by Ben Small
I tuned in to Imus in the Morning last week to watch his interview with my favorite author, John Sandford, he of the marvelous Prey police procedural series. As some of you know, Sandford's real name is John Camp. He won the Pulitzer in 1986 for a series of journalistic articles about a midwestern farm crisis, and has been writing best-selling thrillers ever since. His latest, Storm Prey, debuted as #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, as do all his books.
For a thriller writer, Sandford seems entirely too relaxed, a nice guy -- not that others, such as me, aren't -- and his books, while tense, suspenseful and thrilling, also have a laid-back attitude, dosed with plenty of humor and interesting side-materials, such as characters arguing as they're chasing down a brutal killer over the rankings of their top 100 all-time rock-'n'roll tunes. His protagonist, Lucas Davenport, a tough-guy cop with a soft soul, is rich, having made a fortune designing computer games. He drives a Porsche and wears designer suits, which he always seems to ruin. His wife, Weather, is a noted Minneapolis plastic surgeon, which may be a good thing, because Davenport or one of his subordinates almost always needs immediate medical attention.
I'd seen Sanford interviewed before, and he always seems like a polite, soft-spoken man, who in his spare time writes some of the best thrillers on the planet. I figured if anyone could break through and bring out some interesting facts about him, perhaps with a humorous flavor, it would be Don Imus.
It didn't work out that way. Sandford said he'd made a mistake marrying the former ladies-man Davenport to Weather. Davenport was a more interesting character when single, and Sandford writes mostly for women. So he's got to bump Weather off.
Imus, who admitted he hasn't and won't read any of Sandford's books -- he doesn't read fiction -- asked why he has to kill Weather, why not consider other alternatives? Sandford smiled and said, "No, I gotta kill her. That's the only way."
So Imus said, "What's your wife think about that? Are you married?"
Sandford hesitated, then said his wife died three years ago. He paused again and seemed to tear up a bit, then said, "I'm just about over it."
And then came the whammy. "You didn't kill her, did you?"
Sandford swallowed and his eyes watered. He said, "No... She died of cancer."
An awkward moment. A dead stop in the Imus studios. Nobody said a word, no quips from Bernie, Charles, Warner, Dagan, Jenna, Bigfoot, or the little guy in the control room. Uncomfortable. One of the few times I've seen Imus at a loss for words. Struggling to come up with something in an interview rapidly going downhill, he said, "What kind of cancer?" and made it worse.
"Breast," Sandford said softly. "It was bad."
Another pause, before Imus made the comment his audience no doubt was thinking. "Well, this interview is ending on a positive note, isn't it?"
The Imus staff came to his rescue, heaping deserved abuse on his shaggy locks. "Man, are you a jerk," Charles said. "You invite this nice man in here and then proceed to ask him all sorts of inappropriate personal questions. What the hell is wrong with you?"
Bernie chimed in with something similar, giving Sandford a much-needed breather, and finally Sandford managed a smile.
It was obvious that both Imus and Sandford were uncomfortable and that Imus felt bad about what he'd done. Recovering, they talked about Storm Prey, Sandford's latest, joked about running out of Prey title adjectives, and Imus asked about Sandford's writing methodology. He won Imus' heart even more when he said he writes with country music blaring in the background.
For a guy who loves beating up his guests with humorous insults, Imus clearly stepped into the poop during this interview. Sandford could have reacted with anger, but being every bit a gentle man, he handled himself with class and dignity. And Imus recovered well too, plugging Sandford and Storm Prey several times during the rest of his three hour program. He apologized several times for botching the interview and hurting a very nice man needlessly, admitted he had no idea why he'd asked such stupid questions, and he encouraged his staff to heap more abuse onto him.
John Sandford, a nice man and class act, a true writing talent who produces outstanding thrillers. I got a signed copy of Storm Prey the first day it was out, and read it in one sitting. I'd encourage anyone who enjoys thrillers to read his entire Prey series, from Rules of Prey to his twentieth, Storm Prey. And I recommend his other novels, too. They're all Best in Class.
I'm hoping John Sandford's next Lucas Davenport book will be entitled Imus Prey. And if I were Weather, Lucas Davenport's wife, I'd take a long, long vacation...