Please welcome Lori Armstrong as she talks about her
new series featuring Mercy Gunderson!
Lori Armstrong started her illustrious writing career of suspense/thriller novels with a series featuring the indomitable Julie Collins, an independent woman who has definite ideas between right and wrong, many of which might cause most to pause. And now with her new series featuring a heroine with just as much strength and attitude, but whose approach might be considered just a bit more forceful, she again shows that she has what it takes to be a successful creator of heroines worthy as any those that the authors of the best in Noir fiction have created.
NMR: Tell us a bit about your new heroine, Mercy Gunderson.
LA: Mercy Gunderson is a former covert ops army sniper, which tells a lot about the type of person she is. Independent. Focused. Methodical. Cool-headed. Able to follow orders with no problem. Mercy was raised on a ranch in western South Dakota, and had no intention of sticking around after seeing all the sacrifices her family members made over the years to sustain those ties to the land. She joined the army at age eighteen, and never looked back. But now, after twenty years in service to Uncle Sam, she’s been injured in Iraq, her father has died and left her in charge of this enormous ranch that’s been in her family for over 100 years. So she’s back in South Dakota, trying to figure out what to do with her life, now that she’s no longer a soldier. Mercy is a bit of a loner, she likes to drink, she likes to shoot stuff, she really doesn’t give a damn what others think of her, which makes her the type of character I can really sink my teeth into because I honestly don’t know what she’ll do next.
NMR: No doubt you have many fans that will be pleased with this new series, but who might be wondering why you’ve left Julie Collins behind. What would you like to say to them regarding that?
LA: I’d already finished writing NO MERCY by the time the 4th Julie Collins book, SNOW BLIND released in 2008, and as I wrote that book, I knew it’d be the last one in the series. Forever? I honestly don’t know. It’s the last one for now because of business issues with publishing. Since I was starting a new series, with a new publisher, I had to leave Julie in a good enough place that if I never got back to her, I’d be happy with where she ended up.
NMR: After the onslaught of the many “cozy” novels that come out this time of year featuring female characters who are heavily into knitting and cookie baking, it’s refreshing to meet one whose idea of fun is shooting at things, inanimate or not. Have you ever felt that creating a female character with such untraditional female characteristics would be a risk when it comes to the typical female reader, or do you think that readers, gender aside, are all now ready for a woman with balls of steel, so to speak?
LA: To be honest, I’ve found readers are very gender biased toward tough female characters and also they’re harder on female writers who pen those types of characters, than they are on male authors. They’ll “forgive” life-hardened, strong, determined male characters more often than they will women characters who’ve been kicked around by life and exhibit the same take-no-prisoners, take-no-shit attitude. A male character who swears, enjoys sex, likes to drink, has killed people, has a personal code of honor that might not be entirely legal…those male characters are lauded and called noir – whereas a female character who acts that way is called everything from unrealistic, to trashy, to…pick your unflattering adjective. It can be frustrating as hell. In one panel I was on I was asked what I do to purposely “soften” my female characters, which I took a little offense to. My characters do have a soft side, but I’ll bet no one has ever asked that question of Lee Child about Jack Reacher. But I have to give props to the women writers like Grafton, Paretsky, Muller, who’ve paved the way for those of us who like to write and read about females who live on the fringes of society.
NMR: In looking back at my previous questions, it’s obvious that I, too, have fallen victim to stereotypical language and gender roles. Is this something you battle with, either internally, or perhaps, externally, when writing for your reading public?
LA: I turn off any inner critic when I’m working and just tell the story. I let the characters be who they are, warts, bad traits, bad choices, rough language, drinking problems, family issues, vulnerability and all. And yes, I’ve taken hits for the strong language in my books, but it doesn’t affect how I write. I’m writing about murder, the absolute worst thing that one human being can do to another. It’s not neat, it’s not pretty, and although I do tie it up at the end of the book, I absolutely will not homogenize the situations because I fear a reader might be offended. They should be offended. Murder is a horrible, horrible thing. The language I choose to use to describe it and a character’s reaction to it should reflect the character in the book, not what the reader thinks is acceptable language. But I’ve had readers—and to be completely blunt they’re always female readers—contact me and say they’ll never buy another one of my books because the language offends them. If I start worrying about that offense factor I’d never write another word.
NMR: While your personal bio is brief, you do share that you’ve spent time around a gun or two. How did this influence your character development?
LA: I know just enough about firearms to be dangerous, and to know who to ask to get the answers I need. My husband owns a firearms business, so I’m lucky in that I have a gun expert at my fingertips. In MERCY KILL, one of the guns Mercy carries is a Kahr Arms P380, and I was so enamored with this little gun, that my husband bought me one.
It’s a little different, living in the West, or even the Midwest, where access to guns isn’t a big deal. When I was growing up, my grandfather, who was a South Dakota farmer, always had two loaded shotguns by the front door of the porch. We didn’t think anything of it because that was just the way it was. And none of us (the grandkids) were dumb enough to mess with his guns, not because we saw them as dangerous—which they were—but because we knew we’d get into trouble if Grandpa caught us touching his guns. So I wanted to explore that mindset a little bit, on the flip side, addressing the dangers, in regard to Mercy’s sister Hope, who as a young child accidentally kills her best friend because of that same laidback attitude—and easy access—to guns. And to some extent, that scene also addressed the culture of violence we live in, where from a very young age, kids are exposed to cartoon characters that get shot in the head, or run over, or blown up, and then in the next frame, that same character is up racing around like nothing happened. How Hope and Mercy dealt with that tragedy, really influenced the type of woman they became and their attitudes toward guns. Another thing I wanted to do with this character is showcase a woman who’s unapologetically good with firearms and has been since the first time she picked one up. I know many women like this, who are excellent shots, excellent hunters, whose fathers spent as much time teaching them to shoot as they did the boys in their family, and these women enjoy hunting, guns and shooting as much as men do.
NMR: A subject that is addressed in your new series, as in the old, is the plight of Indians in America and their difficulty in preserving their traditions while attempting to assimilate into the “American” way of life. This is a situation that you deal with quite frankly with no holds barred, with the many issues that exist dealt with compassionately and with passion. Who owns this issue, and who has the responsibility of fixing it, if that’s a question that can even be answered?
LA: Tough question. I don’t sugarcoat anything in my books. Even though they’re fiction, I have to live here and deal with any repercussions about what I’ve written about, especially if I embellish local issues, so I try to be as honest as possible without judgment. And the truth is, I wish someone—anyone—would address these serious issues plaguing the Native population in my state. It seems to keep going on and on and very few positive changes are ever made that I can see.
NMR: Your novels detail South Dakota a great deal; why did you choose to make this part of the country such a vocal part of your stories?
LA: The research is easy because I live here! Seriously, I love this place I call home and I want readers to see it/experience it through the eyes of someone who loves it—but at times hates it too. This is rugged country, with tenacious people who’ve tried to tame it. That fascinates me and I try to pass that fascination onto the reader. I’m fourth generation South Dakotan and I’m constantly amazed by this area, because just when I get cocky and think I know everything about this state and the people who inhabit it, I discover something that proves I have a whole lot of preconceptions/misconceptions of my own, and I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do. It’s humbling.
NMR: In your first series, romance (so to speak) was a definite part of your character’s world; in your new series, it’s secondary at best. Is this because you didn’t want that to get in the way of your main character’s strength, or because it might be a distraction, or something else altogether?
LA: There is romance in this series, although it’s a little more subtle because Mercy Gunderson has been in a different life situation than Julie Collins. Mercy has spent her adult life surrounded by men in the military and she understood from a very early age that a sexual relationship with any of these soldiers could not only harm her military career, and destroy her reputation, but she literally needs to be able to count on them to watch her back in combat situations. Whereas Julie always seemed to be in a bad intimate relationship, but that never stopped her from jumping headfirst into the next one. Mercy has issues with Sheriff Dawson from the first time she meets him. It isn’t that she doesn’t trust him as a man; she doesn’t trust him to do his job as an officer of the law. Although she’s very attracted to him, she’s not sure she respects him, and that’s more important to her in a relationship than anything else. Especially since Dawson was handpicked by her late father—the former sheriff—as his replacement until elections are held.
NMR: If you had the chance to give little girls around the world one piece of advice, what would it be?
LA: Don’t be afraid to be strong—to feel it and to show that side of yourself to others.
NMR: And finally, what can fans hope for next from your characters?
LA: The second book, MERCY KILL, will release in trade paperback on January 11th, 2011, and I’m thrilled it’s gotten great reviews so far. I’m working on the third book in the series, DARK MERCY, which will be out in 2012.
For more information on Lori and her two hard-hitting
series, please visit her at: