Note: This q-and-a contains mild spoilers for ‘Hailey’s War.’

Hailey Cain is 23 as Hailey’s War opens. Why such a young protagonist?

That has its roots in how the success of 37th Hour changed my life. When I first had the idea for the Sarah Pribek novels, I was 29 and working full-time in a newsroom, a disciplined, deadline-oriented environment. Most of the people I worked with were in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. I created a world for Sarah that was similar. She worked in law enforcement, a hierarchal world with clear rules (even if she broke them sometimes).

Then I sold 37th Hour and made enough money to quit my newsroom job. I bought my first home, a condo in a complex full of college students, just up the hill from San Luis Obispo’s downtown core, where those students drank and partied. I didn’t party, but with no job, I could live more or less like a student, staying up late and sleeping until noon. Then I’d write, or not (there was a lot of ‘not,’ in those days). Late in the afternoon, I’d go out to the MMA gym by the university and train.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d crash-landed on the Planet of the Young. I overheard their drunken revels and arguments and fights. Their Kanye West and Gnarls Barkley drifted from car windows. They were my training partners at the gym. I didn’t realize how much this was affecting me until I sat down at 36 and wrote a book in which no major character is over 25.

Sounds like those years were a real blast.

My British editor said the same thing, after I told her I wrote Hailey’s War in seven weeks, fueled by the excellent takeout to be had in San Luis Obispo: Moroccan kebabs and mint tea; Japanese gyoza and black sesame ice cream. (Five days a week of MMA training will support a lot of calories). But like a lot of things that look like fun from the outside, those days were really pretty unhappy. Hailey was the one good thing that came out of them.

The book starts out with Hailey doing an offhand analysis on the biblical book of Jonah. Is this any way to start a crime novel? Isn’t somebody supposed to get shot and fall dramatically through a window in the first few pages?

To be fair, the prologue is about somebody getting shot – Hailey herself. Then the story jumps back nine days to her life in San Francisco, where she’s talking about the prophet Jonah. At the very end of the book, you find out why Jonah is important: he has important parallels to Hailey.

The root of that opening is this: I used to keep a Bible near my desk with my other reference books. During the long period in which I wasn’t writing very much or very well, I’d sometimes pick up the nearest book and start reading. That’s when I read the book of Jonah and realized, Hey, this is not the cute Sunday-school story that people think it is. Jonah volunteers to jump overboard in the middle of a storm; he doesn’t even seem upset about it. Later, he’s goading God, the powerful white-beard figure of the Old Testament. This is after God gives him a three-day timeout in the belly of a fish.  It seems terribly risky. You could actually make a case that Jonah wanted to die, that he was suicidal. At the least, he seems inexplicably fearless.

This is also, sidebar, why I get frustrated with atheists and humanists who won’t even touch a Bible, like reading a single verse is instantly going to turn them evangelical. They’re missing a lot. The Bible is a lot more than a morality handbook for Christians and Jews.

Speaking of moral rules, Hailey has a special feeling for her cousin CJ that modern-day American culture frowns on. Toward the end of the book, she says that a lot of her heroics have been an attempt to burn off the frustrated energy ‘of not being able to have him.’ Admittedly, CJ is hotter than a tree on fire, but weren’t you afraid of an adverse reaction from readers?

One thing I learned from my Hailey’s War research is that globally and historically, marriage between cousins has been the norm, not the exception. Even in America, marriage between cousins is legal in more than 30 states.

None of that helps Hailey and CJ, of course. Which is why, if the series continues, I can’t tell you whether the Hailey-CJ relationship will ever be consummated. Readers of Thieves Get Rich, Saints Get Shot probably figured out that I was positioning Joel Kelleher as a love interest for Hailey. Even so, I’m not sure to this day what Hailey’s romantic endgame should be.

Other than life on the Planet of the Young, what inspired Hailey Cain? Were there books, movies or TV shows that influenced you?

The main one is “House, M.D.”  I explain that connection in an essay called “House, Holmes and Hailey: or, Why I consider Sherlock Holmes the grandfather of Hailey Cain,” which is elsewhere in the Reading Room.

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