Lisa Gardner is the New York Times bestselling author of crime thrillers with more than 22 million books in print. As Lisa Gardner, she’s written an FBI Profiler series, as well as the Detective D.D. Warren series, and standalone novels. As Alicia Scott, she’s written romance novels.
In Crash and Burn, Lisa brings back Tessa Leoni and Sergeant Wyatt Foster. Nicky Frank, a married woman, survives a horrific car crash on a rainy night off a desolate highway in New Hampshire. Though severely injured, she crawls up a steep embankment and flags down help, begging police to find her missing daughter, Vero. A massive search is launched. When Nicky’s husband Thomas shows up, he drops a bombshell on the police: there is no Vero. He tells the police Nicky suffers from a brain injury sustained in two previous accidents, and has conjured the child from thin air. But as the detectives investigate, many questions arise. Is the child a delusion, or is she real and in grave danger?
How and when did you begin writing fiction?
I wrote my first book at seventeen. I was very lucky because it was published three years later. I started my career as Alicia Scott, writing romantic suspense novels. There was always a dead body and an investigation. I wrote seven or eight of those novels, and got more and more interested in suspense. I also grew more comfortable doing research and cold-calling detectives, prisons and morgues. The more research I did, the bigger the crimes became.
I came up with the idea for a standalone thriller called The Perfect Husband. It featured a serial killer who broke out of a maximum security prison. His revenge against everyone who put him there included pursuing his ex-wife. So, even back then, I was writing a kind of domestic thriller. That was my first Lisa Gardner book, and I’ve never looked back.
What made you begin writing at the young age of 17?
I didn’t know any better. Seriously. I lived in Oregon. Had never met an author, editor, agent. In other words, I had no idea how hard it is to write a novel, let alone how impossible it is to get one published. On the other hand, I had an idea for a murder mystery. So I wrote it.
How did you manage to get published by age 20?
Once I started telling people I’d written a book, they asked when I was going to publish it. This was a new thought for me. But a good friend helped me find a book on how to get published. This was back in the early 90s when the paperback market was exploding, so demand for new voices was higher. I followed the steps for submission spelled out in the guide. Several years and several rewrites later, my first book found a home! (I’d told friends when my book sold I was going to buy a Mercedes! Big successful author, right? First lesson in publishing: my book did sell, and I earned just enough money to buy a computer, and even then I had to wait for the computer to go on sale. But it was still absolutely amazing to hold the finished novel in my hands. It gave me goose bumps.
I understand that while writing your first crime/suspense novel, you were working in the food service industry. After your hair caught on fire a number of times, you decided to focus solely on writing. Tell us about that.
Like many novelists, at the beginning of a career, you’re writing for love, not money. It took a good ten years for me to become an overnight success. (Laughter). I had many jobs; one was as a waitress at a Greek restaurant. They had an appetizer called flaming saganaki, which is deep-fried cheese over which brandy is poured and then lit on fire. It was the nineties and a time of really big hair. If you didn’t pour the brandy properly, the fire could blow back and get onto your hair. It happened quite often. I got plenty of “pity tips” from patrons because of it. So, I’m really grateful every day that the writing thing worked out.
You once described your writing process as “out of the mist.” Tell us what you mean by that?
I’m not a plotter. I do lots of research. It’s one of my favorite parts of writing. I may know some key forensic points, but I don’t like knowing what’s going to happen next. If I already know who the good or bad guys are, then the reader will know, too. For instance, with Crash and Burn, when I began the book, I didn’t know if Vero existed. I didn’t know if Thomas or Nicky were good or bad. I prefer it when characters can go either way—good or bad. There’s more complexity, and there are some secrets. One of the things that keeps me showing up each day and writing is that at some point, I want to know the answer.
You’re known for doing a good deal of research. In fact, it’s clear from Crash and Burn, you researched Post-concussion Syndrome. But you’ve also talked about the dangers of doing too much research. Will you comment on that?
I think doing research is the most fascinating part of my job. I get to speak with people who do really cool things for a living. You can surf the Internet and talk to experts, but at the end of the day, you must sit down and start writing. You have to produce a novel—you must tell a compelling story.
Speaking of research, I know you depend heavily on experts in various fields. Tell us about that.
The most fun I ever had doing research was cold-calling a body farm, an anthropological research facility. That was for the first Tessa Leoni book, Love You More. The novel involved skeletal remains, and I spent three days working with a forensic anthropologist. Other kinds of experts with whom I’ve worked have been physicians; boxing coaches; medical examiners; computer forensics experts; firemen; blood spatter experts; and firearms coaches. I’ve been to four or five different prisons. For Crash and Burn, I dealt with an auto accident reconstruction expert. Each book I’ve written has been a learning experience for me.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?
Probably some type of criminology. With all the research and consulting with experts, what’s fascinated me most is the psychology of crime. What is the nature of evil? Is it inborn or acquired through the environment. Or is it a product of abnormal physiology, such as with the Texas bell tower sniper who had a brain tumor. I write fiction, but if I wasn’t doing that, I think I’d be involved in criminology.
You’re one of the most successful novelists working today. What has surprised you about the writing life?
It doesn’t get easier. With thirty books written, you would think I’d feel proficient, but each book is painful in its own way. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker’s observation: I don’t know that I like writing. I know I like having written.
I’m always just feeling my way to that other side—the completed novel. I feel I’m forever gnashing my teeth and banging my head against a blank computer screen. (More laughter)
What do you love about the writing life?
I love that magical moment when it all comes together in a way I couldn’t ever have imagined. I always think of writing as a giant leap of faith. There’s that “Ah ha” moment when things just fall into place. Those days are amazing and precious. The art takes over, it all comes together, and I’ve actually completed a novel despite myself.
If you could have dinner with any five people, from the literary world or from history, living or dead, who would they be?
One would have to be Stephen King. He’s my favorite author and an inspirational voice in my career. I loved his book, On Writing. I think he would be amazing and fun to talk to. I would like to invite Queen Elizabeth I, because she was a woman who ruled at that time in history; and because of everything she accomplished. I’d love to have Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen, and Elizabeth’s arch rival at the dinner, too. Ben Franklin would have to be there. He was a great philosopher, thinker, writer and an inventor, too. And then, I’d love to have Sherlock Holmes to round out the dinner party.
Which authors do you enjoy reading today?
Stephen King, Karen Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, Lee Child, Laura Hillenbrand, Kristin Hannah, and I read a lot of YA with my daughter.
Congratulations on writing Crash and Burn, an intriguing story that calls into question the reliability of memory and one’s perception of reality.
W.E.B. Griffin writes military and detective fiction and has more than 40 novels published under that name. He has published 200 books under 13 different pseudonyms.
He joined the U.S. Army in 1946 and was involved in counter-intelligence. After his army service, he began college, but his studies were cut short in 1951 when he was recalled to serve in the Korean War as a correspondent. At the end of the war, he continued working for the military in a civilian capacity. After his first three novels proved successful, he began writing full-time. In recent years, his son William E. Butterworth IV, previously editor of Boy’s Life, has co-authored the books.
The Assassination Option, the second novel in the Clandestine Operations series, features James Cronley, who, at the end of World War II, has been promoted to Chief of the Central Intelligence Directorate in Germany. Intrigue and suspicion abound as not only the Soviets want to know more about this secret spy operation, but so, too, do the Pentagon, and FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. In addition, there’s a surprising alliance between a former German intelligence officer and of all things, the Israeli Mossad.
You’ve written more than 200 books, both fiction and non-fiction. What’s your writing schedule?
I write every day, basically, until I’m exhausted. I usually begin after having a cup of coffee and breakfast at 7:00 a.m., and work much of the day. I write seven days a week. The beauty of this job is that if I feel like taking time off, I can. I’ve resisted the temptation not to work, but I take time off when I feel like it. It’s beautiful.
How have you remained so amazingly productive? What drives you?
I had three kids who needed new shoes every other week. (Laughter). So, I started writing a lot when I was a young man, and I got in the habit of doing it.
Tell us about the collaboration with your son in recent years.
Billy is an editor. He was at Boy’s Life for sixteen years. People don’t realize that Boy’s Life is the third largest magazine in the country. At one point he said, ‘Pop, you’re doing a lousy job editing your books. Why don’t you let me do something with them?’ It just evolved from there. In addition to editing, he got involved with the plotting and characterizations, too. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but it evolved very easily into what it’s become.
Is there actually hands-on cooperation when you work together?
He’s got a condo in St. Petersburg and we work things out over the Internet. I spend a lot of time in Buenos Aires. A manuscript will end up in my e-mail in Buenos Aires, and then it goes back and forth. It’s amazing. So, between the two of us, we write the novels. It’s a joint effort. As I get older I get sloppier, and Billy is a very good editor. He’ll call up and say, ‘Hey Pop, you screwed up. The guy’s name is Charlie, not Frank.’ (Laughter). I don’t know if I could do as much now, if not for him. Between us, we’re putting out three or four books a year.
Any father-son conflicts?
I get along beautifully with all my kids. Billy and I have an ideal working relationship. No conflicts or problems.
You exemplify the adage, “Write what you know.” Do you still do a good deal of military research?
I do. But I’m very lucky. For example, this past Christmas, I was in St. Petersburg, Florida. I met up with an old army buddy, Billy Waugh, the guy who caught Carlos the Jackal. A Special Forces guy and a CIA guy were there, too. We spent two or three hours talking, and I got a great deal of information from them.
Did you take notes?
No. If you take notes, you get hung up. The best thing to do is just listen, remember, and if you forget something, let your brain fill in the blanks.
So, when speaking with people like Billy Waugh, you fill in some of the blanks with your imagination?
Oh, absolutely. But, I have to be very careful not to say anything that shouldn’t be said. You know, counter-intelligence sorts of things.
Do you sometimes find your fictional imaginings actually happen in real life?
Yes, and that’s very weird. It’s surreal. It’s happened two or three times when I wrote something fictional, and then it actually happened.
What has made you use so many pseudonyms over the years?
That started when I was writing books for kids. They paid twenty grand and you can’t support three kids on that kind of money. I was writing four or five of those a year under different names. Then, a fabulous opportunity came my way. I edited the novel M.A.S.H. written by Richard Hornberger, who wrote it under the pseudonym, Richard Hooker.
I then ghost wrote the twelve sequels to the first M.A.S.H. novel. Richard was the real Hawkeye who wrote about his experiences as a surgeon in Korea. His novel M.A.S.H. became the blockbuster film, and was the basis for the TV series that followed. We made a lot of money with the twelve sequels, and they were tremendous fun to write.
Then, I began writing the nine book Brotherhood of War series. The guy from Putnam called me up and wanted a pen name because my name had been on all the M.A.S.H. books. So, I decided on the name Griffin. The griffin is a mythical animal with the loins of a lion and the head of an eagle, which is how colonels think of themselves. So, I picked that name. (Laughter)
After all these years of writing, has anything surprised you about the writing life?
What surprises me is that being a bestselling writer isn’t like it’s depicted in the movies. I saw a Michael Caine movie where he played a writer. He had a private jet and women were falling at his feet. It’s not like that at all. It’s a lot of hard work and doesn’t pay nearly as well as it’s shown in the movies. I don’t have a private jet. I take my wife to the grocery store in my GMC. (Laughter)
What do you love most about the writing life?
I love the freedom, the independence. I started writing to make a living, but now that I’m successful, I realize I can do what I want to do. And, I want to write. That’s the greatest part about it.
If you could have any five people over for dinner, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
That’s an easy one. My choices would be Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, Clint Eastwood, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, and Socrates
That’s quite a combination of minds and talent.
We’ve covered the bases, haven’t we?
What’s coming next for W.E.B. Griffin?
We’re writing another book in the Clandestine Operations series. I’ve also written a humorous book called The Hunting Party.
Congratulations on penning The Assassination Option, the second novel in the Clandestine Operations series. It’s sure to make the bestseller list.
Brad Taylor spent more than 21 years in the U.S. Army Special Forces, including 8 years in the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment, commonly known as Delta Force. His last assignment was teaching at the Citadel.
His seventh military thriller, No Fortunate Son features protagonists Pike Logan and Jennifer Cahill, members of a top secret extralegal unit known as The Taskforce, created to contain terrorist plots and global threats. TaskForce members have been mobilized because relatives of key members of the U.S. government, including the Vice President’s son, have been kidnapped. The U.S. must face a terrible choice: stop counterterrorist operations or watch their loved ones die.
You spent 21 years in the military. Did you want to be a writer even back then?
Yes. I’ve always been a voracious reader. I imagined I was going to write a book someday. I never had any instruction or formal courses, but always want to do it. Compared to my other assignments in the past, teaching at the Citadel was like stepping off a bullet train and then walking. I had much more time on my hands, and decided to see if I could write a book.
With no writing background, how did you manage to find representation in today’s publishing climate?
I had no experience with publishing. I just did it the old fashioned way. I wrote the book and then went to a bookstore. I combed through books in the thriller genre section, read authors’ acknowledgements, and started writing query letters to various agents. I got the usual number of rejection letters, and eventually found an agent. It didn’t take him too long to sell the first book in 2010. I can say this: it took a lot longer to find an agent than it did to find a publisher. I was extremely lucky. And, there have been six more books since that first one.
How do you compare the writing life to your former life in the military?
Now, I do whatever I want. I still do a good deal of security consulting, and keep my hand in the military, but it’s a very different life now. I’m my own boss. I write when I want to. I have so much more freedom now than before.
You exemplify the old maxim: ‘Write what you know.” Do you find yourself doing much research when conceiving and writing your novels?
Actually, it’s much more research than I thought I would have to do. Writing what you know is certainly a good maxim, but it’s really surprising to learn how much you don’t know despite thinking you already do. I have to research everything from the operating mechanism of an AK-47, to specific settings and locales in each novel. For instance, in No Fortunate Son, I travelled to Dublin, Cambridge, London, Brussels, Paris, and many other places, doing on-the-ground research for authenticity.
When I travel to these locations, I’m not necessarily looking for anything specific. I go there to get the sights, smells, and sounds of the areas. While walking around, I take photos and make notes. As I’m writing the book, I might be thinking, ‘Okay, I need a setting for some event that’s going to happen.’ So, I refer to the pictures, and get a feel for the locale.
You’ve had immense success as a relatively new writer. What about writing has surprised you?
When I first started writing fiction, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’d never had any instruction, except for reading voraciously. You could say I’m a great copycat. I guess it’s the same with forgers. Because someone’s a forger doesn’t mean he can’t paint. What surprised me most was the need to learn and perfect the craft of writing. It involved learning how to pace a novel and how to improve character development. An example of how much I had to learn is this: when I started my first book, One Rough Man, I didn’t even have chapters to break up the story. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. So, realizing how much there was to learn about writing has surprised me, and I think I’ve gotten better at the craft with each book.
What do you love about writing?
I love creating something. I don’t write for a particular market or write what I think people want to read. I write what I would like to read. That’s what’s most satisfying to me. When I write a scene and reread it, it gives me tremendous satisfaction to feel I’ve hit the nail on the head with the description or situation I’m depicting.
You’ve mentioned having always been a voracious reader. Looking back, who are the authors you feel most influenced you?
That’s a tough question because there have been so many. Even going back to childhood, there were many. The first one who comes to mind is Richard Adams, the author of Watership Down. It was a great book. I think I’ve read every genre. I went through a science fiction phase with Robert Heinlein. I went through a Ray Bradbury and a Stephen King phase, and others, too. It would be hard to pick out any single author. I think they pretty much all influenced me one way or another.
Who do you enjoy reading now?
I mainly read crime thrillers. Right now, I’m reading John Sandford’s latest, Deadline. I read Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, John Lescroart, Joseph Finder, and those kind of books.
Do you read when you’re actively writing a novel?
Actually, I’m doing a lot less reading these days because I devote so much time to research and writing. I don’t choose to avoid reading, I just don’t have enough time anymore to read as much as I would like. I usually read when I’m on a plane, or before I go to bed, but I no longer carry a book around with me. If I’m sitting somewhere, I take out my my journal and make notes for a new scene.
Do you outline your novels or do you let the stories fly spontaneously?
I don’t really outline. I create what I call a framework. I know the threat I want to depict; I know the general scheme that will unfold in the story. Most of the time, I know the ending of the book, but not always. I don’t outline a novel, chapter by chapter. It just evolves. I like to think of the framework as a road on the Kansas prairie, but by the time I’m done, with all the twists and turns, it looks like a switchback in the Appalachian Mountains.
What’s your next project.
I’m in the middle of the next book which is called The Insider Threat. It involves the Islamic State. The basis of the book is actually Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance in Afghanistan a few years ago.
Congratulations on writing No Fortunate Son, a chilling novel for our time, with a frighteningly realistic plot.
Author of Mad Dog House, Mad Dog Justice and Love Gone Mad
Under seven different pseudonyms, Jayne Ann Krentz has written more than 120 romance novels. Many have been bestsellers. Now, she uses only three names: Jayne Ann Krentz when writing contemporary romantic-suspense; Amanda Quick for historical romance-suspense; and Jayne Castle when penning paranormal romance-suspense.
Trust No One, a contemporary romance-suspense novel, features Grace Elland, a creative marketing assistant to a Seattle-based motivational guru. Grace discovers her boss’s body, and after reporting it to the police, begins receiving cryptic and vaguely threatening emails. Strangely, they come from her dead boss’s computer. To make matters worse, when she was a teen-ager, Grace also found a dead body, an event that left her with night terrors and panic attacks. Even worse, it appears someone is trying to frame Grace for her employer’s murder.
You’re an outspoken advocate for the romance genre. What are your thoughts about the genre and its standing?
The romance genre is slammed with the same critiques applied to all popular fiction. I think it’s because people tend to take popular fiction for granted. They don’t appreciate that romance novels, and all popular fiction, transmit our culture’s core values to the next generation. Romance novels convey values especially important to women. Most crucial is the belief in the healing power of love. In popular fiction—romance included—the values we see preserved are ones everyone recognizes: an appreciation of honor; the healing power of love; doing the right thing when the chips are down; and the issue of good versus evil. The romance genre—along with other forms of popular fiction—affirms those values. They really derive from ancient heroic literary traditions.
I also find the romantic suspense novel to be a very American genre. It captures the essence of two strong characters facing a dangerous situation in which they must work together to survive. It’s an American story with its roots in the old Wild West. As Americans, it’s really our story.
Do these elements make romance novels so enduring?
While the healing power of love is probably the core value, there are other factors that account for the enduring power of the genre. Romance novels affirm the importance of nurturing and of loving protectiveness. The foundation of “family” is at the center of the story. It’s not about sex; nor about romance, per se. It’s all centered on family. I think that’s why the appeal of romance novels is so enduring. Most women, and many men, too, have an appreciation for family. That’s the key to the romance story. Rather than calling the ending a ‘happy ending,’ the ending of a romance novel is actually the formation of a new family.
Do you see your audience as being primarily women?
I write a story to satisfy myself. I don’t really focus on the audience. I think about what the story needs in order to be satisfying to me. Statistically, yes, most readers of romance are women. But, keep in mind, the majority of all fiction is read by women. I think the suspense and thriller genres tend to appeal more to men because they’re the warrior stories. But, one of the most popular male writers among women is Lee Child. I understand in his latest Jack Reacher novel, Reacher learns he has a son. And that’s important because if you don’t have a family, you don’t have a future.
Trust No One is written from both Grace’s and Julius’s perspectives. Is it an advantage to write from multiple points of view?
I think using a few perspectives helps the story tell itself in a way that satisfies the reader. I like being in different characters’ heads. That technique expands the story, gives it more depth. One of the risks a writer takes when he or she starts jumping around from one character to another—sometimes called hip-hopping—is the danger of distancing the reader. If you bounce around too much, the reader may lose the sense of identification with the main character. So, it’s a balancing act.
Do you ever use the first person narrative point of view?
I’ve never done that. Actually, many of us grew up with that technique, having read Gothic novels. A number of them were written in the first person, but I think that perspective limits the story’s reach. For instance, in the first person narrative, you can’t really talk about what the bad guy is doing or thinking.
From your oeuvre of works, it’s clear you’ve written two, three, and sometimes four novels a year. Tell us about your writing schedule and routines.
Nowadays, I think you’ll see many more mystery and thriller writers doing more than one novel a year. Robert Parker was writing three a year. John Sandford is doing two. It’s always been a marketing consideration. I wrote a good number of novels each year at the beginning of my career, but don’t do it anymore.
I’ve always been a disciplined writer. Most successful writers I know are very disciplined. I’m at the computer at seven in the morning. I work until about noon; after that, any creativity I may have is pretty well shot for the day. Then, life gets in the way and I go shopping. (Laughter).
Is there a reason you’ve used so many pen names over the years?
It was always a business decision. There were times when I was writing for two or three different publishing houses and they each demanded a different name. They wanted to tie up a particular name.
You’re still using three different names for your novels.
Yes, I’ve been using those three names for three years. The market changes from season to season. One season, the Amanda Quick name works better; and the next season, Jayne Castle takes off. I want to leave one or two names behind, but as long as they work, I’ll keep using them. They allow me to take my core stories into three different landscapes or subgenres. I find it refreshing to move among my three worlds.
Is it accurate to say you created the futuristic romance subgenre with the novel Sweet Starfire?
People credit me with that, but I got the idea from Anne McCaffrey.
The erotic scenes in Trust No One are done very artfully. Will you talk about writing erotica?
To an extent, it’s like writing violent scenes. The trick is to remember that what happens physically isn’t the important thing. What matters most is the emotional element. It’s crucial to depict the emotions with which the characters enter the scene, and those they have at its conclusion. The erotic scene should be a life-changing event. It should add to the progress of the romance itself, in the same way an act of violence must trigger the next step in a thriller novel. In order to rise above the level of prurience, the erotic scene must demonstrate growth—in either character development or the novel’s plot.
You’ve had such writing success for years. What about the writing life has surprised you?
What surprises me is the fact that today, authors get stuck with so much of the marketing end of publishing. It wasn’t the case when I started out. I think it’s because of the chaos in the industry now. Publishers used to get your book into bookstores and they did the marketing. But today, with so much happening online, the reality is that most writers are forced to do a great deal of their own marketing.
What do you love about the writing life?
I just love seeing a scene come together on the page. I live from scene to scene. If I actually sat down and thought about the fact that I’ve got five hundred pages to go, I’d be doomed before I started. Each scene, for me, is a little story unto itself. When I get that scene just right, I feel so good.
If you could have dinner with any five people from history or literature, living or dead, who would they be?
Any five from the stable of writers who wrote the Caroline Keene Nancy Drew books, my favorite and formative series.
Congratulations on writing Trust No One, a contemporary romantic-suspense novel that’s certain to appeal to millions of people.
Jack Higgins is one of the best-selling authors of popular fiction in the world. He is often considered the architect of the modern thriller. His breakthrough novel, The Eagle Has Landed, written in 1975, sold more than 50 million copies. He’s penned more than 83 novels which have sold over 150 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages.
Rain on the Dead, featuring the recurring hero Sean Dillon, finds Dillon in the crossfire of an Al Qaeda attack on a former American president. The assassination attempt is thwarted, but an elusive terrorist known as The Master is intent on obliterating his target. Dillon must stay a step ahead of the terrorist in a world where the rules of war have changed, and everyone can be marked for annihilation.
You’ve written more than 20 novels featuring Sean Dillon. What do you think is the secret of his appeal?
Robert Browning, the great Victorian poet, said, “Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things: the honest thief; the tender murderer; the superstitious atheist.”
This sums up the style in which I write and about which the readers comment. Readers like my characterizations. Character is everything in a Jack Higgins novel. And you’re never quite sure if somebody is totally good or bad. It’s always a mixture of things.
Sean Dillon first appeared in Eye of the Storm in 1992 as an ex-IRA man who became a gun-for-hire. He was hired to blow up the English cabinet on behalf of Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. I think what happened was this: the public took Sean Dillon to their hearts. I realized I’d saved a character I’d intended to eliminate. However, my wife convinced me to keep him alive. Yes, he’d been a bad man, an assassin, but then, so was Richard III. (Laughter)
Before the book was published, on my wife’s advice, I changed the last chapter of the book, so rather than die as happens to most bad guys, Sean Dillon vanished into the night. That was twenty-one Dillon books and four movies ago. I think allowing the character to be multi-dimensional—good and bad—made the difference for readers, and that’s the basis for his appeal.
Jack Higgins is a literary pseudonym. Over the years you’ve used names such as Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe, James Graham and Jack Higgins. Why not your own name, Harry Patterson?
Using different names was part of one stage of my life. There was a lack of money. I’d been educating myself on the side, and trying to keep a family going. I knocked out relatively short thrillers, the kind of novels Chandler used to do. They had to fit into the very busy schedule of my life.
It was no use for me to be with a publisher who would publish only one book I’d written each year. Rather, I wanted a return on everything I wrote. That was where those different names came in. I was very driven to write, and couldn’t get enough books turned out. Between 1959 and 1974, I published thirty-five novels, sometimes putting out three or four each year. I would write something very quickly—usually in about eight weeks. My publisher told me the public wouldn’t tolerate an author writing more than one book a year. So, I’d write another and we’d use a different name on it to see what would happen.
That’s where James Graham came from. By the time I wrote The Wrath of God, I was teaching at James Graham College. The publisher rang me up and said, ‘We love this book but we need a different name on it.’ The only thing I could think of was James Graham, the college. So that was it.
The other pseudonyms derived similarly; they were names taken from various aspects of my life. Only later, when Jack Higgins became famous with the publication in 1975 of The Eagle Has Landed, did we reveal the identity of the author of the earlier books. And we stayed with that name, Jack Higgins.
Legend has it that in 1975, your life was transformed by a single telephone conversation. Will you tell us about that?
In 1975, I was talking on the telephone to a publisher in England, a very old-fashioned sort of fellow. He didn’t take to the way I’d written The Eagle Has Landed. In that novel, I wrote a prologue to the novel in which I was walking through a little village church, looking for a certain character and discovering by chance, German soldiers buried there. It was a device I used to introduce the main story.
After the call, I put the phone down and went to check some papers. I then decided to make another phone call. When I picked up the telephone, I could hear the conversation going on at the publisher’s end of the line. For some reason, the call hadn’t disconnected. To my astonishment, the chap with whom I’d been speaking was commenting on my having written myself into the book’s prologue. He said it was ‘a load of rubbish.’ He thought they should delete it and start the novel at a later point.
I was taken aback but said nothing. I simply spoke with my agent; we agreed I was dealing with a publisher who didn’t see the true possibilities for the novel. That incident completely changed my mindset about dealing with publishers. I discovered I could be in the hands of people who weren’t doing their best for me. As a result, I became much more involved in the publishing process, and began dealing more effectively with the London crowd. I then got a new agent, Ed Victor, who was always on my side. He was wonderful at analyzing things and helped my career enormously.
I’ve been told your desire to write was born partly out of your passion for literature, and partly to prove you could amount to something. Will you discuss that?
Harry Patterson, that’s me, had a Scottish father whom I never knew. My mother left him after three months, and we moved to Belfast, the city where she had been raised.
We were very poor. I shared a room with my great grandfather, who was bedridden. I discovered I was able to read at age three. I would read the newspaper to the old boy. He had some books lying around. One of them was Oliver Twist. I remember picking it up and reading it, and although I didn’t understand everything, I loved it. I discovered at a very early age that I just loved reading.
Keep in mind, for the first twelve years of my life, I was raised amidst the IRA turmoil. Life on the Belfast docks was rough. Guns and explosion were all part of my childhood. It was like growing up on a shooting range.
Because of poverty, life was very difficult. Eventually my mother remarried and we moved to Yorkshire, England. I went to a decent high school, but my step-father decided I ought to be working. He and other people in my early life didn’t think I would amount to very much.
I started work at fifteen. I was a truck driver, a factory worker, and held many other jobs. In my spare time, I went to night school. I spent three years in the army as a non-commissioned officer. I discovered I had sharpshooting skills, and a very high IQ, when I got a look at my records. I realized I had some potential. I also saw that other people were financially far better off than we were. I didn’t start college until I was twenty-seven years old, and after getting two degrees, became a college professor.
I became interested in writing as a boy, and entered a short-story competition in a local newspaper. Although I didn’t win, I got a letter from a local author who said, ‘I just want to say to you, you are a writer.’ I never forgot that little exchange. I began writing novels in 1959, when I was thirty years old. I realized once I started writing, it kept flowing out of me.
I achieved a modicum of success after one novel was sold for film rights. After the sale, we bought a lovely Edwardian house. My wife and I had four children, and I was writing at night. But there was a problem: the typewriter could be heard throughout the house, and disturbed the children’s sleep. I decided the best way to improve the situation was to not use a typewriter, but to write by hand. I’m still doing that to this day.
But yes, I felt I had to prove my self-worth, and thinking back on it all, writing novels was the way I could do it best.
If you could have dinner with any five people living or dead, from history or the world of literature, who would they be?
I’ve known some very fine actors. I was blessed by meeting and having dinner with Richard Burton. He would definitely be one guest. I particularly liked the actor, George Peppard. There was something very special about him. He could be both serious and humorous. I’d love to have Deborah Moore and her father, Roger Moore, to dinner He’s a splendid actor, and was superb in the role of James Bond. I’ve immersed myself in Charles Dickens. I guess it relates to my childhood and having been a little boy reading Oliver Twist. Having read a biography about Dickens, I feel a deep affinity for him after reading about his early years, the poverty, and the rotten jobs he had as a youth and young man.
I think these people would make an excellent dinner group.
Congratulations of having penned Rain on the Dead, another Sean Dillon thriller sure to top the bestseller lists.
Mark Greaney, co-author with the late Tom Clancy, of three previous Jack Ryan novels, now has written Full Force and Effect, a novel demonstrating prescience about world events.
In the book, North Korea’s unstable young dictator wants to get his hands on the money needed to acquire a nuclear missile capable of hitting the mainland United States. But first, he must eliminate the man who stands between him and his goal—President Jack Ryan. He must also deal with the operatives working for the under-the-radar security agency known as The Campus.
You co-authored Tom Clancy’s last three novels. Full Force and Effect is the first Jack Ryan novel you’ve written alone. How did your experience working with Tom Clancy inform this solo effort?
I’ve read all his books beginning with Patriot Games. That gave me a leg up when we collaborated on the three books. I know what a reader expects to find in a Tom Clancy novel. When we worked together, I never tried to copy his style. From having written with Tom, I certainly know the voices of the different characters. Once I began this novel, I told myself not to do anything differently from when we collaborated, except this time, I would be taking the entire project all the way through. Working with him gave me the confidence to take this project on, and write an aggressive story.
You have degrees in political science and international relations. How did you make the transition to writing thriller fiction?
Those degrees gave me confidence in my ten year career as a waiter and bartender. (Laughter). At first, I didn’t do much with them. I worked on a book for fifteen years before finishing it. I was working in the international medical devices field, but always hoped I could become an author. My first book was published in 2009, when I was forty-two years old. It’s taken a long time to get to where I am now.
International relations always interested me. I was a huge reader, primarily of non-fiction in the areas of the military and espionage. Patriot Games was the first thriller I ever bought. After reading that novel, I realized you can enjoy yourself while actually learning something. Tom Clancy could impart so much knowledge while telling a great story. That exposure grew into my ultimately becoming an author, myself.
How did your collaboration with Tom Clancy begin?
I’d had my own books published. It turned out my editor at Berkeley was also Tom Clancy’s editor at Putnam. Tom was looking for a new co-author. My editor went to my agent who then asked if I would like to co-author the next Tom Clancy book. I wish I could say I was excited, but the truth is, I was terrified. (Laughter). After I caught my breath, I offered to “try out” because there were some other authors also in the running. I wrote twenty-five pages, handed them in, and soon thereafter, I was in Baltimore meeting with Tom Clancy.
Your novels have so much information about military technology and up-to-the moment political developments. Does any government agency insist on vetting your books before they are published?
No. I don’t think they can do that because I’m a civilian. I’ve had non-classified briefings at the Pentagon. I’ve gone to Washington, D.C. to attend symposia and various think tanks. A U.S. citizen can do that. In 2012, Tom and I wrote a book called Threat Vector. One think tank I attended in Washington, D.C. was comprised of admirals who formerly had been in charge of our Pacific fleet. There’s an amazing amount of unclassified material available to a writer. Experts with whom I speak often say, ‘I’ll give you the non-classified’ version of what I know.’ I turn it into fiction. I hope I get things right, but I have little doubt I get some things wrong. But after all, it’s fiction. I often tell these people not to worry about my getting too close to home with this kind of information. I ask them not to underestimate my ability to misunderstand or make mistakes.
Full Force and Effect deals effectively with national security. What do you now see as the greatest threat to U.S. national security?
In my opinion, the greatest threat is Russia’s Vladimir Putin. I see him as more of a threat than ISIS. Putin has influence in Syria. The Russians are heavily involved in weapons proliferation in South America, Asia, and the Middle East. I know we hear things about China’s power, especially relating to cyber warfare, but my research indicates it’s really in China’s interest to work with us. Vladimir Putin is more of a loose cannon whose self-interest involves working against us for many reasons.
In your novels, the line between corporate and national security intelligence operations can become quite thin. Are they becoming more intertwined today?
Yes, very much so. Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote a book called Top Secret America in which she detailed people in corporate America who have top-secret security clearances. There are no checks and balances, such as those placed on government groups. While I’m quite laissez faire in my view of things, there can be a danger in that. Full Force and Effect, describes one such malevolent force, a private American security company working secretly with the North Koreans. In Washing, D.C.’s beltway, there are thousands of non-descript buildings staffed by people who have military or intelligence backgrounds. If people in those companies began working against the interests of the U.S., there could be a problem. The bottom line for these companies is money.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I tried very hard to get into the Air Force through Officer Candidate School, but it was a time when the military was drawing down. I wanted to get into the cryptologic language end of things because I love foreign languages. I’d have liked to have worked in a military intelligence venue; or in the State Department. I probably would have worked for the government, either in diplomacy or intelligence. I guess a good deal of my writing is wish-fulfillment.
Will you continue the Jack Ryan novels; move back to writing books like your Gray Man series; or do both?
It looks like I’ll be doing both. Right now, I’m working on the fifth book in the Gray Man series. I’ve also agreed to do another Clancy book for next December. For a while, I’ve been writing two books a year. There’s a point in each product cycle where I tell myself I’ll never do this again. Right after I turn the book in and I have that high from having completed the job, my editor comes after me for another book. He knows how to play me like a fiddle.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s really surprised me is how people want to talk about what they do and know. I was hesitant to interview people when I began writing these books. I’d been a bit reluctant to reach out and ask people for favors. But I’ve learned that people really love to talk. They aren’t even necessarily people who love books. Virtually any person I’ve contacted, in any walk of life, has been happy to provide a wealth of information. That’s really surprised me.
What do you love about the writing life?
Even four or five years before I got my first book deal, it occurred to me that I loved what I was doing—writing. And it struck me, even back then, how much I loved the one hour before work every morning when I’d go to the coffee shop to write. It was my favorite hour of the day and was what I most looked forward to doing.
The awareness hit me back then: I was approaching middle age and hadn’t yet been published. I realized I could be writing for the next fifty years—not be successful as it’s conventionally defined—and it would still be what I loved doing. Nowadays, I love when I walk my dog, I’m thinking about the book I’m working on. I love the process of my mind getting sucked into the book I’m writing. It’s where I want my mind to be. My favorite part of the writing process is the absorption in the creative task.
Congratulations on writing Full Force and Effect, another thriller combining military history, technology and over-the horizon prescience about world events.
Phillip Margolin graduated from the New York University School of Law School and worked for many years as a criminal defense attorney, a profession inspired by his having read the Perry Mason novels. An Edgar-nominated novelist (even while working as an attorney), he became a full-time writer in 1996. He is well-known for his short stories; the Amanda Jaffe and Brad Miller series; and for his many standalone novels.
In Woman with a Gun, an aspiring novelist, Stacey Kim, is mesmerized by a photograph at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The image captures Stacy’s imagination and raises compelling questions in her mind. Obsessed with finding answers, Stacey learns the woman in the photograph was suspected of having killed her millionaire husband on their wedding night, but the ten-year old murder remains unsolved. Stacy decides to explore this mystery as fodder for her novel.
A book jacket typically is designed after the manuscript is completed. But that’s not so for Woman with a Gun. Tell us about that.
People always ask me where I get my ideas. This one is really easy to answer. I was in Georgia giving a keynote address at a writers’ conference. After having breakfast in Palmer’s Village Café, I went to the restroom to wash up. On the wall, was the most amazing photograph I’d ever seen. It was taken from behind and showed a woman in a wedding dress standing at the edge of the ocean; she was barefoot, looking out to sea from the foam line. Behind her back, she was holding what looked like a western six-shooter.
I began wondering what the photo depicted: did she kill her husband on their wedding night? Is she going to commit suicide? Is she waiting for a boat to come in so she can murder someone?
I was so fascinated by the photograph, I ended up buying it. At that point, I had the name of my next book, Woman with a Gun, and the cover of the novel. The only thing I didn’t have was the story. I had my agent insert a clause in the contract saying the publisher had to use that photograph on the book’s cover.
And in writing the novel, you constructed a scenario with the character, Stacey Kim, in a situation similar to yours.
Yes. The hardest thing for me is getting an idea big enough for a 400 page book. Once I have an idea, I do an outline and flesh it out. But getting an idea that’s complex enough to become a novel can be difficult. So, I had this photograph—and the book’s future cover—but I had no idea what the story would be about.
I started thinking, ‘What if the photograph was of someone suspected of murder?’ I thought about it a bit more, wondering what would cause a bride to kill her husband on their wedding night. That really got my brain going, and I developed the notion of someone seeing this photograph and becoming obsessed with learning what happened. And she discovers the photograph involves a ten year-old unsolved murder. I then constructed a situation where what happens to Stacy Kim in the novel, is what happened to me when I saw the photo. That’s how I worked my way into the book’s plot.
In an essay, you said you realized while writing Woman with a Gun, it became “decidedly noir.” Will you tell us about that?
I try to make every book totally different from my others. Sure, in every novel I’ve written, there’s a lawyer and a murder. But working within that framework, I try to do something unique and unanticipated with each book. As I was writing Woman with a Gun, I realized it was starting to read like a noir novel. There’s a relationship between Jack Booth—a smoking, drinking, hard-nosed, womanizing prosecutor—and Kathy Moran, the photographer who took the picture of the woman with the gun. I always loved the Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald books. I didn’t intend to write a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade type book, but I realized I was drifting in that direction. I’d never done something like that and wondered if I could pull it off.
Sometimes, the characters take over and shape the story. That’s what happened with this book. I was making Booth more like the gritty, tough-guy private eyes in the noir novels. The novel drifted into this type of writing. It seemed to happen on its own. It’s really weird.
I sometimes teach writing classes and tell my students ‘An idea is tiny, but a book is big.’ I mean someone seeing a photograph in a museum and being intrigued by it, is a tiny idea. But the book is three-hundred pages. The idea expands. I liken writing to a Chinese box puzzle, where if you push one piece into the square, it knocks another piece out. So you’ve got to figure out how to push the pieces in, so each side of the cube is smooth. For me, that’s what writing a book is like. You realize if you add one piece, something else won’t work. You keep slogging away trying to get everything to mesh.
What did being a trial attorney in the criminal venue teach you about human nature?
A lot. (Laughter). Let me give you an anecdote. My first bestseller in 1993 was Gone But Not Forgotten. There was a production omission which resulted in there being no author’s photo on the hardcover edition. When I was on a book tour, people came up to me and questioned my being the author. They apparently thought anyone who wrote that book must be deranged. While reading the book, they had nightmares and couldn’t read it alone. I was puzzled about why the novel was so scary. I didn’t intend it to be that way.
Six months after I retired from my practice, a friend asked if I would be co-counsel on a murder case. I told him I’d retired and was writing on a full-time basis. His next words were ‘It must be nice to associate with normal people all day.’
A light went on in my head. I realized that in Gone But Not Forgotten, I’d created this horrible serial killer. But actually, all I did was describe the guys I’d been having lunch with for twenty-five years: serial killers, sociopaths, bank robbers, and drug dealers. For me, they weren’t scary. They were my clients, the guys I got to know very well.
Of course, most people never come in contact with such people. I realized exposing readers to the world of sociopathic killers was frightening for some of them. So, there were many things about being a lawyer that helped with my writing, but one was the contact I had with these unusual people.
Do you think contact with criminals over the years tainted your view of human nature?
Not really. Growing up, I was in all the ‘bad’ classes in school. Some of my classmates were sort of similar to the guys I represented in my practice. So, my world view has been somewhat like that all these years.
Actually, I’m pretty upbeat about people. Only a small percentage of humanity is comprised of really bad people. I think most people are pretty decent. When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, prosecutor or police officer, you’re constantly immersed in criminality, and you may develop a skewed view of humanity. But I think I was able to put these things in context in so far as my real life is concerned. I do think my immersion in the criminal law venue left me a bit more wary of people, in general. After all, I was constantly around people who cheat, lie and steal for a living. And, by the way, that’s the stuff of novels.
Some of your protagonists have dealt with issues of conscience when defending the accused. How did you feel about your role as a criminal defense lawyer?
For two years, I was in the Peace Corps in Liberia. At the time, it was a horrible dictatorship with no rule of law. If the government didn’t like you for any reason, the secret police could come in the middle of the night, drag you to a concentration camp in the bush, where you’d be tortured or killed. You had no right to remain silent; no right to an attorney; and there was no right to challenge your accuser. Because of that experience, I developed a deep appreciation for the rule of law and due process. Our justice system is not perfect, but it’s a lot better than in most other places.
When I represented someone, I felt it was crucial to give even the most awful person a fair trial—whether it was a terrorist mastermind like Osama bin Laden or a serial killer like Ted Bundy. If everyone gets a fair trial, people will have faith in the system. Once people lose that faith, you get revolution. I’ve always felt the system is far more important than any individual case. Even when I knew a client was guilty, it was my job to make certain that if he was convicted, it wasn’t due to phony evidence or perjury. I felt I was something of a referee; I made sure the prosecution and judge acted fairly and respected the rule of law. So, for me, representing evil people was not a problem.
Who are your legal heroes?
Louis Brandeis was the guy I really admired. I didn’t really have legal heroes. I just loved being a lawyer.
Which writers influenced you as a youngster?
Earle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason books influenced me so much, they made me want to become a lawyer. The Ellery Queen books were another early influence because I love puzzle mysteries where there are clues. I try to do that in my own books; I leave clues about the killer’s identity so the reader can pick them up as the novel unfolds.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
I read three books a week. I read everything. I don’t like this ‘genre’ business. It’s either a good book or a bad one. The guy I idolize is Joseph Conrad. I hate him because he didn’t even speak a word of English until he was in his mid-twenties when he moved from Poland to England; and I know I’ll never write a single sentence as elegantly as he routinely did. Dickens is a favorite, too. I’ve also loved Robert Caro’s four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. It’s actually a page-turner. I enjoy Michael Chabon’s books. I thought The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was an astonishing book.
You’ve had so many bestsellers. What about writing over the years has surprised you?
The fact that I still love it amazes me. I’ve been doing it non-stop since 1992. I get to the office at 7:30 every morning. I can’t wait to sit down and write. I’m on my twentieth book now and you’d think I’d get tired of it, but no; I love it. I still get excited when I start a book. I wonder if I can do it again. It’s the challenge that excites me. You’d think after twenty books, I’d be pretty self-confident, but I’m not.
Can you pinpoint exactly what you love about writing?
It’s the puzzle aspect of writing. The first thing I do each morning when I get to the office is the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was a competitive chess player for years. I love Ellery Queen books, Ross Macdonald’s books and Harlan Coben’s early Myron Bolitar books for their mystery and clue elements. I love trying to construct a puzzle for the reader. That’s the most fun. It’s what I love about the writing.
If you could have dinner with any five people from history or the literary world, who would they be?
It would be dinner for two—my wife passed away about seven years ago. She was the single most amazing human being I’ve ever met. So, it would be just with her.
What’s coming next from Phillip Margolin?
I’m about 175 pages into another Amanda Jaffe book. I’ve written standalone novels and also done different series. You know, Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes. He wanted to kill him off, but readers wouldn’t allow it. He felt forever trapped with the character and his exploits. Sometimes, a series can suffer after the first well-written, successful novel: the plots become thin, and the writer gets trapped in trying to create a life for the protagonist. I made a conscious decision to write standalone novels between my series.
Congratulations on yet another standalone novel, Woman with a Gun. I too was mesmerized by the cover photograph, and while reading the novel, referred to that picture again and again.
Crooked River, Valerie Geary’s debut novel, is a coming-of-age-story, a ghost story, and a literary tale of psychological suspense. Told in the alternating voices of 15-year-old Sam and her 10-year-old sister Ollie, the novel opens with them grieving the sudden death of their mother. They move to rural Oregon to live with their eccentric, teepee-dwelling, beekeeper father. When a young woman’s body is discovered in a nearby river, their father becomes the prime suspect and the sisters find themselves in the center of a suspense-filled storm.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I did. I think I wrote my first story in kindergarten. It was about a girl who lost a red balloon and chased after it. I don’t remember how it ended. I started reading fairly young and loved getting lost in the imaginary world of books. When I was in the third grade, a writer came to my school and talked to us. That was the moment I decided it was what I wanted to do, and that resolve remained with me the rest of my childhood, and throughout high school and college. Whenever I tried finding something else to do, it never felt right. It didn’t fit with who I felt I was.
In Crooked River you combine paranormal phenomena with suspense. What are your thoughts about these separate writing genres?
I read a lot of suspense novels. It’s probably my favorite genre. When I was younger, I read more paranormal books. I do think the combination of paranormal and suspense go well together. There’s an element of suspense in paranormal novels because you never know what’s going to happen with the supernatural.
The axiom “Write what you know” seems applicable to you. I understand there are some parallels between the lives of Sam and Ollie, and your own life.
Yes. I have a sister. We’re twenty-two months apart, closer in age than Sam and Ollie are in the novel. When I started writing this book, I drew inspiration from my own relationship with my sister and the things we did as children. There are similarities, but as I wrote about Sam and Ollie, they developed their own personalities. Another important parallel is that I lost my mother when I was nineteen. I was old enough to be able to move forward, yet young enough to feel a significant loss. It was an unexpected death, as is the death of Sam and Ollie’s mother in the book. The decision to include their mother’s death came a bit later on in drafting the novel. I wasn’t sure it was territory I was ready to explore. But I went ahead, and it ended up being a catharsis for me. The process of writing about these sisters and their grief was a way to explore my own grief process.
Before Crooked River, you published short stories in literary journals and magazines. What challenges did you face in going from writing short stories to penning a full-length novel?
Probably, the biggest challenge was that of being more patient with the process. A short story is at most, five-thousand words. It’s compact. You get it done, and can feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. Writing a novel reminds me of the old joke, ‘How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.’ If you visualize the big picture, a novel can be intimidating. The biggest challenge for me was to push myself and have enough patience to finish the manuscript.
You once said, “I feel the most me when I’m writing, and it’s been like this as far back as I can remember.” Will you talk about that?
I’ve always had trouble expressing myself verbally. I never know if what I’m trying to say is really getting across to other people. Sometimes, the words seem to just fall out of my mouth. I think I have a bit of social anxiety, and I also see the world a bit differently than most people do. When I talk, people may not understand my perspective. But with writing, I’m able to explore different parts of me that I’m not able to share in a one-on-one setting.
In an online guest post, you once described using a stopwatch to time your writing. Will you discuss that?
I started using a stopwatch when I quit my day job to start writing full-time. I struggled with discipline. It was easier to read, or look at e-mail, or think up clever tweets. Setting a timer helped me maintain concentrated periods, focused on my writing. I still use the stopwatch if I’m feeling distracted, or not really wanting to work. I’ll set the timer for an hour. The minute I start writing, I get into it; but it’s the getting started that can be difficult. The timer also reminds me to take breaks, and helps me construct my day without feeling I’m working either too much or too little.
Your writing style has been compared to those of Tana French and Laura McHugh. Any thoughts?
I’m speechless. That’s an honor. Those women write great fiction, books that are both suspenseful and literary.
You’ve said you’re a huge fan of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson. What about their work inspires you?
I like how their books are readable, but challenging. They maintain a delicate balance between being page-turners while also making you think. It’s the combination of their storytelling abilities and the inspirational way they use language.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from literature or all of history, who would they be?
I’d love to have Margaret Atwood over for dinner. Ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, I’ve been a big fan. I would love to pick her brain about writing and her career. I’d like to have Jennifer Lawrence, too. She’s been so successful at such a young age, it would be interesting to learn how she processes that. I’d invite Amelia Earhart, and ask her about her life in an era when women mostly stayed home. I would love to have Malala Yousafzei, the Afghan winner of the Novel Peace Prize. Another great guest would be Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who interpreted and guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
What’s coming next from Valerie Geary?
I’m writing a new book, but it’s still in the drafting process. It will be another suspense novel with a bit of the supernatural, too.
Congratulations on writing Crooked River, which has been described as a literary thriller and psychological study of the effects of loss.
Patricia Cornwell is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of 33 books, the most famous and widely read being the 22 novels of the “Kay Scarpetta” series.
In Flesh and Blood, Kay Scarpetta notices seven shiny pennies, all dated 1981, placed on the wall behind her Cambridge house. She soon learns of a shooting death nearby, where copper fragments are the only evidence left at the crime scene. Scarpetta links the murder to two other deaths in which the victims were killed by a serial sniper. The victims had nothing in common, but seem to have a connection to Scarpetta herself.
You were a technical writer and computer analyst for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. Your Kay Scarpetta novels are so richly detailed in medical forensics, it’s hard to believe you’re not a physician. How did you learn so much forensic pathology?
People mistakenly call me ‘Dr. Cornwell.’ I was an English major in college. For thirty years, I’ve been a self-educated student of medical forensics, ballistics and all things related. It’s my avocation. I constantly cruise the Internet looking for new information. I have consultants on whom I rely for the latest technologic advances. I also do field research. For Flesh and Blood, I went to Texas firing ranges to test high-tech assault rifles and ammunition, the things you’ll read about in this book. That’s how I continue to learn. While I would not qualify as an expert witness in court—I don’t have the pedigree—there’s nothing to stop me from educating myself.
Did you ever want to become a physician?
No. I’d rather write about a Scarpetta or Lucy or Marino than do what they actually do. I’m a writer first and foremost. Before writing fiction, I was a journalist. My background puts me in a good position to write about and let the world see what these really cool professionals do.
Your Kay Scarpetta novels have influenced TV programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Cold Case Files. Do the television writers ever ask for your advice?
I don’t really want to be a consultant on other people’s shows. However, I’m writing a pilot for a CBS show called Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who went to MIT, but decided to become a cop. So, I’ll be a consultant for that show, but I don’t have an interest in consulting for other shows.
Your writing style has varied in the Scarpetta series—from past to present tense, from first person to omniscient narrator, and you’ve gone back and forth. What brought about those stylistic changes?
I think a writer looks for different ways to explore abilities and skill sets. You always want to evolve, and my goal has always been to get better at writing. I’m constantly exploring different ways to do it. In writing a series, there’s a lot of latitude for experimentation, opportunities to stretch your wings. In 2003, with Blow Fly, I switched to a third person point of view. The fans didn’t like that. They wanted to be inside Scarpetta’s head. I write these books for my readers. So, I switched back to the first person point of view. I’m quite sure I’ll continue writing in the present tense. I’ve always thought of writing as a glass window pane through which the reader enters a new world. I try honing my writing style to be as immediate, physical and tactile as possible, almost like the reader is watching television.
For me, the present tense lends immediacy to the work, makes it almost cinematic. The great challenge for writers is to draw the reader into the novel, as though it’s a movie. When you’re reading, the brain must translate printed words into sights, sounds, smells and taste; whereas you don’t have to do that as much in movies. That form gives you an immediate emotional response. The limbic system is on fire when you’re watching a movie or when you’re at a rock concert. When reading a book, the brain has to do the work of getting the reader to that place. So, I do whatever I think is necessary to help the reader make the transition to those emotional responses. In a sense, you can call me an emotional facilitator (Laughter).
Conflicts between Scarpetta’s associates—in Flesh and Blood, between Marino and Machado—often occur. What’s the reason for this?
Police are people. They get competitive. I often see investigations where detectives don’t collaborate well. You’re dealing with human beings, so this sort of thing happens. The biggest bear trap in police work is having multiple jurisdictions working on a case. It’s not always the seamless collaboration you wish would occur. But that’s true in non-law enforcement workplaces, too—in the academic world, hospitals, law firms—actually, it happens anywhere. It’s like any family: there are rivalries.
What do you think so fascinates readers about forensic work?
I think it’s the same thing that’s so fascinating about archeological excavation. Or, your own discoveries when you find an object like an old arrowhead buried in your backyard. You start recreating the scenario of how that object got there. Why is it here? What happened? Did someone live or die on this very spot? Our human nature demands that we be intensely curious about these mysteries and try piecing together our surroundings so we’re better informed. That’s what forensics is all about.
To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can recreate a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you. I think it’s part of the life-force compelling us to look death in the face. We’re the only animal with an understanding that someday we’ll die. I think we all want to make our temporary stay on this planet less mysterious, more knowable. We want to learn what happened here, so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.
More than 100 million copies of your books have been sold; they’ve been translated into 36 languages and are available in 120 countries. After all this success, what has surprised you most about writing?
What’s surprised me most is the very process of creativity. I’ve been fascinated by where ideas come from. I feel when we really open ourselves up to our urges and get our conscious brains out of the way, we’re almost channeling things from areas we don’t begin to understand. It’s both a scary and amazing experience. I’ve been repeatedly surprised how secret parts of my mind are creating something without my conscious knowledge. Hemingway was very aware of this phenomenon. He had an ironclad habit: when he had written a very good sentence and knew where he was going next, he would quit writing and not think about it until he went back to it the next day. He wanted to give his sub-conscious mind enough time to work on the story. That continues to surprise and amaze me: this ability the human mind seems to have. It even goes to the issue of genetic memory. We channel things creatively that really come from someplace that’s part of our genome, our primal heritage.
What do you love most about writing?
I love the way it keeps me company. I find no matter what’s going on in my life, I don’t have to wait on somebody else to fill my time or give me satisfaction. If I have an hour or two, I can sit at my desk, open something I’m working on and be transported to the same world I want to take the readers. I probably developed that ability for a very good reason. As a child, writing was my best friend. If I wrote a poem or an illustrated short story, or described the scenery while I looked out over a valley in North Carolina where I was brought up, it made me feel less by myself.
I think being on this planet is a lonely experience and without imagination, it’s very isolating. For me, writing has been a gift. Creative expression is a great coping mechanism. If you’re sad, scared or lonely, much as I was as a child, writing was my retreat. I played sports and all that, but the thing that healed my soul and touched those parts of me nothing else could, had to come from within myself. If you can reach inside yourself and create something—a painting, a drawing, a book— it can be healing and very life affirming.
Who are the authors you read these days?
I’m an eclectic reader. I read a lot of biographies. I love non-fiction, especially history. In fiction, I enjoy reading Lee Child, Dan Brown, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben. It has to be something very engaging; otherwise, my attention will wander.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from history, politics, or literature, who would they be.
I’d love to have dinner with Dickens. I’d love to have dinner with Agatha Christie. I’d love to have met Lincoln. I’m so sorry I never got to meet Truman Capote. I think In Cold Blood is one of the greatest true crime books ever written. I think dead people might be my specialty (Laughter). And then there’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s supposedly a relative—allegedly, an ultra-removed aunt of mine. It may be part of my genetic heritage, because she and I write basically about the same thing: abuse of power, whether it’s slavery or anything else. I visited her home in Connecticut and can honestly say I felt a kinship, something almost akin to channeling something from her.
What would you be talking about at dinner?
I’d be fascinated about their writing processes. I’d love hearing how they started their days and the things that compelled them to write what they did. I know Dickens was influenced greatly by his childhood—working in a bootblack factory by the age of twelve. It would be fascinating to talk with Agatha Christie. I understand she was incredibly shy and introverted. Becoming a celebrity was difficult for her because she was happiest staying at home and writing. Also, both Dickens and Agatha Christie were heavy into research, so we’d have a great deal in common. If she were writing today, who knows? Miss Marple might have been a medical examiner.
What’s coming next from Patricia Cornwell?
I’ve started the next Scarpetta book. I’m finishing the remake of my Jack the Ripper book. I’m also writing the pilot for the CBS series, Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who has a fraternal twin brother who’s a sociopath, and she’s very worried about having a child because of what her genetic heritage might entail.
Congratulations on penning another Kay Scarpetta novel, Flesh and Blood. It’s certain to keep your fans very happy.
We’re familiar with Shakespeare’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet says the names of things don’t matter; the important thing is what they are.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
While that’s very true in botany, in fiction, characters’ names may matter a great deal. A name can become a device by which a reader visualizes, hears, and even senses a particular character. The name hopefully becomes the essence of a character as the reader traverses the story’s arc.
Certainly, the name “Hannibal” makes one think of Thomas Harris’ malevolent character in Silence of the Lambs. Similarly, “Stingo” summons William Styron’s callow protagonist from Sophie’s Choice. “Garp” brings to mind the idiosyncratic man from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Think of other characters in literature: Ahab; Hamlet; Ishmael; Raskolnikov; Scrooge; Achilles; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These names evoke thoughts of compelling characters and their traits.
Novelists, including me, are often asked how they come up with characters’ names. There are many ways.
Many writers choose names readers will easily recall—those that will resonate in the reader’s mind. And, many writers agree the names should have some acoustic quality making them memorable.
Most writers choose dissimilar names for different characters so the reader doesn’t confuse one character for another (as may occur in Russian novels). A writer certainly doesn’t want to force a reader to backtrack through a novel, trying to clarify is speaking or acting.
So, how does a writer go about picking characters’ names?
Some writers go to the telephone book, perusing lists of names appropriate names. Others listen to the names of people they encounter during the course of everyday life, while some may describe a character to friends or relatives and ask for name suggestions.
Harlan Coben sometimes offers to name characters after people who bought his current novel; submit proof of purchase; and thereby become eligible for a character to have the buyer’s name in a subsequent novel. A writer as popular as Coben, garners a cascade of names, and engages readers in his efforts. It’s also a great promotional idea.
There’s the old standby: naming characters after relatives, friends and acquaintances. I do this frequently with secondary characters. I’ve occasionally named a major character after someone I know—using the person’s full name. In one instance, I thought a physician-friend’s name was perfect for a villain’s, and used it—but only after conferring with my doctor friend, who not only understood, but agreed and wholeheartedly endorsed my using his name.
In some novels, I’ve made mention of a friend in setting up a protagonist’s background or back-story. One psychiatrist friend telephoned me after reading the novel. He was delighted to learn that in his novelistic iteration, he was not only a shrink, but owned a Blimpie franchise in Westchester County, New York. We laughed together about his fictional investment and managerial acumen.
But by whichever method a writer selects a name, it must fit and become emblematic of that character. Reading or even mentioning the character’s name should bring to mind an entire set of personality traits; a certain look; sound; and feeling tone. The name should evoke a strong image in the reader’s mind, and have an audacious ring of authenticity.
After all, no writer wants a rose to evoke the scent of a chrysanthemum. Or far worse, the smell of a stinkweed.