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Kamm, Kurt

NovelSpot: Kurt, thank you for taking the time to sit down with use today. Your previous novel, Red Flag Warning, won several mystery fiction awards. Congratulations! But today we’re here to talk about your exciting third novel which came out in November: Code Blood. The name gives me a chill. Can you tell us about it?

Kurt Kamm: CODE BLOOD is about the intersecting lives of three people in Los Angeles. Colt Lewis is a rookie fire paramedic. His mother deserted him as a teenager, and he is still struggling with this as an adult. As a paramedic, blood is a daily part of his life. Markus is an albino who grew up in seclusion and lacks the ability to relate to people. He is obsessed with blood. A Li is a Chinese graduate student doing research in blood stem cells. She lost a twin sister as a child.

Blood and family issues are the common factors in each character's life. An accident on Pacific Coast Highway brings them together in unsuspecting ways. When Colt Lewis sets out to find the identity of the accident victim, whose foot has been severed, he is drawn into the world of scientific research and the underground club scene in Los Angeles.

When I wrote CODE BLOOD, I rode with the fire paramedics and went through some of their training programs. My experience as the Chairman of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center Foundation at UCLA gave me a wonderful insight into the medical science research world, which I also brought to the novel. As for the underground club scene – you'll just have to imagine where I saw what.

NS: How would you describe your genre and style to someone who hasn’t read your work yet?

KK: I would describe my novels as mysteries involving firefighters instead of law enforcement officials. Very few people really know what the lives of firefighters are like, and I think it is a great platform for writing unusual mysteries. I am big on realism. My characters all have some positive or negative personality quirks, which make them what they are. I try to build an accurate psychological picture of each of the major characters so that their actions are understandable. I also try to give an accurate description of the firefighting activities that relate to the mystery at hand. As opposed to law enforcement techniques, which everyone has read about countless times, my fact situations are much different.

NS: Code Blood is the third of your firefighter mystery series. In your previous life, you were a financial executive. When did you start writing? What got you started and why focus on fires…why not something from financial world? Fires are a very unique way to approach mysteries.

KK: In 2007, I retired and moved to Malibu. The first year I was there, a wind-driven fire literally burned to my front door. It destroyed my closest neighbor's home and a church on our corner. The next month, an arson fire less than a mile away destroyed 50 homes and caused $500 million in damage. I watched the Los Angeles County Fire Department in action and saw their helitack crews arrive in Firehawk (Blackhawk) helicopters. I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I was one of the men on that helicopter.

I decided I wanted to know more about how the fire department operated. I thought it would be great to write a book about the life of a firefighter. The ordinary person has no idea what firefighters do and how much training they have. Watching the battle against the Malibu fires and hanging out at the Incident Command Center I realized the amount of organization necessary to send 1,000 or more men out to fight a wildland fire. Engines, heavy equipment, aircraft, communications, logistics, it is very much like managing a small army. Then I began to realize all the specialties within firefighting. Again, most people have no idea. I decided, if I could, I would write several novels, each dealing with a firefighting specialty. The Los Angeles County Fire Department, CalFire, and El Camino Fire Academy have all been gracious enough to let me attend their academies and training sessions and ride with their prsonnel.

We've already seen several financial world novels (and movies). How many novels are there about firefighters?

NS: Not too many, good point. What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you start to write a story and where do you find the inspiration for Code Blood and your other firefighter mysteries?

KK: Each book is based on a particular firefighter specialty (arson investigation, wildland fire, paramedic, hazardous material) I don't ever start with a complete plot in mind, but just imagine some sort of mystery which involves the firefighter character doing what he does best. I will usually have already finished some sort of training program in that specialty, and I just start imagining how this guy's life is complicated by his job and his personal problems. I open every novel with an action chapter, begin creating the mystery and move right on to dreaming up a bad guy! From there, the characters do what their lives dictate and my job is just to write it all down

NS: What was your favorite character to write?

KK: I have two favorite characters. In CODE BLOOD, I have Markus, a dysfunctional guy who is a killer, collects body parts, and thinks he is a vampire. He is just so bad that you have to love him. A reviewer paid Markus the highest compliment, saying that each time he read about Markus, he felt he needed a shower. Markus is vicious and obsessed, but also a coward and a whiner. I loved writing about him.
My second favorite character is NiteHeat, the serial arsonist in Red Flag Warning. I don't want to give away the plot, but NiteHeat is setting wildfires and trying to burn down Malibu as a result of a very bad childhood – much like that of real arsonists.

NS: Now, what was the hardest scene/character to write?

KK: The hardest scene was in One Foot in the Black where I had to describe a fire crew dropped by helicopter on the top of a mountain, above a major forest fire. In that chapter, the wind direction changes, the crew is trapped, and the captain is caught in a burnover and dies. I have been in front of 50-foot flames in a few wildfires, but never so close that I thought I would die. It was very hard to describe what the men in this fire crew were feeling as the flames approached and actually passed over them. I think it took me about two months to write that one chapter of 2,500 words, but it has turned out to be one of the most powerful chapters I have written.
Another very hard scene is a confrontation in a research laboratory in CODE BLOOD. One of the characters dies in a very unusual way. It's only a few pages long, but it took me weeks to imagine it and then describe it.

NS: As a writer, whom do you like to read?

KK: I try to read far and wide. Almost all fiction and a lot of mysteries of all types. I like to see how different authors write fiction and handle different types of stories. I have to be careful, because while I am writing one of my own books, it is very easy to take on the tone or style of someone I am reading at the moment.

NS: What are the topics you most like to deal with as an author?

KK: I like action, and the gray areas between good and bad. I believe that what you are as an adult is largely determined by your parents and your childhood. The important characters in all of my books have emotional and intellectual issues as a result of the way they were treated while growing up. They are ambivalent, not all black or white, and often don't fully understand why they do the things they do.

NS: Did you learn something about yourself while writing this book? Where you trying to explore something specific?

KK: This may disappoint you, but I haven't had any revelations about myself other than to realize how lucky I was to grow up in a relatively normal family environment. I had loving and supportive parents and didn't set out to even any scores in any of my novels.

In CODE BLOOD, I did want to use the knowledge gained from 25 years of association with the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA. I have learned a lot about the most advanced levels of medical and stem cell research as well as the new field of nanoparticles. These are fascinating topics and I wanted to weave them into my story.

NS: Not disappointed at all. I’d love to get a glimpse of the writer at work. Computer or pen and paper? What’s your ideal writing day? Mood music?

KK: I try to write every morning from around 8:30 to noon. They say that Ernest Hemmingway spent each morning with a pad of paper and pencils, writing, erasing, and rewriting again before heading to the bars around noon. I could not write a novel by hand. I can't even imagine that. I use a computer and my office window looks out onto the Pacific Ocean in Malibu. I find any kind of music or other noise distracting. I have two parrots, a Double Yellow and a Conure and they spend the morning with me and supervise my activities. By noon, I'm usually restless and head out, but not to the bars. I was a semi-pro bicycle racer and still do a couple of hours of bike riding in the nearby mountains almost every afternoon. It's a great way to solve plot problems.
Altogether, not a bad life. No complaints.

NS: Not at all! What are you currently working on?
KK: I'm just finishing my fourth novel, Hazardous Material. It’s a mystery involving a HazMat firefighter who is battling an outlaw motorcycle gang (a more insidious meaning to OMG) and his addiction to painkillers. I am spending a lot of time with the LA County Fire Department HazMat Task Force and have recently gone through part of their training program. I rode with them last week when they responded to a tank truck, which had lost half its load of used cooking oil in the parking lot of a major mall. Serious, but funny. Cars everywhere were slippin' and slidin'.

NS: Sounds exciting! Can’t wait to read about it.

© Cam 2012-01-31