In John Sandford’s thriller, Masked Prey, someone is targeting the children of U.S. politicians, and it’s up to Lucas Davenport to figure who’s behind the creepy crimes and put a stop to them before it’s too late.
Already, just since its release back in April, Masked Prey has amassed over 1,300 reviews on Amazon with a current average rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars, making it one of Sandford’s best-received novels in years—further proof that, even at the age of 76, the iconic writer has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
Always a treat to pick his brain and ask him some questions, Sandford again agreed to go on the record for our Five Questions segment, and this time I asked him about everything from how he came up with the story idea for this one to how his writing process has changed over the years.
See the full Q&A below, then make sure to pick up your copy of Masked Prey, now available in bookstores everywhere.
TRBS: Masked Prey isn’t just one of your best books yet, at least in my opinion, but it represents a huge milestone for you too, being the 30th book in your Lucas Davenport series. Did you ever think, way back when the first one––Rules of Prey––came out in 1989, that you’d still be writing these characters all these years later?
Sandford: In 1989, I was hoping that Putnam would want a book in 1990. The last thirty years have been a strange and sometimes wonderful and occasionally awful trip. About the time Rules of Prey came out in 1989, I got divorced from my first wife, Susan; after being alone for six years, I remarried Sue. Then she got breast cancer, and after a terrible five years, Susan died. A few years later I remarried, to Michele, who I’d known for twenty-five years or so, and began experiencing episodes of happiness that were really quite unfamiliar after the long siege with cancer and then the mourning. And all during that time, from start to finish, I kept writing like a madman, always worried that the books just weren’t good enough. So arriving here at thirty Prey books is just kind of weird. Sometimes, I’m not even sure how I got here. I was doing a Zoom thing with my editor a few days ago, for which we were talking about some of the earlier books, and for which I had re-read one of the books, Naked Prey. Honest to God, while I thought the book was pretty good, the ending was a total surprise. It was as though it had been written by an author I’d never encountered before, maybe because I’d written it during the period that Susan was dying. So did I think I’d be writing these same characters thirty years later? I don’t think that it ever occurred to me that I might be doing that.
TRBS: As mentioned above, I really think this is one of your best books yet, for a number of reasons––which I won’t spoil for readers. How did you come up with story idea or Masked Prey, and what sort of research, if any, did you have to do?
Sandford: The main idea of the story has been floating around in the news for a while — the rise of the extreme right. I’ve been to Washington any number of times, staying in the hotel that Lucas and the other characters stayed in (the Watergate) so I that had covered. Most of the research I did on the rightwing groups could be done online, and that was pretty fascinating, and often troubling. I’ve never been a rabid anti-gun guy, having grown up as a hunter, and having been a hunter until fairly recently; and I have handguns, because my characters use them and I need to feel a familiarity with them. But some of the attitudes I found in these groups online really worry me — you wonder where they came from, and where they’re going. They really do sound like the brown shirts of the thirties.
TRBS: After all these books, do you ever worry you might run out of ideas for more stories?
Sandford: My biggest problem would actually be running out of ideas for villains. I need villains, and to find them, all I really need to do is read the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail specializes in finding the most horrific examples of American life and crime, so I can fairly reliably depend on them to provide me with examples from this hellhole we all happily live in. Once you have a villain and his or her milieu, you just have to turn my repertory company loose on them.
TRBS: What is your writing process like, and how (if at all) has it changed over the course of your career?
Sandford: Hasn’t really changed much, although the Covid-19 virus might finally force me to do things differently. In the past, I worked mostly in the evenings, going late (after midnight) and sleeping late in the morning. Then I’d fool around during the day — fooling around is essential for writing, because that’s how you notice the things that give texture to your books. Michele has often kidded me about muttering the names on signs that we drive by. You know, I’m talking to myself about the local garden shop or the guy selling wood out of his pickup…but all that stuff goes into the books, to give them a sense of place and time. The Covid-19 has kept me shut down for a while, and so, out of sheer boredom, I’m starting to write more during the day. I still write at night, though, and I can’t imagine that ending. And far as the work itself goes, I don’t outline, I just write. It’s a probing process, with some idea of what’s going to happen, but then I figure it out as I work. I think that gives the text a kind of cinema verite feel, blind alleys and inappropriate jokes, bumper stickers, and throwaway characters. When you outline, if you stick to the outline, the events come along too quickly and without texture: it’s just bang-bang-bang. Most of my novels are about 100,000 words long. When I start into the climax, then I may come up with a basic outline, because I want the climax, the last 10,000 words or so, to have that bang-bang-bang effect. A climax is not a place where you want a throwaway character wandering through, taking up space and time.
TRBS: Lastly, what’s next for you, and will there be a new Flowers book out later this year?
Sandford: No Flowers book in the fall. I’m doing one book this year, a Prey book, but Flowers will have a major part in it. It’ll be out in the spring of 2021, Jesus don’t tarry and the creek don’t rise.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.