Tracee: Welcome Keenan! We are delighted to have you join us as a Miss Demeanor. Not only are you a crime writer, you’ve had a multi faceted professional life ranging from an illustration in the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to your law career. Is there a thread that binds these together?
Keenan: What an interesting question! No one has asked me that before. After much reflection, I believe the short answer is there is a subterranean current tying all of these together: The desire to create an image or story that resembles what I see in my head. The mediums have morphed with the materials and education available to me but the urge is the same
Tracee: My undergraduate degree is in architect and I can relate to your belief in the subterranean current working toward creation. That said, I’m going to push you for the ‘long answer.’
Keenan: I have drawn since I was big enough to steal my mother’s stationary, maybe two or three years old. I was always a solitary child and preferred my own company, refusing to talk until I was four years old. I don’t remember why I drew when I was very little but later, when I was five or six, I drew a picture of my father and when I showed it to him, he said it looked like something he’d seen on a horror show the night before. I burst into tears. But I kept drawing portraits, trying to make my efforts resemble the subject more closely.
Tracee: Oh no! But it did push you to succeed. Eventually you were a published artist.
Keenan: The Dungeons & Dragons job came along through nepotism. Before my senior year in high school, I visited my oldest sisters in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The oldest, Mary, was married to Gary Gygax. I showed them my drawings (why I drug around my portfolio at the age of seventeen, I don’t know) and he needed a very reasonably priced artist for his work-in-progress, D&D. I had no formal training. The family wanted me to go to art school but I thought that was a risky endeavor.
Tracee: I have to interrupt. So many people want to go to art school and their family say don’t do it! I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who was the reverse.
Keenan: I knew would probably end up teaching art in high school, which was not attractive to me. So I majored in broadcasting because who doesn’t like to watch TV? When I discovered how difficult it is to break into TV (hats off to Hank Phillippi Ryan, a force of nature), I recalled my grandmother suggesting I should go to law school because my letters reminded her of those written by my great-uncle who had been a lawyer.
Tracee: You have to dig up some of his letters. I’m imagining they are either well crafted or incredibly boring. But I’ve interrupted again. You are off to law school to improve your letter writing skills . . .
Keenan: After law school, I went into trial practice. There are many kinds of law one can practice, but I wanted to be in the courtroom. It was there I learned how to tell a story. I had been practicing law for thirty years when the idea for my first book struck me. It was like being hit by lightning. The story would not let go of me. Just as when I was a little kid drawing, I took up the challenge to make the story I saw in my head resemble the story on paper. Much study was ahead for me. I quit counting the revisions at number eighteen but Deadly Solutions was eventually sold.
Tracee: That’s the most incredible feeling isn’t it? The sold part. Of course being hit by lighting with an idea is also memorable.
Keenan: When the idea for my first book, Deadly Solution, struck me, I was sitting in a law seminar listening to a couple of presenters argue. They’re lawyers, that’s what they do. And this pair had had a number of cases with each other over the years. They began discussing a case they had years earlier about a man who died of a heart attack on a remote job site and their rush to court to get an injunction against the medical examiner to prevent him from cremating the remains because – little known law – the medical examiner has the legal authority to declare the cause of death as natural causes without performing an autopsy, and further, to dispose of the remains within 72 hours if unclaimed.
Aha! I shouted and slammed my hand on the table, startling the knitter next to me. I had suddenly realized why a series of homeless deaths a few years before, one every week for thirteen weeks, had all been ruled natural causes. No one had done an autopsy. All the remains had been disposed. There was no evidence to compare one death to the other. Since I wanted to figure out how to write a story without doing a lot of factual research, I decided to write what I knew. Deadly Solution became a courtroom drama.
Tracee: Were your next books inspired by real cases? I hesitate to say ripped from the headlines, but truth is stranger than fiction and is great inspiration.
Keenan: Yes, the next two stories were inspired by cases and events I had observed. My protag’s experience gives her insight into how the fallout of being involved in legal matters impacts the lives of lay people. For most people, being involved in a criminal or civil case will be one of the most significant events of their lives. Going in, they don’t realize the verdict is only the beginning of a new story.
Tracee: Even today, with the ease of travel (okay, not literally today, but pre and post pandemic), Alaska seems exotic. Perhaps it is the vastness, or the climate, or something intangible. Do you feel that living in Alaska has influenced your writing? After all, we hear about southern fiction all the time. Is there an Alaskan fiction?
Keenan: There is most definitely an Alaska fiction, but not many writers of it. Common themes include dark, cold, isolation, lawlessness, drugs, alcohol, and the clash between people who have occupied these lands for centuries with intrepid adventurers who come to create a new life for themselves. It’s a place where a hardworking person might end up a millionaire but for each of those stories, there are thousands of broken hearts. Many people cannot handle the challenge and end up going back to the Lower 48. It is so common that when I came up in the early 80’s, people would ask me how long I thought I would last. If you made it three winters, you were accepted as a permanent resident.
Tracee: I love that. Three winters and you’re in the club. In the South, three generations will do it, although that has changed as society is more mobile. Is your current work in progress set in Alaska?
Keenan: No, I’m currently working on a contemporary thriller involving a San Francisco attorney. This story is like my first, it won’t let go of me. I went to college in San Francisco and miss it terribly so if you’re my friend on FB, you’ll see lots of San Francisco reposts. Even as I write this, there is a photograph by David Yu of Coit Tower hanging over my desk. As soon as Covid is over, I’m going down there and riding the cable cars up and down the hills.
My other news is that since Covid, I’m painting again: some quick daily sketches, some bigger pieces. Still struggling with portraiture. Mostly I do self-portraits because the model is easily entertained and she won’t make a snarky joke if it doesn’t run out well.
Tracee: Most of the time we talk about manuscript works in process, however, we also love seeing your artist works in progress on our Miss Demeanors zoom calls. I dabble a bit in painting – so far I mainly do dog portraits. They always like the finished product.
Thanks again for spending time with me today. And on behalf of the entire Miss Demeanors crew, welcome aboard!
Now everyone click over to Keenan’s website to learn more about her books. Especially the Maeve Malloy Alaska Mystery series: Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, and Hell and High Water. Perfect reads for these cold winter nights!