“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.”
—The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had his hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump. To see him there, leaning on one hip, a Coke bottle in his hand and a rolled-up sleeping bag near his boots on the tar pavement, you could never have guessed that on Tuesday, a day later, most of the police in Basalt County would be hunting him down.”
—First Blood by David Morrell
“Keller thinks he hears a baby cry.
The sound is just audible over the muted rotors as the helicopter comes in low toward the jungle village.
The cry, if that is what he’s hearing, is shrill and sharp, a call of hunger, fear, or pain.”
—The Cartel by Don Winslow
“Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement. Twelve gunmen stood waiting until they got far enough out to sea to throw him overboard, while Joe listened to the engine chug and watched the water churn white at the stern.”
—Live by Night by Dennis Lehane
Though written in diverse styles, varying tenses and with different points of view, these first few sentences or paragraphs penned by immensely gifted authors have much more in common than just superb writing.
Each sequence of sentences hooks the reader instantaneously by its masterful use of language; and as importantly, delivers an undeniable aura of mystery and foreboding.
“Something portentous is about to happen here,” each boldly declares.
As a reader, your curiosity is aroused, impelling you to read on, surrendering yourself to whatever the author has planned for you.
The power of the first few sentences leads you to follow the writer’s beckoning, seducing you to enter his imagination. They seem to say, Come on this journey with me.
No matter the genre, a novel’s opening lines are crucial in determining your interest in what the author has in store for you. Those first few words set the template for your willingness to travel along the story’s path.
Writers from Dickens (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to Melville (“Call me Ishmael”) knew the power of first impressions. And that’s true for contemporary writers, as well.
I invite readers to comment by submitting opening sentences or paragraphs exemplifying the adage that the first few lines of a novel are like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: everything else follows from them.
Candace Bushnell is a novelist and television producer who from 1994-1996, wrote a column for The New York Observer which was adapted into the bestselling anthology, Sex and the City. It became the basis for the HBO hit series of the same name.
She followed up with the internationally bestselling novels, 4 Blondes, Trading Up, Lipstick Jungle, One Fifth Avenue, The Carrie Diaries, and Summer and the City. Her novels have been successfully adapted for television and films. Candace is the winner of the prestigious 2006 Matrix Award for books (other winners have included Joan Didion and Amy Tan), and received the Albert Einstein Spirit of Achievement Award.
In Killing Monica, Pandy “PJ” Wallis is a renowned writer whose novels about a young Manhattan woman, Monica, have generated a series of enormously popular films. After the success of the Monica books and movies, Pandy wants to write something entirely different: a historical novel based on her ancestor, Lady Wallis. But everyone wants Pandy to keep cranking out Monica books—as does her husband, Jonny, who’s gone deeply into debt financing his new Las Vegas restaurant.
When her marriage crumbles and the boathouse of her Connecticut family home goes up in flames, Pandy realizes she has an opportunity to reinvent herself. But she will have to reconcile her new ambition with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica on the big screen—and who may have her own reasons to derail Pandy’s change of plans.
In a recent interview you said Killing Monica is not about Carrie Bradshaw or Sarah Jessica Parker. Will you expand on that?
I went online to BookCon, where a reporter was trying to be provocative and made the comparison. It’s hilarious to me. When I read this stuff, it’s like I’m not reading about myself. We know tabloids make things up. When I read that I thought, ‘This must be what it’s like to be a celebrity.’ People like a juicy story, one that’s easy, but not true. There’s just no truth to that allegation.
You recently said Killing Monica is actually about identity. Will you tell us more?
The idea of Killing Monica is truly about identity. Monica is a metaphor for the idea that women have this idealized fantasy of a more perfect version of themselves. We create a persona that works for us in our twenties and thirties, but when we’re in our forties, that persona no longer works as well. It’s like wearing an itchy sweater. What does a woman do? Killing Monica is really about rediscovering one’s self, and if needed, reinventing the self. It also addresses the issue of having the courage to find your true voice again. I feel so many women lose their real selves when they’re younger and rushing to be super-women, to accomplish everything. For many, part of the self gets lost while they’re caring for others.
And of course, PJ is trying to rediscover herself in the novel.
Yes. One reason I laugh when people conclude the novel has something to do with my life is because the novel is a screwball comedy with lots of outlandish things happening. There’s mistaken identity, and it’s totally madcap.
But it’s all in the service of the core theme of the book: a woman’s search for her true identity.
So, unlike PJ, you don’t have ‘high literary ambitions’?
(Laughter) If one didn’t have high literary ambitions, there’d be no reason to be a writer. Every writer I know, in every genre, takes writing really seriously, as we should. Writing is hard. It’s creative and imaginative, and I have respect for anyone who engages in that process. Of course, I aspire, but the reality for me as a writer is simple: I’ve always had a grating voice—even as a child—and you can never get away from your own voice. And that’s what Pandy is on the verge of discovering about herself. Although now, after talking with you, I would probably go back and make that moment in the book a bigger one. (Laughter).
Last Sunday, in the New York Times column By the Book, you said you would require every person to read Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Will you expand on that?
It was a serious and eye-opening book. It’s a fascinating scientific examination of human behavior. It addresses male violence towards women, and how it’s used for power. Part of my thinking in this regard comes from my having grown up in the sixties. There was a revolution in the popular culture that said, ‘Say no to the man.’ It was a rebellion against corporate America and the homogenization of people. I was thinking about that revolutionary spirit when I answered that question.
In that interview, you also mentioned tweaking and rewriting, saying ‘Writing is rewriting.’ Tell us about your writing process.
I’ll start a book and get as far as I can—maybe eighty pages into it. Then, I go back, again and again. I keep revising before I move on to the next section. I break the book into chunks. I write set pieces or little playlets—almost like short stories within the novel—and by going back repeatedly, I eventually integrate all the pieces.
Your books and films have been viewed as addressing a new paradigm for today’s women. Tell us more.
I’ve always been interested in examining the kinds of lives women lead. I’m fascinated by where we are as a culture and by the age-old questions about feminism and the empowerment of women. I don’t have answers, but equality for women is extremely important to me.
If you weren’t a writer and television producer, what would you be doing today?
I’d probably write jingles. (Laughter)
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
I’d definitely invite Hillary Clinton. Then, I’d want Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Mother Teresa, and Madonna to be there.
What would you be talking about?
I could think of a really sappy answer.
Don’t give us sap. Give us Candace.
I’d hope they’d all bring their experiences and insights to making the world a better place for women.
What’s coming next from Candace Bushnell?
I have a line of emojis called Candace Bushnell’s EmojiNation. Hopefully, they’ll be available in the app store very soon.
And, emojis are…?
Emojis are graphic symbols, a sort of shorthand way of conveying messages. They’re sometimes called emoticons, like a smiley-face. They’re usually encoded in devices and convey a range of thoughts or feelings. Mine are cheeky, fun emojis geared towards women.
I’m also working on my Killing Monica theme song for a music video. I have a line of stationary coming out. And, there’s a Killing Monica wine. It’s really great. You get a book and a bottle of wine. It’s sold online.
Congratulations on penning Killing Monica, a novel about which Booklist said, ‘Bushnell successfully sticks to her tried-and-true recipe: sex, humor, female friendships, subtle social commentary, smart women who make foolish choices, and thrilling plot twists.’
Don Winslow is known to thriller lovers everywhere, especially after his extraordinary novel, Savages, which was made into a film directed by Oliver Stone. Don grew up in Rhode Island, and at age seventeen, left to study journalism at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a degree in African Studies. While in college, he traveled to southern Africa, sparking a lifelong involvement with that continent. Later, he obtained a master’s degree in Military History.
Don spent time in California, Idaho and Montana before moving to New York City to become a writer. He paid his bills working as a movie theater manager and as a private investigator. Later, Don joined a friend’s safari firm in Kenya, where he led photographic expeditions, as well as hiking trips to the mountains of Southwest China. When not on safari, Don directed Shakespeare plays at Oxford during their summer program.
Don’s first novel, A Cool Breeze On The Underground, was nominated for an Edgar Award.
Moving to California, he returned to doing investigative work, as a trial consultant. A film and publishing deal for his novel, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, allowed him to write full-time and settle in southern California, the setting for many of his books.
Don’s latest novel, The Cartel, a sequel to his 2006 epic book, The Power of the Dog, covers the years between 2004 and 2014. The DEA’s Art Keller is pitted against Adan Barrera, the head of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel. Keller has been hunting Barrera for 30 years, and for these two men, the hunt has become personal. Keller is responsible for the deaths of Barrera’s brother and uncle, and his ultimate capture. After being imprisoned in the U.S., Barrera is extradited to Mexico, where he escapes. Barrera places a two million dollar bounty on Keller’s head as each man hunts the other. The novel is a sprawling epic of drug trafficking, murder, coercion, and corruption at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and government.
The Cartel has astounding details about the Mexican drug trade and the so-called war on drugs. Will you talk a bit about your research for the novel?
Between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, I spent ten years researching and writing about the topic. If you include Savages and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, it’s more like fifteen years. Everyone had stereotypical images of the Mexican cartels, and like most stereotypes, some are true, but many aren’t. For me, it was a matter of going after the details, trying to give these people real lives. My research technique partly involves my training as a historian. I try getting deep background, most of which won’t show up in the book, but which informs how I write the novel. I didn’t start with crime or cartel lore, I began with Aztec and Mayan history, and the conquistador era. When I felt I had some understanding of the culture, I went to more recent history, extensively reading articles and books about the drug cartels.
I didn’t want to approach DEA people, cops, former intelligence people or drug people out of ignorance. I wanted the background before talking to these people. You know, when you’re writing, the research can be constant. As you write, you may be in the middle of a paragraph, when more questions arise. I even want to get physical details of what things look, sound, and smell like—everything. The bizarre, surreal thing about researching the drug cartels was that most of it was already in the media and social media. By the time you get to the cartel era between 2004 and 2014, the drug lords were advertising. They were putting out demos on video clips. They were writing to newspaper editors and photographing banners over stacks of bodies, explaining what they did and why they did it. The drug wars became hyper-violent and widely known.
You dedicated The Cartel to more than 100 named journalists who were murdered or “disappeared” in Mexico during the period of the novel. Tell us about that.
The cartels came to a point where they realized they not only had to fight the war with bullets, but had to win ‘the hearts and minds of people.’ They wanted to control the narrative, so they began killing journalists who told the truth. They began bribing journalists, army officers, and the police—it was a matter of ‘Take this money or we’ll kill you.’ So, many journalists caved in and wouldn’t cover the cartels’ activities.
The novel clearly exposes the cartels as virtually a shadow government.
Yes. In fact, they are shadow governments. They control somewhere between eight and twelve percent of the Mexican economy. Their economic power alone makes them a shadow government. They began dictatorially controlling news coverage. And that meant intimidating, terrorizing, and killing journalists.
Shifting gears, you said when you wrote Savages, you wanted to write a book that ‘tore the cage a little, and maybe broke out.’ What did you mean?
(Laughter) I’m a genre guy, and there’s that slight stink on us. Literary fiction looks down on us. We’re in something of a ghetto. Over the last ten years, bloggers, critics, publishers and editors have become so concerned with branding and defining what crime fiction should be. There are definitions and sub-definitions, and I felt all of these categories kept tightening the cage. You know, it’s the notion that if you’re a thriller writer, you must have your character in mortal jeopardy on page one, or it’s not a thriller. Or, by page one-hundred sixty, you must introduce a secondary character who has critical information regarding the case (Laughter). I began wondering, Who’s setting these rules? I felt we thriller writers were becoming serial brands—like Frosted Flakes, Wheaties, or maybe Cheerios. People have had trouble categorizing me. Some stores have my books in the mystery section, others have me in fiction. I wanted to break out of that box.
Do you break any “rules” of writing with your novels?
I guess so. (More laughter)
Which one do you break most often?
I break the rules about point-of-view, switching them like a schizophrenic. Some writers try to figure out how to switch point-of view inside a page. I’m trying to figure out how to do it inside a word. (Laughter).
Here’s another question about technique: many of your novels are written in the present tense. What made you decide to use that approach?
I remember the moment I first did it. It was in 1995. My career was flat-lining. Working as an investigator, I was riding the train each day from San Juan Capistrano to downtown L.A. I was writing on my laptop in the traditional third person, past tense narrative style. But it seemed flat and dull. I was bored with myself. So, I began writing the next page in the present tense. It opened up a whole new world for me. I began to have fun again. It turned into The Death and Life of Bobby Z.
The first few sentences of that book changed my writing life. Writing in the present tense is liberating. I love it. The next sentence is coming at you in the here and now. And, it’s cinematic. It immerses the reader in the immediacy of now. It’s as though I’m saying to the reader, ‘Come with me on this cool trip. I want you with me. I’m not going to tell you, ‘here’s what happened. It’s too bad you weren’t there when it happened, so let me describe it to you.’ Instead, I say, ‘Let’s travel this path together.’
In an earlier novel, you described an elevated structure as being ‘Carl Sagan high.’ In The Cartel, you describe an obese man as ‘one jelly donut away from a triple bypass.’ Your metaphors are arresting and often reference popular culture. Tell us about that.
I think I use pop culture because I’m not that intellectual. I look for things people can relate to. We thriller writers write about a lot of really far out things—stuff most readers never encounter in their lives. So, I look for images and metaphors that will make it familiar. I also think they’re fun. They just come to mind. And of course, the rhythm of the writing is important—even a single syllable can make a huge difference.
Like ‘One Jelly donut away from a triple bypass…?’
(Laughter) Yes. It has a cadence, a rhythm of its own. At first, I thought maybe it could be one jelly donut away from a heart attack. But then, I wanted to push it a little bit—maybe angle it off, and take it one step further to make it more distinctive. The triple bypass reference is funnier.
Is it true you once said that for you, writing is an addiction?
(Laughter) I think it’s true. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing; sometimes, not.
Is it also true that you work on two or even three books at a time?
Yes. For the most part, I’m afraid it’s true. But when I’m nearing the home stretch of a book, I focus on that one, exclusively.
How do you feel if a day goes by and you haven’t written?
Anxious. Very anxious. (Laughter). I feel guilty. I should be home writing. I feel as though I’m shirking…it’s a strange kind of dysphoria. I think this writing addiction is like a dope-driven rush. When it’s going well, it’s a real high. When it’s going badly, it feels like it’s just a job.
I try taking Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I’m improving myself (More laughter). But, I definitely feel as though something is wrong. Sometimes, I just can’t turn it off; I’m writing in my head. I’ll be walking with my wife and she’ll say, ‘What did you say?’ I’ll answer, ‘I didn’t say anything.’ But it turns out I was speaking a character’s dialogue, and wasn’t even aware of it.
I walk nearly every day on this winding road with these wicked curves. One day, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I literally walked off the edge of a little cliff. Luckily, it was a short drop. I was busily plotting something. (More laughter).
Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
That’s a tough one. They’re all my children. It’s not a favorite, but I’m so attached to my first book, A Cool Breeze on the Underground. It was such a struggle and took so long to write. I have a fondness for Dog and Cartel because I spent so many years on them. And then there’s Savages, which was such a dice toss. I just said ‘the hell with it. It’ll probably end up badly.’ But it didn’t. I really can’t say I have a favorite. I love them all, but each in a different way. Picking a favorite is sort of like trying to pick your favorite child.
Or being asked which is your favorite dog?
Yes. You know, it’s been eight years since we lost our last dog. It was one of the worst days of my life. I haven’t been able to get another one. I just can’t go through that kind of loss again.
The Winter of Frankie Machine concerns a former mafia hit man, and is a ‘smaller’ and very human story, in contrast to the epic proportions of The Cartel and The Power of the Dog. Will you talk about that?
It took me five years to do Dog. I came out of that experience mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. After that, I wanted to do a smaller story—even though the story of Frankie Machine is about crime in Southern California. All the cases in the flashback scenes were real cases I fictionalized. It’s a good changeup to play with scale. So, rather than telling the story of twenty-five people over fifty years, I decided to just get into the head of this individual, and look at life through his experiences. If the reader gets some history, that’s good; but I wanted the intimacy of one man’s story. After the first twenty pages, you know Frankie, and you care about him. I wondered if I could write about a guy whose job it was to kill people and make him human, and even likable.
Is there anything in your background that’s made you so interested in crime stories?
Sometimes, I ask myself that question. I don’t know that I can come up with the real answer. I guess the hypotenuse answer is that it’s life in the extreme. I grew up during the New England crime wars, so as a kid, I knew about these kinds of guys in the neighborhood.
You’re having a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
Crazy Horse would by my first guest because I want to know what really happened at the Little Big Horn. Buddha would be next, because I feel I have to get noble here for just a second. Then, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because I think he’s the American poet. He’s always, in a real sense, spoken to me. I’d have the late Art Pepper, a great saxophone jazz artist. Then I’d have Brendan Behan, the Irish poet, novelist and short-story writer. He was so clever, he actually said, ‘I’m a drinker with a writing problem.’ (Laughter)
What would you all be talking about?
(Laughter) Assuming we could talk…if I spoke Lakota, I’d be probing Crazy Horse about what really happened at the Little Big Horn. I wouldn’t want Custer there because he was a liar. I would love to hear Brendan Behan and Springsteen talk. I’d be talking to Pepper about riffs in certain jazz songs. I don’t think I’d talk much. I’d just sit back and take it all in.
Congratulations on writing The Cartel, a grand and gripping epic novel James Ellroy called “The War and Peace of dope-war books.” It has plot, character, action, vivid dialogue and description—it has everything.
Grant Blackwood co-authored Dead or Alive with Tom Clancy, The Kill Switch with James Rollins, and The Fargo Adventure Series with Clive Cussler. He’s also the author of the Briggs Tanner series, among other novels. A U. S. Navy veteran, Grant spent three years aboard a guided missile frigate as an Operations Specialist and a Pilot Rescue Swimmer.
Under Fire is Grant’s first solo Tom Clancy book in the Jack Ryan, Jr. series. Working alone for the first time on assignment for The Campus in Tehran, Jack shares lunch with an old friend, Seth Gregory, during which he’s given the key to Seth’s apartment, along with a cryptic message. Soon thereafter, Seth goes missing and Jack, doing his best to locate his friend, finds himself entangled in a web of espionage; global politics involving the CIA, Great Britain’s MI 6, Russian and Iranian intelligence; and a popular uprising in neighboring Dagestan.
How did you approach writing Under Fire in light of Tom Clancy’s untimely death?
The guiding force was to stay true to the Tom Clancy franchise. I’m steeped in the Clancy universe and that informed everything I did in this book. The question I asked myself was: ‘Am I doing my best to give Tom Clancy fans what they would get if he were still alive?’
Since Under Fire is your first solo effort in the Tom Clancy franchise, did you feel any pressures or restrictions?
There were no restrictions at all. My editor and the people at Putnam were fantastic. I didn’t feel pressure, partially because I’d co-authored Dead or Alive with Tom, which did very well. The only pressure I felt was to come up with something fresh. I knew I would write about Jack Ryan, Jr. on his own, and this would be a very personal story for him. I had to delve into what would drive him; what would challenge him; and what would put him in jeopardy.
You anticipated my next question. In Under Fire, Jack Ryan Jr. must negotiate trouble on his own. How does he evolve in this scenario?
This is the seventh Jack Ryan, Jr. book in the series, so Jack has been through a great deal. In earlier books, he was an analyst, but now, in Under Fire, he’s a full-fledged field operative. The reader gets to see his evolution as he now takes on challenges largely by himself.
In Under Fire, Ysabel Kashani is an intriguing love interest. Tell us a little about her and the relationship she and Jack forge.
Early in the book, Jack is in big trouble. She appears at just the right moment. She has a relationship with Seth Gregory, the man Jack is trying to find. For a while, Ysabel’s motivation is a bit of a mystery. But slowly and steadily, Jack begins trusting her and she becomes a real partner. Anyone who has read Jack’s story in previous books knows forming relationships is a bit of a challenge for him.
I understand when The Hunt for Red October was published, you were involved in anti-submarine warfare. Tell us about that, and your relationship to Tom Clancy’s novels.
Even before I started writing, I admired him. I read The Hunt for Red October on board a U.S. Navy warship. I recall the book detailing things I was actually trained to do. It was a bit surreal because right there in a novel, Tom Clancy got a lot of stuff right. It was fascinating to me. When I started writing, Tom was something of a mentor for me. It finally came full circle to be writing books with him and now carrying on his legacy.
In addition to penning your own novels, and working with Tom Clancy, you’ve collaborated with some of the other bestselling authors in the world. How does collaboration on a novel work?
It depends on the author with whom I’m working. I take my cues from my co-author because part of being a collaborator is being flexible. When we first get together to talk about how to proceed, we work and flesh everything out ahead of time so there are no surprises.
How is writing a Tom Clancy novel different from co-authoring a James Rollins or Clive Cussler novel?
Within the thriller genre there are many sub-genres. The term ‘thriller’ is something of an umbrella. Tom Clancy wrote political intrigue. James Rollins and Clive Cussler are adventure novelists. So, I have to switch gears a bit with each co-author. In a Clancy novel, I hope to create a scenario in which the reader will say, ‘Yup, I just read about that in the newspaper.’
As a co-author, I have to broaden my scope. I must be ready to talk about virtually any subject pertaining to the story.
How and when did you decide to become a writer?
The truth is I wanted to become a writer when I was eight years old. I tried writing an Irwin Allen disaster-style novel. About four pages into it, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. So I went outside and played with doodlebugs. (Laughter). I’d always felt inspired by Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. About two months after I got out of the Navy in 1987, I sat down at a typewriter and started writing. I’ve never looked back.
What would you be doing today if you weren’t a writer?
That’s a hard question, but I think I’d have eventually found myself in some kind of creative field. I don’t know what it would be because I can’t draw, I can’t sing, and I can’t dance. But I’ll say this: even if I weren’t being paid, I would be writing.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve ever learned about writing?
As it pertains to thrillers, it’s a lesson I didn’t learn from Clive or Tom. Rather, I picked it up along the way. It’s this: the reason people pick up thrillers is to be entertained. If, they happen to be enlightened and educated by what the book offers, that’s great. But for me, the entertainment value is the tip of the spear. That’s the most important lesson I’ve learned, and it’s the guiding principle that gets me through hard times.
Speaking of hard times, how long did it take for you to become a success?
That’s a really interesting question because everything is relative. Many authors go into writing knowing how tough this business is. When I teach, I talk about little graduations. When you finish a book, that’s a little graduation. When you get an agent, that’s another little graduation. I kind of felt I’d made it when I started making a living doing this and doing it full-time. ‘Making it’ is, I think, doing what you love for a living.
And I take it you also write what you would love to read.
That’s exactly it. When I teach writing classes, I tell my students the most successful authors generally write what they would love to read. It’s a guiding principle, and I think it’s an indicator of success.
You’re hosting a dinner party and can invite any five people, dead or alive, from any walk of life. Who are they?
I would love to have Abe Lincoln over for dinner. It would be great to plumb his mind. Secondly, I wouldn’t mind having Jerry Seinfeld there. He’s so clever and I just loved his show. And because they were so important in my life, I’d want to have Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, too. I’d love to have my wife there so she could enjoy the company. And I’d definitely want at least one of my four dogs there, as well. (Laughter).
Congratulations on writing Under Fire, a high-octane, high-stakes novel of international intrigue and military action, involving global brinkmanship, espionage, and romance.
Author of The Lovers’ Tango and Return to Sandara
Joseph Finder is known to any reader who loves thrillers. His first book was published when he was only 24, and he’s gone on to write critically acclaimed thrillers including Extraordinary Powers, The Zero Hour, and High Crimes, all of which became Hollywood films. In 2004, his novel, Paranoia, became a huge bestseller. His awards include The Barry, Gumshoe, and The International Thriller Writers Award for his novel, Killer Instinct. His new novel is The Fixer.
The Fixer focuses on Rick Hoffman, who has just lost his job as a reporter, has no income, and is forced to move back to—and renovate—the home in which he grew up. It has been empty and undergone decay since his father has been lying mute in a nursing home, paralyzed by a stroke nineteen years earlier.
When Rick begins tearing apart the house, he discovers something that will alter everything he thought he knew about his father. It will also irrevocably change his life. The discovery leads to a chilling chain of events filled with intrigue, intimidation, and threats to everything Rick values—including his life.
The premise of a son discovering something of his father’s in the attic of the house they lived in intrigues me. How did that come to you?
The initial premise was a story about a guy down on his luck, who discovers a huge pile of cash in the old family house. While I was writing the book, my father died. He was nearly ninety seven. It changed my life in ways I’d never expected. I realized all I knew about my father was what I saw in the family. There are aspects of your parents you never know. They had lives before they had kids. The Fixer began to change direction on its own; it turned into a story about a son discovering what his father’s life was really about. That’s what I was going through myself. It’s unusual for my personal life to intrude on my fiction, but it happened in this one. This is why I consider The Fixer the most personal book I’ve ever written.
Even though he didn’t utter a single word, Rick’s father became a real character in the novel.
That’s what I hoped would happen. Rick’s understanding of his father morphed from scene to scene. I really hoped that in the process of this metamorphosis, the reader would get to know the father just as Rick was discovering more about him. It was a slow reveal.
At the outset of The Fixer, Rick goes on a date with an old flame he hasn’t seen in years. He makes a fool of himself, but as the novel progresses, he changes. Is it important for a character to evolve in a novel?
It depends on the kind of novel you’re writing. When you write a standalone as opposed to a series novel, the protagonist has to be transformed by the story. If that doesn’t happen, the book isn’t really interesting. My standalones are always about my characters facing something completely changing the meaning of their lives. It was important to me for the reader to initially see Rick as someone who’d lost touch with his values, then appreciate the dramatic transformation he makes over the course of the novel.
As occurred in Suspicion and Killer Instinct, one small incident or decision changes the course of a life. Will you talk about that?
As the book opens, Rick makes one small move—he breaks open the wall at the back of a closet—and discovers a vast pile of cash. He’s then faced with the dilemma: What do I do? Is this mine to keep? Because he decided to start renovating the house, events occur and his life is put in jeopardy.
As a general rule, do you feel a small incident mushrooming into something far larger is a good model for a thriller?
That’s the sort of thriller I most enjoy. I want a reader to go on a wild ride—a rollercoaster. As a reader, I identify most with the everyday decisions we make, and how one small choice can change your life. It’s the sort of story arc I’m interested in. It’s not the only way to write a thriller, but when a huge transformation derives from a seemingly minor decision, a reader can identify very closely with it. It’s Hitchcockian. I fully admit I steal from Hitchcock. (Laughter) I love when an ordinary man makes a small decision and his life is turned upside down.
Your novel, Killer Instinct, was written in the first person. The Fixer is written in the third person. How do you decide which approach to take? What are the advantages of each?
I write my Nick Heller books in the first person, but bring in third person chapters for other characters. I do that because I want the external sense of threat to be there, and do it by using the third person for another character. The Fixer could have gone either way, but I decided on the third person because I wanted the reader to witness Rick’s transformation. I didn’t feel a first person characterization would allow the reader sufficient access to that evolution. I wrote it in what I call a close third person, which achieves the voice and mindset of a first person narration.
As for the advantages of each kind of storytelling: with a third person narration, you can show simultaneous action and can show a threat to the protagonist in a way you cannot in a first person narrative. In the third person, you can also have the narrator, in essence, become a commentator. On the other hand, a first person narration feels immediate to the reader. One of the most appealing things about a first person story is you’re literally in the head of the main character. It feels as personal and real to the reader as it does to the character. The first person is immensely attractive as a narrative tool. The question is, are you willing to give up the advantages of the third person narration?
What’s your writing day like?
I’m very routinized. I have an office a few blocks away from my home. I usually get there by eight in the morning, and write until midday. I take a break to work out or have lunch with someone. In the afternoons, I tend to do the more business-oriented aspects of my job. Usually, in the late afternoon, I go back to writing.
What has surprised you about the writing life?
Many things have surprised me. One is how much I like my fellow writers. When I entered this field, I thought it would be very competitive. But I found, especially with the International Thriller Writers, my fellow writers are really supportive. They’re great friends.
I’m surprised by the fact with every book I start, I feel like it’s the first one I’ve ever written. As I begin each novel, it’s as if I’m back at the beginning of my career. I often agonize at the early stages of a new book: do I really know how to do this? What am I doing? I’ll say to my wife, “I just don’t qualify. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore.” And she says, “This happens with every new book.” But eventually, something kicks in and I’m able to go. The bottom line is: it doesn’t get easier. I think as you progress in your career, your standards get higher. You expect more from yourself. Maybe it’s necessary to make sure you’re doing your very best work.
It’s important to me that each of my books feels fresh. I don’t ever want to coast along. I don’t want to do the same book twice. I thought when I started writing, it would get easier, and I would turn out book after book. But there are pressures I never expected in the writing life: I feel pressured to make each book better than the last one, or at least better in some ways.
What do you love about the writing life?
One of the things I love about the writing life is that it’s a creative outlet. I don’t really have hobbies. Many writers I know don’t have hobbies, either. Writing a book is so creative and takes so much out of you, it can consume you. I love coming home at the end of the day feeling blissful after having written well. Somehow, I got through it; I did it.
I also love being my own boss. I don’t think I’d have worked well as a company man in a hierarchy. I really appreciate the autonomy that comes with writing. I love being an entrepreneur. I make my own business decisions: will I convert my website to a mobile-friendly website? Will I send out newsletters? And there are many other decisions. I get to make them all.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I think about that. If I weren’t writing novels, I’d probably be writing television shows.
What if you couldn’t be a writer of any kind?
I would probably be some sort of movie producer. I would have to do something in the entertainment business, which is actually what I do now.
Congratulations on penning The Fixer, a gripping novel beginning with an inadvertent discovery resulting in consequences far beyond the protagonist’s (and reader’s) wildest imaginings.
Matthew Palmer is a 24-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service. Having been at ground zero for many pressing global issues from Kosovo to Africa, he has extensive knowledge of international crises. His debut thriller, The American Mission, has been compared to John LeCarre’s The Constant Gardner. As a son of the late Michael Palmer, Matthew’s writing pedigree is clear.
Matthew’s new novel, Secrets of State, is a gripping thriller focusing on the world’s most dangerous nuclear threat—war between India and Pakistan. After leaving government service, the novel’s protagonist, Sam Trainor, is working for Argus Security, a private consulting company. He stumbles across a startling bit of intelligence: a telephone transcript implying the delicate balance between India and Pakistan could be deliberately upset, and it becomes clear something catastrophic could be looming: nuclear war between these South Asian giants. The clock is ticking as Sam Trainor must do what he can to prevent a world-changing disaster from occurring.
Secrets of State focuses on tensions between India and Pakistan. Will you talk about the dangers in this volatile situation?
Speaking personally, and not in any way speaking on behalf of the State Department or the U.S. government, I’ll say this: there have been three wars in the last thirty-five years between India and Pakistan. It was one thing when they were fractious neighbors, but it’s quite another when they’re fractious and nuclear-armed neighbors. President Clinton once described Kashmir as the most dangerous place on the planet. There’s still an argument for that opinion, although the Korean peninsula would give it a run for its money. There’s great concern about where a conflict between these nuclear-armed neighbors could lead. The stakes are higher than ever before, and the consequences are greater for the area and the entire world. The need to find accommodation and resolution is more pressing than at any point in history. That’s one theme of Secrets of State. The other is nuclear terrorism. Many scholars have concluded that while the risks of a nuclear terrorist attack in any given year may be small, if that small risk is multiplied by x number of years, you get shockingly close to inevitability.
Secrets of State details, in part, the danger of private interests tampering with intelligence, and possibly triggering international crises, even war. Talk a bit about that.
One theme I wanted to address in the book was the issue of government contracting in national security. In principle, contractors aren’t supposed to engage in activities that are inherently governmental. In practice, there are few limits on what contractors do. We’ve so thoroughly integrated contractors into the national security establishment, it’s sometimes hard to tell where government stops and private business begins. This scenario injects a profit motive into national security, which is very unsettling. We’re in an environment right now where the Pentagon can’t fight wars without private contractors and the State Department cannot conduct diplomatic business in dangerous places without them. They’re an integral and intimate part of the kill-chain in terms of how the U.S. prosecutes the war on terrorism. When you have a profit motive in something so potentially explosive as national security, there can be great danger.
You’re a 24 year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service and still work in that capacity. How and when did you decide to also become a novelist?
I always knew I wanted to write. Growing up in our house, given my father’s professions, it wasn’t a mystery to me. I understood what writing a novel involved. I understood plot and character development and creating a story arc. This was dinner table conversation for us. Even when we were young, my brother and I tried to help our father shape the stories. So, I knew a good deal about writing and felt I just needed the right kind of story to tell. When I was involved in policy planning at the State Department, working on the issue of conflict-free diamonds in Africa, I realized this story had to be told. I ended up writing The American Mission.
You exemplify the adage, “Write what you know.” It’s clear you rely on your own experiences with the Foreign Service. How much research do you do?
A fair amount. I’ve worked on many different issues over the course of twenty-four years, but I’m writing about places, people, and events with which I may not have had direct, personal experience. I read extensively, but also talk to my colleagues who’ve been more directly involved in certain issues, and they’ve been extremely generous in sharing their expertise with me. There’s a tremendous wealth of experience within the Foreign Service of the State Department, and I tap into that.
Your first novel, The American Mission, drew on your experience designing and implementing the Kimberly Process for certifying African diamonds as “conflict-free.” Will you talk about that?
When I was in policy planning, I had a colleague, Steve Morrison, who’s now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He developed an idea for finding a mechanism by which to ensure the diamond trade wasn’t supporting conflicts in places like Liberia or the Congo. Diamonds had become both a reason to fight and a method of waging war. Various military and paramilitary forces were battling for control of the diamond fields. They would use the diamond resources—turn them into cash—and then buy weapons. We tried to create a system similar to dolphin-safe tuna fishing. We wanted something comparable in the diamond trade, so when people bought a ring, there could be a degree of confidence the purchase didn’t go to support bloody African conflicts. The diamond companies had a similar goal because they were afraid the entire industry was being tarnished by the image of blood diamonds. We worked with the industry and with the key countries to ensure a system that was essentially a certification denoting a chain of custody offering some assurances about a diamond’s origin.
Your father, Michael Palmer, was a physician and bestselling author of medical thrillers. I understand your brother, Daniel, also writes. It seems storytelling is part of your DNA and the culture in which you thrived.
It’s more part of the family culture.
So, it’s nature and nurture?
Yes, maybe. (Laughter). It’s not really writing we’re talking about, it’s storytelling. We grew up enjoying and telling stories. My father was an incredible storyteller. He took such pleasure in it. He had a great sense of drama, and of what makes something interesting and engaging. He transmitted that to both my brother and me. I don’t think he set out intentionally to do it. It was really just more a function of who he was. Who your father is shapes who you become.
One of the most rewarding days of my life was the publication date of my first book, The American Mission. It was much more than seeing my own novel in print. I walked into a Barnes & Noble—as all authors do—to see my book. There, on the ‘new-release’ shelf, was my father’s final book, my book, and my brother’s book, all lined up alphabetically alongside each other. My father would have loved to see that.
The only thing he might have enjoyed just as much was a review I got from a reader on Amazon. It said, ‘Okay, but not as good as his father.’ (Laughter). My father would have loved that, but would’ve pretended not to.
Staying with the idea of storytelling, what do you think is the most important element of a good novel?
The first thing is character. Every story is about somebody. The first question I ask myself when I sit down to map out a book is, Who is this story about? I want to have a sense of what motivates the protagonist, and ask myself: Why should a reader care about this person? Then, for me, the easiest way to create a sense of tension—which people want in thrillers—is to put an ordinary person into extraordinary circumstances. That’s what I’ve done in everything I’ve written. Though I’ve written about smart diplomats, their skills are quite mainstream for the State Department. My protagonists aren’t super-heroes. The problem with my kind of protagonist is it doesn’t lend itself to a recurring character for a series. Everything I’ve written so far has been a standalone novel. These days, the publishing industry wants a book each year. It’s far easier if you have a character to go back to again and again.
Is your fiction “vetted” by the U.S. government before it’s published?
Absolutely. There are well-codified procedures for this. Everything needs to be approved. When you’re overseas, it’s done under what’s called Chief of Mission Authority, meaning the Deputy Chief of Mission reads the manuscript. They look for any classified information. I also must include a disclaimer in which I state the book is a work of fiction, and the opinions expressed in the novel are those of the characters themselves, the views are my own, and do not reflect those of the State Department. This occurs after the manuscript has already been vetted by my agent and the publisher.
What’s coming next from Matthew Palmer?
In the third book, The Wolf of Sarajevo, I’m returning to my roots. It’s set in the Balkans where I spent a good chunk of my career. My very first tour was in Belgrade at the height of the Bosnian War.
Congratulations on writing Secrets of State, a gut-churning international thriller whose all-too-real plotline makes one contemplate the dangers of the world in which we live.
Renee Knight worked for the BBC directing arts documentaries before turning to writing. She has had television and film scripts commissioned by the BBC, Channel Four, and Capital Films In April 2013, she graduated from Faber Academy, a school sponsored by the eponymous British publisher, and known for nurturing breakthrough talent. Its alumni include S.J. Watson. Disclaimer is Renee’s first novel.
Disclaimer has a unique premise. Catherine, a successful documentary film-maker, receives a book entitled The Perfect Stranger. Turning the pages, she’s horrified to read about a day in her own life that occurred 20 years earlier, one she’s tried to forget. Intertwined with Catherine’s narrative is that of Stephen Brigstocke, an older, grieving widower who discovered among his late wife’s possessions, a manuscript that horrifies him. He has it bound into a book, and sends it to Catherine. The book contains details of her most closely guarded, terrible secret, one she’s kept hidden from her husband and son all these years. The only other person who knows what really happened, is dead; but The Perfect Stranger suggests Catherine’s secret is not buried with him.
Disclaimer has a unique concept. Can you articulate how it came to you?
I’d written an unpublished novel before this one. There was an event in my adolescence involving an old friend with whom I’ve maintained a friendship over the years. In that first book, I touched on that event, and when the manuscript was completed, it struck me my friend would recognize herself. So, I sent it to her before sending it off to my agent. While waiting to hear back from my friend, I was anxious about it, not wanting to hurt her. I kept thinking about it and the premise stayed with me: Wouldn’t it be shocking if you came across yourself in a book without any warning? One of my favorite things is going to bed at night with a good book—a time when you feel secure yet are at your most vulnerable. When I was waiting to hear back from my friend, the idea for this novel became embedded in my mind. My friend felt fine about my writing of her minor incident. As it turned out, the book wasn’t published, but the situation gave me the idea for this one.
What made you decide to use the present tense throughout major portions of the novel?
One character’s story takes place two years before the present time and I thought the present tense would provide immediacy for the reader. I kept thinking how I would feel if I were sitting in bed and came across a book about me. I tried writing in the past tense, but using the present tense seemed to fit better.
Disclaimer contains portions of The Perfect Stranger within it. In a sense, the novel-within-the novel becomes a character as well. Was that your intention?
Yes, in a way, it was. The book-within-a-book was the “missing” character. It’s the witness to an event. I found that element—the prose of The Perfect Stranger—the most straightforward to write.
In Disclaimer, you capture so very well the day-to-day life and feelings of people, both in the past and present times. Are there any novelists who’ve influenced you?
I think every book I’ve read has left its mark in some way. You can’t help but be influenced by what you read. There are writers who’ve had a direct impact on me. I particularly love the work of Lionel Shriver. I love reading Philip Roth, but I wouldn’t say he influenced my writing. I appreciate the honesty in other writers; actually, a fearlessness that’s apparent when people write.
One of the characters has “reinvented” the past and is therefore an unreliable narrator. Will you talk about that?
We all look at other people and often see them differently. You can have an unreliable narrator who isn’t necessarily knowingly being unreliable. I think in some sense, we’re all unreliable observers and narrators. There are only certain aspects of the truth we can manage, so we’re all guilty of finessing reality and of putting things into manageable, bite-sized pieces we can live with and contain. So yes, one character in the book is an unreliable narrator, but we only discover that later on. I think it’s an aspect of how people layer themselves; it’s how we protect and insulate ourselves from the secrets we harbor.
What was the transition like going from documentary film-making to penning a novel?
The film-making was some time ago. My children are teenagers and I stopped working in television when they were quite young. When they were older, I didn’t think I could go back to television. I’d been away from it for a long time and lost the appetite for it. That’s when I started writing. So there was a bridge between the television and novel writing. In between, I tried script writing. It felt closer to what I’d been doing, namely documentaries. I then wrote some short stories, and eventually got into that first novel. The novelistic form seems to come more naturally for me than screenwriting.
What are the differences for you between script-writing and novels?
What I love about novel-writing is the interiority of it. I love really being able to get into a character’s head. I think skilled directors can do that in film, but I have much more freedom saying what I want to in prose than I would in film.
Speaking of film and prose, I understand the film rights to Disclaimer have been sold to 20th Century Fox. How do you think it will translate into another medium?
Having said what I just did about script-writing, I am, in fact, adapting the novel into film form. I think it could work very well because it’s relatively small scale. The challenge is in dealing with the time shifts—the flashbacks—but I think the script’s addressing that problem.
I envision it having voice-overs.
Yes. I think there will be some voice-overs which were frowned on ten or fifteen years ago. But, they seem to be coming back. They can work well so long as the voice-over stands up on its own; if it’s knitted into the film.
What’s coming next for Renee Knight?
I’ll be doing that scary second novel because it was a two-book deal. I do have an idea for it.
Will you share something about it with us?
I won’t go into it too deeply only because I’m nervous about talking myself out if it. I’ve got two characters in my head. It’s not a familial relationship so it wouldn’t fall under the domestic noir label. It looks at themes such as extreme loyalty and the question of how far you would go for someone else. It will be another psychological thriller.
Congratulations on writing Disclaimer, a deeply probing, intense psychological thriller that was gripping and very difficult to put down.
Ace Atkins is well-known to thriller-lovers everywhere. He was a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist, has written standalone novels, and is known for his Nick Travers and Quinn Colson series. Ace’s writing style has been compared to that of Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos. In 2011, Ace was chosen by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue writing the Spenser series of novels. His latest, the 4th in the series, is Kickback.
Kickback begins with 17-year old Dillon Yates playing a prank by setting up a Twitter account in the name of his school’s vice principal. He’s charged with criminal activity and sentenced by Judge Joe Scali to a lockdown juvenile facility in Blackburn, Massachusetts, where there’s zero tolerance for even the most minor juvenile offenses. Dillon’s mother hires Spenser to learn the truth behind a rash of harsh sentences for kids who have committed minor transgressions. Spenser and his friend Hawk wend their way through the Boston underworld and other locales, uncovering a viper’s nest of corruption and greed.
Before we talk about books, let me ask how you got the name Ace.
It was my Dad’s name. He was a professional football player in the old AFL and the NFL. A sportswriter dubbed him Ace, and it became his name. So, when I was born, that nickname was given to me. I’ve always been called Ace. In a sense, it’s a family name. The only time I’m called by my given name, William, is if I’m pulled over by a cop for speeding. (Laughter).
Your writing style in the Quinn Colson series is Southern literary. In the Spenser novels, it’s hardboiled, Boston noir. Tell us about that.
I really got into writing by reading some terrific detective writers. In high school, I read Robert Parker, Raymond Chandler, and other crime writers. That genre—detective and crime fiction—was my entry point into loving books. I’m from the South and went to Auburn University. Coming from that region, I was surrounded by notions of Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Penn Warren and other Southern writers. Those two worlds kind of melded into the type of books I write. For the Spenser books, I’m following a Hammett, Chandler path. All those novels influenced me, but Hammett, Chandler, and to some extent Hemingway, inspired me in writing the Spenser books.
You write a Quinn Colson novel and a Spenser book each year. Last October, you told me about different ways you approach writing each, even including the beverages you drink. Will you share that with us?
I’ll drink anything put in front of me. (Laughter). When I’m working on Spenser, I do drink more beer. It’s a bit of a mental trick, but having a Sam Adams makes it feel like I’m in Boston.
Spenser and Quinn are such totally different characters. Are there other mental tricks you use to get into one mode or the other?
You’re right. It’s a totally different thought process from one to the other. It’s like speaking two different languages. One little trick I use is music. When I’m writing Robert B. Parker, I listen to the music he really loved. That’s classic jazz—Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane. When I hear that music, it sounds like Spenser to me. When I write about Quinn Colson and the American South, I listen to country music—Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride, and Loretta Lynn. The music helps me re-focus, and think in a different way.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing?
For the most part, no. If I do, it’s an instrumental, something like Miles Davis. If lyrics or vocals are involved, it’s too distracting. For me, the music is part of the background of my life—in the car or at home—while I’m writing one or the other series.
If I didn’t know better, the Spenser novels would make me believe you’ve lived in Boston for years.
My parents are Southern and I’ve spent most of my life in the South. But, when my Dad became a football coach, depending on the team, we lived in different regions—San Francisco when he worked for the Forty-Niners; Detroit when he was with the Lions; and Buffalo when he coached for the Bills. I had to adapt to a new culture with each move.
Going to Boston and really soaking it up is not only extremely important, but I’m very familiar with doing that kind of thing. When I was a newspaper reporter covering central Florida, learning about a city was simply part of what I did.
Boston’s a very different city from five years ago when Bob Parker was alive. For the Spenser books, it’s part of my job to get it right and capture the city’s ambience. So, I spend a lot of time there. I want to make sure the novel has authentic descriptions. If I haven’t been to a specific place, I would never put it in a Spenser book.
So you wouldn’t just use Google Earth for describing streets and locales?
(Laughter) No. If I write about a place, I’ve been there. Fortunately, it’s not tough for me to do because most of the Spenser stuff takes place in good restaurants and bars. (More laughter). That’s been one of the great perks of this job because Boston is such a terrific city. I love going there every few months. Two things have been great about writing the Spenser series: one was getting to know Boston and the other was getting to know Bob’s widow, Joan Parker.
What challenges did you face continuing a series with a pre-formed character, style, and setting?
As a fan of the Spenser books for many years, the biggest challenge for me was, most of all, continuity. I wanted to create an authentic Spenser novel where the feel of Bob’s books was replicated. I wanted the reader who’d finished Bob’s last book to pick up Lullaby and feel it was written by him. The important thing was for Spenser to live on.
More generally, do you break any writing “rules” when crafting your novels?
When I was a young writer, I used to read lots of stuff about what to do and not do when writing. I try to conform to the rules I like. (Laughter). I think the best rules I ever read for a writer came from Elmore Leonard. He was a stylistic genius. His most famous rule, and the one I try to live by, is ‘If it looks or reads like writing, take it out and rewrite it.’ As a young man, I tried to be fancy with my prose, but two of my favorite stylists were Parker and Leonard. They wrote spare, compact prose and their word choices were economical and just perfect. The corollary to that first Elmore Leonard rule is “I cut out the parts most people skip over.’ It’s sometimes tough to do, but I try to follow those two rules.
Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
I do. It’s a novel called Infamous. It’s the story of George ‘Machinegun’ Kelly. I did enough research to write a non-fiction book, so the novel is based on truth, but has a natural story arc. Parts of the book are almost verbatim renderings of actual events. It’s like a Coen Brothers screwball comedy. Let me tell you about an interview I had with a one-hundred-two year old man, who as a bank teller in 1932, was held up by Machinegun Kelly. Kelly held a .38 behind his ear as the teller emptied his cash drawer. I commented, ‘You must’ve been scared to death.’ The old gent said, ‘No, not at all. Kelly was polite and kept apologizing.’ Actually, Kelly’s wife was really the mastermind, a Lady Macbeth type, and was almost like a press agent. In fact, she’s the one who came up with the moniker, ‘Machinegun.’
At some point, I hope to return to writing creative fiction based on fact.
You mean faction?
Yes, I really love it. I love doing the research and writing about historical periods and people. Infamous was the fourth faction book I’d done, and I hope to get back to that kind of writing.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be unemployed. (Laughter).
I was a journalist. When I left the newspaper business, little did I know it was the final phase of that long and proud tradition. If I didn’t have my writing, I’d probably be working for a magazine. I’d be a reporter in some capacity. I’ve got no other talents.
Or, I’d be a gumshoe.
What’s coming next from Ace Atkins?
Next, is The Redeemers, another Quinn Colson book. It’s a darkly funny Southern crime novel.
Congratulations on writing Kickback, another gritty and riveting Spenser novel in the best tradition of Robert B. Parker.
Alex Grecian is the author of the Scotland Yard Murder Squad novels which include the New York Times bestseller, The Yard, The Black Country, The Devil’s Workshop and his latest, The Harvest Man. After leaving a career in advertising, Alex began writing fiction. He wrote comic books and co-created the critically acclaimed graphic novel series Proof. He has been nominated for the Barry Award, Strand Magazine Critics Award, and has won others.
The Harvest Man is the fourth in the Murder Squad series. Set in 1890, Walter Day, a Scotland Yard Detective Investigator, has been sidelined with an injury inflicted by Jack the Ripper who is still terrorizing London. But a new monster has surfaced, the Harvest Man—who carves victims’ faces off their skulls—so Day is recalled to investigate. His former associate, Nevil Hammersmith, who has been dropped from the force, launches his own investigation. With two serial killers—or perhaps three—on the loose, the investigation becomes urgent. But the Ripper has been playing a game with Walter Day, and a huge surprise awaits the reader.
After reading The Harvest Man, I was surprised to learn you’re American, not English. What made you decide to write London-based crime thrillers set in the late 19th century?
That’s the kind of stuff I read growing up and was influenced greatly by it. Actually, it was never my intention to write a series of Victorian novels. I was going to write only one to get it out of my system. But, after the first was published, there was interest in a sequel. I realized I could do things with these characters I couldn’t do with contemporary characters. I picked up the gauntlet and haven’t been able to put it down since.
You mentioned reading as a youngster. Which authors were your earliest influences?
I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories which I read over and over again; and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, which turned out to influence me greatly. I was most interested in the novels where he left the jungle and went back to England. As an American kid, it felt alien at first, but after reading a number of the books, it began feeling natural and I just absorbed all of it. Victorian society really fascinated me.
I also loved comic books. The Flash was my favorite comic book character.
One of the striking aspects of The Harvest Man was the description of the beginnings of forensic crime-solving techniques. Will you talk about that?
My books are occasionally called mysteries, but there’s not a whole lot of mystery to them. They’re police procedurals. The structure of the first two books was based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. I loved those books and thought it would be interesting to write a police procedural set in Victorian England. I wondered how police procedures worked back then, so, once I had my detectives in place, I began researching and discovered Victorian England had no forensic examiners, and it turned out they had no forensic procedures. I created Dr. Kingsley as a forensic examiner who was far ahead of his time. I wanted to craft a story concerning what it was like to try to find a murderer back then. I don’t see how anyone got caught. (Laughter). The police were limited to strands of hair and footprints; but even that didn’t happen very often. Criminal apprehension was mostly a foot chase, with the police being more dogged than the criminal.
You’ve certainly never visited turn-of-the century London. How did you manage to capture the atmosphere of those times so intricately?
No one alive has actually visited there. (Laughter). I read a lot of fiction from those times, especially Dickens, to pick up the atmospherics of the time and place. I have two whole walls of books about day-to-day life during that era. I also have a gigantic map from that period, so I can pinpoint streets where things happened. Basically, I do a great deal of research.
You’ve written comics and graphic novels. How does that impact your writing?
When you write a comic book script, you’re describing for the artist everything that will be drawn in a panel. You’re doing that five or six times for each page, because a comic book’s action is segmented into panels. You learn to think visually, putting yourself into that panel and describing everything the artist needs to render in the scene. When you write a novel, you use a separate set of models, creatively speaking. It’s not as rigid as a comic book, but I carry over some habits, and end up thinking visually. So, when I’m writing a scene, I’m in that room and describe everything about it. I think writing comic books is a good training ground for writing novels.
You left your day job to begin writing full-time and have been very successful. What has surprised you about the writing life?
What surprises me most is the self-discipline you must exercise as a writer. It’s much easier to lie on the couch and eat potato chips or watch Better Call Saul than sit down and write another paragraph. It’s much easier to go to work where you have people waiting for you at the office, and you’ll be in trouble if you don’t show up. I’ve had to relearn self-discipline in writing these books. So, the autonomy is great, but it’s also challenging. It can be tough not having a boss, but I guess my wife fits that description. (Laughter).
What’s your writing day like?
I used to get up at three o’clock in the morning to get my writing done before the rest of the household woke up. Once my son went off to school, I began getting up at six and now work from about ten until three in the afternoon. I then pick up my son from school. My workday revolves around my family life.
What do you love about the writing life?
I think a lot about this. I do love it. If I weren’t being paid to write, I would still be writing. It’s almost a compulsion. There are things I want to say and try, such as new structures and techniques. But what I love most is finishing a book (Laughter). If you weren’t a writer today, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a professional thief. I think I could pull that off. I’d be an Ocean’s Eleven kind of guy. I love figuring out a caper; how to break into a place. Every time we’re anywhere, I’m looking for a spot to hide until the place closes.
You’re having a diner party and can invite five people from any walk of life, living or dead. Who would they be?
I would invite Graham Greene, my favorite author. I’d also invite Stephen King because I’ve learned so much from him. Then I’d invite JFK. I’d like to have William S. Burroughs, and J.K. Rowling as guests, too.
What’s coming next from Alex Grecian?
I’m wrapping up my comic book series, Rasputin and the Mad Monk. It’s a supernatural, historical take on Rasputin. Next year, the sequel to The Harvest Man is due. It’s called Lost and Gone Forever.
Congratulations on penning The Harvest Man, a suspense-filled, atmospheric historical thriller taking the reader back to 1890 London. I truly felt like I was there during that time.