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.
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.
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 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!