Peter Steiner is probably best known for the most reproduced cartoon in New Yorker history, “On the Internet no one knows you’re a dog,” (seen here). The prolific master is also the author of six thrillers. His new political thriller, The Good Cop (Willi Geismeier Mysteries), asks: How do you uphold the law when the law goes bad?
While it’s not unusual to see a cartoonist publish volumes of their cartoons, graphic novels or memories, a novel (let alone six!) peaks our curiosity.
Recently we asked Peter Steiner how he went from famed New Yorker cartoonist to author of six thrillers.
Peter: I’m not quite sure how or why the change happened. But I think it started before I was a professional cartoonist when I was still a college professor teaching German. I taught German language of course, but I also taught German literature and, as such, introduced American students to some great storytelling, from Goethe and Schiller to Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. That required me to understand how these artists constructed their works, how they achieved their effects. And so, without knowing or intending it, I was plundering these writers’ toolboxes for various devices and methods. And, maybe more importantly, I was building an even deeper appreciation and enthusiasm for writing.
I moved into art when I became disenchanted with academe, and cartooning because it was something I had always done, mostly for my own amusement. The literary tools I had acquired were useful as a cartoonist, because making an effective cartoon takes some writing skills—not just the caption, but also the construction of the picture. But I don’t want to overstate the connection. I mainly became a cartoonist because it was something I could do pretty well and loved doing.
I started writing my own fiction while still teaching, and wrote my first novel while still cartooning full time. My first novel came about as I was dealing with some difficult personal stuff by writing about it. That writing—a journal at first—morphed into my first novel which remains unpublished.
CC: Ah, the old novel-in-the-drawer conundrum. How many novels did you write before you had your first book published?
Peter: My second novel was published, but I have three or four other unpublished novels written in between the published ones.
CC: A win for the second out of the gate! That’s impressive. So, what drew you to political thrillers? Humor seems like it might be a more natural next step for a cartoonist.
Peter: Writing humor is different from drawing humor. I don’t think I do humorous writing very well, although I do have a satirical novel among my unpublished stuff which has its funny moments. I didn’t set out to write thrillers, and in fact I don’t think of my books as thrillers so much as novels. I never liked it that my previous publisher stuck the word mystery or thriller on the covers. I thought it was misleading and distorted readers’ expectations. And I got some nasty reviews on Amazon that suggest that I was correct about that. “Thriller?! Are you kidding me?” That sort of thing.
CC: That’s interesting that you don’t think of your books as thrillers. For you, where does the line between thriller and novel lie?
Peter: My sense of what thrillers are (and I’m by no means an expert) is that the thriller author’s principal objective is thrills. Character, history, plot, all the other elements of a novel are subordinated to plot driven generation of suspense, tension, and excitement. The thrill is the main and essential ingredient. I write my books around a situation, a moment in history in the case of the Good Cop and the characters’ responses to those situations, whether it is suspenseful or thrilling or not.
CC: Did you plan your first book as series? Was it hard to put that series to bed and begin anew?
Peter: I didn’t plan my first book as a series. But Saint Martin’s Press, my publisher at the time, was not interested in anything else from me. I enjoyed writing those books, loved the characters, and was pleased to write the books. In fact I wrote another book in the series that they eventually refused to publish and which remains unpublished. I’ll miss Louis Morgon—he became a sort of alter ego and still has some life in him. So who knows what will happen.
CC: What’s next for you?
Peter: The Good Cop the first in a series. I’m already working on the next, which means writing in fits and starts at the moment.
CC: Well, we’ll look forward to that! It’s always exciting to begin a book knowing there are more on the way.
Praise for The Good Cop:
“A precisely written, carefully plotted novel, all the more dramatic for its understated tone.”—Booklist on The Good Cop
The Good Cop (Willi Geismeier Mysteries) is out now.