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Woodbury author wins awards

Christopher Valen's debut novel "White Tombs" was released in 2008 to rave reviews. Submitted photo

Colombian-born Detective John Santana from St. Paul is hot on the trail of an assassin who killed two prominent leaders of St. Paul's Hispanic community -- the owner of the largest Hispanic newspaper in the Midwest and a prominent immigration lawyer, both of whom were born in Mexico.

This is the setup for "White Tombs," the debut novel from Woodbury author Christopher Valen, who's real name is Jerry Peterson.

"White Tombs" is the first in a series about Santana. The majority of the book takes place in St. Paul's West Side.

Valen has already received critical acclaim for his debut novel, as well as two prestigious awards. "White Tombs" has received the Garcia Award, best fiction book, and Best Mystery of Year from Reader Views.

"It's wonderful that it has been so well received," Valen said.

"White Tombs" was released in March of 2008 and was the result of Valen's love of crime novels and his wife's Colombian heritage.

"With the crime genre, I like that you can deal with lots of issues," he said. "Writing gives me a chance to deal with those kinds of issues through characters and fiction."

In "White Tombs," Valen deals with the issues of violence and immigration.

Prior to "White Tombs'" release, Valen, who is a professor in the graduate school of education at St. Mary's University in Minneapolis, wrote off and on but never pursued writing seriously until he attended a writer's conference at Split Rock.

It was there where he connected with several other Twin Cities authors. Valen and these authors decided to form a writer's group, and then Valen went to work on "White Tombs."

"I wrote myself into corners a couple of times," he said. "But I don't like to get too structured because sometimes you get to a point where your mind just takes you off in a different direction."

Valen said he typically gets his ideas for characters and plotlines from the news or other people and events that he might come in contact with.

"You're always looking for ideas," he said. " You just come across things and then you file them away until later."

"White Tombs," which is a police procedural, took Valen about two years to complete because he said he likes to take the time to research how everything works and the police procedures. Valen worked with the St. Paul Police Department to better understand the elements in his novel.

"One thing that I try to do in the realm of fiction is try to make it as accurate as possible," he said.

Valen will be releasing his second Santana novel, "The Black Minute," in the fall. It will concern Santana investigating the murder of a young Hmong girl on Harriet Island.

Valen said he wanted to incorporate Hmong culture into his second novel because there is a large Hmong population in the Twin Cities and he finds the culture fascinating.

Valen said he really enjoys delving into the different cultures, Hispanic and Hmong, because they are so fascinating and so little is known about them.

Valen is already hard at work on his third Santana novel. He said he hopes to continue with the Santana novels for as long as he has ideas and there's interest in them. Valen said he might also delve into other genres as well.

"Some days come real easy, the words just seem to flow, and other days you struggle just to get a few sentences or a paragraph," Valen said.

For more information about Valen and his Santana series, visit

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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