A Conversation with Nick Petrie, Edgar-Nominated Author of Light It Up

Light It Up, the new novel by Nick Petrie, brings back one of the most memorable characters in crime fiction back to the center-stage. The third installment in the widely acclaimed series featuring protagonist Peter Ash, who Lee Child has called “the real deal”, is an action-packed finely tuned thriller that readers of John Sandford, Michael Connolly, and Robert Crais will devour.

In Light It Up, combat veteran Peter Ash leaves a simple life rebuilding hiking trails in Oregon to help his good friend Henry Nygaard, whose daughter runs a Denver security company that protects cash-rich cannabis entrepreneurs from modern-day highwaymen. A well-planned and flawlessly executed hijacking has just occurred, and Henry’s son-in-law and the company’s operations manager, who were carrying a large sum of client money, have vanished without a trace. Henry’s daughter and her company have suddenly been left incredibly vulnerable. And they’re not the only ones in danger; later, when Peter is riding shotgun on another cash run, the cargo he’s guarding comes under attack from hijackers and he narrowly escapes with his life.

As the incidents mount, Peter has to wonder: for criminals as sophisticated as these, is the money really worth the risk? And if not, what about his cargo is worth more? He is faced with the hidden hazards of what is supposedly Colorado’s mellowest business, and finds that there is more to this crime than meets the eye.

For an avid thriller reader, Peter Ash is an irresistible character and perhaps no one can explain better why he is so compelling than the author himself. What comes below is a conversation with Nick Petrie on his series, Light It Up, and the making of Peter Ash.

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Your third novel, Light It Up, again features Peter Ash, whom David Baldacci called “one of the most complex characters I have come across in a long time.” Who is Ash and what makes him so compelling? 

Peter Ash is a highly-trained Marine combat veteran, but his wartime experiences have made it difficult for him to return to normal civilian life.  He came home with what he calls “the white static”, a form of post-traumatic stress that manifests as acute claustrophobia, which means he can’t inside for long periods of time.  He feels like he’s become allergic to the so-called civilized world.  But this damaged man is still driven to be useful, to make a difference.

He’s also deeply human.  Although the Peter Ash books have plenty of action, readers tell me that they’re drawn to Peter’s rich emotional life, along with the profound relationships he forms in each novel.  He’s also retained the moral code he developed as a Marine – take care of your people and execute the mission – that isn’t always aligned with the letter of the law.  This is another part of Peter’s appeal, I think–his willingness to step outside the law to do what’s right.

Why did you decide to write a series with a PTSD-afflicted war veteran as the central character? 

I’ve run a home inspection business for 16 years, and I did a lot of inspections for veterans buying homes after coming home from war.  Although I’d read a lot about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, I knew much less about the challenges many veterans were facing at home.  Talking with these men and women, I found myself profoundly moved by the high price many had paid in the service of their country, and by our failures as a nation to live up to the promises we’d made to them.  Politicians seem more eager to start wars than to take care of the people they’ve asked to fight them.  The consequences of that eagerness will be with us for a very long time, and I think it’s worth talking about.

Each book takes place in a different locale in America. Why did you opt to move the series around like that? Do you think moving from place to place makes it easier or more challenging to write each book? 

I thought a new setting for each novel would both keep the books fresh and allow me to tell more kinds of stories.  I had a selfish motive, too – I love to travel, and new settings would give me an opportunity to do that.  I’ve also studied American history, which is the story of restless people always moving forward, so there’s something very American about a rootless hero looking for a home.  Last but not least, America is a huge and varied and beautiful country, and I really enjoy the challenge of capturing that on the page.

Where does Light It Up take place, and how does the setting affect the narrative? 

Light It Up takes place in Colorado, both high in the Rockies and on the edge of the Great Plains, in Denver and Boulder.  I chose Colorado because it was among the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use, a radical social shift with ramifications that aren’t yet quite clear.  It’s also brought a kind of gold rush fever to a part of the country that, despite the sophistication of the cities, still feels a bit like the frontier.  Because many of these new cannabis entrepreneurs can’t access the conventional banking system due to federal law, and because cured cannabis is extremely portable and extremely valuable, new security companies sprang up to help protect them.  Drugs, money and guns – what could possibly go wrong?

What is Peter’s new gig in Light It Up, and what compelled him to take it on? 

Heavy Metal Protection is a cannabis-industry security company, founded and staffed by veterans.  A large cash delivery vanishes into thin air, along with Heavy Metal’s co-founder and its chief of operations.  A good friend asks Peter to pitch in for a few weeks, guarding the most valuable shipments, but the situation deteriorates rapidly, with twists and turns that force Peter to deal with a lot more than he bargained for.  The true heart of the story, though, is the relationship between Peter and the most important people in his life, and what Peter is willing to do to protect them.

Understanding the communities and residents of the regions explored in your novels first-hand has been a key part of your research and writing process. Did you spend time in Colorado in preparation for this third Peter Ash novel? What did you discover about the society, culture, and people there? 

I spent a week in Colorado, both backpacking in the mountains and poking around Denver and Boulder.  Colorado is fascinating for so many reasons.  The Rockies are breathtaking, and carrying my pack up into this perfect little isolated valley felt like stepping back in time.  Denver and Boulder, on the other hand, are cutting-edge boomtowns, with a huge amount of growth and innovation, and also a bourgeoning cannabis culture that I found completely surreal.  Stepping into a legal cannabis shop was one of the stranger experiences of my life – it made me think about the lifting of Prohibition in 1933, and what that change must have been like.

Are there any memorable experiences and/or conversations about the cannabis industry in particular that helped shape the backdrop of Light It Up? 

In the Phoenix airport while on tour for The Drifter, I met a man on his way to Portland, Oregon to start a cannabis grow operation on the cusp of legalization there.  When I asked him how he developed the expertise for this project, he gave me a mischievous little grin and said, “This will be my first legal grow operation.”  We talked about his experiences for an hour that day, and several more times after that.  An irresistible slice of American life.

A few months later, I read an article in the New York Times about veteran-owned security companies in Colorado, and veterans’ new sense of mission in protecting their cannabis clients.  The Times has done a lot of great coverage on veterans’ issues, and they captured something in that piece that really connected with my sense of my main character and my conversation in the Phoenix airport.  When I followed up with a phone call to one of the founders of a protection company mentioned in the article, he was determined to protect his clients and didn’t want to tell me much.  But what he did tell me was more than enough to get my imagination rolling in high gear.

As you show, the legalization of cannabis in some states has created new types of crime. What is the criminal activity at the center of Light It Up? 

There’s a significant disconnect between federal and state drug laws, especially as it relates to cannabis.  As I write this, medical cannabis is legal in some form in 29 states and two territories, and recreational cannabis is legal in 8 states and Washington D.C.  But the federal government prohibits recreational growers and retailers from legal access to the conventional banking system, which means a lot of business is done in cash.  And cash attracts crime.  Light It Up looks at this problem through the eyes of those men and women risking their lives to protect cannabis businesses and their employees.

You introduced a love interest for Ash in the last novel, Burning Bright, or at least the closest thing this war-damaged man can have to a love interest.  Who is June Cassidy and why is Ash attracted to her? 

June is an investigative journalist with a complicated family history.  In Burning Bright, she needed Peter’s help to survive, but her own skills were essential to solving the problems at the center of the book.  She’s strong-willed and very capable, a good match for Peter.  Like him, she has an adventurous soul, but she’s also unflinching and relentless in pursuit of her goals.

Peter is profoundly drawn to those qualities.  Plus her freckles.  And her sense of humor.  And the fact that she swears like a longshoreman, and snores like a rhinoceros with sinus problems.

There are, of course, a lot of action scenes in the Peter Ash novels, but there are also a lot of intimate, internalized scenes that focus on the static in Ash’s head. Which do you find more challenging to write? Do you prefer working on one more than the other? 

Action scenes are a blast to write because they’re very external and kinetic.  A good action sequence should raise the reader’s blood pressure, get the heart beating faster.  Sometimes it just flows and the scene takes shape quickly and I change almost nothing.  Other times it’s more difficult.  I have to draw little maps to figure out the logistics, or I jump around my office to be able to visualize both sides of a fight scene.  Sometimes I spend days or weeks on just a few pages, getting the rhythm and tempo right.

The internal scenes are very different.  To explore and try to capture something so intimate can be difficult, and makes me really dig into myself to find those emotions and ways to express them.  I often go through those scenes over and over until I get to something that feels elemental, which is very satisfying.  When I get it right, I can feel it ring like a gong.

Both parts are essential to the Peter Ash books, and to me personally.  The trick and the fun is to find that compelling balance between character and story.

Do you think you blur the lines between “genre” and “literary” fiction in your books? 

To be honest, I’m not sure what those lines are.  For me, it’s simply about how well you develop characters and tell their story.  So-called genre fiction gives you enormous latitude to explore serious issues while still pulling readers through the story in an entertaining way.  Some of the best stuff written today could be categorized as crime fiction, horror, science fiction, and fantasy, but that’s not exactly new.  Greek plays and myths are full of those elements.  Beowulf is a tale of heroes and monsters.  Shakespeare wrote ghost stories and war stories and stories of murder and betrayal.  What do all those works have in common?  They were created to entertain the audience.

So while I’m more than happy to hear my stuff described as “literary”, and I do pay a lot of attention to my sentences, my favorite compliment is when a reader tells me they stayed up long past their bedtime to finish one of my books.  Ideally with a flashlight under the covers, like I did when I was a kid.

Can you offer a sneak peek at the next Peter Ash book? 

Someone has driven a dump truck into a war photographer’s living room in Memphis, the latest in a series of escalating threats, but Wanda Wyatt has no idea why she’s been targeted.  Peter drives to Memphis to help, encountering a brilliant street kid, a criminal kingpin and his enforcers, and a pair of dangerous brothers with an agenda all their own.

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