Friday, February 26, 2010

Richard North Patterson

Thriller Guy recently read and reviewed the latest RNP thriller, Honor, due out in June. TG likes Patterson's books, particularly because he always weaves a compelling story around contemporary, difficult themes, in this case the war in Iraq and the damage PTSD inflicts on our returning service men and women. People often write to TG and ask for help in coming up with a good idea for thriller and TG's advice is always the same: read the newspaper. Patterson obviously does, then he thinks long and hard on how he can turn a Ripped from the front pages of the newspaper! plot (God, TG hates that line and will never use it in a review) into a thriller that will instruct while it thrills.

TG's favorite Patterson book is Eclipse, which is based on the real life of Nigerian human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was hanged by the brutal dictator General Sani Abacha. In Eclipse, Patterson's fictional hero Bobby Okari has been captured and imprisoned in the fictional country of Luandia. Bobby's American wife calls her former boyfriend lawyer Damon Pierce to defend Bobby in a dramatic show trial. The action is violent and riveting, the legal stuff fascinating, and the end is moving far beyond the effects of most thrillers. TG thinks this is an important book and urges you to read it. It is now out in paperback.

TG interviewed the accommodating Richard North Patterson, here's a bit of that interview:

Q. Your books seem intended to teach as well as entertain. Is this true and has this always been your goal?

A. That depends on my ambitions for a particular book. But I do believe that if you can deeply engross a reader with a dramatic story and vivid characters, you can enrich their experience by exposing them to issues they have not considered.

In the last decade, I’ve written about such issues as the viciousness of presidential politics, the law and politics of abortion, gun violence and the gun lobby, capital punishment, the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and, in ECLIPSE, the geopolitics of oil, where the addictive needs of superpowers tramples any concern for human rights. What is gratifying to me is the volume of appreciative letters I get from readers, many of whom thank me for changing their mind or opening their eyes with respect to the most contentious subjects. While I don’t compare myself to these great writers, the wonderful tradition of such fiction includes novelists like Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair.

I think a novelist is free to write about whatever subject he or she cares about. I also believe that to combine the values of good fiction with a hard and realistic exploration of the challenges that face us is one of the finer expressions of the fictional art.

Q. Do you think novels can bring about change?

A. I can’t know what impact a book may have. I can only write a novel as if it matters, hopeful that if I care about a subject, others will as well. I do know that I’ve changed individual minds, and caused readers to look at some of our most visceral controversies in a different way. I also believe that when any individual speaks out—including a novelist—it sends ripples throughout a society. But in a country as complex and contentious as ours, there’s simply no way to measure the effect of an individual book.

One of my goals in writing issue-oriented fiction is to present different points of view, set out the complexity of a problem, and acknowledge the emotional and psychological aspects of public controversies, whether abortion, capital punishment, or the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. Our media frequently simplify and vulgarize issues, turning what should be reasoned and compassionate analysis into vituperation which demeans the other side. While I have my own point of view, I try to make fairness a value of my fiction.

Q. What do you think of the term “legal thriller,” “political thriller,” or even just “thriller” in relation to your books?

A. I certainly like being known as a writer who imbues his books with considerable suspense—that’s part of my intention. But I don’t like at all the tendency to categorize novels, because it tends to type or diminish them in the minds of prospective readers. To me, I’m a novelist—period. My concerns as a novelist are to deploy the classic components of good fiction—an engrossing story, engaging characters, a vivid setting—to engage a reader’s mind and emotions.

Q. You have had a number of interesting jobs as a lawyer. What influenced you to give that up and write fiction?

A. One reason was to spend more time with my kids—the travel and hours for a lawyer can be brutal. But by far the most important reason is the wonderful freedom given a novelist. It is the ultimate in self-assigned work—you can write about anything you care about, and learn about any subject that intrigues you. For someone like me, curious by nature, it’s the perfect job.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hard to Speak Ill of this Dead and The Last Part of the Randy Wayne White Interview.

Dick Francis died today at the age of 89.
Thriller Guy's email has been flooded by messages from his writer pals, most with variations on the theme, “I thought he died five years ago?” No, it only seems like it because his wife Mary died in 2000 and she was the one who wrote all his books. Oh, you didn't know that? Well, that's what Graham Lord said in his 1999 Francis bio, A Racing Life, and the evidence is pretty strong that it 's the truth. After all, she was actually a writer and a publishing person and he was, well, a jockey, a great jockey mayhaps, but one with a limited education. He knew the business, but it was the racing business; she was the writer in the family. If you'd like to read an interesting article about the subject this 1999 piece in The Independent tells all.

TG has read a ton of the Dick Francis books, and is pretty sure that most thriller writers worth their salt have delved deeply into this particular canon. TG must admit, he grew a bit weary of them after about twenty five or so, and then began to fall behind. TG reviewed one of the later books, written with Francis' son Felix (taking over where Mary left off) and it was OK, but, well, kind of lame, if truth be told. TG would have liked to have given it a fabulous review out of respect for Mr. Francis, but that's not the way it works in TG's ethical world: a book must stand on its merits alone, no extra author points for being a good guy or a legend.

So raise a glass to Dick Francis, or maybe to his wife, Mary. The books were terrific and they had a hell of a run. Cheers!

And now to finish up the fabulous Randy Wayne White Interview.

Here's RWW on where he does his writing, his writing day and that all important writer's topic: drinking. One of these days TG is going to go into drinking in depth (Mrs. Thriller Guy thinks he's already there) as it pertains the the Writing Life. Look for that future entry under the title: Gin, the Writer's Best Friend?


You spent 13 years working as a fishing guide. How and why did you make the leap to writing fiction? I was a full time guide, did almost 3,000 charters, and was on the water 300 days a year. Since childhood, however, I always wanted to write books, perhaps believing that, if I wrote a book, I might become a part of the magic I found in books. I worked very hard at writing in my spare time and, in 1978, got a big break with Rolling Stone founded Outside Magazine, and published a piece by me. While guiding, I began to publish regularly in some of the country’s premier magazines. In 1987, Tarpon Bay Marina was closed to powerboat traffic, and I was out of a job. As much as I miss the marina – Mack, Nick, Jeth, Alex, Graeme, Carlene plus all the fishing guides – it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had to make my living as a writer, I had two young sons, and failure wasn’t an option.

Where do you do your actual writing? It’s hard for people to believe, but I don’t have what most would consider an office or a set writing space. It’s hard for me to believe, at times but writing, for many years, was a secondary part of family life, so a decent office was always way down the list of personal requirements. At my home on Pine Island, I have a tiny (8’ by 8’) shed where I write; on Sanibel a tiny little loft that’s way too hot in summer. Sometimes, I write at the restaurants early in the morning, or at a stilt house on Captiva (it’s the photo on the jacket of DEEP SHADOW.) I carry my Mac laptop everywhere I go, and I write anywhere I can.

Can you give a description of your writing day? I write daily. As I near the end of a book, I write around the clock, working, then dozing, breaking only to workout, then have a beer at sunset, but only one or two. I can’t write and drink alcohol – thank god.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

More from Randy Wayne White and His New Doc Ford Novel

OK, Thriller Guy has more from RWW about writing in general and his new Doc Ford novel in particular. Read the man's words and take heed.

What's the Doc Ford schedule? Do you try for one a year?
I am a working writer, and I work every day, seven days a week, with rare exception. My deadlines are set by me, not my publisher, but I believe that a full year of research, writing and editing are required to produce what I hope are literate and literary popular novels. I could produce books much faster, but I doubt if they would be of the quality that I demand of myself as a professional. Back when I was a full time fishing guide, and also working hard in my spare time to learn the writing craft, I wrote a penname thriller in nine days. Yep, 45,000 words or so in nine around-the-clock days. I have a close friend, Don Carman, who was a brilliant pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, and he signs baseballs: “Be relentless.” I can think of no better advice to an aspiring writer: Be relentless.

An important part of the plot of Deep Shadow revolves around the search for “Batista's Treasure Plane.” Is this a true story? Maybe. It’s certainly possible. I first went to Cuba in 1978, and have returned many times, including 1980 when I returned from Mariel Harbor on a 55-foot fishing boat carrying 147 refugees. When we raised Key West, every refugee aboard took up the chant, Libertad . . Libertad! Liberty. It was a powerful experience, and I have been fascinated with the island ever since. In recent years, I have played baseball there, distributing gear to kids, and, most recently, I played a small role in officially twinning the Freemasons of Cuba with the Freemasons of Florida in a formal ceremony at the Gran Logia de Habana – another very powerful experience. I have close friends there, but Cuba is a police state – whatever your politics may be, this is a fact beyond debate – so I am ever mindful that I must be careful when I refer to anything regarding Cuban history as fact or fiction. It is a well documented fact, however, that Batista fled Havana after filling several Tampa-bound cargo planes with cash and historical treasures that still, rightfully, belong to the Cuban people. Some of these treasures are still on display in a Daytona Beach museum.

Besides having to deal with a pair of homicidal maniacs, Doc has to fight a terrifying dragon-like creature. Does this animal actually exist in Florida? I found out long ago that, if a reader catches even a single factual error, it damages the credibility of the entire storyline, so I take research seriously. To the best of my ability, data regarding biology and history in my books is accurate, including DEEP SHADOW’s reference to the thriving population of exotics that are reproducing in the Everglades. These include king cobras, iguanas, 400-pound boa constrictors and also predatory Nile Monitors that do, indeed, hunt in packs. There are no documented sightings, however, of the Nile’s close relative, the Komodo monitor.

OK, Thriller Guy here again. As stated in the last entry, writers interested in how to structure a thriller could learn plenty from RWW's new Doc Ford novel.

This novel is unrelenting. I could not put it down.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Randy Wayne White: The Perfect Thriller

Well, damn near perfect.

Randy Wayne White's new thriller, the 17th in the Doc Ford series, Deep Shadow, goes on sale March 8. Mark your calendars, thriller writers, Thriller Guy thinks this is the book to read and study if you're interested in structure, pace and a general how-to example for writing in the genre.

If you're not familiar with this excellent series, Doc Ford is a marine biologist who lives on Florid'a Mangrove Coast where he spends his time studying marine creatures and solving crimes. He's a tough guy, but fairly sensitive when he needs to be. Deep Shadow finds Doc, his hippie boat pal Tomlinson and crotchety old friend Arlis Futch in central Florida, diving a hidden pond where Arlis is sure a treasure awaits them. Along for the fun is teen Will Chaser, who was first seen in White's last book, Dead Silence. What the fellows don't know is that hiding out at the lake are two really bad guys who are on the lam after killing a family of five in a burglary. That's enough for most thriller writers right there, but White shows how it's done when he tosses in a near mythic creature who inhabits the pond and is stalking all of the above. You just know that this thing is going to eat someone, probably more than just one someone, before the ride is over. White cranks this baby up on the first page and doesn't let up until the last.

Buy it, read it and learn.

TG was so impressed he contacted RWW and interviewed him. Parts of this interview will be spread out over these pages for the next few entries. Every answer includes tips on how he writes, tips that TG knows will interest readers of this blog. White's website is also well worth a look. Besides interesting info about himself and the books, he has a series of writing exercises that will be useful for any of us who are either already writing or want to write. Check them out.

Let's get to it. Here's RWW.

This is the 17th Doc Ford book since 1990. How do you keep the character fresh?

For me, intellectually and emotionally, Ford and Tomlinson are living entities, so there is never a need to effect a sense of “freshness”, because they evolve naturally, on their own, each man (along with the characters at Dinkin’s Bay Marina) following his path, sometimes slowed or goaded along by his personal flaws or strengths. If this sounds like schizophrenia, so be it (although it makes me a tad uneasy to remember the same was said about Son of Sam). The characters are real in my mind not only because of our long association, but also because, prior to writing the first novel, Sanibel Flats, I spent months writing very lengthy bios and personality profiles of four main characters. When I say long, I mean more than thirty or forty pages on each person; profiles so detailed that they contained information that has yet to be made known to readers, even after seventeen books. I knew from the beginning that, if I was lucky enough to publish more books, Ford and Tomlinson were to be involved in a complex death dance that would pit two very basic human elements against the other: intellectual versus spiritual. I can only speak for myself, but those two cerebral forces are forever at odds in me: the wistful, romantic right side of the brain battling the no-nonsense, existential left hemisphere. I hoped that if I created one character who was purely spiritual, another purely linear, that I could address just about any topic, say anything I wanted, and get away with it.

I wrote such detailed bios because, from the beginning, I approached my writing hoping to achieve what I thought of as an “Iceberg effect” and I still use the same approach to the research required of all my books. Simply put, the Iceberg effect is this: If a writer carefully weaves together a mountain of details, he will become so comfortable with his subject that he can portray that subject authentically with only a few vital strokes. If a writer is secure in his knowledge of a subject, readers need see only the iceberg’s tip to be convinced a mountain floats beneath. My pal Peter Matthiessen told me long ago that good writing is the careful elimination of details, and I still believe that omission, when done with a sure hand, is among the most powerful techniques in the writing craft.

As importantly, I created characters who I like and respect personally. Fun, independent men and women who (like most people I know) live quiet, brave lives despite the painful, pain-in-the-ass hurdles life throws in front of all of us. I am always dubious of so-called artists and pundits who write from an everyone’s-an-idiot-but-me platform. Hate-mongering is the easiest way to draw an audience, it provides a greasy conduit to the cheapest, easiest brand of humor. In high school, we all knew some untalented goof who got attention by screaming “The principal’s an idiot!” I don’t find the Michael Moore-Glenn Beck types interesting, or admirable as people, nor very important in the universal scheme of things, and so I avoid them as characters in fiction (although, villains occasionally demonstrate Moore-Beck gifts for manipulation, particularly in DEEP SHADOW).