Mystery Writers Key West Fest: Murder and Mayhem in Paradise!

Interview with Author John H. Cunningham

The very first line of author John H. Cunningham’s original Buck Reilly adventure, “Red Right Return,” reads as follows: “Fort Jefferson was visible in the distance, seventy miles from Key West, another outcast in the Florida Straits.” Sucked right in - right?

Wayfaring through Keys and Caribbean locals, beaches, bars and rum-splashed sunsets, the intrepid author’s Buck Reilly adventures to date include, “Red Right Return,” “Green to Go,” “Crystal Blue” and “Second Chance Gold.” Their leading man is a treasure hunting, adventure seeking, flying boat pilot with an uncanny knack for dalliances, danger and daring escapes.

 In addition to “bestselling author,” Cunningham’s own CV includes: bouncer at a Key West nightclub, diver, pilot, photography magazine editor, commercial developer, songwriter and world traveler. The former Key West resident, who now resides in Virginia, returns to the island city August 14-16 as a guest panelist at the 2nd Annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel.

Today he sheds some light on his “everyman” hero, Buck Reilly, and on his own life and adventures.


Q&A with Author John H. Cunningham

Q) Your bio notes that you developed your protagonist, Buck Reilly, as “more everyman than superman to create a hero on a human scale.” What do you consider Buck’s foremost personal strength and what would you say is his character’s greatest vulnerability or quirk? Would you say that any of these qualities mirror your own?

A) Buck's foremost personal strength would be perseverance. He lost everything when the economy crashed, his business, his money, his wife, and he came to Key West to operate Last Resort Charter and Salvage. I consider him an Everyman because, like most of us, he doesn't have unlimited funds, government connections or secret agent skills to get out of the many messes he gets into, relying instead on perseverance. And he fears getting hurt. After all his losses, he's reluctant to open his heart, but of course he does. Yes, Buck is a reflection of me in many ways.


Q) Two prominent personalities in your series have been flying boats - a 1930’s Grumman Goose and a 1946 Grumman Widgeon - which Buck has crashed at least once.  You too are a pilot. Do you pilot a Grumman? If yes, what challenges are unique to taking off and landing a vintage flying boat? Have you ever crashed or come close to crashing a plane?

A) To me there is no more romantic crucible than a flying boat or seaplane. I have loved them my entire life, and been on or flown aboard Grumman Widgeons, Goose and even Jimmy Buffett's Albatross back when it was in service. When my kids were young and I was working 60+ hours a week, I gave up flying and have not yet started up again. When I do, it will be on a seaplane. Never been in a crash (touch wood), but know a few people who have, and when flying in the islands, making water landings, or on sketchy landing strips, well, sh*t happens, so Buck Reilly's odds are great for mishap.


Q) Before you launched your Buck Reilly adventure series, one of your gigs was editor in chief for The Pro Review, a magazine for professional photographers. What comes first for you when conceptualizing a novel, visualization or words?

A) When conceptualizing a new novel I always visualize the settings, research locations, search for pertinent history and consider any special social issues associated with all of the combined elements. Once I'm excited about these pieces coming together in my mind, I write very detailed outlines that subsequently allow me to focus on one chapter at a time. The prose and dialogue flow like spring water when all those components are in synch.


Q) What inspired you to start writing fiction?

A) Having lived in Key West, Europe and minoring in Art History, I have always had an appreciation for all types of culture and art. I was pretty good at drawing, but not at mixing paints. I loved to read and decided that I could channel my creative desires into writing. After writing a few one-off books and honing my skills through the help of private editors, I followed their advice of writing what you know and love, and that allowed me to combine islands, seaplanes, adventure, romance and an imperfect and reluctant hero into Buck Reilly.


Q) When did you realize you had launched a series?

A) The Buck Reilly series was intentional from the start. I sought to create a cast of memorable, fun characters, drawing from several real life friends and acquaintances that could reappear throughout the series. Buck Reilly was at the bottom in Red Right Return, book #1, having just lost everything and escaped to Key West. He isn't sure whether he ever wants to be "successful" again, and feels like a refugee from the American Dream, and hesitant to open his heart to love, so as a series there is unlimited opportunities for character growth and settings for the stories to occur.


Q) Tell us about your decision to write Buck Reilly in the first person, present tense.

A) I had written other novels in the third person, omniscient point of view, which I enjoyed, but in creating the Buck Reilly series, it was important for the reader to see Buck's world through his eyes. The key in writing a series steeped in adventure is to not break the action with too much internal monologue, which is tricky when writing in the first person. Like many, I love John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series from the '70's, which were also in the first person, but Travis (who I named my African Gray parrot after as a baby, 25 years ago) expounded at length on social issues with internal monologue, which I do through plot instead. I like to say that when you see the world through Buck Reilly's eyes, the view will never be the same. You could only accomplish that through first person.


Q) Tell us about The Ballad of Buck Reilly.

A) Matt Hoggatt, who first became known through his song Dear Jimmy Buffett, and subsequently got a recording deal on Mailboat Records as a result, and I became friends through social media. Next thing you know we were writing the Ballad of Buck Reilly together, which was recorded in Memphis, and was produced by Keith Sykes who wrote Volcano and Coast of Marseilles with Buffett. The Coral Reeferettes, Nadirah Shakoor and Tina Gullickson sang backup on the song. It was a lot of fun and shares the essence of the series very well. Buffett, Hoggatt, Thom Shepherd and Scott Kirby also appear as themselves (with their permission) in Crystal Blue, book #3 in the series, where the Ballad actually comes to life at the end of the book. I think of it as mixed medium combining music and literature. 


Q) Any thoughts on bringing Buck to TV or film? If yes, who do you envision playing Buck?

A) I just had a meeting a couple days ago with a TV and Film exec who read the first book and wants to pursue either a TV or film deal for the series. I love asking readers who they imagine would play Buck if that happened, and there's a wide array of actors that have been named who they'd either love or hate to see, and I have a couple ideas, too. But, part of the art of describing Buck Reilly in the books comes down to leaving a lot to the reader's imagination, so I don't want to spoil that by naming anyone just yet. But I love getting suggestions.


Q) Is there a #5 in the works?

A) Book #5 is done and going through the final editing right now, and I have not announced the name yet--until now. It's called “Maroon Rising” and the story takes place in Key West and Jamaica. Everyone who has read it thinks it's the best Buck Reilly adventure yet. Maroon Rising will be released in October and you can get updates on my author page at www or at my website at

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