An Interview I did for 'Fatbrain'
Anne Groell: In addition to being a successful fiction writer, with eight published novels to his credit, Ken Goddard is the director of the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, in Ashland, Oregon, a husband, father, grandfather...and, according to his web site, a less than distinguished cattle rancher. Which leads me to the first obvious question: why cattle? Is that something you've always wanted to be, Ken? A cowboy?
Ken Goddard: Probably...when I was seven or eight years old. Cowboy, policeman, fireman, airplane pilot, and every other heroic character that showed up in the comic books. One of the inherent problems of being born a guy, I suppose: we're easily seduced by our imaginations.
AG: So you decided to make that imagination a reality?
KG: Not exactly. My wife and I do live on a small, 20-acre ranch in southern Oregon, which we bought because of the gorgeous view of the valley, the surrounding mountains, and the fishpond in the middle of the lower pasture. And we do graze cows--or steers, I suppose, to be more precise--on our pasture, mostly because we'd lose our water rights if we didn't. But most of my real rancher neighbors would collapse into giggling fits if they ever heard me describe myself as a true rancher.
AG: Why is that?
KG: Well, to start with, most of my real rancher neighbors are perfectly capable of moving their cows--or steers--from 'A' to 'B' on a fairly routine basis, usually by saddling up their cow horses, rounding up the herd, and heading them off into the sunset.
AG: You don't do that?
KG: I tried. I even went so far as to buy a genuine cow horse and a saddle from one of the local ranchers. I blame my dear daughter for this act of insanity. She's the real horse-rider in the family. She managed to 'green-break' her own Arab at the age of thirteen, and saw no reason why her father couldn't ride a thoroughly trained quarter horse.
AG: That sounds reasonable to me. So what was the problem?
KG: Well, to start with, my horse hates cows ... which, in retrospect, is probably why my rancher buddy sold him to me. 'Buyer-beware' is, as I've discovered, a basic tenant of cattle ranching. Also, my horse isn't real fond of having people riding on his back. I discovered this when I saddled him up for my first roundup, took out after my cows, and found myself lying on my back in the middle of my pasture when he ran me into a low tree branch.
KG: Right. I might point out here that a real Oregon rancher would have immediately gotten back on the horse and realigned his thinking in a very direct and formative manner.
AG: And you didn't?
KG: Be serious. This is a horse who knows how to open gates and drag hay bales out of the loft. I barely know which end of the saddle faces north. If I'd gotten back on that [deleted] horse, he'd have started looking around for a lower branch.
AG: This really doesn't sound like a typical Ken Goddard novel scenario.
KG: I think it's fair to say that not a single one of my fictional characters would have put up with a horse like that for five seconds. Instant Alpo. On the other hand, I probably wouldn't last more than five seconds as one of my own fictional characters...and most of that time would probably be spent running. So I suppose it all balances out in one way or another.
AG: So what was your solution to the cattle problem?
KG: A golf cart.
AG: You round up cattle with a golf cart?
KG: Yep. I use the cart to put stacks of hay along the path between where the cows are at and where I want them to go. Whatever works, as us rancher-types like to say. [grin]. Which is very analogous to the way I write, now that I think about it: set some enticing stepping stones in place, let the story find its own path...and then adapt as you go. I guess detailed outlines and round-ups on horseback really aren't my forte.
AG: [laughs]. But speaking of fortes, let's talk for a moment about your law enforcement career, and how that has influenced your writing. Was becoming a policeman another one of those childhood fantasies?
KG: No, I really got into law enforcement as the result of a judo accident at the University of California, Riverside, where I was just about to graduate with a B.S. degree in biochemistry. I tried to throw a 300-lb opponent over my shoulder, which turned out to be a bad idea as far as my shoulder and knees were concerned. The instructor was a Riverside County Sheriff's sergeant. He took me from the emergency room to meet the Sheriff. Three weeks later, I graduated, got married, drove over to the Sheriff's Office, raised my left hand...and all of a sudden I'm a deputy sheriff/criminalist.
AG: By 'criminalist', do you mean forensic scientist?
KG: Right. By day, I learned forensic science techniques: how to analyze blood, urine, drugs, work the crime scenes, all that lovely stuff. By night, I was out on the streets learning how to function as a law enforcement officer.
AG: Which did you like best?
KG: The night work. No question about it. I'd come home at two or three in the morning absolutely wired with adrenaline, and my poor wife--who was trying to finish her teacher's credential--had to put up with listening to my stories until I was finally able to get to sleep.
AG: It sounds like it was difficult to do both.
KG: Impossible, actually. Ultimately I had to decide whether I wanted to be a forensic scientist or a patrol officer. The truth is, what I really wanted to be was a homicide sergeant, but that would have meant setting aside all of my scientific education and training, which seemed like a real waste. Ultimately, I found myself more and more involved with crime scene investigations. The best of both worlds, in a sense: using logic and science to reconstruct the events of a crime.
AG: So you liked working the crime scenes?
KG: The work was fascinating, exhausting...and ultimately depressing. If you did your job properly, and really focused on reading the evidence and the scene itself, you could--in a figurative sense--get to a point where you found yourself 'stepping into the skins' of the suspects and the victims. The blood splattered across the wall in this direction, which means she must have done this...and he must have done that...which meant she...so on and so on.
AG: That must have helped with your writing, being able to get into both a suspect's and victim's head like that. How much of your books are influenced by real life events, and how much is simply a product of knowing how the average crime scene works?
KG: Well, in First Evidence and Outer Perimeter, I certainly make use of 'real-life' situations and techniques in describing the activities of my crime scene investigator hero, but I never write about a real crime or a real suspect. I always make them up. However, I do make use of real CSI situations that had a jarring effect on my brain, like the time I had to duct-tape my wrists, pants legs and shirt collar closed so I could look for a body in the crawl space of an old house without the spiders crawling down my neck.
AG: That sounds horrible.
KG: It was...and I still have occasional nightmares about the huge spider that crawled up my leg. But the experience provided me with some useful perspective on fear...which is always helpful for the kind of stories and characters I write about. Oh, yeah, and speaking of characters, I almost never write about real people, but I did make an exception in the case of my good buddy Bob Dawson...who really is an ex-cop, helicopter pilot, skilled sketch and water-color artist, firearms instructor, deadly combat pistol shot, and a current federal agent. I suppose it took a book on extraterrestrial evidence to make him sound real. [smile]
AG: Is that what caused you to shift into wildlife forensics: your fear of big spiders?
KG: It's probably as good an answer as any...but the truth is, I got offered the job (as director of the National Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory) because I was a writer. The Fish & Wildlife Service was looking for someone who could write evidence handling and CSI procedures for their relative new special agent force, and I'd previously written a text on crime scene investigation.
AG: So all those late night, early morning hours working gory crime scenes finally paid off.
KG: Absolutely...for my day-time job as well as my writing.
AG: Okay, I simply can't resist asking. What is the most bizarre case you have ever been involved in?
KG: Well, I worked several of the Randy Kraft bodies when I ran the crime lab in Huntington Beach, CA (Kraft was convicted for the brutal slayings of several young gay males in the Southern California area, back in the seventies and early eighties) but I don't think you really want to hear about any of the morbid details...and I'd just as soon forget about them myself. I did, however, get to work a case involving several hundred headless bodies that washed ashore along the Alaska coastline.
AG: That was less morbid than the Kraft killings?
KG: Well, probably not as far as the walrus victims were concerned. [smile]. But it turned out to be a fairly exciting crime scene. We ended up crashing an airplane, sinking a jeep into an arctic stream, and having to wade naked across another arctic stream to get to our survival gear.
AG: So this is your idea of getting emotionally involved in your work?
KG: Exactly. And, in fact, I do like to write about things that get me emotionally involved...things that either get me mad or scared.
AG: Like horses, for example.
KG: No, I'm only leery of horses. But I'm not real keen on large spiders in crawl spaces of creepy homes. And I'm definitely afraid of sharks.
AG: Another victim of the Jaws movie?
KG: No, I used to bodysurf as a kid, off La Jolla. One late afternoon, just before sunset, I was floating out beyond the breakers, by myself, probably in about twelve to fifteen feet of water, waiting for one last good wave before I went in. The water was glassy green, almost iridescent, and the sky was turning a bright reddish-orange. One of those memorably beautiful sunsets. I saw a big swell forming out in the distance...and then suddenly felt the pressure wave of something big gliding past somewhere beneath my feet.
AG: What was it?
KG: I have no idea. In fact, in retrospect, I don't think I ever want to know. At the time, I remember my mind went numb while envisioning a large set of white teeth. I balled up, tucking my legs into my arms, trying to present as small a target as possible...and tried to see what it was, but the water was too dark. Typical Pacific Ocean water...you could only see a few feet beyond your nose at best.
AG: Then what happened?
KG: All of a sudden the wave was there...the big swell starting to surge upwards...and I caught it, out-swam it, and kept on swimming frantically until my hands and feet dug into the sand. I seem to recall lying there on the beach for several minutes, laughing and shaking, until I could stand up.
AG: Did you ever go back in?
KG: Not there. Like I said, I'm nowhere near as heroic as my fictional characters. And besides, fear of the unknown is one of the classic human motivators. I use it a lot in my writing...and especially in my last two books, First Evidence and Outer Perimeter. Nothing quite like the unnerving impact of sensing something moving around in the darkness that you can't really see or hear. That, by the way, is the big difference between being out on patrol by yourself during the day, and being out by yourself on the graveyard shift...especially when you get one of those 'suspicious circumstances' calls.
AG: I can imagine! Now, so far you've written three police novels, Balefire, The Alchemist and Cheater, that dealt with terrorism, designer drugs, and a freak CIA-trained burglar; three wildlife law enforcement novels, Prey, Wildfire and Double Blind; and two...how would you describe your last two novels, First Evidence and most recently, Outer Perimeter?
KG: Hummm. How about: what happens when a very stubborn and very skeptical crime scene investigator trips across evidence at a bizarre crime scene that he really can't explain?
AG: As in extraterrestrial evidence?
KG: [enigmatic smile]. That's the question Detective Sergeant Colin Cellars has to resolve.
AG: Which brings me to another point. To me, one of the most intriguing things about your background is that you are the director of the very lab to which alien-or not-human-evidence would be brought were it to be found. Has anyone ever tried to get you involved in examining potentially extra terrestrial phenomena?
KG: There have been several efforts in that regard, but not by a law enforcement agency...and we're restricted to working evidence from official investigations. We have, however, agreed to look at some Sasquatch evidence, and I've been asked by a couple of fish and game agencies if we'd respond to a cattle mutilation case.
AG: So what can you tell us about Sasquatch?
KG: Well, based on the evidence we've seen to date, he seems to have polyester fur, which we think is a marvelous adaptation to the environment. [grin].
AG: So no extraterrestrial evidence so far?
KG: Not yet. We do, however, remain optimistic and open-minded. After all, it is a pretty big Universe out there...and you never know what might pop up out of the darkness some day.
AG: As your crime scene investigator, Collin Cellars, in First Evidence and Outer Perimeter realizes, to his dismay and disbelief.
KG: Yeah, spooky shadows are definitely one of his more serious on-going problems...among many other things. Actually, I kinda feel sorry for the poor fellow. He and Dawson really deserve a more sympathetic and kindly author.
AG: Do I get the sense your Detective Sergeant Colin Cellars would really like to be a homicide sergeant, but that he's really too much of a scientist to be good at that sort of thing?
KG: [laughs]. Colin does tend to look down at the evidence a lot when he really ought to be looking up and around.
AG: Did anybody ever tell you the same thing?
KG: [nods]. My training sergeant. Many times ... and very emphatically.
AG: So, what comes next in your writing career?
KG: A third book in the First Evidence and Outer Perimeter series. I'm working on that right now. After that, who knows? Maybe I'll try actually learning to ride my horse. Bound to be a story there somewhere.