Author Mark Zubro brings mystery to Milwaukee

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Next year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of popular gay mystery writer Mark Zubro’s award-winning first book — A Simple Suburban Murder. Since that time, the prolific author has written more than two dozen books, mostly in the mystery genre. This year, however, he’s expanded his repertoire to include science fiction. He  describes his new novel Alien Quest as “23 years in the making” and the first in a new series.

I spoke earlier this month with the Racine native and Chicago resident.

Gregg Shapiro: As a writer specializing in genre fiction, do you also read genre fiction?

Mark Zubro: The most influential mystery writer is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. His work taught me several important things: the absolutely vital notion that the sleuth involved must follow the logic of the evidence; that humanizing the sleuth was key; that the story is paramount; and that a clever twist at the end is always a plus. 

How about science fiction writers?

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is still my favorite science fiction epic. It’s brilliant in its sweep and imaginative constructs.

Do you have an all-time favorite author? 

J.R.R. Tolkien. I used to read the Hobbit and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy at least once a year. Now it’s every two or three years. It’s just a masterful work of world creation and a triumph of imagination.

You have two ongoing mystery series — those featuring Tom Mason and Scott Carpenter and those involving Paul Turner. How do you decide which mysteries are a better fit for your characters?

The Tom Mason ones are the trickiest. They’re in the “amateur sleuth” sub-genre of mysteries. The problem for them is always what I call the “Jessica Fletcher” syndrome. In all reality, if the police didn’t show Jessica the door, the “too interested” person is always high on the suspect list. So, the key is figuring a way to get Tom and Scott involved without the story turning into a cliché or becoming unrealistic. They have to have some personal connection to the case or some plausible reason for getting involved. The Paul Turner books are easier in the sense that, since he’s a police detective, he has a logical reason to be involved built in.

February marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of your award-winning mystery A Simple Suburban Murder. Do you have plans to do anything special to mark the occasion?

Mostly for special occasions, I indulge in as much chocolate I can get my hands on (laughs). For that anniversary I can see ordering Maine Whoopie Pies, picking up Haagen Dazs dark chocolate chip gelato and perhaps — for variety — a few confections from Taste of Heaven bakery up on Clark Street in Chicago — certainly their bread pudding — maybe a cupcake or two, and then maybe a chocolate chip cookie from the Ghirardelli shop across from the Water Tower — warmed up for 30 seconds in the microwave (the cookie not the Water Tower).

You regularly do readings at Outwords Books in Milwaukee. What’s your connection to that bookstore and to Milwaukee?

Carl at Outwords has been fantastic all these years supporting me and my books. The patrons of his store have been some of my most loyal and kind readers. The readings are always great fun for me and, I hope, the audience — not counting the goodies and munchies Carl always provides. Besides a business acquaintance, Carl is a good friend who has been most generous with his time and wonderfully consistent in inviting me to read at his store. In addition to that I was born in Racine and lived there until we moved to California the summer I was 13. The first baseball game I went to was at the old Milwaukee County Stadium. I remember seeing Hank Aaron hit a homerun. 

As an Illinois resident, what does the passage of marriage equality mean to you?

The feeling for me is that now I live in a “free state.” What I mean by that is my dignity, our dignity, is no longer diminished in law in Illinois. It is a tremendous triumph for all gay people. I’ve been working for LGBT rights for many years. My books are tremendously political in that they never shy away from showing proud and open gay men and women dealing with prejudice and discrimination. Among other things, I was treasurer of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force back in the early ’80s. I used my position as president of the teachers’ union, where I taught to advance the cause of LGBT rights at every opportunity. I’ve written to Illinois senators and reps. Stood in the rain with the thousands of others of us this October. All that marching and frustration, meetings and writing, being rebuffed or ignored and never giving up hope — all that work by each of us has paid off for us with this legislation.

On the shelf

Mark Zubro reads from his books Pawn of Satan and Alien Quest at Milwaukee’s Outwords Books, 2710 N. Murray Ave., at 7 p.m. on Nov. 23. Call 414-963-9089 or visit outwordsbooks.com.