The items in A.J. Hartley’s office are diverse: a deck of Shakespearean playing cards, a poster from the British science fiction TV series “Dr. Who,” a cardboard box heaping with fragments of wooden toy train track.
Hartley’s life has had a similar feel of random variety. As a young man, he spent 18 months training to become a Catholic priest. He once became captivated enough with ancient Egyptian culture to earn a minor in Egyptology. And for a time, many knew him as a furniture-maker whose specialty was designing built-in shelving units.
“I’ve always had lots of interests. I don’t tend to do things by halves. It becomes sort of an obsession, at least for a while,” said Hartley. “Writing used to be a hobby. Now it’s not.”
Today Hartley, 48, is a prolific New York Times best-selling author as well as a professor of Shakespeare Studies at UNC Charlotte. His latest novel, “Tears of the Jaguar,” was published this month.
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Given Hartley’s many curiosities, it’s no surprise that his writings also follow variety. He’s penned thrillers using a female Jewish protagonist, written fantasy adventures centered on an adolescent misfit, and scribed academic works aimed at his fellow Shakespeare scholars.
“Tears of the Jaguar” brings the return of Deborah Miller, a familiar protagonist to fans of Hartley’s work. Miller, a museum curator and detective, first appeared in “The Mask of Atreus,” a story that led the character on a trail of murder and stolen ancient artifacts.
This time, Miller is in charge of an archaeological dig in Mexico’s Yucatan, where the theft of recently unearthed rubies leads her on another suspenseful adventure.
Hartley chose the Yucatan and the ancient Maya society because he knew nothing about it. It was his curiosity leading him down another path.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the past. I still am. I’m fascinated by what generates the present, where we come from and things that used to be important to us.”
Hartley’s plots are often steeped in experiences from his own life.
“On the Fifth Day,” a thriller he wrote in 2007, centers on the death of a Catholic priest.
His Darwen Arkwright series, written for children in the middle grades, features an 11-year-old British boy living in Atlanta who never feels as though he fits in.
“There’s a sense of never quite being on the inside, always getting that ‘You’re not from around here’ look,” said Hartley. “I can relate to that.”
Hartley was raised in England, near Pendle Hill, a region that he describes as foreboding. This year Pendle Hill celebrates the 400th anniversary of the most famous witch trials in England.
“We kind of grew up in the shadow of Pendle Hill. It was a big deal, especially during Halloween,” he said. “It’s a powerful place, very easy to believe, and oddly relevant, actually, because ‘Tears of the Jaguar’ has a witchcraft strand in it.”
He can’t remember a time when his curiosities didn’t lead him along a single path for a time.
Like the playing cards and the toy train track in his office, the unrelated experiences in his life find ways to link together and make sense. If cards can form a flush or a straight, and train track can come together to launch a journey, the events of his life can provide fodder for his works of fiction.
“I like creating a bunch of different plots and then finding ways to intersect them and make them connect,” he said.