‘Strong Darkness” A Talk with Jon Land

Jon Land is the prolific author of 30 novels. He is well-known for his Blaine McCracken series among others, as well as nine standalone novels. His latest series involves Texas Ranger, Caitlin Strong. Her courage and tenacity repeatedly land her, along with her paramour Cort Wesley Masters, on perilous terrain.

In Strong Darkness, the sixth in the series, Caitlin pursues a serial killer whose bizarre method is eerily similar to that of the killer tracked by her great-grandfather and Judge Roy Bean, 130 years earlier. But there’s much more going on. Her boyfriend’s son is beaten half to death at Brown University. The investigation leads Caitlin back to Texas and to a high-tech company whose founder, Li Zhen, has been awarded a contract to build the U.S.’s 5G network. Zhen is associated with the Triads, the powerful and deadly Chinese mob. An immense conspiracy is underway—one with mass murder and economic disaster as its goals. The pernicious plot could cause the deaths of millions of Americans, and bring about China’s total domination of the United States.

I’ve read a number of your novels and they’ve all tied the protagonist’s present investigation to events years earlier. Tell us about these connections of past and present.

I’ve always believed what William Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ In this future-obsessed culture, we forget how vital the past is. In the Caitlin Strong series, I use the past to highlight the tradition of the Texas Rangers in Caitlin’s family. We see how crimes were solved in 1883, in the 1930s, and at this time. It shows that no matter how things may change, they really stay the same.  If it were possible for Caitlin, her father, and her grandfather, to team up today with Judge Roy Bean, you would probably have the same result.

These historical sub-plots also allow me to pick wonderful snippets from history and present them in a way that integrates past and present. In Strong Darkness, I touch on the railroad tradition of the old West and Texas. The railroads were crucial in American history because people became mobile, which ended the era of the Wild West and lone gunfighters. Gunmen became Pinkerton men or contract killers. I love relying on history as part of telling a story. History can fuel a plot that spills over into the present. It makes the past completely relevant. And the past has helped Caitlin understand who she is and the tradition from which she came.

 Caitlin Strong’s surname is perfect: she’s strong-willed and a very tough Texas Ranger. Was it difficult to create a woman who is both alluring and heroic in an action-oriented sense?

No, because her character came to me so quickly. She’s evolved naturally. You can’t impose yourself on the character’s nature. That would be like swimming upstream. I don’t do the work; the characters do. They dictate who they want to be, and who they are. I write totally from my imagination, my subconscious. I don’t outline a single thing.

I may know the general plotline of a novel, but as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia said, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.’ I may know the final destination of a novel fairly well, but I don’t know the journey that will take me there. Nor do I know Caitlin Strong’s journey—the one that turns her into the character she is, or will become.

Actually, Caitlin was created at a marketing meeting with my publisher. Some of the best creative decisions writers make are either forced upon us or chosen for business reasons. At this meeting, the head of mass market sales said, ‘Eighty percent of books are bought by women, and the most popular genre is the thriller. Are there any female action thriller heroes?’ There are a couple of exceptions, but popular female heroes aren’t like Jack Reacher. We began brainstorming and I said, ‘How about a female Texas Ranger?’

But, whether Caitlin was a creative inspiration, or was devised at a sales meeting, the manner of her birth doesn’t matter. What matters is how she was raised—how she became the character she now is.

Here’s the difference between a good series character and a great one: a good character becomes; a great character never stops becoming. A great series character evolves. Caitlin Strong changes over time, but doesn’t become less of a gunfighter. Her evolution allows us to see the rationale for what gets her to go for her guns. She’s emotional, and the reader gets a sense of her personal being. In a sense, she’s forever becoming, but she remains a prisoner of her nature and past.

 The action scenes in Strong Darkness are among the most vivid and intense I’ve ever read. Is there a method you employ in creating them?

Action scenes need to be two things. They need to be visual, and they need to be visceral—come right from the gut. With the visual, I recall something my editor taught me: when writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from. All my action scenes are written through the eyes of one character, not through some omniscient third person narrator.

As for the visceral, I want the reader to smell the gunpowder; to feel the gun’s heat in the hand; and to hear the sound of an automatic weapon’s expended shells clacking against a tile floor.

But, for the action to be compelling, I want to force the reader to have a vested stake in the hero’s plight and her quest. A hero like Caitlin Strong represents all we would want to be. We want to be the person who confronts any situation and comes away victorious. And we can’t forget that heroes represent our projections of who we would want to guard us to keep the monsters away. We learned from 9/11 and ISIS that there really are things that go bump in the night. And the action in the Caitlin Strong series is good because Caitlin Strong bumps back.

 Two characters in Strong Darkness—Guillermo Paz and Cort Wesley Masters—have visions or talk to a dead person. You seem comfortable in stretching genre boundaries.

What you’re really getting at is that characters like Guillermo Paz and Cort Wesley Masters are larger than life. They embrace the fact that the universe is far bigger and broader than we realize. Part of what makes Guillermo Paz indestructible is his level of consciousness which renders him fearless. If you don’t fear death, you’re an indestructible warrior. As for Cort Wesley Masters, he talks to Leroy Epps, his former prison cellmate. Leroy Epps is really there. He’s not a vision or an illusion. He’s a spiritual entity for Cort Wesley. What people love about science fiction and fantasy, in Star Wars, for example, is that people don’t die. They return in spirit, and we love wondering if there’s something else out there.

These characters—Paz and Cort Wesley Masters—have embraced the notion that there’s something more. It makes them more fearsome, more deadly; but makes them far more human, as well. I didn’t invent this. Joseph Campbell explored this in The Power of Myth. The bottom line is: just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Strong Darkness is a thriller with elements of a mystery novel. Talk about the differences between a thriller and a mystery.

A thriller is about a hero trying to prevent something terrible from happening. A mystery, on the other hand, tries to figure out what has already happened and who did it. In a mystery, the hero’s life is seldom threatened. But, in a thriller, the hero’s life is always at stake. The differences boil down to stakes and danger. In a thriller, there’s usually a more abbreviated time frame. There’s a ticking clock in a thriller as opposed to there being none in a mystery.

 There are intersecting story lines in Strong Darkness. They all coalesce. I know you don’t use an outline, so how do you keep the novel’s narrative drive integrated?

Much of it is instinct. If you do something enough, you come to trust your ability to pull it off. The beginning of the book is always easy because the connections don’t have to be made. I can just throw spaghetti on the wall. So how do I connect the disparate elements of the plot?

First, I use short chapters. That not only makes it much easier for readers to follow the plot, but also for me to follow the book’s arc as I’m writing it. If I’m shifting viewpoints every five pages, short chapters allow me to remember where I left off.

As for keeping the story integrated, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. And if I don’t know, the reader can’t possibly know. As I said, the beginning is easy; the end of the book is the climax where it all gets tied up. In those two hundred pages in between, all the connections must be made. It can be very difficult to do. When I was nearing the end of Strong Darkness, I was up against a wall. I was stuck and couldn’t tie the threads together. One of the people I rely upon to read early drafts made a suggestion, and there it was. The whole book fell into place. It demonstrates that no writer exists in a vacuum. I have people who read my early drafts and a brilliant editor who does much more than go over the lines. We work on a conceptual level. A few other people read the nearly finalized draft, so I can take the book to its publish-ready level. I rely on the advice of others.

The other thing helping me to keep the narrative unified is writing my books over a short timeframe. Generally, the first draft is done in about eight weeks. I don’t spend so much time on that draft that I forget where I’ve been. If you forget where you’ve been, you can’t find where you’re going.

One other thing: I’m a better re-writer than I am a writer. I’m very good at tearing things apart and putting them back together in better shape. When a novel has disparate elements that don’t work, you allow yourself to change things on the fly. You invent connections—connective tissue. The difference between the successful novel and the unsuccessful one doesn’t lie so much in the plotting. It doesn’t lie in the bones, the skeleton. It lies in the tissue. How it connects everything else. I probably do five re-writes of each novel. What it really comes down to is tying in the structural elements of the novel with the protagonist’s character, his or her very being.

You’ve published thirty novels. What about writing has surprised you most over the years?

Two things. I was surprised by how hard it is for a writer to succeed. How hard it is to be recognized. How hard it is to get what you feel you deserve in the publishing world, and not let that get you down.

On a more positive note, I’ve been surprised at how easily the story comes to me, and how much I love telling it. That’s really the biggest surprise for me. I love writing Caitlin Strong books. I’m just amazed I can still do it—that I can find that place in my head.

For me, writing isn’t just what I do. It’s who I am.

 Congratulations on having written Strong Darkness, a wide-ranging thriller with suspenseful sub-plots and some of the most vivid action scenes I’ve ever read.

Murder 101: A Talk with Faye Kellerman

Faye Kellerman is the bestselling author of twenty-six novels, twenty-two of which feature the husband and wife team of Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus. Faye and her husband, Jonathan Kellerman, are the only married couple ever to appear on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously for two different novels.Faye Kellerman credit to Karen Miller

 Murder101 is the twenty-second Decker-Lazarus novel. Peter is now retired from the LAPD. He and Rina have moved to a small town in upstate New York, to be closer to their four adult children and foster son. Peter works for the Greenbury Police Department, which usually involves little more than dealing with college-town problems. A possible break-in at the local cemetery where a mausoleum’s Tiffany panels have been stolen and replaced by forgeries, leads to drastic consequences, including two brutal murders. As a former LAPD detective, Decker is called on to investigate a case that has far-reaching implications.

You have a degree in mathematics and received a Doctorate of Dental Surgery. At the age of thirty-four, your first novel, The Ritual Bath, was published. As a mathematician and dentist, how did you discover the writer within you?

I was always a kid with a vivid imagination. I made up stories in my head and played them out. I would walk around talking to myself to the point where my grandmother asked my mother, ‘Is this child normal?’ And my mother said, ‘She’s just playing her games.’ I had all these little stories, and was also very good at math. I went into math because I had a hard time learning to read. I was phonetically dyslexic. I was a math major and became a dentist. After graduating from dental school, I took time off before going into dentistry to be with my son, Jesse. At that point, all the stories began coming back, because for the first time in 25 years, I didn’t have to use my brain to advance my education. The imagination never goes away.

At that time, Jonathan and I were married for six years. He was always an avid writer. I said to myself, ‘He’s doing the same thing I’m doing, making up stories, except he’s writing them down.’ It took many years—seven or eight years—before I had something worth publishing. Jonathan’s success encouraged me, and he himself encouraged me. I felt somewhat embarrassed about it, feeling I was making up stories when I should be drilling teeth. Eventually, I got published. Once that happened, there was no turning back. I knew from my husband’s experience that you don’t write to become a bestselling novelist. It’s a fluke if it happens. A fluke has happened to me.

It’s clear from reading Murder 101 that you write very detailed detective fiction. What kind of research do you do?

Over the years, I’ve done a great deal of research. I love doing research. It often revolves around art. I used
to go in the stacks. Now, of course, we have the Internet. Even with the Internet, you still have to read books to get the details you want. When I write a novel, I try to write something that’s coherent and entertaining. I spend the most time on building characters. You hope to write something with richness, but above all, the reader remembers the characters—people that seem to jump off the page. I just love doing research. I’ve visited police stations. I read science and books on forensics. I look things up and try to make the novel as accurate as possible. As for bodies, as a dental student, we had gross anatomy, so I know a body from the inside out. I do take a bit of literary license. If I don’t know certain exact details, I’ll make an approximation for the novel.

Your physical descriptions of characters are quite elaborate. How do you balance creating that richness while maintaining a novel’s narrative drive?

I think of a character’s description as something akin to scene-setting or stage-setting. It’s not there for the sake of simply providing details. We’re not Sherlock Holmes. We don’t need to know about the dangling button. I want to give the reader an idea of where a scene is taking place; who the main characters are; and what they look like. I like to leave a little bit to the reader’s imagination. But if you set the scene, what follows is not distracting. Once the scene is there, the characters take over with their dialogue, but they are placed in position for the reader.

 As the Deckers have grown older, are you concerned they might no longer appeal to younger readers?

I try to make the characters as universal as possible. That was a consideration in Murder 101. I moved th
em to a small college town to keep it fresh and young. The introduction of a younger police detective who doesn’t know the ropes was done to infuse the story with some youth. You want your books to appeal to as many people as possible. If my main characters are in an older age group, I try to balance it with someone younger.

 Over twenty-eight years the, Deckers’ lives have evolved. Writers often borrow from their own lives. Are there parallels between the Deckers and the Kellermans?

I’m sure there are, but not on a one-to-one ratio. As we grow and experience things, so do the Deckers. As we have experiences, they do, too. In my personal life, I have children and grandchildren, so I’m forced—in order to keep up with them in conversation—to be exposed to their interests and activities. You have to learn to use whatever resources are around you, and it keeps you fresh and young.

 As a writing couple, what is a typical day like in your household? Are you and Jonathan on different schedules? Write in different places?

Dentistry and mathematics taught me the necessity of being focused and organized. Things are easier now because the kids are out of the house. We wake up when we want to as opposed to when we had children at home. We begin writing at about 9:30 or 10:00. We write at roughly the same time, most often in the mornings because we both feel fresher at that time. We spend about two to three hours writing, and then comes all the business of running your life. There’s a lot of juggling with the books: promotion, writing, dealing with the business of writing. At first, I found it stressful, but now I have fun with it. After about 5:00 in the afternoon, I try not going to my computer. I want to relax, read a book, go out for dinner, or see a movie.

 You and Jonathan collaborated on Double Homicide and Capital Crimes. How did that go?

It went really well. We e-mailed chapters back and forth. We did that with everything, beginning with the outline. I would write something; then, he would embellish it. Then I would embellish his embellishment. And finally, we had an outline. For each novel, one of us wrote the first draft. We’d go back-and-forth with that. It was really wonderful. You know, sometimes in my own work, I’d hit a wall. With the collaboration, if I wasn’t quite sure how to end a scene, I’d send it to Jonathan, and he’d do it. I think the main thing was not to take a proprietary interest in the writing. It’s a shared project and you have to leave your ego at the door.

 Dentists usually have manual dexterity, and their hobbies often involve using their hands. Ho
w about you?

I’ve done a lot of sewing. I crochet. I really love gardening. If I have any spare time, I love to prune and plant. I love the aesthetic, and it’s so rewarding. I sometimes play the mandolin and the guitar; so yes, I enjoy using my hands.

 As a successful novelist since 1986, what has surprised you most about writing?

The biggest surprise is, it doesn’t get easier. With most tasks, the more you perform them, the more rote they become. With writing, you can never, ever, sit back and have it come easily. It’s always a struggle. It’s a joy, but you’re always thinking. It always gives me a headache. (Laughter). The more you write, the harder it gets because you’ve used up plots; you’ve used up characters; you’ve used up words. You wonder how you’re going to keep this book fresh and new—especially in a series. You know, with genre novels, there’s an expectation. You don’t want your fans to lose that sense of anticipation. You want each book to be satisfying to you and you want it to be fresh. That’s one of the major reasons why I moved the Deckers from LA to Greenbury. I wanted them to be in a new place with a different atmosphere, and I wanted them to face new challenges.

What do you love about being a writer?

I love the ability to let my mind explore whatever it wants. When you write it down, it has to be informed and make sense. But if you have an imagination, you can go everywhere. I love that—the inception—having a germ of an idea and building upon it. You can do whatever you want with it. Many writers would say you can play God.

 If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would they be?

One of them would be Moses. I’d have a lot of questions for him. I’d love to have my literary idols there. Ross MacDonald would be at the table, along with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Billy Wilder, and Chaim Potok. I’ve been rereading Jane Austin and realize she basically wrote Downton Abbey. I’d love to have her join us.  F. Scott Fitzgerald would be another guest. And of course, there’s Abe Lincoln. I’m really interested in people who did something revolutionary.  I’d really want to have a huge banquet with all these people.

 What’s coming next from Faye Kellerman?

The Deckers are still in Greenbury and there will be more college mayhem.

 
Congratulations on penning your twenty-second Decker-Lazarus novel, a read that held me from start to finish.

Edge of Eternity: A Talk with Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide. The Century Trilogy opened with Fall of Giants in 2010, followed by Winter of the World in 2012.

Edge of Eternity, the concluding novel in this trilogy, follows the fortunes of five intertwined families—AKen_Follett_credit_Barbara_Follettmerican, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—negotiating the upheavals of the twentieth century. Each book in the tril
ogy follows the next generation, and each can be read as a stand-alone novel. Edge of Eternity covers the time period from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Edge of Eternity, as do the other books in the Century Trilogy, has a sprawling historical perspective. Talk a bit about the time frame, from your idea for the story to the completed novel?

I was thinking ‘What is the most dramatic and exciting period in our history?’ I enjoyed writing historical novels, but didn’t want to write another medieval story. I realized the twentieth century is the most dramatic period in our history. We had the First World War which was the most terrible one the human race had ever experienced. Then, came World War II, which was worse. And ultimately, we had the Cold War, which if it turned into a hot war, would probably have wiped out the entire human race. There basically, is the terrible drama of the twentieth century. But it’s also our story—mine and yours. We were born in the twentieth century; and its history is the story of what we, our parents, and grandparents experienced. It’s very immediate to us. So, I decided to write a historical novel about the twentieth century.

As for time frame, the complete project took me seven years. It’s about one million words total for the entire trilogy. I spent the first six months mapping it. Early on in the process, I realized it was not one book, but three. I looked at a book called Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm, which gives a brief history of the twentieth century. It struck me that the period beginning with the First World War and ending with the fall of the Berlin wall was the period to write about. I realized it needed to be three books, each one based on a different war.

I began with a six month study of the century, during which time I mapped out each book in a very rough way.  Then, I concentrated on book one, The Fall of Giants, which is about the First World War and the Russian Revolution, It took two-and a half years to write. It took two years for each of the other two books, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity. In each case, the writing of the book divided roughly into three equal parts: the planning and research which involved a detailed outline of each chapter. That came to sixty or seventy densely typed pages (which was as long as some of my earliest novels). When I was happy with that, I wrote a first draft. The completed draft went to quite a number of people—editors, some family members, and I always hired experts to check my research. After getting notes from these readers, my rewrite was a lengthy process which really improved the story. For Edge of Eternity, it was eight months for each of the three stages.

 You grew up in a home where watching movies or television was prohibited. How did that affect you?

Of course, at the time, I was absolutely outraged. At the age of eight, all my friends went to the movies on Saturday mornings. I would have loved going with them. Of course, it did mean that I read more, and in the long run, that probably wasn’t a bad thing.

 In college, you majored in philosophy. What led you to make that decision?

That was also a consequence of my family. By the time I applied to college, I had grave doubts about my parents’ religion. I had arguments with my father about theology. Philosophy is, in part, a study of what is a good argument
and what is not; what is evidence and what is fake evidence. So, my interest in philosophy stemmed from the agonizing conflict I had over whether or not I believed in my parents’ religion. In the end, I completely rejected it. I’m not a religious person. I’m an atheist. I ended up being the absolute opposite of my parents. It was a process that took some years, and studying philosophy was part of that process.

 Nearly every reader alive knows your breakthrough novel was the immensely popular Eye of the Needle in 1978. That was followed by other bestselling espionage thrillers. Yet, with Pillars of the Earth, you began writing historical fiction. What made you change direction?

It was mainly my interest in the Middle Ages, and in particular, the building of the cathedrals. Most people who stand before a medieval cathedral wonder why it’s here. They ask themselves, ‘Why did medieval people want one of these so badly that they went to the enormous trouble and expense of building it? What compelled them to do this?’ That question is really the driving force of Pillars of the Earth. The novel is my answer to that question, and it helps shed light on the importance of these magnificent cathedrals.

 You once said, “I want to tell a story that makes the reader always want to see what will happen next.” Will you talk about that?

I think this is what popular fiction is all about. We get involved in the story. We identify with the characters. We love some and hate others. We share their hopes and fears. We have an emotional response to them in the context of the story. This is what we want from popular fiction. If you feel anxious about what will happen to the characters, of if you feel sad or hopeful, or happy for them, then you’re into the story and you keep turning the pages. I think the immersion in the story, the feeling that what’s happening in the story is more important than what’s happening in real life, is what we want from literature. That’s the joy of it. You know you’re enjoying a book when the plane lands and you think, ‘Oh darn, now I’ve got to stop re
ading.’

 You also said recently, “For me, the words should be like a pane of glass that you look through, not at.” This has always been evident in your novels, including Edge of Eternity. Will you talk a bit more about your writing style?

We enjoy the way some writers put words together. For example, P.G. Wodehouse or Philip Roth does so, each in his own way. Part of our enjoyment of their books is their linguistic style. I’m not that kind of writer. The important thing in my books is the story. I want the reader to see the story. When you’re reading one of my books, I don’t want you thinking about a sentence or marveling at a vivid image. Or, exclaiming, ‘What a clever alliteration.’ I don’t want you thinking about my prose.  I want you to focus on the story. To illustrate that, I’ve said, ‘My style is like a window. You look through it and see the story. You don’t pay attention to the pane of glass.’

 You’ve written thirty novels over the years. What about writing has surprised you?  

That’s difficult to answer. Even as a child, that was what I was good at in school—using my imagination and writing my fantasies. It always seemed natural for me. From time to time, when I’m writing a scene, tears come to my eyes. I think to myself, ‘Don’t be a fool, Follett. You’re making this up.’ (Laughter).

It’s the power of your story. You’ve sucked yourself in. (more laughter).

I suppose so. My imagination has gotten the better of me.

 What do you love most of all about being a writer?

I love the complete immersion it requires. Writing a book people will devour doesn’t get easier as the years go by. I have an approach I know works, but each time I begin a novel, wonder if this one will work. I ask myself, ‘Will they like this one?’ The effort absorbs and uses up everything I’ve got. It uses all my intelligence and knowledge of the world an
d people. Absolutely everything goes into the novel. It’s the most all-consuming thing imaginable. It’s that complete engagement in a challenging task I love so much.

 If you could have dinner with any five people, either living or dead, who would they be?

Because of my absorption in the sixties when writing Edge of Eternity, I would be very curious to meet President Kennedy. It would be great, wouldn’t it, to have a sixties dinner party?Bobby Kennedy is a terrifically interesting character. Martin Luther King is probably the biggest hero of the twentieth century, so I’d love to have him there. Let’s liven up this dinner party by throwing in Nikita Khrushchev. Oh, and maybe Fidel Castro. (Laughter).  They’d be arguing about politics, that’s for sure. Oh, I nearly left someone out. I’d also invite Marilyn Monroe, an icon of that era.

What would they all be talking about?

Why, they’d be talking about Marilyn Monroe, of course. (More laughter).

If we go back to the earlier books in the trilogy, who would be at the dinner?

From the century’s earlier decades, I think I’d have Mrs. Pankhurst, who led the suffragette movement in the UK. She was a very strong and eccentric character. What about Trotsky? I suppose in this fantasy, they could all speak the same language.

And the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George would be there. He was a terrific flirt and he’d flirt unabashedly with Mrs. Pankhurst. It would also be interesting to have Woodrow Wilson at the party. He was a great American president. I admire the determination with which he promoted the League of Nations. Although it ended up a failure, I think the impulse to have some kind of world order designed to prevent war, is still a good one.

 What’s coming next from Ken Follett?

I’ve been working on a new story. I don’t have a title, yet. It’s based in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, the location of The Pillars of the Earth and World without End.

 
Congratulations on having written the Century Trilogy, three historical novels encompassing the events of the twentieth century in a compelling, highly readable way.

 

MAD DOG HOUSE is on Sale!

During September, “Mad Dog House,” the first in the “Mad Dog” series, is on sale as an e-book for 99 cents. You can grab it now on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble website. NINETY-NINE CENTS.  Here is a direct link to Amazon.   Just copy & paste the url into your browser’s address bar.  http://tinyurl.com/oom3mhz   

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The Golden Hour: A Talk with Todd Moss

Todd Moss was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under Condeleeza Rice. He oversaw diplomatic relations with 16 West African countries. After penning four non-fiction books, he has turned to fiction, and The Golden Hour is his first novel. This international thriller is set in the world of diplomacy, espionage and special operations, both military and Todd Mossdiplomatic.

 In The Golden Hour, Judd Ryker, newly appointed as Director of the State Department Crisis Reaction Unit, is in charge of helping the U.S. respond quickly to foreign crises. A coup in Mali sets the novel into gear, as Ryker races from Washington to Europe, and across the Sahara Desert. Everything begins to change, as he learns that friends and enemies come in many unexpected forms.

 Tell us about the concept of “The Golden Hour.”

The Golden Hour is a concept from emergency medicine. I learned about it when I drove an ambulance in Boston during my college years. You must get a trauma patient to the hospital within an hour, or the chances of survival plummet. In the story, Judd Ryker is an academic who crunches numbers data on international crises. He figures out there’s a golden hour for such crises. If you don’t intervene quickly, the chances of success decline precipitously. He determines that after a coup, there are about four days, or one hundred hours, to respond, if you hope to reverse the coup.

They say, “Write what you know.” How did The Golden Hour evolve from your experiences working in the State Department?

When I left government, I planned to write a non-fiction book about formulating foreign policy with its complications and frustrations. I quickly realized that to make it interesting for a wider audience, fiction might be a better vehicle. The story’s plot was inspired initially by a 2008 coup in Mauritania. When I went to the capital to talk down a general who had just deposed a democratically elected leader, I failed. General Aziz is still head of state of Mauritania. I thought it would be interesting to take readers inside the discussions in Washington and the negotiations with the coup leader.

 Fiction and fact can coalesce. Your novel focuses on Mali. I understand that while you were writing The Golden Hour, a real coup occurred in that country.

Yes. About six weeks after I finished the first draft, there was a real coup in Mali. It was quickly followed by a series of extremist groups taking over the northern half of the country. About six months later, theFrench invaded Mali to expel the jihadists and reestablish order.

A prospective literary agent was watching news reports of the French military action at the same time my manuscript arrived on his desk. In a sense, Mali’s misfortune was my good fortune, since it helped convince the agent this was a good time for a thriller set in Africa.

 Did the actual events in Mali cause you to make changes in the manuscript?

I didn’t change anything substantial in the manuscript because of those events.

 So, in a way, your novel presaged what actually happened in Mali.

Yes. There were some eerie coincidences which I’d blogged about on the Center for Global Deve
lopment. It wasn’t simply that a coup actually occurred. There were other similarities, as well. In the novel, I gave the junta a title: The Council for the Restoration of Democracy. In the actual Mali coup, the junta called itself The National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State. I’d also made up a fictional terrorist cell called Ansar al-sahra which in Arabic, means Defenders of the Desert. Right after the coup, a new Islamist cell announced itself in Mali, calling itself Ansar al-dine, meaning Defenders of the Faith. So yes, fact and fiction can certainly coalesce.

The Golden Hour deals with political instability, ethnic rivalries and violence, drug and weapons smuggling, and kidnappings in Africa. Tell us how this plays out in the real world.

Africa has traditionally been low on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. In the 21st century, we’re seeing a range of new national security threats including terrorism, illegal smuggling, and international criminal cartels. These underground networks are climbing higher in importance on the scale of U.S. foreign policy awareness. Africa harbors some of these networks, and the U.S. government is being forced to get more involved in that continent. In 2008, the U.S. military created the Africa Command, a regional combatant command. There’s now increased counter-terrorism activity in Africa, trying to contain networks that fester and can create major problems. Mali has been at the epicenter of some of these activities.

 Recently, the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria occurred. It’s clear that your
novel anticipated this incident.

The kidnapping in Nigeria is a horrific event. It reminded me of the Kony 2012 campaign, during which the U.S. tried to rally the world’s attention on a brutal Ugandan warlord responsible for many horrific war crimes. These incidents garner attention that can force the U.S. government to become involved. These kinds of flare-ups will likely continue. They’re not anomalies; they occur regularly. But, Kony is still at large and most of the kidnapped girls remain missing. The challenge for policy makers is how to respond in a way that sustains American attention to these problems so they don’t spin out of control.

 The Golden Hour depicts a great deal of in-fighting and turf-protection in the workings of the U.S. Government. Did you feel it was better to depict this in a novel rather than in non-fiction form?

I had thought about writing a non-fiction book about interagency in-fighting. It seemed to be more accessible and more fun to read about it in a fictional format, so I went in that direction. Anyone who has worked within the U.S. government will recognize the dynamics and dysfunction of how our sprawling government actually works—how the sausage machine actually operates. In the State Department, there are 1500 employees justwithin the Africa Bureau. There are dozens of offices competing and interacting. On my first day at the State Department, a senior colleague pulled me aside and said, ‘These are the things we want to achieve while you’re here, and always remember that the enemy is in the building.’

 How has writing fiction differed from writing non-fiction books?

When writing non-fiction, I can sit and work for ten hours at a time. I know what I want to say, how to present facts and marshal an argument. When I’m writing fiction, the next sentence can literally be anything. That creative side is very liberating, but it can be exhausting. When writing fiction, I work in ninety minute bursts. Then I have to take a break or wait until the next day. I find fiction to be a lot more fun. While you want it to seem credible and authentic, almost anything can happen, and I get to decide.

 Can you arrive at deeper truths with a novel than with non-fiction?

You can share authentic experiences with a wider audience in fiction. There are a couple of themes in The Golden Hour. One is my own love of Africa. The continent is, in large part, on a positive trajectory and is becoming a much more important partner for the United States than ever before. I wanted to make the African continent and various characters very accessible to a mainstream American audience.

 Another theme is the difference between the real world and a data driven world. Judd Ryker is an academic, who’s most comfortablecrunching numbers. In the real world, things get done by building personal relationships. That’s a lesson Judd Ryker must learn.

 Speaking of relationships, The Golden Hour depicts some very powerful women: The Secretary of State, an ambassador, and a savvy lobbyist. Are these characters based on real people?

After having Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton as Secretaries of State, one must conclude that having powerful women in high levels of state is the new normal. I know many impressive women ambassadors and lobbyists. The characters in the novel are fictional, but I was inspired by some real life people. I grew up and continue to live in a family of powerful women, so it all seems very normal to me.

 Is Judd Ryker, the protagonist of The Golden Hour, going to return?

Yes. We’re planning a series. The sequel, which is already completed, has Ryker being sent to Zimbabwe in the middle of an election that’s going wrong. I’m now working on the third installment of the Judd Ryker series, which takes place in Cuba and south Florida.

 
Congratulations on writing The Golden Hour, a suspenseful thriller with many twists and turns, and which sheds light on the inner workings of government and diplomacy.

Seeking your opinion

Author Mark Rubinstein wants to hear your thoughts on his blog. Please comment if you have something to contribute.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: A Talk with Jan Karon

Nine years ago, Jan Karon, the author of the hugely popular Mitford series of novels, announced that Light from Heaven (2005) would be the last Mitford book. Now, she’s back with a new Mitford novel featuring Father Timothy KavJan Karon (c) Candace Freeland - Largeanagh and his wife Cynthia, along with the rest of their family, neighbors and friends set in this fictional North Carolina town. The series has sold many millions of books and there’s no doubt that untold numbers of Jan Karon fans are ecstatic about the publication of Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good.

 After nine years, what made you return to the Mitford series?

I had a lot of prompting from my fans, who are very vocal about what they want. I don’t always listen to them because any novel has a life of its own. I want always to be true to what I’m led to write. I was impressed that over the years, so many people asked for another novel set in Mitford. I think readers missed the character of the village of Mitford itself. I pondered it in my heart and realized I wanted to go back, too. So, I did return and had a wonderful time writing this book.

 Why do you think this series about small-town life has sold so many millions of books?

Of course, there are many reasons. I think one important factor is that when we turn a corner in Mitford, we know we’re not going to be raped, robbed, or expereince murder and mayhem. There will be problems—illnesses, disasters of all sorts—but we can trust the author. My fans say they can place trust in turning a blind corner with me and know they will not be horse-whipped by some flagrantly ugly situation. It’s a safe place.

 Father Tim, now in his early 70s, is struggling with the challenges of retirement. What does this novel say about this stage of life?

I think everybody’s going to have a different take on that. I do know about the struggle with being retired. It has a very dirty reputation, as you know. Men, particularly, struggle with it because very often their entire identities are wrapped up in their work. So, it’s a time to really let go, which in itself, is scary. But we can learn how to be not retired from life, but really retired into life—into something more visceral and wonderful, open and promising. I’m seventy-seven and not retired. I’m still working like a hound dog. And I look forward to the work. Father Tim has struggled with this issue for a long time. He had to retire at sixty five because he had complications with his diabetes. He’s learned how to control it, and his wife, Cynthia, keeps after him like a stinging bee.

 Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good is such an appealing title. What does it mean in t
his story?

It means if you were to walk into anybody’s life at any moment, that person would be looking for a safe place to be with somebody good. It’s something we all long for. Some of us have found it with another person. Many have found it with God, with His consolations. Some are able to find it with both God’s consolations and those of a mate. The world is an unsafe place. We know that. It probably always has been. But I think right now, in our culture, we’ve reverted back to the Wild West.

So what do we want? We want to be somewhere safe with somebody good. Father Tim’s wife, Cynthia, wrote this in a letter to him. She proposed that they write love letters to each other as they did when they first met. He was aghast; he didn’t want to do it. In her letter to him, she said she had found that place with him—somewhere safe with somebody good.

 Is this novel in some way a commentary on modern life in America?

When I wrote the novel, I didn’t have any particular agenda in mind. In fact, I almost never do. I go into a novel—and pardon me for sounding a bit corny—but I go into it with my whole heart. I just go where it leads me. I go where I need to go. I do believe fiction writing is simply a way of processing the author’s life. The best way to get to know me is to read my work. It’s more revealing than I’m going to be if we were to sit and talk over dinner.

Is there beauty in what some would term “the ordinary life”?

There is deep, resonant, lovely, tender beauty in the ordinary life. It’s also in the extraordina
ry life, but I’m more interested in capturing what happens to the person on the street; the woman at home; the one working in a flower bed or trying to raise her grandchildren. I just want to know what goes on with the common person. I find great might in that.

 Readers and reviewers have said reading the Mitford novels has made them laugh and also cry. How does that make you feel?

I think that’s terrific because writing a Mitford novel makes me laugh and cry. I think it was Carl Sandburg who said, ‘No surprise in the author, no surprise in the reader.’ But I also think, ‘No tears in the author, no tears in the reader.’ And the same thing goes with laughter. I try to write so much from the heart, and people just get it. It flows from my bloodstream into theirs. When I write, I laugh out loud and I weep. when I write. I grieve the death of one of my characters. When I’m with my characters, I’m totally committed. So, I hope I can take my reader there, too.

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good partly addresses dealing with life changes. You made a major life change, leaving the advertising world. Will you tell us about that and the challenge you faced?

I’m telling you, it took such guts to do it. You’ve got a steady job; a good business reputation; you’ve worked hard; you have health insurance coverage; and a steady paycheck, and all of a sudden, you say, ‘I just can’t do this anymore.’ I’d wanted to write a novel since the age of ten. I wasn’t getting any younger. In fact, I was fifty. So I prayed ardently for two years, and finally got the green light to quit my job. Let me tell you, there’s no halleluiah moment when you step out over the cliff.

For the first few years, I had great difficulty writing a novel. It was all new to me and I had much to learn about the process.  `And then, once you’ve written it, just try to sell it. People were scared to death of touching it: there was
a Christian protagonist who was actually a likable guy, and nobody was writing that sort of thing. So, here was a whole new genre the publishers decided to avoid. There was a long period when I was actually hungry. People say, ‘Reading one of your books makes me hungry because there’s so much food in them.’ It’s because I was starving when I was writing them. It was not an easy time. When making an important life move, we need to get over the expectation that the transition will be stress-free. But, what I can promise is that it will be worth it.

 What about writing has surprised you over the years?

I think what’s surprised me is how much fun you can have writing. And also, how much torment it can be. There’s torment in trying to craft a novel, trying to get the timing just right so it falls upon the ear or the spirit in just the right way, as does a piece of music. Just the book’s title, Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good has rhythm, is musical. If it doesn’t feel right and isn’t in some way balanced, I’ve got to reconstruct it. There’s a lot of torment in that. Also, you can’t separate your writing life from your actual world. Your real life keeps intruding. It’s very jealous of your writing life. It says, ‘Who am I? Chopped liver?  Real life comes after you while you’re trying to write a book.

I love my work. There’s much joy and laughter, but there are tears, too. It’s hard work to write a novel.

It would seem that sometimes, life gets in the way.

Absolutely.

Have you had difficulty relegating time between your real life and your writing life?

The trouble is I can’t relegate time for writing. That’s what you’re supposed to do, and many authors have successfully done it. But for the last decade and a half, it’s been very difficult to relegate time to my work because my life is so demanding. But the demands of this life make the writing much juicer. I mean, when you think you’re on your last leg, if you wait and work at it, you will get it right. People ask, ‘What if you don’t have anything to say?’ I say, ‘Sit down and write anyway, because something will come to you. And typically, it’s going to be pretty good.’

Are you saying in part that conflict—whether in your own life or in your characters’ lives—makes for a juicier novel?

I think so. That’s what I’m learning more and more as I go along. As I said earlier, I believe the author processes his or her life through fiction. If we process a demanding life, something juicy happens in the fiction. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s a mystery.

 Speaking of mystery, do you ever take your own novel off a shelf and wonder where the dialogue and descriptions came from?

I do. You hit the nail on the head. You must be writing a novel. (Laughter) But I sometimes see things in there I’d like to change—especially all those exclamation marks. Yes, I do often wonder where all this stuff comes from.

 What’s coming next for Jan Karon?

I don’t want to throw in a spoiler, but I think the end of this novel directs the reader to what’s coming next. I would just say that Father Tim will be very much alive as long as I’m writing. The story will carry into the next generation. It would be time for that in real life, and it’s time for that to happen in my fiction.

 Congratulations on writing Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good and thank you for bringing readers back to a fictional town that resonates so deeply in people’s hearts.

“Visions” A Talk with Kelley Armstrong

Kelley Armstrong has published twenty-one fantasy novels, thirteen of which have been part of her Women of the Otherworld series. Her novels blend suspense and the supernatural. Last year, she began The Cainsville series with its first novel, Omens. The second in this series is Visions,featuring Olivia Taylor-Jones, the daughter of allKelley Armstrongeged notorious serial killers.

Olivia has moved to Cainsville, where strange things begin to occur. She finds a dead woman in her car. The body is dressed to look like her, but the corpse vanishes before anyone else sees it. Gifted with an extrasensory ability to read omens, Olivia is certain this incident is a sign of impending danger. When she learns a troubled young woman went missing a few days earlier—the same one Olivia found in her car—it’s clear someone killed and left this young woman as a warning to Olivia. But why? And what role does her new home play in this murder? As Olivia attempts to unearth the truth, it becomes clear that Cainsville is a very unusual town.

 Much of your work has been termed contemporary fantasy, with supernatural characters superimposed on a backdrop of North American life. What drew you to this genre?

I blame X Files for my having begun writing in this genre. I was in a writers’ group and promised I would write something new and bring it to the next meeting. I was watching an episode of X Files, which depicted a werewolf. He was a huge guy killing people under a full moon. I thought that wasn’t the way I would write about a werewolf. So, I wrote a short story about a woman in our modern world who was a werewolf. I really enjoyed writing the story. I was a big Anne Rice fan. Growing up, I had written horror stories about monsters. Anne Rice took the stories to more of a fantasy level, and occasionally wrote from the point of view of the monster. So, it added a whole new dimension to my writing.

 Your contemporary fantasy writings have been noted to share similarities with writers Charlene Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison. Is that accurate?

They are. When my first books came out, Laura K. Hamilton was doing a series with vampires and werewolves living in the modern world. The same year my novel Bitten came out, Charlene started her Southern vampire series. Kim came along a couple of years later. So, there was this subset of authors writing in the same vein.

 You also write YA novels in addition to adult and crime novels, such as The Nadia Stafford series. How do you switch genres?

I actually started the Nadia series out of pure terror. Back when I was starting the Otherworld series, the contemporary fantasy genre didn’t exist. I’d finally been published but wasn’t sure those books would continue selling. My agent asked, ‘What else would you do if you weren’t writing contemporary fantasy?’ The answer seemed obvious to me: thrillers. So I started the Nadia books. Actually, most of my books have a core of mystery/ thriller in them, so for the Nadia series, it was a matter of taking out the supernatural elements.

 Most of your novels have been in series form. There’s The Women of the Otherworld series; The Darkest Powers trilogy; The Darkness Rising trilogy, among others. What about writing series attracts you?

When I wrote Bitten, it was a stand-alone novel. But the publisher asked if I would consider turning it into a series. I decided I could and would branch out to multiple narrators in the series, rather than following one character all the way through. Readers enjoy a series. They like to get to know a character, follow the character; but with a really long series, it’s difficult to go on with only one main character. So, I decided to use multiple points of view. In my trilogies, I tel
l a story in three books and then feel ready to move on to different characters in another story.

 Are there advantages or difficulties in writing a series?

A big advantage in a series is building readership. Once a series gets going, people begin waiting for the next book. I’ve found that by changing series—by going to a different one—there’s definitely a drop-off in readers. People are not so eager to buy the first book of something different as they would be to buy the next book in an ongoing series.

As for disadvantages, you must come up with something creative for every new book in a series. When a series is doing well, it’s very tempting to keep writing it, even when the creative well is drying up. It’s tempting because that’s where the money is. I’ve had to be very careful; as soon as I think I’m getting close to that dry well, I wrap the series up. I don’t want to just keep writing something because it sells.

 You have a degree in psychology. Does that come into play in writing your fantasy novels?

It comes into play in creating character. I love to write different and complex characters and I like ha
ving back stories for my characters. If a character has a back story, I like to consider what he or she will do in the present. Or, looking at it in a reverse way, I think ‘What kind of back story will I give this character that meshes with how she is in the present?’ Everyone is the sum total of past experiences. A character doesn’t just spring to life at age thirty.

 The Blackwell Pages Trilogy was written with Melissa Marr. How did you go about co-writing those books?

Melissa and I are friends. We talked for a while about possibly co-writing something. We both wrote teen books for our daughters. We both had sons at the pre-teen stage and wondered if we could get together and write something for the boys. Melissa and I are still both alive, and we’re still friends (Laughter). We had co-edited anthologies and we knew our individual working and creative patterns. We had to mesh those patterns. We have very different writing processes. I’m a planner; she’s not. I write chronologically, starting at page one and writing through the novel. Melissa writes scenes here and there, and then puts them together. Knowing that was important, so we could decide how to meet in the middle.

 In Visions, there are some erotic scenes. How do you approach writing erotica in your novels?

For me, erotic scenes are primarily about character and plot. I always ask myself if it fits with the character and where he or she is going. If you look at everything I’ve written for adults, some books have explicit scenes and some do not. In this series, Omens had nothing explicit. In Visions, Olivia is trying to work certain things through. She’s moving on past her breakup with her fiancé, and having fun with a guy whose company she enjoys.

 You’ve written many books. What, if anything, has been the biggest surprise about writing over these years?

I always worried that the creative well would dry up. I was sure that if I wrote a book a year, I would eventually run out of ideas. Actually, the opposite has been true for me. The more I write, the more ideas come to me and it gets easier. I’m constantly coming up with ideas, but in the early days, it was tough to come up with a plot for a book each year. But after you’ve been doing it for a while, ideas come from everywhere.

 As a writer, who were your earliest influences?

As a child I read everything I could get my hands on. In my teenage years, there was no YA fiction. I went from children’s books right into horror and fantasy novels. My biggest, early influence was Stephen King. I learned from him how to make the supernatural seem quite natural—how to place it in our world and make it seem like it belongs here. I also learned about the importance of character. Even in horror novels where you know most characters aren’t going to make it to the end, it’s crucial to have fully fleshed-out characters. If you don’t do that, the reader doesn’t care what happens to them.

 What do you enjoy reading now?

I read all different genres. I read everything from contemporary fiction to thrillers to Stephen King. I’ll cross over between YA and adult fiction. I read thrillers by authors such as John Connolly, Dennis Lehane and many others.

 If you could have any five people over for dinner—living or dead, writers or people from any walk of life—who would they be?

For me, they would definitely be writers. I would just love to have certain writers in a room and be able to pick their brains. I would love to have Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and of course, Stephen King.

 Congratulations on Visions, the second novel in the Cainsville series. It’s sure to achieve as much success as Omens.  

“Haunted” A Talk with Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White is a New York Times best-selling novelist of crime fiction and non-fiction; and the writer of a television documentary. He’s perhaps best known for his 21 “Doc Ford” novels, and his most recent “Hannah Smith” series. In Haunted, the third novel in the series, Hannah (who inherited her late uncle’s privateRandy Wayne White-2 investigation business, and also charters fishing expeditions) is hired to help stop a condo development. While working on this case, Hannah is confronted with dangers lurking in the Florida swamps and rivers, among them, human obsession.

 Was it a challenge for you to write a series from a woman’s point of view?

My editors at Putnam and Random House showed a great deal of confidence in me and thought I should give it a shot. I absolutely delighted in writing the Hannah books. My maternal family is from Rockingham, North Carolina, which is among the poorest counties in the state. My lovely, late mother, Georgia Wilson White, along with her six sisters and five brothers, would sit on the porch at night. As they talked, I would listen to these very smart, sharp, funny women go back-and-forth, telling ghost stories; and my uncles would tell them, too. I fell in love with that lyrical, strong, Southern female voice. Sometimes, I would tune out the words, and just listen to the rhythms—the music of their speech. It was almost like a choral chanting, and that’s stayed with me.

 You seem to exemplify the old adage, “Write what you know” since your novels are set along the Gulf Coast of Florida and describe so beautifully, the flora and fauna of the region.

For more than thirteen years, I was a fishing guide on Sanibel Island at Tarpon Bay Marina. That was my full-time gig. I was on the water, in a small boat, for more than three hundred days a year. I’d launch at first light. To spend that amount of time on the water in southwest Florida, where the social history is as interesting as the natural history, provides a wealth of material for a writer.

You left home at 16, skipped college and began leading a fascinating life. Tell us a bit about your own adventures.

It was nuts, but I was born under a blessed star. My father was a state trooper, so we moved around quite a bit. We ended up in Davenport, Iowa, where we lived for three years. My parents moved away during my junior year of high school. I had a job in a brass and iron foundry in downtown Davenport, and I worked as a lifeguard. I had my own money, and got my own apartment. It’s not that I ran away from home; my parents moved away from me. But they did give me their address (Laughter). They trusted me and there had been no problems at home.

You’ve been stabbed, shot at, and the hotel where you were staying was blown up by the Shining Path anarchists in Peru. Tell us about that.

I was visiting South America. There were conflicts there and you never knew who was shooting at you. I was in Peru, taking the highest train trip in the world. It was a “pig and chicken” train, where even the Indians were getting sick from the abrupt ascent in altitude. I didn’t get sick; I just got very crabby. During that trip, the Shining Path anarchist movement attacked the small town where I was staying. Fifty-six people were killed, when a bomb went off and part of the hotel’s roof was blown away. I’d been stabbed on the street an hour and a half before the attack.

I don’t really know why, but guys walked up behind me very fast and stabbed me in
the back. Luckily, I was wearing a cargo vest, which I still have with its blood stains on it. The knife mostly hit my notebook. Things didn’t go very well from there. I’ll leave it at that.

You were also involved in ferrying refugees from Cuba to the United States during the Mariel boatlift.

It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. After Castro took over, he said, ‘If you don’t have revolution in your blood, get out of Cuba.’ An enormous exodus of Cubans began. A Cuban-American friend of mine wanted to go to Cuba to pick up his aunt and grandmother. In the space of one week, more than a million Cubans agreed to leave Cuba and give up everything.

I borrowed a fifty-five foot riverboat, left Fort Meyers without a maritime chart, and three of us went to Mariel. When we arrived, we were told by the Cuban gunboat sailors not to go to Pier Two. Well, we went to Pier Two. When we got there, we saw acreage of concertina wire, some mango trees stripped of fruit and leaves, and thousands of people being processed by Castro’s soldiers. The people were ready to leave Cuba. I watched the Cuban guards go through the crowd. One of them tried to take the wedding ring from an old Cuban woman, who protested, and she was hit in the face with a rifle butt.

The soldiers loaded up our fifty-five foot boat with one-hundred forty-seven people. On the trip to Florida, every refugee got sick on the stormy waters. But when we reached Key West, all one-hundred forty-seven began chanting ‘Libertad!’  It was a very powerful experience.

Tell us about Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel Island.

Well, it’s the kind of shameless commercial venture I’ve always wanted to be a part of. (Laughter). About fifteen years ago, I started importing hot sauce from Colombia. I had $5,000 in the bank and spent every penny of it to buy all this hot sauce. With the help of some friends, I began selling the stuff, but then realized I made about three cents profit per bottle of sauce.

Then, these two wonderful guys and I became partners. We bought out a local restaurant that wasn’t doing well. I’m the “trademark” name, while they actually run the restaurant. The concept was to have a sports bar, serving food made from original recipes; and we caught on. We now have three restaurants and they’re the most popular ones in the area.

Getting back to your novels, what has surprised you most about writing?  

 The most surprising thing to me has been the impact my writing has had on people. I’ve received e-mails and letters—always heartfelt and touching. Some of them say things like ‘My husband had pancreatic cancer and spent the last three months of his life reading your books.’ I’ve received letters from people who’ve gone through very hard times. I recently met a family whose sixteen year old son has lymphoma. Despite his illness, he devours my books.

It’s so gratifying, because I sit alone in a room every day, seldom interact with other writers, and getting that kind of feedback makes me think I’m doing something good here.

 You have an amazing output of novels. How do you spend your free time?

I need more free time. (Laughter). I write seven days a week. I go to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille every morning. I started writing at two this morning, and finished around six. I used to play baseball, and I’m going to play senior league baseball again. A few years ago, I began surfboarding. There are three things in the world I want to do: the first is to keep writing my books; the second is to surf; and I’ll leave the third to your imagination. (Laughter).
 Which authors do you most enjoy reading?

I read almost exclusively non-fiction. I worry about lyrical sentence structure, if I read too many good writers. I’ve read Carl Hiassen—he’s brilliant. I’ve also read my dear, dear late friend, Peter Matthiessen; generally, it’s almost all non-fiction.

 Do you have much contact with other writers?

Carl Hiassen and I talk sometimes, but we’re both quite private people. I’m friends with Tim Dorsey, Les Standiford, Thomas McGuane, and Loriann Hemingway. She’s one of Hemingway’s granddaughters.

 Which authors were early influences on you?

I absolutely fell in love with Joseph Conrad’s novels. And John Steinbeck’s books, as well.

 If you could have dinner with any five people —living or dead—who would they be?

First, would be Teddy Roosevelt. Then, John Steinbeck. I’d also love to dine with a little-known writer named H.M. Tomlinson, a British writer from the 1800s. Also, Moe Berg, the baseball catcher who was a spy for the U.S. And, then there’s a singer-songwriter named Wendy Webb. Some years ago, she performed on television, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life. I tried to think of ways to meet her and get her into bed. I must tell you, I stalked her on the Internet, and now she’s my wife. She’s incredibly talented and is now putting out CDs, and is still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.

What would you all be talking about at dinner?

I never learn anything with my mouth open, so I much prefer to listen and nudge conversation forward. One of the many things I learned from Peter Matthiessen is the importance of good conversation. I would sit back and listen, as he did, and try to bring out the best from the people at the table.

 
Congratulations on having written so many books, and much success with Haunted, the third “Hannah Smith” novel, in a series that’s deservedly very popular.

 

“The 6th Extinction” A Talk with James Rollins

James Rollins is more than a thriller author. He’s a veterinarian, a man of science, and writes best-selling novels evocative of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov, but with a uniquely imaginative flavor of their own. His novels combine elements of history, scientific fact and speculation with military suspense and threats of global destruction. His books transcend all genres.

He’s well known for his Sigma Force novels. The 6th Extinction is the tenth in this imagiJames Rollinsnative series and finds Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma in its greatest challenge: a frantic race to save every living thing on earth from extinction by a spreading blight.

For those who are not familiar with this series, tell us what Sigma Force is.

It’s a group comprised of former Special Forces soldiers who have been drummed out of the service for various reasons but because they possess certain abilities such as great intellect or unique skills, have been recruited by the Defense Department. Basically, they’re scientists with guns whose mission is to protect the U.S. against various technological threats.

 Before the novel begins, you have a section called Notes From The Scientifi
c Record
. In it you say, “Life on this planet has always been a balancing act—a complex web of interconnectivity that’s surprisingly fragile. Remove or even alter enough key components and that web begins to fray and fall apart.” Talk a bit about this.

That’s been the seed for this story. According to most scientific thought, we’re currently involved in what will be the sixth mass extinction on our planet. We are now seeing an extinction rate of species about a thousand-fold higher than the rate of extinction since the arrival of mankind on the planet. This is a unique extinction because it’s the hand of man driving it, as opposed to volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes or other cataclysms that caused previous extinctions.

My goal in writing this novel is to help determine, if through human genius and imagination, we can we reverse or extricate ourselves from this forthcoming extinction. This drove me to do research about conservation efforts, and the work of synthetic biologists. The more I read, the more fascinated and horrified I was regarding our ability to re-engineer and modify many organisms, which could lead to our ultimate destruction.

The 6th Extinction addresses genetics, altering life forms and ecoterrorism. Will you comment on these issues?

One of the fascinating things I discovered is that there has been a democratization of the scientific process. We’re now seeing genetic labs popping up not only at the university or military level, but in backyards, garages and small private centers. Because the costs of setting up such a lab have dropped dramatically from tens of thousands of dollars to pennies, now, someone can build a genetics laboratory in a garage. People are patenting life forms right now. Most of it involves grass roots activity with no oversight. Only recently, at the NIH, a vial of smallpox virus was found in someone’s closet. This raises enormous concern for the potential of some lethal organism being let loose in the population.  It could be the result of terrorism or an accidental occurrence.

Do you think people will eventually be able to hack into genetic codes the way
they can hack into computers?

Actually, there’s a very active biopunk movement, which is a spinoff of the old cyberpunk days. Cyberpunks of the past are the biopunks of today. I’ve talked with some of these people. They’ve actually patented some of their creations. It’s a burgeoning industry.

 What’s your take on Genetically Modified Organisms in our food supply?I dealt with that in The Doomsday Key. There are many factors responsible for our not being able to produce a more abundant food supply. I uncovered some very weird things in the field of genetically engineered foods. In 2001, a biotech company called Epicyte announced it had just developed a corn seed with potent contraceptive properties. Consumption of the seed lessened fertility. It was proposed as a solution to the overpopulation problem.  When this was announced, an outcry rose and the product disappeared. Genetically modified foods have no formal risk assessment guidelines, and rely mostly on self-regulation.  FDA standards do not apply to genetically modified organisms. Often, approvals are based on filtered or fraudulent reports by the industry.  For example, of the forty GM crops approved last year, only eight have published safety studies.

The 6th Extinction deals with the vast implications of genetic modification to existing life forms. What might some others be?

This field is changing so rapidly, I had to edit the novel within months of it going to press. As an example, in May 2014, the Scripps Institute produced living, replicating bacteria with two new nucleotides from the genetic alphabet inserted into them. They were added to the standard four that comprise the DNA of all life on this planet. That very genetic modification—the introduction of foreign nucleotides into DNA—occurs in the novel. While writing the book, I thought I was brushing beyond the fringes of science, but each time I manage to step beyond that edge, science catches up with me.

At the end of The 6th Extinction, there’s an Author’s Note to Readers. You mention we are on the cusp of several critical changes in this world, and few scientists doubt the planet is undergoing its sixth extinction right now. Will you give us a bit more detail about this?

More than a decade ago, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard naturalist, estimated an extinction rate of roughly 30,000 species a year comprised of every group of animals and plants. We’ve lost half the world’s amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and about one-third of all conifer trees. There’s an unprecedented loss of diversity. The extinction rate I mentioned before is considered conservative, meaning some scientists believe the rate is ten-thousand times the one antedating mankind’s appearance on the planet.  As a consequence, there are teams of scientist’s working on methods to extricate us out of this extinction. There are those trying to preserve the remaining species. This involves two techniques. One is re-wilding, such as we’re now seeing with the gray wolf.  The other involves de-extinction, in which genetic techniques are used to return some extinct species to life—to resurrect them.

A Russian scientist, Sergey Zimov, is building Pleistocene Park, which will be a Siberian preserve and the future home of the resurrected wooly mammoth. It’s almost right out of a Michael Creighton novel. Other scientists want to genetically engineer our way out of this extinction by creating new, hardier species capable of resisting changes to our planet. There’s a fascinating installation by a woman named Alexandra D. Ginsberg, called “Designing for the Sixth Extinction.” She proposes bioengineering various creatures, and releasing them into the wild in an attempt to correct some of the damage we’ve done to the planet.

 As a man of science, how do you decide where to draw the line between fantasy and biologic fact in your novels?

It’s a challenge to keep ahead of the curve of what I thought was fantastical, but really is not. I love taking my readers into the realm of what’s really going on in the world today. I then extrapolate, look beyond the horizon to where that might lead us. I love doing this in all my novels, and coincidentally,  it’s the tenth in the series and it’s the tenth anniversary of the Sigma Force series. I enjoy harkening back to some of the themes I addressed at the beginning of my career, such as creating strange biospheres that while not real, are supported by science as being quite possible.

That was very evident in The 6th Extinction.

I love the scientific details, but they have to be digestible and explained in an entertaining way. Ultimately, my goal is to entertain the reader—get the heart rate up while telling a plausible story.

 Speaking of the story, a woman named Jenna appears in the story along with her Siberian husky, Nikko. It reminded me of The Kill Switch with Tucker Wayne and his military dog, Kane. Is there a dog companion in each one of your novels?

Well, about half way along the Sigma Force series, lots of animal sidekicks began to appear, whether it was a jaguar cub in Amazonia or a search and rescue dog in another. I realized these animal companions began appearing in the novels as I weaned myself from my veterinary practice and became more of a novelist. It was not purposeful, but I realize now, I missed working with animals. The animal-loving part of my brain seemed to have shifted over into the novelistic part. So, animals began infiltrating my books.

Speaking of Jenna and Nikko, I ran a contest where I asked people to have pictures taken of themselves and their dogs while reading The Eye of God. The person who took the most creative photo would be featured, along with the dog, in my next book. And the winner was Jenna from San Diego and her Dog, Nikko. The picture will soon go up on my Facebook page.

Does your recent blockbuster contract with the publisher make you feel liberated or constricted regarding the next four novels?

I try to ignore the contract. I received far less for my first books. Despite the blockbuster contract, I hope I’m very much the same writer I’ve been all along.

 
Congratulations on your tenth Sigma Force novel and your ability to harness scientific fact, fiction, and imagination in so compelling a way. The 6th Extinction is a thrilling novel that not only entertains, but makes the reader think a great deal.