Within the dark, gripping mystery of “Bad Axe County” are moments of levity that are pure Wisconsin. The story centers around less than a week in the life of Heidi Kick, the newly named interim sheriff of fictional Bad Axe County, Wisconsin.
Kick, the first woman sheriff in the state and a former Wisconsin Dairy Queen, is forced to navigate human trafficking, overt sexism and the realities of a small-town mindset in her ever-changing town.
“It’s a story about what happens when there’s a really significant transformation of power in a community and when a woman comes to power and begins to see things ...that have been left to fester under different leadership,” author John Galligan of Madison, said about his book.
Q: Bad Axe is the name of a river in Wisconsin. What made you want to name a fictional county near La Crosse after it?
A: That’s just about my favorite part of the world. I’m a fly fisherman and it’s rugged, it’s relatively unspoiled and culturally interesting to me. It’s quite impoverished in many ways. Very conservative people with very narrow vision, but also very community minded. There’s also a culture in the Vernon County area that’s now one of the primary concentration of organic farming in the United States. People seen by the locals as hippies have moved out there. That’s really one of the themes behind this (book) — culture shift.
Q: What gave you the idea for this mystery?
A: The genesis of the story was researching crime in rural communities, especially the rural Midwest. I found a study where they were interested in sex crimes and sex trafficking and they interviewed law enforcement ...all men (who largely said) ‘we don’t have this in our community.’ Then they went to interview women in health services and emergency room workers ....who said not only is it present, it’s almost epidemic.
Q: Indeed, much of this story centers around human trafficking. Is this an issue you feel people don’t realize happens in Wisconsin?
A: I think it happens all over the place and it’s really under the radar. It’s invisible to us. The big player in this is the economic collapse in these areas and loss of the farming economy. Bad job opportunities and methamphetamine is a huge deal.
Q: Honestly, much of the book is every parent’s nightmare, especially the character of Pepper Greengrass, the teenager who is being trafficked for sex across Wisconsin. What was it like to research this book?
A: Those were some awful, dark times for me. Before it’s a book it’s just you and a manuscript. (I thought) how am I ever going to balance it out. The moxie of Pepper and her survival instincts gets you through that. You feel that she might have the wits to get through.
Q: Main character Heidi Kick is the first woman sheriff in Wisconsin and a former Wisconsin Dairy Queen. Why was it important to add this state royalty to her character?
A: I think (having a queen) is a real part of rural culture ...the cheese queen, apple queen, snowflake queen. It’s a real rural Midwest thing. The book has to play to a national audience and I think attaching dairy ...to the story helps people better relate it to Wisconsin. Having (Heidi) be a queen at (the beginning of the novel) shows how much she has her life together and how much it falls apart.
Q: A lot of the male characters in the book play baseball in a regional league “The Rattlers” that is central to the county’s identity. Why highlight that sport?
A: Baseball is really popular in the Coulees. It’s an interesting pocket of America ... baseball is kind of fading I think as a sport, but not out there. It’s an important part of the culture. I played baseball a lot when I was younger as well.
Q: Throughout the novel are exchanges of dirty jokes by interim sheriff Heidi Kick and her dispatcher and friend Denise. The jokes, while raunchy, bring both a levity and seriousness to situations throughout the book. What made you use this particular writing style?
A: It was really risky. These are real jokes. They’re the kind of jokes certain kinds of men do tell when they’re confronted with women in their power sphere. I think they sort of capture the creepiness of the atmosphere that women have to work in. And at the same time ... they are kind of funny, some of them. They show the reclaiming of the idea. The phrase I used in the book is they are a “vaccination.” It’s similar to the notion of gay people reclaiming the word “queer” as a way to take back power over the language. I felt it was really risky and I’m glad it works.
Q: Denise, the tobacco-spitting, Bobble-head loving dispatcher, is Heidi Kick’s biggest supporter as she struggles with her interim sheriff position. She was easily one of my favorite characters in the book.
A: She was a lot of fun to write and I feel in a lot of ways she was the backbone of the novel. I’m not interesting in replaying the same schtick over again (with the sequel) so I’m trying to figure out in the next one (if or how) Denise will trot out the jokes. The primary focus in the next one is not sexism in the workplace. It’s still there, but not the focus.
Q: That answers my question about if there’s a sequel!
A: I have a two book deal with Simon and Schuster. The second one is actually due in a couple weeks. I’m hoping to make it a series and the feature of the series is really the region and Heidi Kick. I’m going to entertain other major issues that create crime.
Q: You live in Madison, but write about the Coulee area like you live there. Do you do a lot of writing in that part of Wisconsin?
A: I live in Madison, but I’m only two hours from there and I probably spend 50 plus days a year out there. My dream day is getting up and writing until I’m all written out and putting my waders on and going fishing.
Q: Anything you readers to take away from “Bad Axe County”?
A: Ultimately it’s about a dark subject, but I hope there’s a balance of light and dark and I hope there’s some joy in it and some hope and a sense of these are good communities with bad problems.