Harlan Coben is known to readers everywhere. His first novel was published when he was twenty-six, and after two stand-alone thrillers, Play Dead in 1990 and Miracle Cure in 1991, he began writing the popular Myron Bolitar series. His 2001 standalone novel, Tell No One, was hugely popular. In 2006, Film director Guillaume Canet made the book into the French thriller, Ne le dis a personne. The movie was the top box office foreign-language film of the year in the U.S.; won the Lumiere (French Golden Globe) for best picture; and was nominated for nine Cesars (French Oscar), winning four awards.
Harlan Coben has gone on to write eleven more standalone novels. His books regularly appear on the New York Times bestseller list, and more than 60 million have been sold internationally. He was the first writer to receive the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards.
His latest thriller-mystery is The Stranger. Adam Price is an attorney married to Corinne. They have two sons and enjoy a wonderful life, living in Cedarfield, New Jersey. One evening, a stranger approaches Adam at an American Legion Hall. He stuns Adam with the revelation his wife faked a pregnancy, and tells him how to confirm this deception. Soon after Adam confronts Corinne with this secret, she disappears, sending him a cryptic text message. As Adam searches for his wife, it becomes apparent he is enmeshed in something far more sinister and all-encompassing than just his wife’s deception. In usual Harlan Coben fashion, the plot has multiple twists and a completely unanticipated ending.
The plot of The Stranger, like your other novels, is quite intricate with many twists. How do you structure them?
When I start to write, I know the beginning and the end, but I don’t know much in between. I’ve often compared it to travelling from my home state of New Jersey to California. I could take Route 80—the most direct route—but chances are I’ll go via the Suez Canal, and stop at Tokyo. But, I always end up in California.
E.L. Doctorow once said, ‘Writing is like driving at night. You can see no farther than your headlights, but you make the journey.’
Sometimes, I’ll outline one or two chapters ahead as I go along, but generally, I don’t outline.
The Stranger, as do many of your novels, involves someone who’s gone missing. I view you as the Master of the Missing Person. What draws you to this scenario?
A missing person could be alive or dead. There’s hope. I love writing about hope. Hope can make your heart soar, or can crush your heart like an egg shell. For me, missing people ratchet up the emotion. Unlike in a murder mystery, there’s more than justice being served in solving the crime; you can have full redemption when the person is found. I love the possibilities disappearances present.
What do you think makes your thrillers so appealing?
I don’t know. It’s something for someone else to say. I aim to make the story gripping and the characters compelling, without wasting any words. I think the key is the emotional layer beyond simply stirring the reader’s pulse; I want to stir the heart. I try to make the reader really care about what happens to the people in the book.
Your thrillers don’t involve the usual protagonists—soldiers, detectives, lawyers, CIA agents, or spies. They’re about ordinary people whose lives change in a few dramatic moments. Will you talk about that?
I enjoy writing about that sort of Hitchcockian ordinary man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. That situation is more compelling and the reader can relate more readily than if the character is some kind of superhero. I want the reader to be immersed in the protagonist’s world, and not be able to leave it. In The Stranger, I want you to be in Adam’s shoes, to feel what Adam’s feeling and thinking. It helps if he’s the kind of guy who lives down the street, and is less classically heroic. I try to keep the reader up all night, wanting to know what’s going to happen.
Do you feel the most frightening things are those that could actually happen?
Almost all my ideas come from something that happens in my regular life. I then think, ‘What would happen if…?’ For The Stranger, I didn’t make up the Fake-A-Pregnancy website. There are sites that actually sell “bellies” and fake sonograms, along with bogus pregnancy tests. That being the case, my mind says, ‘What would happen if someone found out his wife was never pregnant and just faked it?’ It’s basically the real-life ‘what ifs?’ That’s how all my books start.
You once said reading William Goldman’s novel, Marathon Man, was a life-changing event. Tell us about that.
I was fifteen or sixteen. I hadn’t read many adult novels; mostly, I read the classics and school readings. My father gave me Marathon Man. I found myself racing through it. You could have put a gun to my head, and I wouldn’t have been able to put that book down.
While I didn’t try to become a novelist until years later, I think sub-consciously, there was something inside me that said, ‘What a cool job it would be to be able to make people feel the way I’m feeling right now, reading Marathon Man.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
It’s been a very interesting climb for me. I didn’t hit it right away. I took all the steps along the way—being published by a small house; then by a slightly larger one; then came a bit of recognition; then a little bit more sales; then more, until the last seven novels have debuted as number one on the New York Times list.
I have a true appreciation of how lucky I am. I think one of the surprises is that as a bestselling author, I can still have a normal life with my wife and four kids, living in the suburbs.
What do you love about the writing life?
I think the short answer would be ‘What don’t I love about it?’ There’s no downside for me. I guess I’d rather not have to do so much travelling; and writing never gets any easier. It always torments you. There’s that insecurity, the feeling I’ll never be able to do it again. Unlike some other jobs, you can never, for a second, just show up. But really, for me, there’s very little downside, and I love what I do. It’s been a dream come true.
What would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I have no other marketable skills. I’m disorganized, forgetful, and easily distracted. I don’t know what I would be doing. Frankly, that’s part of what makes me a writer. Writing is a form of desperation. Most writers aren’t capable of handling a real job in society. This is all we have. So, this is what I do.
If you could have any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, join you at a dinner party, who would they be?
Well, I’d love to have my parents with me. If I chose writers, I’d invite those I’ve known personally, who have passed away: David Foster Wallace, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and Ed McBain. They were writers whose work I admired greatly, and whom I personally admired enormously.
Congratulations on writing The Stranger, another suspenseful thriller whose gripping and intricate plot is completely plausible, and chillingly frightening.
After receiving a doctorate in American literature at Pennsylvania State University, in 1970, David Morrell became an English professor at the University of Iowa. In 1972, his debut novel, First Blood was published; and by 1982, was made into the blockbuster movie, Rambo, First Blood, the first in the wildly successful series bearing the iconic Rambo name. David kept writing novels while teaching literature, but eventually devoted himself to full-time writing. He was a finalist for the Edgar and Anthony Awards, received the Macavity and Nero Awards, and is a recipient of the International Thriller Writers Thriller Master Award.
His bestselling New York Times historical novel, Murder as a Fine Art, took readers to 1854 Victorian London. In the novel, the notorious essayist and opium addict Thomas De Quincy was a fictional detective helping the London police solve a series of grisly murders.
David Morrell’s latest novel, Inspector of the Dead, is a sequel, featuring De Quincy and his iconoclastic daughter, Emily. When a killer begins targeting London’s elite, Scotland Yard again seeks De Quincy’s help. He approaches solving the crimes with unconventional Kantian logic. De Quincy deciphers clues left by the killer, and concludes chillingly, the next victim will be Queen Victoria, herself. The novel blends historical fact and 1855 London ambience with thriller-laced fiction in a feat of brilliant storytelling.
Inspector of the Dead takes place in 1855 during the Crimean War. What was the significance of that conflict in relation to the novel?
Doing research, I learned the war was handled terribly by the English. There wasn’t enough food for the soldiers. Hygienic facilities were lacking. They wore summer uniforms during the winter. Most of the causalities were due to mismanagement of the war. The indignation among the people was so great, a vote of no-confidence took place, and the government fell. For eight weeks in 1855, there was no English government. The novel is set during that crisis, when someone decides to assassinate Queen Victoria. In reality, there were eight assassination attempts on her. So, historical fact and fiction blend, and the Crimean War crisis sets the tone for the novel.
Thomas De Quincy’s most well-known work was the 1821 memoir, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Tell us about that.
We must understand a substance called laudanum. It was the only effective pain-killer of the era. It combined alcohol and powdered opium. In the 1850s, you could go to the grocer or paperboy or butcher and purchase it. It was perfectly legal. It had a skull and crossbones label as a warning. So, its deleterious effects were certainly known.
In his twenties, De Quincy developed a toothache, and began taking laudanum. He was overwhelmed by the pleasure it produced. After ten years, he was a full-blown addict. To put it in perspective, most people would be killed by a tablespoon of laudanum; De Quincy’s tolerance allowed him to drink sixteen ounces a day and remain functional. While it sedated most people, for him, it was a stimulant. Under its influence, he was able to write brilliant prose.
When he released Confessions of an English Opium Eater—the first drug addiction memoir—the response was sensational. No one had ever publically acknowledged being overtaken by opium. It made him so famous, for the rest of his life he was known as the Opium Eater. It was one of the most important books of the 1800s. As a corollary, his opium dreams caused him to theorize about the human mind.
On page 163 of Inspector of the Dead, De Quincy says, ‘There’s no such thing as forgetting. The inscriptions on our memories remain forever…’ What’s the significance of this statement?
Because of his opium dreams, De Quincy felt the entire history of civilization marched before him. He also felt the ghosts of his dead sister and wife came to him. He was struck by the complexity of the mind. He said, “We have chasms and secret chambers where alien natures could hide undetected.” He also had a theory about memory. He concluded there was no such thing as forgetting. He argued that the mind is like a palimpsest, a parchment or sheet of paper upon which something is written. Even erasing what was written on it would leave an impression deep within the paper. Erasing and writing once again would leave two impressions on the paper. De Quincy argued that layers of memories exit in our minds. He said ‘Memories are like the stars. They disappear during the day, but at night, they come out in the darkness.’
De Quincy published thousands of papers. He anticipated by seventy years, some of Freud’s theories. Freud knew of De Quincy’s work. Baudelaire translated De Quincy, and Freud read Baudelaire’s translations. Freud probably had ideas about the sub-conscious, and reading De Quincy may have reaffirmed them. So, De Quincy was way ahead of his time in understanding how our minds work.
De Quincy also took a psychological approach to literary criticism, didn’t he?
Yes. He wrote the essay, On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, now a standard in modern literary analysis of that play. It was the first psychological criticism. The essay concerns a moment in the play when the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is followed by a pregnant silence. Then, there’s a knocking at the castle gate. The knocking ends Act II, Scene 2, and opens Act II, Scene 3. De Quincey wrote that for him, the knocking had a profound effect: “it reflected back upon the murderer a peculiar awfulness and a depth of solemnity….” That essay foreshadows the psychological approach to literary criticism.
You incorporated literary elements of the Victorian novel into Inspector of the Dad. Tell us about that.
I was taught in graduate school to match form with content. In other words, a subject matter often invites a certain way of writing about it. While researching and writing Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead, I immersed myself in Victorian novels. It occurred to me it would be fun to write a novel about the 1850s as if it had been published back then. Novels are no longer written that way. The culture and the language were far different from today.
I asked myself how I could bring this virtually alien culture to life for the modern reader. It seemed that by using the intrusive omniscient narrator—basically imitating that element of the Victorian novel—the reader would have an explanation of various cultural and political aspects of the 1850s. Essentially, I was asking the reader to give me a break: since the Victorians did it, let me do it, too. It was an old technique, but in a way, was so liberating for me.
You also mixed in third and first person narratives through Emily’s journal.
There’s a good deal of precedent for that. One of my models was Dickens’s Bleak House with its alternating points of view. My protagonist, Thomas De Quincy, however brilliant, was in fact, a dope addict. I thought readers might have an aversion to such a person. How could I make readers warm to this man who was continually drinking opium? The key was to use his twenty-one year old daughter Emily. I introduced De Quincy through Emily’s point of view, in the first person. This engaging iconoclastic and smart woman introduces her father to the reader. It’s clear she loves him dearly. The reader may very well think, ‘If she loves her father that much, I’m going to give him a break and like him.’ So at four points during the novel, we go back to Emily’s point of view—through her journal—and get reacquainted with her deep affection for Thomas De Quincy.
Using Victorian style in the novel more fully immerses the reader in 1855 London, doesn’t it?
Before writing these two novels, I wrote a note to myself, saying, ‘Try to make readers believe they’re truly in 1855 London. Some of this is accomplished by details I brought to the novel. For instance, how much did a woman’s clothing weigh? Or, how did a doctor back then diagnose mental illness? It was done by measuring bumps on the head—phrenology. I spent years researching London in the 1850s. I even had an 1851 street map of the city. So, the novel’s details of lifestyle at that time, and the Victorian writing style, transport the reader back to London in the 1850s.
You’ve been such a successful novelist. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What comes to mind is how much things have changed in the writing world. This is my forty-third year as a published novelist. When I started in 1972, there were no book signings. Novelists didn’t go on tour or do publicity. There were hardly any bookstores—certainly none of the chain bookstores existed. There was a time when ten or fifteen book warehouses existed in each state; they serviced Mom-and-Pop grocery stores and stationary stores. Those warehouses disappeared. The chain bookstores appeared. And of course, we now have the e-book revolution. That allows many more writers to get out and self-publish. I’ve seen a great deal that’s changed in the writing world. That’s what has surprised me most of all.
One of the things these changes have taught me is to take the long view of the writing life. There are peaks and valleys. I’ve always felt you must be a first-rate version of yourself; not a second-rate version of another author. I also believe it’s foolish to chase the market, because if you do, you’ll always be looking at its backside. I’ve always written what I love to write. Some authors told me not to write historical novels such as Murder as a Fine Art and Inspector of the Dead. It would be a departure from my contemporary American subjects. They felt readers wouldn’t go with me. They wanted more Rambo or more of The Brotherhood of the Rose. But things change, and I didn’t want to keep writing the same kind of novels. I’ve been a published author for more than forty years. The usual publishing life of many authors is fifteen or twenty years. They fall out of favor because they keep writing the same novel, over and over again.
What do you love about the writing life?
It’s an opportunity for me to exercise my imagination. My childhood was not a good one. My father died in the Second World War. For a time, my mother had to place me in an orphanage. She remarried a man who didn’t like children. They fought a great deal. I spent a lot of time beneath my bed, hearing them fighting, fearful, and telling myself stories in the dark. Of course, I was always the hero.
When I grew up, I discovered this need to tell stories. I got to do it, and even earn a living. It’s a wonderful opportunity to benefit from my daydreams in a culture that doesn’t value daydreaming. I think our best ideas come to us when we give ourselves permission to go into that kind of trance. I love the opportunity to let messages rise up from my psyche.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
When I was young, I wanted to be in the music business. I wanted to be like Nelson Riddle, the famous orchestrator. As a teenager, I had music lessons and absorbed a great deal about harmony, musical theory, counterpoint, and orchestration. But something happened at age seventeen: I lost interest in music and realized my passion was in telling stories. I sometimes think the musical training in structure was helpful in terms of writing novels.
Congratulations on writing Inspector of the Dead, a riveting historical novel and compelling thriller, immersing the reader in the geography, culture, and police work of 1855 London.
Dennis Lehane is known to millions of readers. His novels Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and Shutter Island became blockbuster movies, with the most recent film being The Drop, which is based on his short story, Animal Rescue.
A Drink Before the War won the Shamus Award. Mystic River won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best Novel, and the Massachusetts Award in Fiction. Live by Night won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, and the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for Fiction.
World Gone By continues the saga of Joe Coughlin, who made his debut in The Given Day, and returned in Live by Night. It’s now the height of World War II. Having lost his wife in a hail of gunfire ten years earlier, Joe is consigliore to the Bartolo crime family in Tampa. He lives peacefully with his son, Tomas, and moves easily among the various underworld figures of the time. Joe finds out someone has mysteriously placed a contract on his life. Trying to learn more, Joe goes on a chilling journey through the black, white, and Cuban underworlds where he crosses paths with the Lansky-Luciano mob, Tampa’s social elite; and also with the mob-backed Cuban government of Fulgencio Batista.
You once said you knew with the publication of A Drink Before the War, you would be labelled a genre writer. You said, “And there’s no way out of that, so let’s just go all the way. And I’m so glad I did. It’s been the greatest accident of my life.” Will you talk about that?
I don’t know if it’s still true of me, now, but it was certainly true when I came out of graduate school in 1993. The genre was very much ghettoized. Sometimes it was for good reasons; in some cases it was unfair. What I and others were rebelling against was the notion that literary fiction was literature. It was its own ghettoized genre, or should have been, according to that kind of thinking. I was growing very tired of what a writer once referred to as ‘stories about the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut.’ At the time, it was dominating literary fiction. I became enamored of writing about what Cormack McCarthy called ‘fiction of mortal events.’ That’s why I drifted into crime fiction. I think crime fiction has social value, and I was very interested in writing about social issues such as race, class—you know, the haves and have-nots in American society. It seemed like a natural fit with the crime novel.
Now, twenty years later, while we may not have knocked the genre gate down, we’ve stormed it. Some lines of distinction between so-called literature and crime fiction have become a bit blurred. Now, some crime fiction is allowed into the club. (Laughter).
Tell us about the Irish-American storytelling culture in which you grew up.
My parents came from Ireland and moved to a section of Boston where they were surrounded by their siblings and in-laws. We grew up with all our uncles and aunts nearby. They gathered every Friday and Saturday at one or another’s house. They would sit around and just tell stories. My brother and I began noticing every six or seven weeks, the same story would come back into the rotation. But, it was tweaked. We began to understand—whether consciously or not—a good story wasn’t necessarily concerned with facts. It was concerned with a basic truth. As an adult, I realize what my parents, uncles and aunts were doing by telling these stories again and again—all about the old country. They were trying to make sense of the diaspora; to make sense of having left the place they loved.
Do you think they romanticized the old country?
Oh, of course. When I went to Ireland, I expected to step back into the 1930s. You know, nobody got divorced; no one ever said a cuss word; and everything was just perfect. That image was calcified in my home in Boston. But in Ireland, time had moved on. They were living their lives.
When I was in graduate school, my mentor would describe storytelling as ‘the lie that tells the truth.’
Many of your novels, including World Gone By, are filled with moral ambiguity. Tell us about that.
The vast majority of what we call morality is simply fear of being caught. Just look at any comment section in articles on the Internet, where people remain anonymous and say whatever they think. Or, watch people when they’re driving their cars. Maybe a small percentage of us with moral fiber will categorically not do certain things, even if we’re not being watched, but with the vast majority, all bets are off.
I don’t know too many really bad people; and I don’t know too many saints. I think most people fall in-between. And, that’s what I write about. Bad people don’t wake up each morning thinking ‘I’m a bad person.” They think, ‘I’m a good person in my heart, even if I have to do some bad things.’ That’s true of bankers, and it’s true of stockbrokers who short stock. And that’s true of gangsters, who short people (Laughter).
In 2001, Mystic River was your first novel outside the Kenzie-Gennaro series. It wasn’t until 2010, when you brought the duo back in Moonlight Mile. Did you get pressure from fans to return to that series?
I didn’t really get pressure; I got wishes. Fans continue to show up at nearly every signing and want to know if Patrick and Angela will ever come back. My answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I haven’t retired them. They’ve sort of taken these longer and longer vacations from me.
It seems to me you’ve taken a more expansive path in the last few years. Is that a fair statement?
Yes. I would say that path began after Mystic River. For the first time in my life, I became aware of other people’s expectation about what I would do next. I didn’t respond well to that pressure. It wasn’t why I got into writing in the first place. So, I made a conscious choice to zig when everyone thought I would zag. That’s when I wrote Shutter Island. Writing that book was really fun. I was able to do what I’d wanted to do for a very long time, which was to write about the Boston police strike. I’ve stayed on that independent path, despite knowing I’ve lost some fans along the way, but that’s okay.
So, Mystic River changed your writing life?
Yes. It changed the perception of me as a writer—almost overnight. Suddenly, I was viewed as a literary writer. Until that point, people thought, ‘He produces really well-written genre novels.’ That was my label. So, after Mystic River, I was suddenly writing literature. A lot of debates began after that. It was a strange and wonderful place to be.
So, you’re right, it led me to decide to follow a more idiosyncratic path.
I saw the film Mystic River and then read the novel. As fine as the film was, the book was even more powerful. Did the film have an impact on your writing life?
No. I don’t ever, ever, ever think of films when I write. To me, writing a book is a very intimate conversation I’m having with an imagined reader. It’s not a film script. A film script is just a blueprint—like an architectural diagram.
You once said, ‘Character is action. It’s the oldest law of writing. It goes back to Aristotle. Plot is just a vehicle in which your characters act.’ Will you amplify that?
I think a book is a journey by which a main character, or several characters, ultimately reach a reckoning with themselves. The plot is just the car driving them down the road on that journey. I don’t need a spectacular car. I just need one that’s serviceable. I’m not a car guy. With the exception of Shutter Island, I never wrote an original plot. All I do is make the plot serviceable, like the car. I work really hard on a plot, because you need to work hardest at the things that don’t come naturally. I don’t work hard at dialogue. It just flows. I barely rewrite it. Plot takes up the majority of my worry when I write a book because it’s the last thing I consider.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That it’s as cool as I hoped it would be. (Laughter). You know, one of my favorite movies is Broadcast News. One scene describes my own life. There’s an interchange where William Hurt says to Albert Brooks, ‘What do you do when your reality exceeds your dreams?’ Albert Brooks say, ‘Keep it to yourself.’
That’s where I find myself. I go on book tours; I’m interviewed by people; and it gets put in newspapers. Even twenty years down the line, it still seems surreal to me. Surreal in a wonderful way. You know, last night at a book signing, someone asked me if I’d sign a paperback. I said, ‘Of course.’ And he said, ‘Some authors don’t sign them.’ I said, ‘What the hell did they get into writing for?’ I mean, there was a time when you were a complete nobody, and in your fantasy life you thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody actually wanted me to sign one of my books?’ I still live in that place—where it all seems like a fantasy.
The thing is: I get paid to make shit up. I’d be doing it for free. I walk around thinking, ‘These lunatics actually pay me to do this.’ If a planeload of money was dumped on me, I’d continue doing what I do.
I was going to ask what you love about the writing life, but you’ve already answered that.
They pay me to make shit up and I can keep my own hours. (Laughter).
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
Everybody has some fantasy about this kind of thing. I’m thinking I would be a carpenter. There’s no reason for me to think that since I’ve never shown I can do anything with my hands. But I feel that’s what I’d like to do if I wasn’t writing.
You would certainly see the results of your labor.
Yes. I need to see the results of anything I do, whether it’s a book or a cabinet.
If you could have five people to a dinner party, from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
First, I’d have Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’d also invite FDR and Bill Murray. And then…Keith Richards. I would also like to have dinner with Joan of Arc.
What would you be talking about?
With that group? What a party it would be. There would be no problem with conversation.
Congratulations on writing World Gone By, described by Kirkus as “a multilayered, morally ambiguous novel of family, blood and betrayal.” And I agree completely with that assessment.
Owen Laukkanen’s debut novel, The Professionals, received high praise and was nominated for many honors, including the International Thriller Writers’ Award, the Anthony, the Barry, and the New Voices Awards. He graduated from the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, and before turning to fiction, spent three years reporting on the world of professional poker.
The Stolen Ones is the fourth novel in the series featuring Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, partners in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension-FBI Joint Task Force. The novel begins with Irina and Catalina, two Romanian sisters, who are kidnapped and brought to the U.S. in shipping containers, along with other young women, to be sold as sex slaves. Soon, Stevens and Windermere are on the trail of a massive international kidnapping and prostitution ring. The story takes them over much of the country as they struggle to track down the most ruthless criminals they’ve ever encountered.
How did you develop an interest in writing?
My parents stocked our house with books. Basically, ‘Wanted’ posters of us were in the local library. We would take out twenty books at a time and never return them. (Laughter) My mother and father instilled in me a love of reading. I read voraciously at a young age. In my teens, writing seemed a natural progression. I found myself wanting to evoke with my own writing, the same feelings I had from reading. I remember reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck which had passages about fishing boats going out to sea. I come from a fishing background, and the novel struck a deep chord within me. I wanted to emulate that kind of creativity.
As a youngster, which authors did you enjoy reading?
I read just about anything as a kid. I read a lot of Gordon Korman, a Canadian-American writer of children’s books and YA novels. As a teen, I went into an enormous Dean Koontz phase. His books were violent, sexy, and were not what my parents would have approved of my reading. (Laughter) I tore through his entire catalogue. But I enjoyed many different genres. If you put any book in my hand or within arm’s reach, I’d read it. I read a good deal of John Steinbeck, and R.L. Stine, as well. I was pretty eclectic.
How did you get a job covering high-stakes poker tournaments?
I graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts degree, and had minimal job prospects. I was looking for a summer job and interviewed for one as a technical writer. I applied for one driving a car for an escort agency, but they didn’t call me back. (Laughter). Finally, I took a job on the night shift in a department store warehouse. Then, I saw an ad saying I could spend six weeks in Las Vegas writing about the World Series of Poker. I knew nothing about poker, but knew I’d like to be in Vegas for six weeks instead of working in a warehouse. I sent them two short stories I’d written, and lo and behold, they hired me. At the end of the summer, they hired me and a colleague on a full-time basis to travel all over the world, make our own schedule, and gave us a blank check to cover any poker tournament we decided to attend.
I understand you encountered situations in those tournaments that led to your writing crime fiction. Is that true?
I didn’t want to write casino mysteries. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed that way. But, when you’re in the company of people willing to plunk down ten-thousand dollars each to play poker, you’re bound to meet some crazy characters. Much of the depravity I encountered inspired me to write about the crime world. My time covering these tournaments coincided with the burnished image being portrayed on television. But behind that image, were these fascinating gamblers and sordid criminals who were polishing their acts to look like TV stars. When I got the job, I was a twenty-three year old kid who’d led a somewhat sheltered life. The exposure to this other side of life was truly an education for me as a budding crime writer.
The Stolen Ones is an expansive novel. Is there a method by which you constructed it, as well as your other thrillers?
My method is to start with a crime or an idea—in this case, sex trafficking—and let the book evolve from there. Some people might call it allowing the characters to take you where they want to go. That may be a forgiving way of saying I write pretty impulsively. As I was writing The Stolen Ones, I just let the story unfold, knowing in the end, there’d be a lot of cleaning up for me to do. I’m very much a ‘write by the seat of my pants’ sort of guy. I’m not a plotter.
The Stolen Ones is your fourth published novel in the series. What about the writing life has surprised you?
When you’re an aspiring writer, you imagine things will be wonderful if you can reach the point of being published. You fantasize it will be a watershed moment—which it is, in its way—but what’s surprised me is I’ve had to learn to disengage my feelings of self-worth from how the novels are received; or from the fact that a novel has been published. I imagined with the publication of a book, my life would change in some amazing way. When you’re writing a series, it’s almost like working for a newspaper: you can write a good feature one day, but the next day, you have another feature to write. I’ve had to learn to relax and enjoy the moment, and not focus on the next book in the series. Also, I never thought writing would be as challenging as it is. I’ve gone through periods of self-doubt I never expected to experience.
On a very positive note, I’ve learned that crime writers are among the most welcoming and generous people around. Certainly, one of the happiest surprises about getting into this business has been meeting so many wonderful friends and making contact with people who’ve been willing to champion my books. There’s a real pleasure in this sense of community, because writing is such an isolating activity.
What do you love about the writing life?
I love all of it. I can’t not write. If I go for a couple of days without writing, I feel antsy and ornery. I’ve been very lucky as a young writer to have such a supportive publishing team. I also enjoy engaging with people who love books, reading, and writing. As much as I need time by myself to write, I love meeting people at library talks and bookstores. There’s a great deal of freedom in the writing life, and a lot of opportunity that’s not granted in most other professions.
If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing?
I think I’d be fishing for a living. My grandfather was a boat builder and commercial fisherman. I paid my way through the university working on my uncle’s fishing boats in the Pacific Ocean. My dad recently bought a lobster boat on the Atlantic side of Canada. I’ve fished all over. My summers spent fishing were some of the happiest times of my life. As a complementary job for a writer, it’s wonderful. It’s precisely the opposite of what a writer does. There’s fresh air, manual labor, and lots of time to think through murder plots.
Congratulations on penning The Stolen Ones, a relentlessly terrifying novel that ratchets up the suspense, and raised my pulse rate.
Dennis Palumbo is a thriller writer and psychotherapist in private practice. He’s the author of the non-fiction book, Writing from the Inside Out and a collection of mystery stories, From Crime to Crime. He has also been writing the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series. He was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, whose credits include the film My Favorite Year, which was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He was a staff writer for the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter. Currently, he blogs for the Huffington Post and has a column, Hollywood on the Couch, for Psychology Today.
His mystery-thriller series concerns Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert, who consults with the Pittsburg Police. His specialty is treating victims of violent crime who suffer from the traumatic after-effects of those experiences. Rinaldi suffered such a trauma when his wife was killed during a mugging. Though he too was shot, he lived, but struggled with survivor’s guilt long afterwards. Now, his mission is to help others deal with their trauma symptoms, but in the process, he manages to get heavily involved in police investigations, often to the consternation of his police colleagues.
In Phantom Limb, the fourth book in the series, Dr. Rinaldi consults with a prospective patient, a woman he last saw thirty years ago in Playboy. Lisa Campbell, ex-starlet and current trophy wife of elderly tycoon Charles Harland, plans to kill herself at 7 o’clock that evening. Daniel has only fifty minutes, the length of their session, to talk her out of it. Soon after Lisa leaves his office, she’s kidnapped. As a psychologist who may have heard critical information, he’s ethically bound not to share what they discussed. So, Rinaldi must navigate tricky waters to help the police locate Lisa. Rinaldi find himself amid a tangled web of kidnapping, murder, sexual deviance, and family secrets.
It seems in some respects, Daniel Rinaldi bears a resemblance to you. True?
He does, in the sense we’re both born and raised in Pittsburgh. We both went to Pitt. We’re both Italian-Americans and the big similarity other than we’re both psychologists, is we straddle the Pittsburgh of old and new. When I went to college, the city was loaded with steel mills. They’re all gone now. Industrial Pittsburgh has been replaced by a high-tech, sophisticated city. Daniel and I are very aware of that change, from a formerly dingy city, with its skies filled with smoke and ash, and coal barges going up and down the Allegheny River, to what it is now: a city with gleaming skyscrapers and clean air.
Daniel is also some things I’m not: he’s a former amateur boxer; he’s brave and resourceful, which I’m not (Laughter). The things he gets involved with would have me running in the other direction. Kirkus Reviews called him ‘Jack Reacher with a psychology degree.’ (More laughter).
As a psychotherapist yourself, how much of your training do you bring to the Daniel Rinaldi novels?
I’ve been a licensed therapist for almost twenty-eight years. For three-and-half years, I worked in a psychiatric hospital with schizophrenics. Earlier in my career, I spent five years in training on trauma theory with the nation’s leading trauma expert, Dr. Robert Stolorow. That’s one of the reasons I made Daniel a trauma expert. In most thriller novels, the effects of trauma on crime victims are never dealt with. In the Daniel Rinaldi series, these effects are very important. That’s part of what my training as a psychologist brings to the writing.
The Daniel Rinaldi novels are written from the first-person perspective. What are the advantages of this style?
For me, the advantage is we get to be inside Daniel’s head and thoughts. From that perspective, we really hear his voice. Rather than hearing a removed, third-person authorial voice, we get to stay within Daniel himself; we’re inside his head. So, not only will he say something to another character, but he’ll also think something to himself, something to which the reader is privy. We get a solid sense of who he is. I also like that by using the first person, the reader only knows what Daniel knows. Often, in thrillers, the reader knows what the bad guy is thinking. So, from a first person perspective, it’s a bit more difficult to build suspense, but I’m able to do it. I construct the story so enough dread is foreshadowed to make the reader worry for Daniel.
You’ve been outspoken about the thriller-mystery genre being a venerable one. Will you talk about that?
Many people question the literary quality of crime thrillers. I think crime novels, from Sherlock Holmes on, have done what Tom Wolfe said, ‘The purpose of a novel is to show the details of an era’s status, to demonstrate its culture.’
If you want a picture of Victorian London, read any Sherlock Holmes novel. It’s revelatory. I don’t think there’s a better dissection of modern marriage than what’s depicted in Gone Girl. Whether it’s Camus’s The Stranger, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, they delineate the era in which they were written. And, they’re crime-mystery novels. There’s tremendous literary value in these works.
There’s a tendency to think of literature, and crime novels as inhabiting two separate spheres, as being in different categories. The best crime novels are indeed literature. I don’t think there are better writers than Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, or for that matter, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Hugo, or Dickens. To one or another extent, they all wrote novels about crime. When it comes to writing, there’s good writing, mediocre writing and bad writing. That’s it.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s most surprising to me is that success in writing is much more about craft than talent. It’s really a matter of hard work and diligence. It’s not sitting around, drinking absinthe, and waiting for inspiration. It’s hard work. You sit down every day at the typewriter or keyboard, and do the work. And hopefully, thirty-five years later, you have something to show for it.
What do you love about the writing life?
I’ve been a writer since I was twenty-two. The thing I love most is the creation of a completely different world in a novel. Screenwriting is a collaborative process; things get rewritten by various people; they’re then interpreted and changed by directors and actors. If, in the end, there’s any resemblance to what you initially wrote, it’s a small miracle. But in my Daniel Rinaldi novels, I get into his head and construct his world. I love that. I love creating a whole new world.
What advice would you give novice writers?
My advice is very simple: don’t follow trends; don’t try to copy other people’s success; keep giving the readers you, until you is what they want.
Congratulations on writing Phantom Limb, the fourth in the Daniel Rinaldi mystery-thriller series. Publishers Weekly called it “twisty,” “satisfying,” and said it “ends on a cliffhanger.” I found it to be a riveting novel.
J. Box is the bestselling author of 16 Joe Pickett novels, four standalone novels, and a collection of short stories called Shots Fired. He’s won multiple awards including the Edgar, the Anthony, the Gumshoe, and the Barry awards. He lives with his family outside Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Endangered begins with Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett learning his 18-year old adopted daughter, April, has disappeared. She’s found in a ditch along a highway. April, the victim of blunt force trauma, is in a coma. It’s uncertain if she will recover. Dallas Cates, the man April ran off with, denies any responsibility; and evidence begins pointing to another man. Joe cannot conceive of the danger he’s about to encounter as he tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to April.
How and why did you begin writing fiction?
I always had an interest in writing. All through high school and college, I was associated with the student newspapers. My first job was working for a small weekly newspaper in Wyoming. That’s when I really started thinking about writing fiction. My first novel, which later became Open Season, was hatched while I was a newspaper reporter, covering a story about creatures in Wyoming called black-footed ferrets. They were thought to have been extinct, but were discovered at that time. That story played out in a fascinating way, and I used it as the subject matter for my first book.
Who were your earliest reading influences as a youngster?
The first books I can remember reading were Encyclopedia Brown books, a series featuring a boy detective named Leroy Brown. I would go to my local library in Casper, Wyoming and the librarians would locate those books for me from all over the state. Later on, Catch-22 was one of the first huge books I ever read, and I loved it so much, I read it four times. Thomas McGuane is probably my favorite stylist as a writer.
I’ve learned that until recently, you had a day job, even though your Joe Picket novels have been bestsellers. Tell us about that.
My wife and I co-owned an international tourism marketing company. We had contracts with state government tourism departments in the West, and marketed five states in the Rocky Mountains to Europe and Australia. We had seven offices overseas. We were extensions of state tourism offices. We operated the business for 24 years, and I wrote fiction on a part-time basis.
At what point over those years, did you write and get your first novel published?
I was writing the entire time we worked in marketing. It took 20 years from my first conceiving a novel to having Open Season published. I hoped to have the novel published someday, but was busy running the business. It took five years after I’d completed the novel to get it published.
So you were no stranger to rejections?
I had some very weird experiences. My first agent had the manuscript—this was in the pre-Internet days. I sent him the entire printed manuscript by snail mail. He had it for four years, and said he couldn’t sell it. I even stopped calling him since nothing was happening. I went to a writing conference and learned, to my astonishment, my agent had been dead for six months. I had no idea. To this very day, I’ve never met an editor who saw that original manuscript. So now, I tell people to make sure their agent is young and vibrant. Anyway, I got another agent and the book was sold very soon afterwards.
You’ve mentioned your “first readers” in Acknowledgments at the end of Endangered. You’ve also talked about them at an event last October. Tell us who they are and the role they play in your writing.
The first reader is my wife, Laurie. She’s really a good editor and doesn’t pull any punches. She does primarily conceptual editing and tells me where I may have gone astray. I bought my three daughters Kindles, so I could e-mail the manuscripts to them. They provide input, too. They’re particularly good when it comes to commenting on child and girl characters. They keep me on track and will tell me something like, ‘The kid wouldn’t say it like that; she’d say it like this…’ In one book, my youngest daughter straightened out the text-messaging I wrote. They also do continuity editing. They’ll say, ‘You used that phrase in the last book.’ So, all told, the entire family participates and it’s very valuable.
One can’t help but notice Joe Pickett is married and has three daughters, as do you. Any similarities between you and Joe?
Not a lot, other than my having been a state employee for a while. I’m familiar with government bureaucracy and how difficult it is at times to do your job. I’m familiar writing about Joe’s family situation, dealing with three daughters. (Laughter).
Joe Picket has been on the mystery-thriller scene for 16 books. How has he evolved over the years?
He’s definitely evolved. Part of the reason is the books take place in real time. He gets a year older with each novel. He has a much harder view of things now than he did in the first books when he was kind of naïve. He’s been in so many difficult situations and has experienced so many betrayals, he’s become a bit more cynical as time has gone by. As a reader, I don’t like when a series seems frozen in time. You’ve got to suspend disbelief for a series to work in the first place, but when a character doesn’t age and change, it tips things over the top. It loses all credibility. I like the fact that everyone ages a year with each book, and reflects the experiences they had in the previous one.
What do you think makes Joe Picket so appealing even to people unfamiliar with life in the West?
I like to think it’s his fallibility. He’s a very real guy who makes mistakes. He’s not a superman, by any means. His biggest attribute is tenacity. When he gets into something, he doesn’t let it go. He’s like a bulldog. But, he’s also a family man and a state employee. Readers can relate to him, which makes him kind of unusual in the mystery genre.
I understand the Joe Pickett series may be adapted for television. Tell us about that.
There’s a team of producers, including executive producer Robert Redford, trying to get a series on the air. It was almost done with CMT, but that fell through at the eleventh hour. They’re still trying to find the right outlet for it.
You’ve been a successful novelist for years. What about the writing life has surprised you?
I think the biggest surprise has been the success of the Joe Pickett series. My wife and I have done well beyond our wildest dreams. My initial goal was just to get a book published that would be well-received in the Rocky Mountains. I sometimes marvel at the fact that people want to read what I write.
What do you love about the writing life?
I really enjoy the life. I love working with the people in publishing. They’re intelligent and very literate. I enjoy meeting readers who are really into the books. As a writer, I’m something of an entrepreneur. I can create my own work habits, my own hours. I love writing the first draft of a novel. It’s exhilarating.
What about writing that first draft do you love?
What I love about writing the first draft is that it’s done with pure joy, and with all the creative juices flowing. Characters are coming alive and things are happening right in front of me. It must be like what a songwriter feels when a catchy hook comes into his head. He knows he must build a whole song around it, but that initial rush must be wonderful.
What about rewriting and revising?
Editing, revising, and copy-reading aren’t nearly as much fun as writing the first draft. There’s something inspirational about getting the basic story written.
If you could have dinner with five people from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
I know I would want to sit down with Theodore Roosevelt. Another would be Joseph Heller. Then, I’d invite Raymond Chandler. Winston Churchill would be there. He had a strangely similar life path to Theodore Roosevelt’s. And then, there would be the rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett. He’s the man for whom Joe Pickett is named. He was the first all-around champion of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo.
What’s coming next from C.J. Box?
Two things. In addition to the Joe Pickett series, I just signed a deal with producer David E. Kelley, who wants to create a TV series based on my standalone novels. And, at the end of July, I’ve got a standalone novel coming out called Badlands. The story takes place during the oil boom in North Dakota.
Congratulations on penning Endangered, a gripping novel about family, commitment, honesty, duplicity, and extreme danger.
Dave Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and New York Times bestselling author of Insane City and You Can Date Boys When You’re Forty. From 1983 to 2005, he wrote a nationally syndicated humor column for The Miami Herald.
In Live Right and Find Happiness (Although Beer is Much Faster), Dave articulates certain life truths to his new grandson and to his daughter Sophie, who will be getting her learner’s permit this year (“So you’re about to start driving! How exciting! I’m going to kill myself”). Dave comments on contemporary life, touching upon both trivial and serious subjects.
In the Introduction to Live Right and Find Happiness, you talk about happy, carefree, young people. When you drive your daughter and her friends to soccer practice, you’re privy to the discussions of 15-year old girls; and you list their top 10 concerns. What are they?
Number One is Boys. Number Two is the hideous, totally unwarranted cruelty of high-school teachers. Three is what this one boy did in this class, OMG. Number Four is about some video on some Internet thing that’s HILARIOUS. Five is Hair. Numbers six through ten are Boys. If I continued the list with numbers eleven through nine-hundred, they would all be Boys.
In the book, you comment tellingly about today’s young parents. Will you share some of that with us?
I was talking about the difference between my parents—the Greatest Generation, as they’re called—and my generation of parents—the baby-boomers’ generation. We invented the term parenting. My parents didn’t view it as a full-time occupation. It’s not that they didn’t love us, they just didn’t obsess over our lives the way we do over our kids’ lives. I think they had a lot more fun than we do as parents. We’re supposed to be the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll generation; and we were, for a while. But, when we had kids, we became insufferable. We started researching all the things that could possibly go wrong, and how to correct them. We wanted to make sure our kids’ lives were absolutely perfect. I think we lost our sense of spontaneity and fun, which my parents had.
When I was a kid, my parents had these great parties. They did things we now consider to be insane, dangerous, or criminal. They drank, they smoked, and drove cars while drinking and smoking. They didn’t put us in $973 car seats. They just lived. As I’ve eased into decrepitude, I’ve had the gradual realization I didn’t have as much fun raising my kids as my parents did raising me. And, we’re bringing up a generation of kids who depend on us to guide them, control their lives, and remove all obstacles in their paths. It just seems something has gone wrong.
In the book, there’s an interesting anecdote about what you once did to Dick Cheney. Tell us about that.
When he was the Secretary of Defense, we were both at a social function at the Washington Post. I introduced myself. We shook hands. Then, by mistake, I did it again. We both realized we’d already done that. After a few drinks, I thought it would be funny if I did it again. So, I went out of my way three or four more times, to bump into him and introduce myself. I’m sure he wished he could call a sniper at that point.
Or maybe he’d invite you to go quail hunting.
(Laughter). Yes! My prank was much funnier to the person who’d been drinking than to the other person.
That’s always true, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. Which is why we should all drink more.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “What I look forward to is continued immaturity followed by death.” Will you explain that?
In high school, I was the class clown. I got my classmates to laugh. I even got the teachers to laugh, but was often told by them, ‘That’s very funny, but you cannot joke your way through life.’ Now that I’m older, I realize that’s basically what I did do. I joked my way through life. I never really had a responsible job. And, now it’s too late. (Laughter). I’m basically still writing booger jokes, way past the time when it would be appropriate.
You said you’ve essentially joked your way through life. Any regrets?
No. (Laughter). I just can’t believe it worked out this way. At some point, I think the grown-up police should have come to my door and said, ‘Okay, enough of this. You can’t go through life setting fire to a Barbie doll’s underpants and writing about it. You have to do something more significant.’ But it turns out, I didn’t.
Has humor been a way of finessing the system, of copping out?
Absolutely. I think this is true about most humorists, including stand-up comics. It’s a way of getting people to like you without giving too much of yourself away. You’re hiding behind humor, usually because you’re insecure about yourself. You don’t think people would really like you if you didn’t make them laugh. So you use humor to get by, to avoid being serious about anything, and in my case, to avoid being held upside-down over the toilet by the larger, stronger boys.
You mentioned in the book having met David Beckham and having felt diminished by his good looks and charisma.
Yes, I hate him. It’s personal. (Laughter).
So, like many kids, you were insecure?
Yes, but we weren’t all insecure. There were kids who were attractive and athletic. I was not that kid. My high school photograph is in this book. It’s a hideous thing to behold. And that was the best I could look. That wasn’t just a bad day. That was me trying to look good. I was just this incredible dweeb wearing Soviet Union-era eyeglasses. And my hair! It was awful. My dad was a Presbyterian minister, and cut my hair. He was good at what he did, but was a terrible barber.
You’re a new grandfather. What are some of your grandfatherly concerns?
I wrote a letter to my grandson, Dylan Barry. He’s now nine months old. I thought I’d pass on whatever wisdom I’ve learned. When I sat down, I couldn’t think of that much wisdom. So, I ended up pointing this out to him: You don’t need to refrigerate catsup and mustard. It’s a mistake. I hate cold catsup on a hot hamburger. That was my main piece of wisdom, along with some other stuff, which basically boils down to: Don’t be a jerk.
Have you ever been tempted to write outside the genre of humor?
I wrote a couple of serious essays which were well-received. They were written after something pretty bad happened—after my dad died, and after my mom committed suicide. I wrote an essay about that. At the time, I was pretty wrecked. When people asked if I would write more essays like that, my reaction was, ‘I don’t want to. I wrote those things because I was really down. I needed to think about it and get it out. Writing is how I did that.’ So, I stay with humor.
As times have changed over the decades, has it affected your humor?
I don’t think my humor has changed. My humor is pretty much silly and observational. The world of comedy has changed, and to some people, I’m from the Civil War-era. I’m comfortable with my kind of humor. I write about relationships between men and women, and parents and their kids. These themes are timeless.
The accoutrements have changed. In the book, you mentioned the Internet.
Yes, this Internet thing is really catching on. I may include it in a column one of these days.
Is humor your style at home?
Not really. If you were a magician you would practice your tricks, but you wouldn’t go around the house making spoons disappear. (Laughter). I do make my wife and daughter laugh sometimes, but I don’t try to entertain them. I stopped a long time ago needing to prove I’m funny. I can’t help being insufferably handsome, however (Laughter). There’s nothing I can do about that. My raw sexuality oozes out of me at all times and I cannot stop it.
What’s coming next for Dave Barry?
A book tour. (Laughter). I plan to write a book about Florida, which is the weirdest place on earth. You know, it’s where cars are driven by headless people, and all you see are hands gripping the wheel. Or even worse, there are couples where the man drives, but the woman sees. (Laughter).
You live in Coral Gables, Florida. Do you worry about climate change and the water level rising?
Not at all. We’re inland, and eventually, we’ll be beachfront. I see nothing but rising property values. (Laughter).
Congratulations on penning Live Right and Find Happiness, (Although Beer is Much Faster), a really funny and quintessential guide to dealing with life’s most vexing problems.
Clive Cussler is an adventure novelist and marine archaeologist. His thrillers have reached The New York Times best-seller list more than 20 times. His books have been published in 40 languages in more than 100 countries. He is the founder and chairman of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), which has discovered more than sixty shipwreck sites. He is the sole or lead author of more than 60 books. After his discharge from the military, he worked in advertising, first as a copywriter and later as a creative director. He produced radio and television commercials, many of which won international awards. He began writing fiction in 1965.
He has written many successful series, included among them, the popular Dirk Pitt Adventures; The NUMA Files; The Oregon Files; The Fargo Adventures; and the Isaac Bell Adventures. The Isaac Bell novels are set in the early 20th century. Bell is a brilliant investigator for the Van Dorn Detective Agency. Though the setting is a century ago, the books are still techno-thrillers, featuring advanced technology of that time.
Set in 1905, The Assassin has Isaac Bell investigating John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly. Things turn deadly as a sniper begins murdering competitors of Standard Oil. The assassin kills Bell’s most reliable witness, and then detonates an explosion setting the victim’s independent refinery into flames. The quest to locate and deal with this lethal adversary takes Bell across the U.S. to oil fields on the Caspian Sea. It’s questionable if Isaac and his fellow detectives will survive the ordeal.
I understand you first began writing to fill your time. Will you tell us about that?
Well, it all started when my wife found a job working nights as a secretary and dispatcher at the local police department. I’d come home, fix dinner for the kids, put them to bed, and then wander around the house. There wasn’t much to do. I said to myself, ‘Well, I think I’ll write a book.’ I then researched all the heroes and villains in the Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Travis McGee books. When I finished, I asked myself what I could do that would be different. Since I was very familiar with the sea, I thought I’d put my hero in and around water. That’s how Dirk Pitt was born.
Which was the first book you had published?
The first published was The Mediterranean Caper, although the first one I actually wrote was Pacific Vortex. When I carried it into my agent’s office, he didn’t think it was very good. So, he sold the second one, The Mediterranean Caper. It took three years to get sold, and the first one never got sold in its original form.
Six years later, while having lunch with my new editor, I mentioned Pacific Vortex. He said, ‘You mean there’s another Dirk Pitt book out there?’ I said, ‘Yes, there’s one that was never published.’ He asked to see it. I spent three months revising it, and then it was published. On the publication date, my agent called and said he was going to Jamaica for a vacation. He didn’t want to be around when the book came out (Laughter). He was staying at some hotel in Jamaica. I got the number and called him. I said, ‘Pacific Vortex just went to number one on The New York Times bestseller list.’
So, even the first one you ever wrote made it to the bestseller list?
Yes, eventually. After eleven years of writing books, Raise the Titanic was my breakthrough book. So, after that happened, people said ‘Congratulations on this overnight success.’ I guess writing four books over eleven years made me an instant success. (More laughter).
After eleven years of my writing books, my wife was still working. As she walked out the door one day, I said to her, ‘When Raise the Titanic sells 250,000 copies, you can stop working.’ We both laughed. Later that day, I called her and said, ‘Now, you can quit.’
In The Assassin, Standard Oil and business issues of the day are described beautifully. So are the oil rigs, trains, machinery, and the turn of the century ambience. Tell us about your research.
I love doing research, as does Justin Scott, my co-author. We’ll approach the research from different directions, and meet somewhere down the line. I’ve always found research to be the most enjoyable part of writing. Writing can be a pain. I collect vintage cars, so you always find them in my books. I try to make the books fun for me to write.
After more than 60 books, is it difficult to come up with fresh ideas?
Yes, it is. I use a basic concept: I ask myself, ‘What if?’ For instance, What if they raised the Titanic? Why did it sink? Was something on board that was one of the reasons the ship sank? That’s the way I start a book and it spreads out from there. I have the beginning and end of the book in mind, but I rarely have the middle.
So you don’t plot the story out chapter by chapter.
No, I can’t do that. As I start writing, I come up with more ideas, and the book grows as I go along.
If you had not been writing novels, what would have been doing over the years?
My wife and I have always laughed about that. I’d probably have had a small advertising agency down in Newport Beach, California. But I was tired of advertising and things worked out the way they did.
What about the writing life has surprised you?
I get up in the morning, get to the office and write until about six o’clock in the evening. Then I share a bottle of wine with my wife. I would have to say, the only real surprise has been the success. That’s really been quite unexpected.
What do you love about the writing life?
I love doing the research for the novels. For me, the writing is hard work. I enjoy doing the Isaac Bell series because I love going back to the early twentieth century. Who were the Gibson girls? What was the Knickerbocker Hotel like? I usually spend about three months on the research for a book. My favorite era is the twenties, partly because of the classic cars of the twenties and thirties. We did one Isaac Bell book that took place in 1919, at the time of Prohibition. I’ve gone back and forth with him—in one book he’s in his forties, and in the next, he’s back in his twenties. It’s your own universe, so you can do what you want.
In a way, I don’t really see myself as an author. I feel I’m more an entertainer than anything else. It’s my job to entertain the readers so when they reach the end of the book, they feel they’ve gotten their money’s worth.
Do you have any advice for novice writers?
If you have some natural talent and really want to write, you should read the books of someone who’s very successful in your genre. You don’t want to plagiarize, but you want to learn from that author. You study the structure, style, and characterizations he employs. Hemingway always said he studied Dostoyevsky. There’s a great story about Thomas Wolfe when he was in the Merchant Marines. He came ashore, went to an old bookstore and bought James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is about the size of a telephone book. He went back to the ship and over the next few months, copied Ulysses down in a notebook, word-for-word. When he finished, he threw the notebook off the ship’s stern. His shipmates couldn’t believe what he’d done after spending months copying the book. They asked why he’d thrown it overboard. His answer, ‘Because now I know how to write a book.’
If you could have dinner with any five people from any walk of life, living or dead, who would they be?
For me, I’d love to have the great heroes of our country. They would be George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Albert Einstein would be great to invite, also. And then, there’s Jim Thorpe. One more would be General Patton. If I had to pick one writer, it would be Hemingway.
Congratulations on writing The Assassin, another Isaac Bell adventure set at the turn-of-the 20th century, in which you blend fact, fiction and lightening-paced action for the reader to enjoy.
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.