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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm a Researchaholic: An Interview with Joe Finder

Joe Finder will be appearing at the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago, Feb. 4-6, 2011. For more information go to

1.Unlike most action oriented books, your settings are not exotic. Often the scariest scenes occur in office buildings. Many authors rely on dramatic settings. How do you manage to make such commonplace settings still seem frightening?

The familiar is what we identify with most, and we need to identify with a situation before we can be frightened. Alfred Hitchock understood this. He was the master of taking the ordinary man in the commonplace setting, and turning it into something tense and unexpected. That tension, that fear happens when something disrupts the familiar: the thing under the bed, the noise on the stairs. That’s what I’m interested in.

2.Your hero/ine is often a sort of “every man” or “every woman” who is discounted by others. Why does this type of character appeal to you? It would seem that the pitfall would be a character who is too bland or boring to hold the reader’s attention, and yet your characters are compelling…even if they are slackers. Please comment. Also, you seem to include male characters who are amazed that they’re loved by smart and attractive women. This goes contrary to many male fantasies of being irresistible. Tell us about that.

I think the “everyman” is the ideal protagonist for a thriller, again because of this question of identifying with the hero. I also love the idea of the underdog, the person the reader wants to root for because everyone else seems to underestimate them. Nick Heller can be beaten, and because we know that, the stakes are higher. It’s much more exciting for the reader when he overcomes those obstacles.

Men might pretend to think they’re irresistible, but I’ll let you in on a secret: most of us know that’s a fantasy. Most men have no idea why any woman would find us attractive. Life’s not an Axe commercial. I think both men and women appreciate a more realistic approach.

3. Your books are full of tension and suspense, but it comes from events most of us might imagine ourselves in, such as snooping around in an office where we don’t belong. Or getting caught in a lie. You are a master at upping the stakes and amplifying the threat. How do you do that?

All of my anxieties feed my twisted imagination, or maybe it’s the other way around. I imagine myself in a given situation and ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Then I play out the scenario in ways that will challenge the reader’s expectations. If a reader thinks, “Oh, I know where this is going,” but something completely different happens, that’s exciting, that’s thrilling.

You have to start with a character the reader cares about, and then put them through a sequence of events that escalate, with moments of real tension — cliffhangers — in between.

4.You write with great precision about technical situations, such as how cargo planes are managed, how corporate secrets are stored, how stock issues and buyouts happen. You list a lot of experts as resources. Please talk about how you do your research. Do you do it all upfront? Or in stages? Do you interview people or ask questions as you go along? Have you ever be headed down the wrong path and then discovered, because of your research, that you needed to rewrite a chunk?

Research my favorite part of the process. I love research. I’d go so far as to call myself a researchaholic. I need to keep myself from overdoing it, because the easiest thing in the world is to put off writing while I check one last fact or interview one more source. Usually I’ll start with a general idea of setting and plot, but the research will shape the setting, and also provide plot ideas; I’ll ask someone, “What could go wrong? And what would you do then? And how could that go wrong?” The big research happens at the beginning of the process, and I’ll gather enough information to get the engines going.

Once I start writing, though, questions about details inevitably come up. I’ll keep track of them as I go, and call or email my sources during breaks in the writing to get answers. So far, I haven’t had to go back to correct something because I learn it’s not feasible. I’ve usually done enough research in advance to give me a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

5.What’s your process? How do you come up with your concepts? Do you outline? You have a lot of twists and turns, and you manage to end many chapters with cliffhangers. Do you plan these in advance?

Everything starts with the “what if?” question. What if my new neighbors were actually spies? What if someone started taking those “business is war” books a little too seriously? What if the entire leadership structure of a shaky company were taken hostage?

From there, I start populating my scenario with characters. Who’s my hero? Where does he or she come from? What does he or she want? Who and what are the obstacles to this desire?

Then I brainstorm the major “beats” of the story, creating a beat sheet that lays out the major plot points of my story. I don’t get too detailed, because I need to figure a lot of it out along the way. If my outline’s too detailed, I’m bored before I even begin.

I follow the basic formula of “surprise, reverse, reveal.” We start with situation A, which suddenly becomes situation B — except it’s actually C, which turns out to be D. It’s like peeling the layers of an onion, and sometimes — actually, often — I surprise myself. I don’t always know where the cliffhangers turn up, and the ultimate resolution often doesn’t reveal itself to me until I’m writing it.

6. Your book “High Crimes” was made into a movie. You were able to make a cameo appearance and spend time on the set. Talk about the difference between a movie and a book. (You did this eloquently in the interview during the movie trailer, so if you could repeat that here, that would be great.)

My big discovery, in watching HIGH CRIMES become a movie, was how much more scope I had as an author than screenwriters or even directors do. I can develop characters and storylines in a 500-page novel that filmmakers can’t hope to convey in 120 minutes. They just don’t have the time or the space to create the kind of world I try to build in each book. Authors can form relationships not only with their fictional characters, but also with their readers, because of the time it takes to read a book. Even a fast-paced thriller is going to take at least a day to read. At the end of that time, the reader feels a connection to me that I think it’s hard to feel with the director of a film.

Beyond that, I had a new appreciation for the absolute control I have, as an author, over my plot and my characters. Filmmaking and television producing are collaborations, and those collaborations create marvelous things. I can feel the excitement and the attraction of being part of that kind of collaboration, but they’re no substitute for the thrill of being able to sit at a desk alone and create my own stories from thin air, with no one to answer to but the reader.

That said, I think authors can learn a lot from the movies: the importance of having your reader identify with the main character, the need to start as late in the action as possible, the deadly effects of over-narration. I want my books to feel like great movies, but deeper, and more nuanced.

7.Your first book at age 24 was a nonfiction account of the ties that Armand Hammer had with the Soviets. For that, he threatened to sue you. How did you cope with the stress of that? What lessons did you take away?

I loved doing the research, making those discoveries, and putting it all on paper. I didn’t love the controversy. What I learned was that I could still do the research, still make those discoveries, still put it all on paper — but I could do that and actually make the story up, rather than being constrained by the facts.

The research I did for RED CARPET became the foundation of my first novel, THE MOSCOW CLUB. I discovered that I could use even more of my research, in a way that was more creatively interesting, if I turned it into fiction. It was a revelation.

8.Talk about the time in your career when your agent suggested you might have to write under another name to “redeem” yourself. What kept you going? What did you do? What did you learn?

Almost every author I know has had times when something went wrong in the publishing process, where sometimes external issues created obstacles an author had no control over. I didn’t want to write under a different name. Instead, I took a break and did other things, and I took a broader look at the genre I was working in.

I saw what John Grisham was doing, setting his stories in law firms, and noticed that no one was setting thrillers in the everyday working world, the place most people live. I saw that the old 1970s conspiracy stories could be played out in today’s business world — in an office environment that looked ordinary to an outsider, but might have secrets buried within.

So I came up with a new “what if”: what if all those old spy techniques — the moles, the leaks, the theft of secrets, the double agents — were being used in today’s high-tech corporations? And what if an ordinary guy — the Hitchcock hero, someone the reader could identify with — got pulled into one of these operations?

The result was PARANOIA. It took me a couple of years to research and write, and when I was finished I felt that it was something truly new, and something I’d be proud to put my name on.

9.Your agent also told you that humor was incompatible with suspense, and you’ve obviously ignored that. Your humor contributes to your characters and gives the reader a nice change of pace. Tell us why you didn’t take your agent’s advice on dumping the humor.

This was another piece of advice I decided to ignore when I wrote PARANOIA. At that point, I felt I had nothing to lose by letting my own voice come through — and that voice, often as not, is the voice of a smartass.

But again, the humor is part of how my protagonist stands in for the reader. When I first started researching PARANOIA, I walked into Cisco Systems and it was like visiting a foreign country. All this jargon was flying through the air, words I’d never heard before, like “bandwidth” and “pushback” and “escalation.” Humor was a natural reaction to that kind of information overload, not only for Adam but for me, and for the reader. Especially when you’ve dropped a character into a strange and complicated situation, humor is a way to reassure the reader that the characters are taking it all in stride, and they should, too.

10.You grew up as a “third culture” kid, a child who spent several years as an expat. Research has shown that “third culture” kids are more curious, more adventuresome, and more accepting of diversity. They tend to get bored easily. Given that many Americans don’t even own a passport, what could you say to encourage Americans to travel and experience other cultures?

This is a really interesting question. What I would say to Americans is that the world is a mansion, and we live in only one room. There are many ways to open the doors to that room, and travel is only one of them.

When you move a lot, you get used to paying attention to new situations. It teaches you to be an observer, to ask questions, to figure out what you need to know. Those are essential skills for a writer.

I’d certainly encourage Americans to travel, but I realize that it’s not always possible, given time and money constraints. That’s one of the great things about books: they let you experience cultures and identify with people whose values might differ. As many places as I’ve been, one of the best trips I ever took was Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, which I read as a kid. That was the book that first made me want to be a writer, and I might have found it even if I’d never traveled anywhere.


Anonymous said...

This was an interesting interview. It offered me a little more insight as to the thought processes that Joe goes through in developing the story line...especially the twists and unexpected ocurrances. Very cool!


Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Yes, I loved the part about humor reassuring the reader. I'd never thought of that.

Official Joseph Finder Facebook fan page said...

Thank you for the great interview! We've posted a link on the Facebook fan page:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the interview with Joseph Finder.
A while back I was looking for a book on tape to accompany me on a driving trip. The book store owner handed me "Paranoia" and said,"Try this guy, I think you'll like him."
He was right. Mr. Finder has become one of my favorite authors; I gobble up everything he writes and gift and recommend his books to my friends.
I spent years sprinting across corporate parking lots and misplacing my magnetic ID cards and never once thought there could be anything more sinister going on in the office than someone pilfering my Lean Cuisine out of the lunchroom fridge.(I mean, what's the worst that could happen? Right?)
Thanks again.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

When I first started reading Paranoia, I thought, "You've got to be kidding? A book about a slacker? Where's the drama in that?" And then I was immediately sucked in. Joe is a genius. He's managed to take situations that most of us have been in and make our worst fears real.