Michael Niemann, Ashland author and Southern Oregon University adjunct professor, has written a series of mystery novels. [Denise Baratta / Mail Tribune]

From academia to mystery writing

Southern Oregon University adjunct professor Michael Niemann had written plenty of academic articles before arriving in Ashland in 2008, but growing inside Niemann was a budding desire to tell the kind of stories he first was drawn to as a youngster in Germany.

An expert in political science who wrote a nonfiction book titled, “A Spatial Approach to Regionalisms in the Global Economy,” Niemann enjoyed his career in academia, but longed to try his hand at fiction. He loved to read mysteries and spy novels, particularly those written by John le Carre, and figured decades of experience studying geopolitics could give his work a certain heft.

Shortly after arriving in Ashland, he joined a group of local mystery writers, one of whom later encouraged Niemann to submit one of his short stories for a forthcoming Mystery Writers of America anthology titled “Vengeance.” Niemann knew it was a long shot but threw his hat in the ring anyway. His story, “Africa Always Needs Guns,” was selected to be included in "Vengeance," running alongside short stories by “Jack Reacher” novelist Lee Child (who doubled as the book's editor) and fellow suspense heavyweights Karin Slaughter and Michael Connelly.

Now, Niemann, 60, is about to release the second novel in a series that features his "Guns" protagonist, Valentin Vermeulen, an investigator with the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, titled “Illicit Trade.” It will be released March 1 and is available to pre-order on Amazon. A book release event is tentatively scheduled for March 3 at the Schneider Museum of Art.

Reporter Joe Zavala spoke to Niemann about his writing process, his influences and the genesis of his Vermeulen series. Questions and answers have been edited for content and brevity.

JZ: Describe your writing routine.

MN: There are those occasions where it doesn’t work but my usual routine is to get to my computer at 8:30 and spend the morning writing. And sometimes that doesn’t quite work out because stuff interferes, but I do write every day. Not necessarily on the weekends. I’m German, so that part of me is still German. I think weekends are important.

JZ: How long did it take you to complete your first novel, from beginning to end?

MN: About a year. And then it was the whole marketing and selling part, and that was really complicated. I did not know how that part worked and so as a result I ended up taking the first offer I got, which was a weird publisher in England. … They didn’t help me. Basically, their strategy was to throw as many ebooks at the wall and see what stuck. And so when I finished the second one, which also took me about a year … I shopped around again and then I found my current publisher, Coffeetown Press in Seattle, and it was this revelation, working with a small indy publisher. They’re still doing it the right way — reading events, giving copies to journals and review places, things like that. They also said, 'We don’t like to start a series in the middle, is there a way you can get the rights back to the first one,' and that turned out to be easy.

JZ: You wrote “A Spatial Approach to Regionalism in a Global Economy” in 2000. From there, what drew you to fiction?

MN: I have always been an avid reader of international suspense and spy novels and things like that. I grew up in Germany during the Cold War so it was in many ways always present. There were British fighter jets doing patrols every day, basically, and riding my bike to school I would go right past a Belgian NATO anti-air base, see the (missiles) actually pointing to the sky. So, I was very interested in studying this, but also I was interested in John Le Carre and that kind of Cold War spy stuff. That’s always been of interest to me. I’ve read it, and I’ve read a lot of it that was overly nationalistic, good guys versus bad guys. So I was intrigued by that and I thought, I could maybe write that. 

JZ: How did your nonfiction work prepare you for writing a novel?

MN: The whole nonfiction part for me was knowing the field, knowing and understanding world politics. … So that sort of gave me the lay of the land. Shifting to fiction, there’s this idea of writing a compelling story, and that’s something that you don’t necessarily learn in academia — maybe that’s a problem of academia. ... So the continuous feedback from the colleagues in my writing group and reading a lot helped me sharpen my storytelling skills.

JZ: Where did the idea for your Vermeulen mystery series come from?

MN: I’ve always wanted to do something that had some international component to it, but I also was leery of the way in which many thrillers were very nationalistic. They're always about a country — whatever country, you choose your country — in peril, until the protagonist saves the day. And I came across by sheer happenstance the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight, which is a real office. It was created in 1994 mostly in response to pressure from American politicians who are always complaining that the United Nations is wasting money. So their job is to make sure that the money that the member states pay is properly spent, and they have auditors, and they have investigators, and they have all kinds of things. I thought, that would be cool.

JZ: Do you plot your novels from beginning to end, or do you just sort of know where it was going and work it out as you went along?

MN: You’re right, it’s the pantsers and the plotters — the plotters have everything figured out and the pantsers make it up as they go along. I’m sort of in between. I had a scene at the beginning. I had a scene in the middle and I had a scene at the end. The end of this one emerged in a way that I hadn’t foreseen.

JZ: That’s something that, of course, could never happen when you’re writing nonfiction. What is that like to experience as the author, taking a story to a place you didn’t expect it to go?

MN: I think it’s exciting. It’s like you find a door you didn’t know was there, and you walk through that door and suddenly there’s a story there that you hadn’t even thought about yet and it was the character that basically opened that door for you. So that’s always exciting. The old Kurt Vonnegut rule is that every character in a story has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.

JZ: You’re kind of making the case for the pantsers.

MN: I think I have a skeleton at best, and maybe that’s even saying too much. And then I just go along and fill it in.

JZ: Who are your stylistic influences?

MN: In terms of character, I’m much more indebted to the complicated characters that John le Carre develops — somewhat ambivalent. And I think in terms of style, it’s probably more like Elmore Leonard and Lee Child. I’ve tried to write more complex sentences like John le Carre and I just can’t pull it off. It got to be too wordy.

JZ: What’s next? Will there be a third Vermeulen book?

MN: I just sent that off to the publisher last Friday, actually. And that one takes place in (Southern Africa), and it’s all about land grabs and … things like that. And I’m just now really, as of yesterday, doing some thinking, some sketching of some ideas.

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

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