong characters are a must. People respond to people. Without strong characters, plot twists can be cute and epic settings turn into landscape paintings.

James:                  Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Keenan:               That would be telling, wouldn’t it? It’s possible there are references that only the sophisticated popular culture junkie would pick up on.

James:                  How intriguing. What a great teaser, Keenan. You’ll have all your readers searching for your elusive secrets.

James:                  What does literary success look like to you?

Keenan:               An Edgar award, an Anthony award, a book a year, and retiring from the day job to write and market full-time. So far, I have an Agatha nomination, a Lefty nomination, a Silver Falchion nomination, a book a year, and holding on to the day job with both hands. But that’s pretty good for having only two books in print.

James:                  Congratulations, Keenan. Please keep up the excellent work.

James:                  What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Keenan:               For the first book, I wrote what I knew. My protagonist is a young criminal defense attorney in private practice defending a murder case. I was once a young criminal defense attorney in private practice defending murder cases! I also read everything I could find on the psychology of serial killers. For the second book, I borrowed on my experiences living, and practicing law, in Alaska. For the third book, I read a lot of background to get into touch with the psychology of my characters, again combined with my experiences. For the historical series set in the American Gilded Age, I’ve done a ton of reading because I’m not quite 150 years-old so I don’t remember this stuff from first-hand experience. I have bought, and read, books on the clothes, the mansions, the robber barons, and the labor movement. The idea for this series struck me when I visited Adams, Massachusetts, where my grandfather’s family settled after they left Ireland.

James:                  You don’t look a day over 24, Keenan.

James:                  Do you use any special writing software? If so what is it, and what are a few of your favorite perks of it?

Keenan:               I like Word because you can command it to read the text to you aloud and I find so many errors and awkward phrasings that way. All you need to do is go to the search window and type “Read”. Beneath it, one of the selections is “Read Aloud”. Pick that. It’s lovely.

                I bought Scrivener and played around with it but the book I’m working on is almost finished so breaking it up into chapters was cumbersome and I ended up putting it back into Word. However, I plan to put the finished product into Scrivener because it looks so much prettier than what I could produce on Word. While I’m waiting for the next idea to strike me, I’m going to feed my character bible and timeline into it, then start the next book in outline form there. Being able to move the scenes around with a point and drag function would be so helpful in the early drafts.

James:                  Great suggestions, Keenan. Thank you.

James:                  What behind-the-scenes tidbit in your life would probably surprise your readers the most?

Keenan:               I was one of the illustrators on the original Dungeons & Dragons. If it’s your thing, the cover of book two, a hippogriff, is my drawing. The drawings are painfully juvenile and one of them makes me laugh out loud now. It’s the genie who is supposed to be materializing in a cloud of smoke. Someone online said it looked like he was popping out of a corn cob and now every time I look at it, I can’t help but laugh. I got the job because Gary Gygax was my brother-in-law. In 1972, I went to visit the family in Lake Geneva at the Center Street house. He had just published Chainmail and had this idea for a fantasy game. I had brought my drawing tablet with me and showed him some of my work. And he said, “Can you draw a dragon?” “Pfft,” I said, “sure!” Then I went home and spent a week in the library looking at dragon images.

James:                  Wow! That is out of the ordinary.

James:                  What was the hardest part of writing your author bio?

Keenan:               Trying to be amusing and engaging in 75 words or less.

James:                  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Keenan:               Reading. If I had loads of time, I would play my pedal harp or paint. But mostly these days, I’m either at the law office or writing.

James:                  You are multifaceted and multitalented.

James:                  Do you read the kind of books that you write or do you tend to read books that are the opposite or different – and why?

Keenan:               I focus on reading books by crime authors whose writing style I would like to incorporate. Benjamin Black’s Quirke series describes characters’ physical features and movements with such sharpness that it takes my breath away. A couple of the Irish psychological thriller writers, Liz Nugent and Claire Allan, get inside characters’ heads with a depth that I wish I had. I’m currently listening to Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series focusing on the way she works tension into almost every sentence – not just using a sentence to build tension or juxtapose to another sentence to create tension – but actually molding every sentence with tension. It’s amazing.

James:                  What question do you wish that someone would ask about you or your book, but nobody has? What is your response to that question?

Keenan:               I was listening to Matt Coyle’s Crime Corner podcast the other day when I felt the urge to blurt out an opinion when the discussion rolled around to author’s voice. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to conferences where editors or agents opine that author’s voice is that undefinable thing – you just know it when you read it. Not quite true.

Author’s voice is definable. And you will know you have it when you get it.

Every person on the planet has a unique life, unique personality, unique perceptions, unique values, and a unique way of expressing themselves. Even if you had a twin you spent your whole life with, there will be subtle differences between your experiences, how you respond to what has occurred to you, and how you express it.

All this uniqueness combines into author’s voice. As a human being, you will perceive people and events through the lens of your history, your personality, and your values. When you take that unique perception and develop language, syntax, a rhythm, and word choice that feels right to you, you know you have author’s voice.

You shouldn’t be afraid of playing around with different ways of expressing yourself, that is how you will explore your voice. That which works will stick with you; that which doesn’t will fall away.

 By the way, I highly recommend Matt’s podcast.  He has a gift for asking insightful questions and inspiring conversation. Here’s the FB page:

Thanks for inviting me to your blog!

James:                  You’ve apparently given, “author’s voice”, a lot of careful thought. Your point is well taken and competently explained. Thank you, Keenan.

James:                  Pick one excerpt from one of your books you would like to share with readers.

Keenan:               This is the prologue from Hemlock Needle:

August 17, 2014
Kuskokwim River
Fancyboy Fish Camp

Esther Fancyboy draped another salmon carcass on a drying rack alongside a row of fish twisting in the breeze. Returning to the cutting table, she reached for another thirty-pound fish, chopped off its head and gutted it with a few flicks of her ulu. She tossed the head into a bucket, saving it for soup later. The guts went into another bucket for dog food. The scraps she dropped to two puppies panting near the table who caught them mid-air. Then she split the fish lengthwise, leaving the tail as a handle.

A river boat killed its motor and coasted up onto the beach a few yards away. The puppies trotted off to greet the boy and young man climbing out of the boat. Esther’s seven-year-old son, Evan, fell to his knees, let the puppies lick his face, then he ran up the hill with the puppies racing after him, just as generations of Yup’ik children before him had. This is good, Esther thought as she reached into the bucket at her feet for another fish.

Gordi, Esther’s nineteen-year-old cousin, dragged the boat up onto the beach, then climbed up to the cutting table. “Waqaa!” Gordi called.

“Waqaa, Gordi. You have grown.”

He was tall, lean, and strong, his skin darkened by sun. This was their first meeting this summer as, until yesterday, she had been in Anchorage where she and Evan now lived. She had taken two weeks off from her job, telling her boss that her aging mother needed help. He believed her.

Andrew Turner would not have understood what fish camp meant to Yup’iks. Being with her family, hauling in nets full of fish, living in a shed on the riverbank, cooking and eating outdoors, telling stories when the family gathered after a long day of hard work, the sunlight, the wind, the water. These were the things Yup’iks had shared for thousands of years passing their traditions on from one generation to the next. She was part of them. And they were part of her. And all this was Evan’s birthright.

Gordi watched Evan crest the hill, the puppies behind him, as he stood before Esther. “This morning I got curious.”

Esther cleaned another fish and carried it to the rack. She stood on tiptoe to drape each half of the fish over the cross beam leaving enough room for the sun and wind to whirl around them. In a few days, they would be dried, and could be packed away for the winter.

She returned to the table and picked up another fish. The puppies reappeared a respectful distance away and sat tentatively, their eyes trained on Esther.

“What did you do?” Esther said as she lifted the ulu. The puppies inched closer.

“I climbed on top of the water tank. I pushed the lid off.”

Gordi was a second-year engineering student at University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He had always been fascinated with how things work. Even as a little boy, he could be found at the elbow of some man peeking into the engine of a snow machine or boat.

Esther tossed the fish head into a bucket. “What did you see?”


The puppies scattered when the ulu fell from Esther’s hand.

James:                  Keenan, you’ve definitely piqued my curiosity in “Hemlock Needle”. I can’t wait to read it.