Minnesota author John Sandford: Master of chaos

John Camp drummed his fingers on the long wooden table behind his writing desk. He was 200 words shy of finishing his next thriller -- No. 28 -- and sending glances toward the Mac where he taps them out.

John Camp drummed his fingers on the long wooden table behind his writing desk. He was 200 words shy of finishing his next thriller -- No. 28 -- and sending glances toward the Mac where he taps them out.

"By midnight tonight, I plan to hit the send key, so my editor gets it first thing in the morn-ing," he said, with a seasoned journalist's dedication to deadline.

To look around the room, you wouldn't think that the author of the popular, gritty "Prey" series (written under his pen name, John Sandford) did most of his work here. It's a beauti-fully restored library, taken from an old mansion and re-created in a cabin attached to Camp's home on the St. Croix River, a 25-minute drive from St. Paul, Minn.

The walls are lined with an impressive collection of art, history and archaeology books. A photo of the artist Piet Mondrian hangs to the right of his work space, a Cartier-Bresson in the adjacent hall.

Then, there's the snapshot of three hunters standing over a huge slain moose in the snow, tacked up carelessly above his Mac. OK, that's more like it.


Camp, newspaper reporter and columnist turned best-selling novelist, is a master of story-telling that's as full of character as it is cursing, killing and mayhem. His other passions range from art and photography to golf and hunting. He funds a $150,000-a-year archaeologi-cal dig in Israel. A former military man, he also recently reported on Iraq for Parade maga-zine.

In "Wicked Prey," 19th book of the series, Camp meshes three plots against the chaotic backdrop of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, with his heroic, flawed main character, Minnesota BCA agent Lucas Davenport, in the thick of them all.

At 65, Camp still puts out two books a year, one for the "Prey" series in the spring, and one featuring Davenport-in-training Virgil Flowers, a slouchy young detective obsessed with music, in the fall.

"I'm somewhat depressive," Camp said matter-of-factly. Still, he keeps a strict regimen of writing 1,000 words a day, usually at night.

"I fear becoming formulaic," he said. "Some of my books are. People like serial-killer sto-ries because it keeps the stress high, but if you keep doing only that, it becomes a waste of time. It has to be something serious enough to carry the story, which means murder or kid-napping. Even rape is not considered strong enough, unless the woman ends up getting killed."

In Camp's view, an author's relationship with readers should be somewhat contentious.

"People ought to be slapped up side of the head, not always get what they expect. That's why sometimes the bad guy gets away."

In his next Virgil Flowers book -- the one he was hoping to send off by midnight -- a bad guy does elude the cops, although without a certain part of his anatomy that falls into some-thing foul after Flowers bites it off.


"There are two worldviews in thriller writing," Camp said. "The paranoid view, like Chuck Logan's, that everything is inside a large clockwork. I like those books, they're intricate and thought out, but my view is that everything is chaotic and stupid. Chaos reigns, and civilized people do what they can to hold it back."

Logan is a friend and fellow former St. Paul Pioneer Press colleague who followed Camp into the world of Minnesota-set fiction writing. So is Theresa Monsour, who credits Camp with encouraging her early mystery writing.

"He ripped my first effort to shreds and was a great editor," said Monsour, whose star Twin Cities detectives are women. A while back, Camp also experimented with a female protago-nist in "The Night Crew," but doesn't plan to do so again.

"I like writing these kinds of books, but I do it for the money," he said, alluding to the lesser sales of that book. "I do like writing women characters a lot. I've had a lot of women bad guys."

In "Wicked Prey," Davenport's 14-year-old ward, Letty, plays a key role. In the next "Prey" book, due out in June, his wife, Weather, a doctor, figures prominently.

(The baby grand in Camp's living room hasn't been played in a while. It belonged to his wife, Susan, a doctor who died in May 2007 of breast cancer. College sweethearts, they were married in their 20s, divorced for six years, and then remarried.

Camp worked as a reporter in crime-ridden Miami before coming to the Pioneer Press in 1978. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a series on a farm family during the 1980s agricul-tural crisis, and was nominated once before.

As a reporter, Camp spent more than a month at the state penitentiary near Stillwater, where he got to know some real-life killers and gained insight into how they thought. It cer-tainly didn't turn him into a soft-on-crime kind of guy.


"Criminals tend to be stupid," he said. "They are often vicious because they enjoy it. They can be smart, but there's always something seriously wrong with them. And the prisoners have an almost universal willingness to excuse themselves for what they've done, that soci-ety was cheating them. They had good reasons for doing what they did, reasons that to us seem absurd."

Only one of his books has ever been made into a movie, an embarrassingly bad 1999 TV version of "Mind Prey," which was roundly criticized by fans for the odd casting choice of Eriq La Salle, a black actor, as Lucas Davenport. Camp had no role in, or control over, that production.

"I have no interest in movies," Camp said. "Movies are a cooperative effort involving doz-ens of people and companies and stars. I don't do that."

He doesn't need to. His publisher ships about 450,000 hardcover books a year, and 800,000 in paperback. Three of his "Prey" books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He now gets a $4.5 million advance for each "Prey" book.

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