Q&A with Sheldon Russell, author of The Yard Dog
- The Yard Dog: A Mystery harkens back to railroad detective fiction of the first half of the 20th century. What impact did those stories have on The Yard Dog?
Less than my personal experience of living in a railroad town. As mystery books go, John MacDonaldís Travis McGee series was influential. MacDonald moved his protagonist around on a boat from one story to another. I always liked the idea of being able to drop the protagonist into a new conflict while maintaining the familiar for the reader. Hook takes his caboose with him wherever he goes.
- Your father worked for the railroad during the years covered in the book. Did you learn anything from him that you used in The Yard Dog?
My father, now 94, worked as a machinist and later as a laborer in the ice plant. He often talked about the POW work gangs, about the troop trains and about how the railroaders worked seven days a week to keep supplies moving for the war. Once, he saw a German prisoner walking on his hands on the ice deck, an image that has never left me. This guy is now a character in The Yard Dog.
- The period detail in The Yard Dog is exceptional, especially with respect to the Oklahoma POW camps where captive German soldiers were confined. What made you decide to use your knowledge of the time and craft a mystery from it?
I grew up seeing the prisoner-of-war camp water tower rising up from the plains and hearing the story of a prisonerís escape in the area. The old buildings from the camp can still be seen here and there—chicken houses, apartments, that sort of thing. An apartment was recently torn down, and prisoner drawings were discovered in the walls. These things have to be told.
- What did you learn about POW camps in the U.S. while researching this book?
I hadnít realized how widespread the camps were*. There were army specs for building these facilities, so they all looked alike. The POWs were used for labor in any number of ways, depending on the area. Locations in the middle of America were preferred. The isolation discouraged escapes. The effort to reeducate the prisoners was elaborate, if not a bit transparent. Many of the German soldiers return to visit these camps still today.
- One of the themes throughout the book is how the enemy is being fed better than the local people. How did that impact your story? How did that impact the real-life inhabitants around the POW camp at the time?
Contrary to the situation today, the military was obsessed with following the Geneva Conventions. The possibility of retaliation on our soldiers was real. As a consequence, the POWs were well-provided for—including educational opportunities and good food. There was considerable resentment on the part of the locals who felt that the enemy, in many instances, lived better than they did.
- A line in the books states that the POW camp was not a prison. Based on the news reports today about Guantanamo Bay, that nuance probably isnít very clear to American readers. What were the German POW camps like and what were they not?
Prisons are for criminals. These camps were for captured soldiers. Even attempts to escape were not considered as crimes. The facilities were built according to army specifications and were certainly drab by any standards. The camps did impact communities financially in that a lot of services were provided by civilians. Sizes of the camps varied. The estimate of the one in Alva, which housed the most difficult Nazis in the United States, was about 5,000 soldiers. Lack of manpower to run these camps was one of the major problems. Most able-bodied men were in the war. Interpreters were few and far between as well.
- One character describes Hook and Runt as the “one-arm yard dog and a no-leg midget.” Spark Dugan has mental disabilities. Why did you give the characters these particular challenges? What issues, whether physical or otherwise, have you had to overcome or at least work around in your life?
In my view a character without problems is one dimensional and uninteresting. I love people who refuse to be defeated in spite of their limitations. My own challenges stem primarily from growing up as a farm kid with very few opportunities. On the other hand, Iíve seen plenty of perseverance, so I know what it looks like. Thereís been a lot of catching up in my life.
- Talk about Hookís choice of books. Why does the character choose those titles? Why did you as the author choose them?
Book collectors and readers often have different agendas. Even though Hook reads, he is foremost a collector, someone interested in books as objects; therefore, condition, collectability and rarity are important to him. I consulted references to find books of that period that are considered collectibles today. There is a passion inherent in collectors that has always intrigued me.
- Favor proves to be a rather interesting character with his huge mansion, art gallery and extravagant gardens, out in the middle of nowhere. Heís described as “a man lost and adrift in the storms of his obsession.” What should readers know about Favor?
Oklahoma has always had its social extremes—from Okies to oil barons. Both, in their ways, have had an indefatigable determination to survive. Favor is obsessed with his collecting no less than Hook. What makes them different is moral courage, or the lack of it. I like the contrast.
- If you had to pick a favorite character in the book, would you say Hook for his canniness and love of books, Runt for bringing to life the Oklahoman experience or Reina for her feistiness and academic background?
Hook is a tough, independent railroad bull, as are the ones Iíve known, and like Hook, Iíve had a lifelong love affair with books. Reina and I, on the other hand, have both competed in the academic world and have an uncomfortable acquaintance with office politics. But at the gut level, Runtís life on a hard scrabble farm most nearly represents my own. In any case, the contrast of vastly different characters makes for a fun writing experience, I think.
- Whatís next for Hook and Runt? Will he remain in Oklahoma? Will he and Reina continue their relationship?
Hook is a man adrift in the world and, as such, must move on to new mysteries and new friends in future books. What awaits him is a collection of the most bizarre passengers to ever board a train. He does return to Oklahoma, of course, as all Okies must.
- What do you think most readers will identify with in the story?
A good story in my view is always about people in conflict. All of us can identify with courage and cowardice and love. These conditions are manifest in the human condition, and I try to bring them to life through my characters.
- What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
I think readers will have a better sense of the times, of history as it was lived. But I also think that they will feel that the characters in this book are now an integral part of their lives, and they will want to see them again.
- What unique challenges did you encounter in writing The Yard Dog?
In any period writing, there is a temptation to bring current thought into the writing. Itís always a challenge to keep mind and body in the period in which they belong.
- What did you learn about yourself writing The Yard Dog?
I learned that the experiences of childhood are never far removed from who you are as a person no matter the miles nor the age.
- How does writing fulfill you?
It gives me purpose.