Michael Cavacini

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Author Interview: Jon Land

Jon Land

Jon Land is the bestselling author of over 25 novels, including the popular Caitlin Strong and Blaine McCracken series. I met him at ThrillerFest VIII and recently completed his newest novel, Strong Rain Falling. Jon is a terrific author and if you haven’t read his work, make sure you do. Below is my interview with him; I hope you enjoy it.

Your books involve a variety of characters and multiple plots. To keep things straight, do you draft an outline before sitting down to write a book or do you just start and see how it unravels?

My books definitely take on a life of their own, almost from the very first page. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer in all respects. I operate on the theory that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, then the reader can’t possibly know. I can get away with this because I trust my characters to take me where they want and need to go. I’m normally about 100 pages ahead with where I’m headed in my mind, never much more than that. As the book moves forward, the challenge becomes making the connections between apparently disparate events and plots—it’s the challenge, but also the fun along with a journey of self-discovery. I have no idea how I do it, although I suspect it has something to do with a level of insanity. (laughs) But the result, unfortunately at times, is my first drafts tend to need lots of work. In fact, I’d venture to say that one of my greatest strengths as a writer is actually rewriting, often based on my own objective read of what I’ve created. For me, first drafts are about getting it down and getting it done. Each successive draft hones and polishes the material further. I throw a bunch out, I add a bunch more—sometimes even entirely new characters, subplots and scenes if I sense a weakness or flaw. I’m also blessed with a terrific editor, Natalia Aponte, who’s always pushing me to do better, to make my Caitlin Strong books, and all my books for that matter, both structurally and emotionally complete. The thing I like to stress here is that no process works for all writers. We all have to find what works for us.

We all have authors and books that inspire us. Are there any specific writers or books that greatly influenced your reading or writing habits?

Well, The Exorcist was the first book I read cover-to-cover in a single day, a single sitting actually. Reading Robert Ludlum’s The Holcroft Covenant (along with The Matarese Circle) taught me more about what makes a great thriller than anything else. The Boys From Brazil taught me the importance of a great “What if?” question. The Stand showed me the wonder of taking the reader out of his or her world and into the world we fashion on the page. Marathon Man made me realize just how much caring about the characters means. I can quote portions of that book, just as I can from the others I mention here and far more. As far as strictly favorites, Lee Child and James Lee Burke are the authors I most look forward to, with plenty of others not far behind. David Morrell, who never writes the same book twice. Stephen Hunter, who’s a maestro when it comes to action scenes. Michael Connelly for writing books that are impossible to put down. And I’ve recently discovered John Hart who seems incapable of writing a bad sentence or creating a character who doesn’t command our interest.

Some authors love research while others find it to be a chore. Do you enjoy it, and what was one of the most interesting pieces of information you uncovered while conducting research for a book?

No, I don’t enjoy it and that’s why I don’t do the research first—I do the majority of it as I’m writing because it’s only then that I really know what information I’m going to need. Whenever I’m in doubt about something, I just make it up the way I believe it to be and then make the fixes afterwards. The problem with doing research in advance is what I call the Clancy Effect where you write the book around your research instead of weaving only the information the reader needs into narrative. That’s the real key because otherwise you risk slowing your story’s pace and losing the reader in the process. In Strong Rain Falling, the most interesting thing I learned was how the huge problem of drug smuggling out of Mexico, the cartels and everything else, actually began. Turns out it goes back to the influx of Chinese immigrants in the late nineteenth century who brought opium with them into Mexico. By the turn of the century, poppies were being grown all over the country and actual drug smuggling began soon after through a governor named Cantu who was bringing it into California through Baja. Truly fascinating stuff.

Strong Rain FallingStrong Rain Falling, your newest novel, is the fifth Caitlin Strong book. For those that haven’t read it yet, what does this new adventure have in common with its predecessors and how does it differ?

That’s a really good question. In common I think it has a great story that places Caitlin and company against really bad guys (well, a female villain this time out) planning to do really bad things that will have catastrophic effects on the country unless they’re stopped. In that respect all the books in the series are pretty much interchangeable which is kind of the case in all successful series fiction. Where each book in the series differs is in the emotional growth of the characters in the face of whatever challenges they’re facing. I made a decision with my Caitlin Strong books from the get-go that I was going to age the characters in real time, not book time. In other words, they were going to evolve emotionally from one book to the next and I think in addition to having the fastest pace of any entry in the series, Strong Rain Falling features the most emotionally complex story. That’s because we really get to see both sides of Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters thanks in large part to the challenges that arise with their version of a nuclear family that includes Cort Wesley’s two teenage sons. But even more I love the nature of confronting Caitlin for the first time with a female villain who’s every bit her equal as a strong and independent woman. They only have two direct confrontations, but those scenes are priceless in what is essentially a battle of equally strong (no pun intended!) wills. But there’s also a historical connection between these two women that makes the antagonism between them even richer.

In Strong Rain Falling you go back and forth in time throughout the book. How do you effectively balance the present with the past and weave them together?

The historical subplots are my favorite part of the Caitlin Strong books and the factor that most distinguishes them from the crowded field for thrillers. Writing about the Texas Rangers intrinsically means writing lots about the drug trade that originates, and to an extent dominates, Mexico. So I finally asked myself, where did it all start? I couldn’t recall ever seeing any other writer answer that question and it turns out the Mexican drug trade actually began in the 1870s with a flood of Chinese immigrants who brought opium along for the ride. Just a few years later, farms growing the poppy flower needed to produce opium were sprouting up all over the country. And not long after that, right around the turn of the century, you have the actual birth of drug smuggling with opium being brought into the western United States through the Baja region. In fact, there was a Mexican provincial governor named Cantu (who’s actually a character in the book) who was lauded for building roads and other infrastructure projects when the real reason he built them was to facilitate his smuggling operation!

How did you get into writing and did you have any mentors who helped you along the way?

That’s a great question to start with and the answer, I don’t think, is very typical for those of us lucky enough to be in this profession. I didn’t actually start writing until I was a sophomore at Brown University. First off, that was probably a positive thing since it’s so easy for fledgling writers to get discouraged when they start out in high school or even before. I’d always enjoyed the process, dating all the way back to junior high, but I never had even considered the notion of pursuing a career. For me, law school was as certain after college as college was after high school. But the writing bug bit me while at Brown, and I started writing magazine articles for periodicals like People and The Saturday Evening Post and fell in love with, confession time!, seeing my name in print. Around the same time, I fell in love with reading again, particularly thrillers, and figured why not write one, specifically for my Senior Honors Thesis in Brown’s Honors Program. Two wonderful professors, George Monteiro and the legendary Elmer Blistein, took a huge chance by sponsoring me, but I ended up finishing the book. It was god-awful for the most part, but I’d proven to myself that I could do it. The next book I wrote was the first one that ended up selling and, to this day, I credit Brown to a huge degree in providing me the academic freedom and opportunity to chase my dream.

Pandora's Temple

You also have the Blaine McCracken series, which you recently returned to with the award-winning Pandora’s Temple. How was it revisiting a character you hadn’t written about in several years?

The biggest challenge I faced was how to age him and I decided to be true to the background and mythology of the series. As a deep cover operative who cut his teeth in Vietnam’s Operation Phoenix, he’d have to be around 60 years old unless I wanted to cheat a la Robert Parker who made the mistake of making his wondrous Spenser a Korean War vet meaning he’d be around eighty-five now and still kicking butt. But cheating the reader was no way to reintroduce McCracken and had I made him, say, forty-five, he’d have been killing Vietcong at the age of ten. So I decided to age him normally and introduce him in Pandora’s Temple about to celebrate his 60th birthday. The phone has pretty much stopped ringing and time seems to have passed Blaine by, when the call that brings him back to action comes. And that’s one of the things that brought him back to life for me. I realized he made the perfect metaphor for so many successful businessmen and women who find their jobs outsourced or phased out when they reach the same age, thanks to the current economy. I knew I had a theme that would create an emotional resonance in Pandora that would help elevate it above the run-of-the-mill thriller and make it not just a worthy addition to the series, but maybe the best one yet. Lucky number ten! Once I realized that, I was able to swiftly recapture McCracken’s voice and his sharp, thoughtful exchanges with his right-hand man, the seven-foot indestructible and wise Johnny Wareagle. It happened organically and didn’t need to be forced at all, although I did go back and add some scenes to help recapture the magic between them that helps define who they are and the eternal quest they find themselves on. Because at heart all great thrillers are quest stories and McCracken’s quest here is to find Pandora’s box because that’s the only way to save the world. But this time out in saving the world, Blaine is also saving himself from the scrapheap, and watching him come to embrace that opportunity as the story goes on imbues the book with just the verve it needed to do justice to a hero who’s been away from the page since 1998.

When writing a series, how do you keep things fresh for the reader? And how do you keep track of all the details from book to book?

I’ve kind of answered that already: I keep things fresh by keeping my characters fresh. By confronting them with new crisis and challenges that further enrich and expand who they are as people, in addition to characters. The thriller authors I don’t come back to or don’t read anymore create emotionally vapid landscapes where there’s no emotional stake in the plights of their heroes. We need to care about them the same way we care about real people and if we don’t the book ultimately fails. I don’t really keep track of all the details in the Caitlin Strong series from book to book because I always assume (or hope anyway) the majority of those picking the latest up will be meeting her for the first time. The mark of any good series is to be able to pick up any entry in it first and not feel you’ve missed anything or need to know that isn’t provided. And that book ideally should make you want to go back and read all the ones that came before and all the ones that came after.

You’re an active member of International Thriller Writers and currently serve as its Marketing Chair. How has this organization benefited you as an author and do you recommend that aspiring writers join an organization such as this?

Well, “such as this” is a deal breaker because there is no other organization as concerned about its members and as responsive to their needs as ITW. It’s benefited me as an author tremendously, both for all the quotes my far more successful writer friends have provided and, even more importantly, creating a community of peers whose company I enjoy as much as I enjoy anyone’s. In fact, I’d go a step further and say that the five days of ThrillerFest are about my favorite days of the year. It’s interesting that some of the best and most famous names in our genre and our industry—David Morrell, Lee Child, James Rollins, Steve Berry, Doug Preston, R.L. Stine, Sandra Brown, Heather Graham, the list goes on—are also some of the best and nicest people I’ve ever met.

The Tenth CircleDo you have any new and exciting projects in the works?

The next book’s ready to come out. It’s called The Tenth Circle and it’s the follow-up to Pandora’s Temple once again featuring Blaine McCracken, my original series hero I’ve fallen back in love with. Beyond that I’m actually working on three books: a sequel to my bestselling The Seven Sins, a terrific project I’m doing in tandem with the great Heather Graham called The Survivor, and I’ve just completed the first draft of Strong Darkness, the next book featuring Caitlin. But, oh boy, you know what I said about first drafts earlier and I’ve got my work cut out for me on this. Then again, that’s nothing new!

Author Interview: Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author whose debut novel, The Informationist, took the literary world by storm in 2011. Since then, she’s published two more novels starring the popular protagonist Vanessa Michael Munroe: The Innocent and The Doll. I had the pleasure of meeting Taylor at ThrillerFest VIII in July, and she was kind enough to grant me the interview below. I hope you enjoy it.

You grew up in a communal apocalyptic cult where, as a teenager, you entertained the children with stories. What inspired these stories and did you use them as a way to briefly “escape” your dire surroundings?

Imagination was very much an escape mechanism. We didn’t have access to the outside world, so basically no novels, no television, no outside music and very, very few pre-screened movies. We spent a lot of time doing mundane manual labor—washing laundry, cooking, taking care of younger children—or out on the streets begging and that often meant considerable hours getting to/from our begging spots with nothing to keep our minds engaged in-between. Telling stories turned me in into the de facto entertainment and that’s pretty much how it started.

You’ve said that your scholastic education stopped at the age of 12 when you were separated from your parents. Having met you and read your books, I can say, without a doubt, that you’re a very intelligent woman. How did you go about catching up on those lost years of learning after you broke free from the cult in your 20s?

For some things, I still haven’t. There’s a huge difference between intelligence and education and although I’m very fortunate that I have the ability to self-teach through absorption, there are some things that I’m resigned to never grasping. For example, since math for me stopped when I was around 11, I still struggle desperately with math concepts. Math is one of those things that you can’t just skip three years and pick up where you left off by reading a few books. Even though I understand everyday mathematical concepts well enough to, say, manage money, I’m so bad at math in general that even using a calculator I still have to add numbers three times just to be sure I get the same answer twice. I read a lot—I’ve read so many text books cover-to-cover—that in many subjects you could say I’m better read than many people who’ve gone to college. But it’s splotchy and not exactly an “education” in the strictest sense. I couldn’t put it on a resume. I’m still kind of screwed in that regard if this whole writing thing doesn’t work out.

Being a mother, I’m sure finding time to write must be hard. How do you overcome this challenge and do you set out to type a specific number of words every day?

I do have to juggle around their needs and there are times when this is easier said than done, but it’s far easier now than it used to be when they were pre-school and kindergarten ages.  There are also chunks of time, for example during research and promotion—which in my case often means having to travel—as well as key points when contributing to a manuscript in its journey through the production pipeline, that it’s just not possible for me to put new words on a page. My goal, when I’m actually writing, is 1000 words per day, 6 days per week. I don’t always hit it, but that’s the goal.

The Informationist

The Informationist, your debut novel, was a bestseller that was well received by the public and critics alike. How did it feel when James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment, picked up the film rights? And will you play an active role in the development of the screenplay?

That was an incredibly surreal experience. I believe the exact words out of my mouth when my film agent gave me the news were, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I heard you right. Do you mean James Cameron as in “Titanic” James Cameron?” Whether or not The Informationist actually gets turned into a movie still remains to be seen. Last I heard he was working on Avatar 2, 3 AND 4. That’s a long wait. Generally speaking authors have no input on any aspect of movie making. There are exceptions—I expect if I wrote Twilight or Harry Potter things would be different—but I really respect James Cameron as a film maker and love what he’s done with the female characters in his films. I trust him and am just as eager as my fans to see what he does with Michael Munroe.

Do you draft an outline before sitting down to write a book or do you start with an idea and see where it takes you?

I’ve done it both ways. With The Informationist it was very much by the seat of my pants and it was probably more of a surprise to me how the story unfolded than it was for my readers. Vanessa Michael Munroe as a character was definitely a by-product of pantsing, because I certainly didn’t have her figured out before I started writing. But it also took me roughly three years to write The Informationist. Granted, it wasn’t my full-time job, but still. I do outline now.  This came about as a matter of desperation—I didn’t know if I could write another book, and I had to prove it to myself by first telling myself the story. But what I found from doing that was that I could write a whole lot faster when I knew what was happening before I actually began.

As it is now, because I work on such tight deadlines, I can’t afford to spend a month or more writing in one direction only to find out it didn’t work and have to go back and start again so I have turned into an outliner. I have heard of some authors making copious notes, writing out family histories for the characters and such, but I have never done that. My outlines are something closer to simply talking out the story to myself, a “tell don’t show” proposition that runs into about thirty pages. Once the writing begins, those thirty pages will turn into about 500 or so, which will be cut down to around 450 and that will turn into a 320-page book, give or take.

The Innocent - Taylor Stevens

My favorite book of yours is The Innocent because the subject matter was fascinating and it featured great emotional depth. Clearly, this was inspired by your experience growing up in a cult. Was writing this novel a cathartic experience for you? 

I actually get this question quite often and it always makes me smile. Drawing directly on my background wasn’t necessarily easy, but I’d long come to terms with and already made my peace with what happened growing up—I don’t think I could have produced the book otherwise. Mostly, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to showcase more of Vanessa Michael Munroe’s skill and badassery while at the same time offering readers access to a firsthand account of cult life that most thriller writers don’t have. If there was any part of the experience that was cathartic, it was in finally being able to give a voice to the hundreds and thousands of kids who were raised like me—to raise awareness of the issues and prejudices we face. There is so much misunderstanding and judgment against us simply because of where we were born and how we were raised, choices that were made by our parents, not us. Our story has been hijacked by the cult, by the media, by sociologists, by basically everyone. It was fantastically satisfying to finally have our story told from our point of view—not some twisted version put out for ratings and sensationalism.

What do you find most satisfying about being an author?

Every day I wake up grateful that I get to do what I do for a living. I consider each additional book to be a stay of execution which allows me, for one more year, to still get to plan my own schedule, spend hours alone in relative quiet, and be able to be available to my children whenever they need me. I’m completely ruined for real life. I don’t know that I could ever hold a corporate job—not that I couldn’t do the work, I just don’t think I could handle the lifestyle that comes with it.

Taylor Stevens - The Doll

In The Doll, you wrote the following line: 

“Munroe focused on the ground, processing. He’d given her what she needed to know, and she in turn had scattered seed that might lay fallow or might, if she was lucky, eventually sprout into saplings strong enough to split the hardened topsoil that kept him as the Doll Maker’s doer.”

As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the most talented authors when it comes to metaphor usage and this sentence is a perfect example. Do you spend a lot of time coming up with these or do they organically flow out of your writing?

Wow, thanks for the compliment. I’m blushing. My understanding of grammar is still stuck in 5th grade and 5th grade was a long, long time ago so, if you asked me to explain what a metaphor is, I’d probably just give you a blank look. Most of what I write just comes from instinct, from trying to translate emotion and feeling into words that make sense to other people, and then attempting to craft those words with as little corniness and as few reading hiccups as possible.

What’s the most challenging part of writing for you? 

The initial draft, for sure. This is where the actual scenes are fleshed out, the characters are built, and the plot is intertwined. It’s torture. When it comes to the nitty-gritty: action sequences are the hardest, especially when they involve multiple characters. Conversations are the most fun and go the fastest—that’s when the characters get to come alive and their conflicts play against each other.

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Oscar Madison once said, “I don’t like writing. I like having written.” Do you identify with this sentiment or do you enjoy the writing process from start to finish?

Oh, yes, I absolutely identify with that sentiment. So many authors have been credited with that quote, and I’ve heard it used by so many friends, that I’m beginning to suspect it must be a universal truth among writers. Personally, I’m not really what I’d consider a “creative.” I’m far more comfortable with things like spreadsheets and data entry than crafting people and places and lifetimes out of nothing. It’s one thing to be able to make up a story with words, using broad brush strokes, and another entirely to bleed it out on paper in excruciating detail, so for me, developing the first layers of writing a book is incredibly difficult. Editing and re-writing after the initial creative work is finished is much easier and, since that’s the part of writing that makes a crappy story readable, that has worked out pretty well for me so far.

You just completed your fourth Vanessa Michael Munroe book, The Catch. What’s the story’s premise and in what countries is it taking place?

In The Catch, Munroe is headed back to Africa, this time to the north and east where she gets tangled up with a hijacked ship. Readers will have an opportunity to watch how she operates when she ends up in unfamiliar territory where she’s on her own and where she has no prior contacts or connections. And this time—unlike The Doll which entwined two timelines, two casts of characters, and two different plots—there is only one plot and one point of view. In The Catch, it’s pure Vanessa Michael Munroe, all the way.

 

Book Review – The Blue Zone by Andrew Gross

The Blue ZoneToday, I finished listening to the audiobook version of Andrew Gross’ first solo novel, The Blue Zone. I’m a big fan of the books he co-wrote with James Patterson, especially Lifeguard and Judge and Jury, and I really enjoyed Gross’ latest book, No Way Back. Now I’m working my way through his solo work and decided to start with his bestselling debut thriller, The Blue Zone. I’m happy to report that it’s a gripping tale that surprised me with its biggest twist and kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering how the story would play out.

My only gripe is that in the first few chapters Benjamin Raab is referred to as “Mr. Raab” for what seemed like 100 times. Every time someone addressed this character, especially law enforcement, Gross felt the need to end each sentence of dialogue with the character saying “Mr. Raab.” For example, here are some sentences I made up to illustrate how “Mr. Raab” was used to death in the opening chapters’ dialogue:

“Where were you last night, Mr. Raab?”

“Oh, how interesting, Mr. Raab”

“Why don’t you just tell us the truth, Mr. Raab?”

“How many times do you think I can say ‘Mr. Raab,’ Mr. Raab?”

It drove me out of mind because it was obscenely redundant. When there are two people talking in a scene, it’s OK to mention each character’s name once, but that’s it. Anything more makes for an irritating read. Why not have the characters refer to him as “Ben” once in a while, or, better yet, not address him at all? What made it worse was the audiobook narrator, who was atrocious. Her shrill voice saying “Mr. Raab” made me want to throw my iPhone out the window. Needless to say, don’t listen to the audiobook version of The Blue Zone – go for the print or e-book version instead.

Now that I got that out of my system, let’s get to the good stuff. After getting past the redundant and sometimes superficial dialogue in the beginning of the book, Gross did a terrific job of developing the lead character, Kate. I liked the periodic breaks in the action where she went swimming and reflected on the chaos around her; these scenes, as well as the ones at her job and with her boyfriend, gave the character emotional depth and maturity.

The big twist that took place toward the end of the book was satisfying because I didn’t see it coming and it was believable. It also tested the characters’ limits and, in some cases, revealed true motives. I don’t want to go into further detail because it would spoil it for you.

Take my advice: Despite its initial flaws, The Blue Zone is a taut thriller by a talented author that’s worth the price of admission.

One of the nice features of the audiobook is it included an interview with the author at the end. Below are some highlights from the interview, as well as a synopsis of the book and a couple videos.

Andrew Gross on The Blue Zone

  • “At some point, I was waiting for another project from Jim [Patterson]. All of the books originated with his outline. And while I was waiting for maybe a week or two longer than I was comfortable with, I starting noodling an idea out that became the foundation of The Blue Zone. And it was also a very fast process where I worked a fairly extensive outline to it, submitted it to my agent and within, literally, four or five days we had a series of publishers looking at it and bidding on it. So, it was very difficult to turn that down.”
  • “It actually had its origins with a dinner party I went to up in West Chester where I met someone who, like the main character, Benjamin Raab, was a jewelry dealer, he was a gold dealer, and absolutely one of the more obnoxious people I ever met. Highly successful. Houses everywhere. His and her Ferraris. Ya know, over the top. And, I guess, about a month later I found out that it had all been a sham and that he was arrested for money laundering, which, at the time, I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable with hearing. But what it struck in me was the chord of how fragile our lives are and how easily not only is it brought down for an individual but for an entire family as well. So, it wasn’t a stretch after that to sort of think of what it would be like if that situation happened in our lives, and, so, that’s basically how The Blue Zone started.”
  • “The Witness Protection Program is interesting, but what I found more interesting was the terror of someone who is left behind, in this case, Kate, our protagonist. And, two, I guess the sense of betrayal one feels when you discover that your family, or your father in particular, isn’t the man you’ve always idolized and trusted your whole life, and I think that that is a terror that almost everyone can identify with. And when you have that stripped away, you strip away your entire emotional protection as well, and this is how Kate has to approach things in the book.”

Synopsis

Everything in Kate Raab’s life seems perfect. She has an amazing family, an invigorating job straight out of college, and a boyfriend she adores. Then a phone call changes everything. Her father, a successful businessman, a man she has always trusted and admired, is in trouble with the law. He’s innocent, he insists to his family, but the only way out, is this: his testimony against his accomplices and the immediate placement of his family deep inside the Witness Protection Program. He accepts, and everyone prepares to go into hiding—until one of them suddenly gets cold feet. In a flash, Kate’s perfect life is gone.

Now, a year later, her worst fears have happened. Kate’s father suddenly disappears—into what the WITSEC agency calls the Blue Zone—and someone very important to him is found brutally murdered. As Kate digs into her father’s life, the shocking truth she finds sets in motion a decades-old vendetta. With her family under watch, with the FBI untrustworthy, and her father’s menacing “friends” circling her with increasing intensity, Kate alone must set off on the life and death journey to find her father, and uncover the secrets someone will kill to keep buried.

Steven James’ Keys to Organic Writing

Steven JamesAt ThrillerFest VIII I attended Steven James’ CraftFest session on organic writing, (i.e., writing without an outline). Following his presentation, James provided the audience with a handout summarizing his advice. For those interested in writing, below are highlights from the handout.

Keys to Organic Writing 

Let narrative forces rather than formulas drive your story forward. Imagine a giant ball of clay being held by a group of people. As one person presses against the clay it changes shape. 

The clay is your story; the people surrounding it represent the narrative forces pressing in on it. For example: 

  • Believability: The characters in your story need to act in contextually believable ways. All the time. 
  • Causality: Everything that happens in a story will be caused by the thing that precedes it. 
  • Inevitability & Surprise: The end of every scene must not just be logical, but, in retrospect, the only possible conclusion to that scene. Scenes will end in a way that’s unexpected and yet satisfying to readers. 
  • Escalation: The tension must continue to escalate, scene by scene, until it reaches a climax after which nothing is ever the same again. 
  • Scenes & Setbacks: If nothing is altered, you do not have a scene. If your characters solve something without a setback, you do not have a story – you have a setup for a story, an event, but that’s all. 
  • Continuity: Think of pace as the speed at which things are happening, think of narrative energy as the momentum that’s carrying them along. 
  • Story & Genre Conventions: Readers enter a story with expectations based on their understanding of story and of the genre they’re reading. You need to know the principles of storytelling and be familiar enough with genre conventions to meet or exceed your readers’ expectations without resorting to using cliches. 

When you know the right questions to ask, your story will unfold in unique, unpredictable and fulfilling ways. 

Escalation:

  • Does this scene ratchet up the tension of the one before it?
  • How can I make things worse?

Believability:

  • What would this character naturally do in this situation?
  • Is he properly motivated to take this action?

Causality: 

  • Is this event caused by what precedes it?
  • How can what I want to happen bow to what needs to happen based on the context?

Inevitability & Surprise:

  • Does this scene end in a way that’s both unexpected and yet inevitable?
  • How can I assure that readers don’t see the twist coming?

Scenes & Setbacks: 

  • Have I inadvertently included scenes just for character development?
  • Is there an interlude or moment of reorientation between each scene?

Continuity: 

  • Do my revelations happen at the right moments within the story?
  • Have I used foreshadowing to eliminate coincidences, especially at the climax?

Story & Genre Expectations:

  • What requisite scenes are inherent to this genre and to this story?
  • How can I render them in a way that’s not cliched?

Author Interview: Thomas B. Sawyer

Thomas B SawyerAt ThrillerFest VIII, I was lucky enough to meet Thomas B. Sawyer, the former head writer for one of my all-time favorite TV shows: Murder, She Wrote. In addition to working in television, Tom has written several books, as well as a musical drama. Below is my interview with Sawyer about his exceptional career. I hope you enjoy it.

Growing up, did you always want to be a writer?

In a way, yes. My childhood ambition/fixation was to draw and write a realistic syndicated daily newspaper comic strip, telling a continuous story. There are almost none of those today, but they were big when I was a kid. My hero was Milton Caniff, who drew and wrote such strips as Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon. I started freelancing as a comic-book artist (writing a few) in Manhattan at age 20, moving on to advertising, where I became a successful illustrator. Along the way, I realized that doing a daily strip was not for me, so I began making short films, and fell in love with directing. I studied with Lee Strasberg, directed off-off Broadway, and directed/produced TV commercials for major ad agencies.

What led you to the television industry?

I moved from NY to the LA area to try breaking into movies – as a director. My plan, produce and direct a low-budget comedy as a calling-card. My writer fell out as soon as I arrived on the Coast, so I wrote it myself. Then, the financing fell through, so I bankrolled it, shot it, and began screenings in hope of finding a distributor – and getting my money back. By then, I’d begun to network with people in the biz, and would invite them to screening as well. One was a multiple Emmy-winning writer/director/producer, Lila Garrett. She approached me at the end of a screening: “Tom, you should be writing for television.”

Truthfully, I had never even thought about that, totally focused as I was on directing movies. I asked her how I might get started. Her response, with a shrug: “I’ve got a production deal. If you get an idea, call me.” Two weeks later, I phoned her with a one-line pitch: “A gang-comedy on a tacky used-car lot in the valley.” She said: “That’s great. You’ll write it and I’ll produce it.

Another two weeks, my first gig in Hollywood: I was writing a comedy pilot for CBS. Incidentally, it was several years before I realized that is not the way it works for most people.

How did you become involved in Murder, She Wrote?

I became a writer for Murder, She Wrote (MSW) before it began to air, the result of my agent sending show creator Peter Fischer a non-mystery series pilot script I’d written for CBS, a one-hour WWII drama titled Cody’s War. Peter ‘saw’ something in it – presumably, that I could write scenes that worked – and he gave me a ‘blind assignment’ to write an episode. Meaning, I had to first come up with a story that was acceptable. He invited me to come in and view the pilot, and to me, anyway, Angela Lansbury’s specialness, her presence, was awesome. As was the prospect – the honor and privilege, really – of writing for her.

MSW looked to me like a hit, and I said so. In response to my question about the approach, the show’s style, Peter explained that he envisioned it as “sort of” in the mold of traditional Agatha Christie puzzle mysteries. Which prompted – with no hesitation: “Peter, I have to tell you, when I was a kid I read a couple of Christies and one or two locked-room mysteries, you know, where they gather the suspects in the drawing-room at the end? They bored the shit out of me, and I won’t write that for you.” His response: “Okay. What will you write?” “I’ll write The Maltese Falcon.” Peter replied without missing a beat: “That’ll be fine.” And – on reflection – I realize that that was my signal contribution to the show. With few exceptions, over the next 12 seasons, in each episode we did a play about a bunch of interesting characters in conflict with each other. And someone is murdered.

What was it like working with Angela Lansbury?

The absolute best. Angela was – and still is – a total professional, without vanity, generous to other actors. My only frustration was that the character of Jessica Fletcher, as originally conceived, used such a tiny fraction of Angela’s incredible range as an actress. But in re-examining her movies, I observed that she played irate-and-pissed-off better than almost any actor in the world. So I contrived, in each episode, to give her at least one moment when another character would say the equivalent of: “Ms. Fletcher, I don’t have time for this, so get outta my office.” And Jessica would get her back up – and the show would immediately take on that energy.

Meeting Tom Sawyer at ThrillerFest VIII.

Meeting Tom Sawyer at ThrillerFest VIII.

Murder, She Wrote regularly featured popular guest stars. Which guest stars did you enjoy working with the most and why?

Jerry Orbach tops the list. Jerry played a recurring character, PI Harry McGraw, which we eventually spun off into a series (The Law & Harry McGraw). Jerry, a major Broadway musical star, was a great guy, and a delight to work with. Oh, there were so many others, too: Len Cariou, Anne Meara, Lorna Luft, Milton Berle, Bobby Morse, Buddy Hackett, Steve Lawrence… The list is endless.

How did your role on the Murder, She Wrote team evolve over the years, and what was it like when the show came to an end?

I was on staff, then off, doing other shows, and pilots and film scripts, plus the McGraw spinoff, but continuing to write for MSW. And then, after 7 seasons, Fischer departed, and I was asked to take over as Head Writer/Showrunner, which I did – and enjoyed enormously – for the next 5 seasons.

It was sad when CBS pulled the plug. We were still one of the top shows, but had become a casualty of demographics. We were on opposite ABC’s Lois & Clark, which had 1/3 fewer viewers. But, of a more advertiser-desirable age-group, they were able to charge more for commercials.

Our final episode: “Death By Demographics,” was about the murder of a broadcaster.

What is the TV script-writing process like, and how many revisions are made before shooting a scene?

A lot depends on the type of show. Comedies involve a lot of meetings in the “Writers’ Room.” Dramas, less so. And while I’ve written finished shooting scripts for action-adventure shows in as little as four days, teleplays for MSW took several months. Plus – unlike many theatrical movies – in TV, once the script is written, that’s what is shot.

The Writers Guild dictates that the TV episode writer do two drafts of the story (outline), and two drafts of the script. After that, the show’s staff writers have to make any necessary changes. Thus, it is in the interest of those staffers to work closely with the freelance writer, holding his/her hand along the way, so that final script is as close to shootable as possible.

You’ve written a musical drama (Jack) and a novel (The Sixteenth Man) about John F. Kennedy. What inspired you to base these two works on the former U.S. President?

I regard his loss as one of the major tragedies this country has experienced. JFK’s passion was without equal. Moreover, I find his life and family fascinating (operatic, really, hence, Jack), and the truth about his assassination never revealed (thus, my take on it, The Sixteenth Man).

How does writing novels compare to writing for television and theater?

In novels the writer really gets the chance to know the characters far more intimately. Though in the case of Jack, the writing process – and getting to know the characters went on for years. More than five in fact, before we figured out who Jack Kennedy was.

Your conspiracy thriller, No Place to Run, was focused on the U.S. government’s involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What inspired the premise? And did the sensitive subject matter lead to any interesting encounters with the government or law enforcement officials?

I gradually became convinced that 9/11 was known to be in work, and was abetted/permitted to happen because our government (as in: the MICC Complex) needed an event that would cause the public to put up with another war. I’m fully aware that once history is written, it becomes part of the public’s comfort-zone, but in writing that book, I figured if I could make as many as a dozen people think (re-think, actually), I had succeeded.

It did not provoke any encounters with government or law enforcement, but I was invited to post my take on it at a very interesting website, patriotsquestion911.com, where I found myself in some amazing company. I have since appeared on panels with a number of them. But getting the book published wasn’t easy. The head of one of the major houses in NY said to my agent: “I really like Tom’s writing, but I’m offended by his premise.”

Fiction Writing DemystifiedYou teach an online course about writing fiction and wrote the book Fiction Writing Demystified. How has writing for television influenced and helped what you produce as an author?

More than anything else, TV taught me that the number one requirement of any writer, (novelist, historian, ad copywriter, clergyman, you-name-it), no matter how lofty the goal, is to know – and never forget — that we are Entertainers.
Simply put, unless we entertain, one’s audience isn’t going to stay with us until The End.

Are there any authors in particular that you read regularly and draw inspiration from?

Absolutely. Moreover, these hold up for me on rereading. John O’Hara, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, and Eric Ambler.

What do you think is currently the best-written show on television?

For me – and they’re inconsistent, a tossup between Blue Bloods and The Good Wife. The all-time best? The Sopranos.

Are you working on any exciting new projects?

Yes. I just finished my first non-stand alone thriller (w/humor), Cross Purposes. It features a New York PI, Barney Moon. Barney, a permanent fish-out-of-water, hates Los Angeles, is stuck there, and he doesn’t drive. I’m also completing my memoir, Who Knew…?

Revisiting Alan Wake

Alan WakeAlan Wake took more than five years to develop but the end result is one of the greatest video games of all time. The game’s story follows bestselling thriller novelist Alan Wake as he tries to uncover the mystery behind his wife’s disappearance during their vacation in the fictional town of Bright Falls, Washington. While searching for his wife, Alice, he experiences events from the plot in his latest novel, which he can’t remember writing.

This compelling narrative is told through a series of eight episodes, two of which – “The Signal” and “The Writer” – are additional downloadable content. All eight episodes kept my rapt attention from start to finish, and when facing the game’s frightening enemies, known as “The Taken,” I was stricken with chills.

Alan Wake’s character development is exceptional. As the game progressed I found myself more attached to the main characters and emotionally invested in their well being. Another “character” worth noting is the town of Bright Falls. This fictional locale came to life in a way no setting has before in a video game since the original Silent Hill. The transformation of the town from light to dark was impressive, and its foreboding presence was amplified by the fact that I was in control of Alan Wake.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Alan Wake’s score by Petri Alanko is simply gorgeous. It’s one of the most beautifully haunting pieces of orchestral music I’ve ever heard. It perfectly embodies the game’s mystical nature and Alan Wake’s dreamlike state. Even if you don’t play the game, you should give the score a listen.

While books, movies and television shows are wonderful mediums for telling stories, video games can be superior. Not only do they combine the best elements of the aforementioned art forms, but they put the person inside the story and make him or her play a key role in how it unfolds and, sometimes, how it ends. Having that level of agency within a game as spectacular as Alan Wake can only yield one result: complete satisfaction.

Below are three videos. The first is the game’s trailer, and the last two are about the making of Alan Wake.

Author Interview: M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is an international bestselling author of 13 novels and a founding member and board member of International Thriller Writers (ITW). I had the pleasure of meeting her at ITW’s ThrillerFest this summer. Her latest novel is Seduction, which I’ll be reviewing soon, and below is my interview with the author. Enjoy!

When did you first discover your ability to write, and did you always aspire to be an author?

I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember. I always loved to read though. I think wanting to be a writer just snuck up on me. I don’t actually remember when I knew. As for the first part of your questions – I’m still trying to find my ability to write … I’m more comfortable coming up with ideas than actually writing.

How did you get into advertising, and how has it influenced your career as a writer?

My grandfather was in advertising and at my Dad’s company he was the one who worked with the ad agency. It was always in my blood. Then in college I started taking graphic design classes – which I loved as much as painting – and was much better at. My first job was at a very small ad agency where I wrote the copy and did the design, and I realized after a year I liked the writing better.

You wrote the first self-published book to be picked up by a New York publishing house, Lip Service. What was this process like, and how did you feel when a traditional publisher wanted the book?

I didn’t set out to do that. I got tired of my agent telling me that publishers loved my book but couldn’t figure out how to market it. So I told her I’d put it online and market it (since I was in advertising) and once I had a campaign that worked she could show the publishers how I did it. It was during that effort that The Doubleday Bookclub and Literary Guild discovered Lip Service on line and wrote me and offered to publish it as one of their featured alternates. That was about 6 months after I’d started my experiment. I was convinced it was a friend playing a joke on me.

Do you write every day? If so, how do you avoid distractions and do you set goals for yourself when it comes to the number of words or pages?

At different times in the course of writing a novel I work different ways. The first three to four months of a book, when I’m formulating and researching and planning, I don’t write at all except to take notes. I walk around a lot thinking and calling a few great friends with panicked phone calls about how this idea is most boring book in the world.

Once I start writing the first draft, I write 1,500-2,500 words a day, 5 or 6 days a week, first thing in the morning at 6:30. When I start on the second draft I’m happy – I love editing. I keep up that same pace – working 5-6 days a week but in less of white heat.

Spending time with M.J. Rose at ThrillerFest VIII.

Spending time with M.J. Rose at ThrillerFest VIII.

As was discussed at length at ThrillerFest, some authors are plotters while others are pantsers. Do you draft an outline before sitting down to write a novel or do you have a rough idea of what you want to say and let the story unfold one page at a time?

I do a bit of both. I can’t over-plot or I’d be too bored to ever write the story but I do a lot of research and need to know quite a lot about the characters and have a list of the top 10 to 15 main scenes and the end before I start.

You wrote a book called What To Do Before Your Book Launch with Randy Susan Meyers that provides writers with information on how to be successful, and your company, AuthorBuzz helps authors market their books. What was the inspiration for this book and service?

When I first got published in 1999, it was a very different world. Authors wrote and publishers published. And a lot of opportunity was falling through the cracks. Together with a wonderful author and one of my closest friends, Douglas Clegg, I wrote a book and started teaching classes called Buzz Your Book. In 2005, that lead to my opening the first marketing firm expressly to help authors (but we work with publishers too). And then last year, Randy and I both realized we’d each written a lot of blog posts that would make an interesting workbook and put What To Do Before Your Book Launch together.

Have you had any authors serve as mentors during your career as a writer?

I was in advertising during the years I was writing my first few books and didn’t know any other authors and so never had a mentor. But I have been very lucky to have a group of amazing friends who are amazing writers and I have learned so much about the craft of writing and story telling from them.

SeductionYour newest novel, Seduction, features Victor Hugo. Has his work inspired yours, and was it a challenge working a historical figure into a novel?

I was always in awe of Hugo and yes, I found his work inspiring but on a grand scale I don’t think I’m at all capable of. As for Seduction I came up with the idea for the book without quite realizing that I’d have to write in his voice. And when it came time to start, I panicked and almost bailed. What hubris! I gave up three times. It was when my agent suggested I read his letters to his friends and family that I might get past the genius thing. Sure enough the letters weren’t as intimidating as his fiction and I started thinking I might pull it off. But it wasn’t until I started writing with a fountain pen and on paper – the way Hugo wrote – that I finally was able to begin. I wrote the whole book – 120,000 words – by hand.

Seduction features two storylines and two time periods. How do you go about keeping the reader emotionally invested in both storylines while advancing the plot at the same time?

As a reader I get bored easily – so I try to keep myself emotionally invested. I figure if I can keep myself excited and I know the story, I might have a shot with the readers.

Some authors dread research while other relish it. When it’s necessary, how do you go about conducting research and do you enjoy it?

I love it. So much so that sometimes I think that I write as an excuse to do the research. In fact I have to force myself to stop.

Do you have any exciting new projects you’re working on?

Yes, I’m starting a new book Sept 1 and it’s a bit different and a big challenge.

Book Review – The Innocent by Taylor Stevens

The Innocent - Taylor StevensThe Innocent is Taylor Stevens’ second novel, and I enjoyed it more than her first, The Informationist. To me, the premise of this novel was more interesting than the first, and since the author grew up in a religious cult, it was partially autobiographical. The Innocent featured plenty of reflective thought and internal narrative by the main character, Vanessa Michael Munroe; while this sometimes slowed down the pace of the story, it provided me with a greater understanding of the character and her motives. Some people have complained that this book didn’t have enough action, but I care more about a compelling story than a high body count, so this wasn’t an issue for me. If you liked The Informationist, you’ll enjoy The Innocent; it’s a worthy addition to a promising series.

Below is the synopsis for The Innocent. Stay tuned for my review of Stevens’ newest novel, The Doll, as well as my interview with the author.

Synopsis

Eight years ago, a man walked five-year-old Hannah out the front doors of her school and spirited her over the Mexican border, taking her into the world of a cult known as The Chosen. For eight years, followers of The Prophet have hidden the child, moving her from country to country, shielding the man who stole her. Now, those who’ve searched the longest know where to find her. They are childhood survivors of The Chosen, thirty-somethings born and raised inside the cult who’ve managed to make lives for themselves on the outside. They understand the mindset, the culture within that world, and turn to Vanessa Michael Munroe for help, knowing that the only possibility of stealing Hannah back and getting her safely out of Argentina is to trust someone who doesn’t trust them, and get Munroe on the inside.

Author Interview: Andrew Gross

Andrew GrossI recently interviewed Andrew Gross, the author of the captivating new thriller No Way Back. I hope you enjoy the following Q&A, and make sure to check out my book review too.

Harlan Coben once said that every now and then he spends time with Lee Child, Nelson DeMille and Mary Higgins Clark. Do you have similar get-togethers with any of your fellow writers, and if so, what do you talk about?

Well, I have a few authors I knock around with every once in a while: Michael Palmer, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Dottie Benton Frank – not a mystery/thriller writer but a bestseller. Mostly we just grumble how the business has changed. I gotta tell you, if there’s one  thing I hate to talk about out of the office it’s books! I’d rather talk about politics and hockey. I actually know more investment bankers than authors. But I can’t talk politics with any of them.

Do you still keep in touch with James Patterson and do you plan on working with him again in the future?

I can’t say we’re on the same circuit these days. I actually run into him every once in a while in Florida. We both have homes in Palm Beach, his is just slightly grander than mine – by a factor of ten! He goes to the movies a lot and we might bump into each other and have a bite after.

No, not sure it will work out on the collaborative front. Though I’d probably find it fun to do so once more. I mean, if the Eagles could get back together… But it’s usually not a good career sign if you have to go back to co-writing…

Your new book, No Way Back, is focused on the lives of two women in dire straits and how their lives intersect. What was your inspiration for this story?

I had three inspirations when it came to No Way Back. And for most books, for me, it’s more like a triangulation than an epiphany. First, the idea of a woman who gets into a situation way over her head by foolishly sleeping with someone who turns out to be a different guy than she anticipated, and then she gets caught in his hotel room where a murder takes place, and she’s the only witness. I loved the dilemma: Does she turn herself in, but then have to explain where she was to her husband and kids and maybe have her life fall apart. Of course, in No Way Back the choice is made for Wendy and she’s on the hook for two murders. The other two were things I read–one an editorial about a criminal who turned state’s evidence but the guy he was informing on one-by-one killed his children in retribution, and the U.S. government refused to take them into protective custody. Totally heartbreaking. The last was a very compelling article on the border drug wars between El Paso, Texas and Juarez. Each of these stories led to one of my main characters.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

The hardest part is coming up with great initial ideas. It’s all in the set-up for me – drawing a sympathetic, everyday character into a disastrous situation they cannot get out of. Those things are hard for me; executing is easy. I come up with hopefully one per year–that’s all I need. Patterson might come up with one a month!

Are you already working on your next book, and will it feature Ty Hauck?

Well, sure, I’m midway through my next book and still behind. It’s a similarly structured book to No Way Back: A mom with a handicapped kid who’s just lost her job accidentally comes on a cache of money. And like a lot of my books–one bad or foolish act begets a ton of unforeseeable consequences. Sadly, Ty is on a beach somewhere working on his tan. Or on Naomi. My publisher likes these standalones for the moment, so Ty has had to wait. At least one more book.

Author Interview: Lisa Scottoline

rc2012033-NYT Lisa Scottoline

I recently had the honor of interviewing Lisa Scottoline, the author of the wonderful novel Don’t Goavailable April 9. As you’ll see below, her answers were a compelling and insightful look into the life of a bestselling author. I hope you enjoy the following Q&A.

Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit” while Ray Bradbury felt, “Digression is the soul of wit.” When setting out to write engaging dialogue for your characters, what do you find works best?

What a great question! First, I never forget that the Shakespeare quote was in fact by Polonius, who is a bit of a fool, but he was definitely on the right track with his observation. I think I side with him more than Ray Bradbury, as great as Bradbury was. I say this because the governing principle of writing any novel, regardless of genre, is to get to the point. You really want to keep the reader engaged and turning the pages. That only happens if pace is paramount. Therefore nothing should be extraneous or extra. If you’ve made the point, you don’t need to make it again. Like I am now, in fact!

Some authors outline books ahead of time, like James Patterson, while others, like Lee Child, just sit down and write without planning ahead. How do you approach writing a story? Do you know exactly what’s going to happen and when, or do you let the characters lead the way?

I admire James Patterson, but I’m not as smart as he is, and I have much more in common with the wonderful Lee Child, in that I just sit down and write without planning ahead. I always say that not only do I not know how the book ends, I don’t even know how it middles. The great thing about writing is that there’s no correct answer and you get to do whatever works best for you. This works best for me because I like the spontaneity and excitement that not knowing what’s going to happen brings to me as a writer; I think if I planned it all out in advance in an outline, I would feel like the writing of it afterwards was like filling in the blanks, or playing Mad Libs. Also, the way I do it is unfortunately the kind of thing that leads to a constant state of anxiety, because I don’t know if I have a successful plot line at all, but part of me rationalizes even that. I think that being hyper-aware when you’re writing finds its way into the book and keeps the tension and excitement high, leading to that page-turner goal I always try to meet.

Ian Fleming wrote 2,000 words a day by sitting down at his desk and typing non-stop for hours at a time. Do you have a strict writing schedule to which you adhere?

This is amazing, because I never thought I had anything in common with the great Ian Fleming, but evidently I do. I actually sit down every day, 7 days a week, and meet a word count of 2000. I think that’s the perfect number because it takes the entire day and sometimes most of the night, but it seems to be about 9 pages and therefore enough to get out a single scene or plot element in a 1st draft. The good thing about having a word limit is not only does it enable you to get the words down the paper, which you absolutely must do in the end, but it also permits you a stopping point, in the event that you reach your 2000 word goal early. This happens to me a lot, and I like that very much. Mainly because, as anybody who works at home will tell you, it’s hard to turn work off when it’s just upstairs. If I meet my 2000 word goal at 7 o’clock, I can watch television or read without guilt, and that’s something to rejoice over.

Many bestselling authors have started to co-author books. You’ve collaborated with your daughter and contributed to The Chopin Manuscript and The Copper Bracelet. Would you ever consider working with another author on one of your novels?

I have cooperated and contributed to serial anthologies or chapter books for charitable reasons, like the ones you just mentioned, and I’m proud of my work in those things, but I never collaborated per se with another author in the actual writing of each sentence. I have already collaborated with my amazing daughter Francesca Serritella on the nonfiction humor books, but even there, she writes her own stories and I write mine, and we combine them in one volume. It’s hard for me to imagine a true joint production on something as personal and voice-laden as a novel, but I often think about writing a children’s book or something later with someone else. For that, we’ll have to stay tuned.

rc2012033-NYT Lisa ScottolineWhat did it mean to you when you won the Edgar Award in 1995 for Final Appeal

I was really honored to win the Edgar award because it’s given by the Mystery Writers of America, which is our oldest professional organization, and I was even lucky enough to be nominated for the award the year before that, though I didn’t win it. I actually think that loss was an equally important accomplishment, because the ultimate lesson in writing is to write the absolute best you can for yourself, and not for any extrinsic reward, whether it’s a wonderful award like the Edgar, or even a newspaper or blog review. I read all of those things and I care very much about them, but I don’t write for anyone else but me, and my assumption is always that if I think something is wonderful, my readers will too. They are my highest and best award ever.

Instead of the massive text and trite visuals most book covers are known for, your most recent novel covers have featured interactions between real people. Don’t Go has a beautiful orange glow to it and it features the book’s main character, Dr. Mike Scanlon and his daughter in a loving embrace. What led to this change in artistic direction a few years ago and what kind of feedback have you received from your fans?

Another excellent question! This is a completely accurate observation and I have a wonderful publisher in St. Martin’s and a great editor in Jennifer Enderlin, and we have together come up with these new covers, which I love. At the macro level, I’m writing 3 books years these days; two novels – one of which is a standalone and the other is the next installment of the Rosato & Associates series – and a humor memoir. Our little team wanted to figure out a way to differentiate these books, so that readers could easily see which was a standalone, which was a Rosato, and which was the nonfiction humor. I think the covers accurately capture that, and at the same time they share a common font and typeface which ties them all together, since they’re all books by me. In my heart, I believe that if you like one type of book by me, you’ll like the other type, because the voice always remains the same, and I work hard on that. But I’m aware that some people will read only Rosato and some people will read only the standalones, and so I feel really happy that we are always accurately representing my work and positioning it in a way in which it reaches the most number of readers.

Don’t Go focuses on the tumultuous life of a Doctor serving in the military. What was your inspiration for this novel?

There were so many inspirations for this book that is hard to pick just one, but the bottom line is that like any American citizen, I have been following with great absorption and concern the progress of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the men and women who fight them on our behalf, as well as to the families and friends on the homefront, who make their own sacrifices, though not the ultimate sacrifice made by the soldiers. I’d also read a lot about the effects of wartime on custody arrangements in general, and this idea came to me and so I went with it. More and more I think the standalone novels, and even the ones that feature Rosato & Associates, as a blend of love story, family story, and crime story. I have educated myself on the development of the mystery and thriller genre in general, and I think this is a natural direction for it to take, because it’s not just a few writers that transcend genre but in fact, all of us are transcending genre these days.

rc2012033-NYT Lisa ScottolineDon’t Go is filled with interesting information about the day-to-day life of our armed forces overseas. Did you go into the book already aware of these details or did it require a great deal of additional research?

I did so much research for this book it’s not even funny. I don’t think I have ever spent so much time researching a novel except for Killer Smile, which as you may know, involves the internment of Italian-Americans during World War II. The research in Don’t Go was for much of the same reason, too; wartime is a grave and dramatic time in the history of a nation, if not globally, and attention must be paid to the details. Everything has to be right, because real lives are being sacrificed in real time. I interviewed an Army surgeon who served in Afghanistan and he read everything in the manuscript to make sure it was accurate, which I think is the best you can do when you’re writing about an Army surgeon who served in Afghanistan. It’s straight out of the horse’s mouth, so to speak. I also read widely and extensively on the subject, both fiction and nonfiction accounts of both wars, I listed all of those books in the Acknowledgements. While none of them gave me specific ideas, because that comes only from my head and heart, they certainly help form a backdrop that would help me get the details right.

Don’t Go is your 20th novel – a monumental accomplishment for any writer. Looking back, what’s your proudest professional accomplishment?

Aren’t you so nice to say so, and I am very proud of producing a really fine body of work over the past 20 years. I really want the name Scottoline to be synonymous with quality fiction, whether it’s humor, crime, love story, or family story. But of course, I have to tell you that my proudest accomplishment is raising a wonderful and amazing daughter in Francesca.

When I met you last year, at your book signing at Barnes & Noble on Rittenhouse Square, I was blown away by the fact that you remembered your fans’ first names upon seeing them. It was as if they were part of your extended family. After your first novel was published, how did it feel when people started to notice you and praise your work?

I do tend to remember people because I am such a people person, and of course my favorite people in the world are my fans, because they support me, both literally and figuratively. There is absolutely no feeling as good as walking into a room full of people who read a novel written by you and therefore know your heart, the way you think, the way you express yourself, the values you value as important, and all of the other things that any good novel contains, which is some amalgam of heart, brain, and human soul. I remember my readers because I love them. It’s as simple as that. And going to any signing is like a homecoming, even though we’ve never met. That is proof positive of the magic of fiction, because it brings people together at a soul level. And I feel so lucky to be a part of that partnership with my readers, forever.

And the interesting part about your question about when my 1st novel was published, how did it feel when people started to notice and praise my work, is that it doesn’t feel any different today than it did then. I still feel lucky and happy and surprised and blessed. I work very very hard, but I have a wonderful job, and I always endeavor to keep my side of my compact with the reader, which is to tell them a wonderful story, that even though it’s fiction, will contain an emotional truth that will resonate with them, and maybe help them deal with the ups and downs of their own lives, or maybe even encourage them through the tougher moments. Books do that for all of us, and I know it’s not only literally true, but that is a point worth making, because I get lots of e-mail from people who are actually convalescing or recovering from surgeries, were going through chemotherapy, or have just had a mastectomy, and all of them tell me that they managed to lose themselves in one of my mysteries or were laughing really hard at the humorous memoirs. Nothing can make me happier, and there is no greater purpose to fiction, or any form of writing, than to heal the human heart.

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