Mark Greaney, co-author with the late Tom Clancy, of three previous Jack Ryan novels, now has written Full Force and Effect, a novel demonstrating prescience about world events.
In the book, North Korea’s unstable young dictator wants to get his hands on the money needed to acquire a nuclear missile capable of hitting the mainland United States. But first, he must eliminate the man who stands between him and his goal—President Jack Ryan. He must also deal with the operatives working for the under-the-radar security agency known as The Campus.
You co-authored Tom Clancy’s last three novels. Full Force and Effect is the first Jack Ryan novel you’ve written alone. How did your experience working with Tom Clancy inform this solo effort?
I’ve read all his books beginning with Patriot Games. That gave me a leg up when we collaborated on the three books. I know what a reader expects to find in a Tom Clancy novel. When we worked together, I never tried to copy his style. From having written with Tom, I certainly know the voices of the different characters. Once I began this novel, I told myself not to do anything differently from when we collaborated, except this time, I would be taking the entire project all the way through. Working with him gave me the confidence to take this project on, and write an aggressive story.
You have degrees in political science and international relations. How did you make the transition to writing thriller fiction?
Those degrees gave me confidence in my ten year career as a waiter and bartender. (Laughter). At first, I didn’t do much with them. I worked on a book for fifteen years before finishing it. I was working in the international medical devices field, but always hoped I could become an author. My first book was published in 2009, when I was forty-two years old. It’s taken a long time to get to where I am now.
International relations always interested me. I was a huge reader, primarily of non-fiction in the areas of the military and espionage. Patriot Games was the first thriller I ever bought. After reading that novel, I realized you can enjoy yourself while actually learning something. Tom Clancy could impart so much knowledge while telling a great story. That exposure grew into my ultimately becoming an author, myself.
How did your collaboration with Tom Clancy begin?
I’d had my own books published. It turned out my editor at Berkeley was also Tom Clancy’s editor at Putnam. Tom was looking for a new co-author. My editor went to my agent who then asked if I would like to co-author the next Tom Clancy book. I wish I could say I was excited, but the truth is, I was terrified. (Laughter). After I caught my breath, I offered to “try out” because there were some other authors also in the running. I wrote twenty-five pages, handed them in, and soon thereafter, I was in Baltimore meeting with Tom Clancy.
Your novels have so much information about military technology and up-to-the moment political developments. Does any government agency insist on vetting your books before they are published?
No. I don’t think they can do that because I’m a civilian. I’ve had non-classified briefings at the Pentagon. I’ve gone to Washington, D.C. to attend symposia and various think tanks. A U.S. citizen can do that. In 2012, Tom and I wrote a book called Threat Vector. One think tank I attended in Washington, D.C. was comprised of admirals who formerly had been in charge of our Pacific fleet. There’s an amazing amount of unclassified material available to a writer. Experts with whom I speak often say, ‘I’ll give you the non-classified’ version of what I know.’ I turn it into fiction. I hope I get things right, but I have little doubt I get some things wrong. But after all, it’s fiction. I often tell these people not to worry about my getting too close to home with this kind of information. I ask them not to underestimate my ability to misunderstand or make mistakes.
Full Force and Effect deals effectively with national security. What do you now see as the greatest threat to U.S. national security?
In my opinion, the greatest threat is Russia’s Vladimir Putin. I see him as more of a threat than ISIS. Putin has influence in Syria. The Russians are heavily involved in weapons proliferation in South America, Asia, and the Middle East. I know we hear things about China’s power, especially relating to cyber warfare, but my research indicates it’s really in China’s interest to work with us. Vladimir Putin is more of a loose cannon whose self-interest involves working against us for many reasons.
In your novels, the line between corporate and national security intelligence operations can become quite thin. Are they becoming more intertwined today?
Yes, very much so. Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote a book called Top Secret America in which she detailed people in corporate America who have top-secret security clearances. There are no checks and balances, such as those placed on government groups. While I’m quite laissez faire in my view of things, there can be a danger in that. Full Force and Effect, describes one such malevolent force, a private American security company working secretly with the North Koreans. In Washing, D.C.’s beltway, there are thousands of non-descript buildings staffed by people who have military or intelligence backgrounds. If people in those companies began working against the interests of the U.S., there could be a problem. The bottom line for these companies is money.
What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I tried very hard to get into the Air Force through Officer Candidate School, but it was a time when the military was drawing down. I wanted to get into the cryptologic language end of things because I love foreign languages. I’d have liked to have worked in a military intelligence venue; or in the State Department. I probably would have worked for the government, either in diplomacy or intelligence. I guess a good deal of my writing is wish-fulfillment.
Will you continue the Jack Ryan novels; move back to writing books like your Gray Man series; or do both?
It looks like I’ll be doing both. Right now, I’m working on the fifth book in the Gray Man series. I’ve also agreed to do another Clancy book for next December. For a while, I’ve been writing two books a year. There’s a point in each product cycle where I tell myself I’ll never do this again. Right after I turn the book in and I have that high from having completed the job, my editor comes after me for another book. He knows how to play me like a fiddle.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
What’s really surprised me is how people want to talk about what they do and know. I was hesitant to interview people when I began writing these books. I’d been a bit reluctant to reach out and ask people for favors. But I’ve learned that people really love to talk. They aren’t even necessarily people who love books. Virtually any person I’ve contacted, in any walk of life, has been happy to provide a wealth of information. That’s really surprised me.
What do you love about the writing life?
Even four or five years before I got my first book deal, it occurred to me that I loved what I was doing—writing. And it struck me, even back then, how much I loved the one hour before work every morning when I’d go to the coffee shop to write. It was my favorite hour of the day and was what I most looked forward to doing.
The awareness hit me back then: I was approaching middle age and hadn’t yet been published. I realized I could be writing for the next fifty years—not be successful as it’s conventionally defined—and it would still be what I loved doing. Nowadays, I love when I walk my dog, I’m thinking about the book I’m working on. I love the process of my mind getting sucked into the book I’m writing. It’s where I want my mind to be. My favorite part of the writing process is the absorption in the creative task.
Congratulations on writing Full Force and Effect, another thriller combining military history, technology and over-the horizon prescience about world events.
Phillip Margolin graduated from the New York University School of Law School and worked for many years as a criminal defense attorney, a profession inspired by his having read the Perry Mason novels. An Edgar-nominated novelist (even while working as an attorney), he became a full-time writer in 1996. He is well-known for his short stories; the Amanda Jaffe and Brad Miller series; and for his many standalone novels.
In Woman with a Gun, an aspiring novelist, Stacey Kim, is mesmerized by a photograph at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The image captures Stacy’s imagination and raises compelling questions in her mind. Obsessed with finding answers, Stacey learns the woman in the photograph was suspected of having killed her millionaire husband on their wedding night, but the ten-year old murder remains unsolved. Stacy decides to explore this mystery as fodder for her novel.
A book jacket typically is designed after the manuscript is completed. But that’s not so for Woman with a Gun. Tell us about that.
People always ask me where I get my ideas. This one is really easy to answer. I was in Georgia giving a keynote address at a writers’ conference. After having breakfast in Palmer’s Village Café, I went to the restroom to wash up. On the wall, was the most amazing photograph I’d ever seen. It was taken from behind and showed a woman in a wedding dress standing at the edge of the ocean; she was barefoot, looking out to sea from the foam line. Behind her back, she was holding what looked like a western six-shooter.
I began wondering what the photo depicted: did she kill her husband on their wedding night? Is she going to commit suicide? Is she waiting for a boat to come in so she can murder someone?
I was so fascinated by the photograph, I ended up buying it. At that point, I had the name of my next book, Woman with a Gun, and the cover of the novel. The only thing I didn’t have was the story. I had my agent insert a clause in the contract saying the publisher had to use that photograph on the book’s cover.
And in writing the novel, you constructed a scenario with the character, Stacey Kim, in a situation similar to yours.
Yes. The hardest thing for me is getting an idea big enough for a 400 page book. Once I have an idea, I do an outline and flesh it out. But getting an idea that’s complex enough to become a novel can be difficult. So, I had this photograph—and the book’s future cover—but I had no idea what the story would be about.
I started thinking, ‘What if the photograph was of someone suspected of murder?’ I thought about it a bit more, wondering what would cause a bride to kill her husband on their wedding night. That really got my brain going, and I developed the notion of someone seeing this photograph and becoming obsessed with learning what happened. And she discovers the photograph involves a ten year-old unsolved murder. I then constructed a situation where what happens to Stacy Kim in the novel, is what happened to me when I saw the photo. That’s how I worked my way into the book’s plot.
In an essay, you said you realized while writing Woman with a Gun, it became “decidedly noir.” Will you tell us about that?
I try to make every book totally different from my others. Sure, in every novel I’ve written, there’s a lawyer and a murder. But working within that framework, I try to do something unique and unanticipated with each book. As I was writing Woman with a Gun, I realized it was starting to read like a noir novel. There’s a relationship between Jack Booth—a smoking, drinking, hard-nosed, womanizing prosecutor—and Kathy Moran, the photographer who took the picture of the woman with the gun. I always loved the Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald books. I didn’t intend to write a Phillip Marlowe or Sam Spade type book, but I realized I was drifting in that direction. I’d never done something like that and wondered if I could pull it off.
Sometimes, the characters take over and shape the story. That’s what happened with this book. I was making Booth more like the gritty, tough-guy private eyes in the noir novels. The novel drifted into this type of writing. It seemed to happen on its own. It’s really weird.
I sometimes teach writing classes and tell my students ‘An idea is tiny, but a book is big.’ I mean someone seeing a photograph in a museum and being intrigued by it, is a tiny idea. But the book is three-hundred pages. The idea expands. I liken writing to a Chinese box puzzle, where if you push one piece into the square, it knocks another piece out. So you’ve got to figure out how to push the pieces in, so each side of the cube is smooth. For me, that’s what writing a book is like. You realize if you add one piece, something else won’t work. You keep slogging away trying to get everything to mesh.
What did being a trial attorney in the criminal venue teach you about human nature?
A lot. (Laughter). Let me give you an anecdote. My first bestseller in 1993 was Gone But Not Forgotten. There was a production omission which resulted in there being no author’s photo on the hardcover edition. When I was on a book tour, people came up to me and questioned my being the author. They apparently thought anyone who wrote that book must be deranged. While reading the book, they had nightmares and couldn’t read it alone. I was puzzled about why the novel was so scary. I didn’t intend it to be that way.
Six months after I retired from my practice, a friend asked if I would be co-counsel on a murder case. I told him I’d retired and was writing on a full-time basis. His next words were ‘It must be nice to associate with normal people all day.’
A light went on in my head. I realized that in Gone But Not Forgotten, I’d created this horrible serial killer. But actually, all I did was describe the guys I’d been having lunch with for twenty-five years: serial killers, sociopaths, bank robbers, and drug dealers. For me, they weren’t scary. They were my clients, the guys I got to know very well.
Of course, most people never come in contact with such people. I realized exposing readers to the world of sociopathic killers was frightening for some of them. So, there were many things about being a lawyer that helped with my writing, but one was the contact I had with these unusual people.
Do you think contact with criminals over the years tainted your view of human nature?
Not really. Growing up, I was in all the ‘bad’ classes in school. Some of my classmates were sort of similar to the guys I represented in my practice. So, my world view has been somewhat like that all these years.
Actually, I’m pretty upbeat about people. Only a small percentage of humanity is comprised of really bad people. I think most people are pretty decent. When you’re a criminal defense lawyer, prosecutor or police officer, you’re constantly immersed in criminality, and you may develop a skewed view of humanity. But I think I was able to put these things in context in so far as my real life is concerned. I do think my immersion in the criminal law venue left me a bit more wary of people, in general. After all, I was constantly around people who cheat, lie and steal for a living. And, by the way, that’s the stuff of novels.
Some of your protagonists have dealt with issues of conscience when defending the accused. How did you feel about your role as a criminal defense lawyer?
For two years, I was in the Peace Corps in Liberia. At the time, it was a horrible dictatorship with no rule of law. If the government didn’t like you for any reason, the secret police could come in the middle of the night, drag you to a concentration camp in the bush, where you’d be tortured or killed. You had no right to remain silent; no right to an attorney; and there was no right to challenge your accuser. Because of that experience, I developed a deep appreciation for the rule of law and due process. Our justice system is not perfect, but it’s a lot better than in most other places.
When I represented someone, I felt it was crucial to give even the most awful person a fair trial—whether it was a terrorist mastermind like Osama bin Laden or a serial killer like Ted Bundy. If everyone gets a fair trial, people will have faith in the system. Once people lose that faith, you get revolution. I’ve always felt the system is far more important than any individual case. Even when I knew a client was guilty, it was my job to make certain that if he was convicted, it wasn’t due to phony evidence or perjury. I felt I was something of a referee; I made sure the prosecution and judge acted fairly and respected the rule of law. So, for me, representing evil people was not a problem.
Who are your legal heroes?
Louis Brandeis was the guy I really admired. I didn’t really have legal heroes. I just loved being a lawyer.
Which writers influenced you as a youngster?
Earle Stanley Gardner and the Perry Mason books influenced me so much, they made me want to become a lawyer. The Ellery Queen books were another early influence because I love puzzle mysteries where there are clues. I try to do that in my own books; I leave clues about the killer’s identity so the reader can pick them up as the novel unfolds.
Whom do you enjoy reading now?
I read three books a week. I read everything. I don’t like this ‘genre’ business. It’s either a good book or a bad one. The guy I idolize is Joseph Conrad. I hate him because he didn’t even speak a word of English until he was in his mid-twenties when he moved from Poland to England; and I know I’ll never write a single sentence as elegantly as he routinely did. Dickens is a favorite, too. I’ve also loved Robert Caro’s four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. It’s actually a page-turner. I enjoy Michael Chabon’s books. I thought The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was an astonishing book.
You’ve had so many bestsellers. What about writing over the years has surprised you?
The fact that I still love it amazes me. I’ve been doing it non-stop since 1992. I get to the office at 7:30 every morning. I can’t wait to sit down and write. I’m on my twentieth book now and you’d think I’d get tired of it, but no; I love it. I still get excited when I start a book. I wonder if I can do it again. It’s the challenge that excites me. You’d think after twenty books, I’d be pretty self-confident, but I’m not.
Can you pinpoint exactly what you love about writing?
It’s the puzzle aspect of writing. The first thing I do each morning when I get to the office is the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was a competitive chess player for years. I love Ellery Queen books, Ross Macdonald’s books and Harlan Coben’s early Myron Bolitar books for their mystery and clue elements. I love trying to construct a puzzle for the reader. That’s the most fun. It’s what I love about the writing.
If you could have dinner with any five people from history or the literary world, who would they be?
It would be dinner for two—my wife passed away about seven years ago. She was the single most amazing human being I’ve ever met. So, it would be just with her.
What’s coming next from Phillip Margolin?
I’m about 175 pages into another Amanda Jaffe book. I’ve written standalone novels and also done different series. You know, Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes. He wanted to kill him off, but readers wouldn’t allow it. He felt forever trapped with the character and his exploits. Sometimes, a series can suffer after the first well-written, successful novel: the plots become thin, and the writer gets trapped in trying to create a life for the protagonist. I made a conscious decision to write standalone novels between my series.
Congratulations on yet another standalone novel, Woman with a Gun. I too was mesmerized by the cover photograph, and while reading the novel, referred to that picture again and again.
Crooked River, Valerie Geary’s debut novel, is a coming-of-age-story, a ghost story, and a literary tale of psychological suspense. Told in the alternating voices of 15-year-old Sam and her 10-year-old sister Ollie, the novel opens with them grieving the sudden death of their mother. They move to rural Oregon to live with their eccentric, teepee-dwelling, beekeeper father. When a young woman’s body is discovered in a nearby river, their father becomes the prime suspect and the sisters find themselves in the center of a suspense-filled storm.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I did. I think I wrote my first story in kindergarten. It was about a girl who lost a red balloon and chased after it. I don’t remember how it ended. I started reading fairly young and loved getting lost in the imaginary world of books. When I was in the third grade, a writer came to my school and talked to us. That was the moment I decided it was what I wanted to do, and that resolve remained with me the rest of my childhood, and throughout high school and college. Whenever I tried finding something else to do, it never felt right. It didn’t fit with who I felt I was.
In Crooked River you combine paranormal phenomena with suspense. What are your thoughts about these separate writing genres?
I read a lot of suspense novels. It’s probably my favorite genre. When I was younger, I read more paranormal books. I do think the combination of paranormal and suspense go well together. There’s an element of suspense in paranormal novels because you never know what’s going to happen with the supernatural.
The axiom “Write what you know” seems applicable to you. I understand there are some parallels between the lives of Sam and Ollie, and your own life.
Yes. I have a sister. We’re twenty-two months apart, closer in age than Sam and Ollie are in the novel. When I started writing this book, I drew inspiration from my own relationship with my sister and the things we did as children. There are similarities, but as I wrote about Sam and Ollie, they developed their own personalities. Another important parallel is that I lost my mother when I was nineteen. I was old enough to be able to move forward, yet young enough to feel a significant loss. It was an unexpected death, as is the death of Sam and Ollie’s mother in the book. The decision to include their mother’s death came a bit later on in drafting the novel. I wasn’t sure it was territory I was ready to explore. But I went ahead, and it ended up being a catharsis for me. The process of writing about these sisters and their grief was a way to explore my own grief process.
Before Crooked River, you published short stories in literary journals and magazines. What challenges did you face in going from writing short stories to penning a full-length novel?
Probably, the biggest challenge was that of being more patient with the process. A short story is at most, five-thousand words. It’s compact. You get it done, and can feel proud of what you’ve accomplished. Writing a novel reminds me of the old joke, ‘How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.’ If you visualize the big picture, a novel can be intimidating. The biggest challenge for me was to push myself and have enough patience to finish the manuscript.
You once said, “I feel the most me when I’m writing, and it’s been like this as far back as I can remember.” Will you talk about that?
I’ve always had trouble expressing myself verbally. I never know if what I’m trying to say is really getting across to other people. Sometimes, the words seem to just fall out of my mouth. I think I have a bit of social anxiety, and I also see the world a bit differently than most people do. When I talk, people may not understand my perspective. But with writing, I’m able to explore different parts of me that I’m not able to share in a one-on-one setting.
In an online guest post, you once described using a stopwatch to time your writing. Will you discuss that?
I started using a stopwatch when I quit my day job to start writing full-time. I struggled with discipline. It was easier to read, or look at e-mail, or think up clever tweets. Setting a timer helped me maintain concentrated periods, focused on my writing. I still use the stopwatch if I’m feeling distracted, or not really wanting to work. I’ll set the timer for an hour. The minute I start writing, I get into it; but it’s the getting started that can be difficult. The timer also reminds me to take breaks, and helps me construct my day without feeling I’m working either too much or too little.
Your writing style has been compared to those of Tana French and Laura McHugh. Any thoughts?
I’m speechless. That’s an honor. Those women write great fiction, books that are both suspenseful and literary.
You’ve said you’re a huge fan of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson. What about their work inspires you?
I like how their books are readable, but challenging. They maintain a delicate balance between being page-turners while also making you think. It’s the combination of their storytelling abilities and the inspirational way they use language.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from literature or all of history, who would they be?
I’d love to have Margaret Atwood over for dinner. Ever since I read The Handmaid’s Tale in college, I’ve been a big fan. I would love to pick her brain about writing and her career. I’d like to have Jennifer Lawrence, too. She’s been so successful at such a young age, it would be interesting to learn how she processes that. I’d invite Amelia Earhart, and ask her about her life in an era when women mostly stayed home. I would love to have Malala Yousafzei, the Afghan winner of the Novel Peace Prize. Another great guest would be Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who interpreted and guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition.
What’s coming next from Valerie Geary?
I’m writing a new book, but it’s still in the drafting process. It will be another suspense novel with a bit of the supernatural, too.
Congratulations on writing Crooked River, which has been described as a literary thriller and psychological study of the effects of loss.
Patricia Cornwell is the internationally bestselling and award-winning author of 33 books, the most famous and widely read being the 22 novels of the “Kay Scarpetta” series.
In Flesh and Blood, Kay Scarpetta notices seven shiny pennies, all dated 1981, placed on the wall behind her Cambridge house. She soon learns of a shooting death nearby, where copper fragments are the only evidence left at the crime scene. Scarpetta links the murder to two other deaths in which the victims were killed by a serial sniper. The victims had nothing in common, but seem to have a connection to Scarpetta herself.
You were a technical writer and computer analyst for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia. Your Kay Scarpetta novels are so richly detailed in medical forensics, it’s hard to believe you’re not a physician. How did you learn so much forensic pathology?
People mistakenly call me ‘Dr. Cornwell.’ I was an English major in college. For thirty years, I’ve been a self-educated student of medical forensics, ballistics and all things related. It’s my avocation. I constantly cruise the Internet looking for new information. I have consultants on whom I rely for the latest technologic advances. I also do field research. For Flesh and Blood, I went to Texas firing ranges to test high-tech assault rifles and ammunition, the things you’ll read about in this book. That’s how I continue to learn. While I would not qualify as an expert witness in court—I don’t have the pedigree—there’s nothing to stop me from educating myself.
Did you ever want to become a physician?
No. I’d rather write about a Scarpetta or Lucy or Marino than do what they actually do. I’m a writer first and foremost. Before writing fiction, I was a journalist. My background puts me in a good position to write about and let the world see what these really cool professionals do.
Your Kay Scarpetta novels have influenced TV programs such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and Cold Case Files. Do the television writers ever ask for your advice?
I don’t really want to be a consultant on other people’s shows. However, I’m writing a pilot for a CBS show called Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who went to MIT, but decided to become a cop. So, I’ll be a consultant for that show, but I don’t have an interest in consulting for other shows.
Your writing style has varied in the Scarpetta series—from past to present tense, from first person to omniscient narrator, and you’ve gone back and forth. What brought about those stylistic changes?
I think a writer looks for different ways to explore abilities and skill sets. You always want to evolve, and my goal has always been to get better at writing. I’m constantly exploring different ways to do it. In writing a series, there’s a lot of latitude for experimentation, opportunities to stretch your wings. In 2003, with Blow Fly, I switched to a third person point of view. The fans didn’t like that. They wanted to be inside Scarpetta’s head. I write these books for my readers. So, I switched back to the first person point of view. I’m quite sure I’ll continue writing in the present tense. I’ve always thought of writing as a glass window pane through which the reader enters a new world. I try honing my writing style to be as immediate, physical and tactile as possible, almost like the reader is watching television.
For me, the present tense lends immediacy to the work, makes it almost cinematic. The great challenge for writers is to draw the reader into the novel, as though it’s a movie. When you’re reading, the brain must translate printed words into sights, sounds, smells and taste; whereas you don’t have to do that as much in movies. That form gives you an immediate emotional response. The limbic system is on fire when you’re watching a movie or when you’re at a rock concert. When reading a book, the brain has to do the work of getting the reader to that place. So, I do whatever I think is necessary to help the reader make the transition to those emotional responses. In a sense, you can call me an emotional facilitator (Laughter).
Conflicts between Scarpetta’s associates—in Flesh and Blood, between Marino and Machado—often occur. What’s the reason for this?
Police are people. They get competitive. I often see investigations where detectives don’t collaborate well. You’re dealing with human beings, so this sort of thing happens. The biggest bear trap in police work is having multiple jurisdictions working on a case. It’s not always the seamless collaboration you wish would occur. But that’s true in non-law enforcement workplaces, too—in the academic world, hospitals, law firms—actually, it happens anywhere. It’s like any family: there are rivalries.
What do you think so fascinates readers about forensic work?
I think it’s the same thing that’s so fascinating about archeological excavation. Or, your own discoveries when you find an object like an old arrowhead buried in your backyard. You start recreating the scenario of how that object got there. Why is it here? What happened? Did someone live or die on this very spot? Our human nature demands that we be intensely curious about these mysteries and try piecing together our surroundings so we’re better informed. That’s what forensics is all about.
To me, this goes back to our tribal survival instincts. If you can recreate a situation in your mind about what happened to someone, how that person died, there’s a better chance it won’t happen to you. I think it’s part of the life-force compelling us to look death in the face. We’re the only animal with an understanding that someday we’ll die. I think we all want to make our temporary stay on this planet less mysterious, more knowable. We want to learn what happened here, so we’ll feel less vulnerable about the same thing happening to us. It’s the kind of curiosity that propels us to study monsters.
More than 100 million copies of your books have been sold; they’ve been translated into 36 languages and are available in 120 countries. After all this success, what has surprised you most about writing?
What’s surprised me most is the very process of creativity. I’ve been fascinated by where ideas come from. I feel when we really open ourselves up to our urges and get our conscious brains out of the way, we’re almost channeling things from areas we don’t begin to understand. It’s both a scary and amazing experience. I’ve been repeatedly surprised how secret parts of my mind are creating something without my conscious knowledge. Hemingway was very aware of this phenomenon. He had an ironclad habit: when he had written a very good sentence and knew where he was going next, he would quit writing and not think about it until he went back to it the next day. He wanted to give his sub-conscious mind enough time to work on the story. That continues to surprise and amaze me: this ability the human mind seems to have. It even goes to the issue of genetic memory. We channel things creatively that really come from someplace that’s part of our genome, our primal heritage.
What do you love most about writing?
I love the way it keeps me company. I find no matter what’s going on in my life, I don’t have to wait on somebody else to fill my time or give me satisfaction. If I have an hour or two, I can sit at my desk, open something I’m working on and be transported to the same world I want to take the readers. I probably developed that ability for a very good reason. As a child, writing was my best friend. If I wrote a poem or an illustrated short story, or described the scenery while I looked out over a valley in North Carolina where I was brought up, it made me feel less by myself.
I think being on this planet is a lonely experience and without imagination, it’s very isolating. For me, writing has been a gift. Creative expression is a great coping mechanism. If you’re sad, scared or lonely, much as I was as a child, writing was my retreat. I played sports and all that, but the thing that healed my soul and touched those parts of me nothing else could, had to come from within myself. If you can reach inside yourself and create something—a painting, a drawing, a book— it can be healing and very life affirming.
Who are the authors you read these days?
I’m an eclectic reader. I read a lot of biographies. I love non-fiction, especially history. In fiction, I enjoy reading Lee Child, Dan Brown, Michael Connelly, and Harlan Coben. It has to be something very engaging; otherwise, my attention will wander.
If you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, from history, politics, or literature, who would they be.
I’d love to have dinner with Dickens. I’d love to have dinner with Agatha Christie. I’d love to have met Lincoln. I’m so sorry I never got to meet Truman Capote. I think In Cold Blood is one of the greatest true crime books ever written. I think dead people might be my specialty (Laughter). And then there’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. She’s supposedly a relative—allegedly, an ultra-removed aunt of mine. It may be part of my genetic heritage, because she and I write basically about the same thing: abuse of power, whether it’s slavery or anything else. I visited her home in Connecticut and can honestly say I felt a kinship, something almost akin to channeling something from her.
What would you be talking about at dinner?
I’d be fascinated about their writing processes. I’d love hearing how they started their days and the things that compelled them to write what they did. I know Dickens was influenced greatly by his childhood—working in a bootblack factory by the age of twelve. It would be fascinating to talk with Agatha Christie. I understand she was incredibly shy and introverted. Becoming a celebrity was difficult for her because she was happiest staying at home and writing. Also, both Dickens and Agatha Christie were heavy into research, so we’d have a great deal in common. If she were writing today, who knows? Miss Marple might have been a medical examiner.
What’s coming next from Patricia Cornwell?
I’ve started the next Scarpetta book. I’m finishing the remake of my Jack the Ripper book. I’m also writing the pilot for the CBS series, Angie Steele. It’s about a woman investigator who has a fraternal twin brother who’s a sociopath, and she’s very worried about having a child because of what her genetic heritage might entail.
Congratulations on penning another Kay Scarpetta novel, Flesh and Blood. It’s certain to keep your fans very happy.
We’re familiar with Shakespeare’s famous lines from Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet says the names of things don’t matter; the important thing is what they are.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet
While that’s very true in botany, in fiction, characters’ names may matter a great deal. A name can become a device by which a reader visualizes, hears, and even senses a particular character. The name hopefully becomes the essence of a character as the reader traverses the story’s arc.
Certainly, the name “Hannibal” makes one think of Thomas Harris’ malevolent character in Silence of the Lambs. Similarly, “Stingo” summons William Styron’s callow protagonist from Sophie’s Choice. “Garp” brings to mind the idiosyncratic man from John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Think of other characters in literature: Ahab; Hamlet; Ishmael; Raskolnikov; Scrooge; Achilles; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These names evoke thoughts of compelling characters and their traits.
Novelists, including me, are often asked how they come up with characters’ names. There are many ways.
Many writers choose names readers will easily recall—those that will resonate in the reader’s mind. And, many writers agree the names should have some acoustic quality making them memorable.
Most writers choose dissimilar names for different characters so the reader doesn’t confuse one character for another (as may occur in Russian novels). A writer certainly doesn’t want to force a reader to backtrack through a novel, trying to clarify is speaking or acting.
So, how does a writer go about picking characters’ names?
Some writers go to the telephone book, perusing lists of names appropriate names. Others listen to the names of people they encounter during the course of everyday life, while some may describe a character to friends or relatives and ask for name suggestions.
Harlan Coben sometimes offers to name characters after people who bought his current novel; submit proof of purchase; and thereby become eligible for a character to have the buyer’s name in a subsequent novel. A writer as popular as Coben, garners a cascade of names, and engages readers in his efforts. It’s also a great promotional idea.
There’s the old standby: naming characters after relatives, friends and acquaintances. I do this frequently with secondary characters. I’ve occasionally named a major character after someone I know—using the person’s full name. In one instance, I thought a physician-friend’s name was perfect for a villain’s, and used it—but only after conferring with my doctor friend, who not only understood, but agreed and wholeheartedly endorsed my using his name.
In some novels, I’ve made mention of a friend in setting up a protagonist’s background or back-story. One psychiatrist friend telephoned me after reading the novel. He was delighted to learn that in his novelistic iteration, he was not only a shrink, but owned a Blimpie franchise in Westchester County, New York. We laughed together about his fictional investment and managerial acumen.
But by whichever method a writer selects a name, it must fit and become emblematic of that character. Reading or even mentioning the character’s name should bring to mind an entire set of personality traits; a certain look; sound; and feeling tone. The name should evoke a strong image in the reader’s mind, and have an audacious ring of authenticity.
After all, no writer wants a rose to evoke the scent of a chrysanthemum. Or far worse, the smell of a stinkweed.
Michael Connelly is the award-winning bestselling author of the critically acclaimed Harry Bosch dedetective series and the Mickey Haller novels.
His latest Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, has Bosch setting his sights on a cold case that began a decade earlier when the victim was shot. With the victim having just died, the act is now considered murder, even though the case is ten years old. Bosch has been assigned a new partner, rookie detective Lucia Soto; and with retirement just around the corner, Harry does his best to teach Lucia the ropes of detective work and solve this ten year old case.
Harry Bosch is nearing the end of his career. Is this the last novel in which we will see him?
No. I think developments in the The Burning Room give me some opportunities to take Harry in a new direction.
Will we now also be following Lucia Soto’s career?
I really like her and will bring her back. I always ask myself if I’ve said all I want to about a character, and with Lucy, the answer is ‘No.’ There’s unfinished business with her. She and Harry connect with each other as dedicated detectives. That was one aspect I really liked about her.
Bosch is a police procedural television series produced by Amazon Studios and scheduled for release in 2015. How did this project happen?
Harry’s had a checkered history when it comes to Hollywood. Early on, there was interest in him. I sold the rights for a film in the 1990s. It was a long-term deal. Even though nothing came of it, I don’t regret it because it was Hollywood money that permitted me to become a full-time writer. It allowed me to focus on Bosch’s character in the books, which is a big part of why I’m still able to write about him. It was something of a deal with the devil, but I would do it again.
Years went by, and I finally got the rights back. By that time, I’d written many books about Harry Bosch. It seemed clear that if I went back to Hollywood, the best way to tell the story would be in a television series. You know, in Hollywood, word leaks out and Amazon came calling. A partnership was formed. From my standpoint, it was easy and painless. I wasn’t drifting around Hollywood, trying to sell Harry Bosch. It all kind of fell in my lap.
Beyond the connection to book-selling, Amazon wanted me involved in the TV series. That’s quite unusual in Hollywood. Normally, they take a book and say, ‘Be a good little fella and run along. We’ll take care of this.’ But Amazon wanted my involvement to help nurture the visual recreation of the character with whom I’d spent twenty years of my life. The prospect of participating was very attractive to me and it was a no-brainer. The first season of Bosch will be ten episodes which can be streamed on television. It will premier in February of 2015. It’ll be a binger’s delight, filled with Harry Bosch.
What’s your involvement in the television series?
I co-wrote the pilot with the show-runner. In television, the show-runner is the creative boss. I don’t have experience with television, so we wanted to get someone who did and whose creative mind-set was similar to mine. We went to Eric Overmyer who’d worked on The Wire and Treme, and who’s worked on other shows I’ve loved. So, he’s the boss—the show-runner. I’m his lieutenant. He runs stuff by me to get my take, and make sure we’re on point with Harry Bosch’s stories.
Harry Bosch is played very effectively by Titus Welliver. I don’t recall elaborate physical descriptions of Harry in the novels. How do you feel about this physical representation of Bosch?
First of all, you’re right. There are nineteen Harry Bosh books and someone told me if you add up the descriptions of Harry from all of them, it would come to less than three pages. He’s very elliptically described over the two decades during which the novels occur. I did that by intention. I write the way I read. I like to imagine and build characters in my head. I trust the readers to build their own visual images. To me, that’s part of the wonder of reading.
But, with television, we have to apply flesh and blood to the character. I’m glad I had a say in the decision about depicting Harry on the screen. I’d seen Titus Welliver in a few shows and felt he had some inner demons in his portrayals, as does Harry Bosch. That’s a key trait for Harry. The few physical descriptions of Harry in the books are mere window dressing. The real challenge is for an actor to portray a guy with the inner demons of Harry Bosch. In Titus, I saw the ability to do that. After all the auditions, we decided to go with Titus, and I’m very happy with him. We’re six episodes into the filming of the first season, and Titus really owns that part.
In the pilot, I noticed flashbacks implying that as a kid, Harry was beaten and abused. I don’t recall that from the novels.
The novels don’t hit it on the head as much as the pilot does, but they do contain references to Harry’s growing up in foster homes. It can be inferred that there was physical abuse in his childhood. In writing on the page, you can be a bit elliptical; but on TV, you can’t dance around stuff. You either show it or you don’t. We decided to show it in the series.
In the shift from page to screen, were there any important changes made to Harry Bosch and his world?
Yes. Basically, the novels provide a twenty year palate from which to choose. In the books, Harry ages in real time. If we’re lucky and have a successful show, we might have a five or six year run. We have more information in the books than we need. We’re picking and choosing what we want for the series. For example, the books begin in 1992 with Harry being forty-two years old. In The Burning Room, he’s sixty-four. He has a seventeen year old daughter in the book. In the show, Harry’s forty-eight, and has a thirteen year old daughter. We move in time for what we need. The first season of the series hits heavily on two books and touches lightly on a third book. To develop the best first season possible, we take a bit from here and there in the novels. And we can create new stuff with our cadre of writers. So, we’re not going to have a rigorous adaptation of the books. We’re using the novel City of Bones as the mainstay for the first season. That story is the ninth or tenth in the Bosch series, so we’re not conforming to the order in which the novels were written. We chose the story for the first season that we thought best showed what Harry Bosch is all about, what draws out his inner demons.
Will Harry age in real time, assuming the series continues for six years?
Yes, he will, because Titus will age (Laughter). But, it’s a smaller microcosm. My books are always set in the year they’re published, even in the month they’re published. Every subsequent novel involves Harry one year later. With television, it might not be that linear. In fact, we incorporated some later books into this first season in order to transition right into season two and hit the ground running.
I understand you’re participating in writing the TV series. As a seasoned novelist, how does co-writing screenplays differ from writing novels?
It’s hugely different on at least two levels. The first is what you lose when you go from writing novels to writing for television. In the books, Harry’s a very internal guy. One reason he’s been around for twenty years is that people like the way he thinks. In a television depiction, you can’t go inside his head as you can with a novel. Everything on TV is about what he says and does, which is how a viewer determines whether or not he’s likable. I think Harry has a kind of “Everyman’s” sensibility with which people connect. In the books, it comes out in his thinking process; but with television, it’s really all about what he says and does. That’s a big transition for me.
The other aspect is for twenty-five years, I’ve been in a room by myself, writing these books. Of course, I get edited when I turn a book in, but for the year during which I’m writing, it’s me against the machine. For the television series, I’m in a room with writers, and all four walls are covered with 3×5 cards showing every scene from each episode. It’s very much committee work until everything’s nailed down and plotted out. Then, different scripts are assigned to various writers who go off and work on those episodes. It’s very different from the way I write. I don’t even use an outline. Now, I can go into a room and see every act and each beat of a scene, an episode, or the entire season right there on the wall. By the time I go off to write a script on my own, I pretty much know everything.
How are you adapting to this sea change in circumstances?
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But for me, it’s been a real breath of fresh air. I feel that after twenty-five years in a room by myself, I’m now writing differently. I’m having a great time with it. I think it’s going to carry through in my writing future books.
In the pilot episode, Harry seems to be a more edgy guy than in the novels. Was that done as a concession to today’s TV audience?
In writing a book, you have to connect quickly with your readers. You also have to instill a momentum in your story. In TV, you have to hit the ground running because there’s so much else going on. You’re right, in the TV series, Harry’s edgier than in the books. This was our choice. We chose a story we knew would have Harry connecting with a case at the very beginning of the series. When a homicide detective gets involved with a case that resonates with his own past—that taps into his inner demons— he’s going to be more on edge because he really wants to find who did this.
Dumb question. In The Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller is driven around in a 1986 Lincoln Town car. In the pilot episode of Bosch, Harry drives around in an old model Cadillac. Does this reflect your preferences in cars?
No, but I do like the idea of wisdom coming from experience and age. In the opening scene of the pilot, Bosch is sitting in an undercover car—that old Cadillac. I didn’t choose the vehicle, a props person did. But I’ll take your question further and say that Harry would never drive a sports car. He’d drive an old, reliable machine.
How do you now apportion your writing time while working on a novel and television series?
I don’t know if it’s going to work, we’ll have to see. The production company knows my priority is writing books. When we went into pre-production, I wasn’t around a lot, and was able to finish The Burning Room. When we started production, I was totally dedicated to the series. We’ll finish the last episode of the season before Thanksgiving; and after that, I’ll be starting my next book. So, I’m hoping things won’t interfere with each other.
So will the next book be a Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller novel?
Right now, I believe it will be both. The story will have Bosh, Haller, and Lucia Soto in it. But as I said before, I don’t outline. Right now, I have an idea for the novel, but won’t begin writing until December, so who knows what will come of it? Things change, and I might get hit by the lightening of another idea and just go with that.
Mickey Haller is my favorite fictional character. Is another Mickey Haller novel coming?
I think what you connect with is that Mickey’s more of an outsider. Harry carries a badge and represents the State, but Mickey’s outside that rarified coterie. In some respects, he’s almost an outcast, and that can make him very likable. Recently, I’ve found myself more fascinated by Mickey’s stories, and I want to get back to him.
I don’t know how long I’m going to keep writing, but I see my writing life as orbiting around Harry. There’s still a great deal more I can say about him. When I look back at the nineteen Bosch books, at about every sixth one, a curve ball comes that resuscitates and sustains the series. I think that happened with The Burning Room. So, I’m excited about the possibilities for Harry Bosch’s next decade.
Congratulations on another Harry Bosch novel, The Burning Room, and a television series that’s sure to be a streaming blockbuster and binger’s delight.
Thrillers are often viewed as “lesser” literature than other genres. But is this a fair assessment?
Have you considered that Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare were thriller writers? Let’s step back for a moment and define a thriller.
A thriller is a novel involving a threat to the life or well-being of the protagonist, the community, or even the world. Catastrophe will occur if the protagonist doesn’t act decisively, and if necessary, with violence. There’s a crushing urgency in a thriller—the clock is ticking—and the stakes are high. Reading a thriller may be described as a “heart-pounding” experience.
A thriller is not a mystery. The two genres are often lumped together to the detriment of both.
A mystery involves a puzzle crying out to be solved. The protagonist must solve the mystery of who committed a murder or some other heinous act. Rarely is the hero’s life in danger, though that may occasionally occur. A mystery’s pace may be slow, even languorous, but eventually, the puzzle will be solved.
The bestseller list is often dominated by thrillers. Many have been successfully adapted to the screen. Think of Gone Girl, The Day of the Jackal, Reacher, The Bourne Identity, The Hunger Games, The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, Silence of the Lambs, and many others. The ease with which thrillers become movies and embed themselves in our culture, may help explain why they’re often viewed as “lesser” works by the literary establishment. After all, how can something so wildly popular have literary merit?
Would we apply the popularity criterion to the world’s most esteemed authors?
Keeping in mind the definition of thrillers, we see that Shakespeare, Homer and Virgil penned them. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were unrelenting thrillers. Their works brimmed with danger, fear, and blood-letting. Included in the ranks of thriller writers would be Robert Louis Stevenson, Victor Hugo, Miguel de Cervantes, James Fenimore Cooper, Earnest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Dumas, Defoe, Melville, Hawthorne, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Tolstoy, Vonnegut and many others. Many of their novels have been adapted to film. For centuries, their writings have been immensely popular, suspenseful and
pulse-pounding forays into every aspect of human nature, including fear, paranoia, violence, guilt, and retribution.
In short, these literary masters often wrote thrillers.
They say write what you know, but I prefer to write what I love. And they always say, write the kind of book you would love to read. So, I write crime-thriller fiction.
But as a psychiatrist and novelist, I think there’s more than that when it comes to crime thriller fiction.
While the range of human emotions and experiences can be tapped in any genre, there’s something about crime novels—something elemental about villains and victims—that makes them so compelling.
Partly, I think crime novels are so popular and gripping because they describe events that could actually occur. They describe experiences that could happen to any of us. The chance of being transported to another planet, or of having some paranormal experience is quite remote. Sci-fi and dystopian novels truck in pure fantasy, which is fine, but these events don’t seem to be within the realm of possibility (at least for now).
However, you could very well be the victim if some thug’s violent intentions, or become the target of extortion, or death threats. Any of us could unwittingly run afoul of the law, or become embroiled in some criminal enterprise while unaware aware of the snake pit into which we’ve fallen. These events can actually happen. One look at a newspaper or the evening news makes that very clear.
In other words, crime novels tap into the prospect of the possible which makes them so compelling and frightening. These things could actually occur.
But more than fear or the possibility of evil drives the popularity of these novels.
Greed, lust, avarice, revenge, cowardice, nobility—all run rampant in crime and thriller novels. Yet, it’s vicarious, so the tension, anxiety, and outright fear occur to someone else—not to us. We can live it through a character’s experiences, not our own. That makes it tolerable—even enjoyable. We can pull back from the tension or horror anytime we want.
Of course, there’s the page-turning, heart-racing element of suspense. Will this brilliant and bold bad guy (who we admire, despite his crimes) really get away, or be brought to justice? (Think of The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth). Will this flawed detective or FBI agent prevail, despite his or her shortcomings? Will a thriller novel’s protagonist survive the horrendous experiences described in the book?
Many characters in thriller fiction are larger-than-life. (Think of Jack Reacher in any Lee Child novel). If they’re well-developed, they draw the reader inexorably into their spheres. The reader is “there” amidst the danger, pulse-pounding exploits, or the nerve-racking chase to a rocket-driven conclusion.
Think of the power of Vito Corleone in The Godfather, or the tenaciousness of Harry Bosch in Michael Connelly’s novels. Consider the stealth and patience of Barry Eisler’s John Rain, a master assassin; or the characters in virtually any novel written by the Dickens of Detroit, Elmore Leonard. How about the cunning brilliance of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter? (He’s even in Wikipedia).
John Rain and Hannibal Lecter raise another point about crime fiction. Some villains are portrayed so richly, are so complex, and are so brilliant and out of the ordinary, they fascinate us. Who among us isn’t mesmerized by the exploits of Vito Corleone, or his son, Michael? Who can resist admiring John Rain—master assassin—for his skills, cunning, and despite his profession, his ethics? How many of us would admit—however secretly—admiring the incredible skill and tenacity of The Jackal in Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal? What is the psychology of our fascination with these characters? Is it because they can and will do things we wouldn’t dare do ourselves? Are their exploits those which we only dare fantasize about? Do we play out our own evil fantasies vicariously, by reading about them? It’s safe to do in the comfort of an armchair.
Whether the characters are heroes or villains, we love some, hate others, and even fear some of them. The most memorable have become American icons. Think of Vito Corleone, in The Godfather. Or Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
Maybe it all boils down to basics — the good versus evil dichotomy of human existence. There’s good and evil in each of us—maybe more evil than we care to admit to ourselves.
I just love crime thriller novels. I love reading them and writing them.
WHICH HERO AND VILLAIN DO YOU FIND MOST MEMORABLE? Tell us bycommenting on the blog or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of MAD DOG JUSTICE! (U.S. entrants only, please.)
Coming November 3rd, “Return to Sandara” When two brothers, Luke, two years out of college, and Gabe, entering his last year of college, go to Spain’s Costa Brava for the summer, they anticipate sun, surf and women. They have no idea of what awaits them. The world is a dangerous and unpredictable place.