Kansas City-based author Alex Greenwood discusses his e-book mystery thriller Pilate’s Cross. Learn more about Greenwood’s debut novel, read an excerpt, and watch a trailer for the book created by produced by T2 + Back Alley Films.
About the Book
‘The X-Files’ meets ‘The Prisoner’ when John Pilate, his sarcastic imaginary pal Simon, and lovely instructor friend Kate investigate the mystery of a murdered college president––a mystery with loose ends more than 40 years later. In too deep to wash his hands of the mystery, he risks death to get to the truth of what really happened in 1963 and why it’s just as deadly 40 years later.
Pete Dulin: What motivated you to write this novel?
Alex Greenwood: In 2003, I was at a crossroads in my life and career. I really wanted to get out of my home state of Oklahoma and start over. I had just lost an election and been through the wringer with some health and personal issues. So when I was offered a job at a college in southeast Nebraska, I took it.
Peru, Nebraska really made an impression on me. Great people, beautiful area. The novelty and laid-back nature of being in a town with fewer people than my high school was definitely what I needed.
As pubilc relations director of the college, I had to be knowledgeable about certain bits of school lore, and one day I found a fat manila envelope on my desk with a sticky note from my boss, the president. It said “Alex you might find this interesting.” He was right. Everything that seemed so very “Norman Rockwell” went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.
It was crammed with crime scene photos, reports, affidavits, and news stories. I couldn’t believe that something so grotesque had occurred right there in the middle of Mayberry. I read the file and put it away, but thought about it often because every day outside my office I’d see a plaque honoring the murdered men.
Nobody really talked about it, but for me the murder was always there, just under the surface. I’d especially think about it when the fierce, snowy, isolating winter storms would hit.
A couple of years later, I knew it was time to go. I moved to Kansas City to be closer to my then-fiancé and take a job at KCPT. Still, I felt as if I had unfinished business in Peru. Unpacking I found a copy I had made of the file the president had given me. I decided that horrible event would be the basis for a novel about the cathartic experience I had in tiny, snowy Peru. I started writing the next day. Of course, it had to be a mystery.
“Everything that seemed so very ‘Norman Rockwell’ went out the window when I read about a double-murder-suicide at Peru State College in 1950.”
Dulin: Tell us about the research involved to get at the facts behind the true-life murders that inspired your novel.
Greenwood: That file had just about all the information I could find about the actual 1950 murders––try to Google it and you’ll see what I mean. But it was enough to provide a foundation for a story based in part on those tragic events. I borrowed some scenes from the actual witness affidavits––I reworked some testimony from two typewriter salesmen, for example. I wanted to be careful not to use too much––out of respect for what happened––but there are certainly fingerprints of the real crime on the book.
The actual murders occurred at Peru State College in 1950. Pilate’s Cross starts with the murder of the “Cross College” president in 1963 within days of JFK’s assassination. It then shifts ahead more than forty years to our hero John Pilate stumbling into a job at Cross College in tiny Cross Township. He’s distrusted by most of the people there and becomes a pawn in a game he doesn’t understand.
PresentMagazine.com: How long did it take to write the book?
Greenwood: I wrote the first draft in three months – six days a week, three to four hours a day. Yes, I will cop to the cliché’: I wrote that first draft on a laptop in the Starbucks at Country Club Plaza.
The finished book people are reading today on their iPads and Kindles took about eighteen months and six drafts. I did about four “polishes” on top of that.
PresentMagazine.com: Why did you choose to include an imaginary character in this book?
Greenwood: John Pilate, the hero of this book, has an imaginary (?) friend called Simon who doesn’t have a high opinion of him. Simon is a personification of Pilate’s lack of self-confidence and also illustrates some issues he has with depression. I think everyone has some form of ‘Simon’ in his or her subconscious.
Some readers believe Simon is absolutely real – corporeal – and out to kill Pilate. Others say they believe Pilate is schizophrenic and Simon is a voice Pilate hears. It’s a tricky thing to do in a book – I’ll say that. One agent told me she hated Simon and that if I’d take him out the book it would stand a better chance of publication. I couldn’t do it. Pilate needs Simon.
PresentMagazine.com: How did the idea for a book trailer come about?
Greenwood: Readers have told me they thought they could easily see Pilate’s Cross as a movie. That’s why I’m so excited I got the chance to work with the talented crew at T2 + Back Alley Films of Kansas City.
This never would have happened without the vision of T2 + Back Alley Films CEO Teri Rogers. She’s a courageous innovator, always looking ahead to that next undiscovered country. When I told her about my book, she immediately suggested a trailer. Not many firms of T2’s stature are doing trailers. I had given a trailer some thought, but never dreamed a nationally recognized digital media agency like T2 would work with me.
The trailer really transports you right into the world of Cross Township – like a movie. I wrote a treatment and a script, and then T2’s team created a concept that I think just blows away most book trailers. Their concept and screen execution was teamed with Wheeler Audio of Kansas City to record actors and mix sound for the trailer. I voiced two of the characters – guess which ones?
PresentMagazine.com: Can you hint at details for the follow-up novel?
Greenwood: The book is tentatively titled Pilate’s Key. I can tell you that our hero is in Key West, Florida––and he isn’t just working on his tan. To say much more might make Pilate’s Cross less fun to read, so I’ll leave it at that. I hoped to have it done by Christmas, but as John Lennon said, “life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” So, hopefully it will be done by next summer.
PresentMagazine.com: How can people buy the e-book?
Greenwood: The book is available in all ereader formats. You can find it in all formats (and download a 50% sample free) on Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6806. You can also buy it on iBooks, BarnesandNoble.com, Kobo, Diesel and a few others. Links for Pilate’s Cross at those retailers are on the book’s website, PilatesCross.com.
PresentMagazine.com: Anything else you’d like to share?
Greenwood: One thing that the e-book format doesn’t do justice is the brilliant, absolutely Hitchcockian book cover design by Kansas City artist David Terrill. He totally nailed the themes of danger, isolation and fun. We had such a great time working together that we’re now collaborating on a novel based on a series of paintings he created called What the Gardener Saw. He’s such an incredible talent; I’m humbled to be collaborating with him.
I hope e-book fans will give my book a shot. I promise you a fun read––great for the plane, at the beach or in front of the fire this winter. If e-book sales do well, I may also consider a limited paperback run.
Watch the Trailer: Pilate’s Cross
Interview originally published in Present Magazine.
EXCERPT: Pilate’s Cross by J. Alexander Greenwood. © 2009.
He answered the phone. It was Sheriff Scovill.
“Mr. Pilate, we need you to move your car,” he said. “We’re finishing some demolition of a structure next door to your apartment. The trucks need your space for the day if you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all,” he said. “Sheriff, if you don’t mind me asking, what are they tearing down?”
Scovill paused. Pilate imagined Scovill taking a toothpick from his mouth like a guard out of Cool Hand Luke.
“It’s the old Bernard house. Been vacant a long time. The College bought it last month and President Lindstrom wants it gone,” he said.
Pilate moved his car from the path of trucks and equipment as they demolished the white two-story home next door to his faculty apartment.
He loitered a moment to observe the heavy equipment as it pulled down the wooden skin and frame of the shabby residence.
“Sad in a way,” said a man who had, in the noise of demolition, sauntered up to Pilate unobserved.
“Huh?” Pilate said, startled. He turned and saw a disheveled tie, sweater, baggy pants and moth-eaten overcoat wearing a gangly man with prematurely grey hair.
“Sad? How so?”
“Well, the house had to go, I guess, but there is so much history tied up in there,” he said.
“Oh really?” Pilate said.
The man extended a hand. “Yes. I’m Derek Krall, school librarian and amateur town historian.”
“Oh, nice to meet you, I’m-”
“John Pilate, our smokin’ new instructor,” Krall said, smiling.
Pilate rolled his eyes. “Crap. Has everyone heard that story?”
“You’ll soon find you can’t fart around here without someone smelling it across town,” he said with a wry chuckle. “How the hell did you end up out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Oh, you know, the usual series of missteps,” Pilate said, smiling. “Man plans, God laughs.”
“I hear ya,” Krall said.
“So what big history is tied to that?” Pilate jerked a thumb at the crumbling walls.
“The Bernard place? Where do I start?” Krall’s eyes widened. He clearly loved this stuff, whatever it was. “That is—alas was—the scene of the most famous suicide in the history of this town.”
“Oh,” Pilate said. Pilate frankly couldn’t see much argument against suicide in the desolate winters of this burg. “Someone name Bernard offed himself?”
“Yup. Bullet to the brain,” he put his finger to his temple and made a “bang” sound. “He was a professor here.”
“That’s encouraging,” Pilate said, shrugging in his overcoat against a cold gust.
A monotonous beep issued from one of the heavy loaders as it backed up with a full load of debris.
Krall looked down at his feet for a moment, then at Pilate. “Yes, well, it’s pretty extraordinary, considering.”
“What? Did he get psycho from the lonely winters here? Mentally ill?” Pilate realized the cold gust he felt was not a breeze at all, but his old friend Simon. He saw Simon over Krall’s shoulder, glaring at Pilate from the window of his apartment.
“Well, probably. He sucked a bullet out of the barrel of a gun after he murdered his boss and the college president,” Krall said.
“Oh, I see,” Pilate said, his gaze torn away from the window back to Krall’s face. “Tell me more.”
Pilate followed Krall back to his cramped and, Pilate thought, laughably stereotypically messy office. Stacks of papers, dozens of school annuals and what had to be at least fifty Post-it notes littered the large oak desk that ate up most of the room.
“Sorry for the mess,” Krall said, bursting into a humorless staccato laugh. He bent over a file cabinet and pulled out a large brown envelope, the kind you might use to mail a manuscript or magazines. “Assassination File November 1963” was scrawled haphazardly in black marker.
Krall offered it to Pilate.
“Uh, thanks, but I went through my JFK conspiracy phase after the movie,” Pilate said, a polite smile. “The Cross College incident, remember?”
Krall looked pained. “That’s what this is,” he said—the word moron left unsaid.
“Oh, sorry. November 1963, huh? “
“It happened just a few days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Cross College lost its president and coincidentally a man named Kennedy to an assassin, too.”
Pilate thought that fact was almost as weird as all those Lincoln-Kennedy assassination coincidences that fascinated him as a child. Lincoln had an assistant named Kennedy who warned him not to go to the theatre. Kennedy had an assistant named Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas. Pilate had a figment of his imagination who warned him not to go to Cross.
Pilate opened the envelope. Inside were at least one hundred pages of documents, photocopies, newspaper clippings and graphic crime scene photos of the double murder-homicide. Aesthetically, the photos’ saving grace was that they weren’t in color.
One showed an almost comically surprised looking President Keillor, his right eye a ghastly black hole, sprawled in his chair. Another showed Kennedy, his puppet strings cut, a third eye bored in his forehead.
Pilate flipped through a dozen or so other photos with different angles of the same horrors. He came to one of a portly man lying on a hooked rug, his arms extended like a tweedy Christ, a gun loosely spilling from one hand.
He held it up to Krall, who had watched Pilate take in the gory photos wordlessly. “This Bernard?”
Another photo showed a close-up of Bernard’s face, a crease where his glasses pinched his nose still apparent, his mouth a trickle of blood. A garish mosaic of dark inky blood and brains spilled from behind his head.
“God this is awful,” Pilate finally said, going back through the photos.
“Yes, it was.”
“Hmph. Why?” Pilate said, looking up a moment at Krall, who had his feet on his desk.
“Well, he left a note,” he dropped his feet to the floor, leaned over and pointed to the photo. A typed letter and fountain pen was beside the body. “See?”
“He left instructions for his burial, and a postscript,” Krall smiled, sat back down and raised his eyebrows mischievously, clearly relishing the opportunity to tell the tale to a new listener.
“And?” Pilate said.
Krall gestured toward the envelope. “Gimme.”
Pilate handed him back the packet. Krall fished through the papers until he found a copy of the letter, handing it to Pilate. “Here’s what the police transcribed from the original letter. Not sure where the actual letter is—probably lost in a box or hole somewhere.”
Pilate took the paper.
“Who is Dr. Benton?”
“Hmm? Oh, the guy he asked to look after his affairs? He was a prof here. One of the few who could stand the guy.”
“I see, so Bernard was…” Pilate was going to say “misfit” or “loner” until he read the postscript:
P.S. Wally tried to fire the wrong person.
“Dr. Walker Keillor. Nobody but his missus called him Wally to his face. I think Bernard meant it disparagingly. He told Bernard a few days earlier that Dean Kennedy agreed it was time for Bernard to move on,” Krall said, putting his feet back up and laying the file on his desk.
“Oh. So they fired him?”
“Yes, as you do in academia. They just declined to re-up his contract. After twenty-four years,” Krall whistled, making the sound of a bomb dropping, his hands behind his head and leaning back. “Real bummer.”
“Yeah, apparently so,” Pilate chewed on his fingernail. “Sounds like the most interesting thing that ever happened here.”
“Could be,” Krall said. “Though I hear the flood of forty-three was pretty big news.”