The Beatrice Interview

John Corrigan

"I didn't look at the last chapter for the nine months I was actually writing the book."

interviewed by Josh Karp

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In Cut Shot, first-time novelist John Corrigan attempts to take detective fiction someplace it hasn't been before: the PGA tour. Jack Austin's a successful tour player struggling to win his first tournament, but that's not the only thing that sets him apart from guys like Spenser, Marlowe and Easy Rawlins: Austin is dyslexic, something Corrigan knows about from personal experience. As his first book (with two other Austin novels on the way) was coming out, the thirty-one-year old Corrigan took some time away from teaching English at a Maine high school and looking after his two young daughters to talk about creating the world's first dyslexic golfing detective.

JK: How did you come to write a mystery about a dyslexic golf pro?

JC: There are two authors who really impacted my life. Robert Parker, who writes the Spenser series, and Phillip Levine, a poet who won the Pulitzer in 1995. When I write, the goal is to influence somebody the way those guys have influenced me.

I've always really loved the detective fiction genre. The guys who do it well--Parker, James Lee Burke, Chandler, Hammett, Walter Mosley--create these characters that live life the way we would if we could. One of the things with having Jack Austin have dyslexia is that many people who have it have the symptom of being single-minded and driven. They tend to look at the world with blinders on...which is good and bad. As far as creating a character with dyslexia that sees the world in black and white he's going to get himself into situations that you and I wouldn't.

The other thing is to take somebody into the day-to-day life of someone on the PGA Tour. That's something nobody's done with detective fiction. And also to show people day-to-day what it's like to be dyslexic.

JK: How has dyslexia affected your writing?

JC: I was in 4th grade and we were doing long division in math. For me, it was like steps. It was like I was climbing a hill and for whatever reason, I'd fall. I'd climb the hill again and I'd fall somewhere else.

So I failed math when I was 9 years old. Nobody really knew much about dyslexia. One of my teachers told my mother, "Just face it. Some kids are slow." My mom wouldn't accept that. They took me to Boston Children's Hospital and the official diagnosis was learning disabled/presumed dyslexic. Later I met a specialist who said I was a poster boy for dyslexia.

When I got to college I thought I'd major in psychology or criminology, but when I took big lecture classes or took multiple-choice tests, I wasn't doing well. But, the thing I could always do was write papers.

You know, I recently read an interview with Stephen J. Cannell (who created The Rockford Files and The A-Team among many successful TV shows) and he said that he took his son to be tested and everything the doctor talked about--well, he knew he had it, too. He said that taking in the information isn't the only difficulty. It's processing it. Dyslexia is an information process affliction. It's not strictly reading. It's difficult taking it in, but it's not difficult pushing it out. That's why I could always write. But it certainly limited my choice of majors.

JK: How about having a golfer as the detective?

JC: The classic detective fiction guys, like Spenser and Marlowe, live by their own code, by rules only they understand. It's really a singular job. They do it by themselves. A tour player is similar to that. You live in a world where you're always on your own honor. Guys lose a tournament by one stroke after calling a penalty on themselves. And it's not like the tennis tour where the tour pays for your travel. On the PGA tour, you're on your own financially and morally. I just have always seen a similarity between detective fiction protagonists and tour players, [both] going through life seeing the world on their own terms.

JK: You got some help from your friend J.P. Hayes, a tour player [who won the 1998 Buick Classic]. How did you two hook up and what kind of help did he give you?

JC: I went to UTEP for my MFA. On the first day of class we had to say what our name was and what we were interested in writing about. I said detective fiction and mentioned my interest in taking the genre on the PGA tour. This woman sitting in the class came up to me afterwards and said, "My name is Laura Hayes and you have to meet my husband J.P."

We just started talking. We went out to dinner with them and socialized. That's basically it. I'm really grateful for the insight he gives me. The guy lives in a hotel 35 weeks a year on tour and during his off time he reads my work and helps me.

He gives me insight I could only get from a tour player. I sent the second book to J.P. and there's a scene where they're playing a hole in the Buick Classic, and there's a three-tiered green. Jack is on top with a 20-foot putt. J.P. told me that the top tier is only 12 paces wide, so you couldn't have a 20-foot putt. Nobody else would have ever picked that up.

JK: Has he helped you out with the way a golfer thinks?

JC: I've always been fascinated with how people think and what makes them tick. I've read anything I can get my hands on about the subject. I've read about the mental aspects of the game and guys like Ian Baker-Finch, who won the British Open and had to walk away because he can't do it mentally anymore, but can play with his buddies and shoot a 63. That's just fascinating.

Outside of that, I played college hockey at SUNY-Fredonia, a little Division III school and went to a free agent camp with the Boston Bruins. Most of the internal stuff is me. As far as understanding stress and how athletes handle it, having been a hockey goalie is the next best thing to playing on tour.

JK: How did you go about writing a first mystery? Getting the format? Following the conventions?

JC: I've read all of Parker. I've read some of his books thirteen times. I took a great class at UTEP on the novels of Chandler and James Lee Burke. We studied the devices, suspense, and those things. I used to outline stuff, but the more I wrote, I never ended up sticking to it. For Cut Shot, I wrote the last chapter first.

JK: Why?

JC: I read that Agatha Christie used to work from last to first and write the whole thing in reverse order. I wanted to try something along those lines. I didn't know any of the events that would lead up to it. I didn't look at the last chapter for the nine months I was actually writing the book. Then I just figured I'd look at what I wrote that first night and it actually fit. It had sort of a final quality to it.

JK: How's it been having a character you're going to write about over the course of several books?

JC: I said to my wife a few years ago, it's like having my imaginary friend from when I was four years old again. If nobody buys this book, I'm probably going to set a fifth seat at the table.

Josh Karp is a Chicago-based writer and a regular contributor to Chicago magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times book review section and Book.

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BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Joseph Kanon | Complete Interview Index | Linda Barnes

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