Sara Paretsky is the award-winning author of the V. I. Warshawski detective novels. In 1982, when Sara wrote Indemnity Only, she revolutionized the mystery novel by creating a hard-boiled woman investigator.
Growing up in rural Kansas, Sara came to Chicago in 1966 to do community service work in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King was organizing. Sara felt that summer changed her life; and after finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Kansas, she returned to make Chicago her home.
She received a PhD in American History and an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Sara shares her heroine’s passion for social justice. In 1986, she founded Sisters in Crime to support women mystery writers. She established a foundation to support women in the arts, letters, and sciences; and has endowed scholarships at the University of Kansas, as well as mentoring students in Chicago’s inner city schools. She serves on various advisory boards for literacy, and for supporting the mentally-ill homeless.
Having received many literary awards, her novels have been translated into nearly 30 languages.
In Brushback, V.I. is visited by an old flame, Frank Guzzo, whose mother, Stella, served 25 years in prison after being convicted of bludgeoning her daughter to death. Stella loathed the entire Warshawski family, especially V.I.’s mother, Gabriella. Feeling sympathy for Frank, V.I. agrees to ask around in an effort to possibly exonerate Stella. Her efforts land her in a scorpion’s den of duplicitous Illinois politics, and V.I.’s primary question soon becomes whether she will live to find the answers.
In reading Brushback, I was struck by your vivid descriptions of Chicago. Your integration of character with environment has been compared to that of Hammett and Chandler. Will you talk about setting in your novels?
Chicago is the city where I came of age. The summer of 1966 was probably the most intense experience of my life. I got very involved in the neighborhood and the city. Even though it was a violent summer, I always think of it as the summer of hope, passion, and the summer when I grew up. I think that’s why Chicago plays such a big role in my books. For me, it’s an emotionally important place.
Chicago is like a set of small towns and neighborhoods. When I worked with kids who had never been downtown, they weren’t terribly impressed by the big buildings or Christmas lights when we took them there. The details they saw through children’s eyes were drunks passed out on rooftops, or wildlife running along the elevated train tracks. I learned from them that what makes a scene come alive is close-up detail, and that’s found its way into my books.
How has V.I. evolved in Brushback as compared to Indemnity Only, the first novel in the series?
When I wrote Indemnity Only, there weren’t women, either in real life or in fiction, doing what V.I. was doing. The year it was published, 1982, was the first year women could serve in Chicago’s regular police force instead of merely being matrons at detention centers. So, V.I. had a chip on her shoulder and was much more in-your-face than she is now. V.I. had to prove her worth, but now, she’s dealing with other problems. She and I are both older, more mature; and I guess, more worried about things. I’m a self-taught writer and don’t think out what a protagonist should or shouldn’t be doing. V.I. tends to reflect more of my own emotional life at the specific time I’m writing.
As you pen more novels about her, how do you find different issues to challenge V.I.? I know my books are described as issue-driven, but they don’t come to me that way. They unfold for me as stories. Brushback started when I met someone in charge of arranging tours for Chicago Cubs fans. He told me about the underbelly of Wrigley Field. That sparked the idea for Brushback. I had to build a story, and it evolved out of V.I.’s old neighborhood. Even though I’m not a native of Chicago, stories from the old neighborhoods grip me. I get letters from people from these neighborhoods, and they often drive my thinking about the stories.
You’ve been noted for writing crime novels with a feminist perspective. Will you tell us about that?
I grew up in Kansas, a very conservative state. My parents were old-fashioned in their views about what girls should aspire to. I have four brothers, and it was a struggle for me to have the same opportunities life provided them by birth. These issues mattered very much to me personally. When I began writing crime fiction for publication, I was part of the first generation of women to do so, and had to deal with a certain amount of resentment. Sue Grafton and I were writing hardboiled books in what had been a masculine genre. That personal history has always shaped how I see the world, and it goaded me into starting Sisters in Crime.
As president of the Mystery Writers of America, what, if any trends do you see now in mystery fiction?
Publishing is in freefall. Nobody knows where anything is going. Will e-books transform everything? Will self-publishing be the fate of all writers except for James Patterson and a few others? The big casualty in this brave new world has been the loss of opportunity for African American, gay and lesbian writers; and to a lesser extent, for women writers. Back in 2000, there were probably twenty-five black writers published by the big houses. Today, there are three or four. We’re trying to develop ways to bring all writers to the attention of readers.
With nineteen V.I. Warshawski books, do you have a favorite?
Hardball is right up there. It deals with torture done by the Chicago police, which went on in real life for about twenty years. I think in some ways, it’s my strongest novel because it drew on my personal history.
My favorite is the one published last year, Critical Mass. Everything about it was so very personal for me. It’s about a scientist whose life was derailed by the Nazis in a way similar to how my family’s world was upended. Actually, they were all murdered. The only people in my family to survive were my grandparents, who came to America before war broke out.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
Way too many things do that. (Laughter). I worry my career’s disintegrating. I worry whether people will buy my books, or if I still know how to write a book. I have to start a new book, since I’m under contract. It just never gets easier. In fact, it gets harder as you go along.
Ruby Rich, who used to review for the Village Voice, said, ‘Writing is a form of auto-sadomasochism—first you tie yourself to the bed, and then you beat yourself up.’
While Brushback has gotten some great pre-publication reviews, I think, ‘Oh no. I can’t do it again. They’ll hate the new one.’
What has surprised you about the writing life?
That there’s such good will among crime writers. There’s really a great deal of mutual support. In the world of the important literary writers, there are always feuds and endless quarrels, such as the classic one between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Crime writers fly below the radar. We’re not viewed as being as important as so-called literary writers; that creates a different and more collegial atmosphere. It’s been a surprise to me, and I feel very happy to be where I am.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d invite P.D. James. I didn’t know her well, but she was one of the wittiest, liveliest people I’ve ever encountered. Politics notwithstanding, our core values were very much alike. She once took me to the Atheneum Club in London. She was the first woman to be admitted as a member. We had such a great time making all the old stodgy members go, ‘tut-tut.’ Another person I’d invite would be the historian Daniel Boorstin, who was appointed Librarian of Congress. To please my husband, I’d include Galileo, his favorite scientist. I’d invite another beloved crime writer who died last year, Dorothy Salisbury Davis. I was with her when she was dying. She was born Catholic and said, “I know which saint I want to greet me when I cross the river—St. Teresa of Avila. I want her because if God could put up with her rebellious spirit, he could put up with me.’ And I’d include Teresa of Avila along with Dorothy. And, I’d include Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis competitors of all time.
Congratulations on writing Brushback, another novel by an author about whom The New York Times’s Marilyn Stasio said, ‘There are plenty of women among the ranks of genre authors, but not many like Sara Paretsky, whose intellectually lively mysteries featuring her gutsy Chicago private eye, V.I. Warshawski, are fired by political causes and feminist social issues.’
Brad Parks is the only author to have won crime fiction’s Shames, Nero, and Lefty Awards. As in his five previous novels, his protagonist, Carter Ross, is an investigative reporter for Newark’s Eagle-Examiner.
In The Fraud, a rash of carjackings is terrorizing Newark. When one theft results in the murder of a banking executive, Ross begins investigating the case. He soon learns that a Nigerian immigrant was also killed in another carjacking only days apart from the executive’s murder. Carter discovers the two victims knew each other, and finds himself on the trail of a deadly band of car thieves. Nothing is really as it seems as the stakes rise, threatening Carter’s life and that of his unborn child.
You were a reporter for The Washington Post and the Newark Star-Ledger. Are the Carter Ross mysteries spinoffs from actual events you investigated as a reporter? I rip off shamelessly from real life. One year in the newsroom gives you enough material for twenty novels. I spent a dozen years in various newsrooms and it’s provided me with a wealth of stories.
The Fraud begins with an intriguing sentence: “It’s a hypothetical question every parent considers at some point: Would you give your life for your kid?” Will you talk about the importance of a novel’s opening lines? I think the patience of readers everywhere has changed in the last thirty years. Once upon a time, a novel had twenty pages to hook someone. I don’t think anyone gives a book that much time anymore. If you can snare a reader on the first page, that’s great. If you can do it with the first sentence, it’s even better.
The Fraud paints a frightening picture of the dangers of carjacking in Newark, New Jersey. Describe what the novel calls “the Newark cruise” in relation to carjacking? The “Newark cruise” is an example of street-smart civil disobedience as practiced in Newark, New Jersey. Coming to a full-stop at a red light late at night is an act of folly. If you do, you make yourself a target for someone to walk up to your car wanting to sell you drugs. There’s a more dangerous risk—carjacking. When you see a red light off in the distance, you slow down well ahead of time, giving yourself leeway to slowly cruise up to it. You inch up to the red light. If you reach the intersection while the light is still red, you look around, and if nothing’s coming, you gun it, and go right through the intersection.
That being said, I don’t want to portray Newark as a crime-infested city. When I worked for the Star-Ledger, I knew two Newarks: there was the Newark during the day and the one at night. They were virtually different cities. There are many wonderful people in Newark working very hard to make it a better place to live.
Carter Ross says some humorous things in The Fraud. What role can humor play in a mystery or thriller? As a writer, I try to reflect the world around me. The journalism world, and particularly the newsroom, is a place where people always make wisecracks. Journalism isn’t unique in this regard: hang around with cops, ER people, nurses, social workers or any other profession where people see the more difficult aspects of life, and you’ll find gallows humor. It helps us get through things we might not otherwise handle as easily. I want Carter Ross’s world to reflect that reality about journalism. While some people feel you can’t have suspense and humor together in a novel, I think humor can be a bit of a tension-reliever before the next suspenseful event occurs. Humor can give a thriller peaks and valleys. But I don’t inject humor into my books in a calculated way. The world I lived in—journalism—was filled with humor.
How and why did you decide to become a full-time novelist? It’s sad, but also lucky for me. The newspaper industry is dying. It wasn’t going to be there for me into the future. My wife and I were starting a family, and it was very clear I wouldn’t be able to ride the dinosaur—the newspaper industry—to the finish line. The positive thing is this: I would never have done something as risky as quitting my job to write novels. I’m just not wired that way. Facing the impending demise of the papers, I ended up taking a gamble I might not have otherwise attempted. It forced me to follow a dream.
You’ve said your writing process involves “pantsing.” Explain what this means to our readers. “Pantsing” means you have no idea what the ending is when you begin the novel. It means flying by the seat of your pants. It can even mean I have no idea what the next sentence will be. It’s like jazz improvisation at the computer keyboard. It’s both terrifying and wonderful fun. I literally have no idea what’s going to happen each morning when I sit down to write. There are times when I’ll come home to my wife and say, ‘Honey, you’ll never guess what Carter did today.’ (Laughter) It’s as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone. If it’s a delightful surprise to me, it’s going be that way for the reader. I don’t plot out or outline my novels in advance.
But you do have some concept of the story you’re about to tell. As a newspaper guy, I always start off with questions: What issue do I want to write about? What is my topic? Then I ask myself, what crime might derive from that topic? And who might have cause to commit that crime? Who gains from it? I usually begin writing before I have all those questions answered. Much of it gets discovered along the way, during the writing process. Yes, at times, I write towards a destination, but I try to be flexible enough to accommodate the element of surprise.
I once tried to outline a book. I wrote an eighteen-thousand word outline. It was choreographed to the last nanosecond. I woke up every morning knowing exactly the scene I would write. It was like painting by numbers. There was no joy in the writing. I ended up throwing out that novel.
What has surprised you about the writing life? Simply put, what surprises me is how much about the writing life I still don’t understand. The creative process remains a mystery to me, and perhaps to everyone else. The number one question we’re asked at book-signings is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I still don’t have the foggiest clue where these things come from. I do a lot of running, but the real benefit of running is that’s when ideas come to me. It’s a particularly fertile time for me. Creativity is still a mystery to me.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing? My buddy Reed Farrell Coleman says, ‘Fall in love with writing, not with what you’ve written.’ It’s really about finding a process for your art, and sticking with it. You have so little control over the results of your efforts. You send a book out into the world and have no control over what happens to it. But you can control what you put into that effort—the very best in yourself. I try making sure I’m giving the best of what I have to offer to the reader. I don’t drink when I’m in the middle of a draft; I get rest; I write early in the mornings, and know how the process works best for me.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night? All the other stuff that’s not the process of actually writing. (Laughter). I used to worry I’d run out of words; that one day I’d wake up, and the words wouldn’t be there. Sometimes a particular turn of phrase just materializes in my head, and I wonder if someday that will stop. What if that magical creativity vanishes? Because, I have to be honest: Besides writing, I have no other marketable skills.
Congratulations on writing The Fraud, a witty and gritty novel about which Library Journal said, ‘Parks, a gifted storyteller (with shades of Mark Twain, or maybe Dave Barry), shows his mastery of the comic absurd behind serious journalism.’
Brian Panowich is a firefighter and former musician. As an army brat, he grew up in Europe until the family settled in East Georgia. His debut novel, Bull Mountain, has received extensive praise from James Ellroy, C.J. Box, Wiley Cash, John Connolly, among others.
Bull Mountain is set in the backwoods Georgia hills and spans the decades between the 1940s and today. This story of multigenerational crime and retribution is told from multiple points of view; and the acts of vengeance that have kept the Burroughs clan in complete control of the surrounding community are described in rich detail.
This is your first published novel. How and when did you decide to become a writer?
When I was a kid, I wanted to write comic books. I was a junkie for them. My father was a big reader and there were always books around the house. As I got older, I realized writing comic books wouldn’t attract women (Laughter), so I forgot about it. In college, I studied journalism. After that, I spent 15 years playing music—everything from punk rock to Southern country—in a band. Once I got married and we had a baby girl, the music business, with all its road-trips, ended for me. We settled in Georgia, and I became a fireman.
I needed a creative outlet of some sort, so I started writing again. I wrote short stories, and some were published in journals. A couple of them caught the attention of Nat Sobel, an agent in New York. He asked if I’d written a novel; I hadn’t, but he said if I ever wrote one, to give him a call. It took me a year to write this novel, and I wasn’t even sure he’d remember me when I called. But, he did. He loved the book, and when it was completed, he sold it in a month. It’s been a whirlwind experience. What’s happened to me just doesn’t happen. It seems to have fallen into my lap.
If you had to describe Bull Mountain in one or two sentences, what would you say?
It’s primarily a family saga about Southern people and the way they do things, as opposed to the rest of the world.
Your portrayal of various members of the Burroughs clan is quite compelling. Clayton Burroughs is certainly the most interesting. How would you describe his conflicts and challenges?
He’s clearly tormented. He’s come to terms with the heinous crimes committed by his family. As the county sheriff, he knows he’s not following in his father’s or older brother’s footsteps. His choice doesn’t fit well with a family whose crime history goes back for generations. He’s haunted by the fact he’s turned his back on his family. That’s his primary conflict and he must deal with it.
Bull Mountain describes the evolution from moonshine production to raising marijuana, and now to the production of methamphetamine. Tell us about your research.
West Virginia and Kentucky were known for moonshine production. It took a great deal of intelligence for the guys in those north Georgia foothills to stay off the police radar.
Once Prohibition was over, all the elements were in place for illegal drug production. Liquor would no longer make money, so they had to progress to a more profitable product.
Today, those hills are a gateway to drugs everywhere else.
Actually, most of my research came from folks living in north Georgia. I don’t know how much of what they told me is true, and for sure, I dramatized quite a bit of it.
Bull Mountain has been described as crime fiction, literary fiction, and as Southern noir. How would you characterize it?
I wanted to write an interesting story dealing with a Southern family. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel, but since I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan, I think his influence was somewhere in the back of my mind to do that. I just let the characters take the story where they did. I love being told I’ve written in these various genres, but I honestly don’t have any idea in which genre Bull Mountain belongs. To me, it’s like The Godfather, a family saga, more than anything else. The exact nature of the Corleone enterprise isn’t nearly as interesting as the relationship between the family members.
John Connolly is one of my literary heroes; anything he says is gold to me, so when he called Bull Mountain ‘Hillbilly noir,’ that’s fine with me.
You’re a full-time firefighter, husband, and father. How do you find time to write?
I can’t write unless I’m at the fire station. My shifts are twenty four hours “on,” and forty eight “off.” My time at the fire house is almost like a day off compared to being at home with four young children. Nothing much gets accomplished at home outside of caring for the kids.
When I set out to write this book, I wrote every third day during my shift at work. So, if there wasn’t something burning in the county, I was holed up in a closet, writing. My co-workers were one-hundred percent behind me and said, ‘Go for it.’
What do you feel is the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
A book is never done, never finished. When you think it’s done; it’s not. Eventually, I had to learn to let go of the manuscript. When I turned it into my agent, I thought it was finished, but he had some significant ideas to improve it. I’m very used to doing things on my own, and had to learn to trust other people and let them have a hand in my work to make it better.
What, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
The accolades I’ve received keep me up at night. To have a literary journal like Booklist compare me to John Steinbeck is surreal and frightening.
Are you worried the level of expectation has been raised too high?
Yes. How could something I did every third day at the firehouse be compared to the work of an author who’s an American icon? I’m just worried when the book hits the shelves, people might be disappointed. There’s an awful lot to live up to. It spooks me. There’s a lot of pressure and that keeps me up at night.
Bull Mountain has such a rich and multigenerational cast of characters. Is there a sequel coming?
In a way, yes there is. The next book is set on Bull Mountain. I’m not a fan of series, but I like building a world. As an example, Elmore Leonard would write a book, and some two-bit characters in that book would be main characters in a following novel, or the one after that. I’ve built a world on this place called Bull Mountain, and I want to expand on it. I like the idea of telling stories about different characters living in the same setting. So, the second novel is set on Bull Mountain, but it’s mostly based on different characters.
Congratulations on penning Bull Mountain, a novel C.J. Box described as “a sprawling, gritty, violent, tribal intergenerational crime epic with a deeply rooted sense of place and a gut-punch ending I didn’t see coming.”
Author of The Lovers’ Tango and Return to Sandara
“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
—The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump. To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police in Basalt County would be hunting him down.”
—First Blood by David Morrell
“Keller thinks he hears a baby cry.
The sound is just audible over the muted rotors as the helicopter comes in low toward the jungle village.
The cry, if that is what he’s hearing, is shrill and sharp, a call of hunger, fear, or pain.”
—The Cartel by Don Winslow
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.”
—Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Though written in diverse styles, varying tenses and with different points of view, these first few sentences or paragraphs penned by immensely gifted authors have much more in common than just superb writing.
Each sequence of sentences hooks the reader instantaneously by its masterful use of language; and as importantly, delivers an undeniable aura of mystery and foreboding.
“Something portentous is about to happen here,” each boldly declares.
As a reader, your curiosity is aroused, impelling you to read on, surrendering yourself to whatever the author has planned for you.
The power of the first few sentences leads you to follow the writer’s beckoning, seducing you to enter his imagination. They seem to say, Come on this journey with me.
No matter the genre, a novel’s opening lines are crucial in determining your interest in what the author has in store for you. Those first few words set the template for your willingness to travel along the story’s path.
Writers from Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to Melville (“Call me Ishmael”) knew the power of first impressions. And that’s true for contemporary writers, as well.
I invite readers to comment by submitting opening sentences or paragraphs exemplifying the adage that the first few lines of a novel are like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: everything else follows from them.
Candace Bushnell is a novelist and television producer who from 1994-1996, wrote a column for The New York Observer which was adapted into the bestselling anthology, Sex and the City. It became the basis for the HBO hit series of the same name.
She followed up with the internationally bestselling novels, 4 Blondes, Trading Up, Lipstick Jungle, One Fifth Avenue, The Carrie Diaries, and Summer and the City. Her novels have been successfully adapted for television and films. Candace is the winner of the prestigious 2006 Matrix Award for books (other winners have included Joan Didion and Amy Tan), and received the Albert Einstein Spirit of Achievement Award.
In Killing Monica, Pandy “PJ” Wallis is a renowned writer whose novels about a young Manhattan woman, Monica, have generated a series of enormously popular films. After the success of the Monica books and movies, Pandy wants to write something entirely different: a historical novel based on her ancestor, Lady Wallis. But everyone wants Pandy to keep cranking out Monica books—as does her husband, Jonny, who’s gone deeply into debt financing his new Las Vegas restaurant.
When her marriage crumbles and the boathouse of her Connecticut family home goes up in flames, Pandy realizes she has an opportunity to reinvent herself. But she will have to reconcile her new ambition with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica on the big screen—and who may have her own reasons to derail Pandy’s change of plans.
In a recent interview you said Killing Monica is not about Carrie Bradshaw or Sarah Jessica Parker. Will you expand on that?
I went online to BookCon, where a reporter was trying to be provocative and made the comparison. It’s hilarious to me. When I read this stuff, it’s like I’m not reading about myself. We know tabloids make things up. When I read that I thought, ‘This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity.’ People like a juicy story, one that’s easy, but not true. There’s just no truth to that allegation.
You recently said Killing Monica is actually about identity. Will you tell us more?
The idea of Killing Monica is truly about identity. Monica is a metaphor for the idea that women have this idealized fantasy of a more perfect version of themselves. We create a persona that works for us in our twenties and thirties, but when we’re in our forties, that persona no longer works as well. It’s like wearing an itchy sweater. What does a woman do? Killing Monica is really about rediscovering one’s self, and if needed, reinventing the self. It also addresses the issue of having the courage to find your true voice again. I feel so many women lose their real selves when they’re younger and rushing to be super-women, to accomplish everything. For many, part of the self gets lost while they’re caring for others.
And of course, PJ is trying to rediscover herself in the novel.
Yes. One reason I laugh when people conclude the novel has something to do with my life is because the novel is a screwball comedy with lots of outlandish things happening. There’s mistaken identity, and it’s totally madcap.
But it’s all in the service of the core theme of the book: a woman’s search for her true identity.
So, unlike PJ, you don’t have ‘high literary ambitions’?
(Laughter) If one didn’t have high literary ambitions, there’d be no reason to be a writer. Every writer I know, in every genre, takes writing really seriously, as we should. Writing is hard. It’s creative and imaginative, and I have respect for anyone who engages in that process. Of course, I aspire, but the reality for me as a writer is simple: I’ve always had a grating voice—even as a child—and you can never get away from your own voice. And that’s what Pandy is on the verge of discovering about herself. Although now, after talking with you, I would probably go back and make that moment in the book a bigger one. (Laughter).
Last Sunday, in the New York Times column By the Book, you said you would require every person to read Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Will you expand on that?
It was a serious and eye-opening book. It’s a fascinating scientific examination of human behavior. It addresses male violence towards women, and how it’s used for power. Part of my thinking in this regard comes from my having grown up in the sixties. There was a revolution in the popular culture that said, ‘Say no to the man.’ It was a rebellion against corporate America and the homogenization of people. I was thinking about that revolutionary spirit when I answered that question.
In that interview, you also mentioned tweaking and rewriting, saying ‘Writing is rewriting.’ Tell us about your writing process.
I’ll start a book and get as far as I can—maybe eighty pages into it. Then, I go back, again and again. I keep revising before I move on to the next section. I break the book into chunks. I write set pieces or little playlets—almost like short stories within the novel—and by going back repeatedly, I eventually integrate all the pieces.
Your books and films have been viewed as addressing a new paradigm for today’s women. Tell us more.
I’ve always been interested in examining the kinds of lives women lead. I’m fascinated by where we are as a culture and by the age-old questions about feminism and the empowerment of women. I don’t have answers, but equality for women is extremely important to me.
If you weren’t a writer and television producer, what would you be doing today?
I’d probably write jingles. (Laughter)
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d definitely invite Hillary Clinton. Then, I’d want Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Teresa, and Madonna to be there.
What would you be talking about?
I could think of a really sappy answer.
Don’t give us sap. Give us Candace.
I’d hope they’d all bring their experiences and insights to making the world a better place for women.
What’s coming next from Candace Bushnell?
I have a line of emojis called Candace Bushnell’s EmojiNation. Hopefully, they’ll be available in the app store very soon.
And, emojis are…?
Emojis are graphic symbols, a sort of shorthand way of conveying messages. They’re sometimes called emoticons, like a smiley-face. They’re usually encoded in devices and convey a range of thoughts or feelings. Mine are cheeky, fun emojis geared towards women.
I’m also working on my Killing Monica theme song for a music video. I have a line of stationary coming out. And, there’s a Killing Monica wine. It’s really great. You get a book and a bottle of wine. It’s sold online.
Congratulations on penning Killing Monica, a novel about which Booklist said, ‘Bushnell successfully sticks to her tried-and-true recipe: sex, humor, female friendships, subtle social commentary, smart women who make foolish choices, and thrilling plot twists.’
Don Winslow is known to thriller lovers everywhere, especially after his extraordinary novel, Savages, which was made into a film directed by Oliver Stone. Don grew up in Rhode Island, and at age seventeen, left to study journalism at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a degree in African Studies. While in college, he traveled to southern Africa, sparking a lifelong involvement with that continent. Later, he obtained a master’s degree in Military History.
Don spent time in California, Idaho and Montana before moving to New York City to become a writer. He paid his bills working as a movie theater manager and as a private investigator. Later, Don joined a friend’s safari firm in Kenya, where he led photographic expeditions, as well as hiking trips to the mountains of Southwest China. When not on safari, Don directed Shakespeare plays at Oxford during their summer program.
Don’s first novel, A Cool Breeze On The Underground, was nominated for an Edgar Award.
Moving to California, he returned to doing investigative work, as a trial consultant. A film and publishing deal for his novel, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, allowed him to write full-time and settle in southern California, the setting for many of his books.
Don’s latest novel, The Cartel, a sequel to his 2006 epic book, The Power of the Dog, covers the years between 2004 and 2014. The DEA’s Art Keller is pitted against Adan Barrera, the head of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel. Keller has been hunting Barrera for 30 years, and for these two men, the hunt has become personal. Keller is responsible for the deaths of Barrera’s brother and uncle, and his ultimate capture. After being imprisoned in the U.S., Barrera is extradited to Mexico, where he escapes. Barrera places a two million dollar bounty on Keller’s head as each man hunts the other. The novel is a sprawling epic of drug trafficking, murder, coercion, and corruption at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and government.
The Cartel has astounding details about the Mexican drug trade and the so-called war on drugs. Will you talk a bit about your research for the novel?
Between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, I spent ten years researching and writing about the topic. If you include Savages and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, it’s more like fifteen years. Everyone had stereotypical images of the Mexican cartels, and like most stereotypes, some are true, but many aren’t. For me, it was a matter of going after the details, trying to give these people real lives. My research technique partly involves my training as a historian. I try getting deep background, most of which won’t show up in the book, but which informs how I write the novel. I didn’t start with crime or cartel lore, I began with Aztec and Mayan history, and the conquistador era. When I felt I had some understanding of the culture, I went to more recent history, extensively reading articles and books about the drug cartels.
I didn’t want to approach DEA people, cops, former intelligence people or drug people out of ignorance. I wanted the background before talking to these people. You know, when you’re writing, the research can be constant. As you write, you may be in the middle of a paragraph, when more questions arise. I even want to get physical details of what things look, sound, and smell like—everything. The bizarre, surreal thing about researching the drug cartels was that most of it was already in the media and social media. By the time you get to the cartel era between 2004 and 2014, the drug lords were advertising. They were putting out demos on video clips. They were writing to newspaper editors and photographing banners over stacks of bodies, explaining what they did and why they did it. The drug wars became hyper-violent and widely known.
You dedicated The Cartel to more than 100 named journalists who were murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period of the novel. Tell us about that.
The cartels came to a point where they realized they not only had to fight the war with bullets, but had to win ‘the hearts and minds of people.’ They wanted to control the narrative, so they began killing journalists who told the truth. They began bribing journalists, army officers, and the police—it was a matter of ‘Take this money or we’ll kill you.’ So, many journalists caved in and wouldn’t cover the cartels’ activities.
The novel clearly exposes the cartels as virtually a shadow government.
Yes. In fact, they are shadow governments. They control somewhere between eight and twelve percent of the Mexican economy. Their economic power alone makes them a shadow government. They began dictatorially controlling news coverage. And that meant intimidating, terrorizing, and killing journalists.
Shifting gears, you said when you wrote Savages, you wanted to write a book that ‘tore the cage a little, and maybe broke out.’ What did you mean?
(Laughter) I’m a genre guy, and there’s that slight stink on us. Literary fiction looks down on us. We’re in something of a ghetto. Over the last ten years, bloggers, critics, publishers and editors have become so concerned with branding and defining what crime fiction should be. There are definitions and sub-definitions, and I felt all of these categories kept tightening the cage. You know, it’s the notion that if you’re a thriller writer, you must have your character in mortal jeopardy on page one, or it’s not a thriller. Or, by page one-hundred sixty, you must introduce a secondary character who has critical information regarding the case (Laughter). I began wondering, Who’s setting these rules? I felt we thriller writers were becoming serial brands—like Frosted Flakes, Wheaties, or maybe Cheerios. People have had trouble categorizing me. Some stores have my books in the mystery section, others have me in fiction. I wanted to break out of that box.
Do you break any “rules” of writing with your novels?
I guess so. (More laughter)
Which one do you break most often?
I break the rules about point-of-view, switching them like a schizophrenic. Some writers try to figure out how to switch point-of view inside a page. I’m trying to figure out how to do it inside a word. (Laughter).
Here’s another question about technique: many of your novels are written in the present tense. What made you decide to use that approach?
I remember the moment I first did it. It was in 1995. My career was flat-lining. Working as an investigator, I was riding the train each day from San Juan Capistrano to downtown L.A. I was writing on my laptop in the traditional third person, past tense narrative style. But it seemed flat and dull. I was bored with myself. So, I began writing the next page in the present tense. It opened up a whole new world for me. I began to have fun again. It turned into The Death and Life of Bobby Z.
The first few sentences of that book changed my writing life. Writing in the present tense is liberating. I love it. The next sentence is coming at you in the here and now. And, it’s cinematic. It immerses the reader in the immediacy of now. It’s as though I’m saying to the reader, ‘Come with me on this cool trip. I want you with me. I’m not going to tell you, ‘here’s what happened. It’s too bad you weren’t there when it happened, so let me describe it to you.’ Instead, I say, ‘Let’s travel this path together.’
In an earlier novel, you described an elevated structure as being ‘Carl Sagan high.’ In The Cartel, you describe an obese man as ‘one jelly donut away from a triple bypass.’ Your metaphors are arresting and often reference popular culture. Tell us about that.
I think I use pop culture because I’m not that intellectual. I look for things people can relate to. We thriller writers write about a lot of really far out things—stuff most readers never encounter in their lives. So, I look for images and metaphors that will make it familiar. I also think they’re fun. They just come to mind. And of course, the rhythm of the writing is important—even a single syllable can make a huge difference.
Like ‘One Jelly donut away from a triple bypass…?’
(Laughter) Yes. It has a cadence, a rhythm of its own. At first, I thought maybe it could be one jelly donut away from a heart attack. But then, I wanted to push it a little bit—maybe angle it off, and take it one step further to make it more distinctive. The triple bypass reference is funnier.
Is it true you once said that for you, writing is an addiction?
(Laughter) I think it’s true. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing; sometimes, not.
Is it also true that you work on two or even three books at a time?
Yes. For the most part, I’m afraid it’s true. But when I’m nearing the home stretch of a book, I focus on that one, exclusively.
How do you feel if a day goes by and you haven’t written?
Anxious. Very anxious. (Laughter). I feel guilty. I should be home writing. I feel as though I’m shirking…it’s a strange kind of dysphoria. I think this writing addiction is like a dope-driven rush. When it’s going well, it’s a real high. When it’s going badly, it feels like it’s just a job.
I try taking Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I’m improving myself (More laughter). But, I definitely feel as though something is wrong. Sometimes, I just can’t turn it off; I’m writing in my head. I’ll be walking with my wife and she’ll say, ‘What did you say?’ I’ll answer, ‘I didn’t say anything.’ But it turns out I was speaking a character’s dialogue, and wasn’t even aware of it.
I walk nearly every day on this winding road with these wicked curves. One day, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I literally walked off the edge of a little cliff. Luckily, it was a short drop. I was busily plotting something. (More laughter).
Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
That’s a tough one. They’re all my children. It’s not a favorite, but I’m so attached to my first book, A Cool Breeze on the Underground. It was such a struggle and took so long to write. I have a fondness for Dog and Cartel because I spent so many years on them. And then there’s Savages, which was such a dice toss. I just said ‘the hell with it. It’ll probably end up badly.’ But it didn’t. I really can’t say I have a favorite. I love them all, but each in a different way. Picking a favorite is sort of like trying to pick your favorite child.
Or being asked which is your favorite dog?
Yes. You know, it’s been eight years since we lost our last dog. It was one of the worst days of my life. I haven’t been able to get another one. I just can’t go through that kind of loss again.
The Winter of Frankie Machine concerns a former mafia hit man, and is a ‘smaller’ and very human story, in contrast to the epic proportions of The Cartel and The Power of the Dog. Will you talk about that?
It took me five years to do Dog. I came out of that experience mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. After that, I wanted to do a smaller story—even though the story of Frankie Machine is about crime in Southern California. All the cases in the flashback scenes were real cases I fictionalized. It’s a good changeup to play with scale. So, rather than telling the story of twenty-five people over fifty years, I decided to just get into the head of this individual, and look at life through his experiences. If the reader gets some history, that’s good; but I wanted the intimacy of one man’s story. After the first twenty pages, you know Frankie, and you care about him. I wondered if I could write about a guy whose job it was to kill people and make him human, and even likable.
Is there anything in your background that’s made you so interested in crime stories?
Sometimes, I ask myself that question. I don’t know that I can come up with the real answer. I guess the hypotenuse answer is that it’s life in the extreme. I grew up during the New England crime wars, so as a kid, I knew about these kinds of guys in the neighborhood.
You’re having a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
Crazy Horse would by my first guest because I want to know what really happened at the Little Big Horn. Buddha would be next, because I feel I have to get noble here for just a second. Then, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because I think he’s the American poet. He’s always, in a real sense, spoken to me. I’d have the late Art Pepper, a great saxophone jazz artist. Then I’d have Brendan Behan, the Irish poet, novelist and short-story writer. He was so clever, he actually said, ‘I’m a drinker with a writing problem.’ (Laughter)
What would you all be talking about?
(Laughter) Assuming we could talk…if I spoke Lakota, I’d be probing Crazy Horse about what really happened at the Little Big Horn. I wouldn’t want Custer there because he was a liar. I would love to hear Brendan Behan and Springsteen talk. I’d be talking to Pepper about riffs in certain jazz songs. I don’t think I’d talk much. I’d just sit back and take it all in.
Congratulations on writing The Cartel, a grand and gripping epic novel James Ellroy called “The War and Peace of dope-war books.” It has plot, character, action, vivid dialogue and description—it has everything.
Grant Blackwood co-authored Dead or Alive with Tom Clancy, The Kill Switch with James Rollins, and The Fargo Adventure Series with Clive Cussler. He’s also the author of the Briggs Tanner series, among other novels. A U. S. Navy veteran, Grant spent three years aboard a guided missile frigate as an Operations Specialist and a Pilot Rescue Swimmer.
Under Fire is Grant’s first solo Tom Clancy book in the Jack Ryan, Jr. series. Working alone for the first time on assignment for The Campus in Tehran, Jack shares lunch with an old friend, Seth Gregory, during which he’s given the key to Seth’s apartment, along with a cryptic message. Soon thereafter, Seth goes missing and Jack, doing his best to locate his friend, finds himself entangled in a web of espionage; global politics involving the CIA, Great Britain’s MI 6, Russian and Iranian intelligence; and a popular uprising in neighboring Dagestan.
How did you approach writing Under Fire in light of Tom Clancy’s untimely death?
The guiding force was to stay true to the Tom Clancy franchise. I’m steeped in the Clancy universe and that informed everything I did in this book. The question I asked myself was: ‘Am I doing my best to give Tom Clancy fans what they would get if he were still alive?’
Since Under Fire is your first solo effort in the Tom Clancy franchise, did you feel any pressures or restrictions?
There were no restrictions at all. My editor and the people at Putnam were fantastic. I didn’t feel pressure, partially because I’d co-authored Dead or Alive with Tom, which did very well. The only pressure I felt was to come up with something fresh. I knew I would write about Jack Ryan, Jr. on his own, and this would be a very personal story for him. I had to delve into what would drive him; what would challenge him; and what would put him in jeopardy.
You anticipated my next question. In Under Fire, Jack Ryan Jr. must negotiate trouble on his own. How does he evolve in this scenario?
This is the seventh Jack Ryan, Jr. book in the series, so Jack has been through a great deal. In earlier books, he was an analyst, but now, in Under Fire, he’s a full-fledged field operative. The reader gets to see his evolution as he now takes on challenges largely by himself.
In Under Fire, Ysabel Kashani is an intriguing love interest. Tell us a little about her and the relationship she and Jack forge.
Early in the book, Jack is in big trouble. She appears at just the right moment. She has a relationship with Seth Gregory, the man Jack is trying to find. For a while, Ysabel’s motivation is a bit of a mystery. But slowly and steadily, Jack begins trusting her and she becomes a real partner. Anyone who has read Jack’s story in previous books knows forming relationships is a bit of a challenge for him.
I understand when The Hunt for Red October was published, you were involved in anti-submarine warfare. Tell us about that, and your relationship to Tom Clancy’s novels.
Even before I started writing, I admired him. I read The Hunt for Red October on board a U.S. Navy warship. I recall the book detailing things I was actually trained to do. It was a bit surreal because right there in a novel, Tom Clancy got a lot of stuff right. It was fascinating to me. When I started writing, Tom was something of a mentor for me. It finally came full circle to be writing books with him and now carrying on his legacy.
In addition to penning your own novels, and working with Tom Clancy, you’ve collaborated with some of the other bestselling authors in the world. How does collaboration on a novel work?
It depends on the author with whom I’m working. I take my cues from my co-author because part of being a collaborator is being flexible. When we first get together to talk about how to proceed, we work and flesh everything out ahead of time so there are no surprises.
How is writing a Tom Clancy novel different from co-authoring a James Rollins or Clive Cussler novel?
Within the thriller genre there are many sub-genres. The term ‘thriller’ is something of an umbrella. Tom Clancy wrote political intrigue. James Rollins and Clive Cussler are adventure novelists. So, I have to switch gears a bit with each co-author. In a Clancy novel, I hope to create a scenario in which the reader will say, ‘Yup, I just read about that in the newspaper.’
As a co-author, I have to broaden my scope. I must be ready to talk about virtually any subject pertaining to the story.
How and when did you decide to become a writer?
The truth is I wanted to become a writer when I was eight years old. I tried writing an Irwin Allen disaster-style novel. About four pages into it, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. So I went outside and played with doodlebugs. (Laughter). I’d always felt inspired by Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. About two months after I got out of the Navy in 1987, I sat down at a typewriter and started writing. I’ve never looked back.
What would you be doing today if you weren’t a writer?
That’s a hard question, but I think I’d have eventually found myself in some kind of creative field. I don’t know what it would be because I can’t draw, I can’t sing, and I can’t dance. But I’ll say this: even if I weren’t being paid, I would be writing.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned about writing?
As it pertains to thrillers, it’s a lesson I didn’t learn from Clive or Tom. Rather, I picked it up along the way. It’s this: the reason people pick up thrillers is to be entertained. If, they happen to be enlightened and educated by what the book offers, that’s great. But for me, the entertainment value is the tip of the spear. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned, and it’s the guiding principle that gets me through hard times.
Speaking of hard times, how long did it take for you to become a success?
That’s a really interesting question because everything is relative. Many authors go into writing knowing how tough this business is. When I teach, I talk about little graduations. When you finish a book, that’s a little graduation. When you get an agent, that’s another little graduation. I kind of felt I’d made it when I started making a living doing this and doing it full-time. ‘Making it’ is, I think, doing what you love for a living.
And I take it you also write what you would love to read.
That’s exactly it. When I teach writing classes, I tell my students the most successful authors generally write what they would love to read. It’s a guiding principle, and I think it’s an indicator of success.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, dead or alive, from any walk of life. Who are they?
I would love to have Abe Lincoln over for dinner. It would be great to plumb his mind. Secondly, I wouldn’t mind having Jerry Seinfeld there. He’s so clever and I just loved his show. And because they were so important in my life, I’d want to have Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, too. I’d love to have my wife there so she could enjoy the company. And I’d definitely want at least one of my four dogs there, as well. (Laughter).
Congratulations on writing Under Fire, a high-octane, high-stakes novel of international intrigue and military action, involving global brinkmanship, espionage, and romance.
Author of The Lovers’ Tango and Return to Sandara
Joseph Finder is known to any reader who loves thrillers. His first book was published when he was only 24, and he’s gone on to write critically acclaimed thrillers including Extraordinary Powers, The Zero Hour, and High Crimes, all of which became Hollywood films. In 2004, his novel, Paranoia, became a huge bestseller. His awards include The Barry, Gumshoe, and The International Thriller Writers Award for his novel, Killer Instinct. His new novel is The Fixer.
The Fixer focuses on Rick Hoffman, who has just lost his job as a reporter, has no income, and is forced to move back to—and renovate—the home in which he grew up. It has been empty and undergone decay since his father has been lying mute in a nursing home, paralyzed by a stroke nineteen years earlier.
When Rick begins tearing apart the house, he discovers something that will alter everything he thought he knew about his father. It will also irrevocably change his life. The discovery leads to a chilling chain of events filled with intrigue, intimidation, and threats to everything Rick values—including his life.
The premise of a son discovering something of his father’s in the attic of the house they lived in intrigues me. How did that come to you?
The initial premise was a story about a guy down on his luck, who discovers a huge pile of cash in the old family house. While I was writing the book, my father died. He was nearly ninety seven. It changed my life in ways I’d never expected. I realized all I knew about my father was what I saw in the family. There are aspects of your parents you never know. They had lives before they had kids. The Fixer began to change direction on its own; it turned into a story about a son discovering what his father’s life was really about. That’s what I was going through myself. It’s unusual for my personal life to intrude on my fiction, but it happened in this one. This is why I consider The Fixer the most personal book I’ve ever written.
Even though he didn’t utter a single word, Rick’s father became a real character in the novel.
That’s what I hoped would happen. Rick’s understanding of his father morphed from scene to scene. I really hoped that in the process of this metamorphosis, the reader would get to know the father just as Rick was discovering more about him. It was a slow reveal.
At the outset of The Fixer, Rick goes on a date with an old flame he hasn’t seen in years. He makes a fool of himself, but as the novel progresses, he changes. Is it important for a character to evolve in a novel?
It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. When you write a standalone as opposed to a series novel, the protagonist has to be transformed by the story. If that doesn’t happen, the book isn’t really interesting. My standalones are always about my characters facing something completely changing the meaning of their lives. It was important to me for the reader to initially see Rick as someone who’d lost touch with his values, then appreciate the dramatic transformation he makes over the course of the novel.
As occurred in Suspicion and Killer Instinct, one small incident or decision changes the course of a life. Will you talk about that?
As the book opens, Rick makes one small move—he breaks open the wall at the back of a closet—and discovers a vast pile of cash. He’s then faced with the dilemma: What do I do? Is this mine to keep? Because he decided to start renovating the house, events occur and his life is put in jeopardy.
As a general rule, do you feel a small incident mushrooming into something far larger is a good model for a thriller?
That’s the sort of thriller I most enjoy. I want a reader to go on a wild ride—a rollercoaster. As a reader, I identify most with the everyday decisions we make, and how one small choice can change your life. It’s the sort of story arc I’m interested in. It’s not the only way to write a thriller, but when a huge transformation derives from a seemingly minor decision, a reader can identify very closely with it. It’s Hitchcockian. I fully admit I steal from Hitchcock. (Laughter) I love when an ordinary man makes a small decision and his life is turned upside down.
Your novel, Killer Instinct, was written in the first person. The Fixer is written in the third person. How do you decide which approach to take? What are the advantages of each?
I write my Nick Heller books in the first person, but bring in third person chapters for other characters. I do that because I want the external sense of threat to be there, and do it by using the third person for another character. The Fixer could have gone either way, but I decided on the third person because I wanted the reader to witness Rick’s transformation. I didn’t feel a first person characterization would allow the reader sufficient access to that evolution. I wrote it in what I call a close third person, which achieves the voice and mindset of a first person narration.
As for the advantages of each kind of storytelling: with a third person narration, you can show simultaneous action and can show a threat to the protagonist in a way you cannot in a first person narrative. In the third person, you can also have the narrator, in essence, become a commentator. On the other hand, a first person narration feels immediate to the reader. One of the most appealing things about a first person story is you’re literally in the head of the main character. It feels as personal and real to the reader as it does to the character. The first person is immensely attractive as a narrative tool. The question is, are you willing to give up the advantages of the third person narration?
What’s your writing day like?
I’m very routinized. I have an office a few blocks away from my home. I usually get there by eight in the morning, and write until midday. I take a break to work out or have lunch with someone. In the afternoons, I tend to do the more business-oriented aspects of my job. Usually, in the late afternoon, I go back to writing.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
Many things have surprised me. One is how much I like my fellow writers. When I entered this field, I thought it would be very competitive. But I found, especially with the International Thriller Writers, my fellow writers are really supportive. They’re great friends.
I’m surprised by the fact with every book I start, I feel like it’s the first one I’ve ever written. As I begin each novel, it’s as if I’m back at the beginning of my career. I often agonize at the early stages of a new book: do I really know how to do this? What am I doing? I’ll say to my wife, “I just don’t qualify. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” And she says, “This happens with every new book.” But eventually, something kicks in and I’m able to go. The bottom line is: it doesn’t get easier. I think as you progress in your career, your standards get higher. You expect more from yourself. Maybe it’s necessary to make sure you’re doing your very best work.
It’s important to me that each of my books feels fresh. I don’t ever want to coast along. I don’t want to do the same book twice. I thought when I started writing, it would get easier, and I would turn out book after book. But there are pressures I never expected in the writing life: I feel pressured to make each book better than the last one, or at least better in some ways.
What do you love about the writing life?
One of the things I love about the writing life is that it’s a creative outlet. I don’t really have hobbies. Many writers I know don’t have hobbies, either. Writing a book is so creative and takes so much out of you, it can consume you. I love coming home at the end of the day feeling blissful after having written well. Somehow, I got through it; I did it.
I also love being my own boss. I don’t think I’d have worked well as a company man in a hierarchy. I really appreciate the autonomy that comes with writing. I love being an entrepreneur. I make my own business decisions: will I convert my website to a mobile-friendly website? Will I send out newsletters? And there are many other decisions. I get to make them all.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I think about that. If I weren’t writing novels, I’d probably be writing television shows.
What if you couldn’t be a writer of any kind?
I would probably be some sort of movie producer. I would have to do something in the entertainment business, which is actually what I do now.
Congratulations on penning The Fixer, a gripping novel beginning with an inadvertent discovery resulting in consequences far beyond the protagonist’s (and reader’s) wildest imaginings.