Author Interview: Leonard Krishtalka

 


Okay readers, I have a real treat for you today! It's a special edition of Author Interview Day. We are going to be talking to Leonard Krishtalka about prehistory, dinosaurs, writing and of course his books, A detective series, which sounds fantastic. 

JMR-Welcome to the Books Delight, Leonard. Tell our readers where you live, what you do for fun and  what does the perfect day look like? 

LK- I am fortunate to live in Lawrence, KS, a college town (home of the University of  Kansas), where one of the main things I do for fun––cycling––is inspired by a wooded and  tall grass terrain undulating to the horizon under a huge unfurling sky. Cycling here is  exhilarating, expansive, and seductive: on my road bike, that slim, lissome carbon  silhouette ghosting through the wind; or on my gravel bike, meandering through the farms  and fields and unbroken landscapes––and dodging dogs that think a bicycle is a large  rabbit worth chasing.  

These times, a perfect day has three components: first, wake up healthy, COVID-free;  second, go for a long bike ride at sunrise to see the prairie rise and fall in the long  shadows of the morning light. In winter, ride into the cold chill of the air and see the low  sun refract through the crystals of snow, turning light liquid. Third, return home without  crashing , brew coffee, turn off the phone, email, and media, and write a chapter or two or  three––or even a page––of the current novel. 





JMR-I suspect your answer to this perennial question might be different from my usual author interview.  What’s your favorite historical/prehistorical time period? Why?  

LK-What a great question. I have multiple favorite prehistoric periods––Jurassic,  Cretaceous, Pleistocene––and one favorite historic period, the Enlightenment, all because  of the little-known stories they tell. The Jurassic story is about Andrew Carnegie, who saw  an 1898 New York Journal newspaper headline about a dinosaur bone: “Most Colossal  Animals Ever on Earth Just Found Out West!,” ordered his Carnegie Museum paleontologists to “buy one for Pittsburgh!” and sent them a check for $10,000 for an  expedition to Wyoming. They went west and unearthed two magnificent skeletons of a  long-necked, long-tailed, huge-limbed dinosaur, Diplodocus, in the Jurassic badlands at  Sheep Creek, Wyoming. The date? Independence Day, July 4, 1899––the Carnegie  bonehunters didn’t take the day off. They named the dinosaur for Andrew––Diplodocus  carnegii––and mounted it as the centerpiece of his new brand new natural history museum (picture below). It’s also the murder weapon in my novel, The Bone Field, the first in the  Harry Przewalski series of mysteries.

For me, the Cretaceous, also famous for its dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops, tells the story of a poorly known, but most important fish, the coelacanth (see la-kanth). It’s a “living fossil” thought to have become extinct 66 million years ago at the  end of the Cretaceous until biologist Marjorie Courtnay-Latimer suddenly came across one  in an open fish market in a port town on the east coast of South Africa in 1938. She was  astounded. She knew immediately that this single fish was an incredible discovery. Rather  than typical fins, she saw that the fish had primitive limbs––inside the lobe-like fins were  the same arm and leg bones that frogs, alligators, birds, dogs, cats, and people have in their arms and legs. Strip away the skin and muscles, its skeleton is a clone of the ancient  fossil coelacanths preserved in Cretaceous rocks. It was a living survivor of an ancient  group of fishes that 400 million years ago moved from swimming in the sea to walking on land. And here it was in the flesh, as if magically resurrected after 66 million years.  Appropriately, it looks extinct. It is massive and monstrous. Its anatomy is antique. Its head, scales, skeleton, muscles, organs and lobed fins tell us how life went from water to  land in deep time and eventually gave rise to amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and us. It is an ancient knot unfurled on the tree of life. And it hurtles me through time like no  other machine. The living coelacanth was named Latimeria in Marjorie’s honor. 

Finally, the Pleistocene, the prehistoric period of the past 2 million years. The story it tells me is the appearance of modern humanity, our species, Homo sapiens, about 50,000  years ago, and our first real signature on the planet: the incredible ochred silhouettes of  animals on the cave walls in southern France and Spain: luminous bison, deer, mammoths  and horses. Who were the prehistoric artists? What motivated them to paint just these four  animals repeatedly, 90% of the time? Why did they crawl into the deepest recesses of the  caves to paint these magnificent works? And why didn’t they paint the skies, clouds, trees,  grasses, rivers, and lakes they saw outside the caves? The prehistoric cave art is one of  humanity’s greatest creations––and greatest mysteries. It’s told in Death Spoke, the second  novel in the Przewalski series––with a couple of murders. 




My favorite historic period is the Enlightenment––the 1700s and 1800s because of its yin-yang meaning, its terrible dualism. On the one hand, it gave us modern thought. It  unshackled and emancipated us from a time of medieval superstition and beliefs, from  when the life and topography and makeup of the Earth were conceived to be as they always had been: unchanging, unconnected, and created a few thousand years ago during  Genesis. Reason replaced superstition and ushered in our modern ideas of liberty,  equality, progress, democracy, art, science, and freedom of expression and investigation. 

The other side of the Enlightenment is dark, in which grew the roots of systemic  racism. At that time, European countries were also establishing their “empires” in Africa,  Asia and the Americas. Concluding that the indigenous people they encountered were  inferior physically and mentally, they classified them as subhuman, incapable of culture or civilization. People’s skin color became the proxy for intellectual capacity. What followed  was horrific: subjugation, enslavement, slaughter. Anthropology blessed and broadcast  these ideas of race and racial superiority, which suffused our society and popular culture––art, literature, film, museums, education, business, world’s fairs, etc. Now, speaking as a  museum director, we can use that very culture and its artifacts and exhibits to teach,  reveal, and reverse what we got very wrong. This story is told in The Camel Driver, the 3rd novel in the Przewalski series, part historical fiction, part murder mystery, centering on the  macabre history of a diorama at the Carnegie Museum called Arab Courier Attacked by  Lions. 

JMR- What do most people get wrong about prehistoric time? 

LK- I think what most might get wrong about prehistoric time is time itself. The Earth  originated 4.5 billion years ago––how do we grasp the span and meaning of a billion  years? Imagine a book with 4.5 billion pages. It would be 145 miles thick.  

What’s also easy to get wrong is the increasingly fast and furious pace of events during  that 4.5 billion-year history. Imagine that those 4.5 billion years is represented by a one hour clock, starting at 8:00 in the morning. Nothing happens for the first 13 minutes!  Then, at 8:13, it’s the origin of life, and at 8:53, the appearance of the first fish (and the  coelacanth). A mere 3.3 minutes later, dinosaurs (and Diplodocus) appear at 8:57:01. But  they only live for 2 minutes, because they vanish at the end of the Cretaceous as the clock strikes 8:59. Then, in quick succession, we record the first human ancestor 47 seconds  later, the Ice Ages 0.4 seconds later, and, almost instantly, at 8:59:59.9 the first modern  humans and cave art. 

JMR-Who is your favorite historical figure? Why? If you could ask them one question, what would it be? 

LK- Tough question. It’s a tie between Galileo, Darwin and Lincoln. All three brought us humility. Galileo taught us that we are not at the center of the universe, that we are one  planet orbiting one sun amid a billion others. Darwin taught us that we are not at the  center of a special creation, that our origins are as humbling geologically and genetically as the rest of life on Earth. And Lincoln taught us that no human group is at the center of  humanity, that all of us are equal in our diversity. But, although we are not at the center of  anything, we are the only conscious species on Earth that has inherited the responsibility  to steward it wisely. 

I would ask Darwin two questions: first, after his expeditions and voyages and  investigations, after his writing On the Origin of Species, and the Descent of Man, what  was his take on the meaning of life. If I had to guess, he would quip: “Change.” 

The second question could be a thriller: in 1858 Darwin was in a desperate race to  beat Alfred Russell Wallace in publishing his theory of evolution through natural selection and get credit for it. Wallace had also independently come up with this theory—indeed he  had written Darwin about his intent to publish it while he was on an expedition in the  Malay Archipelago. I would ask Darwin how he and his colleagues in London schemed to  get him a quick publication with Wallace as a subsidiary author, so that Darwin would  forever be credited with his theory? 

JMR- You are a paleontologist and have spent years looking far into the earth’s past. I read you found  part of Lucy’s skull, which I think is really amazing. How did you come to be a writer of fiction? 

LK- I’ve always loved to write. As a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, I  wrote and published many scientific articles, which, a cynic might say, given the march of  science and new discoveries, quickly became fiction. But, seriously, an equal or greater  pleasure came from writing popular natural history articles for Carnegie Magazine, a bi monthly published by Carnegie Institute, on the meaning, implications and hidden stories  behind discoveries and theories, from the outstanding to the preposterous. These pieces  were collected and published as Dinosaur Plots and Other Intrigues in Natural History. The pleasure came from conveying exciting but complex ideas in biology, geology,  paleontology, genetics, astronomy and so on to the public––after all, it was their taxes that  had funded the science. Shouldn’t they know and be entertained by what knowledge their  hard-earned dollars bought? Also, I think our job as scientists is to do all we can to engage  the public to demand fact-based evidence and science policy. Most of all, every science story is a mystery, an intrigue that captures the senses. At the same time, I’ve long been an avid reader of the mystery genre, which, although  popular, is consigned by the high-brow literary world of literary criticism to low-brow, B status, much like the noire “B”-films of Bogart, Cagney, Bette Davis, and so many others now considered classics. I also long thought that the best works in the mystery genre–– Hammett, Chandler, Stout, Elmore Leonard, Ian Rankin, Margaret Millar, Patricia  Highsmith, and others––explored the same fault lines in the human condition as do the  literary classics. The characters are just as heroic and flawed. The relationships are just as  conflicted and complex. The seven deadly sins are just as deadly. And the stories expose  the same gritty corruption of human institutions. As with science, each human story is an  intrigue. 

So, I decided that the two needed to be explored together––a science intrigue wrapped  inside a human intrigue in a series of mystery novels, or what Graham Greene called  “entertainments.” 

JMR- Tell us about your series and your new release, The Camel Driver

LK- Like I said, the Harry Przewalski series features the human intrigues around science  intrigues. Harry was a student of paleontology, but after the brutal rape and murder of his  fiancĂ©e, he escaped to a desert war and came back with a gun and a license to detect.  Now, as a private investigator, he excavates the dirty underbelly of people’s lives,  unearthing sexual betrayals, treachery, fraud and murder buried beneath the science of  shards, skin and bones. His Polish-Russian name is apt, a wild horse from the steppes that  almost became extinct.  



In The Bone Field, the first novel in the series, Peter Marchand, a star paleontologist at the  Carnegie Museum vanishes in the middle of the night while leading a dinosaur excavation  in the badlands of Wyoming. The museum hires Przewalski to find him. As a reporter on  the expedition remarks: “We’re alike, Harry … journalists … paleontologists … detectives.  We dig up what history tries to bury.” Harry chases Marchand across 80 million years of  intrigue and death, from the bone field of petrified skeletons to the bone rooms of the  museum. Ultimately, he must excavate the nightmares in his own past. 

In Death Spoke, the 2nd novel, the murder of Joyce Fulbright, a University of Kansas dean,  renowned archaeologist, and expert on prehistoric cave paintings, reveals webs of  academic blackmail, archaeological fraud, and a WWII atrocity surrounding the most  famous cave art in France. Fulbright’s academic politics was ruthless. Her cave art studies  threatened to overturn French cultural heritage and ruin professional careers. Her lover,  James Porter, the chair of the Anthropology Department, is charged with her murder,  implicated by semen, hair and fingerprints. Police think the case is closed. His lawyer thinks he’s guilty. Porter hires Przewalski to find the killer and clear him. Harry meets  Ruby, a former student of Fulbright’s and victim of academic prejudice and an abusive  marriage. They discover a diabolical act of vendetta and redemption hatched in the  deepest recesses of the caves. I’m honored that Death Spoke was named the best novel in  Fiction––Mystery/Thriller by Midwest Book Awards. 

In the 3rd novel, The Camel Driver, to be published November 28, the vandalism of a  world-famous diorama, Arab Courier Attacked by Lions, in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum  immerses Przewalski in the moral dilemmas of sanctioned evil: slavery, sexual betrayal, an  abandoned child, and a lurid trial in 1820s Cape Town, South Africa; the plundering of  graves in Botswana and North Africa for taxidermied human dioramas; a deadly race for  scientific fame; and the ugly prejudices birthed, blessed and broadcast by anthropology  and museums about peoples, race, racial superiority, and the place of humans in nature’s  alleged “Great Chain of Being.” 

The historical context is critical. Arab Courier Attacked by Lions won the gold medal at  the 1867 Paris Exposition. It was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New  York, which considered it too theatrical to be displayed in the public galleries, and sold it  to the Carnegie Museum in 1899. There, ironically, Arab Courier became the most  popular exhibit after the skeleton of Andrew’s dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegii. In 2019, the  Carnegie Museum, responding to racial concerns, renamed the diorama Lions Attacking a  Dromedary––removing mention of the “Courier” because he is mounted with his original  skull and teeth under his hood and headdress. In September, 2020, amid continuing controversy, the Carnegie draped the diorama from public view. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette interviewed me about the exhibit, citing The Camel Driver in its coverage of the  contentiousness surrounding the diorama’s creation, contents and meaning. 

JMR-What’s the most unusual bit of history included in any of your novels? 

LK- Tough choice. There is a tiny, dust blown town in Wyoming’s Wind River Basin called  Lost Cabin. It has nine homes. Five are ramshackle trailer jobs, three, weather beaten  stuccos. The ninth rises from the scrub like a fevered apparition, an elegant Victorian  mansion wrapped in big-block, dark red limestone. It has four floors, a windowed tower,  an expansive veranda that girdles the house, a tall, wrought iron gate, and a winding  driveway. Locals call it the Okie house. John Okie built it in 1898. It cost him $100,000. The Indians called it Big Tepee, because back then most of Wyoming was living in sod roofed shacks. Okie started as a penniless cowboy and became a millionaire. He bought  up land, livestock and general stores. He built the first steam sheep-shearing plant in the  United States in Casper, Wyoming in 1894. He had his wife inaugurate the plant. She steam-sheared the first sheep in less than five minutes. It was good theater. He made a  fortune. Two hundred sheepherders used to work for him on his ranch. A thousand  people lived in Lost Cabin then. His general store carried the latest fashions from Paris for  the ladies. His Oasis Hotel featured fine food, a dance pavilion with fine music, and a roller skating rink. He installed electric lights in Lost Cabin while the rest of Wyoming was still living by kerosene. He put modern plumbing in this house when most of the state  was still running to the outhouse. And its rumored that his library in that mansion had a  first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species. Okie had a petting zoo on the grounds  with imported animals from Africa, South America, and India. He put a powerful brass  telescope in the tower so that he could command a view of his piece of Wyoming. 

On a cloudy November day in 1930, Okie left his mansion to go duck hunting near Lost  Cabin. He never came back. Two days later his body was fished out of the town  reservoir. Officials ruled it an accidental drowning. Locals knew he was murdered by  one of his business or personal enemies. Okie was buried in the Lost Cabin cemetery, an  open windblown field just north of town that he used to survey with his telescope.  



JMR-What projects do you have in the pipeline? 

LK- The 4th novel in the Przewalski series, Native Blood is 17 chapters in. There’s the  science intrigue about the first peopling of the Americas 13,000 years ago: who were they,  where did they migrate from, what sea or land routes did they use?. There’s the political  intrigue––the subjugation of Arctic peoples and the meaning of indigenousness. And  there’s the vicious academic brawling and wrangling and archaeological deception amid lives betrayed and murder. 

In spring 2021, my historical fiction novel, The Body on the Bed, is due to be published. It  is based on a real incident. The body of Isaac Miles Ruthman was found in his bed the  morning of April 27, 1871 at 57 Kentucky Street in Lawrence, Kansas. Authorities had to  break into his bedroom—the door was locked from the inside. An autopsy determined he  died of ingesting two poisons, morphine and atropine, deadly nightshade. Before dying,  he wrote a note to his wife, Anne Catherine, saying that his doctor, John J. Medlicott, had  visited him the previous evening and administered his nightly dose of medicine. The  doctor was arrested and charged with first degree murder. In his wallet were two love  poems and a picture of Anne Catherine. Four months earlier, the doctor’s wife had  suddenly died, allegedly from an onset of apoplexy. Did the doctor kill Ruthman? Did  Ruthman commit suicide, depressed over his finances and ill health? Did he accidentally take the wrong medicinal powder?


One of the first to find the body was Mary Fanning, the Ruthman’s next door neighbor.  Her sharp, inquisitive mind leads her to become the first woman newspaper  correspondent west of the Mississippi. Her independence leads her to fight for suffrage for women and blacks in post-Civil War Kansas. Her ardor leads her into a love affair with a  woman. As a reporter for the Kansas Daily Tribune, she covers the sensational trial, which  brought correspondents from New York, Washington, Chicago, St. Louis, and San  Francisco. Her investigation of the sordid case of Isaac Miles Ruthman reveals what  happened at 57 Kentucky Street. 

JMR- Tell our readers how to find you on social media and the web.  

LK 

Twitter: @Lkrishtalka 

Webpage: Leonardkrishtalka.com 

Facebook: Kris Krishtalka [facebook.com/Krishtalka] 

Amazon: https://amazon.com/author/leonardkrishtalka 

Publisher: http://Anamcara-press.com 

LinkedIn: Leonard-Krishtalka 

Instagram: @Kriskrishtalka 

JMR- What question were you hoping I’d ask but didn’t? 

LK- How I write: do I story-board the whole novel ahead of time or meander forward  without a preconceived map? I do the latter. I let the novel pull me in the directions it  wants to go, often unexpected and unanticipated, like riding a horse-drawn wagon that  suddenly veers down uncharted alleys. Those are among the most rewarding moments in  writing, when you find exploring uncharted terrain and novel realizations, often about  oneself.

JMR- Thank you Leonard for a very fun and informative interview. I believe this will go down as one of my favorites. Readers, don't his books sound fantastic! I have included a link, below, for you to check them out.


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