Photo: Archer Mayor during his interview for this article. Photos by Randolph T. Holhut.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine Vermont tends to get lyrical about its writers. From Rudyard Kipling to Robert Frost, from Sinclair Lewis to Galway Kinnell, from Pearl Buck to Katherine Paterson, these and many, many other writers have found a quiet, safe and leafy harbor here even as their words reach around the world. But if you think writing is simply an art form, then you need to talk to Archer Mayor.
Mayor, 70, is the prolific creator of the popular Vermont-based Joe Gunther series of detective novels.
Joe Gunther began his fictional career as a Brattleboro police detective in 1988 in the book “Open Season.”
Over the years — and Mayor produces a book a year that you can count on like clockwork — both Joe's career and his love life have advanced; he’s now a high-level detective in a fictional state-wide investigative unit called the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, and instead of dating a member of the Brattleboro Select Board (who went on to become the governor of Vermont), he's dating the state's lovely chief medical examiner; their eyes meet over autopsies.
The latest Joe Gunther book, #31, “The Orphan's Guilt,” came out in September of 2020.
Mayor has received the Robert B Parker Award, named for the late great Boston-based mystery writer.
He is a winner of the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
The New York Times crime critic, Marilyn Stasio, who regularly reviews his books, has said, “Archer Mayor doesn’t do quaint. He might use poetic imagery to describe the austere beauty of New England’s rugged mountains and snowbound villages, but as far as their crime content is concerned, his police procedurals are about as authentic as it gets.”
From book to book, Mayor's narrative will sometimes venture into foreign places like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, but they are centered, grounded and vacuum-packed in Vermont; so far scenes have taken place in over 80 different Vermont locations.
The Joe Gunther books have been translated into four languages — Japanese, German, Italian and “British” (according to Mayor) — and they've sold over a million copies. But they're much more than a hard-backed novel. They're paperbacks, audiobooks, e-books, maybe someday a video game, a board game, and a dramatic radio series — and now possibly a television show.
“Writing is a business at my level,” Mayor said. “It's got to be a business. So one-third of the time, or maybe a quarter of the time, is writing, and the rest of the time is running a business. And that can get onerous, especially as electronics and the internet and all this crap started taking off.”
As you may be able to tell, Mayor is scrappy, belligerent, a little profane, brutally honest with his opinions, a little fuzzy about his past, and round-the-clock hilarious.
Last month my photographer-newspaper editor husband, Randy Holhut, and I socially-distanced with Mayor and his wife and business partner, Margot Zalkind Mayor, in the open, high-ceilinged kitchen of their 1830 Newfane home. A gray cat (his) and a peripatetic tortoise (hers) wandered by every now and then.
Photo: Margo Zalkind Mayor. Photos by Randolph T. Holhut.
Mayor is a storyteller through and through.
In the speaking engagements he does at bookstores around Vermont, he's not only an inspired raconteur but an economic shot in the arm.
“Archer has been a good friend,” said Pat Fowler, co-owner of Village Square Booksellers in Bellows Falls. “He has a lot of very loyal fans who like to talk to him each year and get the latest book and hear what's going on in the Vermont law community. He attracts between 40 and 80 people — standing room only. Before they come here, a lot of the attendees eat at restaurants in town. Not only do the people come in and buy his book, they buy other things. We mail his books out every year to people in Canada and other states. We have people who have been ordering from us for 15 years now. He remembers the people from year to year and equates them with our store and gets more signed books to us if we need it. He's great about that. I always like to think he's paying one months' rent a year for us.”
Books may be his business, but Mayor doesn't write with money in mind.
“I write to express myself,” he said. “I write to get into the devils in my head and sort them out. I write to find out what makes me and others tick. I write to mold out of myself a better person. This is therapy in many ways. This is constructive activity. I don't write for money. I don't write to be a best seller. I write privately and internally. And I do the best I possibly can. I exercise all the training and all the exposure that I put myself through to enrich that writing. I know they're murder mysteries. I'm not pretending that William Faulkner needs to twist in his grave and think he has a competitor. But I do try to write the best goddamn murder mysteries you'll ever read. Whether I succeed or not, that's up to you. But that's the effort that you're going to see me exert in each and every book.”
There's no grand plan, Mayor said.
“All I do is write,” he said. “I'm not a guy whose last name is Patterson and who's figured it all out. I don't want to write that way, quite frankly. I don't want to fill a mercantile need or some sort of socio-economic slot. If I wrote something about a homicidal cat-eating child, I could really sell a few books. But that's not what I want to spend my time doing.”
Still, a big chunk of his time is spent publicizing books, touring bookshops, lecturing, signing books and looking for other ways to market Joe Gunther, who is not — I repeat, not — his alter ego.
Mayor swears he's not the model for Joe Gunther.
Actually, on the outside he's more like his most brilliant character, Willy Kunkle, a grumpy misanthrope of a policeman with a crippled arm who remains an investigator on the staff of the fictional VBI.
On the inside, both — I hear — are marshmallows.
“Willie Kunkle and I are much closer than me and Joe Gunther,” Mayor said. “Would I aspire to be Joe Gunther? Yeah, you could do a lot worse than to behave like Joe Gunther. But he's an ideal, all the way down to the mistakes he makes and the flaws that he has. It's nice to write about someone who's a bit of an exemplar and not because he can machine gun F-15s with a single shot and have an Austrian accent. He leads by example. He's a decent human being. I wanted to write a series of books in which the main protagonist was not a recovering alcoholic or a wife beater or someone who can't make ends meet or blah, blah, blah. It's just a guy who shows up to work, believes in what he does, works incredibly hard at it, and is fundamentally — to his toes — a good guy. That's why he's named Joe Gunther. It's the most boring name I could think of.”
You can't talk about Mayor as a writer without also talking about the other work he chooses to do — work that fuels his writing. Mayor is someone who has seen brutality, child sexual abuse and murder up close and personal many, many times. That's because he's been a cop, a firefighter, and an EMT. And he's been one of Windham County's highly-trained death examiners for over 20 years.
So death is his business in more ways than one.
“As of this morning, I've seen 928 deaths for the State of Vermont,” Mayor said. “Obviously, I unfortunately dealt with multiple deaths as a volunteer EMT for NewBrook Fire Department, and have experience with dealing with the dead all the way back to the early 1970s.”
What drives Mayor to take on this kind of work?
“I no longer wanted to merely watch others responding to those in need,” he said. “I wanted to be of use — part of the solution to untangling society’s woes. Good for the soul; good for the writing; good example for my kids.”
A death examiner is the person dispatched to every “unattended death,” — a death where the deceased was not retrieving medical treatment at the time.
“Oh, every death is suspicious until proven otherwise,” Mayor said. “That's one of the rules. That's a starting point. You never go out on a death investigation thinking otherwise. They're all homicides until they aren't. And I work with the state's attorney and the responding law enforcement agency. So they're always three of us represented in every scene. I'm one of 30 investigators across the state.”
Mayor said he hasn't seen many COVID-19 cases.
“I had maybe one-and-a-half COVID,” he said. “One was neutral. One came out clean. In other words, we did the whole song and dance. And the other one was so early on that I think it was possibly a COVID death, but we hadn't set up a system yet.
“If there is an increase in unattended deaths, it's absolutely drugs. I mean, once I would go out on four drug calls a year. Now I'll go out four calls a week. Suicides are up. Also natural deaths — it's the aging of our population. A lot of old timers. Need I say more? We're croaking.”
With an unattended death, Mayor becomes more like Joe Gunther.
“I love the problem solving,” he said. “The putting the cases together and discovering and observing and matching up all the bits and parts. I go through everything. I go through the wallets and the clothing and the pockets and the apartments and the cars. What you're doing is you're reconstructing a life with a pointed exercise, which is, what did you die from? And you're working with investigators. We head-jam like crazy, because the people I work with, the cops, they've reached a level of maturity, the one I used to function on when I was a cop. So we all speak the same language and we share many of the same exposures. We're not shy of dead bodies.”
Even in — or especially in — the pandemic, work provides Mayor with a social life.
Photo: Archer Mayor during his interview for this article. Photos by Randolph T. Holhut.
“I'm still seeing my friends,” Mayor said. “We talk about the things friends talk about. We're talking about the dead people. I don't want to talk about ball games. And sitting around a dining room table with a bunch of friends? Oh, God, shoot me now. You know, I'm just not interested at all. I'm an action guy. I need to do stuff.”
In an odd way, the medical examiner's work is all about the living, Mayor said.
“Solving what killed someone is pretty important, especially to the family or survivors, the loved ones, whoever are standing there wringing their hands going, 'I don't understand,'” Mayor said. “Part of my job is to help them understand. I can speak the language and I have the people skills. Sometimes with other investigators, they're all about the investigation. And they're looking at this person streaming with tears. And I'm going, 'I can try to help. Let's talk. Ask me questions. What do you need to know? I can help you. I can at least try to help you.' That's part of the job.”
Mark Carignan, the interim chief of police in Brattleboro, has worked on unattended death scenes with Mayor for 19 years.
“You go into these death investigations not knowing the circumstances,” Carignan said. “Whenever I worked on an investigation with Archer, he's very cautious about drawing any conclusions prematurely. He always observes the scene and the body and allows those observations to lead him to what may have occurred. That's a difficult skill to develop. My skills have been sharpened by working with him over the years. Frankly, I've learned a lot from him.”
Carignan called Mayor's brain “a sponge.”
“He absorbs everything he sees, and he's got a really uncanny memory,” Carignan said. “He's able to keep or maintain all of the things he's observed in the world in his mind. Then he adds a healthy dose of creativity and builds these really wonderful narratives and writes great books. His books are very well researched. He'll get turned on to a topic, learn all about it and decide that a book will be built around it.”
Another law enforcement professional who has worked closely with Mayor for a long time is Tracy Shriver, now the Windham County State's Attorney.
“I first knew Archer when he was the investigator for our Child Advocacy Center, which handles child sexual abuse and serious abuse cases,” Shriver said. “He was assigned to the center for a number of years. Archer was very good at his job and instrumental in helping the center, which was relatively new, do outreach with community partners and law enforcement. Now I work with him as a medical examiner. He's very easy to talk to. He is witty, intelligent, confident and self-assured, something I appreciate when I'm wearing my law enforcement hat and trying to gather information. When we're not talking in a professional capacity, he's also humorous and mischievous. He likes a good turn of phrase, a pun, a twinkle in the eye, a wink. He has the ability to capture a scene, which is very important in his professional capacity. And I'm sure that's helpful to him in writing his books, too. I have a great amount of respect and trust in him.”
“Archer is a character,” said Steve Shapiro, Vermont’s Chief Medical Examiner. “He's one of the first people we hired when we started moving away from having physicians do this work. People who do this work tend to find it extremely satisfying in a lot of ways, and Archer enjoys this work.”
People misinterpret what death examiners do, Shapiro said. They believe they're adrenaline junkies or, at the very least, a bit ghoulish.
Not so, Shapiro said.
“Nobody understands the human part of what we do,” he said. “We're the voice of reason at any sudden unexpected death. The death of a loved one has to be the most extreme kind of trauma a person undergoes. So when their universe is collapsing, we show up to the scene to talk to the loved one or the family and help them through it. It's profoundly sad. There are not a lot of happy stories that come out of my office. But to help people through this time is a great service, and Archer is really good at it.”
Shapiro called Mayor “a good friend” and spoke about him affectionately.
“He's tall, he's got a big smile, and he's a goofy-looking guy,” Shapiro said. “But I love him. He's a local celebrity. At the Newfane Inn bar there are pictures of celebrities who've been there, like Nicole Kidman, then there's Joe Gunther. My mom reads all his books. I've read a good handful. I love when he talks to me about how we do this, and then I see him play it out in print. He's got an amazing talent.”
Ray Walker is the EMS Programs Administrator for the Vermont Department of Health, which includes ambulances, EMTs and paramedics. He's known Mayor since his EMT days.
“It was almost 20 years ago,” Walker said. “EMTs have to be relicensed, so I met him when I was monitoring a written relicensing exam. So I'm just sitting in the front of the room, and I brought a book. And it was one of his. I asked him, 'Will this make you uncomfortable?' He answered, 'No, but it makes me seriously question your taste in literature.'”
Walker once worked in Governor Howard Dean's office, which helped Mayor when Joe Gunther's first significant other became the governor of Vermont.
“I gave him a lot of information about who goes to which meetings, and what people's responsibilities were,” Walker said. “I was a subject matter expert for him. And I grew up in Rutland, and once he had a book set in Rutland. He and I sat in my car one day and we drove around Rutland. I pointed out spots, gave him the inside baseball. That was a lot of fun. He's the kind of guy you'd like to have as your next door neighbor.”
Walker is also a novelist. He said he showed his first book to Mayor and got a painfully honest critique.
“He tells writers, 'You're not going to make a living at it,'” Walker said. “He told me, 'You wrote your first novel. Now burn it.' And he was absolutely right.”
Walker is one of Mayor's editors.
“He has a group of five or six people he sends the manuscript to, and we just trash it,” Walker said. “We say extreme things like, 'Maybe it would be great if you had a different villain.' He wants us to be the most honest we can, and then the more grateful he is. When he sends a book to a publisher, he wants it to have already gone through the wringer. So we go through them and give lots of feedback.”
“Intelligent” is one of the words often used to describe Mayor. Walker said his vocabulary “is bigger than the Webster's dictionary. I guess he's fascinated with words and how they go together.”
Another one of Mayor's close friends, and also a member of the editing group, is Vermont author Castle Freeman.
“I met Archer in about 1989 when we had kids at the same school,” Freeman said. “Both of us live in Newfane and helped with the local fire and rescue department. Before I got to know Archer, I had read 'Open Season' and found it unusually accomplished and confident for a first novel. The characters Joe Gunther and Willy Kunkle, in particular, seemed to me to be engaging and memorable; and the setting, particularly Brattleboro, was observed with accuracy and affection but without sentimentality. I have since then been hired as a pre-publication reader for most of Archer’s Gunther books, probably 20-some over the years. A reader's job is to look for contradictions and other flaws of detail or continuity in the books. That doesn’t mean I 'tear Archer's books apart.' In fact, I suspect Archer’s books require less editing than those of most mystery novelists. I’m lucky to have gotten to be friends with Archer; wouldn’t have missed him for the world. He’s funny, versatile, talented, and good company, always.”
For Mayor, writing as a business took a large step forward when he met advertising, design and marketing whiz Zalkind Mayor about 12 years ago. First, he added her to his readers' group and then he married her. This is the third marriage for both of them.
How's this for meeting cute?
“I had two friends who were voracious murder mystery readers,” Zalkind Mayor said. “And we would exchange books. One of the bags I got from a friend of Connecticut had a book by this guy, Archer Mayor. It was an old, old, old edition and it had some typos in it. Normally, you just sort of go, 'Who cares,' right? But I loved the book. I was living in Northampton, Mass, at the time. So I wrote an email to him at his website. And I said, 'You know, Mr. Mayor, I love your books.' And since I had lived in Vermont before, I said, 'I love the way you portray this state. You just capture it so beautifully. And thank you for that.' Because I didn't want to just say, 'Hi, you made a mistake,' right? I added, 'But by the way, you know, it's a little bit jarring on some of these typos.' I was pretty gentle. And he wrote back a really nice note, which surprised me. And he said, 'What edition was that?'”
She told him and he replied that the edition was not being printed anymore. But about three days later, he wrote again and said, “I can't help it. What did you find?”
“It was the usual typos, a 'too' and a 'two,' right?” Zalkind Mayor said. “So I go to this page and that page. And he writes back and says, 'Ouch!' Which I thought was quite adorable. So then he wrote again and said, 'Hey, I have people that read my book. And you've caught these things, which nobody had. And would you be a reader for me?' So I said 'Sure.'”
One thing led to another which led to dinner and romance.
“He asked, 'Do you want to go to dinner or something?'” Zalkind said. “And I thought that meant something phenomenally la di da, because he was such an international guy, right? So I asked, 'What kind of stuff do you like to eat?' and he says, 'Well, things that are served in a gas station wrapped in cellophane.'”
“They change them every week,” Mayor added, mischievously.
As first a reader and then an editor, Zalkind Mayor has added a notable humanity and a fluidity of language to the series.
“Margot is great because her interpretation of the book is, 'Why'd he say that? Why did he feel that? Why is he acting the way he is?'” Mayor said. “And usually I've got so much stuff in my head, sorting it all out, that I become a little bit more mechanistic than humanistic. Margot ignited that. When someone says 'Ehhhhh,' you take a look and your first impulse is, 'What the hell do you know?' Right on the heels of that, if you have any brains at all, you go, 'Nevertheless, she stumbled over it. It's got to have merit, because a) she's bright, but also, she stumbled.' I don't want my readers to stumble. I don't want that fictional daydream being interrupted. That book has got to be their book in their head. I'm no part of it. And if they, all of a sudden, realize, 'Hey, someone wrote this!' then you've broken that connection of full and utter immersion. So Margot's comments are incredibly key to that. Just what I needed, right when I needed it.”
It is Zalkind Mayor who breaks down Mayor's tough guy image.
“I don't want to embarrass him, but this man makes Joe Gunther look like a slacker in terms of being a good person,” she said. “I've known this man for 12 years. I have never met anyone as good and selfless and kind. I admire him all the time. He goes into a scene and he sits with people and he holds their hand. He sat with people in the older days who even committed a crime. And he talked with them and he'd be kind and respectful. So don't let him tell you he's not like Joe Gunther.”
After they were married, Zalkind Mayor began taking the lead on Joe Gunther, Inc. But I'm getting ahead of my story.
Mayor is as elusive as all get out about the years leading up to his 1980 arrival in Vermont.
He was born in Mount Kisco, NY, to an American father and an Argentine mother, the youngest of six children. (One sister later married Senator William Fulbright; her Wikipedia page credits her with being the sister of Archer Mayor.)
“Mount Kisco is now terribly fashionable, but in those days my father owned a 50-acre farm,” Mayor said. “It wasn't terribly big, but it was productive. And it had the usual farm stuff — things that grow and things that help things grow by shitting on them.”
His father was a businessman, however, not a farmer.
“My father actually worked in New York City,” Mayor said. “My mom stayed on the farm and she employed people who might be needed. And then of course, the brothers and sisters. I, being the youngest, just ate the products that they produced. My eldest sister once drove the tractor through the back wall of the barn. And my father, who was a pilot with a fondness for post-World War II airplanes and motorcycles — which you could get for virtually nothing most days because it was right after the war — had three planes. So we would take off in these airplanes and these planes would crash occasionally. My father never crashed, but he would constantly lend them to friends who purported to know how to do the proper thing in an airplane, which they didn't. So all three airplanes crashed.”
One of his father's early jobs was working in advertising sales for Henry Luce when he began Time Magazine.
“He was the last man hired by Time in 1929, shortly after Time was created,” Mayor said. “So he had to walk around with an advertising card that told people what the rates were, of course, but he would also have to explain what Time was. And everyone was sort of like, 'Why would you want to do that? You're a weekly news magazine, and you know the news is going to be out of date. That's a stupid thing to do. We've already got too many newspapers.'”
His father's first day on the job was the day of the Wall Street crash.
“My father, being a diminutive man, was approached by a six-and-a-half-foot Irish giant who placed one big meaty paw on his shoulder and said, 'Son, you go back to your boss and you tell him you can't sell anything today. He'll understand,'” Mayor said. “So he did that for five years. And they didn't hire anyone at Time for that period of time. I think he was the best salesman they ever had. And he loathed sales. Hated it every day. But that was my father; if you really hate something, you do the best you possibly can. It was the only time my father developed an ulcer. Working for Harry was no piece of cake.”
Mayor didn't have a chance to grow up on the farm. He often says, “My father was so restless, we thought he had a criminal record.”
“So when I was one year old, we left and went to Canada,” Mayor said. “That heightens that sort of mysterious thing about what did the old man really do. And once, years later, we were living in Paris and there's a knock on the door. Being a precocious fellow, I open the door. There's a statuesque, six-foot-three-inches tall motorcycle cop there. In France, motorcycle cops are an elite corps. They're the top of the top. So I'm looking at him and handcuffed to his wrist is a briefcase. And he asks if my father is at home. And, unusually, my father is home. He's expecting this young man. And the handcuff is transferred over to my father.”
His father then took Mayor upstairs to examine the contents of the briefcase, which turned out to be “the secret details of the armament systems of one of the latest aircraft,” Mayor said. “Yeah, he worked for Boeing. I used to tell him he was an arms merchant. Which in a way he was. He sold PT boats, missile systems and stuff like that from the Americans to the Europeans.”
In a very real sense, Mayor didn't grow up anywhere.
“I grew up in the back seat of a car,” he said. “I was born on a farm. We paused and I was born. And then we continued moving. I've never actually done a count, but I would roughly estimate I've lived in 30-plus places. My father was as restless with his jobs as was with his locale. By nature and by instinct, he was an internationalist. And he always advised us to work far from the flagpole, because the bosses could never figure out what the hell you were doing, and that gives you independence. And so I was brought up in Canada, United States, South America and Europe. And in various times, that would occasionally result in me learning the wrong language. Because the old man would come home and sort of say, 'I changed my job.' He was a very bright man, a very lucky man and a very well-connected man. So he could get these jobs. He wasn't a businessman in the American tradition of today, which is where you all float around and you're worth $60 million. That wasn't my father. My father was an engineer by instinct and training. And he liked problem-solving. He liked working with people. And he liked working overseas, because of the freedom that I touched on. And so we fell around behind him. Now I've lived in Vermont for forty years. I've stopped moving.”
In 2019, Vermont Magazine interviewer Joshua Sherman asked Mayor about the advantages and disadvantages of the years he spent growing up abroad.
“They were the best education I ever got,” Mayor told Sherman. “I would say that they taught me a variety of things: to adapt quickly, to associate with completely foreign and different people immediately, to be very short on criticizing new things and new people and new habits and cultures and languages … because you're the foreigner, you're the outsider, and they were here first. So, show a little respect and 'shut up your mouth and listen' and 'pay attention and learn something'. That’s the positive stuff. The less positive stuff is that you are perpetually uprooted. You don’t belong anywhere. You don’t have any friends you can maintain for any length of time, because you’re going to move. You occasionally get thrown into situations fraught with adversity, from which you can’t easily escape, especially when you’re a youngster. And those can have deleterious effects on your psyche at a formative age. So, I suffered from all the slings and arrows — as well as the good stuff.”
At the age of 14 he left home, returned to the United States and went to boarding school.
“I came back with a thick accent and no training in English whatsoever,” he said. “Never had a class in English grammar or anything else. I wouldn't know a dangling participle if it hit me in the butt. So I learned by reading and by conversation, and so when I came back to the United States, fortunately, I was surrounded by people who knew how to speak the language. And I've always been a bookophile. So I read, read, read. I still read like mad. And I like the sound of language. That's how I write, and that's how I read. I don't have favorite authors. I don't have any kind of conventional thing. I have an ear for language. And that's why I spoke several languages and why I appreciate reading. That's kind of it without getting into all the bushes or the weeds.”
More Bushes, More Weeds
Mayor discouraged me from trying to make a timeline of his early professional life, saying often, “You don't want to get into the weeds.”
Maybe that's the result of living 70 impact-filled years. But I do know that while he was still at boarding school, Mayor began a series of part-time jobs that included photography and journalism.
“I formulated a process of interior thinking,” he told Vermont Magazine. “And you can well imagine, being a writer isn’t far removed. So it was a natural segue for me. I started, funny enough, taking photographs, but I realized that my photography would never come to the level my writing has since achieved. I did the photography because it’s portable… because I can hide behind a camera … and because my father was an inveterate shutterbug. He always had a camera in his hand. And I guess most youngsters always try to emulate their parents somehow or another, even if the association otherwise is not superb. So long story short, I began to carry that easiest and most transportable of personal possessions as I moved from place to place to place to place. And that is…. stories.”
Mayor eventually took an undergraduate degree in US history at Yale University. That launched him into a career as — in no significant order — an editor at the University of Texas, a researcher for Time-Life Books, a political advance man, a theater photographer, a medical illustrator, a journalist, a lab technician for Paris-Match magazine in France during the student riots of 1968 and the Algerian War, and an author of history books.
When I asked Mayor how he managed to secure so many interesting — and often prestigious — jobs, he had a quick answer.
“I just walked in,” he said. “That's how I get most of my jobs. Gift of the gab.”
Perhaps speaking multiple languages helped?
“Yeah, that helps,” he said. “But I remember once walking into a job interview, and the chancellor of the university turned to me and said, 'You've got to go see so-and-so. Tell him I sent you.' I said, 'Okay, great. If the chancellor of the university system sends you, that’s probably pretty good.' So I cross the threshold, and from across the room, I can tell this guy's pissed off. He said, 'Obviously you're the guy that the chancellor sent.' I went, 'Yeah, that son of a bitch, these guys think they own the world.'
I threw that guy right under the bus and got the job. As soon as you walk in with a plan, throw it out.”
A degree from Yale probably helped, too.
“So does my color, so does my gender, so does my height,” Mayor said. “So does my sense of humor. So does my pretty non-blue eyes. And you know, it's all whatever nature gives you. It may not be fair, but there it is. And I'm not so self-deceiving that I'm not going to pretend that those things exist. I'm not going to promote them, or encourage them or applaud them, because that shit stinks. But it exists. And in those early stages in my career, I needed a job.”
Coming to Vermont
Mayor was working for the University of Texas as a scholarly editor when he decided he needed to come north.
“There was kind of a toss-up as to whether I go to the Northeast or the Northwest, but I wanted to get out of Texas,” Mayor said. “I sound real funny in Texas. And I certainly have the wrong attitude. So I wanted to go somewhere where I would not stand out quite as much. I was tired of being referred to as a 'damn Yankee.' Now I may be damned, but what's the Yankee? Come on, guys. Get over it.”
He arrived in Vermont in 1980, unemployed, without prospects, and with the intent to write history books. In retrospect, Mayor said that Vermont had “a sociological package that was enormously appealing to me.”
It has winter. It isn't densely populated. It is people-friendly. And the people who run the state are accessible.
“The thin population meant that as a closet social anthropologist, I would be able to write books about people and how they interact and function within the confines of the state, in toto,” Mayor said. “So in other words, I could get to know the governor of the state and I could get to know the guy who lives under my bridge. And it wouldn't take too terribly much to do that. And indeed, I succeeded. Because the Joe Gunther series of books were never intended to be murder mysteries. I don't even read murder mysteries. They were intended to be stories about why people do some of the crazy and the improbable things they do. So that was the incentive — moving to a state where you don't have difficulty accessing the people you need to access.”
Mayor still enjoys going to the State House to talk to the governor, the legislators or, in his case, the security guys and the janitorial staff.
“I like to talk with all these people,” he said. “I just wander in and start talking. In the old days, they didn't even have a metal detector, for God's sake, and I don't know if they still don't.”
First Mayor wrote history books.
One, “Southern Timberman: The Legacy of William Buchanan,” published in 1988, is about the lumber and oil business in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas from the 1870s to the 1970s. One review said, “Tracing the growth of Buchanan’s ventures from the first acre of virgin pine to the charged atmosphere of the corporate boardroom, Mayor paints a compelling family portrait set against the background of America’s oil and timber industries.”
To write these books, “I just hit the road,” Mayor said. “I would spend nine weeks at a time on the road all over the United States, doing interviews and collecting photographic archives and whatnot to create these history books, which I wrote from 1980 to 1988.”
And then along came Joe, and along with it his notable series of high-impact jobs: firefighter, EMT, medical examiner, law enforcement office, Newfane constable twice, and the ski patrol at Maple Valley. He also served on the Grace Cottage Hospital board for a few years.
At his peak, Mayor was holding down three full-time 40-hours-a-week jobs — as a writer, as a cop, and as a death investigator.
“And I had the pay vouchers to establish that for the IRS,” Mayor said. “It was kind of wonderful in a way. I had two or three pagers. I was never home, I was always doing something, because that's a lot of time to put into a week, three times 40. So a lot of hours away. But like I said, I like to do stuff. And the structure works out if you handle it well. It's not like you go to an office from nine to five. These are not those kinds of jobs. They're all pager-driven. They're all emergency-driven. And of course, on top of that, come to think of it, I was a firefighter, an EMT volunteer for a number of years, and I did that for over 30 years. Now I really am a slacker because all I do is write books and respond to dead people.”
Getting Joe Gunther into print in 1988 meant Mayor could concentrate on writing.
“Because at that point, the publishers were encouraged enough by what they read,” Mayor said. “And they went, 'Okay, I'll offer you another contract.' And since then I've lived as I've always lived, pretty much contract to contract, job to job.”
The books may be about Joe Gunther, but the people of Vermont are Mayor's main characters. He loves the underbelly of the state as much as he loves the quaint small towns and woodlands.
“I oftentimes find myself in friendly encounters with people gathered around a table going on and on and on about one aspect of Vermont government or another,” Mayor said. “And I sit there — quietly for once — and I'm thinking to myself, 'You guys are missing sometimes up to 70 percent of the population of this state, and you're thinking what you know is real and complete and whole. And you're wrong. When the signs came out that said, ‘Take Back Vermont,’ I knew what those people were talking about.”
Mayor said he had some sympathy for the Take Back Vermonters.
“Not their methodology; not even basically their view of life,” Mayor said. “But by God, I understood what they were talking about in terms of feeling ignored and stepped on and dismissed. Half my friends are woodchucks. When Donald Trump won the election four years ago, I figured he would. And nobody around those fictional tables I'm referring to knew it. They're all, 'Oh, my God!' Yeah, you need to listen to what is not easily hearable. Pay attention to what people are thinking, pay attention to their frustrations, pay attention to what they're not saying, and what is motivating their frustration, their anger and their sense of dispossession. Those are key. These are quiet and increasingly resentful slices of the population. You may not like them. I don't want to spend a lot of time with these guys who literally travel around the world following Trump rallies. But there are a lot of them. So know your enemy, if you want to consider them your enemy, and more importantly, you should consider them the flip side of your own humanity. They are you. I've met the enemy and he is us.”
Why might people be resentful, I asked.
“They're resentful of being overlooked by the movers and shakers,” Mayor said. “Vermont is run by the best version of a Republican we can come up. He's a moderate Republican most of the time. He tries to play ball and he works rather well with the Democrats. I like that. You like that. We all like that. That's great. But there are many Trump voters in the state of Vermont. They're not a majority, but they're there. And all I'm saying is, they should be acknowledged. Not embraced, because their views are not your views. But you need to recognize who they are, what they are and what they're complaining about. Otherwise, you will be dismissing them and nobody on the face of the earth deserves being dismissed. Nobody! You shouldn't be so self-inflated, and so ennobled with yourself and your viewpoint, that you can take someone who utterly disagrees with everything you stand for, and just say, 'Well, you're an idiot.' Because that idiot could in fact, become the leader of the country for four years. How did that happen? It happened because you weren't paying attention. That's all I'm saying. Don't get too enthusiastic that your way is the only way. You could get partially surprised.”
Joe Gunther, Inc
Just as the Mayors were falling in love, the internet exploded and changed publishing forever.
“The entire industry that existed since Gutenberg is being blown out of the water,” Mayor said. “In the midst of all this, my books — of which there were so many — began to go out of print fairly abruptly.”
By then Mayor had worked his way through a lot of publishers.
“Funnily enough, I didn't get dumped by them because of my work,” Mayor said. “I got dumped by them because of business at their end. I was just collateral damage. I started at Putnam's. Putnam's sold me to Mysterious Press. Mysterious got purchased by Avon. Avon ceased to exist and went to Grand Central. Grand Central then segued over and I got purchased outright by Macmillan, which is actually St Martin's Press. And Hachette was in there somewhere. And Warner. All I was was baggage. They're just picking up suitcases and moving them. I'm in the suitcase. It had nothing to do with me. In fact, funnily enough, each one said, 'Sure, just keep Mayor going.' Because I hit my marks. I produced one book a year, same standard of quality. And I know what they like and what they don't in terms of attitudinal authors, because I was brought up, as you remember, in publishing.”
Mayor said that one of many adages in publishing is “the only good author is a dead author.”
“Because you don't want a phone call from the author,” Mayor said. “I used to be an editor, and when the phone rang and someone said, 'Hey, it's your author on the phone,' you know he's going to bitch about the jacket or something about which you could do nothing. It's out. It's in bookstores. Don't complain. Talk to me about the next book or the next jacket.”
But dumped was what Mayor eventually got.
“One of them finally went, 'Hey, you know, we don't need to be carrying all this freight. Why not publish the guy's new books, but why are we carrying, you know, 15 of his old books, when maybe they make ends meet, and maybe they don't even do that?'” Mayor said. “So I said to them, 'You're absolutely right.'”
Since Mayor knew the business, he knew that publishers back then saw e-books as competition, not as an extension of their own business.
“They saw it as some parasitic worm that was trying to take business away from them,” Mayor said. “Oh, you idiots! So I said, 'You're absolutely right, guys. Thank you from the depth of my heart for carrying me as long as you have. So I'll tell you what. Give the books back to me. Lock, stock and barrel. And I will help with that cliché, I will help all boats rise. I'll take over the publishing of the backlist, and you guys keep paying the high honor by publishing the hardbacks.' I'll be damned if they didn't say yes. We got 18 old titles back for free. So I set up a publishing company, AM Press. Catchy? So I published trade paperbacks. And then when Margot and I got together, Margot said e-books. So we went off to the races.”
Zalkind Mayor knew something about publishing, so she set up a series of meetings with old colleagues who could teach them about e-books, Kindle and the others.
“It was like the frontier because who knew who's gonna live or die,” Mayor said. “It was pretty crazy. Thank God Margot took it all on. And I just kept writing books.”
Zalkind Mayor comes from the world of advertising and marketing.
“So I asked a lot of questions, like 'Who's doing your website?'” she said. “And I looked at the website and said, 'No, it's not communicating this, this, this or this?' And Archer, bless his heart said, 'Okay, let's look at that.' He could have said, 'Look, I've done it this way, and I'll stay this way.' So we met with the website guy he used, and I said, 'Well, why are you doing more of this and why are you showing all this and why aren't you doing that?' And he had a little bit of attitude. So I found another website person who was cheaper and faster. And then we met with this other guy, and we started e-books and found an e-book company that could do the conversion. We had to do different covers for each e-book, so I designed those because they don't convert. We designed all the covers to just have the name and one image and not a lot of other stuff, because they are that small. So I got into the business that way.”
As she learned more, Zalkind Mayor slowly took on more. The couple met with Mayor's current publisher, St Martin's Press, which puts out his books under the Minotaur imprint.
“They started publishing him with Book #19 of his, 'The Catch',” Zalkind Mayor said. “They have published all his hardcover books since then. We own the rights to the first 18 books, which were not published by St Martin's. When you do a book, you have different kinds of rights. So there's hardcover, paperback, audio, e-books, dramatic rights, or you can make a musical comedy based on Joe Gunther. Every contract is multi-page, because there are different kinds of rights. Archer has all the audiobooks rights, so I get the audiobooks made. That's a separate contract. But the e-books rights on the new books stay with St Martin's.”
“You see,” Mayor added, “traditional publishing eventually woke up to the power of e-books the fact that 'Oh, they are us! They aren't competition.' And so then I couldn't get my rights back as I used to. But curiously enough, we are actually resuming the paperback publishing of modern books, because the hardback publishers are getting pinched tighter and tighter and tighter.”
Paperback books usually come out a year to a year and a half after the hardbacks.
Together the couple formed an umbrella organization, MarchMedia, LLC, to cover Joe Gunther's business prospects.
Under that umbrella they also added Zalkind Mayor's own publishing company, Button Street Press, an imprint that publishes everyone except Mayor.
In 2018, for example, it published “In the Wild,” a collection of cartoons from famed New Yorker cartoonist and Vermont resident Ed Koren.
“I started it because over the years, many writers have asked me would I do for them what I do for Archer?” Zalkind Mayor said. “So we started Button Street Press.”
Zalkind Mayor also looked at the distribution end of Mayor's business. His system at the time was to print 4,000 or so books, put them in a warehouse/fulfillment center, and let the woman who was running it take orders for the books and send them out.
As it turned out, she had a whole warehouse full of trade paperbacks.
“So one thing I've done over the years is partner with St Martin's Press, because they're experienced in all this,” Zalkind Mayor said. “So we're going down to New York a few times a year to meet with St Martin's marketing. I said, 'Let's work together,' and they love that. I say, 'So what else can we do? How can we do it better?' I work hand in glove with their New York marketing department since we have the same goal. I appreciate that they do that.”
St Martin's turned the couple on to Ingram Content Group for book distribution, Zalkind Mayor said.
“They said, 'Look, if somebody wants to order book 31, let them also see books one through 19 listed,'” she said. “If you sell through Ingram, for a bookstore that's one-stop shopping. So we did that, which meant we didn't have to insure and pay for printing 4,000 books at a time. It was just a chunk of change upfront. And that worked out really well. Ingram prints the books and sells to bookstores. St Martin's also distributes through Ingram. That way, when a bookstore goes to order books, they see all of the books.”
They also switched to the print-on-demand system, which meant no more need for the warehousing of books, which also had the happy effect of eliminating the need to carry insurance on them.
The next step was to start an email newsletter for Mayor's many fans.
“At every event we have a clipboard where attendees sign up to get the newsletter,” Zalkind Mayor said. “Then I started with Facebook, which has been great because we have thousands of followers. So I post on Facebook and Instagram. And I keep track of inventory.”
Mayor has the dramatic rights to all his books; over the years, many people have suggested that Joe Gunther would make a great movie or TV show. At one point Mayor and some of his friends even tried to turn them into radio plays.
“You always try to keep your hooks in the water,” Mayor said. “Ain't gonna catch nothin' without 'em. Of course, all us old guys love the idea of radio theater. I cut my teeth on radio theatre. In my case, every Friday night I would listen to ‘Gunsmoke’ on the radio. So cool. So radio theater was a big deal. Go for it. But you got the internet, downloadable blogs, earphones, smartphones, blah, blah, blah. But studio time, actor time, time time, on and on and on. And we began to realize this was a far larger mouthful than one could decorously eat. And funnily enough, we also discovered that there really wasn't a market.”
“One thing we've done over the years is that we try stuff,” Zalkind Mayor added. “Why not? And that was one of the things we tried.”
Another thing they tried was a board game. And a video game.
“We sort of hit the wall with that one,” Zalkind Mayor said. “It's like $2 million to launch a game. But like a lot of things in life, the connections you make are fabulous. And so we found intellectual property attorneys in Massachusetts who worked with the Ninja Turtles. Because to develop the video game, we needed property protection. So we started to work with these guys and they know video games, but they also know intellectual property. So they help a great deal with every book contract. These attorneys give us a good support system. And through them we got a Hollywood and TV guy in Boston, because these guys knew that guy. It's all fascinating, and it all ties together.”
Once the pandemic lifts, Joe Gunther may be coming to a small screen near you. That's another “meet cute” story.
“We had been approached over the years by various people who wanted to do something,” Zalkind Mayor said. “And Archer was rightfully sort of wary, but interested, of course. So we had not really connected with any one particular television production company, or film producer yet. There were some that were very interested, didn't have the experience, some didn't have enough money. So Archer was waiting, wisely, for the right possibility. Because it's a brand, dare I say”?
“I'm a brand, like Spam,” Mayor chipped in.
Then, about five years ago, the couple got a phone call from Mayor's son Jonathon, who lives in Austin, Texas.
“His son is fabulous,” Zalkind Mayor said. “And like Archer, a good person. So he was out at six o'clock on a Sunday morning building a house for Habitat for Humanity. He gets partnered with a guy who notices Jonathon is wearing an 'I love Vermont' kind of T-shirt. The guy says, 'Oh God, I love Vermont.' And Jonathon says, 'Oh, me too. My dad's there.' And the guy says, 'Oh, I was born there.' And the guy's name is Coolidge.”
“As in Silent Cal,” Mayor said.
“So we're still on the phone, and Jonathon says, 'It gets better, Dad,'” Zalkind Mayor said. “He said, 'I started to talk to the guy about Vermont. And the guy says, 'Yeah, my favorite author is in Vermont.' And Jonathon says, 'Who's that?' And the guy says, 'Archer Mayor.' And Jonathon says 'That's my dad.' Then Jonathon says to the guy, 'What do you do?' And the guy says, 'I'm a film producer.'”
Coolidge turned out to be partnered with a group called Rough House Productions, and the Mayors now have a television deal.
“All of this from Habitat for Humanity,” Zalkind Mayor said.
Not Made in Vermont
The next step with the TV contract is to consider production once the pandemic lifts.
There are 31 books set primarily in Vermont, and all of them are dying to be made into a television series. Mayor mischievously says he envisions Whoopi Goldberg playing Joe Gunther, but would also love to have Peter Dinklage from “Game of Thrones.”
Who wouldn't assume that the series should be filmed at various locations in Vermont?
Vermont actors would get parts. Other actors, along with designers, production and technical people would come to Vermont, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, buy gasoline and supplies, use Vermont electricity and give small towns across the state a huge economic shot in the arm.
But sadly, it's not to be.
“Long story short, we sort of went on a circuitous route looking for film production incentives in the state of Vermont,” Zalkind Mayor said. “But there's not much incentive financially to do that. Archer did a breakdown of the financial benefit to having production here, and it was impressive. But I think the bottom line was that people said, 'If I have $20, I'd rather put a meal on the table than even think about what to do with this.'”
Zalkind Mayor doesn't agree.
“You constantly hear from people that either live somewhere else, or who even live here, that they learn about Vermont from reading Archer's books,” she said. “Archer does this wonderful job of focusing on places and introducing you to them and what they're like, who lives there, whatever it is. People come to Vermont to see these things.”
A few years ago, the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce even put on an Archer Mayor murder mystery weekend that drew many tourists.
“People came from far away because they want to see the real places that he writes about,” she said. “For the TV guys, we counted about 80 locations just in Vermont that are mentioned or elaborated on in the books. That is part of why we tried to lobby for state tax incentives for films. Shoot it here. There once was a part-time Vermont film office, but it was closed. Senator Becca Balint (D-Windham and now president pro tem of the Vermont Senate) was a big champion of trying to get support here. She called it, 'Keep Joe in Vermont.' The idea was, why not use this TV series as a commercial? I presented a whole pitch to Montpelier about why they should reinstate some support for film here, particularly when it's going to show the state in a good factual light. But it didn't fly.”
With scarce resources — and/or a lack of imagination — the state didn't want to spend the money.
“Our point was, they're not spending money,” Zalkind Mayor said. “They're giving rebates. I understand that. Because you want to put meals on tables for people and keep kids in schools.”
That's the good news and the bad news, Mayor added.
“The good news is there are only 12 of us in Vermont,” he said. “The bad news is there are only 12 of us in Vermont. And all 12 of us have got to do something for everybody. In Vermont, money counts. That's why the governor doesn't have a mansion. That's why the legislators work off their laps. Because we don't blow money on bullshit.”
Massachusetts and Georgia have welcomed film production and the income it brings in.
“Georgia ended up being the new Hollywood,” Mayor said.
“Yes, it really is,” Zalkind Mayor said. “They started to give incentives. Companies came. Then they met the need of low hanging fruit with their staff. So they now have like 12 educational avenues for learning the film industry in Georgia.”
“We respect that,” Mayor said. “And let's be honest, if we'd been successful, COVID probably would have knocked the snot out of stuff.”
Photo: Archer Mayor and his wife Margo Zalkind Mayor during his interview for this article. Photos by Randolph T. Holhut.
Coming to Vermont, almost on a whim, was the best decision Mayor ever made.
“Vermont has been rewarding me from the very first day, and continues to do so,” he said. “I'm delighted to live in the state and to work in the state. And for someone as peripatetic as I was, to end up here, amid people who, despite their walks of life, and backgrounds and experiences, have all welcomed me with open arms, is wonderful. I had no home growing up. I have a home now. And if someone drives by this house now and says, 'Well, that's a nice building, what's that?' It'll be the Mayor house. It's no longer the McLoughlin house. It's no longer the Sheely house. It's the Mayor house. So having lived here for almost half a century, I'm finally fitting in and that's a good feeling.”
Sometimes Mayor is asked how he can live in a tiny village like Newfane, where everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
“And I go, 'Yeah, isn't that wonderful?'” he said. “Margot and I go for a drive and I go, 'Hey, I did a fire there.' 'I did a rescue there.' 'I arrested someone there.' Just house after house after house after house. Having an intimacy with your environment is what I thirsted for growing up.”
Clearly, the future will be more of the same.
“It's taken us years to figure all this,” Mayor said. “You do your missteps, you do hopeful steps, you do successful steps, and you just gotta keep trying. And sometimes a failure leads to something hopeful and successful and sometimes not. But in retrospect, you go, how did you get there? It's like doing an autopsy on a plate of spaghetti.”
In his spare time, Mayor works on his house.
“I built the chimney, I built that platform, I love woodworking,” he said. “I have a full-fledged woodworking shop with all the equipment you can imagine.”
“And he built the porch in the cabin across the street, where my office is,” Zalkind Mayor said.
“A writer should not only be a guy dressed in tweed,” Mayor said. “I like doing other stuff as well.”
Still, people will keep dying and Mayor will keep writing books.
“So I guess I'm fully employed,” Mayor said.
And Joe Gunther fans will be happy to hear that book #32, “Marked Man,” is being edited and will release end of September 2021
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the photographer who took the photos for this story. He is also the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.