Author Interview: Leonard Krishtalka
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 fiancée, 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.
Facebook: Kris Krishtalka [facebook.com/Krishtalka]
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.