Q & A With “Warn Me When It’s Time” Author Cheryl A. Head

The Literary Hill


Fair Warning
Charlie Mack knows what it’s like to be on “the hurting side” of prejudice. As a Black lesbian who runs her own detective agency in Detroit, she’s seen more than her share. That’s why, when the bombing of a mosque results in the death of a Muslim man, she agrees to help the family find justice. “I don’t trust the police to find my husband’s killer,” his wife explains. “[They] do not see my husband as someone important enough to spend much time and effort on.”

In Cheryl A. Head’s “Warn Me When It’s Time,” Charlie and her colleagues find themselves up against domestic terrorists, those “violent right-wing groups… [whose] members were more sophisticated and tech savvy than the night riders of the fifties and sixties, but just as hateful and deadly.” In concert with agents of the FBI, Mack and her operatives uncover a web of shadowy idealogues intent on destroying immigrants, Jews, Blacks—in short, anybody who doesn’t look and think just like them.

As Charlie’s domestic partner, Mandy, says, “You’re dealing with people who think they’re divinely empowered to keep the world the way they want it to be. These guys are crazy, honey.” Now it looks as though the terrorists are planning an incendiary attack on a venerable old church, and somebody’s going to have to go undercover to infiltrate the group and make sure their bombs don’t detonate.

“Warn Me When It’s Time” is a thrilling ride that plunges right into the rotten core of white supremacy. Head has done her homework, from details of bombmaking and the paramilitary structure of the groups, to the twisted mindset of the men whose “evil energy” fuels their horrendous acts. The realism and timeliness make Head’s story all too horrifying—and give readers all the more reason to root for Charlie and her team to prevail.

A Detroit native, Cheryl Head now lives on Capitol Hill and is the author of five previous books in the award-winning Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series (which I, for one, plan to start binge-reading immediately). http://cherylhead.com

Q & A with Author Cheryl Head
Q: From the descriptions of Detroit in your book, it’s clear that you have an affinity for your hometown. What brought you to DC? How difficult was the transition? And why Capitol Hill?

A: I do love the heart and soul of Detroit, although I see that changing every time I go home for a visit. I arrived in DC thirty years ago to work at the public media station, WETA TV/FM. The transition wasn’t easy because I didn’t know anyone in DC, and I’d left my family in Detroit at the time. It took me more than a year to adjust to the pace and culture of the city, and even longer around the politics, race and class tensions. I’ve been on Capitol Hill twenty years and I’m still adjusting to the growth in my neighborhood. It’s the best move I’ve ever made on many levels. Capitol Hill is an exciting area to live in but, I’ve learned, you must be adaptable.

Q: How hard was it to get into the minds of the white supremacists you portray in “Warn Me When It’s Time”? Did you go online to read their hateful chatter?

A: It was extremely disturbing getting into the heads of these characters but to give the story the kind of authenticity I want to always bring to my work, I toughed it out. A couple of times, when constructing fictional hate crime attacks, I felt so much guilt and queasiness thinking about the scenarios that I said a prayer or two. I worked very conscientiously to have empathy for one of the characters—a troubled, young man teetering between the choice of joining a community of hate, or taking a different path. I felt I had to channel some of the emotions, experiences and histories of these guys— and the majority of these alt-right and white nationalist groups are made up of men. Yes, I did go online to read their conversations and make myself familiar with the language, tone and scope of the discussions. You’d be surprised how many open sites there are spewing the hate talk of these fringe groups. I know I was. It’s both frightening and dispiriting.

Q: In addition to topical issues like racism and xenophobia, your books also deal with more domestic matters. How important is it for you to show Charlie Mack in a stable, loving lesbian relationship?

A: That’s very important to me. Charlie is unique in the crime fiction world in that she is a Black, queer, cis-female private investigator. But in her friendships, family relationships, and her relationship with her lover, Mandy, she’s pretty much like everyone else. Charlie and Mandy are an interracial couple with the accompanying cultural dynamics and tensions, but they love and respect each other and appreciate and negotiate their differences. They’ve bought a home together, rotate cooking dinner, walk the dog, and take out the trash. In other words, they’re not much different than the straight couple across the street. The other family dynamic that’s important in my series is Charlie’s relationship with her mother, who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. That’s a regular through line in the series.

Q” What’s next for your Charlie Mack Motown Mystery series? Are there other important issues you’d like to tackle?

A: “Warn Me When It’s Time” is the sixth book in the series and I envision at least four to six more books. I’ll continue to tackle the feelings and challenges of witnessing the unraveling associated with Alzheimer’s. I’ve already summarized a storyline to delve more closely into Mandy’s interesting family background, and the book I’m writing now has echoes of the Jimmy Hoffa disappearance. You can’t write about Detroit without some reference to that mystery.