Interview with J. Michael Orenduff

J. Michael Orenduff’s website claims that the award-winning author “grew up in a house so close to the Rio Grande he could Frisbee a tortilla into Mexico from his back yard, a practice frowned upon by his mother.” That must be how he makes Albuquerque, New Mexico come alive in his Pot Thief series. Orenduff also writes for the stage, and his play, The Christmas Visitor, has garnered several awards–including first prize in the Jewel Box Playwriting Contest–and was selected as one of the “Top 100” by Writer’s Digest in 2008.  Welcome Michael!

According to the Archeological Resources Protection Act, your protagonist, Hubert “Hubie” Schuze, is a pot thief. Did the ARPA really put treasure hunters out of business?

Almost. The only place it is now legal to dig for artifacts is on private land, but getting permission to do so is difficult. Most known sites are on public land. You can fish, graze cattle, cut firewood, and mine for gold on public land, but if you happen to kick up an arrowhead while hiking, you better leave it where it falls.

Hubie resides in New Mexico and studied anthropology. J. Michael Orenduff lived in New Mexico and studied anthropology. What else do you and Hubie have in common?

Almost nothing. He’s short, single, and has a full head of hair. I’m tall, bald, and happily married with two children and a grandson. Hubie hates travel and martinis. I love both.

You’ve lived in so many interesting places—Texas, Maine, Bulgaria, Chile, Bermuda. What made you place your mysteries in New Mexico?

I wanted the protagonist to have some moral ambiguity, so I made him a treasure hunter, and New Mexico is the perfect place for that.

In The Pot Thief books, Albuquerque comes to life. You convey a deep sense of the scenery and people in the details, all the way down to the food. Since you no longer live in New Mexico, how do you corroborate the details?

I spent much of my childhood in New Mexico, and the memories are as fresh as the desert air. Maybe that’s why they call them the “formative years.” New Mexico is in my blood. I have many family members and friends all over New Mexico, and I visit there every chance I get.

Your books involve scientific theories and manage to make them entertaining! The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras delves into math, and The Pot Thief who Studied Ptolemy reflects on astronomy. Why this added layer? And were you worried the titles might intimidate readers?

I think the “Pot Thief” part of the title actually added a few sales to young people who thought it referred to a different kind of pot! Seriously, I believe a good book should entertain and enlighten. I spent most of my life as a teacher, so I enjoy the challenge of trying to make theories understandable and interesting. I try to work them into the story in such as way that they don’t sound like textbooks or lectures. I also get help from experts in the various disciplines. The next one in the series is The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein, so that should be a real challenge.

As someone who’s read both books, I can attest to the fact that the science fits the mystery and is offered in an enlightening manner. I wish my high school science teacher had made class as understandable and enjoyable! 

When you write your mysteries, which do you focus on first—the crime, the scientific theory, or the antagonist?

I tried focusing on the antagonist, but in each of the first three books, a strange thing happened. I decided about halfway into the story to change who did it! Of course that required considerable re-writing, but I enjoy the process, and it makes for better ‘aha’ moments because the final story is more ingenious than the one I thought up before starting to write. I guess I have to be immersed in the book before the creative juices flow.

I understand that you recently sold out of books at the launch of The Pot Thief who studied Ptolemy. What have you done to build up a following of readers?

The successful launch of The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy was due in large part to a great article in the Albuquerque Journal just days before the launch, to the hard work of the bookstore owner who publicized the event, and to the fact that it was held on the evening of the annual Holiday Stroll in Old Town where people come out to shop and watch the lighting of the Christmas tree. There were a lot of Pot Thief books under Christmas trees in Albuquerque.
I think the two main keys to building a following of readers is to be in touch with as many of them as possible and to have a new book out at least every year.

Your wife is noted art historian Lai Chew Orenduff. Have you ever thought about teaming up with her to write an art mystery?

Absolutely. She is too busy with her day job at this point, but when she retires, we definitely want to write such a book

That’s something I look forward to. Until then, what’s next on your agenda?

As mentioned above, The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein will be out later this year. It’s complete, so I’m working on the next one and trying to find a theater company to produce one of my plays. The play, The Christmas Visitor, has won four awards from various playwriting contests and was going to be produced by a theater in Norfolk, Virginia, but they went broke last month, another victim of the economy. We give government money to banks who pay their executives billions in bonuses, but there was no stimulus money for the arts. I’ll step down from my soap box now. Thanks for the interview.

Thank you, Michael.

You can find out much more about Michael and The Pot Thief series by visiting his web site and blog and in this recent interview with author Marilyn Meredith on her blog, Marilyn’s Musings. His books can be found in many bookstores–both in store and online–and you can check your local independant bookstore as well. Michael and his wife Lai will present “A Good Cover is Worth a Thousand Words”at this June’s Public Safety Writer’s Conference in Las Vegas.

Finally, you can find a review of the first Pot Thief book (with the second soon to follow) at Jackie Houchin’s News and Reviews .

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