Brian Freeman finds inspiration in winding dirt roads, crumbling buildings, wind-whipped cornfields beaten by rain. He looks at an abandoned school and does not grow nostalgic about children grown and gone; he looks at the school and thinks, "Murder."
Freeman's seven bestselling novels of psychological suspense (his eighth is, oddly, chick lit) are set Up North in Duluth, in Wisconsin's rural Door County and in the Minnesota River Valley of the state's southwest. "I am not interested in urban themes," he said. "My heart is in the rural Midwest. I want to write books that capture that remoteness of the Midwest."
Duluth is the setting for Freeman's popular Jonathan Stride series, the first of which, "Immoral," was an Edgar Award finalist for best first novel, won the Macavity Award, and sold all over the world. (Another in the series is due next year.)
"There's a sense of faded glory about Duluth," Freeman said. "It's a very hardscrabble town now, with echoes of this glamorous past. It has this feeling of being sort of a pioneer outpost -- the last town before you lose yourself in the Canadian wilderness. And if you look at a map, the lake is like the point of a knife sticking into the city's heart."
Freeman, who lives in Woodbury, grew up in Chicago and came to Minnesota to attend Carleton College. He wrote his first book at age 13, a thriller about the kidnapping of the president. ("Lots of sex and violence. Nothing's changed.") And then, over the next 15 years, he wrote four more. Nothing sold.
At some point, without really meaning to, he stopped writing.
"In the late 1990s, I had taken a pretty busy job -- I was director of marketing for a law firm in Minneapolis -- and I really had not done any writing in a couple of years. I remember sitting in the living room one night, talking to Marcia, my wife, and out of nowhere I just burst into tears. I couldn't understand why I was so upset. And finally I realized that I wasn't being true to myself. I wasn't writing, and that was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. And I just felt like I had to try again."
The next night, he said, he sat down and began "Immoral." Eventually, he sent the manuscript to an agent in the United Kingdom, who wrote back a week later and said she'd stayed up until 1 a.m. reading it. "Four weeks later, we had two book deals, in both the U.S. and the U.K.," he said. A year later, he quit his job to write full-time.
"I always thought I had had some difficult and demanding jobs in my life," Freeman said, "but this is just off-the-scale in terms of what it demands from you. It's the hardest work I've ever done. I get tremendous satisfaction out of the final product, but on any given day there's just about anything I'd rather do than stare at that blank screen."
His latest book, "Spilled Blood," is the first to be set in a location that is not entirely true-to-life. The towns of Barron and St. Croix are based loosely on Montevideo and Granite Falls. "I wanted a more symbolic overlay to the setting," he said. "It was set in Minnesota, and yet it was meant to be a more universal setting. It felt right for this book. And I didn't want the people of Montevideo and Granite Falls permanently being mad at me for the horrible feud I put in these towns."