John Camp drummed his fingers on the long wooden table behind his writing desk. He was 200 words shy of finishing his next thriller -- No. 28 -- and sending glances toward the Mac where he taps them out.
"By midnight tonight, I plan to hit the send key, so my editor gets it first thing in the morning," he said, with a seasoned journalist's dedication to deadline.
To look around the room, you wouldn't think that the author of the popular, gritty "Prey" series (written under his pen name, John Sandford) did most of his work here. It's a beautifully restored library, taken from an old mansion and re-created in a cabin attached to Camp's home on the St. Croix River, a 25-minute drive from St. Paul. The walls are lined with an impressive collection of art, history and archaeology books. A photo of the artist Piet Mondrian hangs to the right of his work space, a Cartier-Bresson in the adjacent hall.
Then, there's the snapshot of three hunters standing over a huge slain moose in the snow, tacked up carelessly above his Mac. OK, that's more like it.
Camp, newspaper reporter and columnist turned bestselling novelist, is a master of storytelling that's as full of character as it is cursing, killing and mayhem. His other passions range from art and photography to golf and hunting. He funds a $150,000-a-year archaeological dig in Israel. A former military man, he also recently reported on Iraq for Parade magazine.
In "Wicked Prey," 19th book of the series, Camp meshes three plots against the chaotic backdrop of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, with his heroic, flawed main character, Minnesota BCA agent Lucas Davenport, in the thick of them all. At 65, Camp still puts out two books a year, one for the "Prey" series in the spring, and one featuring Davenport-in-training Virgil Flowers, a slouchy young detective obsessed with music, in the fall.
Readers need slaps
"I'm somewhat depressive," Camp said matter-of-factly. Still, he keeps a strict regimen of writing 1,000 words a day, usually at night.
"I fear becoming formulaic," he said. "Some of my books are. People like serial-killer stories because it keeps the stress high, but if you keep doing only that, it becomes a waste of time. It has to be something serious enough to carry the story, which means murder or kidnapping. Even rape is not considered strong enough, unless the woman ends up getting killed."
In Camp's view, an author's relationship with readers should be somewhat contentious.
"People ought to be slapped up side of the head, not always get what they expect. That's why sometimes the bad guy gets away."
In his next Virgil Flowers book -- the one he was hoping to send off by midnight -- a bad guy does elude the cops, although without a certain part of his anatomy that falls into something foul after Flowers bites it off.
"There are two worldviews in thriller writing," Camp said. "The paranoid view, like Chuck Logan's, that everything is inside a large clockwork. I like those books, they're intricate and thought out, but my view is that everything is chaotic and stupid. Chaos reigns, and civilized people do what they can to hold it back."
Logan is a friend and fellow former Pioneer Press colleague who followed Camp into the world of Minnesota-set fiction writing. So is Theresa Monsour, who credits Camp with encouraging her early mystery writing.
"He ripped my first effort to shreds and was a great editor," said Monsour, whose star Twin Cities detectives are women.
A while back, Camp also experimented with a female protagonist in "The Night Crew," but doesn't plan to do so again.
"I like writing these kinds of books, but I do it for the money," he said, alluding to the lesser sales of that book. "I do like writing women characters a lot. I've had a lot of women bad guys."
In "Wicked Prey," Davenport's 14-year-old ward, Letty, plays a key role. In the next Prey book, due out in June, his wife, Weather, a doctor, figures prominently.
A family loss
The baby grand in Camp's living room hasn't been played in a while. It belonged to his wife, Susan, who died in May 2007 of breast cancer.
College sweethearts, they were married in their 20s, divorced for six years, and then remarried. Like Davenport's wife, Susan Camp was a doctor. She had a degree in dentistry, an endodontics certificate and a doctorate in oral biology.
After having a seizure, Susan found out the cancer had spread to her brain and was inoperable, Camp said. She got out of the hospital on a Saturday, then successfully defended her thesis three days later. She went back to the university only once, to clean out her office.
A large, well-crafted wooden crib looked incongruous with its surroundings in Camp's study. "It's for my new grandkid, but it's too big to ship, so here it sits," he said.
With both of his children, in their late 30s, living in California, Camp bought a house in Pasadena last fall. Daughter Emily had his second grandchild in February. Son Roswell edits the johnsandford.org website. Both serve as first-line editors on his books.
"They're pretty harsh; they find all kinds of problems," he said. "They're often right."
Knowing the lowlifes
Camp's friends know him by his real name. John Sandford, the surname of a Civil War soldier ancestor, was adopted early on when Camp had two books coming out at once and editors wanted to separate them.
He worked as a reporter in crime-ridden Miami before coming to the Pioneer Press in 1978. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a series on a farm family during the 1980s agricultural crisis, and was nominated once before.
As a reporter, Camp spent more than a month at the state penitentiary near Stillwater, where he got to know some real-life killers and gained insight into how they thought. It certainly didn't turn him into a soft-on-crime kind of guy.
"Criminals tend to be stupid," he said. "They are often vicious because they enjoy it. They can be smart, but there's always something seriously wrong with them. And the prisoners have an almost universal willingness to excuse themselves for what they've done, that society was cheating them. They had good reasons for doing what they did, reasons that to us seem absurd."
Only one of his books has ever been made into a movie, an embarrassingly bad 1999 TV version of "Mind Prey," which was roundly criticized by fans for the odd casting choice of Eriq La Salle, a black actor, as Lucas Davenport. Camp had no role in, or control over, that production.
"I have no interest in movies," Camp said. "Movies are a cooperative effort involving dozens of people and companies and stars. I don't do that."
He doesn't need to. His publisher ships about 450,000 hardcover books a year, and 800,000 in paperback. Three of his "Prey" books have hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He now gets a $4.5 million advance for each "Prey" book.
A softie (sssh)
St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington, a friend of Camp's, has read every "Prey" novel so far.
"John has a great sense of what the basic detective does," he said. "He does take some license, but there's more than a grain of truth in how he writes about cops, how run-of-the mill informants play a role in catching more sensational cases; also the interplay between the cops, how they relate to each other. We have a saying, if we don' t give you a bad time, we don't really love you, and that's part and parcel of Lucas Davenport."
While his main man of fiction can be abrasive and violent, Camp is neither.
"He's actually a softie," Monsour said. "He's gonna kill me for saying that. Going through some old news photos once, he couldn't look at one of deceased children. What he and Davenport do share is being very smart, analytical and cultured."
He's no Chamber of Commerce ambassador, but he has probably familiarized more people across the globe with St. Paul than any of its other citizens. A commenter on amazon.com wrote of the "Prey" books that "Minneapolis-St. Paul just lives in my mind because of Sandford. I sometimes think I could go there and drive around and ... recognize locations. ... "
Camp fills his books with local references that give Twin Cities readers an even more enjoyable read -- the Lexington, the emergency room at Regions Hospital, streets and highways. Sometimes he changes names to protect the innocent. For a shootout that began at the Saint Paul Hotel, he dubbed it the "St. Andrews." For some scenes set at the University of St. Thomas, "I built a mirror-image campus across the street, because the bad guy in that book was so despicable I didn't want the real place to be associated."
Although he's never been to the Twin Cities, Neil Nyren has been Camp's editor at Putnam for more than 20 years. Nyren also edits a cadre of other top thriller writers, including Tom Clancy.
Camp's books always have "twists and turns, so it stays fresh," Nyren said. "His central character is really good, with a constellation of other characters around him that get developed, as well, which his fans love. And the grace notes are the touches of humor, the way cops refer to other cases as they would in real life, the way tangential situations come up all the time."
After 26 books together, Camp and Nyren form an efficient assembly line.
"I got the book Friday, edited it over the weekend," Nyren said after Sandford hit the send button. "We chatted briefly this morning, then it went sailing on to copy editing."
Though he now pads around his rambling house alone, Camp said he has no immediate plans to move elsewhere.
"The only place I might ever move is into St. Paul, maybe near Grand," he said, "because out here I have to drive five miles in the winter to get a sandwich."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046