Debut author Kevin Kluesner jokes that the FBI character in his novel “The Killer Sermon” has certain similarities to him — only “taller, better looking and in better shape.”
Kluesner, who lives in the Milwaukee area and originally hails from Prairie du Chien, tackles the always controversial issue of reproductive rights in his novel, published Jan. 1. He’ll be doing a book signing for “The Killer Sermon” at the East Towne Mall Barnes & Noble later this month.
Q: What is your writing and work background?
TO: My undergraduate degree was in journalism. I thought I was going to be a writer… (however), it was really difficult to find a job when I graduated in 1980. I talked my way into a PR job and later worked in public affairs at a hospital. (But during that time) I was also hired part-time as the outdoor writer for the La Crosse Tribune.
Q: You still work in the health care industry, correct?
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TO: And it is. I served as the administrator of St. Joseph Hospital in Milwaukee for the past nearly five years, and recently became the administrator of the mental health emergency center that is being built in the city. I feel blessed. It’s incredibly rewarding work.
Q: How do you find time to write?
TO: It’s easier when you have a deadline. I’ve always done something else (in addition to a full-time job). I used to teach. The millennials didn’t invent the side hustle. I think it’s great when people are more than one-dimensional. Somebody like me, to be a debut author at 63, it’s a miracle.
Q: Did your writing “The Killer Sermon” benefit from the time you spent as an outdoor writer?
TO: There are a lot of things I feel translated (to fiction writing). As an outdoor writer, one of the things you need to do well is you have to set the scene. Sometimes you hunt or fish and you don’t get anything. People want to feel like they are there.
Q: How long have you been wanting to write “The Killer Sermon?”
TO: This story… it’s been gnawing at me for over 20 years. I would pull it out, start writing and something would come up. A couple of years ago I realized I had 45,000 words written. I’d read Stephen King’s memoir on writing … he basically says: professionals sit down and write. Amateurs wait to be inspired. I just started every Saturday and Sunday morning, I would say I’m not getting up until I write 1,000 words. It took me four months to do the next 45,000 words. I pitched the series and I signed a three-book deal. I have to have the second book turned in by the end of June.
Q: The book centers on the issue of reproductive rights. Why did you pick that topic?
TO: (Reproductive rights) is always there somewhere in the American consciousness. Sometimes it’s simmering on the back burner. Sometimes something happens and it bubbles over. It’s always a hot issue. For me, this story really was about two protagonists — a male FBI agent and a female reporter — who are on very different sides of this divisive issue. They have to put aside their issues to catch a killer.
Q: Was there a message you wanted to get across with this book?
TO: This novel will not change your view (on reproductive rights). If you’re pro-choice, you’ll be pro-choice at the end. The underlying message is that as much as we disagree on these divisive issues… we ought to be able to respect each other. I feel that we’ve kind of lost that as a society.
Q: You have a contract for two more books. Do you plan to bring back the same FBI agent and journalist?
TO: Yes, both are recurring and they both play major roles. One of my secondary characters is an FBI analyst who will play a much larger role in the second book.
Q: Part of the novel takes place in Prairie du Chien. What made you want to set part of the mystery there?
TO: I grew up in Prairie du Chien. I’m a cradle Catholic born and raised. St. Gabriel’s church (in Prairie du Chien) is the oldest stone church in the state of Wisconsin. The town plays a meaningful role in the book (as the place) this small-town priest gives a fiery sermon on Christmas morning. What I want people to take away is that words matter. When you say something in a passionate, powerful way, sometimes they will take a direction and philosophy that you never intended.
I was a little nervous that people in my hometown (would think) “I can’t believe Prairie du Chien is being portrayed like this.” (However), I did a book signing in Prairie du Chien and there were 100 people there. I’ve gotten nothing but love from people there.
Q: What else did you draw on from your past while writing the book?
TO: The main character has two degrees from Marquette, I have two degrees from Marquette. He was a wrestler, I was a wrestler. He grew up in Prairie du Chien (like me). People ask me, “Is the character based on you?” And I say, “Yeah, other than the fact that he’s taller, better looking and in better shape.”
Q: What kind of research did you do to be able to write an FBI agent?
TO: You’d be amazed by how much is online. I had a guy that I found, a retired federal agent, not with the FBI. He was kind enough to read the book and (identify) if anything was unbelievable or would not happen (the way it was written). My FBI agent was going to drive an Acura (like me). Now he drives a Dodge Charger. I’m not as excited about it, but it was little stuff like that.
Q: What can you tell us about the next book in the series?
TO: I have the ending chapter written. The working title is “The Killer Speech.” (The book centers around) the Democratic National Convention that was canceled because of the pandemic. In (FBI character) Cole Huebsch’s world, it takes place. A senator from the great state of Wisconsin gives a rousing speech at the convention and is shot down the next morning when he’s out for a run. I have survived.
Q: Anything else you want people to know about your book?
TO: I think people might read the blurb on the back about reproductive rights and don’t want to be bogged down (by a serious topic). And while it might deal with a divisive topic, it’s not meant to be a divisive book. If anything, hopefully it brings people together a little.