“Then Koop, with a wild, blind, backhanded spin and swing, caught Lucas on the side of the head, coming in. Lucas lost everything for a moment, like a blown switch knocking out the lights in a house. Everything went dim for a moment, and he lost his feet, rolled back against a cupboard, scrambled up, headed back toward the twisting pair of them, Koop trying to wrench the woman free.”
Not quite Biblical archaeology, is it? So how did the person who penned the above excerpt, from the 1994 thriller Night Prey, become a co-author in BAR?
John Camp isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill thriller writer. He even has a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, won in 1985 for his articles on the Midwest farm crisis in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The 55-year-old Camp left journalism more than a decade ago and is now a well-known fiction writer: Nearly all of his 14 thrillers—most of which were published under the name John Sandford—made it high on the New York Times bestseller list. Camp’s detective, Lucas Davenport, is a popular character among thriller readers. Little do his fans know that many of his best-sellers were written on a laptop during excavations at Tel Rehov.
Camp told BAR that soon after he won his Pulitzer, he realized he was burned out. The award-winning series on the farm crisis required a year of intensive work; just getting to the farm he was writing about took four hours. By his early 40s, Camp had already covered typical newspaper subjects several times. “The low point came when a bad tornado hit nearby, and I found myself hiding with another reporter because neither one of us wanted to cover the story,” Camp says.
It was time for a change. Camp tried his hand at book writing, churning out two nonfiction works before moving on to thrillers. His first one never got off the ground. Then a helpful agent gave him some pointers—a best-selling thriller needs several plot lines, at least one major red herring (false lead), and a likable but complex hero. Camp sold his next book, and the next. “And then,” he says, “the money got good enough to let me quit the newspaper.”
Even as he started producing bestsellers, Camp maintained an interest in history and literature, which he had studied in college. “I started reading early history, and then archaeology and Biblical studies. And in about 1993 or 1994, I went to the Holy Land.”
Camp hired a guide, Nathan Shapiro, to show him around Israel. “We drove around the country in this old truck for a week, seeing all sorts of things, including tons of archaeological sites. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I’d like to dig!’”
As luck—or fate?—would have it, Shapiro’s son was an archaeology student who knew Amihai Mazar, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shapiro introduced Camp to Mazar—and the rest, as they say, is history. Camp and Mazar hit it off. “Not only did we get along great,” Camp says, “we even look alike! And then we found out that our grandparents came from the same city—Vilnius [in Lithuania]—although mine are Catholic and his are Jewish.”
Mazar first brought Camp to Beth-Shean in 1996, where Mazar was digging at the time, and put him to work. Camp was soon ready to fund a dig. But the Beth-Shean excavation was in its final season. Mazar would have to find another site, and Camp could then, as he put it, “get the money going.” They found Tel Rehov, only 3 miles from Beth-Shean.
Though not a Biblical site, Tel Rehov is large, significant and was largely untouched. That was important to Mazar and Camp—no previous excavations meant no mess or rubble to clear.
Camp gives the Tel Rehov dig more than $150,000 a year, whether there is a major season or not. The plan is for every third season to be dedicated primarily to analyzing and publishing the work of earlier seasons. Camp is adamant about supporting publication. He recalls a symposium on archaeology’s publication problems that BAR organized in 1996. “It really made an impression on us. We decided right from the start that we would publish everything, as quickly as possible. Archaeology requires publication. Otherwise, the dig is just vandalism.”
Camp’s generosity has made it possible for the Tel Rehov dig to stay current on its excavation reports.
Mazar’s team has already published extensive preliminary reports covering the first two seasons. It’s clear that Camp feels good about his contribution. “Someone could reconstruct the entire dig from what we’ve published,” he says proudly.
Although Camp himself isn’t involved with the technical reports, he does stay busy for the six weeks each summer that he’s on site at Tel Rehov. He is not only the dig’s benefactor, but its photographer, a skill he picked up in the army as a newspaper reporter. “Lots of archaeology photography is really bad,” Camp says. “Mazar taught me what was needed—all about lighting and shadows and catching details, and how to take a picture of something down in a hole so that what it is and where can be seen,” he says. “I’m looking at things as small as beads in a necklace, and they’re often covered in dirt. But we’ve got to catch the detail.”
Camp has become so involved in archaeology that he’s now taking courses towards a master’s degree. But thriller buffs need not worry! Camp never neglects his writing: “I’ve got a laptop at the dig, and I write about 12,000 words during those six weeks.”
Camp told BAR that he delivers a finished manuscript to his publisher on the last business day of every year. Look for Easy Prey in your bookstore this May. If you pick up a copy, you’ll not only be buying a thriller, you’ll be supporting archaeology as well!