When Mike Lawson sat down to write his latest action-packed thriller Rosarito Beach he didn’t have much difficulty creating his heroine, DEA Agent Kay Hamilton. The storyline’s teenage girl, on the other hand, was a different story.
Zola: What made you decide to go with a female protagonist, DEA Agent Kay Hamilton, for your new series?
Mike Lawson: This book had an odd origin. I didn’t set about to write a book with a female protagonist or to start a new series. It just sort of happened. A television producer who likes the Emma character in my DeMarco novels – another strong female – asked me to consider working on a television show with a female lead. Instead, I ended up writing Rosarito Beach and never pursed the TV idea – but I liked the character and the story.
Zola: Was it a challenge to get inside her head?
ML: I didn’t have that much of a problem. I don’t know how it is with other writers, but once I give a character a “personality” – a background, a set of abilities, a certain attitude – then the character’s actions and dialogue proceed from that personality. I don’t know how readers will react to Kay; I do know that readers have liked the Emma character in my DeMarco novels. I will tell you one thing, however, but don’t want to say too much as that will tend to give away the plot. There’s a teenage girl in the novel and I really struggled with that character as I don’t have any real life, recent experience with teenage girls. I spent a lot of time talking to the mother of a teenage daughter to help me develop that character.
Zola: You depict a Mexican drug cartel so powerful it can launch an all-out military-style assault within the United States. Do you think that day is likely to get here anytime soon?
ML: Yeah, I think it’s possible. How soon it might happen, I can’t say. The situation I create in the book — a powerful drug cartel willing to pay and arm some local gangbangers to stage a prison break — is feasible because, like most problems, if you’re willing to throw enough money at the problem you’ll find someone willing to solve it. The difference between this country and Mexico — as I say in the book – is that for the most part law enforcement functions as intended in the United States. In Mexico – based on the body count and the stories in the news – law enforcement appears unable or unwilling to control the cartels. Whether that’s due simply to corruption or a more complicated set of political, economic, and social factors, I really don’t know. In the United States, however, if a drug cartel did what I portray in my novel – attacked a group of U.S. Marshals – then the reaction would also be as I portray in the book: a massive, overwhelming response from law enforcement. But keep in mind that Rosarito Beach is fiction and my goal was only to tell an entertaining story.
Zola: While researching the cartels, did you visit any of the really dangerous parts of Mexico?
ML: I really, really want to embellish this answer, to tell you about the night I met with a member of the Sinaloa cartel in a dark alley in Tijuana – but the truth is: No, I didn’t visit any dangerous places. I talked with a lot of folks, visited various places – like the brig at Camp Pendleton, the federal lockup in San Diego, the border region of Mexico — and did a lot of research in the usual way through documentaries, books, and internet articles, but I can’t pretend – as much as I’d like to – that I ventured into harm’s way to accomplish my mission.
Zola: Kay’s battle to take down the cartel becomes intensely personal when a new person enters her life. When you started writing the novel, did you already know how she’d attempt to resolve the crisis, or did you make it up as you went along?
ML: I made it up as I went along. I’m not a writer who outlines and I rarely know where I’m going when I start a novel. It was the same way with Rosarito Beach: I had an opening scene in mind, a clear image of the protagonist in my head, and a couple of key plot points – then I just went to work, inventing ways to ratchet up the tension, deciding how the bad guys would react to any move the good guys made, et cetera. To say it another way, I basically stumble my way through the first draft of a book then I back up and do a lot of rewriting until I’m satisfied the book is the best I can make it – then I send it to my editor who invariably improves it, as did the wonderful editor, David Rosenthal, who worked on
Zola: Kay’s other battle is with the various law enforcement agencies and bureaucracies that are constantly getting in her, and each other’s, way. Did your time as an executive with the Navy give you insight into these types of situations?
ML: Yes, definitely. The Navy is a large, complex organization – and all large, complex organizations are, by definition, bureaucratic. I also worked with a number of non-Navy organizations – both federal and private – which were also large, complex and bureaucratic. My experience was that most people I encountered were good people, smart people, people trying their best to do their job – but I also encountered people who were more interested in protecting turf and power than in doing what needed to be done. The other thing – and this is demonstrated in Rosarito Beach – is that different organizations have different missions and objectives, and the mission shapes the behavior of the organization. For example, in Rosarito Beach, Kay is only interested in arresting bad guys – that’s her job – but the federal judge she encounters has a different mission: upholding the Constitution which guarantees certain protections even for bad guys. So the real-life tension that often exists between bureaucracies makes for a better story and also allows the writer to have some fun.
Zola: Kay is genuinely concerned about career advancement—she wants that promotion. But she still just can’t seem to play the politics. Do you think she’ll get better at that part as the series evolves?
ML: I’m not sure I want her to get better at it. I kinda like Kay the way she is – and I’ve known people like her – people who genuinely want to advance but who are so autonomous and uncompromising that their bosses tend not to like them — and sometimes for good reason. I’m sure you’ve known people like this too, people who refuse to ‘go along to get along,’ and then end up being surprised when they don’t get promoted. But I like that aspect of Kay’s character. I like that Kay is flawed – that the reader sees the flaws – but that Kay doesn’t necessarily see them herself. I’ve always been fond of flawed heroes.
Zola: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
ML: I don’t like the word ‘favorite’ – but I’ll answer your question in a moment. I like all Indie bookstores – have never been in one I didn’t like – and I want to do whatever I can to make sure they survive in the current environment. Magnolia’s Bookstore in Seattle, Murder by the Book in Houston, Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Clues Unlimited in Tucson, and Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego are all stores that have been very generous to me by carrying my books and allowing me to do signings at their stores. But the store I’m most ‘beholden’ to is Seattle Mystery Bookshop. JB Dickey and the other sellers at the store have been the strongest supporters of my DeMarco books and continue to hand-sell my first novel, The Inside Ring, which was published way back in 2005. So is Seattle Mystery Bookshop my favorite store? Let’s just say it’s the one I owe the most to and will always be grateful to — not to mention that’s it’s a terrific bookstore for mystery/thriller readers.
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This article originally appeared on Zola Books.