The brand new Sean Stranahan mystery is here!

99 Keith McCafferty

I have been a fan of Keith McCafferty’s since his first book, The Royal Wulff Murders (each mystery in the series is named after a fly fishing tie), so it is a huge thrill for me to have him on the show. We had a great chat about Montana, six-toed cats, mountain lions, book research and more.

If you haven’t read Keith’s Sean Stranahan books, you’re in for a treat! The Bangtail Ghost is book eight in the series and is released on 18 August 2020. The books are all beautifully written, with rich, compelling characters, interesting settings and mysteries.

In the interview, Keith and I mention his son Tom who is a painter and who inspired Sean Stranahan’s work as an artist. You can see Tom’s incredible paintings here on his website and also here at the Cole Gallery in Seattle.

This week’s mystery author

Keith McCafferty

Keith McCafferty is the Survival and Outdoor Skills editor of Field & Stream and the author of eight novels in the Sean Stranahan mystery series, published by Viking/Penguin Books. He is the recipient of the Will Rogers Gold Medallion Award and the Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Novel, among many other awards. Two of his novels were chosen as Best Reads by Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine.  

Keith is a two-time National Magazine Award finalist and the recipient of the Robert Traver Award for angling literature. For years he made a living with his flyrod, writing stories for Field & Stream. A wild bird rescue volunteer, Keith lives with his wife and family, and various feathered friends, in Montana.

To learn more about Keith and all his books visit KeithMcCafferty.com

Press play (above) to listen to the show, or read the transcript below. Remember you can also subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts. And listen on StitcherAndroidGoogle PodcastsTuneIn, and Spotify.

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Keith McCafferty interview transcript

Alexandra Amor: The previous book, A Death in Eden, was inspired by controversy about copper mining.

Keith McCafferty: The Black Copper mine proposed for the summit for the SmithGroup. Yeah. 

Alexandra Amor: So what inspired this one, The Bangtail Ghost?

The Bangtail Ghost

Keith McCafferty: I think it’s the power of nature and man’s reaction when he realizes that he isn’t the apex predator.

Starting with my first book, I always tried to paint a smaller human scale story against a larger backdrop issue, whether it’s wolf reintroduction, whether it’s Ernest Hemingway, who casts a large shadow and who plays a big role in Coldhearted River.

But I’m not wedded to that. I’d probably won more awards for Crazy Mountain Kiss than any of my books. And yet that’s just a human story. It has no larger story.

I’ve always been fascinated with cats all my life. And even to the point of traveling to India a few years ago to see tigers in an area where I’d wanted to go since I was a little boy.

And so I wanted to put a big pussycat into one of my books. I’ve also had the good fortune or misfortune of running into seven mountain lions. And one of them, two of them actually stood me off for quite a while one night growling at me. And I could have read you the very first chapter of the book, which is literally what happened to me, except it happens to Sean Stranahan.

So I’ve always felt that the big cats have sought me out. I’ve had very few run ins with grizzly bears, even though I spent a lot of time, it feels like, in bear country, but I seem to run into the big pussycats wherever I go.

Alexandra Amor: Wow. That is lucky isn’t it? Because they’re quite secretive, aren’t they?

Keith McCafferty: They’re the ghost cat.

I was fortunate that the man who is really the most important researcher of mountain lions, Jim Williams, who studied mountain lions from Glacier Park all the way down through and Chile and Argentina reads my books.

And so I was able to run, you know, quite a bit of stuff past him.

Alexandra Amor: We talked about a little bit at the beginning, when I was reading your bio, about your past writing for Field and Stream and the outdoor articles.

What is your preference, writing fiction or nonfiction?

Keith McCafferty: Fiction as of now. It’s interesting, it’s all writing, but they’re different.

I always say that journalism magazine writing is driven by the declarative sentence, with or without subclauses. Whereas fiction is driven almost entirely by dialogue and character and humor.

I try to put a lot of humor in my books. And so, I was what you’d call a thoughtful and hopefully an elegant writer for Field and Stream and got national magazine awards for it. And I thought, well, that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at this thing.

And then when I started to write the novels and found out it was all character and dialogue, I realized that came more naturally to me.

And really, I had an affinity for that. And if somebody told me that five or 10 years before I would have looked at them funny. So when people tell me, well, I could never write a novel or never do this. And some books, you don’t know till you try it, because I certainly found that I found my calling in the sense, in a little bit unexpected way,

I’d always wanted to write novels, but for financial reasons it was important to write for the magazines. I had two kids in college and I was able to write an awful lot of magazine articles during the mini golden age of magazine writing, which is not there anymore.

So in a strange way, I traded a job where they tell you it’s difficult to make a living for one where they assure you it’s impossible: writing novels.

But in a way I transitioned at the right time and at least now there’s no ceiling. I can still go up hopefully. Who knows.

Alexandra Amor: Do you still occasionally write journalism? 

Keith McCafferty: I do. And I do it for several reasons. One is just to make money because some magazines like Field and Stream paid very well. And a large part of it is I like to keep my hand in and write longer, thoughtful pieces, longer narratives, but still, very short compared to a novel.

And the reason is when you’re writing the novel, it’s so difficult for me. And there’s always a little voice in your ear telling you, I don’t care that you’ve done this before. You can’t do it again. You’re too old. Your mind doesn’t work as well as it used to. And because it just takes so long, it weighs on you.

So I find that if I undertake a longer thoughtful or a good magazine piece, then I can do it, off and on working in a couple of weeks or whatever. And then people tell me, Oh, it’s very good or whatever. Well, that gives you, you realize, well, that’s just sort of like a little piece of construction, but it gets you, when you go back to the novel, you feel a little bit lightened like, well, I can do this.

It’s supposed to be hard, you know? So I think it’s important. And I also think that all the disciplines feed into each other, that if you become a better magazine writer, I’m a better magazine writer because I’m a novelist. And I think it’s the other way around as well.

I really think that any form of writing helps the others and I never disparage somebody because they write magazine pieces or romance or whatever. You can take all the skill you have to any discipline like that. And in a way, some of the genre fiction is more difficult because you’ve got to to make a world up, right? 

Alexandra Amor: I was scrolling through your Facebook posts last night when I was preparing for our interview. In April last year, you went with biologist, Julie Cunningham looking for a sheep whose collar had been giving a distress signal.

I wondered if you learned anything that day that really surprised you or what that was like for you?

Keith McCafferty: Yeah. And, you know, I did it as research for this book because I was going to have to know how to do GPS tracking as well as radio telemetry and it was interesting. We found where four sheep and two mule deer had been caught in an avalanche and were killed.

And that’s why the collar was in was giving a fatality alert. Julie said the number one killer of adult Bighorn sheep in that particular area is mountain lion. The second is avalanche. I knew that the big pussycats prayed on sheep, but not to that extent.

Julie’s quite a character. She’s in my books. She’s Judy McGregor in my books. I have several people who I trust not to sue me like Georganne Wilkerson is a good friend of mine. And I stole my best friend’s name. Ethenger her real name’s Edinger. I just liked doing that, but you can get in trouble doing that because when you’re writing you can’t find a name well, as you know, the average novel has between like 50 and 80 names.

That’s a lot of names. So you use a name as a placeholder and I’ll often use a name from my past. And then after you’ve read it three or four times, if it seems like it belongs there and it could slip in and you could be sued by somebody who doesn’t like it.

I got an email once it said Debbie Rousch class of 71. Remember me? That was it. That’s pretty terse. And I thought, Oh, darn it. I had used her name as a placeholder in a book and not in a particularly good way. And I must have left it in there. I was so panicked. I didn’t even know what book it was in. I finally found it and realized I had changed it.

I hadn’t gotten into trouble after all. She was just her way, that short little thing and we sort of reconnected, which is interesting because as a writer, you’re sort of as a public person and people from your past get a hold of you. It’s quite interesting. And to me, it’s all positive.

Not like that many people do, but soI reconnect with people that I haven’t seen for 40, or maybe even 50 years. Which dates me. 

Alexandra Amor: Now, one other thing I wanted to ask you, based on Facebook.

I noticed that Joe’s Cafe or coffee shop comes up quite often in your posts and you refer to Sarah Greg.

Keith McCafferty: She’s my writing partner, just because it’s nice to have somebody across from you, even though we don’t work together. She works on her stuff, I work on mine. I’ve worked off and on with her for about eight years.

But, do you know, once I had a couple who came out from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and I’ve given acknowledgement to Joe’s and some of the baristas. They drove all the way out to Montana, not just to see me, but partly, and they come in the coffee shop and they find me and say, “Are you Keith McCafferty? We just drove all the way, seriously.” And I said yes. So that was sort of fun.

My books are largely set in very real locations, but occasionally I fictionalize stuff. I have people who come out here and they try to find all these places. Like a couple from Knoxville, Tennessee, and they’ll come out, they call themselves literary stalkers, and they’ll stalk me until they find out where I live.

Alexandra Amor: And so at Wild Joe’s you guys are sitting across the table from each other writing and you take your laptop.

So you’re able to write in public? I’ve never been able to do that.

Keith McCafferty: Well, of course, today is everything has changed. I’m not writing in public anymore, but they’ll tell you, when that empty nest syndrome kick in, if you have children. I had two children and I can tell people it kicks in the day that your youngest child goes off to college. You come home aand that house feels empty. And even though I’ve got a six toed cat, and sometimes it’s a snake or whatever, it’s quiet.

I like to work anywhere, but home and I’d work in the coffee shops early in the morning, and then I’d hike with my computer to a little covered bridge over a creek and sit there with the river underneath me and work there, or work in my backyard where I have my duck palace, where I used to raise birds.

For my birthday, my wife got me an espresso maker, so I can work out here. So I work out in the backyard. That’s where I work. 

Alexandra Amor: I think I’ve seen pictures of you out there, especially when you were raising that flock of birds, that the bird nest.

Keith McCafferty: Yeah, that was my second entourage of birds.

Alexandra Amor: We’re just about out of time. So let me ask you one final question. I wanted to talk about just briefly about your son, Tom. He’s a painter. Gorgeous paintings. I went to his website. They’re just absolutely amazing.

I’m assuming that Sean’s work as a painter is a little bit inspired by Tom.

Keith McCafferty: That’s right. And I thought also if I have Sean be a painter, then I have an expert to consult with any time: my son. I wanted to be a painter too, but they say that kind of talent skips a generation and it seems to be true.

My mother and my wife’s mother, were both artists. My son is a very fine artist, as you know, I’m not quite so good. I almost talked the girl into letting me paint her in the nude in college. She was a gymnast and but she demanded to see examples of my work. And after she saw an example of my work, she declined.

Alexandra Amor: I will put links in the show notes too, of course, to your website and to Tom’s as well. Because I think people should have a look at that as well.

Keith McCafferty: And also, he’s represented by the Cole gallery in Seattle. So if people just go to Cole gallery, Seattle and type in Tom McCafferty, or you’ll find it very easy to find, and they may have a better representation of his paintings in a way for people to see maybe better than what’s on his own website. I don’t know.

But yeah, that would be great. Occasionally he sells big paintings to people who live in places here, five by seven feet long, big things.

Alexandra Amor: Well, this has been amazing Keith. Thank you so much for talking to me today.

Why don’t you let everybody know where they can find out more about you and your books? 

Keith McCafferty: I have an author page at Facebook, which is just Keith McCafferty, but then my website is keithmccafferty.com.

And The Bangtail Ghost will be out tomorrow, Tuesday, August 18th, 2020. So people can have a look for that and it’ll be in all the. Online stores and any sort of bookstores near them. If bookstores are open at that point. I’m doing more of these virtual events right now.

Rick Holmes, a Broadway and Hollywood actor who does my audiobooks, that should come out shortly after the publication. We don’t know yet. We have to work around his schedule. And that’s a laborious process too. Recording an audio book.

Alexandra Amor: Well, thank you again so much. 

Keith McCafferty: Thank you, Alexandra. It’s great talking to you.