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An Interview with PJ Tracy: Author and Creator of the Monkeewrench Series

September 1, 2019

PJ Tracy is the pseudonym of the mother-daughter writing team of Patricia ‘PJ’ and Traci Lambrecht. Their debut novel, Monkeewrench (2003), was hugely successful and launched their popular series of novels featuring Detectives Gino and Magozzi who investigate complex and grisly crimes in modern day Minnesota. Sadly, PJ Lambrecht died in 2016. Traci Lambrecht has continued writing the Monkeewrench series since her mother’s passing, still using the PJ Tracy pseudonym. Ice Cold Heart is the tenth and latest novel in the series. It is a gripping thriller, full of twists and turns, which offers a vivid insight of modern day dangers the police grapple with in our technologically advanced society.

I was delighted that PJ Tracy agreed to an interview with me. The following exchange took place by email:

Interviewer: Tell us a little about the creation of the Monkeewrench series and Detectives Gino and Magozzi. Where did these ideas and characters come from?

Traci Lambrecht

PJ Tracy: PJ and I have always loved a good mystery and solving puzzles, so crime thrillers were a natural for us.  In 2002, when Want to Play? was written, the digital age was in its nascence and PJ and I saw endless potential for a group of eccentric computer geniuses.  My father was an original computer geek, working in the field since the early 1970’s, so we had many acquaintances that provided excellent source material, both in regard to characterization and plot possibilities.  The Monkeewrench gang is part amalgamation of people we knew, and part creation of people we would love to meet at a party.  PJ worked with attorneys and law enforcement for several years, so the detectives were crafted in a similar way.  And of course, we imbued a healthy dose of imagination and they all took on lives of their own.  I half-expect to receive Christmas cards from them all!

Interviewer: A lot of novelists would balk at the idea of a co-writer, but you have always spoken very warmly of working with your mother PJ Lambrecht. What was it like writing the novels with her and how did you resolve any disagreements about the narrative?

PJ Tracy: Writing with her was an honour and an absolute delight.  For two women who wrote about some pretty heavy subject matter, we were laughing constantly.  The back and forth, the flow of creativity during our writing sessions, was magical.  From the time I was a very little girl, we were always creating characters and writing stories together, and that was the genesis of our future working relationship.  She always joked that we shared a brain, but in truth, we melded them and created a voice that was neither hers nor mine, but a unique, collaborative one. As close as we were, it was a seamless process. We rarely had disagreements, but on the rare occasions we had divergent visions, we would talk through them like adults and decide which direction would best serve the book.

Interviewer: Now that you are writing the novels on your own, how would you describe the direction of the series?

PJ Tracy: After ten novels, it’s a very natural progression, I don’t even think about it. It’s terribly hackneyed to say this, but it’s true that the characters do all the heavy lifting and they always surprise me. I’m just along for the ride.

Interviewer: How do you see Gino, Magozzi and the other regular characters as changing over the course of the series? Are they very different people from when the readers first met them?

PJ Tracy: All the characters, particularly Magozzi and Grace MacBride, have experienced tremendous arcs throughout the series. Even the secondary characters have evolved in substantive ways, and are in very different personal places than they were at the beginning.  I’m also a different person than I was sixteen years ago at the series’ inception, so I’m certain I transposed some of my own development and journey onto the characters.

Interviewer: Ice Cold Heart deals with some dark themes, including everything from BDSM to War Crimes. How do you approach handling these disturbing and sensitive themes as a crime writer?

PJ Tracy: That’s a perennial challenge, finding the proper balance between dark and light, both in fiction and in real life. For me, the key is focusing not so much on the horror of a particular crime, but on the humanity of the characters as they are impacted by tragedy. Homicide precludes a happy ending for the victims and their families, so the service of justice is paramount and allays some of the inherent darkness.

P. J. Lambrecht, left, and her daughter Traci write thrillers together from their office near Stillwater under the pseudonym P.J. Tracy, photographed Tuesday, August 23, 2016. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)

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