Kelley Armstrong has published twenty-one fantasy novels, thirteen of which have been part of her Women of the Otherworld series. Her novels blend suspense and the supernatural. Last year, she began The Cainsville series with its first novel, Omens. The second in this series is Visions,featuring Olivia Taylor-Jones, the daughter of alleged notorious serial killers.
Olivia has moved to Cainsville, where strange things begin to occur. She finds a dead woman in her car. The body is dressed to look like her, but the corpse vanishes before anyone else sees it. Gifted with an extrasensory ability to read omens, Olivia is certain this incident is a sign of impending danger. When she learns a troubled young woman went missing a few days earlier—the same one Olivia found in her car—it’s clear someone killed and left this young woman as a warning to Olivia. But why? And what role does her new home play in this murder? As Olivia attempts to unearth the truth, it becomes clear that Cainsville is a very unusual town.
Much of your work has been termed contemporary fantasy, with supernatural characters superimposed on a backdrop of North American life. What drew you to this genre?
I blame X Files for my having begun writing in this genre. I was in a writers’ group and promised I would write something new and bring it to the next meeting. I was watching an episode of X Files, which depicted a werewolf. He was a huge guy killing people under a full moon. I thought that wasn’t the way I would write about a werewolf. So, I wrote a short story about a woman in our modern world who was a werewolf. I really enjoyed writing the story. I was a big Anne Rice fan. Growing up, I had written horror stories about monsters. Anne Rice took the stories to more of a fantasy level, and occasionally wrote from the point of view of the monster. So, it added a whole new dimension to my writing.
Your contemporary fantasy writings have been noted to share similarities with writers Charlene Harris, Laurell K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison. Is that accurate?
They are. When my first books came out, Laura K. Hamilton was doing a series with vampires and werewolves living in the modern world. The same year my novel Bitten came out, Charlene started her Southern vampire series. Kim came along a couple of years later. So, there was this subset of authors writing in the same vein.
You also write YA novels in addition to adult and crime novels, such as The Nadia Stafford series. How do you switch genres?
I actually started the Nadia series out of pure terror. Back when I was starting the Otherworld series, the contemporary fantasy genre didn’t exist. I’d finally been published but wasn’t sure those books would continue selling. My agent asked, ‘What else would you do if you weren’t writing contemporary fantasy?’ The answer seemed obvious to me: thrillers. So I started the Nadia books. Actually, most of my books have a core of mystery/ thriller in them, so for the Nadia series, it was a matter of taking out the supernatural elements.
Most of your novels have been in series form. There’s The Women of the Otherworld series; The Darkest Powers trilogy; The Darkness Rising trilogy, among others. What about writing series attracts you?
When I wrote Bitten, it was a stand-alone novel. But the publisher asked if I would consider turning it into a series. I decided I could and would branch out to multiple narrators in the series, rather than following one character all the way through. Readers enjoy a series. They like to get to know a character, follow the character; but with a really long series, it’s difficult to go on with only one main character. So, I decided to use multiple points of view. In my trilogies, I tel
l a story in three books and then feel ready to move on to different characters in another story.
Are there advantages or difficulties in writing a series?
A big advantage in a series is building readership. Once a series gets going, people begin waiting for the next book. I’ve found that by changing series—by going to a different one—there’s definitely a drop-off in readers. People are not so eager to buy the first book of something different as they would be to buy the next book in an ongoing series.
As for disadvantages, you must come up with something creative for every new book in a series. When a series is doing well, it’s very tempting to keep writing it, even when the creative well is drying up. It’s tempting because that’s where the money is. I’ve had to be very careful; as soon as I think I’m getting close to that dry well, I wrap the series up. I don’t want to just keep writing something because it sells.
You have a degree in psychology. Does that come into play in writing your fantasy novels?
It comes into play in creating character. I love to write different and complex characters and I like ha
ving back stories for my characters. If a character has a back story, I like to consider what he or she will do in the present. Or, looking at it in a reverse way, I think ‘What kind of back story will I give this character that meshes with how she is in the present?’ Everyone is the sum total of past experiences. A character doesn’t just spring to life at age thirty.
The Blackwell Pages Trilogy was written with Melissa Marr. How did you go about co-writing those books?
Melissa and I are friends. We talked for a while about possibly co-writing something. We both wrote teen books for our daughters. We both had sons at the pre-teen stage and wondered if we could get together and write something for the boys. Melissa and I are still both alive, and we’re still friends (Laughter). We had co-edited anthologies and we knew our individual working and creative patterns. We had to mesh those patterns. We have very different writing processes. I’m a planner; she’s not. I write chronologically, starting at page one and writing through the novel. Melissa writes scenes here and there, and then puts them together. Knowing that was important, so we could decide how to meet in the middle.
In Visions, there are some erotic scenes. How do you approach writing erotica in your novels?
For me, erotic scenes are primarily about character and plot. I always ask myself if it fits with the character and where he or she is going. If you look at everything I’ve written for adults, some books have explicit scenes and some do not. In this series, Omens had nothing explicit. In Visions, Olivia is trying to work certain things through. She’s moving on past her breakup with her fiancé, and having fun with a guy whose company she enjoys.
You’ve written many books. What, if anything, has been the biggest surprise about writing over these years?
I always worried that the creative well would dry up. I was sure that if I wrote a book a year, I would eventually run out of ideas. Actually, the opposite has been true for me. The more I write, the more ideas come to me and it gets easier. I’m constantly coming up with ideas, but in the early days, it was tough to come up with a plot for a book each year. But after you’ve been doing it for a while, ideas come from everywhere.
As a writer, who were your earliest influences?
As a child I read everything I could get my hands on. In my teenage years, there was no YA fiction. I went from children’s books right into horror and fantasy novels. My biggest, early influence was Stephen King. I learned from him how to make the supernatural seem quite natural—how to place it in our world and make it seem like it belongs here. I also learned about the importance of character. Even in horror novels where you know most characters aren’t going to make it to the end, it’s crucial to have fully fleshed-out characters. If you don’t do that, the reader doesn’t care what happens to them.
What do you enjoy reading now?
I read all different genres. I read everything from contemporary fiction to thrillers to Stephen King. I’ll cross over between YA and adult fiction. I read thrillers by authors such as John Connolly, Dennis Lehane and many others.
If you could have any five people over for dinner—living or dead, writers or people from any walk of life—who would they be?
For me, they would definitely be writers. I would just love to have certain writers in a room and be able to pick their brains. I would love to have Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, and of course, Stephen King.
Congratulations on Visions, the second novel in the Cainsville series. It’s sure to achieve as much success as Omens.
Randy Wayne White is a New York Times best-selling novelist of crime fiction and non-fiction; and the writer of a television documentary. He’s perhaps best known for his 21 “Doc Ford” novels, and his most recent “Hannah Smith” series. In Haunted, the third novel in the series, Hannah (who inherited her late uncle’s private investigation business, and also charters fishing expeditions) is hired to help stop a condo development. While working on this case, Hannah is confronted with dangers lurking in the Florida swamps and rivers, among them, human obsession.
Was it a challenge for you to write a series from a woman’s point of view?
My editors at Putnam and Random House showed a great deal of confidence in me and thought I should give it a shot. I absolutely delighted in writing the Hannah books. My maternal family is from Rockingham, North Carolina, which is among the poorest counties in the state. My lovely, late mother, Georgia Wilson White, along with her six sisters and five brothers, would sit on the porch at night. As they talked, I would listen to these very smart, sharp, funny women go back-and-forth, telling ghost stories; and my uncles would tell them, too. I fell in love with that lyrical, strong, Southern female voice. Sometimes, I would tune out the words, and just listen to the rhythms—the music of their speech. It was almost like a choral chanting, and that’s stayed with me.
You seem to exemplify the old adage, “Write what you know” since your novels are set along the Gulf Coast of Florida and describe so beautifully, the flora and fauna of the region.
For more than thirteen years, I was a fishing guide on Sanibel Island at Tarpon Bay Marina. That was my full-time gig. I was on the water, in a small boat, for more than three hundred days a year. I’d launch at first light. To spend that amount of time on the water in southwest Florida, where the social history is as interesting as the natural history, provides a wealth of material for a writer.
You left home at 16, skipped college and began leading a fascinating life. Tell us a bit about your own adventures.
It was nuts, but I was born under a blessed star. My father was a state trooper, so we moved around quite a bit. We ended up in Davenport, Iowa, where we lived for three years. My parents moved away during my junior year of high school. I had a job in a brass and iron foundry in downtown Davenport, and I worked as a lifeguard. I had my own money, and got my own apartment. It’s not that I ran away from home; my parents moved away from me. But they did give me their address (Laughter). They trusted me and there had been no problems at home.
You’ve been stabbed, shot at, and the hotel where you were staying was blown up by the Shining Path anarchists in Peru. Tell us about that.
I was visiting South America. There were conflicts there and you never knew who was shooting at you. I was in Peru, taking the highest train trip in the world. It was a “pig and chicken” train, where even the Indians were getting sick from the abrupt ascent in altitude. I didn’t get sick; I just got very crabby. During that trip, the Shining Path anarchist movement attacked the small town where I was staying. Fifty-six people were killed, when a bomb went off and part of the hotel’s roof was blown away. I’d been stabbed on the street an hour and a half before the attack.
I don’t really know why, but guys walked up behind me very fast and stabbed me in
the back. Luckily, I was wearing a cargo vest, which I still have with its blood stains on it. The knife mostly hit my notebook. Things didn’t go very well from there. I’ll leave it at that.
You were also involved in ferrying refugees from Cuba to the United States during the Mariel boatlift.
It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. After Castro took over, he said, ‘If you don’t have revolution in your blood, get out of Cuba.’ An enormous exodus of Cubans began. A Cuban-American friend of mine wanted to go to Cuba to pick up his aunt and grandmother. In the space of one week, more than a million Cubans agreed to leave Cuba and give up everything.
I borrowed a fifty-five foot riverboat, left Fort Meyers without a maritime chart, and three of us went to Mariel. When we arrived, we were told by the Cuban gunboat sailors not to go to Pier Two. Well, we went to Pier Two. When we got there, we saw acreage of concertina wire, some mango trees stripped of fruit and leaves, and thousands of people being processed by Castro’s soldiers. The people were ready to leave Cuba. I watched the Cuban guards go through the crowd. One of them tried to take the wedding ring from an old Cuban woman, who protested, and she was hit in the face with a rifle butt.
The soldiers loaded up our fifty-five foot boat with one-hundred forty-seven people. On the trip to Florida, every refugee got sick on the stormy waters. But when we reached Key West, all one-hundred forty-seven began chanting ‘Libertad!’ It was a very powerful experience.
Tell us about Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille on Sanibel Island.
Well, it’s the kind of shameless commercial venture I’ve always wanted to be a part of. (Laughter). About fifteen years ago, I started importing hot sauce from Colombia. I had $5,000 in the bank and spent every penny of it to buy all this hot sauce. With the help of some friends, I began selling the stuff, but then realized I made about three cents profit per bottle of sauce.
Then, these two wonderful guys and I became partners. We bought out a local restaurant that wasn’t doing well. I’m the “trademark” name, while they actually run the restaurant. The concept was to have a sports bar, serving food made from original recipes; and we caught on. We now have three restaurants and they’re the most popular ones in the area.
Getting back to your novels, what has surprised you most about writing?
The most surprising thing to me has been the impact my writing has had on people. I’ve received e-mails and letters—always heartfelt and touching. Some of them say things like ‘My husband had pancreatic cancer and spent the last three months of his life reading your books.’ I’ve received letters from people who’ve gone through very hard times. I recently met a family whose sixteen year old son has lymphoma. Despite his illness, he devours my books.
It’s so gratifying, because I sit alone in a room every day, seldom interact with other writers, and getting that kind of feedback makes me think I’m doing something good here.
You have an amazing output of novels. How do you spend your free time?
I need more free time. (Laughter). I write seven days a week. I go to Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille every morning. I started writing at two this morning, and finished around six. I used to play baseball, and I’m going to play senior league baseball again. A few years ago, I began surfboarding. There are three things in the world I want to do: the first is to keep writing my books; the second is to surf; and I’ll leave the third to your imagination. (Laughter).
Which authors do you most enjoy reading?
I read almost exclusively non-fiction. I worry about lyrical sentence structure, if I read too many good writers. I’ve read Carl Hiassen—he’s brilliant. I’ve also read my dear, dear late friend, Peter Matthiessen; generally, it’s almost all non-fiction.
Do you have much contact with other writers?
Carl Hiassen and I talk sometimes, but we’re both quite private people. I’m friends with Tim Dorsey, Les Standiford, Thomas McGuane, and Loriann Hemingway. She’s one of Hemingway’s granddaughters.
Which authors were early influences on you?
I absolutely fell in love with Joseph Conrad’s novels. And John Steinbeck’s books, as well.
If you could have dinner with any five people —living or dead—who would they be?
First, would be Teddy Roosevelt. Then, John Steinbeck. I’d also love to dine with a little-known writer named H.M. Tomlinson, a British writer from the 1800s. Also, Moe Berg, the baseball catcher who was a spy for the U.S. And, then there’s a singer-songwriter named Wendy Webb. Some years ago, she performed on television, and I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life. I tried to think of ways to meet her and get her into bed. I must tell you, I stalked her on the Internet, and now she’s my wife. She’s incredibly talented and is now putting out CDs, and is still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
What would you all be talking about at dinner?
I never learn anything with my mouth open, so I much prefer to listen and nudge conversation forward. One of the many things I learned from Peter Matthiessen is the importance of good conversation. I would sit back and listen, as he did, and try to bring out the best from the people at the table.
Congratulations on having written so many books, and much success with Haunted, the third “Hannah Smith” novel, in a series that’s deservedly very popular.
James Rollins is more than a thriller author. He’s a veterinarian, a man of science, and writes best-selling novels evocative of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov, but with a uniquely imaginative flavor of their own. His novels combine elements of history, scientific fact and speculation with military suspense and threats of global destruction. His books transcend all genres.
He’s well known for his Sigma Force novels. The 6th Extinction is the tenth in this imaginative series and finds Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma in its greatest challenge: a frantic race to save every living thing on earth from extinction by a spreading blight.
For those who are not familiar with this series, tell us what Sigma Force is.
It’s a group comprised of former Special Forces soldiers who have been drummed out of the service for various reasons but because they possess certain abilities such as great intellect or unique skills, have been recruited by the Defense Department. Basically, they’re scientists with guns whose mission is to protect the U.S. against various technological threats.
Before the novel begins, you have a section called Notes From The Scientifi
c Record. In it you say, “Life on this planet has always been a balancing act—a complex web of interconnectivity that’s surprisingly fragile. Remove or even alter enough key components and that web begins to fray and fall apart.” Talk a bit about this.
That’s been the seed for this story. According to most scientific thought, we’re currently involved in what will be the sixth mass extinction on our planet. We are now seeing an extinction rate of species about a thousand-fold higher than the rate of extinction since the arrival of mankind on the planet. This is a unique extinction because it’s the hand of man driving it, as opposed to volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes or other cataclysms that caused previous extinctions.
My goal in writing this novel is to help determine, if through human genius and imagination, we can we reverse or extricate ourselves from this forthcoming extinction. This drove me to do research about conservation efforts, and the work of synthetic biologists. The more I read, the more fascinated and horrified I was regarding our ability to re-engineer and modify many organisms, which could lead to our ultimate destruction.
The 6th Extinction addresses genetics, altering life forms and ecoterrorism. Will you comment on these issues?
One of the fascinating things I discovered is that there has been a democratization of the scientific process. We’re now seeing genetic labs popping up not only at the university or military level, but in backyards, garages and small private centers. Because the costs of setting up such a lab have dropped dramatically from tens of thousands of dollars to pennies, now, someone can build a genetics laboratory in a garage. People are patenting life forms right now. Most of it involves grass roots activity with no oversight. Only recently, at the NIH, a vial of smallpox virus was found in someone’s closet. This raises enormous concern for the potential of some lethal organism being let loose in the population. It could be the result of terrorism or an accidental occurrence.
Do you think people will eventually be able to hack into genetic codes the way
they can hack into computers?
Actually, there’s a very active biopunk movement, which is a spinoff of the old cyberpunk days. Cyberpunks of the past are the biopunks of today. I’ve talked with some of these people. They’ve actually patented some of their creations. It’s a burgeoning industry.
What’s your take on Genetically Modified Organisms in our food supply?I dealt with that in The Doomsday Key. There are many factors responsible for our not being able to produce a more abundant food supply. I uncovered some very weird things in the field of genetically engineered foods. In 2001, a biotech company called Epicyte announced it had just developed a corn seed with potent contraceptive properties. Consumption of the seed lessened fertility. It was proposed as a solution to the overpopulation problem. When this was announced, an outcry rose and the product disappeared. Genetically modified foods have no formal risk assessment guidelines, and rely mostly on self-regulation. FDA standards do not apply to genetically modified organisms. Often, approvals are based on filtered or fraudulent reports by the industry. For example, of the forty GM crops approved last year, only eight have published safety studies.
The 6th Extinction deals with the vast implications of genetic modification to existing life forms. What might some others be?
This field is changing so rapidly, I had to edit the novel within months of it going to press. As an example, in May 2014, the Scripps Institute produced living, replicating bacteria with two new nucleotides from the genetic alphabet inserted into them. They were added to the standard four that comprise the DNA of all life on this planet. That very genetic modification—the introduction of foreign nucleotides into DNA—occurs in the novel. While writing the book, I thought I was brushing beyond the fringes of science, but each time I manage to step beyond that edge, science catches up with me.
At the end of The 6th Extinction, there’s an Author’s Note to Readers. You mention we are on the cusp of several critical changes in this world, and few scientists doubt the planet is undergoing its sixth extinction right now. Will you give us a bit more detail about this?
More than a decade ago, Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard naturalist, estimated an extinction rate of roughly 30,000 species a year comprised of every group of animals and plants. We’ve lost half the world’s amphibians, a quarter of all mammals, and about one-third of all conifer trees. There’s an unprecedented loss of diversity. The extinction rate I mentioned before is considered conservative, meaning some scientists believe the rate is ten-thousand times the one antedating mankind’s appearance on the planet. As a consequence, there are teams of scientist’s working on methods to extricate us out of this extinction. There are those trying to preserve the remaining species. This involves two techniques. One is re-wilding, such as we’re now seeing with the gray wolf. The other involves de-extinction, in which genetic techniques are used to return some extinct species to life—to resurrect them.
A Russian scientist, Sergey Zimov, is building Pleistocene Park, which will be a Siberian preserve and the future home of the resurrected wooly mammoth. It’s almost right out of a Michael Creighton novel. Other scientists want to genetically engineer our way out of this extinction by creating new, hardier species capable of resisting changes to our planet. There’s a fascinating installation by a woman named Alexandra D. Ginsberg, called “Designing for the Sixth Extinction.” She proposes bioengineering various creatures, and releasing them into the wild in an attempt to correct some of the damage we’ve done to the planet.
As a man of science, how do you decide where to draw the line between fantasy and biologic fact in your novels?
It’s a challenge to keep ahead of the curve of what I thought was fantastical, but really is not. I love taking my readers into the realm of what’s really going on in the world today. I then extrapolate, look beyond the horizon to where that might lead us. I love doing this in all my novels, and coincidentally, it’s the tenth in the series and it’s the tenth anniversary of the Sigma Force series. I enjoy harkening back to some of the themes I addressed at the beginning of my career, such as creating strange biospheres that while not real, are supported by science as being quite possible.
That was very evident in The 6th Extinction.
I love the scientific details, but they have to be digestible and explained in an entertaining way. Ultimately, my goal is to entertain the reader—get the heart rate up while telling a plausible story.
Speaking of the story, a woman named Jenna appears in the story along with her Siberian husky, Nikko. It reminded me of The Kill Switch with Tucker Wayne and his military dog, Kane. Is there a dog companion in each one of your novels?
Well, about half way along the Sigma Force series, lots of animal sidekicks began to appear, whether it was a jaguar cub in Amazonia or a search and rescue dog in another. I realized these animal companions began appearing in the novels as I weaned myself from my veterinary practice and became more of a novelist. It was not purposeful, but I realize now, I missed working with animals. The animal-loving part of my brain seemed to have shifted over into the novelistic part. So, animals began infiltrating my books.
Speaking of Jenna and Nikko, I ran a contest where I asked people to have pictures taken of themselves and their dogs while reading The Eye of God. The person who took the most creative photo would be featured, along with the dog, in my next book. And the winner was Jenna from San Diego and her Dog, Nikko. The picture will soon go up on my Facebook page.
Does your recent blockbuster contract with the publisher make you feel liberated or constricted regarding the next four novels?
I try to ignore the contract. I received far less for my first books. Despite the blockbuster contract, I hope I’m very much the same writer I’ve been all along.
Congratulations on your tenth Sigma Force novel and your ability to harness scientific fact, fiction, and imagination in so compelling a way. The 6th Extinction is a thrilling novel that not only entertains, but makes the reader think a great deal.
Ace Atkins has written 15 books over the past 15 years. A former college football star for Auburn University, he became a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination for covering a cold case from the 1950s. He published his first novel, Crossroad Blues, at age 27, becoming a full-time novelist at age 30.
The Forsaken is the fourth Quinn Colson novel, a series which has won critical acclaim. Two books in the series have been nominated for Edgar Awards. The series features Quinn Colson, a retired U.S. Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has returned to his hometown, Jericho, in rural Mississippi, where as sheriff, he must deal with crime, corruption, and other elements of life in this small Southern town.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I became passionate about books when I was in high school. I discovered Ian Fleming. For a fifteen year old boy to discover the world of Ian Fleming was astounding. Not only were they great travelogues and adventure stories, but there were pages of descriptions of naked women. (Laughter). I also read books I should be reading: works by authors like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Then I got into Chandler and Hammett, but Ian Fleming was my gateway drug into the larger world of loving books, which made me want to become a writer. I read about Fleming’s life and thought it would be exciting to research things, travel to places, and write about new locations. Another writer I thought was fantastic was Gregory Mcdonald, a former journalist, who shaped the idea of my wanting to become a journalist. Fleming and Hemingway had of course, been journalists, too. I loved the idea of the journey of the hero.
It’s been said your novels contain parts of yourself—friends, colleagues, family members and personal heroes. Tell us a little more about this.
That’s more related to four books written years ago: White Shadow, Wicked Ci
ty, Devil’s Garden and Infamous are all based on true stories. The first one was about a killing that occurred in Tampa in the 1950s. I’d been a newspaper reporter and was hanging out with retired cops and journalists who told amazing stories. So I wrote a book about it. The cops and journalists in the book were based on real people and experiences. In fact, when I was writing those novels, I got a really nasty letter from the son of one of the mafia hit men. He not so subtly suggested I write about thugs and rednecks from Alabama, my home state. I thought that was a great idea. So, the next book I wrote was based on members of my family who had a rather unsavory history. Those are the personal connections found in those four novels.
The Forsaken takes place in Jericho, Mississippi. Does this fictional town represent life in small-town America? Or is it emblematic of life everywhere?
I believe it’s emblematic of small-town life in America. I think it’s a very Southern novel. There are many issues specific to the American South, but I could adapt the story and change it to another region, like Iowa or Kansas. There are certain archetypal characters and power brokers existing in small-town America, everywhere.
Your lyrical writing has been compared to James Lee Burke’s and Pat Conroy’s. It’s also been described as an accurate rendering of the Deep South in Faulkner country. What do you think of these statements?
James Lee Burke was an early influence on me. He taught me there are no
limits to writing crime novels. You can be a crime writer and have as much depth and literary license as you want in telling these stories. He was one of my early heroes. I think it will take another fifty years before I can get into the realm of the skill set of a James Lee Burke and Pat Conroy. Living in Oxford, Mississippi, the world of Faulkner, has been helpful. What I really learned from him is to pay attention to the world around me. The people I write about are essentially the descendants of Faulkner’s characters. Instead of their being at the general store or town square, I may overhear them in Wal-Mart. I try to write about a modern South, not an embellished one. I learned from Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner that you find a lot of humor and characters, simply by observing people.
What do you think of James Dickey, especially his novel Deliverance?
I never met him but heard a great deal about him. He’s a Southern writer icon. I’d love to have had some writing lessons from him. I’ve heard a rumor from a reliable source about the novel Deliverance. The story is that the manuscript actually came in to the publisher as one long poem. It had to be re-written into prose. His final novel, To the White Sea was just fantastic.
Is there such a thing as “Southern writing”?
Absolutely. I think there’s certainly a set of themes and points of style emblematic of the Southern novel. I’m drawn more to the rough-hewn South, not mint juleps and the genteel South. The books that appeal to me are those by Faulkner, such as Intruder in the Dust. Another favorite writer was Larry Brown, now deceased, who wrote about the real, gritty, modern South. I think there’s a certain comedic edge to Southern writing, including the works of Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah, a master of the Southern short story. The Southern landscape offers a tremendous amount of organic soil, rich with history. You don’t have to go very far to find ugly, sordid events. As a writer, that’s what you really want to dig into.
The dialogue in the Quinn Colson novels is strikingly authentic. How
do you approach writing dialogue?
I think it goes back to observation. It derives from what I’ve learned as a journalist. The writers I’ve admired so much, Mcdonald and Hemingway—were awesome dialogue writers. They had been journalists. So, my ear is always attuned to eavesdropping. I listen to people all the time. I’ve gotten so good at it, people don’t realize I’m listening to them. I may be in the grocery store and find myself in aisle five, overhearing someone explaining a rel
ationship issue. That can become part of a novel. It’s a matter of listening to people really talk, not learning dialogue so much from reading other books or watching movies. I listen to people every day, and can’t turn it off.
The Forsaken is written from multiple points of view and has intersecting storylines. How do you keep the novel’s pacing intact, and maintain linear focus?
Technically speaking, the easiest way is to have an outline. As I move ahead, I keep track of all the pathways of the story. The Forsaken is almost like two novels combined into one. It’s like shuffling two decks of cards, and I have to make sure the shuffling is evenly spaced. I also make sure each story complements the other. At first, the stories seem far apart, but coalesce as the novel progresses. The connections are made through an outline—a roadmap.
What’s been the biggest surprise to you about writing over the years?
I’m working on book sixteen now, and each novel presents its own challenge. I’d have thought that working on the sixteenth novel would be easier. But every book is still tough. I would like to say years of experience have made the process easier, but it’s just not true. I think if you’re going to challenge yourself as a writer, you try to make each project better. You find new and interesting obstacles with each book. I find there’s a sort of initial anxiety with each new book, but I have to keep going. When beginning a new novel, there’s always a great deal of uncertainty, but wanting to get paid, trumps any anxiety I may feel.
Do you hang out with other writers and talk about writing?
Yes, we hang out but we probably talk about everything but writing. On a typical night, I’ll go to a local pub and meet Jack Pendarvis, Lee Durkee, Tom Franklin, and Chris Offutt, other writers in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s kind of a gang of writers and we have a beer or cocktail together. After all, we sit in rooms all day, trying to put words on a page. It’s such a solitary profession that it’s a pleasure to get out and meet other writers.
If you could have dinner with any five people, writers or figures from history—living or dead—who would they be?
Definitely, one would be Hemingway. Billy Wilder would be another. Burt Reynolds has had a fascinating life, is a very funny guy, and made some great action pictures. He used to hang around with guys like Orson Wells. I’ll bet he has some great stories to tell. I’d also like to sit down with Dashiell Hammett. My last choice is an easy one: Raquel Welch.
What would you be talking about?
We’d be talking about Raquel Welch, of couse. (Laughter).
Congratulations on writing The Forsaken, a multi-layered Southern novel that while considered a “crime” novel, is really quite a “literary” work as well.
With the release of her twenty-first thriller, The Perfect Stranger, N Y Times bestselling suspense novelist Wendy Corsi Staub will have published more than eighty novels in various genres. Wendy has twice been nominated for the Simon and Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award; and is the recipient of the Romance Writers of America Rita Award; the RT Book Reviews Award for Career Achievement in Suspense; the RWA/NYC Golden Apple for Lifetime Achievement; and many other honors. Wendy’s titles are regularly selected as features for Mystery Guild, Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, and Rhapsody Book Club.
Her new novel, The Perfect Stranger, concerns Landry Wells who is involved with a group of women bloggers, all of whom have something in common—breast cancer. One blogger is dead, the victim of a random crime—or was it? At the funeral, Landry is about to meet her online friends, with whom she’s shared things even her husband and children don’t know. These women know everything about her—and one might be a cold-blooded killer.
What drew you to writing?
I’m from a big Italian-Sicilian family. We sat around the table and told stories. My dad was a natural storyteller and my mom was a rabid reader. I think I had a book in my hand when I was a year old. I guess I had it in my DNA and my early environment.
What were you doing before you began writing fiction?
I was trying to figure out if I could write fiction and make a living. I never wanted to do anything else. In third grade, I wanted to become an author. I never had a different plan. I went to college, majored in English, but all I wanted to do was to move to New York City and become an author. I did a lot of other things, but they were all directed toward becoming a writer. And, that’s what I did.
What made you decide to turn to so many genres—Young Adult, Women’s Fiction and Suspense/Thrillers?
When I was in college, I worked in an independent bookstore. I knew I wanted to become a commercial writer. I was very aware early on what was selling and what wasn’t. If I wanted to pay my bills by writing, I would have to figure it out. I adapted very early in my career. I’m naturally a very prolific writer. I write quickly—that’s just my style. I would get bored between projects and wondered what else can I do that will help me break out of the pack. So, I tried my hand at different genres under different names—one, Wendy Markham, is still being used in women’s fiction.
Do you have a favorite among these genres?
The psychological suspense novels are my favorites. I’m passionate about them. They’re what I love to read and write.
Having written 80 novels, you must be very disciplined. What’s your writing process?
I find I can only write in my home office on my desktop computer. I can’t just pick up a laptop and go to Starbucks and focus. I find if I live and breathe what I’m writing, if I just immerse myself, I work best. Yesterday was a 16 hour day because I’m narrowing in on the ending of a book. When I’m home, I write intensely seven days a week. Now, I write two or three books a year. Some years ago, I wrote more; they were Young Adult and shorter than the adult thriller novels. It takes a lot of coffee to keep me going.
Ever work on two novels at one time?
Only in production. For instance, I had to stop writing one to edit another, or look at a copyedit. But, I never write two at the same time. I’m totally immersed in what I’m writing. I live and breathe the characters in the setting of a novel I’m writing.
The Perfect Stranger is written in the present tense. What made you decide to write i
t in that way?
All my adult thrillers are written in the present tense. When I first started writing as a Yong Adult Suspense author, the present tense was the way to go. It was a comfortable voice. When my editor asked me to write an adult novel, I wrote it in the past tense because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do. It didn’t work. It felt very flat. I rewrote it in the present tense and it felt completely right to me, and I’ve never gone back. The present tense feels so immediate. If you’re writing suspense, it brings the reader right into the story. You know, suspense is all about something that’s about to happen. In the present tense, the reader is in the moment.
Since The Perfect Stranger captures so much about the day-to-day lives of women, what kind of feedback do you get from readers?
They can relate to the story and the characters very easily. It’s always fascinating when danger strikes, when you least expect it, in the most ordinary places. It’s terrifying if danger jumps out at you in ordinary circumstances, and most readers live ordinary lives, as I do. They relate to the stories—to putting your kids to bed; to cooking; shopping and those sorts of things. They identify with those activities. I identify with them also and I write what I know.
What do men say?
Surprisingly, I do have quite a few male readers. It’s not romantic suspense. I’m a woman writing suspense. Occasionally, I’ll be labeled a romantic suspense author, which can put off male readers. But, it’s really psychological suspense. I have a large cast of characters and many of them are men—and they’re not always the killers.
When you have time for reading, what do you enjoy?
When I’m writing fiction, I read only non-fiction. I read biographies, historical works and true-crime books. I’m presently reading a book by Kevin Cook about the Kitty Genovese murder in New York. I enjoy reading about murders that haven’t been solved. I read about the Zodiac Killer and things like that. I love watching Cold Case on television. I read only non-fiction when I’m writing a novel because I feel reading fiction could muddy my voice. My process is one of total immersion. I want the only fiction voice in my head to be my own.
With so many published books to your credit, have any been adapted to television or film?
I have some irons in the fire, but I’ve learned that with Hollywood, you never hold your breath. Some things have been optioned, but I’m just going to go on writing.
If you could invite any 6 people to dinner, writers or not, living or dead, who would they be?
Lately, I’ve been immersed in doing genealogy research. I want to find out more about where I came from. I’ve been on line and uncovering fascinating stories about my family’s past. Tantalizing bits of stories have been lost. I would love to pluck a few people from that family tree and sit them down at the table so they could tell me more about who we are and where we came from. It’s so difficult to solve those mysteries. And some would very likely make great stories.
What’s next for you?
In February, The Black Widow is coming out. It follows The Perfect Stranger. After that, I’ll be working on something called Blood Red, which is the working title for a novel about a serial killer who stalks redheads.
Tell us about your book touring.
Some years ago, I embarked on a 50 state book tour with the goal of doing signings in all 50 states. I only have three left.
Congratulations on penning your 80th novel, one that holds the reader in suspense until the very end.
Conn Iggulden is internationally known for his historical fiction. He’s written the Emperor series about the life of Julius Caesar, and the Conqueror series, based on the lives of Mongol warlords. He’s also written a series of children’s books called The Dangerous Book for Boys.
Now, he’s begun the Wars of the Roses series with the first of three books, Stormbird. This series focuses on the betrayals and machinations behind the story of the two royal families who plunged England into one of the most bloody and brutal periods of British history.
Give us an idea of what the Wars of the Roses was about?
It’s a story describing what took place between 1450 and 1495 and how the Tudors came to the throne of England. It involved the struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with Lancaster on the throne at the beginning and York at the end. Distilling it all down to one element, it was the psychological weakness of one King, Henry VI, that led to the throne of England changing hands.
What has drawn you so magnetically to historical fiction?
Historical fiction, more than any other genre, has power and makes an impact, because it’s based on true stories. My mother was a history teacher. Since, I’m only 43, my father seems ancient. He lived through a great deal of history. I was brought up with stories about real people of courage in antiquity. In my father’s case, they were stories from World War II, which he vividly remembers. The key was that they were true stories. That’s the absolute essence of historical fiction. I know pure fiction can reach extraordinary levels of tension, but historical fiction has tension and conflict already built in. If you’re reading about Julius Caesar as a young man, there’s a moment when you’re struck by the fact that these events really happened. It’s been a joy to be able to tap into the magic of historical fiction.
In a way, I’m quite lucky. Both my parents were quite old when they had me—particularly on my father’s side. His father was born in 1850 and had my father when he was 73 years old. So, in just two generations, I had a sweeping sense of history going very far back. My father told Victorian stories he learned from his father. I was immersed in history from the beginning of my life.
I know you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s cycle of novels, Game of Thrones. What similarities exist between that series of novels and Wars of the Roses: Stormbird?
I started following Julius Caesar, and then, Genghis Khan. They were birth-to-death stories. I read George R.R. Martin’s books which were more like an ensemble piece involving families struggling against each other. That’s the big similarity. The Wars of the Roses covers the House of Lancaster, the House of York and other key players like the Woodville and the Neville families. The series is more of a joint ensemble piece such as Game of Thrones, rather than following a single life from beginning to end.
What kind of research do you do?
It depends on the novel. For Genghis Khan, I had to go to Mongolia. I didn’t know the colors, th
e birds and animals I might come across. I spent time there, developing very unpleasant saddle sores. But The Wars of the Roses was much easier because the first battle took place only five miles from my house. And the British Library was a valuable source. Because it’s English history and I live there, I was able to do the research comfortably, at home. But I worried because the novel takes place in England and everyone would know if there was an historical or descriptive inaccuracy in my writing. I would look like a complete fool if I made such a mistake and it’s extra tension—really, a responsibility—to get the details and facts right.
How long before you actually start writing the novel?
I begin reading for my next subject while I’m in the middle of an ongoing series. It could be a year or 18 months of reading. With any luck, I find a subject. Sometimes it’s difficult. I rejected King Arthur because of the so-called magic involved. I rejected doing one about Al Capone because it would be another novel about an alpha male. I also rejected doing a series about Attila the Hun.
I try to find stories and characters that have impressive moments in history, such as when Julius Caesar met Cleopatra for the first time. I could actually see and understand how this beautiful young woman would affect him, and how the story would work. It might take 18 months before I’m even ready to start writing notes.
You mentioned an alpha male. Your previous novels have focused on powerful men. In Wars of the Roses, a woman plays an integral part in the story. Did that influence your choice of topic?
In some ways, yes, because it was an interesting challenge. It’s partly because while she was married to an English king, Henry V was almost a non-entity. He was something of a passive vacuum, so Margaret of Anjou—who arrived from France to marry him—thrived in Henry’s personality vacuum. She protected her husband, and eventually, protected her son, as well. The story had elements reminiscent of Shakespearian tragedy.
Your novels contain dialogue between people long dead. How do you balance historical accuracy with the wish to tell a compelling story?
When you’re dealing with the 15th century, you’re dealing with Chaucerian English. It wasn’t even as clear as Shakespearian English, which itself can give people reason to pause. When writing dialogue, I try to avoid anything that could be considered modern slang. But, if I use Chaucerian spelling, I will lose the reader. It’s always a compromise between being too modern and overusing the historically appropriate idiom of the time, which would ring false to the modern reader’s ear. But at the same time, I have to tell the story and dialogue is the fastest way to make a scene move. It’s the old show, don’t tell concept. It’s much better than description. But you’re right: in the end, I’m telling a story based on truth.
What is it about historical figures like Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan that makes their stories enduringly compelling?
What these men achieved was extraordinary. Caesar’s father died at a young age. He himself wa
s on the losing side of a civil war. He was captured and held by pirates for ransom. He shouldn’t have been able to achieve such astonishing success. Two thousand years later, the Germans had a leader who they called Kaiser and the Russians had a Czar—both names are based on Caesar’s name. Caesar’s name came to mean king. If you can be so successful your name is synonymous with king, you’ve lived quite a life.
Genghis was illiterate and didn’t write his own history. It was written by his enemies. He was abandoned and left to die at the age of eleven. And despite that, he went on to rule Mongolia. And his grandson, Kublai Khan was emperor of China. It’s a true story of rags to riches. If there’s any one theme to my books it’s the difference one human being can make on the world stage. With enough drive, ambition talent, and hard work, one person can make a huge difference. I think that’s the power of these stories.
Do you have a favorite historical era?
I’m going to say no. I’ve gone from Rome to ancient Mongolia and then the 15th century in England. First, and most important, I look for a story about people. I don’t believe we’ve really evolved in 2,000 years. We’re still very much the same. We might be taller, but we’re just as stupid, warlike, and occasionally, just as wonderful. And that pertains throughout history, in every era.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about writing in creating your novels?
There is one crucial thing I’ve learned: it was the difference between being published and not being published. I was not published for longer than I’ve been published. I wasn’t published for twenty years. The surprising thing I learned, and was instrumental in my getting published was this: previously, I didn’t plan books with any efficiency. I loved the creative process so much that I felt constrained if I planned a book. I would just write in a creative haze, as if I was on fire and enjoying every minute of it.
But it was unfocused and my work tended to ramble. In contrast, with the first Julius Caesar books, I planned them in small story arcs which led to the greater arc of the story. I knew the last line of the book before I wrote the first one. Before that, I had never planned a book to that level of detail. The biggest surprise for me was that I had to learn to organize my work, that writing isn’t purely a creative fire. I had to learn that writing is a craft, as well as an art. To be
published, it’s necessary to satisfy an audience, not only my own creative urges.
If you could have dinner with any 5 people, living or dead, who would they be?
I’d have to bring people back from the dead. If I invited Genghis Khan, he might take a dim view, and go completely berserk at the table. I might have to strap him to a chair. I would love to meet Julius Caesar. Winston Churchill may be an obvious one. He took part in one of the last military charges of the British Empire with his sword over the horse’s ears, thundering towards the enemy. And he also saw a nuclear bomb go off. I don’t know if there’s ever been a life lived so publically that traversed such a span of technologies. Marilyn Monroe would have to be there. I’d be so interested in her life; and I know she liked writers. She occasionally wrote poetry, which is not very well known. I would invite my wife’s grandmother; she was a wonderfully brassy East End woman of Italian roots and she’d belt you if you said something a bit flippant. I really liked her. She was the matriarch of an extended family.
I heard that something very good has happened with The Dangerous Book for Boys.
Bryan Cranston is thinking of developing it as a television series.
When can we expect the next volume of Wars of the Roses series and what will it
It’s called Trinity. It’s been written and will be published July of next year. The battles begin. We discover what happens to some of the major characters in Wars of the Roses.
Are you concerned that the story of the Tudors might have limited appeal outside the UK?
I’ve thought about it, but that wasn’t the case with the story of Genghis Khan. Above all, these are all stories of immense struggle. They’re stories about families, about people in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I’ve gone into history and picked out great stories about real people in conflict. It barely matters in which century or locale they’re set, so long as they deal with inner and actual conflict. It’s the human condition that counts.
Congratulations on writing an exciting historical thriller that brings England’s 15th century to life, as though it’s happening right now.
Michael Connelly’s books have been translated into 36 languages and have won many awards. His best known crime fiction series features LAPD Detective Harry Bosch. His other hugely popular series features criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller. Michael has been a crime reporter, has written the Jack McEvoy series, stand-alone novels, many short stories, as well as non-fiction.
There’s a fascinating story how at age 16 your interest in crime peaked. Tell us about that.
One night, I was driving my beat-up VW home from my job as a dishwasher and was stopped at a traffic signal. I saw a man running with something in his hand. As he passed a hedge, he shoved it into the hedge and kept going. When the light turned green, I made a U-turn, drove over to the hedge and pulled out a shirt wrapped around a gun. I put it back in the hedge. This was before cell phones, of course, so I walked to a gas station and called my father. Very soon, police cars with flashing lights descended on the area. I realized something had happened and flagged down a cop. I told him what I’d found and that I’d seen the guy run down the street and go into a bar. I became a partial witness to what had happened earlier, namely a man had attempted to hijack a car at gunpoint. His gun had gone off and the victim was shot.
The guy looked like a biker: he was big and had an unruly beard. There were a bunch of motorcycles parked in front of the bar. The police entered the place looking for a guy who fit my description. But all the guys in the place were big and had beards. The cops took them all to the police station. I spent most of the night looking at lineups, trying to identify the guy I’d only glimpsed for a few seconds. I was certain he’d gone in that bar and left through the back door. None of the men in the lineups were the one I saw.
The detective questioning me was a rough kind of guy. I could tell he didn’t really believe me and thought I was a scared kid who was afraid of fingering somebody. It was frustrating—not being believed. The experience hooked me on the idea of learning more about detectives. From that night on, I found myself reading crime stories in newspapers. I began reading true crime books looking for that rough kind of detective—like the guy who questioned me.
I had been reading some mysteries my mother read, but she preferred the soft-boiled, cozy ones. So I began reading the hard-boiled stuff, which led me to loving the genre, and thinking I’d someday write this kind of stuff. That’s how it all began.
Tell us about the influence Raymond Chandler played in your writing life.
At first, my interest in crime fiction was contemporary stuff. I avoided old mysteries, an
d never read Raymond Chandler’s novels. His most recent novel at that time was twenty years old, and there was stuff going back forty years. That wasn’t my cup of tea. So, I never read anything by Chandler, even as I was immersing myself in crime fiction.
When I was in college, there were dollar movie nights. I went to see The Long Goodbye, which was based on one of Chandler’s books, but was contemporary and set in Los Angeles in 1973. I loved the movie which motivated me to read the book. As I read it, I realized it was set in the 50s, not the 70s. It was a great book. I read all his novels in about two weeks. I got over this dumb idea of only reading contemporary crime fiction. I not only read Raymond Chandler but read all the crime fiction classics. I was hooked. A light bulb went off and I knew what I wanted to do.
You’ve said that you and Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch share some similarities. What are they?
It depends on which Harry Bosch book you’re reading. I’ve been so lucky to have written about him over a period of twenty years. When I first began with him, I didn’t know if it would be published. So to make it interesting and fun, I wrote about a guy completely opposite of me. He’s a smoker; I’m not. He’s an orphan; I come from a big family. He’s never been lucky in romance; I’ve been married for a long time.
I got lucky and the first book, The Black Echo, got published. I’m the luckiest writer on the planet: it’s twenty years later and I’m still writing about this character. He’s had to evolve, just like anybody would. In the process of his evolution, I started sharing more of myself with him, so he wasn’t that different from me. It turns out he’s left-handed,
just like I am. He has a daughter who’s the same age as mine. It’s not only a sharing of these basic things, but Harry’s come to a world view that I have. Yet, in some ways he’s different from me. He’s a reactionary guy. He’s undaunted and relentless. He’s out there solving murders and carrying a gun. That’s quite different from me. But if he stepped back and looked at the larger world picture, I think we would have a very similar take.
In that first Harry Bosch novel, The Black Echo, Harry is haunted by his Vietnam experience. What made you choose claustrophobia as a feature?
My father was a builder. During my high school years, I worked for him. One summer, I was working with a guy who had just come back from Vietnam and had been a tunnel rat. He wouldn’t talk about the experience, but it sounded really scary to me. There was no Internet back then, but there were some books about tunnel rats. It seemed to connect to my own life. When I was a kid, I had some claustrophobia about things. I slept on the bottom bunk and felt like I was in a coffin. That always bothered me. There was a rite of passage in my neighborhood where kids had to crawl through a storm drain. I had a fear about when my time would come to do it. So, the idea of a tunnel rat played into my life, long before I became a writer.
I moved to Los Angeles and worked at the LA Times. Just as I arrived, a big news story broke about a heist where the robbers used storm water tunnels beneath the city to get inside a bank. They then dug their own tunnel into the vault. As a police reporter, I was getting inside details from the detectives. It struck me that this could be the plotline of a novel. I could connect it to a detective whose past included tunnels. That became the framework for the plot of the first Harry Bosch novel.
What made you name your most famous character Hieronymus?
You draw from stuff you know, and from the past. Realizing I wanted to be a writer, I took lots of English and art history classes in college. I had a humanities professor who was enamored of Hieronymus Bosch, the 15th century painter. His work was very dark stuff and stuck with me.
So fifteen years later, while putting together this book, it seemed an appropriate name because this detective would be treading across terrain similar to those paintings. Bosch’s paintings are about a world gone wrong and the wages of sin. You can ascribe that to a crime scene. And Harry Bosch would decipher crime scenes, the way fifteen years earlier in class, we looked at paintings and tried to read then—understand what they meant. So, his name, Hieronymus, came from that. I have some Hieronymus Bosch prints hanging in my house and office: The Garden of Earthly Delights, and the darkest one, called Hell.
You’ve said your “real” job is to write about Bosch. What did you mean by that?
Bosch is my real focus. To keep writing about him, I need to move away from him at times. The Mickey Haller novels really derive from the need to keep Harry Bosch alive. The other books might have varying degrees of success, but my main focus is Harry Bosch. With the movie, The Lincoln Lawyer, the Mickey Haller novels are more successful than the Harry Bosch books, but Mickey was really born out my need to take time off from Harry Bosch.
Mickey Haller is one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction. Is he
based on anyone you know?
Writers take from everywhere. He really comes from three points. One is that years ago, I met a guy—a lawyer—at a baseball game. During the game, we talked about our lives. And, he’s the one who told me he worked out of the back seat of his car. I thought that was an intriguing set-up and someday I might write about that.
When it came to doing research about a criminal defense lawyer, I went to a couple of lawyer friends. They allowed me to be a fly on the wall in their lives. So, Mickey Haller came from these three lawyers.
Your fictional universe has Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch interacting. You’ve compared your work to a canvas with the characters floating across it as currents on a painting. Will you elaborate a bit?
I compare them to the Hieronymus Bosch paintings. They’re busy with stuff happening in every quadrant of the painting. It’s not all related, but yet, it is. In a Bosch painting, you can spend an entire day looking at one corner, and look at another corner of the painting the next day. That infused my thinking about the series. Of course, the same character moves through the books, but I wanted a mosaic of interlocking characters; and, if you look hard enough, you find connections between them all.
Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller are half-brothers, and often represent opposing interests. Does this represent the duality of human beings?
I don’t know if I would reach that high in my thinking. I needed to take a break from Harry Bosch and wanted to challenge myself with something different, but within the genre. From page one, Harry Bosch is a good guy trying to solve murders. The reader is on board, riding with him. But, I wanted to write about a character who would have
to earn the reader’s empathy. I chose to write about a defense lawyer because he’s not trying to solve a murder; in fact, he might be defending a murderer. There’s a duality within the criminal justice system. It’s sanctioned by our laws, and a defense lawyer, like Mickey Haller, is required to do what he does.
Having read the Mickey Haller novels, it’s difficult to believe you’re not an attorney. Their verisimilitude is astounding. What kind of research or collaboration do you do?
I have more than just professional relationships with the lawyers I’ve consulted, they’re friends. One was a college roommate. I run my ideas by them, write the book, and then they vet it for me. I have no legal experience so I use this team of lawyers.
Unlike many writers, you listen to music while writing. Tell us about that. Harry Bosch likes jazz and your writing reflects this.
Music helps me get in tune with the character. Like Harry, I listen to instrumental jazz without lyrical intrusion because it’s difficult for me to put words on a computer screen when there are vocals. There’s something improvisational about jazz, and you’re improvising as you’re writing. It all works together for me in some way. It’s a bit magical and hard to put my finger on it.
What has been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about writing in creating your novels?
Basically, I write the story I would like. I write for an audience of one. What’s surprised me is how storytelling is so important around the world. So, a character trying to solve a murder and find his place in the world in L.A. can connect with someone in Dublin or Paris. As I’ve had more success, I’ve had more opportunities to travel. It always surprises and fulfills me when someone stands up at a book signing in France and says they’re very worried about Harry Bosch. It just connects to your heart that you created this character with this almost universal appeal. It surprised me wh
en it first happened, and it’s stayed a surprise to me.
In the just-released book, Faceoff, you and Dennis Lehane wrote a short story called Red Eye. What was that collaboration like?
It was a long-distance collaboration done with emails. Dennis and I have a twenty year relationship. I love what he does. When we were asked to do this together, I didn’t have any hesitation. I have more than a twenty year investment in the creation of this character, and do I dare to want anyone else to write what Harry is thinking or might say? Dennis was the guy to do it with. I’m very familiar with his work and characters, and there’s a similarity between Bosch and Dennis’s character, Kenzie.
Did you write your own dialogue for Harry?
No. I sent Dennis a plan. Harry would start in Los Angeles and would end up in Boston on a cold case. I figured I’d get Harry to Boston and Dennis would take it from there. So in Boston, Harry is largely Dennis’s doing. I think I sent him seven pages and he sent back thirty. Dennis wrote the parts with Harry speaking and thinking. We emailed it back and forth and fine-tuned it.
If you were to have dinner with any five people, either in literature or history, living or dead, who would they be?
An obvious one would be Raymond Chandler. The other one is easy: my father passed away before I was published and had any success, so I’d like to have a meal with him now. I was very close to a cousin who passed away when we were twelve. I’d like to catch up with her. And maybe I’d like to meet the real Hieronymus Bosch. But, he might throw soup at me for taking his name.
Tell us about the new Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, due in November 2014.
Harry’s over sixty now and he’s going to be retired soon. They partner him with a young detective, Lucy Soto, so he might mentor her. The book is primarily about their relationship. I look forward to writing about her again, possibly by herself, without Harry.
Thank you for being such a prolific artist who has provided so much pleasure to millions of people for so many years.
Peter James and Ian Rankin are among the foremost writers in the UK. Internationally acclaimed, their books have been translated into dozens of languages, and are regularly on best-seller lists.
Peter James has written 25 best-sellers. His most famous character is Brighton-based Detective, Roy Grace.
Ian Rankin has written 19 best-selling Inspector John Rebus novels.
Both authors are also involved in other artistic endeavors.
Peter and Ian are being interviewed together since they collaborated on a story in Face Off, a collection of short stories by some of the world’s greatest thriller writers.
Ian, your first John Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses was classified as genre fiction. I und
erstand you thought it was more in the realm of Robert Louis Stevenson’s fiction. Tell us about that and your views of genre fiction.
I was working on a Ph.D. in the Scottish novel, and was interested in Scottish writers of the past, many of whom wrote dark psychological novels. One is Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburg is still a Jekyll and Hyde city, as are most cities. It’s one thing to the tourists and something else entirely if you live there. The darker side is just below the surface.
So, I wrote a book about this darker side of Edinburgh. I thought a cop would be a good way of exploring the city. When the book was published, it went onto the crime fiction shelves. I was surprised; took it off that shelf and put it in the Scottish literature section. The next day, it was back in the crime fiction section. So, I started reading crime fiction. It became clear to me I’d written a crim
e novel by mistake (Group laughter).
I liked the pace and powerful sense of place in crime fiction. I also liked the strong structure—the beginning, middle and end—the crime, the investigation and the resolution. It all made sense to me. I discovered that everything I wanted to say about the world could be said in a crime novel. So, why would I want to write anything else?
Peter, you’ve written 11 Roy Grace books and many others. Tell us about your writing process.
I write one Roy Grace novel a year. I try to fit in other things around that. I actually love writing. I’m never happier than when I’m writing. And, I love research. Roy Grace is based on a real- life homicide detective. My home was burgled 20 years ago and I got friendly with the detective on the case. Through him, I started meeting police off
icers. I found the police world utterly fascinating. I’d been writing supernatural and psychological thrillers at the time. One day, my publisher asked if I’d ever thought of writing a crime novel.
Frankly, I thought there were far too many good crime writers, like Ian Rankin, who had the market cornered. I also thought that an English crime novelist had to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie by writing cozy mysteries. But, American writers like early James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly and others, broke that mold. I realized one could write a page-turning police thriller without resorting to that quaint English structure.
Ian, between 1987 and 2014 you’ve written 19 Inspector Rebus novels; and The Beat Goes on, a book of short stories. You’ve also written a stage play, literary criticism, and have made recordings. How do you find the time to do all this, and what’s your writing routine?
It helps if you’re a workaholicand have no other interests in life. (Group laughter). As a writer, your antennae are always twitching. So, anything in your life provides material for your next story. You want to rush back to your office and begin writing.
People say ‘That’s a prodigious output,’ but I’m kind of lazy about writing. I’ll do almost anything else. I’ll alphabetize my CDs, read the paper, or do the crosswords—anything to put it off. But when I actually start, I write quickly. The first draft usually takes about 40 days. I might be mulling it over subconsciously for weeks or months, but the writing itself goes quickly. Then, there are many drafts before it sees the light of day. A book a year isn’t so great an output. We genre
writers laugh at these literary novelists who take ten years to write a novel. No, it took them nine years of sitting around moping, and then one year to write the book. (Laughter).
If you become successful, you spend ninety percent of your time not writing; your time is consumed by tours and interviews. Sometimes, I yearn for the days when I was a student and could spend all day writing, every day. But then, nobody was interested. I was writing for the sheer fun of it. It was the excitement of writing a sentence that had never been written before. Just like Peter, when I write, it’s the most exciting thing in the world because I’m doing something that’s never been done. There are twenty-six letters, and you try to pen a sentence that’s never been written before. I think that’s phenomenal.
Peter: That’s such an important point Ian made about writing a sentence that’s never been written before. I think the worst thing is a cliché. I’ll agonize over words. If a cloud is scuttling across the sky, I want a new way of describing it—one that hasn’t been done thousands of times. We know there are only so many plots in all of literature—I think there are eight—it’s really how you write that makes the difference.
Do any of your hobbies or pursuits infiltrate your novels? I ask because, Peter, in your first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, there’s an electrifying car chase.
As a writer, everything you do and everyone you meet become fodder for your writing. I’m a petrol head, which my publisher hates. I’ve always loved cars and race a 1965 BMW. In my next book, there’s going to be a vivid description of a car rolling over because I had a racetrack accident last year. I rolled over at ninety miles an hour. And, I’m very interested in the police world. Probably half my social life is with police officers at all levels, from the chief constable of Sussex on down.
You’re also a food critic for a Sussex magazine.
Yes, I travel constantly and eat out quite a bit. The great thing about the publishing world is that on tours, and when dining out with your publisher, you’re exposed to fine drink and food. So, it gets into my novels.
In the first Roy Grace Novel, Dead Simple, Roy’s wife, Sandy has been missing for years. No one knows why or how it happened. Does she show up in subsequent books?
If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. (Group laughter).
Ian, do your pursuits seep into the Rebus novels?
I’m a frustrated rock star. I’d much rather have been a rock star than an author. When I invented
Rebus, I decided he would be a fan of rock music. He listens to all the bands I do, and goes to the concerts I attend. As a result, rock musicians have become great fans of the books. I get emails from Pete Townshend of The Who or members of RDM. Van Morrison contacted me, knowing I’m a fan since Rebus is one. So, I’ve gotten close to being a rock star by being an author. In a sense, I live vicariously through Rebus.
My other hobby—or habit—is drinking beer in the less salubrious bars of Edinburgh. So, Rebus drinks in the Oxford bar where there’s no food or music. It’s just booze and conversation.
Rebus drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?
He does. And of course, I have to go there for research. (Group laughter). So, I end up drinking quite a bit there, as well. None of it is tax-deductible, by the way.(More laughter).
Peter, in addition to your prolific novel writing, you’ve also been involved in 26 movies, either as a writer or producer, including 2005’s The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes. How did filmdom evolve for you?
I came out of film school in 1970 and the movie industry was down the toilet. You couldn’t get a jo
b in television. I got a job as a go-for on a children’s TV show. One day, the producer was in a panic because the writer was sick. He asked me to write that day’s show. I was twenty-three and I began writing. I then met Bob Clark, a young film director, who was working on a low-budget film. My wealthy uncle in Canada backed the film and it did really well. So, I kind of fell into the film business.
Of those films with which you’ve been involved, which is your proudest achievement?
The Merchant of Venice. In 2005, when the Roy Grace novels took off, I had to make a decision about my direction. It was a no-brainer. Because when you’re making a film, you’re dealing with many different egos: three or four producers; the director; the production people; the photographer; the actors, even the distributor. I don’t know how Ian feels about the two film adaptations of the Rebus novels.
Ian: The Rebus books were adapted for television years ago. The actor playing Rebus, John Hannah, was perhaps a bit too young and too soft-looking. Fans didn’t feel he was up to it. Another actor took over and the fans were happier. But, the TV company decided to reduce the films by one hour per book. That translated to 45 minutes when you included advertising. Basically, they threw away the story. It was very frustrating. So, I got the rights back.
In the book of short stories, Face Off, Rebus and Grace work together on a crime tha
t’s decades old. How did you collaborate on In the Nick of Time?
Peter: When I was asked with whom I’d most like to write a story, it was Ian Rankin. I always loved his writing. We met up in Scotland and Ian came up with the story’s idea.
The irony of it reminded me of an O Henry story.
Ian: Yes, it’s something of a morality tale, isn’t it?The problem we had was that Scotland and the south of England are different jurisdictions. How would these cops work together? I thought if we could get a case from the past—a cold case—there was a possibility. Actually, Peter did most of the writing. Of course we had some differences here and there: things like, ‘I don’t think Rebus would say that.’
Peter: It was quite strange to write a scene for John Rebus. I wondered if I should be doing this. But, it was virtually seamless once we got started.
Ian: I’ve spoken with other authors involved in Face Off. Some had difficulty making their characters mesh, because they’re from very different fictional worlds. But for us it was fairly easy. When we go to conventions such as ThrillerFest, we end up at a bar and say, ‘Our characters should get together in a book.’ But in the cold light of day, you think that’s insane.
Will there be a collaborative novel featuring Roy Grace and John Rebus?
Ian: I haven’t thought of it. But this short story has introduced our characters to each other’s world—Edinburgh and Brighton.
And criminals often flee to other jurisdictions.
Peter: Right. They don’t keep office hours, and they don’t obey borders. So this could be the seed of something very good.
Did you always want to be a writer? What did you do before you became a full time
Ian: As a youngster, I was fascinated by stories. I wrote poetry, short stories, and graduated to novels. I wasn’t successful until I was in my 40s. I had a lot of day jobs. I was a swineherd in France; I worked in a French vineyard; I was a tax man and a music journalist. I did anything that would pay me and let me write in my spare time.
Peter: From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to write, make films and race cars. I lacked confidence as a child. I never thought I’d write something anyone would want to read. When I was 15, I did win the school poetry prize, which gave me a little confidence. I wrote three novels in my teens that luckily never got published, and never will be. When I was at film school, there was this very posh girl I wanted to take out. I saw an advertisement for a cleaning job, so I took it to have some money to take her out.
Ian: How did the date go with the girl?
Peter: It was a disaster. (Group laughter).
Ian, you’ve written The Beat Goes On and a stage play this year. Peter, in November, yo
ur new Roy Grace novel, Want You Dead comes out. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about writing over these years?
Ian: One thing that’s saddened me as I get older is that writing doesn’t get easier. When I started, I thought this would be like being a car mechanic. Once you’ve stripped enough engines and put them back together, you can do it blindfolded. But for a writer, each book is different. It’s never the same engine. You want each book to be better than the one before it. You want to make this one the book. We keep going because none of us has written the perfect book—the distillation of everything you want to say about the world. If we ever wrote that book, we could stop.
Peter: The big surprise for me is that people want to read what I’ve written. It amazes me. The big joy for me is that writing is the least ageist of any career. There are writers at the top of the best-seller list in their 70s, 80s and 90s. I would totally agree with Ian that it actually gets harder because you have to raise the bar as you go along. The nice surprise is that I get a little more confident with the passing of time. Yet, when I sit down for that first page of the first chapter I think, ‘I got away with it last time, and they’ll find me out with this one.’
Do you feel you’re an imposter? (Group laughter)
Ian: I think all people in the creative arts feel that way. Actors say the same thing: ‘I can’t believe
I’m getting paid for this. Eventually, I’ll be found out.’
If you could invite any 5 guests for dinner, either writers or figures from history, dead
or alive, who would they be?
Peter: I’d like to have Oscar Wilde, Ted Bundy (lots of laughter), The BTK serial killer, and Dennis Rader, the Wichita serial killer. (More laughter). Albert Einstein would be fun, and going back in time, it would be Aristotle. I think they’d talk about dramatic construction. (Yet more laughter).
Ian: I would love to have Robert Louis Stevenson. Bob Dylan would be another guest, but he might be grumpy. So maybe it would be Keith Richards, instead. Also, someone like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday would be fun. I would also love to have the Scottish philosopher, David Hume. And finally, Mary Queen of Scotts because she’d have lots of stories about murders and intrigue. You know, we well-balanced crime fiction writers channel our dark stuff into our books. But, don’t interview romantic novelists. (More laughter).
Thank you for being multi-talented artists whose creativity has provided countless hours of enjoyment to so many people.
As a writer and reader, I have more than a passing interest in book reviews. While some writers say they don’t pay attention to reviews, that level of insouciance escapes me. I think it’s a natural human tendency to be more than curious about what readers think of your work—good, bad, or in-between. I can barely imagine a writer who doesn’t read reviews.
I’m not talking about reviews from trade publications such as Library Journal, Booklist Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus. They could be the subject of an entirely different piece. Rather, when asking the question “To Review or Not to Review” I’m referring to the millions of reviews posted by readers on internet sites such as Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, Shelfari and others. These can be brief, telegraphic, one or two sentence entries, or long disquisitions about a book and its merits or shortcomings.
Yes, everyone without exception is entitled to an opinion about a book. But what about posting a review on an internet site? I think certain questions about such reviews are relevant.
I’ve seen reviews in which the reviewer states, “I couldn’t get past the first few pages and put it down.” He or she then gave the book a 1-star rating. Is this fair? Absolutely not.
It raises another question: should a reader have read the entire book before penning a review? I think the only fair answer is: Yes. To write a review of any book after having read only a few pages—or even half the book—is absurd. And it’s colossally unfair to the writer as well as to the reader of the review. I think if someone cannot or does not finish a book, it is incumbent upon the reader not to review that book.
Another question comes to mind: should a person write a review if the book is not the reviewer’s preferred genre? I think the answer is a qualified Yes. This is so, if at the outset of the critique, the reviewer states the book is not his or her favored genre. By establishing, “This is not my usual genre…” the review is set in context, giving the reader an idea of potential preference-bias, helping the reader evaluate the review’s validity.
Should your review be a means by which you demonstrate snarky, scathing wit or sarcasm? In other words, is your review a put-down, stand-up routine? Is it a vitriolic screed? If so, you should not review the book.
Did the book tap into a deep, emotionally charged issue in your life? Did it hit so close to home you cannot view it objectively or without rancor? If so, you should not pen a review.
If a friend has written a book and asks for a review, but you honestly can’t say anything good about it, what should you do? This is tricky, but the best answer may be: tell your friend the book is not a genre you enjoy, and you cannot render a fair review. But be prepared to possibly bruise a friendship. Note to fellow authors: we must be sensitive about putting our friends and colleagues in such a position.
If you decide to review a book, remember, we’re not back in high school. It’s not a book report. You don’t have to summarize the plot. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn out essay. An effective review should focus on the quality of the writing, pacing, characters, the author’s ability to draw you in, and the nature of your reading experience.
And remember, no spoilers.
Ingrid Thoft’s acclaimed debut novel, Loyalty, introduced mystery lovers to her protagonist, Fina Ludlow. Fina is a top-notch investigator for her family’s law firm whose senior partner is Fina’s father, Carl Ludlow.
Ingrid’s just-released novel, Identity, involves thorny legal and psychological issues raised by a single mother, Renata Sanchez, who was impregnated by artificial insemination. Though she signed an agreement to keep the donor’s identity secret, she is convinced that making her child’s father part of her child’s life is best for her daughter. Fina’s task is to uncover the identity of the sperm donor. Complications ensue—the biggest being the donor-father is murdered only hours after his identity is made public. The case turns into a homicide investigation and Fina must find out not only who murdered the father, but why he was killed.
Identity is a classic whodunit. After working as an education and entertainment writer, what made you become interested in writing mysteries?
I love to read mysteries. I was always interested in writing fiction, but when you’re 22 years old, it’s difficult to decide you’re going to have a career as a novelist. I pursued writing in other areas, but always wanted to write fiction. I’m a strong believer in writing what you want to read, and I love mysteries and thrillers. So, that led me down this path.
You entered the certificate program in Private Investigation at the University of Washington. Tell us what you learned and why it’s important for your writing.
I wrote an amateur sleuth series before, and it didn’t sell. I decided to go in a different direction: I would have a professional investigator as my protagonist. The amateur investigator was quite limiting. I call it the “Cab
ot Cove Syndrome” because it reminded me of Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, where a new body is discovered in a small town every week. It didn’t make much sense given the town’s population. I decided to have a big city, professional investigator in my series.
I entered a program at the University of Washington to learn about investigation. It was a terrific program taught by a defense attorney, a civil investigator, and a criminal investigator. It gave me a solid background in the investigation process. It also provided an opportunity for me to decide which rules Fina Ludlow would break in the novels. It was a great experience because we had expert guests in accident reconstruction, computer crime, a lab technician, and other people involved in crime investigations. For me, one of the great things about being a writer is having the opportunity to investigate areas you would never otherwise know anything about. I recently attended a presentation at a gun range. I’ve been to the county morgue, and have talked with detectives in the Seattle Police Department. It’s been great fun and helps me bring authenticity to my writing.
Referring to your first Fina Ludlow novel, Loyalty, Entertainment Weekly said, “Kinsey Milhone, you’ve got competition.” Do you intend to keep this series going?
I plan to for the time being. I’m daunted when I hear that Robert Parker wrote 73 Spenser books. I can’t imagine being able to come up with so many stories and keep it fresh. But for the time being, I’ll certainly keep going with it. I love the character and feel there’s the chance to keep her growing and evolving. The moment I get bored is when the readers will get bored.
Have you encountered any difficulties writing a series?
Writing Identity was interesting because I had to keep in mind readers who had read Loyalty, and those who had not. It’s a tricky balancing act because you don’t want to bore people who’ve been on board from the beginning, but you don’t want new readers to feel clueless. That was challenging and it was great to have a group of readers to call on—along with my editor—to give me feedback. I also had to make sure that Fina wasn’t getting stale or static and that she made some changes.
Identity deals with artificial insemination (AI) and personal identity, issues which have risen to the fore of late. There was even a movie, “The Kids Are All Right.” Any thoughts about that?
What first caught my attention about the issue of AI was an article about some men who, through AI, had fathered scores of kids. It struck me as mind-boggling because it could create many family issues. Other countries have limited the number of children men can father through AI. America hasn’t set those limits.
I like issues that are porous, meaning there are many different areas to explore. I thought the concept of artificial insemination fit in nicely at a time when we’re all discussing the nature of the family unit. There’s room for different opinions and debate. I want clarity to prevail in my own life, but not in my books. Gray zones are good in novels. We’re now coming upon a generation of young people who were fathered through AI, and they’re starting to decide what they want to know about their lineage.
Identity has plenty of crackling dialogue. Your first Fina Ludlow novel, Loyal
ty, was recently optioned by a Hollywood studio for a television series. Did
you have a film in mind when you wrote either novel?
No, that wasn’t on my mind. I love movies and watch TV. I wanted simply to create a good experience for readers. I know when a novel is optioned, it can become unrecognizable if it’s made into a movie. So, it doesn’t make any sense to write something with the notion that it could become a movie or television show. It’s not going to
end up looking anything like what you created.
Which actor do you see playing Fina?
I can’t say because I think it’s really great that each reader comes up with an idea of the character. If it becomes a television show, the creative team will have its own idea. But, I think it’s great for the reader to be given a certain amount of information by the author; then it’s the reader’s role to experience and take ownership of the character. I don’t want to impose my idea on others. I’d rather they come up with their own conceptions of Fina. There’s nothing as fertile as a reader’s imagination and I don’t want to step on that.
Who in mystery and thriller genres do you enjoy reading?
I love reading Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Sarah Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins who’s taken on the Spenser series, Harlan Coben, Patricia Cornwell, Linda Fairstein, Michael Connelly, Peter James, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson and the recent J.K. Rowling mystery.
Which writers were your earliest influences?
I come from a family of readers. We were read to and read a great deal on our own. I loved the Nancy Drew series. Part of what was so exciting was finishing one and going to the bookstore or library to get the next one. I loved The Phantom Tollbooth as a child. As an early teen, I enjoyed school reading. I recall reading Shakespeare, Edith Wharton. I loved Ethan Frome but I also remember reading and enjoying Danielle Steel. Growing up in a book-loving household left me with pretty eclectic tastes.
What’s next for Ingrid Thoft?
I’m just about ready to send the manuscript for book three in the Fina Ludlow mystery series to my editor. I think a long nap is next. (laughter). After that, I’ll try finding something new. I’ll read the paper and watch news stories to see if anything really catches my eye.
Congratulations on writing Identity, the second in what is sure to be a very popular series about a young woman investigator who’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.