I’m sure every writer has a long list of authors they’ve been reading for a long time, and I’m no different. However, there’s really only a handful of authors I’ve been directly influenced by, and whose work I’ve made a point to read with my writer’s hat on, with the intention of learning from them. Joseph Finder is an author I’ve been reading for over two decades, which I’m sure makes us both feel old. But his books all have the secret sauce, and I really wanted to know the recipe. So without further ado…
PARANOIA was the first book of yours I ever read, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite thrillers ever. I was delighted to finally see it in the movie theater, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth, no less! You also had your novel HIGH CRIMES, another favorite of mine, made into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. How involved are you in the process of turning your novels into movies?
Thanks for the kind words about PARANOIA — I’m delighted you like it! I’ve had a bunch of my books optioned at different times, and two have actually beaten the odds and made it through the development process to hit the big screen. It was different in the two cases. With HIGH CRIMES, the director invited me to play a cameo role in the movie. So I spent five days on set and helped brainstorm various tweaks to the script while I was there. With PARANOIA, I wasn’t given a cameo and I was kept far away from the development process. But in both cases I was invited to the Hollywood premiere.
Ernest Hemingway had advice for novelists on how to deal with Hollywood. He said you drive up to the California state line, make the studios throw the money across the border, you toss the manuscript across, then, in Hemingway’s words, “pick up the money and get the hell out of there.” The truth is, I’m very involved in the beginning, talking to potential buyers to make sure they get the book. But then I leave them alone. That’s the best way to preserve your sanity.
What does it feel like to see your characters come to life?
It is weird and cool and vaguely unreal to see movie stars acting out the characters that for so long existed only in your head. The thing is, the characters came to life — in my imagination — as soon as I started writing the book. To see actors like Harrison Ford or Morgan Freeman play my characters is exciting, no question about it, but it’s still not as viscerally exciting as when a novel comes to life in your own head.
Your books are truly page-turners, and I think pacing is one of the most important things to nail in a thriller. What’s your secret on pacing a story well?
I have a note taped to my computer monitor that says, “Reverse—Reveal—Surprise.” That’s a reminder to myself that every scene must do one of those three things — provide a reversal to the protagonist’s journey or quest, reveal key information, or otherwise surprise the reader. If a scene doesn’t do one of these three things, it’s out of there. I’m pretty ruthless about looking at a scene and deciding if it does work, if it advances the story, because if not, I take it out.
Where do your stories start? Do you envision the concept or the characters first, or do both come to you at the same time?
They always start with a “What If?” — the grain of sand in the oyster that produces the pearl. But I can’t start writing until I’m sure of who the character is. If it’s a Nick Heller novel, that’s easy; but with a standalone novel, I spend a lot of time thinking about who the main character is, what she does, what kind of family life he has, whatever.
I’m dying to know more about your writing process. How long does it take you to outline a book? How many hours a day do you write? How long does it take you to finish a book? And how many drafts do you do before turning it into your editor?
I can easily spend a month outlining the book — brainstorming, coming up with key moments (what I call the “trailer moments” — the scenes you’d see in a trailer for the movie), dilemmas, etc. Then another month doing the research, which also generates lots of scene ideas. Then another five or six months writing a draft. I know some writers whose first draft is their last draft, but I can’t work that way. I revise to make the novel stronger, crisper, faster, deeper. I give it to my brother to read — he’s a professional editor and a terrific reader of thrillers — and my agent (who used to be a book editor), and then finally my editor. I might end up doing four revisions on a book.
I’d also love to know the little things. Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you drink coffee or tea while you’re working? Do you write in the mornings, afternoons, or evenings?
I’m lucky enough to have an office in Boston, a few blocks from where we live, where I do almost all of my work. I also have a writing studio next to our house on Cape Cod, which gets great light and has a wonderfully calm ambience. I drink brewed coffee or espresso throughout the day. My best writing time is the morning, and as a book progresses, I find myself getting up earlier and earlier, sometimes as early as 4:00 in the morning, because I can’t stop thinking about the story. I always take a break in the middle of the day, and do business stuff or research phone calls in the afternoon, and usually by the late afternoon I get a second wind and write some more. For some reason I’m unable to write at night. Maybe all that espresso catches up with me.
You write standalones, and you also write books starring a recurring character. Which do you prefer? And what do you find challenging about both?
It’s certainly a lot easier to write a Nick Heller book, because I don’t have to create a whole new world of characters; I already know the protagonist and the characters that surround him. I just have to create the antagonist/villain, and think of the story. But I’m also drawn to standalones, because in those, you can turn your protagonist’s life upside down and inside out. You can’t do that to your series hero. You can put him through hell, but you can’t change his life in any fundamental way. So there are limitations to writing series novels, in addition to the advantages.
Speaking of Nick, he’s definitely a character crush of mine. In your new novel, GUILTY MINDS (coming July 19), he’s described as a “high powered investigator with a penchant for doing things his own way.” Where does the inspiration for Nick come from? And how much research do you have to do to make Nick believable?
Thanks! Nick’s voice is my own, but I’ll admit the Nick Heller character—contrarian, stubborn, highly ethical yet at the same time cynical — was shaped by years of reading novels by the great John D. MacDonald, whose series hero is Travis McGee, and also John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Lee Child’s inimitable Jack Reacher. And James Bond — the Ian Fleming books much more than the movies. But naturally he’s quite different from all of these classic characters. I also based him on a couple of “private spies” that I know, former intelligence officers who now do work for hire, not just for the government. The research I do on Nick isn’t about making him more believable; it’s mostly to keep current on the sort of resources and databases and technology a private intelligence operative has access to — or doesn’t. So he’s rooted in the real world.
The Thrill Begins is a site geared towards debut authors. You have a lot of great tips on your website for writers, but if you had to pick, what’s your best advice for someone who’s just been – or is about to be – published?
The best piece of advice I can give is to keep writing. I really mean that. Don’t pin all your hopes on the inevitable massive success of your first novel or your next book. Don’t spend all your time and energy promoting it — some, sure, but not all. Make sure you’re onto the next novel by the time your first one comes out. The biggest contribution we writers can make to our careers is to keep turning out the best possible books we can. Give your publishers something really good to work with.
Of course you won’t remember this, but we met briefly at ThrillerFest back in 2011 when you signed my copy of BURIED SECRETS. As a debut author that year, grabbing a photo with you was one of the highlights for me. Who’s the author you most admire, living or dead? And what one question would you ask him or her if you could?
I have a long list of writers I admire. They’re all names you’ve heard of. Among the younger authors are some real stars. I’ve read some really terrific books by them recently, including Michael Koryta’s RISE THE DARK, Chris Holm’s THE KILLING KIND, Blake Crouch’s DARK MATTER, Susie Steiner’s MISSING, PRESUMED, and Megan Abbott’s YOU WILL KNOW ME.
One of my favorite thriller writers ever is James M. Cain, who wrote DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. I would love to ask Cain to explain to me what he called the “love rack,” the particular type of romantic/sexual entanglement that he thought was central to all his plots, including THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. He talked about the “love rack” a few times in interviews, but never really explained it.
You used to sing a capella with the Whiffenpoofs at Yale. Do you still sing?
I sing all the time — in the car. Sometimes in the shower. But that’s it. I miss performing with a group.
What’s your go-to karaoke song? And what would it take to bribe you to sing at the next ThrillerFest?
Karaoke favorites include Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” Jon Bon Jovi’s “Living On A Prayer,” and of course Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” My all-time karaoke favorite is David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”
But I’m not singing at ThrillerFest – sorry. Unless I imbibe too much at the bar.
Joseph’s Finder’s newest book, GUILTY MINDS, is coming July 19 from Dutton, everywhere books are sold.
Jennifer Hillier grinning while Joseph Finder signs her book (ThrillerFest 2011).
JENNIFER HILLIER writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She’s the author of the thrillers CREEP (2011), FREAK (2012), THE BUTCHER (2014), and WONDERLAND (2015). She loves her husband, her son, her cat Kobe, Stephen King, and the Seahawks. Not equally, but close. Born and raised in Toronto, she currently lives in the Seattle area with her family. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.
To learn more about Jennifer Hillier’s most recent novel, click on the cover below.
Previously: Gwen Florio interviewed Dana Stabenow.
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