Today, a special treat. I’ve invited thriller writer J.A. Konrath onto my blog for a conversation about writing, and about his brand new book, AFRAID. Joe is the funniest, cleverest, most energetic person I know — and he’s a smashing good writer as well. He’s best known for his humorous thrillers starring Detective Jacqueline (Jack) Daniels. But with his latest release, AFRAID, Joe does something new. Writing under the pen name Jack Kilborn, Joe cranks up the fear factor to excruciating new heights. What’s the new book about? Take a gander at the description over on Amazon.com:
Welcome to Safe Haven, Wisconsin. Miles from everything, with one road in and out, this peaceful town has never needed a full-time police force. Until now . . .
A helicopter has crashed near Safe Haven and unleashed something horrifying. Now this merciless force is about to do what it does best. Isolate. Terrorize. Annihilate. As residents begin dying in a storm of gory violence, Safe Haven’s only chance for survival will rest with an aging county sheriff, a firefighter, and a single mom. And each will have this harrowing thought: Maybe death hasn’t come to their town by accident . . .
If that doesn’t hook a reader in, I don’t know what can.
Tess: Welcome to my blog, Joe! First, I want to ask the question that authors always get asked: how do you come up with your ideas? What’s the trigger that tells you, “Ah Ha! I’ve got a book!”?
Joe: Usually it’s when an idea won’t go away, so the only way to deal with it is to write about it. If the idea is self-contained, it becomes a short story. if it prompts other ideas, it becomes a novel. I tend to focus on things I think would be cool. For AFRAID, it was: What if the government trained psychos to be commandos? Who would they recruit? What would they be used for? Then, once I had a government create such a team, I had them accidentally deployed in Small Town, USA. Mayhem ensues.
Tess: How do you keep the pacing at full-bore? What writerly techniques do you use to keep our attention riveted from scene to scene?
Joe: As for techniques, I didn’t use chapters in AFRAID. Instead, I head-hop a lot, switching from one character’s predicament to another. My Jack Daniels books are pretty quick reads, but many of the early reviews I’ve gotten for AFRAID have mentioned that the book was read in one-sitting. I believe part of the reason is because I never gave the reader a place to stop reading.
AFRAID was also an exercise in escalation. Give the reader some characters they like, then keep increasing the threat. I remember pausing often during the writing to ask myself, “What is the absolute worst thing that can happen right now?” Then I’d go beyond that.
Tess: Is there something you won’t write? Some taboo subject you’ll never touch?
Joe: Nothing is taboo in fiction. I make stuff up for a living, and my characters are imaginary, so I don’t feel any topic is off-limits. Mostly, I let the story find its own limits. There are certain things I don’t enjoy reading about, such as racism, child abuse, and rape, so I tend not to write about them. But I would, if it would further the narrative.
How about your own writing, Tess? How graphic is too graphic when it comes to violence?
Tess: I don’t show much violence in my books. I don’t like to write it, and I don’t like to read it or watch it onscreen. Most of my suspense comes from the anticipation of violence. I often find that once the action actually begins, there’s a catharsis and a release of tension, and that’s not scary any more. Most of my scenes occur after the violence has already occurred, and my investigators are on the scene, trying to make sense of the evidence. They may imagine the scene as it was happening — which is almost like witnessing the violence, but not quite.
Joe: Let’s talk about the science of being afraid. How do human beings physically respond to fear, and what’s the evolutionary purpose of this response? We both write scenes that intentionally try to push a reader’s fear buttons. With AFRAID, I tried to keep that button pressed for the entire 90,000 word novel. Why are horror books, and movies, so popular?
Tess: I suspect it has something to do with our evolutionary need for survival. We have to be tuned in to what could kill us, so we pay attention. If you visit a zoo, you’ll notice that the kids tend to cluster around the animals that could kill them–the carnivores and the snakes. Same with aquariums. What’s always the most popular exhibit? The sharks. We have an innate fascination with what could harm us.
Joe: Did you ever scare yourself writing a scene?
Tess: almost never. It’s a little bit like trying to tickle yourself – very hard to do. When I’m writing, I’m so busy trying to get the words just right that I don’t focus as much on my emotional reactions to the scene. I’m using my intellect instead. The only one time I scare is when an unexpected idea suddenly pops into my head. It happened when I was writing THE SURGEON. The heroine was sitting alone in her car, using her car phone, and she had the sudden realization that the last person who’d used her phone was not her. And that he was sitting in the car right behind her. I remember feeling that sudden, delicious chill shooting up my spine
Joe: I remember that scene in THE SURGEON. It gave me goosebumps, too.
Tess: You’ve written books featuring a female sleuth. What challenges do you face as a male writer writing from a female POV? Do you ever have to ask your wife what it’s like to put on mascara or wear pantyhose? Or do you just do the serious research and find out for yourself? (be thankful I didn’t ask about tampons)
Joe: I think much of what we do, as writers, involves dressing up in pantyhose and mascara.
But seriously? I try my best to channel a character when I’m in their point of view. If I need to do research, ask questions, or try on a pair of high heels to see how challenging it is to run in them, I’ll do it, because it helps the story. Feedback is also important. My agents and editors are women, so if I get anything wrong, they help me make it more realistic. As does my wife.
What are your techniques for writing male POV?
Tess: I’ve raised two sons, so I certainly know what young males are like. I think that every man is at heart just a grown-up boy, with a boy’s fierce pride and vulnerability and desire to be in control, even when everything is actually beyond his control. I guess this explains why so many of my male characters are of the kinder, gentler variety — because I see them through the eyes of a doting mother. (This does not apply, naturally, to my serial killers.)
Joe: Thanks so much for having me here today, Tess. By the way, not that I want to embarrass you, but for whatever reason I happened to be Googling “Sexy Author Tess Gerritsen” and I found a pretty revealing picture. I just gotta say, with the utmost respect, the photo proves you have a very nice ass.