Monday, November 15, 2010
I Believe in Instinct: An Interview with Jon Land
Jon Land will be appearing at the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago, Feb. 4-6, 2011. For more information go to www.loveismurder.net
1. Your books are very complex with multiple points of view and several story lines running through them. How do you plan them out? What strategies and techniques can you share?
Great question to start with—you’re challenging me right off the bat. And the simple answer I actually don’t plan them out. As a writer, I believe in instinct. You got by your feelings, let your gut tell you where to go. But the real thing is, and this goes to strategies and techniques, to never lose sight of the most important thing a thriller must have: pace. That’s what keeps readers turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning. You make it impossible for them to put the book down by never having any slow or dull parts. And its instinct, your own sense of entertainment as you write, that dictates when it’s time to stay with a sequence and when it’s time to cut. My experience in screenwriting has helped me out a lot here but generally it all comes down to telling a story.
2. For someone who has never written multiple points of view, can you give any pointers?
I may have already done that but let me summarize it this way: know your characters and know the story you’re trying to tell. John D. McDonald once said in answer in the question what is story, “Stuff happens to people you care about.” Well, the more you know your characters, the more they come alive, the more reader cares about them. The structure of thrillers harks back to old-fashioned quest stories. People are after something, what Hitchcock called the McGuffin. So in writing the multi-plotted thriller the question a writer needs to keeping asking themselves is What is my hero after and why? If you can’t answer that, something’s wrong.
3. From Israel to Mexico and many places in between, you move your characters around the globe. Please “talk” about settings. Do you chose a place you want to visit and then write your books or do you travel first and then develop your settings? How do you manage to portray places with so much gusto? You are very good at involving all the senses.
Oh boy, you had to ask me that! Okay, confession time: I’m a Goggle-natic. It’s impossible to visit all the places I write about, so the trick is find enough information out about a place to make it seem like I was there. My late great agent Toni Mendez also represented Milton Caniff, the cartoonist behind Terry and the Pirates. Milton described himself as an “armchair Marco Polo” and I think I’m following his example. Creating a strong sense of place has always been important to me but it’s reached new heights in my Caitlin Strong/Texas Ranger series because there’s so much available. The key, and this relates to my responses to your other questions, is to describe the scene from a character’s viewpoint instead of the narrator’s. In other words, give us the scene from the inside out, not the outside in. Do that and you’ll be describing what the character sees, what’s important to him or her, not you as the author.
4. You chose an unlikely pairing, a Jew and a Palestinian, Ben and Danielle, for Keepers of the Gate. Talk about why you selected such star-crossed lovers, and why you ended the book on such a poignant note. What sort of research did you do for the book? Were there really Nazis who passed themselves off as Holocaust survivors to escape prosecution?
That takes me back a ways since it’s been so long since I worked on a Ben and Danielle book. But that series was a culmination of two things: my growth process as a writer where I wanted to incorporate more emotion in my stories and, frankly, the fact that the sales of my more traditional action-adventure thrillers had bottomed out. I needed to do something more, both creatively and business-wise. As far as research, I have always refused to be a slave to it. In other words, I decided what I want to do and then I find a way to make it work. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote that it doesn’t matter to me if you believe what I’m saying is true; all that matters is that you don’t disbelieve it. When I started the book I had no idea if there were Nazis who actually pretended to be Jews, but it turns out there are a number of stories just like this. And, I’ve gotta tell you, the great thing about writing about places few will ever see is that nobody knows when you mess things up! (laughs) Like my descriptions of Gaza and the West Bank. In the case of the Ben and Dan books, though, I’m amazed at how far my research into those places carried me in the compliments I’ve received over the years from people on both sides of the fence. Literally now, regrettably.
5. Your Caitlin Strong series also features two people from opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s third-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong and Cort Wesley Masters, the killer. Why do such pairings appeal so much to you? Do you consciously design such friction to use to create tension? Your names seem to foreshadow the characters’ personalities. Please comment on that.
Well, you kind of answered that in your question. Story is all about conflict, putting forces in opposition to each other. When people interact, there has to be something tugging or pulling at them, something they’re trying to resolve. That’s easy when it’s a hero and a villain confronting each other, less so when two characters on the same side interact. The key is to create emotional conflict as opposed to physical conflict. In the course of the kind of scenes you’re alluding to, characters don’t just reveal truths about themselves, they’re forced to confront those truths. James Lee Burke is a master of this. As for names, well, in STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE giving the villain the name “Harm” might have pushing things a bit but go back to the books that helped create this genre: Ian Fleming’s Bond series. How about those names? Oddjob, Goldfinger, Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo, Dr. No—I could go on forever. I’ve got a screenplay out now where the villain’s name is “Payne.” The hero of the same script, based on a short story I wrote for THRILLER 2 called Killing Time, is Fallon. No first name, as if part of his life is missing which it is.
6. You are a master of short chapters that leave the reader with a cliffhanger. Do you plan these? Talk about that technique.
I do indeed plan that and it goes to writing in a format that is comfortable and easy for readers to follow. I used to write longer chapters and use scene breaks. Now, just about every time the scene breaks, I start a new chapter instead. I think it was Michael Crichton who first did that, followed by James Patterson. Comes down to helping the reader find his or her own comfort zone. As far as cliffhangers go, hey, that goes all the way back to Dickens whose novels were first serialized in magazines. He was paid by the word and a cliffhanger each installment was crucial so readers would buy the next one. My primary goal as a writer is to make it impossible for you to put my books down. Do that and everything else falls into place.
7. Obviously, Caitlin Strong is a woman. And so is Danielle. How does a man write from a woman’s point of view? Since Caitlin isn’t a girly-girl and Danielle is pretty tough, I imagine you can take some liberties, but did you have to make any mental adjustments? How do you make sure you get it right?
I’m very much in touch with my feminine side! (Laughs) No, seriously, I’ve written about serial killers, human monsters, Palestinians, criminals, Russians and I’m none of those either. I don’t know if you’d call it a mental adjustment. It’s more about perspective, since all my scenes are written from the viewpoint of characters. That forces me to get inside their heads and let them drive the action instead of me driving it for them. I don’t write their dialogue, they recite it and I transcribe it. The fun in writing characters like Caitlin Strong is that she’s a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. So right away you have conflict, tension, something she must overcome. These books never would have worked had I written her as a man. Getting it right means staying true to the character I’ve created. My final edit is always done by my publisher, Tom Doherty. And after reading the next Caitlin Strong book (STRONG AT THE BREAK, Forge, June ’11), he said not only did Caitlin gun down too many bad guys, she was starting to enjoy it too much. That was a great note and I took it to heart since it I think it revealed that Caitlin was becoming desensitized to all the violence around her. My point is you have a strike a balance between traditional female qualities of love and nurturing and the gunfighter Caitlin is at her core. And that’s probably one of the greatest features of this series.
8. Where did you come up all that wonderful Texas Ranger lore?
Well, I’m happy to say for once this is all about research. There’s a wealth of books available on the history of the Rangers and I’ve read probably a dozen of them, always in search of those stories and parables that begin each section. I think I get as many compliments about them as I do anything else in the Caitlin Strong books!
8. Your books are so varied in the worlds they portray. Talk about that, please.
Let me answer that in terms of the “emotional” words they portray. Each character has his/her own quest, something they’re trying to attain. In my older work, the quest was always clear. But in the Caitlin books the characters aren’t always sure what it is they’re searching for. The difference, and what I strive for in this series, is to provide that motif for all characters, no matter how minor. I need to define all my characters, in other words, by detailing how they define themselves. The conflict lies in the fact that it’s dynamic, not fluid. Like Guillermo Paz, the assassin first assigned to kill Caitlin who ultimately becomes her protector. He’s the series’ most beloved character in large part because he is still evolving emotionally.
9. In the Strong Justice, you have a character say something to the effect that the United States worries too much about terrorism abroad and not enough about securing our own borders. Please comment. Is that just a character’s point of view, or do you share that concern?
I do share that concern but let me answer the question as it relates to my next Caitlin Strong book, STRONG AT THE BREAK, in which Caitlin takes on the right wing extremist militia movement. Homeland Security has already identified homegrown terrorists, not just Muslims either, as the greatest threat facing our country today. The level of hatred that has spread across this country since Obama became president is despicable. America at its absolute worst. I know I’m wearing my politics on my sleeve here but how can you now listen to these right-wing wackos calling for Second Amendment remedies, secession, and armed insurrection and not be both pissed off and scared? How long before the murder of an abortion doctor or Holocaust museum guard becomes a bomb in a temple or a courthouse or a black church, or gay and lesbian center? These people only respect the laws they agree with and they lack the intelligence and understanding to even consider opposing points of view. This same mentality was behind the burning of witches and the hanging of blacks in the South. And now we’re seeing it again at a much more pervasive and frightening level.
10. What do you think is really happening to the women of Juarez? Any ideas how to stop the drug warfare in Mexico? (That is, do you agree with some experts that legalizing marijuana in the U.S. would help, because right now we have what amounts to another Prohibition.)
You started with a tough question and now you’re ending with an even tougher one. There is evidence that a very small number of people is behind the murders of the Women of Juarez, so the concept of a single serial killer holds water. I don’t believe there’s any way to stop drug warfare in Mexico because it’s systematic to their culture and political problems. The drug gangs are filling a vacuum and Mexico’s culture is essentially tribal to begin with. Would legalizing marijuana help? Just about every study insists that it indeed would.
For more information about Jon Land, visit him at http://us.macmillan.com/author/jonland