The next guest in our illustrious lineup on Thriller Radio is none other than Jon Land. He’ll be appearing on the show live on Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 9:30AM PST/12:30PM EST HERE. Be sure to tune in!
I first met Jon Land in New York back in 2012 at…you guessed it, Thrillerfest. He’s a great panel master and interviewer himself. This past July, Jon did an outstanding job at Thrillerfest interviewing Michael Connelly.
As we anticipate turning the tables and putting him on the other side of the microphone, I wanted to chat with Jon a bit about writing.
JG: Thanks for being on the Thriller Radio Blog, Jon. Let’s jump right in! Do you prefer character driven books or plot driven?
JL: Oh man, starting out with a tough one! Actually it’s not tough at all, because I don’t think you can actually make this distinction. Character and plot, in books that work, are inherently intertwined—you just can’t separate one from the other. You could have the greatest, most intricate and clever plot in the world. But if the reader isn’t vested emotionally in the characters and their plights, if he or she isn’t actively rooting for them to succeed and triumph, then it doesn’t matter. By the same token, the most interesting characters in the world are useless if nothing’s happening to them and their lives aren’t in jeopardy to some big threat in the course of their journeys. We’re talking about thrillers, remember, where the classic structure is a race to prevent something bad from happening (as opposed to solving something that has already occurred in a mystery). I always keep in mind what the great John D. McDonald said when asked by a young writer to define the notion of “story”: “Stuff happens to people you care about.” Short and sweet. That’s the rule I write by.
JG: What kind of research do you do for your books?
JL: I’m not an obsessive researcher at all, which is sometimes to my detriment. The issue I have is that I don’t outline—I have a general concept of where I’m going, but I trust my characters, instinct, and imagination to fill in all the blanks. So the notion of doing the research in advance can’t possibly work in my case. I find most of what I need in the course of the writing and rest after I’ve completed the first draft. In other words, it’s a honing process that sharpens the closer I get to the final draft. Now, there are exceptions. So much of my Caitlin Strong books focus in one way or another on the drug trade in large part because she’s a Texas Ranger and I’ve got all those border issues to contend with. So before I started STRONG RAIN FALLING I actually asked myself how did the Mexican drug trade actually begin? What was its history? The answer is opium thanks to the influx of Chinese immigrants into Mexico starting around 1870. From there I was off to the races and it amazed how well the timing of that and the Mexican Revolution fit perfectly into the framework of what I wanted to do in STRONG RAIN FALLING. On other hand, if I find myself setting a scene in a part of the West Texas desert I’ll hit the magic Google key and learn about the vegetation: what it looks like, what it smells like. In other words, I’m a great liar!
JG: What keeps you up at night turning the pages?
JL: Well, right now I’m reading a Lee Child book and a James Lee Burke book. Would it be too much of a cop-out to say great storytelling? Because that’s what it comes down to. I can remember reading and loving any number of thrillers by the likes of Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler but I find myself unable to read either now. I’m not sure if that’s because my standards have changed or writers like them don’t give a shit anymore—probably a combination of both. But I find myself drawn to stories about great characters in the midst of some emotional or moral crisis they must resolve at the same time they’re trying to stop a really bad guy from doing a really bad thing. The truly sad thing about our industry today is that it continues to reward the crap the Cusslers and Clancys (along with their endless stream of co-authors) put out, while you sometimes struggle to find the books by authors who deserve the front store space those clowns are getting. Gregg Hurwitz, for example, whose thrillers are among the most original and best in the business. Bob Dugoni who writes the best legal thrillers on the planet. Publishing has become fast food instead of gourmet. You know exactly what you’re getting when you buy it, but that doesn’t mean it really tastes good, does it?
JG: What describes your writing: steady stream, flash flood, other?
JL: No doubt about it steady stream! I have no idea where this stuff comes from, but it just pours out of me. I never get writer’s block. My job is to write and that’s what I do. Now, I do have a couple tricks I use to avoid it. Like I always leave off in the middle of a scene, so I get a running start when I go back to work in my next session. I also always have a book by one of my favorite authors lying around so I can get into the mindset of writing a first draft by first reading 15-20 pages of somebody else’s work that inspires me and gets me pumped. But the most important thing for me, and reason for the steady stream, is that I trust my characters to show me the way. I let them do the work and I just go along for the ride.