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Home inspector by day, Nicholas Petrie has published his debut crime novel, "The Drifter."

6 questions for Milwaukee author Nicholas Petrie

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Has a book as gripping and engaging as Nicholas Petrie's crime novel, "The Drifter," ever been written about Milwaukee? Interweaving terrorism, homelessness, veterans and Riverwest, the book is a compelling page-turner.

I'm not going to recount the story here because I don't want to spoil a second of it for you, but rest assured, when you switch off your phone and pick up the book, you'll recognize the places Petrie describes in his debut novel, published by big-time publishing house, G.P. Putnam's Sons.

OnMilwaukee: Tell us about how a Milwaukee writer lands a deal with Putnam for his first novel.

Nicholas Petrie: Twenty-five years of writing and a stubborn personality. This is my first published novel, but the fourth novel I'd written. With my first book, I couldn't even find a literary agent to represent me. For my second book, I managed to interest an agent on the West Coast, who did her best but ultimately couldn't find the book a home.

For my third book, I found a hotshot young New York agent, but this was in the fall of 2008, right at the edge of the economic crash. Most publishing houses put off buying any books they hadn't already committed to, including mine.

So I stopped writing for a while, to sulk and tear out my kitchen – sledgehammer therapy – but
eventually my lovely wife reminded me that I'm kind of a pain in the ass to live with when I don't have a writing project. So I started yet another book, with returning veterans and the economic crisis and financial misdeeds all swirling around in my brain. That book became "The Drifter."

After all that hard work, the rest is pure luck. I was lucky that my hotshot New York agent actually remembered me, and loved the book. I was lucky that she sent it to a great editor at Putnam, who also loved the book and became its champion.

I'm lucky that "The Drifter" is getting so much attention now, and resonating with so many readers. It feels, quite frankly, like I won the lottery.

OnMilwaukee: Was there any doubt you'd set the book in Milwaukee? Really, the story would've worked anywhere – you can disagree with me on this, of course – so was it just natural because you know this place so well?

When I began writing, I set the book in Milwaukee for the most basic of reasons – I live here, and it's so much easier to do research when you're local. And I love my town. I wanted to bring it to life.

While I agree that the basic plot would have worked anywhere, the book itself would have been very different if it was set in, say, San Diego. The setting is very important, and Milwaukee does a lot of work in this book – it's an industrial city with a working-class heart, struggling to find itself in the next age, which is a perfect metaphor for the main character. I think Milwaukee helped me find that character.

OnMilwaukee: "The Drifter" is set in Milwaukee but it's not over the top about naming this or that landmark and dropping names. Were you careful about not overdoing that aspect or simply good at it?

Petrie: I always enjoy reading novels set in cities I've visited, because it can be like a scavenger hunt – hey, I've been to that place, that restaurant or museum or whatever. Specific details add up to give a place life, even if you've never been there. But those details can't interfere with the story, and hopefully I'm writing not just for my Cream City readers, but also for a larger audience. So walking that tightrope is always a challenge.

Sometimes I do sneak things in for the fun of it. When I started writing this book, Alterra was still Alterra. I had a spirited back-and-forth with my copy editor – obviously, it's now Colectivo, and she wanted to change it, to be more accurate. But I wanted it to remain Alterra in the book, as a kind of love letter. I wrote a lot of pages in those coffee shops.

OnMilwaukee: The book brings together a number of really contemporary themes including veterans' homelessness and mental illness, and terrorism. Not to overthink this, but is this a crime novel with a bigger message? What do you hope readers will take away other than, wow that was a gripping book?

Petrie: I'm glad "The Drifter" grabbed you, and that's definitely the goal – to entertain you, to keep you up all night, reading. But crime fiction has always been a place to talk about larger social issues, from Raymond Chandler to Patricia Highsmith to John Grisham.

This book really came to life for me during my conversations with folks coming home from the war. I began to do more research, and became both deeply impressed by the people I've met and deeply moved by the challenges that some still face, years later. I hope that came through in the writing.

I don't have a particular message I'm trying to deliver. Polemics are boring, especially in fiction. But stories about people can be powerful, and if I do my job well, I can help readers see and feel things they might not otherwise. And that's what good fiction should do – shine a light, get people thinking, and spark a larger conversation.

OnMilwaukee: Do you have a deal for another book? What's next for you?

Petrie: Part of the original agreement with Putnam was that I write a second book, which I finished not long ago. It also features Peter Ash, the hero from "The Drifter," and publication is scheduled for January 2017.

The truly great news is that I recently reached a new agreement with Putnam for two more books, and I'm very excited about my new project.

Of course, I'm still working most days as a home inspector – I still really enjoy that work, and my clients. The physical world is a great antidote and inspiration for the mental life of a writer.

OnMilwaukee: Where can folks meet you to get books signed, etc. in coming weeks?

Petrie: The Whitefish Bay Library is hosting an event at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27, and I'll be at the Greendale Library at 6:30 on Friday, Jan. 29. Tell all your friends.

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