Marshall Cook has taught at UW-Madison for thirty years, where he also edits Extra Innings, an online newsletter for writers. Cook has authored thirty books and hundreds of magazine articles. He has been married to wife Ellen since 1968, and they have one son, Jeremiah. Cook is a passionate minor league baseball fan, and in the off-season he likes to drive the back roads and eat in small-town cafes. While perhaps best known for his contemporary mystery series featuring newspaper editor Monona "Mo" Quinn, Cook's latest novel, Walking Wounded: A Wartime Love Story (2009) is set in World War II-era Madison. Wisconsin People & Ideas recently caught up with Cook to ask him five questions.
How did Monona Quinn originate and is her series of mystery novels in any way based on your own experiences?
The series grows out of several of my passions: mystery [novels], small towns, diners, weekly newspapers, baseball, the Catholic Church, and, most of all, people.
What about the characters, what inspired them?
I base a lot of the characters I write about on people I know—or "know" through various media—taking a mannerism from one person, some personal history from another, description from a third. My protagonist, Monona Quinn, is a composite of three of the strongest, most resourceful women I've known. That's how they start out, anyway. Once they get enmeshed in a story, they start to assert themselves in ways I never anticipated.
How does living in Wisconsin influence your writing?
This series centers on life in small-town Wisconsin and the interaction—or lack thereof—between a specific small town and the nearest "big city": Madison. It grows out of my passion for my adopted state. (I'm a native Californian.)
How did you select the title of this book?
The first one, Murder Over Easy, was, well, easy, a pun on the murder victim, the owner of a small-town diner. For the second the idea was to keep it parallel, and I came up with Murder at Midnight, which is pretty weak, actually. I really wanted to useit because my grandfather, the author William Gilmore Beymer, had published a great historical fiction novel titled The Middle of Midnight, a title I love. We abandoned the parallel strategy for the third and fourth novels in the series. The third, Twin Killing, is a pun on baseball and Monona's twin niece and nephew, and the fourth, Obsessions, fits the plot three different ways.
Who are authors you like to read?
Who have you got? I'll give them a try. I read a lot, mostly—but not exclusively—fiction. I started with Action Comics and Mad Magazine, added Franklin W. Dixon (which turned out to be a pseudonym, at the time masking a freelancer from Toronto named Leslie McFarlane) and the Hardy Boys to the mix; progressed, if that's the word, to Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason, and lots and lots of mysteries and adventure. Robert Parker, wonderful. James Lee Burke, a master. Ate up Kurt Vonnegut, had an affair with Hemingway, broke up and started seeing Faulkner seriously (and got the stylistic bends), found some McMurtry I still cherish, got in over my head with Dostoevsky but still loved it. Love Kent Haruf, John Dunning, Flannery O'Connor, Michael Chabon, on and on. I read lots of contemporaries, including the work of former students and writers I've met at signings and such. Just now I'm reading Terry Pratchett, who's a hoot. Best book ever? Maybe To Kill a Mockingbird. But don't hold me to it tomorrow.