Silver Seven interviews Michael McKinley, author of The Penalty Killing (part two)

GLENDALE AZ - OCTOBER 16: The Detroit Red Wings celebrate after Niklas Kronwall #55 scored the game winning power play goal in overtime against the Phoenix Coyotes during the NHL game at Jobing.com Arena on October16 2010 in Glendale Arizona. The Red Wings defeated the Coyotes 2-1 in overtime. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Late last week I posted the first half of my interview with Michael McKinley about his book, The Penalty Killing, and about other things in the hockey world. In this second half of the interview, we talk about homosexuality in professional hockey, a sub-theme in his book, as well as a bit about his writing and the process.

*****

Silver Seven: Not to give too much away, but another trend that you deal with is homosexuality in professional hockey. I don't think either of us will try and make a claim that there hasn't been a gay player in the NHL, but there hasn't been an openly gay one, and I'm curious what you think about that, and what you think it might take for the NHL to get to a point where that sort of thing might be acceptable?

Michael McKinley: It's really strange. I feel so badly for Brian Burke's loss of his son, who as you know was killed in a car accident earlier this year, who was gay. And out as a gay hockey manager in college. But had he shown talent as a GM and moved up to the NHL, that would have been amazing, because he would have come already ‘that way'; there would have been nothing to out and that would have changed some perceptions.

I still think that there's still a throwback attitude when it comes to so much that governs hockey. I mean, look how long it took them to deal with head shots. Of course there are gay hockey players, and there are lots of gay fans, and if you look at the schedule at Chelsea Piers near New York, or any league anywhere in North America that has a hockey culture, there are gay hockey teams who go play in the gay games every year. People play games, and people come in all stripes.

A character, or a player of the stature of-and I want to make it clear, I'm not saying Alexander Ovechkin is gay-but say he was, and say he decided to come out, he could probably get away with it because he's such an outside character. He can back it up on the ice, if you will, but I don't think other guys would come after him for that because I think right now, players in the league know who is gay and I don't think that that is an issue for them. Especially for this generation.

[...]

I think it would have to be a player of superstar stature to do it, because I think if a journeyman player did it, it could be career-ending. Or it could be the kind of thing that, if you did it on the wrong team, say you had a GM who was a real homophobe, for instance, then away you go. For some other trumped-up reason. And you might not know that as a journeyman player, that your GM was that until he did it, and then he would say, ‘So-and-so outing himself has been too much of a media distraction, we have to get him out of here.' They love that media-distraction thing.

Tangentially, Shane O'Brien just left the Vancouver Canucks, and with his departure, we find out that he, last year, missed practice after he slept in after staying at the Rocky Nightclub way too late, with his friends Jack Daniels and Jim Bean. He liked a good time, well, he's in his early 20s, he's making a lot of money, and he's in a congenial city that's certainly happy to facilitate a good time if you want one. But of course, that didn't come out until he goes, and even then there was all kinds of parentheses around it, that it was secret, that it was to stay in the room. He was outed by a coach, essentially, when Alain Vigneault made a big deal out of it. O'Brien never would have, and what's in the room stays in the room. That culture of what-happens-in-the-room-stays-in-the-room is an interesting one, especially in the light of HBO going into locker rooms and bringing it out, and now we're going to see that, right before the Winter Classic. But I wouldn't see another player outing another player.

In the women's game, it's commonplace-we almost expect it. In women's sports, as well, it's one of the stereotypes attached to women's sports. Baseball, football, have had guys who used to play come out. Pro soccer in England had a guy who did. Rugby has. All we are left with in hockey are guys who have been sexually abused by a member of the same sex, who've been damaged by it, and whose careers-and lives-have suffered because of it. In some way, that's equated with homosexuality; in other words, that's what it is. But that's not what it is.

So in using it in the novel, I wanted it to be shocking in a way. I wanted it to be, "Oh my God, we didn't expect that!" But how does it change anything? It doesn't, really. They're still who they are, and it's not the driving force of how we get to meet them. It's just something that happens along the way, and it definitely turns the plot, because somebody else is worried about it. Somebody else is worried about it, somebody else who is the kind of person who would worry about it in the world of pro hockey at the managerial level.

[...]

S7: The book is written very much in a style fitting a mystery novel, with your sentence structure and the different ways you expressed ideas. Did you try to actively make that happen, or was it sort of a natural transition?

MM: It's just something that sort of happened, and attached itself to the story, I found. I was trying to think of how Carter would react to things, and perceive the world, given who he was-a guy with a head injury, he's damaged. Having a head-injured detective was kind of an interesting proposition. So part of the crime-novel lingo goes with the nature of the plotting that you have to do to start one of these off. You can't have three or four page rhapsodies on how to make ice, you know? Unless it really matters, like if ice was the murder weapon. But I think that shorthand that is beloved of crime novels came naturally because of that, you have to say things quickly to get it moving. And Carter's entering a world that he doesn't know, and he's entering this world seeing things in a way that other people might not see them-which you later learn is his saving grace, if you will. He's forced to solve a murder to save his life, but he learns in that journey that he's actually good at it. He doesn't want to do it again, necessarily-but of course, because there's a sequel, he's going to have to.

And that's what he's doing now. And this time, it's a player who dies-a player not unlike Carey Price in Montreal, the player that I've created is modelled on him. More because Carey Price is part aboriginal, and I wanted to get into the Aboriginal connection to hockey in the next book, and I've done it that way. So it's interesting in the sequel that the crime language is a little different, but again, you have to be a little speedy to get where you're going next.

Just off the top of my head, I've read two of the three Stieg Larsson novels, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, I haven't yet read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. I enjoyed the first two very much, but I noticed that how Stieg Larsson does it is he has characters speak in four or five paragraphs-much like I'm doing right now-and they will expose the plot that way. That's one way of doing it. I didn't want to do it that way. There are certain ways of getting into the crime milieu, some of them are well-trodden, and if they work they work-they just popped up.

S7: Has your writing developed significantly over the course of writing the first Martin Carter mystery, towards your second one?

MM: I realized I have to keep it, to a certain degree, the same if it's going to be a series. Martin Carter's going to evolve, for sure, and the style will, too. Part of the thing that has changed is that he gets out of New York, and now he's going to the southern Okanagan, British Columbia, to the desert, Canada's only desert. That's where the goalie's from, and that's where the goalie happens to die. So Carter gets stuck there, in wine country, in Aboriginal country, in biker country, and all kinds of things happen to him there. It's evolved because I've had to find out about those things in order to convincingly tell the story.

I'm not going to write lyrical passages about the state of the human soul, you know what I mean, in this period. I'll try to make it happen, in the sense that it is already in the Carter you know who-without giving too much away-at the end of the novel, has been damaged again. In the second book, he's looking to heal that, so we're going to follow him on that trip to see if it happens or not. That's how I'll deal with things that literary fiction might spend more time on, and that's how I'll continue to make Martin Carter a compelling and interesting character without disappointing people who like him for what it is.

S7: So what are you working on today?

MM: I'm going to finish The Valley of the Shadow, which is the title of the next Martin Carter novel...

S7: So you dropped the hockey puns?

MM: Yeah, because I thought if this things goes to ten books, I'll run out of them. I wouldn't be able to-what's her name, that English writer, 'A is for... '

S7: Sue Grafton?

MM: Yeah, Sue Grafton; she does it, bless her. But I just couldn't do it. And I also wanted to attract a reader who might not necessarily think they want to read a book that's set in the world of pro sports. Which is something I discovered happily with The Penalty Killing was a lot of female readers said to me, "Initially, I thought, I'm not interested in hockey, and therefore I won't be interested in a book that takes place in that world." So I just sort of said you have to be interested in hockey in the same way you'd have to be interested in the algebra of hedge funds if you're reading a thriller on banking. You don't have to be, really; it's the secret world I'm going to take you inside of, and then you're dealing with the characters, and you're hopefully going to be interested in what they do. And that's what happened, I got really good responses from female readers who didn't give a damn about hockey.

So I thought for the next one, since I couldn't sustain the hockey-referential titles, that I would just pick a different title, and people might not judge the book by its title.

*****

And that's the end of my talk with Michael. Special thanks to Mr. McKinley once again for spending a bit of time with me talking about his book and his other works. To read more about his past and upcoming projects, or to read the first chapter of The Penalty Killing, visit his website: www.michaelmckinley.net.

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