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.