An Interview With Best-Selling Author T. Jefferson Parker
T. Jefferson Parker is a three-time Edgar Award-winning author of 21 novels, including his newest book, Full Measure, which comes out October 7. He also recently collaborated with John Lescroart on a short story for the terrific thriller anthology, FaceOff.
Like Michael Connelly, prior to being an author you were a journalist. How did your career as a reporter influence your writing as an author?
What I learned most as a reporter was the basic way that government, business and individuals are all working – not always together – for their own advantage. It was fascinating to see how much power and influence even a little newspaper can wield. I got to cover cops, fires, city hall, art museums, cultural matters – everything but sports and business. It was a great introduction to the real world.
There seems to be a dichotomy when it comes to authors: Some authors like to outline their novels while others write organically (i.e., those who “fly by the seat of their pants”). Which writing method do you identify with the most?
Not to be equivocal but I do both. I’ve written one-paragraph outlines, and 80-page outlines. I will say that for me, at some point, I’m not able to see far enough ahead through a novel to really understand what’s going to happen at the end. I think Hemingway was right about if you’ve got everything figured out ahead of time then the reader will too. Even when I’m working with a fairly detailed outline, I’m keenly aware that outlines are there to be improved upon. Really, writing a novel is hitting at the plate.
It took my five years to write that book. I wrote four complete drafts – one per year – and threw them all away at the end of each year. I was imitating my heros, badly. Bad Jim Harrison, bad Jorge Luis Borges for cryin’ out loud, bad Raymond Chandler. Then I sat down and wrote the last draft, expunging my heroes’ voices from the page and hoping for the best. That fifth draft was the keeper.
You’re an active member of International Thriller Writers, a terrific professional association for those working or aspiring to work in the genre. Why do you think being part of an organization such as this is important for writers?
Because writers spend 99 percent of our time alone, tapping away on imagined stories. People ground you. Bring you back to Earth. I think people often yearn to be a part of something larger than just themselves, so there is that also.
You’ve won three Edgar Awards, an extraordinary feat that most best-selling authors can’t claim. What was it like winning this prestigious award three times within the same decade?
Terrific. I felt very lucky, too – right time and place and all that. What makes the Edgar award so wonderful is that it’s given by your peers. It’s not a popularity contest or a commercial nod. I’ve judged on Edgar committees before and it’s a huge and daunting responsibility. But when you read that book that really shines, it makes your day. Then you have to argue your case with four other judges who think that some other book is the one that really shines!
What’s a successful day of writing look like for you?
My goal is five pages. If I get four that’s okay. If I get six that’s great. I try to play for keeps when I write a page. I’m hard on myself. I particularly like ending a day’s work mid-scene, so the next day I know what I have to do. Coming to the end of a scene is always scary. What now?
It’s harder in some ways and easier in others. It’s hard because you have to synopsize what’s happened in earlier books without boring your loyal readers. And you have to make each book somehow make sense to a new reader. That’s tricky, and a good editor is a blessing. On the other hand, a series is easier because you have your actors in place, the stage is set, and you don’t have to invent an entire universe every time out. The one big difficulty in writing a series is that the fate of the protagonist is almost never in question. This puts dramatic limitations on an author.
At ThrillerFest IX you talked about the importance of finding your own voice. What authors’ voices have influenced you the most over the years?
So many. I like the simple but elevated tone of the Bible. Shakespeare’s crazy compaction of story and character and his word play are a model I might strive toward but never own. Poets through the ages. Moving ahead into my adult years, I loved our American writers from Hawthorne and Poe all the way through to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and forward to people writing today. The list is really long.
What have you yet to do as a writer that you’d still like to accomplish?
I’d like to write a smash bestseller, a book so good that nobody can put it down!
It’s the story of Patrick Norris, a young man who returns from bloody combat in Afghanistan and tries to beat back his demons and be a good civilian. It’s not a war novel, it’s a home-from-the-war novel. His family farm is threatened by drought, wildfire and debt. His older brother adores Patrick but lacks self control. His little hometown is torn by economic hardship, racism and political strife. It’s hard to synopsize, really. It’s about America’s wars, both abroad and at home.