I love this quote. Placed at the beginning of your novel, this quote below offers both the atmosphere and tension for each character: “On the wall, his father’s clock counted out seconds like a warden’s pocket watch ticking down to an execution.” Quotes such as these are an author’s marvel in keeping the reader involved for the entire book. What skills do you work at to keep such tension?
Every chapter must have emotional conflict either on the surface or under it. I try to insert the tension in the descriptions, the dialogue, and the internal thoughts. The point of view in the descriptions can also add to that tension, like the simile you quoted above. Similes are very hard. When they work they are powerful. But when they don’t they clang through the whole chapter. Even the one above functions better in the context of a very tense scene than it does standing alone.
I think the opening chapter of a standalone book must immediately grip readers so that they both feel for the characters and are curious about what follows. I try to get emotion in through the way the characters act and in their thoughts. With multiple points of view, I have the opportunity to illustrate how characters both misunderstand and comprehend each other. These contradictions add both tension and realism.
As a thriller, the predicaments in my book should affect readers because they are both familiar and different. I want them to think, “That could be me.” I also want the reader to empathize with the impossible choices my protagonists must make. No matter what they decide, they will be both wrong and right, and the decision will unite and separate them. If readers think,“I don’t know what I’d do,” they feel the tension.
Conflicting emotions also add tension. In Saving Myles, the son resents and wants to distance himself from his parents. But he also wants their love and respect and regrets betraying his mother. The mother will not forgive her husband for being an absent father but still needs, admires, and loves him. The father has been totally focused on his work but longs to re-connect with his family and have a more meaningful life. That’s why he goes to yoga and takes up the guitar. All three protagonists feel guilty for their flaws and want to be good people. Because of that, the reader roots for them even as they fail and contradict themselves.
Creating the natural tension in the prose is hard. I had to learn how to show these character reactions more than tell them. And how to choose the descriptions that had emotional impact. Even a description without any attitude or point of view can work. For instance, I initially described the son’s kidnapping through his eyes in the third chapter. The reader would feel his terror as he was kidnapped. But then I realized the book would have more unexpected tension if the parents and the readers didn’t know what happened to him. I left out the abduction and just had the boy go into a dark and dank basement garage with a stranger. The cement on the ceiling is crumbling and he sees the shattered edges of a broken lightbulb next to the only exit stairs. That seemed to carry enough foreboding.
You have tackled many themes in this novel: marital relationships, parent-child relationships, the effects of tough love, the need for dignity, truth, secrets, redemption, etc. When do you decide what themes you want your novel to present to the reader? What would you say your central overall theme is?
I try to write the book and discover the themes for different characters as I go. After I’ve made a few revisions I draw them out. Besides the themes you described, there are other ones like the ouroboros, the Jungian shadow, and the hero’s journey. Andre, the bank owner, is perhaps the most complex character. He seeks spiritual redemption and is a kind of New Age philosopher…but also involved in crime. I thought alchemy was the perfect interest for him. In alchemy, a man must rise to a higher spiritual level in order to turn lead into gold. Andre thinks that the ultimate form of laundering is the transformation of the man himself. This is his theme.
The overall theme/message is that, no matter how broken the family, they can draw together so that they forgive and cherish each other again. And sacrifice for one another. That is the only way they can survive.
While this is a crime, domestic thriller, what other audience were you targeting with this story? What was the message you wanted that reader to come away with?
I never want to forget that it can’t be boring. The story has to propel readers to turn the pages of another chapter. But I also want them to ride along with the characters as the characters evolve. That means my audience is people who like plot that is driven by characterization. The plot in Saving Myles amplifies the fissures in the main protagonists’ family.
There are actually two messages I want the reader to come away with: that even the most dysfunctional family can reconcile, and also that no matter how broken a marriage or a teenager, heroism hides inside them.
The relationship between husband and wife, Fiona and Wade, feels remarkably honest. How deep did you dig to show an honest portrayal of parents working hard to be perfect parents and how this affected their marriage?
I decided to go for honesty, no matter how uncomfortable, to make it more real. The turmoil of bringing up a difficult teenager when the father is absent corrodes any family. When the explosions hit, the parents have clash over what to do. They can’t stop blaming each other and themselves. At a loss for how to help their child, they feel the only way to save them is to send their kid to a wilderness program or a treatment center. Their marriage inevitably suffers, and one parent may have an affair to feel something positive in his or her life.
The novel offers three points of view. Was this also a method for getting into the heads of husband, wife, and teenager?
Yes, it was. They are three very different perspectives. Writing their thoughts and emotions helped me identify with them more. When I first started the book I just had just Wade’s point of view. Then my agent suggested I include others. So I added Fiona and Myles. Those were hard. I’ve never written in a female POV and I’m a long way from being a teenager. For Fiona I read a lot of literature on why women separate from their husbands and have affairs. For Myles I looked at blogs and the language of teens. In the end, I tried to mimic more a young person’s thinking and emotions than the words they use. I hope that readers will feel for all these characters, even when they do selfish things and are not particularly likable.
You offer two perspectives on cartel families; what was your goal n presenting the contrasts?
I decided that a cartel, like any other organization, must have different factions. There are the warriors who regard life as “us versus them.” They either restrain their emotions or get a high doing the wet work. Then there are others who are repulsed by the violence. They are involved in the clean, business side of the cartel. These are the money launderers. Andre’s wife is a warrior and Andre seeks redemption from the violence. But even the warriors have nobility. The villain tells the protagonist wife that there are two principles in life: 1) the children must survive, and 2) the children must have better lives than their parents. He’s a killer, but who can’t identify with that?
I see you have a banking background. With the adage that you should write what you know, was your financial crime in this story easier to plot? Do you see yourself becoming a financial-crime thriller author?
Some of it was easier because of my banking background. I know how banks are organized and how they look at business. I also used to finance imports and exports and understand how those mechanisms can be used for laundering money. But I didn’t know much about all the other types of money laundering. That led me to the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists (ACAMS), an international organization that trains people how to spot and prevent financial crimes. I took some courses there and went to a few seminars. The people at there were primarily bankers and employees from the US Treasury, Homeland Security, and prosecutors’ offices. I could see them wondering about me, but they let me stay. I also talked with two agents from the FBI and two from the DEA to get more up to speed on both money laundering and kidnapping.
I guess I’m a financial-crime thriller writer now. My first book, Murderabilia, also took place in the banking world. My next one will too. But I think I want to expand beyond that setting for the book after that.
Why did you write this stand-alone instead of a series?
I like how a stand-alone gives me the opportunity explore new characters. However I think it takes longer because I have to invent bios, tics, fears, motivations, etc. for new people in each book. That requires research and re-writing. With a stand-alone I also feel freer to try new things like a different voice or point of view or setting. That stretches my writing skills.
How do you plot your story to provide equal emotional trauma and plot twists?
I constantly re-arrange scenes to keep momentum going and to vary the rhythm. For instance, I don’t want two life-threatening scenes in a row, if I can help it. At the same time, I don’t want too many chapters in a row of back story or character-oriented subplot.
I want the the plot to immediately drive the story forward while the characters establish an emotional connection with readers. That’s hard to do—especially in first chapters. As the book proceeds, the characters’ emotions must rise and fall as they gradually change. The end, like in most thrillers, is do or die. But by that point I hope that readers are emotionally involved in what these characters have to do to survive.
What are you working on now, and when can readers access more of your work?
My first book, Murderabilia, is available on Amazon. My original publisher closed its doors and gave me the rights back. Therefore, I am selling it as print-on-demand.
I am revising a third book. We still have to sell it to a publisher and go through the long publishing process. This book involves a different bank environment and different kind of family. The protagonist is a branch banker and deals with smaller companies. He is mourning the death of his wife. When his close colleague dies from a drug overdose he can’t believe she was using drugs. He is determined to find out what really happened. This book deals with grief and how a man can gradually recover to love again.
Thank you for introducing yourself and your work to my readers.
1. I read a great many books and Bell in the Fog offered me not a protagonist that wasn’t necessarily broken (although, emotionally he was), but one so emotionally honest I immediately became attached and will not forget. How important was it for you to keep an emotional honesty in this novel?
Well first, thank you for your kind words! I think all novels rely on emotional honesty. Even with an unreliable narrator or third person, emotional honesty is at the core of why we feel for characters, relate to them, and sympathize with what they’re going through. So it’s always one of the most important things.
2. The novel is set in the 50s, after WWII, and before Korea, reminding readers what society was like at that time regarding social issues. I am so grateful we are evolving. Was that your intent, to remind readers what that time was like so they could reflect on the present?
This is an interesting question, because intent is such a hard word for me. Going in, I think my only main intent was to write a good mystery and show the vibrant world of pre-stonewall gay life during a time when queerness was so actively persecuted. But once I set that intent and wrote these books, I do start to see similarities with queer oppression today, and while I might not try to make clear parallels, they’re kind of inevitable. With both The Bell in the Fog, and the first Andy Mills mystery, Lavender House, I found myself constantly stumbling into historical parallels I actually worked hard to make more subtle.
3. Andy is vibrant in his portrayal that I am sorry he is not a real person and I can meet him for coffee. How did you get beneath his skin and into his heart?
So much of Andy started with his opening scene in Lavender House. I knew I wanted a detective, caught in a raid on a gay bar, his life over in some regard, but I also knew I wanted that to be a gateway to a new life. But the question was always “what kind of gay man becomes a cop when the cops are raiding gay bars?” And that resulted in a complex guy; scared, proud, and genuinely hoping to help people but often so concerned with protecting himself he misses opportunities to do so. Now, in Bell, we get to see him trying to make up for that, trying to become someone better. That was the important thing I kept in mind writing him this time. He’s trying to help, he’s trying to be better.
4. You offer a male homosexual perspective and that from a gay woman. Was it important to you to widen your gender base?
And don’t forget Lee, who I think today might identify as genderqueer! I wanted to show a whole spectrum of queer identities, to show that we’ve always existed, in our myriad ways, even when what those identities meant at the time were different. So even though these books are first person, only from Andy’s point of view, I tried to have all kinds of queer people and their experiences on the page.
5. Love is exploded in your novel as a prominent theme: romantic love, friendship, renewed love, complicated love, and letting go of love. I probably am not naming all of the minor themes under love or misnaming some. When you write, and the story evolves, do you also see your themes evolving? And if you do, how do plot them to arc so nicely?
I try not to map out thematic stuff. I start with character, and getting them into what I think is a situation that’ll allow me to explore them, the world, and let them attain something important. Level up in some way. Once I’ve mapped that out and start writing it, the theme tends to become clearer to me, and it’s only in editing those early drafts that I try to make sure it all lines up and evolves. So while I knew this would have an ex and a new potential relationship, because that’s a fun set-up, the ideas of love weren’t mapped out until after I had plot and character down. I think theme evolves from those.
6. You bring in the higher brass. While your characters are past lower Navy seamen and women, I see why this was important to the story. But how do you think this broadened the overall mystery for the readers?
Well, it required more research on my part. But I did really want to explore the queerness of the military in WW2. There’s an amazing book, Coming Out Under Fire, by Allan Berube, that I used for a lot of my research. I could only use a fraction of the things in it, sadly, but it amazing how queer the military was. WW2 brought together a lot of people from across the country, which meant that suddenly, the one gay guy from his small town in Iowa was on a base in San Francisco with hundreds of other queer people. It created queer communities, and that crossed ranks. But in terms of the mystery, I think introducing people with more power always raises the stakes, because power over other people is always a weapon, waiting to be used.
7. This novel reads so smoothly that I visualize the scenes. Have you played with screenwriting?
In college, I was originally a playwriting major, until I started writing a novel. So I’ve dabbled, sure, most writers have. But it’s not something I’ve done on any professional level at this point.
8. I see you have written YA books before this detective series. What brought you to the mystery genre? And I may be just uninformed about your YA books. So please let us know what you like to write.
I write everything. My first novel was an adult steampunk romance, and since then I’ve done literary middle grade, YA romance and thrillers, adult sci-fi… I write what I would like to read, and I read broadly. But I’ve always loved classic noir. I was raised on the old bogart and bacall movies, and I knew I’d do a historical mystery at some point, I just needed to find my way in, my version of that. A visit to San Francisco and reading about The Black Cat did that for me.
9. Whether YA or mystery, who has most influenced your work?
I’m not sure any one thing influences my work more than others. What makes an authors voice unique, no matter what genre the write in, is the sum of their parts; why they wanted to write this book, why they wanted to write it this way. The author themself may not have a solid answer to those questions, but the answer is in who they are, everything they’ve experienced, whether that be life events, or art that touched them in a particular way. It all influences us.
Well, Lavender House is out in paperback in just a few days, and The Bell in the Fog is out next month! After that, in November, is Emmett, my YA contemporary queer version of Jane Austen’s Emma. After that, the third Andy Mills book will be out next year, and the fourth the year after that. There are some other things in the works too, but nothing announced yet. The best place to find out more, though, is on Instagram, where I’m @LevACRosen, or on my webpage, www.LevACRosen.com. Thanks so much for talking with me!
I enjoyed reading your work and getting to know you, Linda. Thank you for the opportunity to introduce you to my readers.
I liked that this novel surprised me right away. Not a mystery of who did it, but the suspense of a woman assassinator assigned to do it. What inspired you to take this perspective?
The first book in the series began as a short story. I was playing with the idea of what it would take for a “nice” person – say, someone like me – to kill for money. What would have to happen in your life for that to occur? The resulting short story was very powerful and this character who is still with me now, is very engaging in ways it’s difficult to understand. Despite her actions, she is sympathetic. How is that possible? It creates an interesting dynamic for the reader… and the writer!
A female assassinator vs. a male assassinator. What did you see as the definable differences in character?
In a very general way, I would say nothing, but then I’m one to see (and search for) commonalities rather than differences. I am more interested in how we are alike than how we are different.
Did this influence your theme of “child loss”? Without giving readers the ending, of course. No spoilers in my reviews!
That’s such an interesting question, DJ! See, for me, the theme of Dead West is not child loss but when you ask me that, I can see how you might think that.
The question of theme is itself interesting. What is it? Where does it come from? I never go into a book with a theme in mind. Rather there is a situation, or something has happened and I follow the story from there. Afterwards – on my first reading after the first draft is complete – I go in looking for the theme. And there always is one! It’s a miraculous part of the process for me. And then I take those threads and deepen them, so that the theme is more sharply felt.
In the case of Dead West, the theme I discovered was belonging.
This is the third book in The Ending Book series. In this book, her moral justification seems to wane. Yet, she finds herself moving to a need to kill as she investigates why her “target” vanishes. What are you trying to say with this character’s coming to the thought of leaving her “trade” and still have the urge to kill?
I would not ever say she has an urge to kill. Urge implies she does it for some sort of satisfaction. She doesn’t do that. Rather she finds herself in situations where she decides killing is the best option. And I don’t think she ever does it lightly, though she seems so detached, it might be possible to see it that way. She is not careless with it. She kills for money. Or she kills for self-protection or the protection of others. That does not mean it’s justified, but maybe she has justified those killings for herself. I think that’s why she’s so conflicted all the time. It’s difficult for her to know what is right. I don’t think she sees that as clearly as you or I.
I thought the love interest added to the mystery of your story. But, as I thought back, I wondered the difference between a male author and a female author writing this story. Would a male author feel such a need to protect the man she was sent to kill?
I don’t know about that. The emotional connection of those characters, in this instance, was a way for you to feel them more completely. Without that element of love in the air, you would feel all of it less keenly. Also, without that connection it’s a different book. She goes in, kills him as she’s supposed to, then moves on. I’m not certain the gender of the storyteller has much to do with it.
This book (and I want to emphasize that it can be read as a stand-alone) is not your first rodeo in publishing novels. You also have a Madeline Carter series. So why do you like writing series over stand-alone?
I don’t. All of my series have begun (in my heart and mind) as standalones. In the course of writing the books I guess I deepen my relationship with the character. And I start thinking: well, what if this happened? Or: what about that?
In the case of Dead West, the entire main plot of the rancher and the wild horses and Arizona began as a subplot in Exit Strategy, the previous book in the series. In the course of writing that book, when this “subplot” got somewhat out of hand (it grew and grew and grew!) I pulled all of it out and set it aside, suddenly realizing I had found the heart of book three.
I know you will want to talk about Wild Horses. A reader can feel your passion for this subject. And you also wrote the book Wild Horses. So, I take it that the idea for this book came from your research on the subject. Or did your interest create the plot for this story? Which came first?
The non-fiction book came first, for sure. Writing that book was very painful in ways I just didn’t see coming.
When I pitched the wild horse book to my editor at Orca Publishing, I thought it was going to be an easy, joyous ride. I had written a book on elephant seals for them not long before. (This is Return from Extinction: The Triumph of the Elephant Seal published in 2020.) I had so much fun doing that book, I wanted to do it again. And I know a lot about horses and thought I knew about wild horses. I thought it would be fun! It was not fun. To discover what was really going on with wild horses in America was incredibly painful: the politics, the manipulation, the money. And the book is for nine- to 13-year-olds. How do you distill that into something that is both true and correct, but for kids? It was so difficult. I didn’t mean for it to leak into the novel. Honestly, I did not. But it did. Initially, as I’ve mentioned, as a subplot. Then it took over a whole book! But it was not my intention.
What do you want the reader to take away after reading Dead West? Is there a message in the title?
There is no message in the title, though the title occurred to me very early and everyone liked it, so it stuck. If anything, it’s like a triple entendre. She’s in the west for most of the book. Very rural Arizona, which is a very western vibe. Things around her often get dead. And dead west is, of course, a heading: if one is driving dead west they’re doing it exactly. So the title just seemed to fit nicely on every level.
Please, give us an idea of your writing schedule.
I don’t really have a schedule. I write every day, that’s the one solid rule I have: even when I have houseguests or I’m traveling or whatever. I have to write at least a small amount each day. That helps keep the story I’m working on alive in my heart and mind. (And there is always a story I’m working on!)
A typical day might be I get up, make coffee and write for a bit. Then I pack up and go to my club, where I’ll write before tennis or a workout. After that, I’ll write for a bit in the lounge, before a steam and a sauna and shower, etc. Then more writing, either poolside or in the club somewhere. Then I might hit a Starbucks or something: more coffee, more writing. Then home for still more writing.
I should add that first thing in the morning, I’ll be transcribing the previous day’s work. All the rest is longhand, which will be transcribed the following morning.
Hmmm… it sounds like I do have a schedule, after all!
What are your following goals as an author? Trying different genre forms? Different craft techniques? Another series? What challenges you?
I want to keep always growing as a writer. I know that at this stage in my career I’m a stronger, better writer than I was a decade ago. A decade from now I hope to have the same feeling.
Also, I aspire to continue to have the privilege of telling these stories. And it seems to me that it is a rare privilege to have people (agent, editors, readers) looking forward to these tales I get to continue telling.
Thank you so much, DJ. They were terrific questions!
First, let me say that Nora is the perfect character. She is respected immediately by any reader for her family values, honesty, sympathy, empathy, and continual conscious effort to do the right thing. Her name, Nora, Biblically stands for awing. Greek, "she knows." You hit the name on the head! And so that I am not adding more to this name than you meant, how did you choose the name Nora for your protagonist?
Thank you for the compliments about Nora! And I love that you looked up the Biblical meaning of her name! I have a “Name Your Baby” book, which I use when picking out the names of my major characters. The book explains the origins for various names, too. For my heroine, I had it down to two names: Marge or Nora. Both seemed to go with the WWII era (Nora Charles was the name of Myrna Loy’s character in THE THIN MAN series from a few years earlier in the 1930’s). I was leaning toward Marge, but my editor preferred Nora. My editor won. THE ENEMY AT HOME is my 24th novel, and it’s getting harder and harder to pick out names that I haven’t already used for my main characters!
Nora joins the women's workforce during the onset of WWII, becoming a Rosie Riveter. My husband's aunt also held this title. What about this period of US history drew you to set your story?
That is so cool about your husband’s aunt! Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been interested in World War Two—the Home Front, in particular. I remember being very moved by the David O. Selznick film, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), where Claudette Colbert and her two daughters, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, keep the home fires burning while the husband/father goes off to fight. I became fascinated by everything that happened on the Home Front during the war: the air raid drills, blackouts, scrap drives, war bond rallies, victory gardens, rationing, the constant uncertainty and the patriotism. I’ve always wanted to set a thriller during that significant period of US History, and Rosie the Riveter seemed like the perfect heroine.
Why set this story in Seattle?
I’ve lived in Seattle since 1980, and most of my thrillers are set here. For THE ENEMY AT HOME, setting this World War II story in Seattle seemed like a no brainer. It was one of the major cities for war production—with Boeing churning out B17’s and the shipyards making destroyers, mine-sweepers and battleships. There were also several important army and navy posts in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle enforced blackouts, where the whole city went dark after eleven at night—to discourage potential aerial attacks from the Japanese. The blackouts accounted for an upswing in crime and auto accidents. Seattle was also one of the West Coast cities where Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps—a shameful, tragic footnote in the war. WWII really put Seattle on the map.
I read that you wrote this story during Covid. Did you see parallels between the epidemic we just went through and the effect of the beginning of the war on people?
Yes! I couldn’t help noticing how we compared with the “greatest generation” when it came to “doing your bit” and making adjustments and sacrifices during these crises. I don’t think we could handle the demands made on the population from 1942 to 1945. Then again, in my research, I found out that not everyone “did their bit” during the war. There were also a lot of injustices that were tolerated—or even endorsed. Like the recent pandemic, WWII seemed to bring out the best in people and the worst in people.
This novel is set in one month's time period. How did you plot your book to get so much in so little time?
I always outline my books, and THE ENEMY AT HOME was no different. I originally intended to have the storyline happen over a period of several months—so the reader could see Nora become more independent and self-assured thanks to her war job. But once I actually started writing the book, everything accelerated—especially after Nora began to investigate the murder of her friend. After the mystery and thrills really kicked in, I had a hard time slowing down and leaving time gaps. As a thriller author, I’m always aware of the pace in my books, and keeping the reader turning the pages.
The Enemy at Home is a good title, and the story resonates with this theme by bringing up issues of racism, homophobia, and misogyny. Enemies can be found at home as well as abroad. Did you find it challenging to have Nora confront these issues in her time period, keeping out how you might feel about them today? Or are you trying to say there were many people during this time that were more accepting than history gives credit to?
That’s a great question! When I started writing the book, I figured I could show Nora having her eyes opened to different injustices; but during that time period, it would have been anachronistic for her to take a strong stand against the socially-accepted racism and homophobia of the time. However, Nora makes some steps to counteract the prevailing prejudices—like holding onto family keepsakes for her incarcerated Japanese-American friend, standing up for a closeted homosexual who was accused of murder, and sitting in the unofficial “colored” section in the work cafeteria.
I love Nora dealing with her teenage son and how her imagination runs as Chris is gone more and more without letting her know where he is. Parent of a teenager?
No kids, but I have 17 nieces and nephews—and I’ve watched them all grow up. I’ve also gotten an earful from my five siblings about what it was like raising kids, especially teenagers.
Family is a massive theme in the novel. Nora struggles with the trust and acceptance of her brother. I found this a considerable risk for readers who may not have considered some of Nora's decisions. How did you see this character and subplot?
You mentioned in your first question that Nora is always trying to do the right thing. That’s so true. She feels responsible for her younger brother, Ray, whom she more or less raised from the time he was a baby and she was a young teenager. He was only eleven years old when she married and moved away, leaving him with their awful grandparents. Nora feels like she has abandoned Ray. And Ray never lets her forget this. So, later on, when he comes up with a scheme to get out of active duty in the Pacific, Nora feels horrible for refusing to help him. Then she’s really distraught when one of his schemes results in an explosion on a naval base. She’s torn between being a decent citizen/patriot and protecting her family’s reputation. One of the things Nora learns within the book’s arc is that everything isn’t just black and white. There are a lot of shades of gray.
Great, putting a serial killer within a heroic industry of war effort. What gave you the idea?
I got the idea of a Rosie the Riveter killer years ago, and pitched it to my editor. But at the time, he felt that my readership expected contemporary thrillers from me. So—I waited a while, and re-pitched the idea in 2020. I was ready to shake things up and write something a bit different. Knowing how WWII stories have become more and more popular, my editor gave the story the greenlight. We both liked the idea of a serial-killer thriller set in a time before the term “serial killer” was even coined (that didn’t happen until the 1970’s). I based the killer on Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Ted Bundy. Apparently, a primary reason Bundy killed was because, at the time, Women’s Liberation was taking hold, and he’d built-up a resentment toward women in power. It wasn’t much of a leap to use this same lethal resentment as a motive for the Rosie the Riveter killer.
Because I also need to ask you questions many of the writers who read this interview might be interested in, can you say something about your writing process and discipline?
I have a great, longstanding (27 years!) relationship with my editor at Kensington. When I get an idea for a book, I’ll pitch it to him—or he’ll pitch an idea to me. Then I’ll start working out the basic plot and characters who work interestingly within that storyline. All the while, I keep asking, “What if?” and “Why?” Once I have a few pages of notes, I’ll let my editor in on what I’m doing. If he likes it, I’ll start writing a detailed outline for him. It’s usually about 80 pages (The outline for THE ENEMY AT HOME was actually 127 pages—because of all the historical details). I think this is a pretty unique writer/editor process. My outlines read like a condensed novel with dialogue, descriptions, cliff-hanger walk-offs, and everything. So once my editor gets this outline, he knows exactly what he'll be getting in the final draft—with maybe a few twists and turns and surprises. This makes the actual writing easier for me, and I have fun fleshing things out even more. Once I submit that final draft to my editor, he usually has very few notes or corrections for me, because he’s already reviewed and discussed with me all the major plot points. It’s a great process that works for us.
Are you working on something new?
Yes, I’m nearly finished with a new outline—for another thriller set in Seattle during World War II. The plot is quite different from THE ENEMY AT HOME—with a woman on the run settling in an apartment complex where a neighbor dies mysteriously. There’s a bit of Hitchcock influence (Rear Window and Saboteur, especially) at work here!
Are you sticking with your branding of being a suspense author, or do you also have urges to try other genres? Or do you enjoy a blending of genres?
I’ve really enjoyed blending the thriller and historical fiction genres. After this second WWII thriller, I’d like to come up with a thriller set in the late fifties or early sixties—maybe something within the film world, so I can utilize my love for Hitchcock movies. We’ll see!
Thanks for your enthusiasm for THE ENEMY AT HOME and all the wonderful questions, Dj!
While the historical beginning of this story piques the reader's interest—personally, why did you choose 1050 AD? Why King of Aragon and Alexander the Great? Thanks for choosing to interview me about VanOps: The Lost Power, the first book in the VanOps thriller series. To answer your question, while plotting out the story, I needed an incredibly successful warrior, and one of the most powerful men in history. Alexander the Great is famous for conquering the known world and was an obvious choice. I wanted to give my readers chills when they imagined his weapon unleashed in their communities. A weapon like that, in the wrong hands, could alter the balance of world power with disastrous effects. Regarding 1050 AD, it was a tumultuous time when the East and West clashed constantly. Maddy Marshall and Will Argones, the estranged twins who must keep Alexander’s fictional weapon from being used by Russian enemies, needed to descend from a royal line. The King of Aragon, often considered the first king of Spain, fit the story perfectly as their ancestor.
Is this part of the world your favorite area to research? I've traveled extensively through western Europe, and it is indeed one of my favorite areas to write about. It’s rich in history, myth, mystery, and intrigue – perfect for my style of work. The second book in the series, Solstice Shadows, also has some scenes around the Mediterranean, as well as settings in the jungled ruins of Central America. The pyramids of Guatemala were awe-inspiring in person.
Do you travel for your research? When I can, I do. I often use locations that I've had the pleasure of visiting. Many of my readers comment on the authentic, you-are-there aspect of my writing, which I appreciate.
After the very historical first chapter, the scene set in the present day sets a high-speed blast off to an adventurous pace. So how do you plot your books to keep the pace at such a page-turning speed? I spend months outlining my thrillers. That time allows my subconscious to come up with devilish twists, unusual red herrings, and complex action-oriented scenes. I have genetically low blood pressure and love character-driven action that gets my heart rate up. It makes me feel alive.
Do you plot before writing your first draft or after? Definitely ahead of even writing the first sentence. So much changes along the way. I like to be efficient, avoid rework, and always start with the end in mind.
The characters at the very beginning also allow for intensity: a twin brother and sister who have not kept in good communication, a young boy. Why start with these characters, and how did they help define your protagonists? Maddy and Will are the two key protagonists, so I wanted the readers to start getting to know them right away. When the story opens, they're like most people in that they have day jobs, struggling relationships, and good days and bad. AJ, the boy from Maddy’s martial arts studio, brightens Maddy’s heart. Later, when his life is threatened, we understand the lengths she'll go to in order to save him. As an intelligent, independent truth-seeker with special martial arts abilities, she’s a fascinating character. Suddenly, she's thrust into a dangerous world where her non-violent martial arts skills aren't enough to save herself, AJ, or her country. Will Argones, Maddy's twin brother, is a skeptic who has made his living as a successful test engineer. Always on the lookout for danger, he can't keep his hands still - his fingers drum on his long legs or twirl his ever-ready-for-trouble flashlight. When his father and wife are murdered, he's forced out of his comfort zone and into a deadly, international game of cat and mouse, where his worst fears might come true. Maddy and Will share a simmering distrust of each other, which makes for page-turning conflict.
I like "Bear" as a character. He doesn't appear until the quest's beginning but becomes an integral part. He helps explain to the reader some of the historical aspects of the story. How did you decide his character was necessary to the overall plot? Bear added several things to the story. Besides being a history buff, he's a bristly-haired marine who has always wanted to be a covert operative. He jumps at the chance to join VanOps, an ultra-black organization with the duty to stop extreme threats, adding an element of international intrigue to the twin’s quest. His unrequited high-school crush on Maddy keeps us guessing about if she can ever return his feelings. He’s also the only one of the three with any experience with violence. As the group is chased by Russian assassins around the world, it felt important to not leave the innocent twins completely unprotected.
This brings me to the amount of research you needed to complete this project. How do you determine what you need so you don't get buried with all the exciting information you find or bury your reader with too much research? That's tricky because it is a blast to learn about ancient heroes and modern threats. I typically feel my way through the story and deliver the drier bits in spicy dialogue to keep the story fresh. Editors also provide perspective to keep the story moving.
What applications do you use to keep yourself organized? Do you use Scrivener? Pottr? Any other software apps? Organization is paramount in writing something as detailed as your book. So please give us your secrets for keeping things straight and plot-timely. I've played around with different tools, everything from note cards to Scrivener, and for me it's about getting the ideas into a detailed outline, keeping character bios in there too, and just getting to work. I don’t use tools for that, just Microsoft Word. My only writing secret is knowing how to tease words out of my subconscious. To plumb my creative juices, I’ll meditate, jot down notes from dreams, and I walk a lot with my phone at the ready to capture ideas.
You are writing two thrillers at the moment. The VanOps Triller series and a Stryker (I assume) series. How do you find time to breathe? Give us an idea of what your writing schedule is like. My writing goes in fits and starts. Right now, I'm remodeling a new home, so the writing is on the back burner, but I’m still coming up with ideas that I'm jotting down and will circle back to when things calm down. I tend to either be outlining, writing, or releasing a new book. It's hard for me to do more than one of those things at once, so I've learned to go with it. Like the seasons, it'll all circle back around. When I’m in full writing mode, I’ll write a chapter or two a day, and then will start my next session by editing what I wrote last.
Do you think there is a difference in reading a thriller written by a man compared to a woman? Are themes handled differently? I think every author is different, whether male or female, but I can talk about genres and their target audience. I think that military action thrillers, usually written for a male audience, typically don’t have much character development and seem to be thematically targeted toward honor, justice, or good vs evil. On the other end of the thriller spectrum, you might have romantic suspense, written for a female audience, with a different set of themes, such as revenge or betrayal. My thrillers are written for both male and female audiences. The men tend to like the action, and the women, the characters and their struggles, but that’s an overgeneralization. A well-written book will appeal to both sexes.
What is your favorite present-day thriller author? Or, if you don't want to single someone out, who are the contemporary authors you pick up? Or do you stay away from reading thrillers and pick up other genres? I do gravitate toward thrillers. Steve Berry is producing high quality international action thrillers, as is James Rollins. On the domestic side, I think Gregg Hurwitz has found a solid niche writing character-driven action.
The author that influenced your work the most? Perhaps fantasy author Robert Jordan. His Wheel of Time series is epic in many ways. On top of the extensive world building, the characters feel like real people who struggle to accomplish their hopes and dreams, just like the rest of us.
Your novel You ONLY LIVE ONCE reads like a screenplay, with the setting offered and then action. I was immediately reminded of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men using this same style—setting the scene and then action with each chapter. Is this the sequence your mind works when writing?
Well, You Only Live Once started a screenplay. It got a lot of interest and got me a lot of assignments, but never sold. But I loved the characters and loved the story and that’s why I decided to turn it into a novel. Maybe because I started as a screenwriter, I like the set scene for myself and the reader before I jump into the action. Also, I’ve written animation and video games, so tend to write visually. Ideally, I want the reader to see and feel what’s happening. Especially with the action. I want that to be visceral.
I liked your settings. I especially laughed with your using the Glendale Galleria in ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH. Since I live in Glendale, I have to ask about this selection.
I lived in La Crescenta and La Canada for many years. So I know it well. And isn’t that the standard advice? Write what you know. I don’t know much about being an international superspy. But I spent a lot of time at the Glendale Galleria. I would take my son there when he was little to buy Pokémon cards, to peruse the toy stores, and the pet store. Then we’d have lunch in the food court. That’s why “Hot Dog on a Stick” figures prominently in my second novel. I would watch those people working at “Hot Dog on a Stick” and wonder what makes them tick. James Bond always travels to exotic and beautiful locations. Which is why I love dropping Flynn into real life situations and more prosaic settings.
James Flynn is an expert shot, a black belt in karate, fluent in four languages, and irresistible to women. He's also a heavily medicated Los Angeles psychiatric hospital patient with a dissociative diagnosis. He believes his locked ward is the headquarters of Her Majesty's Secret Service and that he is a secret agent with a license to kill. So how much of you is James Flynn? And in what ways? Are you a secret agent want-to-be?
I’m nothing like James Flynn. Which is probably why I created him. I was a dorky twelve year old when I fell in love with James Bond and James West and Alexander Mundy. They were cool as hell, confident in any situation and comfortable in their own skin. While I lived a life of perpetual embarrassment. (As most twelve year olds do.) I’m closer to Jimmy, the person James is when he’s on his meds and not so delusional. Of course, I still made the attempt. I lifted weights. I boxed in the Golden Gloves. I got a black belt in Tai Kwan Do. I became a rock climber and a certified scuba diver. I studied in London for a year. I traveled the world. But wherever I went, I was still me and still dorky.
"One more question about James. You begin the novel with James Flynn, the agent, in the first book, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, but with ONCE IS NOT ENOUGH, you start with James in his "sane" mind. This caused me to have more compassion and sympathy for James' mental challenges. Is this the reason for the switch around?
That’s exactly the reason. I wanted the readers to see who Flynn was when he was stripped of his delusion. I wanted to show why he developed that persona. And I wanted the readers to root for James to return and jettison Jimmy. So when that finally does happen…(Spoiler alert)…it’s an exciting moment. But I also hope the reader feels a little weird rooting for Flynn to become delusional again.
Many of us have read Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT book. So what is James' save the cat moment?
I think he has many of them. He’s basically a modern day Don Quixote. A knight errant going off into the world to right wrongs and protect those who can’t protect themselves. His every instinct is heroic. Even if he usually creates more chaos than he eliminates. In the first book, he escapes the hospital to save his colleagues because he believes the enemy has taken control of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. When actually a new HMO just bought the hospital and many of the patients left because their insurance no longer covered their stay. One of those patients is Dulcinea who he believes has been kidnapped by the enemy.
I enjoyed the added historical trivia in your books. Why did you think this was necessary to offer to your readers?
I wanted a way to create some context and show the wider world around Flynn. And partly, I was inspired by Ian Fleming who often would take the time to set the scene with his description of exotic locations and weird bits of trivia. He would use brand names and actual places to make the unbelievable more believable.
GOLDHAMMER, your third book has James….James Flynn…out to save the world once again. This time he is mistaken for a real agent. Where do you come up with your plot ideas?
A hero is only as good as the villain he is confronting. The Bond novels had very colorful villains. Though honestly, most of their plans for world domination were really stupid. But you have to give them points for chutzpah. So I usually start with the villains and what they want to accomplish. I love coming up with plans for world domination. Who doesn’t? Which makes them just as delusional as Flynn in their own way. Usually I find something in the news and in the world that pisses me off and use that to create my world domination plot. Of course, what Flynn thinks they’re doing and what they’re actually doing are usually two different things.
You write in many forms and have been able to use your writing to create a living. How do you adapt your writing discipline to what you are working on? Or do you?
It’s hard to make a living as a writer, so I’ve had to be adaptable. I’ve written plays, movies, novels, radio plays, and video games. You have to approach each medium differently and adapt to the technology. But in the end, you’re still creating characters, constructing plots, emotionally engaging readers or viewers or players. And you do that through story.
What is your biggest challenge as a writer, and how do you work to overcome it?
Keeping up my confidence. When I have an idea I’m passionate about, I usually can’t wait to start writing. But halfway through, I’ll start second guessing myself and that slows me down. I just have to trust that every day when I sit down, something will come to me and if it doesn’t seem good enough, that’s okay. Because I can always rewrite it later. I can always take another crack at it. I remember reading a quote from one of my favorite writers that I found very comforting. Kurt Vonnegut said. “Our power is patience. We have discovered that writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent. If only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It’s a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anybody can do it. All it takes is time.”
Biggest influencers to you as a writer… we're speaking of real people here.
What are the most significant literary or film influences? Other than James Bond, of course! 😊
I'm someone who loves both gritty thrillers and crazy comedy. So Ian Fleming was obviously a huge influence. But so was Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Richard Brautigan. James Lee Burke, Don Winslow, Carl Hiaasen, Monty Python, Bob and Ray, Mel Brooks. I love physical comedy and I always try to include some in my books. Which can be a challenge.
I see you have a new book, A LICENCE TO KILL. I can't wait to read it. Can you give us a verbal preview?
The person administering Flynn’s trust dies and his son takes over. And he decides to save money by putting Flynn into a state hospital. A forensic psychiatric hospital in northern California that houses serial killers, mass murderers and others judged not guilty by reason of insanity. When Flynn gets there he discovers that an old enemy is a patient there and that Flynn didn’t end up there randomly.
He also meets a woman who might be even more dangerous and delusional than he is. They end up escaping and, with the help of Flynn's reluctant sidekick, Sancho, uncover a mad plot to bring on Armageddon. Or do they?
What advice do you have for those still working on and wanting to launch themselves as writers?
For me it was all about persistence. It took me seven years and ten scripts before I sold my first screenplay. It took me even longer to place my first novel. I think that Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule applies here. It takes a while to get good at this. And I’m still learning. Still improving hopefully. So for me, it was about hanging in there and not giving up. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was in my fifties.
It's always fun making a new friend and reading new authors. Thank for taking the time to speak to us, Haris!
I wanted to start by expressing how much I enjoyed reading your books Eye for an Eye, Cut for a Cut, and Truth for a Truth. I believe my readers will also find them engaging.
Your series sets up the major players, including DI Kate and her antagonist, as well as her deceased husband. While Kate’s goal of discovering the truth about her husband’s death is clear, what else motivates her character? Who is DI Kate? If we met her in real life, what would we think?
Ah, poor Kate. I’ve never tormented a character as much as I have Kate Young.
After Kate’s mother passed away, when Kate was a child, she was brought up by her hard-working, police officer father who she adored and with whom she spent every spare moment. Their bond was close, but it also stilted her development, and she became more reclusive than most of her contemporaries, preferring to spend time at home with him than go out with friends. When he remarried, she had to deal with not only a new stepmother but a stepsister, Tilly, an extrovert who fitted in at school far better than the bookish Kate. After Tilly ran off with Kate’s fiancé and her mother split up from Kate’s father, leaving them both distraught, Kate decided to follow in his footsteps and joined the force, mentored by her father’s best friend, William Chase, a man who was like an uncle to her.
The police force became her life; her colleagues her only friends. With Tilly in Australia and her father deceased, work was her sole reason d'être until she met Chris, when she attended an accident in which he was involved. She stayed by his side while he was cut free from a car wreckage and checked up on him at hospital afterwards. It was love at first sight and Kate had finally found somebody who understood her and saw past what others might construe as an evasive and stand-offish attitude.
Kate might come across as disinterested in others, but she certainly isn’t. She is completely driven by upholding the law, maintaining the same lofty standards both her father and William held true.
Kate believes in doing the right thing. Her strong moral code is what drives her. She loves those people who are closest to her: William, her crew and even Tilly. She cares about every one of the victims that she comes across and more importantly believes firmly in justice. You or I might find her distant, shy even, but those who know her also know they can rely on her wholeheartedly and she will never let them down.
It’s interesting how you carefully plot your characters and stories and how you keep the reader engaged by addressing their questions and uncertainties at the exact moment they may be asking them. How closely do you keep the reader in mind when writing? Do you hear their voices as you create the story?
All my novels are carefully plotted in my head, way before I write them. Throughout the whole writing process, I lay awake for hours at night, running each chapter through my mind as if it were a film and, like a film critic, I question every detail, dialogue, plot and character. If I don’t like something, I’ll change it and rerun the reel then make the changes to the script. I find that way, I gain an observer’s point of view.
I have always been a bookworm and especially fond of thrillers, so it is important that I can surprise myself with a twist or red herring. Only if I feel it is gripping enough will I move onto the next reel and so on, until the process is complete. Although I deliberately muddy the waters in the first book and keep the reader guessing as to what is going on, as the series progresses, it becomes apparent that Kate is on a downwards trajectory and is suffering badly from PSTD, a fact she continues to ignore. By the time she learns the truth about Dickson and others who are involved in the syndicate she is a close to a breakdown as is possible and I have huge surprise in store for her in Book 5 - A Soul for a Soul.
The theme of truth is prominent throughout your series, and it’s introduced in the first book. How do you decide on the themes for your novels? Which came first: the plot or the theme?
The first book in this series, An Eye for an Eye, was written after a particularly gruesome nightmare (I suffer from insomnia but when I do sleep, I often have terrible dreams), and the plot grew from that. However, the entire series needed an arc theme, and for that, I focused on a theme. It was clear from the start, after deciding upon Kate’s character, that truth would be the pervading theme. Indeed, my publishers send a detailed questionnaire about each book to each author and details of recurring themes must be entered on it.
With three best-selling series, how do you keep track of each protagonist and storyline without overlapping plots?
It has been a juggle at times; however, I keep notebooks on every novel and notes on each character so that I don’t run the risk of repetition. Although all three series are set in Staffordshire, I make sure they are in different areas/towns/villages within the county and in the DI Natalie Ward series, I invented new placenames based on real towns to ensure there could be no overlapping.
All three protagonists are very different, which I feel is very important, and the same goes for the secondary characters.
A novel launched every year; how do you manage a writing schedule and still have a personal life?
To be honest, writing has encompassed my entire life and encroached upon my personal life, especially during 2018, when I wrote seven novels! That year, I didn’t take any time off, but decided afterwards to slow down. Nobody can keep up that sort of pace without serious repercussions. Since starting the Kate Young series, I’ve focused solely on it and spend more time with my other half, Mr Grumpy. I’m now only writing two novels a year which is much better for my health.
You are also a stand-up comedian and known for writing comedies. How do you balance your different writing styles? It’s actually quite easy. I have a mental switch that automatically flicks on, depending on what I’m writing. Humour has always come very naturally to me, and I began my writing career writing comedies. It was thanks to a non-fiction humorous book, Grumpy Old Menopause that I got into stand-up comedy. I find it relaxing to write a romcom or comedy and my approach to writing it is very different to a thriller or crime novel which usually requires a great deal of research and planning. Comedies seem to flow and can be written even without a plan to follow. I love making people laugh and find humour in all sorts of situations. A sense of humour has seen me through some very dark and difficult times. Having concentrated on crime novels since 2019, I haven’t had to jump from one genre to the other. There is, however, another comedy inside my head that is dying to escape. It is already planned out in a notebook, awaiting it’s turn.
Would you please share your writing schedule for a typical day and how you stay so disciplined?
My writing day begins early around 5-6 am, depending on when Mr Grumpy wakes up. (He’s an early riser.) I’ll start work immediately, sometimes that’s researching or writing but often it is editing. After breakfast, I usually do housework and prepare dinner - invariably a slow cooker meal, so I can spend the rest of the day writing. I stop at 6 pm for dinner and take 2-3 hours off to spend with Mr G. After he goes to bed, I’ll continue until I’m tired but sometimes, I’ll work through until 3 or 4 am and then grab an hour before I begin the whole process again.
I’ve always been very disciplined and won’t stop until I have completed the task. I usually work to very tight schedules so I can’t afford to slacken off, although as I mentioned earlier, I have recently eased off on the number of books I write so I get more time off.
Besides writing, what defines you as a person?
I couldn’t answer this and had to ask Mr Grumpy for help. He said it was my sunny disposition and the fact that I’m always upbeat and positive. His words made my heart swell, so I guess the real answer is Mr Grumpy. Without him I would be a shadow of the person I am. Despite his name, he and I laugh daily and appreciate every minute. Life is short and we try to ensure that we take some enjoyment from every day, however small.
What advice would you give an author who hasn’t made the best-seller list? And how do you feel about indie publishing?
All writers need enormous patience and tenacity. It’s important that an author enjoys writing and I believe, if you enjoy your craft and are prepared to keep going even when you are faced with disappointments, you will ultimately make it.
I began my career by self-publishing my debut novel. I also wrote for a website that helped Indie authors and I know many Indie writers who are excellent writers with fantastic reads out there. Having a publisher behind you is not always the way to be successful and with the ability to publish your own work, comes a freedom that those published by publishers don’t have. I know several authors who publish directly on Amazon and have tremendous sales.
If I came into a coffee shop and saw you, what is it I would immediately observe about you? Yes, I am having you look at yourself as a character.
Definitely my outfit. I tend to wear bright colours and you wouldn’t miss me J
What’s next, Carol?
Book 5 in the DI Kate Young series – A Soul for a Soul is written but is about to undergo an entire month of developmental edits where it will be passed between me and my two editors until it is knocked into shape, ready for copy edits. Once that is completed. I’ll pick up on a new standalone thriller that I began a couple of months ago and submit it along with some new pitches, including one for a new series to my publishers.
It was such a pleasure discovering your work and meeting you as a novelist. I hope we get to meet in person one day.
Thank you, James, for agreeing to do this interview for my readers. Your work is richly enjoyed, and everyone wants to know more about you.
I call Bombay Monsoon an India Noir because of the tone of its narrator throughout the novel. This is a slight change from your last book, Turn to Stone, an Ellie Stone Mystery. But, of course, Ellie isn’t in this novel. So is Bombay the start of a new series?
JWZ: Yes, Bombay Monsoon is the first in a planned series of three “Emergency” novels. The “Emergency” was the twenty-one-month period of rule-by-decree declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975. My protagonist, journalist Danny Jacobs, will have plenty of adventures and danger. The Emergency was a fascinating time, with lots of momentous events taking place. Over the course of the two books, Danny will run afoul of hostile government officials, drug traffickers, gurus, and Western spiritual tourists searching for enlightenment. There’s also the question of his love interest to resolve.
If a series, how do you see yourself scheduling your writing schedule with working two series?
JWZ: For now, Ellie Stone will have to wait. I’ll definitely get back to her. I have a few ideas rattling around in my head for Ellie. I’ll try to finish the Danny books first, then we’ll see what’s next.
Having spent time in India, I enjoyed some of your commentary on life there….begging children, traffic on roads… Although, I laughed when you mentioned the buses. Knowing you spent a significant amount of time in India, was this book more than just another novel?
JWZ: Absolutely, yes. I’ve made fifty-six trips to India over the past twenty-five years and spent nearly four years there. I’ve worked, traveled, and visited with family. (My wife was born and raised in India, and her family is still there.) It’s truly a second home for me.
I put a lot of my personal experience as an expatriate into the story. The culture shock and the discovery, the food, music, the terrifying mountain roads, and—yes—the monsoon. Danny Jacobs is not me, but his experiences mirror my own. I had a blast writing about India and can’t wait to write more.
As a side note, I enjoy expatriate stories. I believe the outsider’s view can teach us a lot about other cultures, provided the writer is curious, empathetic, and fair. It can teach us different things about the people and culture. Expat stories—even though they reflect a very different experience—can complement those written by authors who live and work, thrive and struggle in those cultures. The key is open eyes and an open mind.
Your protagonist, Danny Jacobs, is an ambitious young journalist, but he also seems dim-witted at times. I was surprised he pulled events together. Why this type of character? Can a broken protagonist be funny, like the famous Fletch?
JWZ: Ha! You’re not the first to notice that Danny doesn’t always make the wisest choices. But dim-witted might be a step too far. He’s certainly naïve. And trusting when he should know better. He’s reckless, too. In many ways, he’s an innocent. All of these traits and behavior are exactly what I wanted to give him. He’s not your typical thriller hero. But I don’t think he’s funny. At least not consistently. He does make self-deprecating remarks. Tries to act sophisticated and initiated when he’s not. Very human things to do. Maybe more like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest than Fletch. An ordinary guy thrust into extraordinary situations.
Ellie Stone is writing from a female perspective. Were you looking forward to changing your gender in this book? Did you enjoy it more…or do you still like writing a female voice best?
JWZ: Yes, I was looking forward to writing a different gender. I absolutely love writing Ellie Stone, but after seven books, I felt it was time to embrace my Y chromosome. (Just kidding.) Writing a first-
person male narrator took some getting used to at first, but I think I found the voice quickly enough. I enjoy writing both. It makes for a healthy balance. More writers should try it. It builds empathy and sharpens narrative skills.
Wow, I saw a review that equated this book to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. How does it feel to have your work next to one of the greats, and how does this push you…or terrorize you as an author?
JWZ: It’s wonderful to be mentioned in the same sentence with a writer of Greene’s caliber, but I would never equate my work with his. I might “compare” it, unfavorably of course. I’m sure it’s the setting and the stranger-in-a-strange-land thing that prompted the comparison. Greene is one of my most favorite authors. Such powerful and entertaining novels. And while I can’t lay claim to his talent, I’ll take such a complimentary review any day of the week.
A “coup is underway in India” Was your thought to parallel what is happening in the United States?
JWZ: In truth, no. I wanted to write about the Emergency. The events of January 6, 2021, happened six months after I’d completed the first draft of Bombay Monsoon. Of course the parallels are striking. Mrs. Gandhi actually went through with her coup, while it failed here. There are also comparisons to Nixon’s final days in office. While Mrs. Gandhi declared the Emergency and retained power, Nixon resigned. I wonder what might have happened if he’d attempted a coup.
I know you are very familiar with India, having lived and worked there for several years. Since Bombay is emphasized here, do you plan on a book in other areas?
JWZ: I’m very familiar with Bombay, Pune, and Bangalore, having spent most of my time in those cities. But I’ve traveled extensively throughout the country, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the backwaters of Kerala, from Delhi to Chennai. Danny Jacobs will be visiting some of those places in the next two Emergency books. After that, I have a novel
in mind that takes place during the Raj in Simla, the summer capital for the British administration. That will be a fun one.
Give readers and other authors the best advice on what it takes to improve your craft. Do you read a great deal…in or out of your genre, attend conferences, etc?
JWZ: My best advice is never give up. And read. Read like it’s fuel. But never give up. Never stop dreaming. My first book was published when I was fifty-three. So think of it this way: The first time you sell a book—your first success, if you will—can only come after the very last failure that preceded it.
Your biggest challenge as an author?
JWZ: Frank Norris wrote, “Don’t like to write, but love having written.” That’s me. At least part of the time. When the words and ideas are flowing freely, I do love writing. But all too often, it’s a slog. A devilishly tantalizing slog
This has been fun.
I loved your book and I am sure my readers have also enjoyed it.
Looking forward to your next reveal.
Thank you for this interview. I enjoyed both Misjudged and Capital Justice, and I am sure my readers will too.
I found it interesting that you began your novel, Misjudged, with some “night court-type” cases emphasizing that people who come to court can have comical cases. Maybe because the truth of our actions and behaviors can be funny. Can you explain your decision to start this novel in this fashion?
Courtrooms can be among the saddest places you will see, but one can also see outrageously funny stuff. The adversarial nature of our criminal and civil systems of justice lend themselves well to conflict, and conflict is always a part of a good story. Good versus bad; right versus wrong, lawful versus unlawful; and even fair versus unfair are all daily struggles in a courtroom. Accordingly, judges and lawyers see people at their best and at their worst. Emotions can run from high to low in a matter of seconds. I think depicting those highs and lows gives the courtroom setting its unique color.
Courtrooms are the setting for things that will have immediate, sometimes permanent effects on people’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. But people are people, and subject to the same range of emotions, performance and foibles as anywhere else. It’s not always a grim, totalitarian environment.
Some would say that Misjudged is a character-driven novel. While I was pulled into the story by your broken vet/lawyer Sam Johnstone, I found that the “law” was also a type of character. I was drawn by Sam’s efforts to save truth and law. What were your motivations for showing how truth can be corrupted and how Sam fights to save truth by using the law?
Misjudged is indeed character-driven. As mentioned in #4 below, it was originally conceived as a stand-alone novel featuring Sam. And he figures prominently in all the books, but as you saw there is a healing process on-going.
Lawyers and to some degree judges have gotten bad reputations over the years. In some cases it is well-deserved. But in my dealings with most lawyers and almost all judges, I have found them to be honorable people trying to do the right thing in a line of work that isn’t always black and white, and where there are unquestioned winners and losers. It is tough stuff. In spite of that, the folks I have been fortunate enough to deal with have been almost universally of high character.
I try very hard to avoid injecting any politics or messaging into my books. I’m simply telling a story using characters who have views and opinions—views and opinions which not infrequently differ from my own. No reader cares what I think about any issue; they just want to read a good book. I try and tell a good story with interesting characters.
Your bio is stellar: A veteran—20 years retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel of Air Defense Artillery. Juris Doctor in law. You practiced for 12 years in Wyoming before sitting on the bench. How much of you is Sam Johnstone?
You are too kind.
I think there is a little of me in most of the characters, but I am not Sam, and Gillette (where I live) is not Custer. As a threshold matter, Sam is a hero; I am not. Most of my characters, including Sam, are really composites of people I have known combined with experiences I have lived—most exaggerated for dramatic effect.
What took you to writing thrillers?
I wrote Misjudged because I had previously read a lousy legal thriller. I told my wife, “I could write a better book than that.” I don’t know whether I did or not, but following hundreds of rejections I was fortunate enough to be picked up by Severn River Publishing, contingent on my using Misjudged as the first in a series of four books. I have since signed an extension to the original contract; I’m now locked in for six books in the series.
When reading Capital Justice, I felt a change in tone. While your Sam Johnstone character is still solid and steadfast, I couldn’t help wonder if your antagonist family didn’t represent a more recent political family. Am I off here? And if I am on, or was this book just a statement on the rich and famous?
There has been a change in tone over time in this series. I had a decision to make with Sam: Would I continue to have him struggle in the face of adversity, or would he begin to seek help to make change? I deal with folks with mental health and addiction issues every day, and it’s fair to say I don’t need to do any research into the operation of the Veterans Administration and its treatment of PTSD and substance abuse. So I decided that, rather than have Sam continue to suffer as a “victim,” I would depict him taking steps to evolve away from booze, drugs and active mental illness. He is in recovery in the latter books, with all the challenges that brings with it.
I didn’t have any particular family in mind when I wrote Capital Justice. I really just wanted to depict an ultra-wealthy clan beset with the same jealousies and petty differences that trouble all families.
Cryptocurrency is your subject in the Capital Justice thriller. What motivated you to kill off a crypto exchange magnate and fight over the control of digital assets?
My books are usually driven by the style of novel I’m seeking to write. I wrote Misjudged as a stand-alone novel, but had to revise it to facilitate “follow-on” novels to complete the contract. So I looked to introductory-type novels from other authors’ series. How did they start their series?
In the later books, I’m usually writing in a style that I like to read or watch. For example, One and Done was one where I wanted to see an ending that was fair to the reader but surprising. False Evidence is my ode to film noire and femmes fatale. Capital Justice is more of a who-in-the-family-dun-it like you would see in something by Agatha Christie or those of her ilk. My next novel, The Truthful Witness is my shot at something “Hitchcock-esque”. I hope I pulled it off.
I chose a cryptocurrency magnate in Capital Justice because Wyoming laws have in fact recently changed to facilitate that sort of business locating here and it could well result in a culture clash.
Give me an idea of your writing day. Do you write every day? By number of words or scene?
I am still employed full-time, so my writing is done in short spurts, for the most part. Generally, I write from 6 to 7:30 a.m., then turn to my day job. I write again at lunch if I am not overly busy at work. I usually pick one day a weekend and spend most of that writing. Where I really make money is on federal holidays, because my wife usually works those, and since I work for the government I do not. I can write all day long on Presidents’ Day, for example.
The biggest issue I have is finding a plot twist or character situation to develop a book around. Once I have that, I’ll get to outlining or plotting.
Do you plot before writing, during the process, or as a second draft?
I am a careful plotter and an extensive outliner. It serves three purposes for me. One, I never get “writer’s block”, because I’ve always got something to write. Two, it allows me to write as I feel, so for example, if I am feeling melancholy, I can write a scene needing that; alternatively, if I have a bounce in my step, I can write a scene needing a more uplifted voice. Three, I do sometimes vary or make changes to my story. By having an outline to refer to, I can shift from a known point and get back to my original storyline.
A great many authors find marketing very time consuming. Even those traditionally published. How do you market your books? And is the latest Crypto news event helping sales?
I am extremely fortunate in that my publisher handles most of the marketing. I am not social media fluent, so they handle Facebook. I prepare a monthly newsletter that I’m proud to say goes out to thousands. I personally respond to every email I get from readers. I appear live or remotely at dozens of book club meetings a year, and I do every podcast and television appearance I’m asked to do. In addition, I appear for free and donate 100% of proceeds for any library benefit, give away books for charity fund-raisers, and I have appeared at number of writer’s groups. I just kind of show up like a bad cold, I guess.
What advice would you give a new author trying to break into the thriller market?
I think the best advice I could give would be this: 1) Write what you know. It is easy for someone to tell whether the author knows what she is talking about. 2) Write your book. When I was reading articles and books about how to write a book, there were a lot of opinions out there. And there are all kinds of web sites saying, “we’re looking for X.” In my opinion, I think you need to understand your genre, and write a book that is consistent in style and format with that genre, using your characters and your story. This does two things: One, it enhances the realism of your work, and two, you’ll be better able to deal with the rejection and criticism we all deal with. 3) Write your book to tell a story, not to push an agenda or to push a particular viewpoint. At least weekly I receive an email from a reader that commends me for viewpoint neutrality. Remember: For every reader that approves of your book because of your view on an issue, there is a reader who will stop reading. Why cut your audience in half?
Super enjoyed your work and look forward to more. In fact, what is coming out new and when?
Thank you. You are very kind. My next book, The Truthful Witness, will launch July 4th.
Hi Matt, I
It’s been a while since I’ve read your Rick Cahill series, and what I like best about your work is that even though there has been an absence, I am immediately taken to a character I like and know. I am sure my readers feel the same. Thanks for speaking with us:
At the beginning of this work, you warned you would skip ahead a bit in time from your other work. Is this because of not wanting to bring Covid into the story or more due to the child?
It was strictly for the birth and development of Krista. There was a scene I needed at the end of my last book, LAST REDEMPTION, where I wanted her to be a certain age.
Quote: “They don’t hand them out like face masks at a hospital during the pandemic.” Was this placed a third of the way into the novel to reinforce this timeline?
Not specifically, but it didn’t hurt. I’ve mostly avoided Covid in my books, but don’t want to pretend like it didn’t happen.
At the beginning of this book, we are given a great deal to worry about: Rick’s bout of CTE (Chronic //traumatic Encephalopathy), his fear of emotional abuse with his family, most specifically his wife and baby, his fear of possibly not living longer and thus missing his daughter’s life, and the possible rift between him and his wife. The investigation we know he will come up against is almost of secondary importance for the reader at this point. Do you feel having a solid and intriguing character (protagonist) is as important, if not more so, than the actual investigative plot?
Absolutely. For me, character always comes first. The first thing I think about when I start a Rick book is what emotional stressors is he currently dealing with in his personal life and how will getting involved in a case make them even more difficult to work through. Of course, I also try to make the investigative plot as exciting, interesting, and realistic as possible. How that plot intersects with Rick’s personal life is what I enjoy writing the most.
Being a reader of Blake Synder’s Save The Cat usage in screenplays, I got a laugh out of your character literally saving a cat. How important was that scene since your character was once suspected of murdering his wife (although proven innocent in one of the series books)?
A lot of the time, I bring Rick right up to the edge of being unlikeable. I’m sure some critics would say I’ve crossed over more a few times! He can be manic, violent, and makes mistakes other private detectives don’t usually make. But aside from being an animal lover in general, he’s a protector of the innocent. And once he gets involved in a case or a situation, he feels personally responsible for all innocents involved, human or beast.
Many writers write their novels as if seeing each chapter as a scene. Do you outline this way? Do you outline before writing, during, or after?
I don’t outline. As I mentioned earlier, I start with what is Rick battling in his private life and think of a rough idea of a main plot, being able to see the inciting incident, a hazy ending, and a plot point or two along the way and then I just get inside Rick’s head. About two thirds of the way through the first draft, I make a list of things that need to be in the story. And they may change from draft to draft.
Just before the climax of the novel, your protagonist rises in conflict both emotionally with his family and physically with the investigation with almost equal importance. This is slightly different from some structures that come to a high physical conflict and leaves the emotional conflict more for the denouement—intricately planned? Has this become the Matt Coyle style to watch for?
I don’t think about it much. Maybe I’d be a better writer if I did. However, for DOOMED LEGACY, the physical conflict had to be intertwined with the emotional climax to be able to put Rick where I wanted him to be at the end of the book.
How important is this to noir more than another type of genre, like a thriller?
I would say very important, but I think rock-ribbed noir writers and readers might not consider my books true noir. Even with a title like DOOMED LEGACY, my books may not be bleak enough for a noir purist. I just try to write the stories I want to tell, while I work out some of my own inner turmoil through Rick.
You are known for your award-winning detective fiction in a hardboiled noir style. Have you wanted to move to other genres, or do you plan to stay with this winning series? I
I’m writing Cahill #10 right now. After that, I am going to write something different. Crime, of course, but probably in third person and not completely lone wolf private eye fiction. I have an idea I could really run with, but for reasons I can’t get into and wouldn’t really be able to explain if I could, I may not write it just yet. But, I will be writing something new, whatever it is, in 2023.
Tyler Dilts in a review of Yesterday’s Echo, said in comparing your work to Chandler’s art of noir: Perhaps the way Coyle most honors Chandler’s legacy is the same way Chandler honored Hammett — by never allowing the influence of the writer he’s emulating get in the way of the story he’s telling. An author’s style is their signature. How do you work to keep to the purity of your voice and narrative?
That was a very nice critique by Tyler which will forever hang on the mantlepiece inside my head. Voice is that nebulous thing that is hard to explain (at least for me) but you know it when you hear it. Chandler and Macdonald, who I read as a teenage and in college, certainly have had a huge influence on my writing. However, voice takes a long time to develop. I think the best thing that helped me develop a voice was being rejected by literary agents for years and years. It took me ten years to get published from typing on an IBM Thinkpad with a floppy disk drive to seeing my book on the shelves in 2013. Along the way, I got over 75 rejections and ignores. I revised the book that would become YESTERDAY’S ECHO, eight or nine times. All that time and revision forced me to develop my own voice without really concentrating on it. Just working the muscle almost every day for years enabled me to develop my own uniqueness.
Not a question, more a comment. What I like most about reading this series is that your story is deep with craft and strong themes and offers an intriguing puzzle for both the protagonist and reader to figure out. What I love….is Rick Cahill’s humanity.
That is one of the most satisfying comments I’ve ever received. It great to hear that I’m accomplishing what I’m trying to. Thank you! Make room on the mantlepiece, Tyler.
Thanks or taking the time to chit-chat, Matt. I look forward to your next book.