Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter, covered topics ranging from the occupation of Iraq; the flooding of New Orleans; to the financial crimes of Bernard Madoff. He’s written eight previous John Wells novels, all geopolitical thrillers, with his first, The Faithful Spy, having won the 2007 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
His ninth John Wells thriller, Twelve Days, has ex-CIA agent Wells and his associates uncovering a huge plot: a secret plan to convince the President to attack Iran and ignite a war. They have no hard evidence, and no one at Langley or the White House will listen. The President has set a deadline for Iran to give up its nuclear program, and the mullahs in Iran have responded with a deadly terrorist attack. Wells and his associates have twelve days to find the proof they need to expose the plot, as the United States moves troops and military assets to Iran’s border.
What made you give up reporting and turn to fiction?
When I went to Iraq for the New York Times in 2003 and 2004, I thought it was a fantastic experience for a reporter. I wanted to see if I could tell a story differently by getting inside the heads of characters based partly on people I met. You can’t do that working for a newspaper. It turned out people were interested in John Wells, and liked him as a character. The first book, The Faithful Spy, did well; and it seemed natural to start writing these books.
You’ve now completed nine John Wells novels. How has he evolved as a character?
I would say he’s become weary, as we all have of this war. Yet, he doesn’t see any other way out of the current global situation. Personally, he’s lost women in failed relationships. He’s lost any real chance at a normal life because of what he does. Yet, he sees no reasonable alternative: he must soldier on. Because the books have always been a bit edgy, maybe he’s a bit darker. Part of him has become resigned to doing his job, knowing this is what his life has become.
Does he have what might be called a death wish?
No, he doesn’t exactly have a death wish. He’s tired of being surrounded by death, and tired of killing people. Like every human being, he fears death, but has a jaundiced attitude toward it because of his circumstances. Maybe, his diminished fear of death is something close to a death wish.
You mentioned in an interview that at some point you might kill off John Wells. How do you say goodbye to a character who has defined your writing career?
I don’t know (Laughter). I just threatened to do it. Yes, he’s defined my writing career; he’s actually defined a good chunk of my life. Over the last 10 years I’ve gotten married and we’ve had a child, but aside from that, John Wells has been the biggest part of my life. And, he pays the bills. So, it’s very difficult to think of killing him off. I don’t feel I’m running out of things to say, but I could probably grow as a writer if I went in a different direction.
In that vein, do you feel that series writers don’t receive serious literary attention?
Yes, I do. And, that bothers me. Being a series writer with some literary aspirations can be frustrating. I know I’m not an Updike or John le Carre´; but I try to make my books serious, thoughtful, and well-written. It’s hard to get attention when you’re writing a series. I often find people who write standalone novels get the kind of reviews I wish I received.
Your novels are very realistic with military descriptions, intelligence capabilities, and diplomacy details. What kind of research do you do?
I do a lot of research. I talk to people and do a great deal of open-source reading of declassified documents, transcripts of hearings, and various governmental agency reports. I’ll talk to whoever will discuss things with me, and I read as much as I can. I also travel to the places where the books are set. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s surprised me most is no matter how hard I try, every day is a struggle to write. It’s a real job. If you’re writing a series requiring one book a year, you really have to grind away at it. There’s a looming presence every day: ‘Have I written? Have I written enough? Have I written well? If I didn’t write well today, what does that mean for tomorrow?’
I guess what’s really surprised me is that it’s a job.
Do you feel guilty when life gets in the way and you’re not writing?
Yes, absolutely. If it’s a day when I thought I was going to write, and I haven’t done so, I don’t feel great about it. Procrastination can be a huge problem for many writers. Early in the morning, if I allow myself some cherished free time, and don’t write, I’ll regret the decision later in the day. There’s a boomerang effect: I’ll feel terrible about it. For some writers, this can become a crippling cycle. I’ve never been afflicted with it, but there are times when I say to myself, ‘I’m not going to write today, and it’s wonderful to have free time.’ But, when five o’clock comes, I’ll feel awful about not having written. So yes, there’s a tinge of guilt every now and then. It’s part of the writing life.
What do you love about the writing life?
I love being totally in control of my days. I don’t really have a boss, which is an amazing thing. My publisher pays me, and we have a good relationship, but I don’t really work for them. Yes, they want a book every year, but ultimately, I’m only accountable to myself. I love the independence.
If you could invite any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be?
The first one would be Einstein. I wouldn’t want him to describe his theories, because I’m sure he would confuse me. I’d love to ask the man what it felt like to be able to see into the universe the way he did. As for the other guests, I don’t want to have to think of more people to invite, so I’m going to cheat. I’d invite the Rolling Stones. (Laughter). It would be some party. I’d love to live vicariously for one night through those guys.
What’s next from Alex Berenson?
Another John Wells novel. I’m on the train with him and until I throw him off, we’re travelling down the track together. I know there’s some unfinished business for John, and I’m going to see him through it.
Congratulations on writing Twelve Days, an exciting geopolitical thriller as contemporary and timely as anything else written today.
With his books published in more than 40 languages, James Rollins is known to millions of readers. A true Renaissance man, he’s much more than an author of explosive thrillers. He’s a veterinarian, man of science, and the author of bestselling novels evocative of the works of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov. His novels are rich with history, scientific fact, ecologic perils, and threats of global destruction, woven tightly with fantasy and suspense. His thrillers transcend all genres.
Written with Rebecca Cantrell, James has broken new ground in this epic-sized, action-packed trilogy known as The Order of the Sanguines series. Blood Infernal is the final book in the trilogy. The first two, The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood set Sergeant Jordan Stone, Father Rhun Korza, a Vatican priest, and Dr. Erin Granger, an archeologist, on a quest for the revelation of a secret history about a shadowy order known as the Sanguines.
In Blood Infernal, past and present collide. It is a Gothic novel of supernatural mystery and an apocalyptic prophesy. A scourge of grisly murders sweeps the globe, and Erin Granger must decipher the truth behind an immortal prophecy that was found in the first book, The Blood Gospel. This final installment once again combines science, myth, history and religion in an adrenaline-juiced quest for human salvation.
You’ve collaborated with authors, both in this trilogy and the Sigma Force series. What are the advantages of collaboration?
Rebecca was the first author with whom I collaborated. I’d been thinking of the story for about six months, but wasn’t sure I could write it as effectively as possible. I was very busy and knew it would be an enormous time commitment. I was reading Rebecca’s last Hannah Vogel novel. She writes historical mysteries set during World Wars I and II, using a Gothic style as opposed to my more staccato thriller writing style. She’s great at evoking time and place, using rich, textural prose with only a few strokes of her pen. That was what I wanted for this series.
So, I proposed the story to her. I knew I could bring the blood, monsters, action, and military elements to the project, and felt she could bring rich characterizations in a historical setting. Neither of us had ever collaborated before, so it was something of an experiment. We went back and forth, writing, revising, making changes, and we brought this story to fruition. It was great fun.
Writing is such a solitary profession. Every decision is your own, and every problem you encounter must be solved by that one brain of yours. But here, it was different. We’d talk on Skype for six to eight hours every Monday. The collaboration tapped each of our respective skills. Ultimately, the writing was a compromise between my staccato pacing and Rebecca’s richer prose. I then collaborated with Grant Blackwood on The Kill Switch. Grant and I operated a bit differently. So, each collaborative process is unique.
What about Dr. Erin Granger makes her such a good protagonist?
In exploring a clandestine world with a secret history, we were taking our readers to a fantastical place. We needed a guide for that storyline and its world. We wanted someone to whom the readers could attach themselves while travelling into that world. Since we’d be going back to the past, we felt an archeologist would be ideal. We decided on a female lead character. We kept layering aspects of her into the story. What’s her own past? What mood does she project? What’s her character’s arc? It took us a while to develop Erin. We didn’t start writing anything for two or three months. Some time was spent working on a plotline, but lots of it was spent searching for Erin’s voice. We tried different voices and different pacing for the story.
In an interview, you said you were inspired to begin writing The Order of the Sanguines series after having viewed Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus.” Will you talk about that?
I was at the L.A. County Museum of Art, and saw the painting. I’ve always loved Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow. I kept coming back to that painting; eventually, the curator asked if I had any questions about it. He probably thought I was going to steal it (Laughter).
I was raised as a Roman Catholic, and know a good deal of biblical history. Something about the painting seemed odd. It depicts a miracle. Here’s Christ returning a loved one to the embrace of his family, but rather than looking joyous, Rembrandt painted the family members as looking horrified. Lazarus was a money-lender, a banker. I wondered why Rembrandt chose to paint a bow and arrow, a shield and a cross of swords above Lazarus’s grave. It seemed so odd that weapons would be painted above the grave of a banker.
I learned there are three versions of the painting. One of them initially had blood dribbling from Lazarus’s lips. You could see it with special lighting. My mind began churning. The painting conveyed a body rising out of a grave; looks of horror on the faces of the family; and blood. And of course, during a Catholic Mass, wine is viewed as the physical embodiment of Christ’s blood. It all had a feeling of vampirism. It made me wonder if vampire myths existed at the time of Christ.
If so, how might Christ have dealt with vampires? Would he try to save them, or damn them? That got me thinking. What if Christ offered them a path to salvation? Looking into the history of Roman Catholicism, I wondered about patterns of vampiric mythology. The question stayed in my mind, and it grew. I had trouble focusing on other stories. I needed a pathway out of my own head. And that pathway was with Rebecca.
The Order of the Sanguines series merges mythology, religion, history and science, doesn’t it?
It does. That was our goal. We wanted it to be somewhat similar to the Sigma Force books, where we blend historical mystery, adventure, and weird science; but in this series, we also set a layer of dark fantasy into the books.
The entire series—especially Blood Infernal—seems to explore, among other things, the line between faith and science. Do you see a conflict between them?
There’s a similar thematic exploration in the Sigma novels, where we have the scientist versus the figure of faith. I love exploring that conflict, especially during the last decade where a fractious division has developed between faith and science. One of the themes of my books is the search for common ground between science and faith. Science deals with who we are, where we came from, and where we’re headed. For me, the fun part of science is the question of how it challenges us. Whether it’s cloning, stem cell research, or animal experimentation, science challenges us as spiritual beings, as much as it challenges us intellectually.
Blood Infernal explores the concepts of redemption and salvation. At first blush, this seems like a departure for you, but I see a pattern in your novels about saving the earth from future ecologic disasters through science and spirituality. Is that a reasonable conclusion?
Oh yes, definitely. What intrigues me about the exploration of science is not only where we’re headed, but the question of how science is going to change and challenge us. Yes, in Blood Infernal, we’re dealing with redemption and salvation. One of the challenging questions posed in the book is: what line would you cross to save the world? What sin would you be willing to commit for the greater good?
You’re an immensely popular bestselling author. What about the writing life has surprised you?
When I first started writing, I didn’t think of becoming a writer. My goal was to write one novel. I just wanted to be able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on the shelf. Now, thirty-two books into this career, I’m surprised that every novel is still a struggle. Whenever I get to the middle of writing a novel, I’m sure the book is awful; that I’ve lost all talent; and don’t know what I’m doing. Then, I get to a certain point where the train seems to be back on the track, and I’m very happy with the novel. I keep thinking, ‘Well, with the next novel, I won’t fall into that trap.’ But, I’m in the middle of my next novel—thirty-two novels later—and I’m there again. It never gets easier. (Laughter).
What advice would you give someone starting out writing?
You should be writing every day. You should expect to write a million words before you ever get published. You have to sit in that chair and work on your prose. You should also be reading every night. Whatever problem you have during your writing day—whether it’s with character, or dialogue, and a knot forms in the back of your head from the struggle—when you’re reading another author, that knot begins unravelling. If you write every day and read every night, your prose will get stronger; your plotting will become better.
I listen to audio books when I’m driving, and have a book on my bedside table. Because of reading, I’m always finding a new tool for my writerly toolbox. I try to incorporate that new tool as soon as I discover it in another author’s work. I challenge myself. That’s what I find so compelling about the Order of the Sanguines series. It’s new for me. It’s a challenge.
What do you love about the writing life?
Nothing gets me more excited than writing. Each morning, I cannot get to my chair fast enough. Overnight, I’ll have a new idea, maybe from reading another author, or something just popped into my head. I have a bedside pad for jotting things down. To me, one of the joys is simply being able to tell good stories. Writing is so much fun, even though on some days, it’s like pulling teeth.
What’s coming next from James Rollins?
The next Sigma book is called The Bone Labyrinth. There’s another Tucker and Kane adventure coming, called War Hawk.
Congratulations on completing the Order of the Sanguines trilogy with Blood Infernal, an epic thriller merging myth, history, science, and religion, all combining for a great read.
Michael Sears’s financial thriller, Black Fridays was an award-winning debut novel. It was followed by Mortal Bonds, the second in the Jason Stafford series.
Before turning to fiction, Michael was a Wall Street veteran and managing director at two major brokerage firms. With his extensive and intimate knowledge of the sometimes mystifying world of finance and Wall Street intrigue, he has written the highly successful Jason Stafford series of thrillers.
In Long Way Down, the third in the series, Jason has spent time in prison for financial crimes. Working as an undercover troubleshooter for a private investment bank, he is assigned the task of getting to the bottom of insider trading allegations against a bioengineer and corporate honcho, Philip Haley, who insists he’s innocent of any misdeeds. Believing Haley has been set up, Jason goes about trying to uncover the truth. And, the truth can be dangerous—even life-threatening.
How prevalent is white collar crime on Wall Street?
The issue of white collar crime is important in Long Way Down; and to me, as well. Insider trading is a great example of it; and although not defined, it’s very prevalent. Is it always a crime? These are some of the questions I delve into with these books. There are many honest people working on Wall Street. If there weren’t, the entire system would collapse under the weight of its own thievery. I try to make this point in all my novels.
Insider trading is central to Long Way Down. Exactly what constitutes insider trading?
There is no legal definition of insider trading. It’s not defined by statute. It’s been defined by legal precedent. As was recently shown, insider trading ends up being what a judge determines it to be. There are specific things that constitute insider trading: an employee or director of a company, who trades in his own stock ahead of shareholders, has violated his duty to investors, who in the end, are his employers. That employee or director should not trade on information until investors know about it.
On the other hand, there are people whose job it is to root out every bit of information they can about a stock, and then make huge bets on it. They have no fiduciary relationship with stockholders. Rather, they’re in competition with them. Those people have every right to do what they do. Both economists and legal academics would agree with that point of view.
Long Way Down has extremely vivid descriptions of computer hacking, electronic surveillance, evasion tactics, and other hi-tech activities. Did you do extensive research on this or did some of this knowledge derive from your own independent knowledge?
I did extensive research. I was helped by a few different people, not all of whom would be comfortable being named (Laughter). It was exciting to learn about tracking paper trails; but, the most exciting research was learning about hiding and escaping in today’s world, where there’s face-recognition software that can plug into highway cameras and photograph your car, with you in it.
That’s very clear in the novel. It’s more than a paper trail; it’s an electronic trail.
Definitely. Electronic technology has changed almost everything.
Have hi-tech devices made it easier or more difficult for financial crimes to occur; and have they made detection of financial wrongdoing easier?
I do think technology makes the discoverable trail much clearer and easier to root out. There are ways in which it’s backfired; but overall, it’s had a beneficial effect on detection. In the long run, more disclosure is much better. Many insider trading cases are successfully prosecuted because one of the things you must prove is intent. Now, you have email trails everywhere; and intent can be shown by virtue of email exchanges. Prosecutors have been able to expand their attack on this particular problem. This wasn’t the case twenty years ago.
Long Way Down describes vivid interaction between Jason Stafford and his son, “The Kid,” who’s on the Asperger’s spectrum. Tell us about that.
I’ve had a fascination with the spectrum of autism. This is partly based on my relationships with some cousins who are on the spectrum. In developing Jason’s character, I realized he’s not a warm fuzzy guy. He’s an analytical, skeptical, numbers man on Wall Street. I needed to humanize him by challenging him in a very personal and emotional way. From the research I’ve done, and from the people I know, autism is one of the greatest challenges a parent can face.
What made you leave the financial world and begin writing fiction?
The business was changing and I’d done it for a long while with some success; but I wasn’t having nearly as much fun as earlier on. I’m so glad I made the change. I had no idea it would go this way. I thought I’d take a class in creative writing, and if I ever got a short story published, wouldn’t that be a thrill? That my life has turned out this way is really magical for me.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I know I’d be sailing more often. And, I imagine I’d be sitting around, fretting more about my investments on a daily basis. I’m very glad to have the financial side of my life in its own box. It was great while it lasted.
You mentioned a writing class. As a former Wall Street guy, how did you acquire such skill in writing fiction?
I’ve been a reader of mysteries and thrillers for a long time. I think doing a lot of reading really helps. I was something of a writer on Wall Street, and used those skills writing marketing pieces, pitch books, and I’ve always enjoyed putting words in a row. When I left, I took a couple of creative writing classes and ended up in a private workshop with a woman named Jennifer Bell. That did a great deal for me. I learned the basics of the craft.
If you could have dinner with any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
Mark Twain definitely makes the list. I think Jane Austin would also be a fascinating dinner guest, if we could get her talking. I’d love to have Reed Farrell Coleman, who’s written a few series and also writes the Robert Parker Jesse Stone series. He’s a wonderful raconteur. Walt Kelly, who wrote Pogo, the comic strip, would have to be there. I have collections of Pogo. As off-the-wall as the humor may be, much of my own sense of humor derived from reading the Pogo strips as a kid. And I’d love to have my father there. So much of what I’ve learned about parenting and being a father, and writing about it, comes from that man.
What’s coming next from Michael Sears?
I’m in the middle of a fourth book in the Jason Stafford series. In this one, “The Kid” is very much in danger.
Will you move away from writing about the financial world into something else?
I hope to get to another book this year. It’s not a financial thriller. It’s centered on domestic issues.
Congratulations on the publication of Long Way Down, an intense, action-oriented thriller with a wealth of information about the world of finance, insider trading, white collar and not-so-genteel crime.
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.