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Q&A: Milwaukee writer Nick Petrie returns with fourth Peter Ash thriller 'Tear it Down'

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January is Peter Ash’s month.

Each year since 2016, like clockwork, thriller fans have be able to start the year with a new book in Nick Petrie’s series starring Ash, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who becomes a righter of wrongs. Nothing brings inner peace, Ash finds, quite like helping the good guys and bashing the bad guys.

In 2019, Petrie’s fourth book, “Tear it Down,” hits stores on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Each book brings Ash to a different city (the debut, 2016’s “The Drifter,” was set in Petrie’s hometown of Milwaukee). In "Tear It Down," Ash arrives in Memphis to help a former war photojournalist dealing with some nasty threats.

The former building contractor says he treats the writing life with the same rigor and discipline that he once brought to building and inspecting homes. “It’s my job,” he says more than once during a recent phone interview.

Petrie will be back in Madison on Thursday, Feb. 7, at Mystery To Me, 1863 Monroe St., to talk about the book with former Cap Times columnist Doug Moe and sign copies. He talked about “Tear It Down,” the challenges and responsibilities of having an ongoing connection with readers, and his daily writing habits:

This must be an interesting time, where one book is done and you’re waiting for it to come out and waiting to see what people will think of it.

It’s always a little disconcerting. The weirdest thing is that I’m talking about this book but I’m writing the next book all at the same time. It’s a little bit of bi-location.

I write by the seat of my pants, and for me it takes up residence in my head in a way. So I have to make room for the previous book. But I actually like it because the book that I’m working on is always difficult and frustrating. I can go back to something that’s done and been through 47 edits and think, “Oh, yeah, I can do this.”

Do the books get easier or harder to write?

The creative part I think is harder. That first book is almost entirely by reflex. You make a certain group of choices, and they’re the natural choices. As a series goes on, I have to make different choices. The villain can’t be this type of person this time, he should be that type of person. In a way, I start to riff on what happened in the previous books. The challenge is to top yourself, and do something different and better than before.

On the other hand, it’s so nice to know that this book is going to have an audience. That first book was just sent out into the void and I didn’t know if anybody was going to read it.

What’s it like to have that sort of ongoing relationship with your readers?

It tells me that I’m doing something right when I have an argument with a reader about a character I’ve created, when they treat them as a real person. “He wouldn’t do this, he would do that.” In a way, it’s helpful, because it reminds me of my responsibility to readers. My job is to entertain them and take them out of their lives. That’s why I read, is to be somewhere else. It is a happy obligation to think about what readers are looking for, and not to necessarily give them that, but to think about why they’re looking for it, and maybe to give it to them in an unexpected way.

It’s funny how you develop an emotional attachment to a character over the course of a series, especially a character like Peter, who is so troubled. He seems like he’s getting better, and at least changing emotionally from book to book.

That’s the goal, to have him evolve. Part of the challenge for me is to figure out at what rate of speed. I’ve talked to so many veterans about PTSD. Part of my mission early on was to show the progress, and to have Peter doing some of the things that we know through research really help with post-traumatic stress — exercise and meditation and eating right and talking to people about your experiences. But I know that the symptoms ebb and flow, and come and go. For me the challenge is to keep it part of him while keeping it interesting.

People reach out to me. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Somebody reaches out and says “I was really struggling, and then I read 'The Drifter' and I realized it wasn’t just me.” People send me pictures of them and their family. It’s an amazing experience. I never thought that I would have these kinds of conversations now. Quite honestly, it’s the best part of what I do.

Tell me about “Tear it Down” and how Peter ended up going to Memphis.

He ended up in Memphis because he’s helping a friend of his paramour June Cassidy, a photojournalist and war correspondent named Wanda Wyatt. (Wyatt) has been getting these strange threats, which turn violent when somebody drives a dump truck into her living room. Then he also meets a young street musician who’s in trouble, and now he’s got two people to protect. I get to indulge in all my favorite things.

Did you spend a lot of time in Memphis?

I spent some time there, I wouldn’t say a lot. I drove around a lot and talked to a lot of people. It’s a really interesting place. It reminds me a lot of Milwaukee in a way, in that it’s sort of a hollow city. It’s very segregated and most of the wealth and work is outside the city in the suburbs, aside from a little part downtown. So it’s a great place to talk about all of this stuff which has become part of the national conversation.

What are your writing habits? I know you used to be a building contractor, so you’re no stranger to hard work.

I try to keep regular hours. I just turned 50, and I was a contractor for years, so my body’s kind of a mess. I get up and do all these stretches to keep my arms and legs from falling off. And then I make a cup of coffee and go up to the office and work until lunchtime. Then I get lunch and walk around the block, and then go back to work until 4 or 5. It’s my job. I treat it like that.

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