They say write what you know, but I prefer to write what I love. And they always say, write the kind of book you would love to read. So, I write crime-thriller fiction.
But as a psychiatrist and novelist, I think there’s more than that when it comes to crime thriller fiction.
While the range of human emotions and experiences can be tapped in any genre, there’s something about crime novels—something elemental about villains and victims—that makes them so compelling.
Partly, I think crime novels are so popular and gripping because they describe events that could actually occur. They describe experiences that could happen to any of us. The chance of being transported to another planet, or of having some paranormal experience is quite remote. Sci-fi and dystopian novels truck in pure fantasy, which is fine, but these events don’t seem to be within the realm of possibility (at least for now).
However, you could very well be the victim if some thug’s violent intentions, or become the target of extortion, or death threats. Any of us could unwittingly run afoul of the law, or become embroiled in some criminal enterprise while unaware aware of the snake pit into which we’ve fallen. These events can actually happen. One look at a newspaper or the evening news makes that very clear.
In other words, crime novels tap into the prospect of the possible which makes them so compelling and frightening. These things could actually occur.
But more than fear or the possibility of evil drives the popularity of these novels.
Greed, lust, avarice, revenge, cowardice, nobility—all run rampant in crime and thriller novels. Yet, it’s vicarious, so the tension, anxiety, and outright fear occur to someone else—not to us. We can live it through a character’s experiences, not our own. That makes it tolerable—even enjoyable. We can pull back from the tension or horror anytime we want.
Of course, there’s the page-turning, heart-racing element of suspense. Will this brilliant and bold bad guy (who we admire, despite his crimes) really get away, or be brought to justice? (Think of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth). Will this flawed detective or FBI agent prevail, despite his or her shortcomings? Will a thriller novel’s protagonist survive the horrendous experiences described in the book?
Many characters in thriller fiction are larger-than-life. (Think of Jack Reacher in any Lee Child novel). If they’re well-developed, they draw the reader inexorably into their spheres. The reader is “there” amidst the danger, pulse-pounding exploits, or the nerve-racking chase to a rocket-driven conclusion.
Think of the power of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, or the tenaciousness of Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s novels. Consider the stealth and patience of Barry Eisler’s John Rain, a master assassin; or the characters in virtually any novel written by the Dickens of Detroit, Elmore Leonard. How about the cunning brilliance of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter? (He’s even in Wikipedia).
John Rain and Hannibal Lecter raise another point about crime fiction. Some villains are portrayed so richly, are so complex, and are so brilliant and out of the ordinary, they fascinate us. Who among us isn’t mesmerized by the exploits of Vito Corleone, or his son, Michael? Who can resist admiring John Rain—master assassin—for his skills, cunning, and despite his profession, his ethics? How many of us would admit—however secretly—admiring the incredible skill and tenacity of The Jackal in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal? What is the psychology of our fascination with these characters? Is it because they can and will do things we wouldn’t dare do ourselves? Are their exploits those which we only dare fantasize about? Do we play out our own evil fantasies vicariously, by reading about them? It’s safe to do in the comfort of an armchair.
Whether the characters are heroes or villains, we love some, hate others, and even fear some of them. The most memorable have become American icons. Think of Vito Corleone, in The Godfather. Or Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
Maybe it all boils down to basics — the good versus evil dichotomy of human existence. There’s good and evil in each of us—maybe more evil than we care to admit to ourselves.
I just love crime thriller novels. I love reading them and writing them.
WHICH HERO AND VILLAIN DO YOU FIND MOST MEMORABLE? Tell us bycommenting on the blog or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of MAD DOG JUSTICE! (U.S. entrants only, please.)
Coming November 3rd, “Return to Sandara” When two brothers, Luke, two years out of college, and Gabe, entering his last year of college, go to Spain’s Costa Brava for the summer, they anticipate sun, surf and women. They have no idea of what awaits them. The world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.
Felix Francis is the son of the late Dick Francis, who was the bestselling author of more than 40 mystery novels. Felix studied physics and electronics at London University and taught advanced level physics for 17 years. Over a number of years, Felix assisted Dick with both the research and writing of his novels. Mary Francis, Dick’s wife, did much of the editing, until her death in 2000, when Felix took over. Dick Francis drew on Felix’s experience as a physicist, and on his prowess as an international marksman.
By 2005, Felix assumed a greater role and co-authored four novels with his father. Following Dick Francis’s death in 2010, Felix wrote four novels set in the world of horseracing. His latest, Damage, involves undercover investigator Jeff Hinkley, who must solve the mystery of who is trying to topple the entire world of horseracing.
You’ve gone from physics to fiction. How did you make this seemingly incongruous transition?
I really wanted to be a pilot but had hip trouble and couldn’t fly for the RAF. So, I went into teaching as a stopgap measure until I found what I wanted to do with my life. I loved it and spent seventeen years teaching physics. I was he
ad of a science department at a school in the UK. My parents had moved to America and were living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I went on vacation to visit them with my wife and young son. My mother asked me if I would help my father prepare his taxes. I then spent the next five years of my vacations going there and helping my father with his tax preparations. I did more and more looking after both my father’s and mother’s affairs.
It became very difficult because of my teaching and other obligations, and I told my father so. He simply asked if I would give up my day job and work for him full-time. I said, ‘You don’t pay me for what I do’ and he replied, ‘I’ll pay you twice what you’re getting now.’ I thought about it for two seconds and gave up my teaching career to work for my parents on a full-time basis. I also gave up working with an expedition company leading expeditions around the world. I never regretted my choices for a second.
I worked for my parents doing everything from changing light bulbs to investment management. My mother died in 2000 and my father retired. I continued looking after him, and he wasn’t in the best of health for the last five years of his life. In 2005, my father’s literary agent invited me to lunch. He said, ‘We have a problem. No one is reading the backlist of Dick’s books.’ They weren’t available in bookshops. Of course, nowadays, with Kindle, you can buy backlisted books again, but back then, you couldn’t buy any backlisted Dick Francis books.
The agent said, ‘We need a new Dick Francis novel.’ I told him, ‘You’re not going to get one because my mother and father used to work on them together.’ My mother had died, and my father was ninety-five years old. The agent wanted my permission to recruit a crime writer to pen another Dick Francis book.
I heard myself saying to him, ‘Before you ask anyone else to write one, I would like to have a go at it.’ He d
idn’t roll his eyes and ask why I thought an ex-physics teacher could write a Dick Francis novel. Instead, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you two months to write two chapters.’ So I wrote two chapters, sent them in and he said two things to me: first, ‘You’d better speak to your father’ and secondly, ‘You’d better go on and finish this book.’
I went to my father who initially wasn’t terribly excited, but when he read the two chapters of Under Orders, he became enthusiastic. The novel came out as a Dick Francis novel in 2006. It was only designed to get people to read the backlisted books, but it shot to the bestseller lists in the UK and America.
The next thing I knew, I was writing another book, and then another, and Damage is the latest one. So, I’ve been a full-time writer for the last nine years. When my father was alive, we’d discuss the plots. He’d give me pointers and direction, and the books had both our names on the covers. Crossfire, which has both our names on the cover, was less than half-finished when he died.
Of course, I miss him in very many ways, and one of those ways is that I don’t have him to discuss plots with today. If it hadn’t been for that lunch with the agent, I’d never have thought about writing. And now, it seems like the most natural thing in the world.
You once said, ‘The production of a Dick Francis novel has always been a mixture of inspiration, perspiration and teamwork.’ Tell us about that.
My mother and father used to refer to it as the family business. My mother said it was a cottage industry without the cottage. All the Dick Francis books have been a family effort. That includes my own. My father wrote a book about a ph
ysics teacher—Twice Shy—and that was me. He wrote another about someone running a racehorse transport business, and that was my brother. In Gamble, I used my cousin’s son, a financial advisor, to do my research. My brother was involved in horseracing, and he’s the first one to read an early draft of a new novel.
My father had the ideas for the novels. My mother was a great believer in the rhythm of sentences. She did all the editing. She was very important in working on the flow of the novels. I’ve always believed that good literature should flow like cream off a spoon. It shouldn’t get stuck in your throat like barbed wire. Family teamwork was very important in all the books.
There are scenes in Damage where your background in physics and technical matters is quite evident. How much research is involved in your writing?
I do quite a lot of research. Even though it’s fiction, you’ve got to have your facts straight. I talk to friends and tap their expertise whenever I can. In Damage, a great deal of information about how undercover operations work was gleaned from a friend of mine, a former policeman. He read the completed manuscript and checked for any police procedural mistakes. I use the Internet frequently. I do as much as I can to mold the story into an interesting tale. I don’t try to teach my readers anything; and you don’t need to know a thing about horseracing to enjoy them, but by reading one of the novels, a reader might learn something about the sport.
Tell us how you plot a mystery story.
If I knew that, I’d do it. (Laughter). I write in the first person, which means, by definition, the book contains a continuous timeline. The story is seen through the experiences of a single character, in this book, Jeff Hinkley. The traditional detective/murder mystery is usually a third person narrative. You know, you get twelve people in a house. Someone gets murdered and the police arrive. I can’t do it through the eyes of the investigator because he can’t be there before the murder. I write in the first person because it’s what my father did and it’s what the readers expect.
As for plotting the story, I have only a conception of how the book will begin when I start writing. I do know my main character will prevail in the end. But I don’t know who’s going to be the bad guy. I don’t even know where or when he’s going to appear. I don’t plot out the entire book. I begin the novel because I have a good idea for a start. I set up the mystery. Then, I begin thinking about how I’m going to solve it. People sometimes say, ‘Oh, I knew who did it from the moment he arrived on the scene.’ I don’t see how that’s possible, because it’s more than I knew when I introduced the character while writing the manuscript. When I begin a book, I start by creating characters and setting out their story lines. The second half of the book involves bringing the characters together and tying things up so the mystery is resolved.
So it really is for you, as well as for the reader, a process of discovery.
Completely. Absolutely. There will be things in a novel that I hadn’t even thought about when I began writing it. It really boils down to setting up the beginning of the novel in which my character realizes there’s something he’s going to have to investigate.
Jeff Hinkley is an interesting character in Damages. Will he be the protagonist of another novel?
Yes, he will be. I haven’t had a recurring character before this. My publishers have said how much they really like him and want me to use him again.
What, if anything, has surprised you about writing?
The most surprising thing is that I discovered I can do it. Equally surprising is that I’m able to put a considerable amount of emotion into the writing, and in my characters. Writing in the first person makes it easier to include emotion. I’m not afraid to say that when I write certain passages, they make me cry. If they don’t make me cry, how could I expect them to make anyone else cry? Emotion is so important in a novel because above all, you want the reader to feel something for or about the character. I’ve discovered the ability to make both readers and myself cry.
What do you love most about being an author?
I love having finished the book. (Laughter). I love when it’s published and people read it. I don’t write for myself. I write because I want people to read the book. I really enjoy when I’m more than half way through a novel and things are going well. But there’s nothing better than people coming up to me and saying how much they loved the book. I have the best job in the world, but I have bad days—lots of them. I go through terrible self-doubt as to whether the book is any good. I love when I can send it off and feel confident about the book’s worth.
I just love those moments when I suddenly have an idea, or where the problem in the mystery opens up to me. It can come to me by asking myself questions. I can even ask the wrong question which may lead me to the right answer. In fact, that can happen quite frequently—the wrong question opening a door, leading to the solution to the mystery. I just love that kind of moment in the creative process. It’s one of those Eureka moments. And I love it.
Congratulations on writing Damage, a beautifully plotted and engaging mystery novel set in the fascinating world of horseracing.
Jonathan Kellerman has written 43 books. Thirty seven of them have been novels; all have been bestsellers. Twenty nine of the novels have featured Alex Delaware, a child psychologist who is a consultant to the LAPD.
Jesse Kellerman, Jonathan’s son, has written five novels. Two of them have been international bestsellers. He is also an award-winning playwright. Jonathan and Jesse have co-authored The Golem of Hollywood, a crime novel
with elements of myth and the supernatural.
In The Golem of Hollywood, burned-out LAPD detective Jacob Lev, for reasons having nothing to do with his detection skills, is assigned a gruesome case. A severed head is found in an abandoned house high in the Hollywood Hills. There is no body, no blood, and the Hebrew word for “Justice” has been burned into a kitchen countertop. As Jacob investigates this bizarre case, mysterious occurrences abound, and the novel combines chillingly fantastic events—past and present—with up-to-the-minute details of forensic crime investigation.
What prompted the co-authorship of The Golem of Hollywood?
Jonathan: I visited Prague and was taken by how pervasive the golem myth is on the culture. I wanted to write about it, and knew it had a preponderance of supernatural elements. But, I’m basically a crime novelist and was swamped with two other novels I was writing. One day, Jesse came over to the house and I asked him if he would like to write this one with me. He agreed.
It’s been a wonderful experience, and I think sometimes the best books derive from ventures that seem like they’ll be great fun. Then of course, the serious work begins: outlining, discussions, the crafting of the novel. It took a long time to get this book structured because there’s so much going on. Jesse, is that accurate?
Jesse: It’s accurate. When my dad shared the premise with me, it wasn’t originally for the sake of bringing me on. It was to share this cool idea he had while he was in Prague. My father’s enthusiasm is very infectious. I encouraged him to write the novel, but the conversation drifted toward the idea of collaborating. At first, I think we looked at it as a lark. It was the Kellerman adult equivalent of going into the garage and building a go-cart. We were also motivated to do this because we enjoy each other’s company. I had some trepidation about working with someone else, especially a family member. You don’t want work to affect your personal relationship. But, it was a seamless process. We were both able to subjugate our egos and create something better than the sum of its parts.
Jonathan: I must say, I couldn’t have suggested this to Jesse had he not had tremendous success as a writer with some internationally bestselling novels. I knew he was a fine writer, but wondered what collaboration would be like. I expected there might be a few dust-ups. I guess there would be more drama if I could say arguments happened, but they didn’t. We each have a good work ethic. We get in the office, and write.
How did you go about the mechanics of co-writing this novel?
Jonathan: It involved my doing a draft; sending it to Jesse; he would make revisions and send it back. We’d keep sending it back and forth. The only experience I’d had with collaborating was with Faye. Earlier on in our careers, we collaborated on two novellas. Even though we were both working from home, Faye and I chose not to meet face-to-face to discuss the work. Instead, we e-mailed everything back and forth. When I write my own novels, I’m very proprietary about them. They’re almost like my children, and I get really protective about them. When collaborating, you have to have a different mind-set. I’m not typically a collaborative writer, but writing with Jesse was great fun.
Jesse: I had some experience writing collaboratively when I wrote for the theatre. But what made this collaboration so effortless was that I’d seen how my parents write; and their work ethic is all about getting your butt in the chair every day and writing. It was also striking how Dad and I often anticipated each other’s changes as we went along. The mor
e we worked on it, the more we came into alignment. It’s something like marriage: you have to pick your partner wisely.
Does the novel reflect one or the other of your writing styles?
Jesse: I think it’s a true synthesis of our styles. When I was writing, I had my dad’s voice in my head. All writers start out mimicking other writers. I’ve never relinquished that. I have a good ear for speech and writing patterns. I was able to sit there with my dad in my head, and ask myself how he would write this. My dad’s style is a little more staccato, while mine is a little more grandiloquent. We tugged each other slightly toward one another. We ended up with this interesting hybrid.
Jonathan: Because I’d never done a book with supernatural elements,I called Stephen King and asked him if he could find the time to read the novel and give me his thoughts. Steve is a great guy, and is very supportive of fellow writers. Three days later, I heard from him. He said, ‘I know your work and I know Jesse’s work, and this is truly a synthesis.’
I like working with people, despite my having a solitary profession as a writer. For years, I worked as a psychologist with a team of professionals at a hospital and enjoyed being a harmonious leader. In this case, I wasn’t a leader; I was a partner.
Jesse, as a playwright and novelist, will you talk about the differences between writing novels and stage plays?
The most significant difference between the two is when you’re writing plays, you’re collaborating. The final product in a play is not just the written word. It’s the production, the performance. The script is, of course, a very important piece; but it’s only one element. Ultimately, yours is one of several voices. People can change your work in a play for better or worse. I’ve been fortunate because most of my scripts have been elevated by other people: actors, directors and so forth.
When you’re writing a novel, there’s no safety net. You are the director. You are the lighting technician, the set designer. You are everything. There’s both freedom and responsibility that comes with that. From a technical standpoint, with a play, you have much less to work with—you only have dialogue. It’s the director’s responsibility to create the picture, the visual elements in a play. As a novelist, I get to tell the reader what the city of Prague looks like. And most significantly, in a novel, the characters have an internal life, whereas in a play, the characters don’t, at least not one that’s readily available. To me, writing a novel is one-hundred times harder than writing a play. You’re juggling so many more things in a novel than in a play.
Jonathan, will you talk a bit about writing dialogue?
Dialogue is something I didn’t think I was that good at when I first started writing. It took me a long time to get published as a novelist. I felt dialogue was a weakness of mine, so I really paid attention to it. The key with dialogue is not to write the way people actually speak, because it’s boring. There are many pauses and repetitions. The key is to create this fiction that resembles what readers sense people sound like when they talk. I look at some of the best writers of dialogue—Elmore Leonard and others—and my wife, Faye. From her very first novel, she was able to nail dialogue. She’s a great mimic. She could have gone on stage and been the female Rich Little. She can imitate; she has perfect pitch and has a golden ear for dialogue. I really paid attention and learned from her. As a psychologist, I got to do a lot of listening, which helped me pick up the nuances of speech. But you know, there’s a lot of rewriting. From early on in my career, dialogue is something I’ve really worked on.
Many members of your family are writers. Is it nature, nurture, or both?
It’s always an interaction of both. At the age of three, Jesse would say, ‘I have a story I want to tell you. Write it down’ His first novel was Apple of Danger. I wrote it down and read it back to him. And he changed some of the words. The sequel was Pear of Danger. He was just a toddler. Part of what was fascinating to me was that neither Faye nor I was writing at the time. So, I think there’s a strong genetic component. Jesse’s sisters are fine writers, as well. It’s the same situation with Stephen King. His wife’s a great writer and both his sons are fine writers. These things are not coincidental. The nurture part in our family is the kids grew up seeing both parents writing.
What has surprised each of you about writing fiction?
Jonathan: The surprise to me is that I’ve been able to make a living at it. I was trained in psychology and was heavily into academic medicine, and saw my identity as such. But I loved to write. But I never saw it as a way to make a living. But When the Bough Breaks became a bestseller, it changed everything. Now, I’ve been writing professionally for thirty five years, far longer than my involvement in psychology. I think it’s the greatest job in the world. People sometimes like to think of the ‘tortured writer,” but that’s not the case with me. I’ve never been depressed in my life. I’ve been very lucky not to have the mood issues some creative people can have.
Jesse: Very little about the business of writing has surprised me because I grew up from age six o
r seven, witnessing what the actual business of writing entailed. From a craft perspective, I’ve been really surprised that writing gets harder as you go on. You would think it should get easier because you get more practice. But, you’re trying desperately not to repeat yourself, even though most writers really write one book and write the same thing over and over again. It’s just a question of how well they disguise it. You end up wondering, Have I made that analogy before? Have I said this before? When I describe an emotion, am I always looking at it through the same lens?
The other thing that’s surprising is that if you’re serious about your craft, you’re always trying to improve. And the better you get at writing, the better able you are to see your flaws and shortcomings. So, the growing challenge of writing has been a surprise to me. But, I must say, that’s part of the pleasure of writing, because it never gets boring.
Jonathan: I agree completely. The more books you write, the tougher it gets. With every book, I do the same thing I did with the first one: I sit down and try to write the best book possible. That does make it tougher. I have to have enough in the book that people are comfortable with because it’s the same character, but I want to be original all over again.
What do you love about being a writer?
Jonathan: It beats honest labor (Group laughter). My life as a psychologist was very structured. As a
writer, I have the freedom to make my own day and create something.
Jesse: I love that every day is a surprise.
If you could have dinner with any four or five people, writers or historical figures, living or dead, who would they be?
Jonathan: I think King Solomon is a very interesting guy. I would love to meet Freud. I’d want to have dinner with anyone who changed the world in a landmark way. Lord Byron’s daughter would be a guest. She invented the computer back in the 1800s. She was a brilliant mathematician, but because she was a woman, she really wasn’t heard from. I spent a little time with Gorbachev, who was very interesting. I’d like to spend more time with him.
Jesse: Darwin would be on that list for me. Rabbi Akiva would be there. I think they’d have an interesting conversation. Nabokov, though he’d be extremely grumpy. Magic Johnson would be there. And, no kidding, my dad would be there.
I understand The Golem of Paris is coming next. Will it feature Detective Jacob Lev in another case?
Jesse: Yes, this is a series about Jacob and the Lev family.
Congratulations on penning The Golem of Hollywood, a collaborative novel that transcends genres and was a fascinating read from start to finish.
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.
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.
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.
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—American, 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 reading.’
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 and 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.
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