Meet my guest thriller author, J.A. Konrath

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

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.

Went for the festival. Stayed for the shrunken head.

There’s still snow on the ground up here in Maine, so I was very happy indeed to fly off to warm and sunny Ft. Myers for the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. Now in its tenth year, the festival has grown to a huge event with an estimated 30,000 visitors turning up to hear author presentations and stroll the outdoor tents. 500 people showed up to hear me speak Saturday morning — one of the best turnouts I’ve had at any event.

I was invited to the festival by a dear friend from the Portland (Maine) Public Library, Sheldon Kaye, who’s now director of the Lee County library system. Over dinner, I got the chance to catch up with Sheldon and his wife, Barbara:

I also got a chance to meet up once again with Dennis Lehane, and hang out with David Liss and Lois Lowry:

After the festival was over, hubby and I drove to St. Augustine to visit family. And as you might expect, I wanted to visit some of the local creepy attractions.

Well, okay. So Alligators aren’t exactly creepy, but they’re a lot of fun to watch…from a distance.

Then we headed for the coolest place of all. It’s a museum I love, one that I could visit again and again: Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Robert Ripley (who started the collection) was a man after my own heart. He traveled the world, seeking out the bizarre and the creepy. Ripley and I could have been soul mates.

You can find Ripley museums all over the country, but the one in St. Augustine is the original, and still the best. I was tickled to see a replica of Mike the Headless Chicken, whose story has long intrigued me. (I think the real stuffed Mike is probably kept in Colorado. If anyone knows where he is for certain, let me know!)

Ripley’s also has a tsantsa. Unlike my goatskin Fred the Head, this is the real deal. And it’s both chilling and mesmerizing at the same time:

So that was Florida. The land of book festivals, alligators, and Robert Ripley. It’s certainly a reason to go back.

Off to florida

I’m headed out of town, to the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. I’m joining a stellar group of authors there, including Dennis Lehane, Jeff Lindsay, Jeff Shaara, and David Liss.

I’m really, really happy to be leaving mud season behind for a few days! More when I get back.

Galleys out, PDF’s in?

I receive a lot of galleys. Many of them turn up in my mailbox unsolicited, sent by agents or editors who are hoping for a blurb. Sometimes I’m contacted by an author or agent, asking if I’d agree to look at a galley, and if the story sounds interesting, I’ll invite the person to send me one. I never promise a blurb. I can’t even promise that I’ll be able to read the galley because I’ve already got a stack that’s about a dozen high piled up around my bed. Most of the time, I turn down these requests because I know I just don’t have the time to read them, and I hate to raise anyone’s hopes. I’m busy enough trying to get my own book written, and it takes me at least six hours to read a galley and come up with a useful quote.

A few months ago, an author contacted me about his upcoming book, and I told him to have his editor send me the galley — again, with no promises. Weeks later, I received a rather startling email from the publisher, informing me that their company no longer sends out galleys:

“We find that we receive zero responses to printed galleys, so instead we will email a PDF to interested reviewers,” the publisher told me.

Okay, I can understand that it’s cheaper and greener to do it that way. But I won’t read manuscripts on a computer screen. I just refuse to. And I don’t have a Sony e-reader on which to download the PDF, so I really don’t want a PDF version. I want to read a printed galley. But this particular publisher doesn’t print galleys.

It’s the first time I’ve encountered this, so I’m wondering if this is a new practice among publishers. If so, I think it’s a bad one. Reading a PDF manuscript requires me to sit in front of my computer — where I have a lot of other, and better, things to do. When I do read galleys, I usually do it in bed. Or I’ll throw a few in my suitcase and take them on vacation. I’ve encountered some of my favorite reads while on a beach, sipping a Margarita with a battered galley in hand. I love galleys because after I’ve read them, I can throw them away so they don’t come home in the suitcase with me. Unless they’re truly spectacular books, in which case I keep them forever in my own private library.

I think that printed galleys are part of the cost of doing business as a publisher. If you don’t print galleys, you shouldn’t expect to get any cover blurbs.

But back to this particular publisher, who — within just the first few sentences of that email — has already discouraged me from reading this author’s book. The email gets worse:

“We also understand that people such as yourself write blurbs and then sell the galleys afterwards, as a form of compensation — and we don’t have a problem with that.”

Such as yourself? Meaning that the only reason I’m giving blurbs is because afterwards I can get five bucks on Ebay for the galley? Five bucks is supposed to be compensation for six hours of my time? When an author gives a blurb for a book, we do it because we love a story, and we want to give the author a leg up. We do it out of generosity, not because of some crass grab for compensation. To even imply such a motive is astonishing — when you’re asking someone to do you a favor.

(And just for the record, I would never sell a galley, on Ebay or anywhere else. As an author myself, I consider such sales unscrupulous.)

And the email gets even worse:

“If I send you the PDF and you provide a cover blurb, I can send you a finished, sellable copy of the book.”

So if I give a blurb, then I’ll be rewarded with the real book, which I can then sell on Ebay for even more cash than I could the galley! It’s a real bargain for me, you see — in exchange for six hours, plus my good name pushing the book, they’ll deign to send me a real printed copy.

The email ends:

“But I won’t send you the PDF until you let me know one way or the other if you’d have time to look at it.”

I had already told the author that I would do my best to read the galley. Now the publisher is saying that they won’t even send me a PDF until I assure them I’ll read it.

I’m so astonished, I don’t know what to say. Is this the future of the book business?

Would anyone in publishing care to comment?

“I want to be a novelist. Advice, please.”

Recently I received an email from a college student who’s now attending my alma mater, Stanford. He has already completed two book-length manuscripts, one of them in the fantasy genre. He enjoyed writing them so much that he’s now considering a career as a novelist, and he wanted to find out what it was like to be a published author, and what he should do next to get published. I thought I’d share some of his questions, along with my answers. Not every author will agree with my answers, and I’d love to hear from those with other viewpoints.

Is it actually possible to support yourself writing books?

Yes. But not everyone can. The writing profession is like the acting profession. Many, many actors must support themselves by waiting tables or tending bar. Then there are the lucky few who happen to be Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. The range of incomes in writing is as wide as it is in acting, and you just can’t predict who will break out and be the next JK Rowling. Some writers will never earn enough to support their families, even if they’ve sold a dozen books. But unlike acting, you don’t have to also win the genetic lottery and look like Gwyneth Paltrow to be a success. A writer can get there on hard work and talent — plus a little luck.

Do you actually enjoy what you do?

Yes. Except for the times when I hate it. Being a novelist is a yo-yo existence. When the writing’s going well, I feel high and I know that I’m the luckiest person in the world. When the writing’s going badly, I can’t sleep, I’m sure I’m a failure — and I still know I’m the luckiest person in the world. I’m a writer because I chose to be, and because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. (With the possible exception of archaeologist. Or luxury resort tester.) The saying is true: “If you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Should I apply for a Masters in Fine Arts program? Would getting an MFA improve my chances of getting published?

Here’s where I’m sure there’ll be people who disagree with me.

Enrolling in a graduate writing program may give you a chance to put off the responsibility of earning a living while you hone your writing skills. It will keep you off the streets. It will give you the chance to interact with mentors and other writing students. And if you ever plan to teach at a college level, you will need that MFA. But I’m not convinced that a writing degree will improve your chances of getting published. Most of the published novelists I know did not go through an MFA program. They learned their craft by a lifetime of reading, and by writing and re-writing. Many of my fellow novelists also spent some years out in the world, working to support themselves. They learned another profession, they got married, they had kids. And simultaneously, just by living their lives and having new experiences, they were gathering material that would one day go into their books.

Writing courses or workshops are good for those who feel they need a little extra guidance, either on the creative or the marketing end. But the years you spend getting a master’s degree in writing might be better spent learning a marketable skill with which to support yourself, while you wait to sell your first book.

Should I try getting some short stories published first, before I try selling my novels? Wouldn’t those writing credits help me?

The credits won’t hurt. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s any easier selling a short story. The market for short fiction has dried up. There are only a few magazines that still buy short stories, and the competition is tremendous. And even if you’ve sold a dozen short stories, all a book publisher really cares about is the novel you’ve written, and whether it’s any good. So no, I wouldn’t waste my time trying to break into the short story market if what you want to do is write books. You’ve already finished two manuscripts. Polish them until they’re perfect. And once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the next step: landing a literary agent.

three docs on a stage

On Wednesday night, I was one of the featured panelists at The Cambridge Forum, a venerable speaker program that takes place in the heart of Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The other panelists were Dr. Sasha Helper, a child psychiatrist, and Dr. Elissa Ely, also a psychiatrist as well as the much-beloved columnist for the Boston Globe. The topic was “When Doctors Write,” and we were there to talk about the intersection of medicine and writing. How does being a doctor affect one’s writing? How does one’s writing affect the practice of medicine? I had never before met either Sasha or Elissa. It was nice to discover that Elissa is as gentle and big-hearted as her thoughtful articles reveal her to be. Sasha, who acted as moderator, came prepared with a number of thought-provoking questions about how one combines writing and medicine. The audience spilled out the doors, and the event was recorded both on camera and for radio.

I was the only fiction writer onstage, and I no longer practice medicine, so I focused on how medical training affects one’s writing. There are a number of distinguished physician writers we can probably all think of — e.g., Chekhov, Conan Doyle, Crichton, and William Carlos Williams. In fact, you can find a list of “physician writers” on Wikipedia — right beneath the list of “physician criminals.” But even taking into account all the popular fiction authors who are physicians (Robin Cook, Michael Palmer, etc.) you still probably can’t come close to the list of authors who are attorneys. We doctor-novelists are a relatively small group, yet there’s no question that doctors want to write. We’re like everyone else in America. A survey of 1,000 Americans revealed that 82% say they “have a book in them.” And that same study estimated that two percent of all Americans have already written a manuscript, either fiction or nonfiction.

Doctors are like everyone else in America; they want to write and be published.

During the discussion, and the question period afterward, we explored the question of whether doctors are at an advantage — or a disadvantage — as writers. We agreed that doctors have rich source material to draw from. (Dr. Ely’s columns, for example, are drawn from her experiences as a psychiatrist, and they provide an ever-fascinating look into human behavior.) But doctors also have a disadvantage because of medical training, which forces them to be objective, to write in the passive voice, and to underplay their own emotions while at work.

The forum will be broadcast nationally over NPR sometime during the next few weeks. I’ll let you know when it will be aired.

So … what IS the point of blogging?

This latest kerfuffle has made me consider that very question. Do people blog because they’re “attention whores”, hungry for notice? Do they blog because they’re trying to sell you something, be it a book or a new skin care product? Do they blog because the publicity department in their publishing house told them they must?

I can’t speak for anyone else. I can only tell you that my own answer is: none of the above.

When I started my blog, back in 2005, I didn’t harbor any illusions that it would help me sell books. And I still don’t believe that blogging is all that effective a promotional tool. People don’t buy your books because you blog; rather, they come to your blog because they already know your name, and want to know more about the author whose books they’ve already read. Maybe you’ll pick up a new book reader here and there, who wanders onto your site through some random link, but I doubt those numbers are very significant.

I suspect that the opposite happens just as often — that something you write on your blog so offends a visitor that they swear never to buy any of your books. That happened to me last year, when I wrote a post about an author who behaved badly, and I confessed that I understood the human impulses that drove her. I was soundly condemned as being just as guilty as she was, because I wasn’t ready to pick up a rock and join the stoning party. From there it only got worse, with bloggers soon spreading the false rumor that I had dispatched my fan-minions to threaten anyone who disagreed with me. (Which begs the question, where are these amazing fan-minions, anyway, and could I get them over here to wash my windows?) By the time the rumors finished percolating through blog sites, I possessed horns and cloven hooves. The thing about rumors is, you can’t stamp them out. You can’t do anything but endure them and hope that people realize, over time, that they’re false. And that the people spreading them are liars.

The whole experience made me shut down my blog and walk away. I decided I would use it only to announce book news and media events. It was no longer a blog, but a publicity bulletin board.

For a few months, it was wonderful. No blogging! No blowback! I felt a burden had fallen from my shoulders. As it so happened, I was dealing with a family crisis at the time as well, and not blogging gave me time to deal with that crisis. I got supportive emails from other ex-bloggers, telling me: “Ending your blog is the best thing you can do for your own peace of mind. It’s vicious out there, especially for someone who doesn’t have the claws to fight back.”

So why did I come back to it?

Because I missed connecting with the people I’ve learned to know through this blog. And I missed talking about the book business. Even after 22 years as an author, I’m still hearing things, learning things about publishing, and whenever I do, I want to tell someone else about it. I live an isolated life, and seldom get to mingle with other writers. And my non-writer friends here don’t really care about the latest buzz on advances or So whom do I go to with the latest publishing gossip? Who wants to hear about it?

Other writers. Who were reading my blog.

That’s why I came back to it. Not because it sells books. Not because it gets attention. But because I can’t think of any more effective way to share news and information, to compare notes, and to commiserate over our common frustrations, than through blog sites. That’s why I visit the blogs of so many other writers — I’m comforted when I read that Annie Author is banging her head over writer’s block, because I know I’m not alone. I get a sympathetic twinge when Wally Writer says he can’t find his latest book in Barnes and Noble, or Nick Novelist agonizes over the lousy review he got in PW — because I’ve been there too. These universal experiences link writers into a caring, sharing community — but we can’t link if we don’t hear about them. And that’s where blogs come in.

But there are blogs I’ve learned to avoid, blogs that reflect the personality of someone I would not want to associate with in real life. And they’re almost always written by people who are not published authors.

If you call another writer (and I apologize for writing these words) a bitch, slut, whore, prick, or asshole, I think I know what kind of person you are.

If you tell another writer or blogger to “STFU,” I know what kind of person you are.

If you encourage others to gang up and attack another writer, or actively work to destroy that writer’s career and livelihood, I certainly know what kind of person you are.

It may be the point of YOUR blog. But it certainly isn’t the point of mine.

Am I a whiny attention whore?

I had no idea. But this author thinks so.

Really, it’s the sort of charge that makes me reel back in surprise that they’re talking about me. I didn’t realize that the mere act of blogging makes one an attention whore. If so, then there are a lot of us out here.

It also brings up, once again, the dangers of blogging — and another reason to walk away from it. (Even though you have to admit it’s rather amusing that the charge comes from a blogger who accuses others of being attention whores for blogging.)

(To my readers: Please don’t respond at the site. I don’t need any more negative attention.)

I bring it up only because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about privacy — or the lack of it — when one is a writer. It’s true that there are downsides to blogging. Every time you express an opinion, you’ll find someone with the opposite opinion ready to jump in and argue. Every time you reveal a bit of your personal life, you’ll also open yourself up to charges of harboring delusions of grandeur, believing that anyone cares.

Blogging for me has never been about being onstage. It’s always been about loving to talk about the business and the craft. And sometimes personal stuff slips in because it’s relevant to those topics. Bad reviews, for instance, can impact my personal life — and can affect my ability to write. Yes, that’s a personal detail. But it’s also about how our emotional state impacts upon the craft.

I don’t think you can blog about the business, or the creative aspect of writing, without revealing a little about your own personality. Which, according to some, makes you an attention whore.

And for the record, I have never called upon my readers to defend me against reviewers, mean bloggers, or anyone else. I invite anyone to comb through my blog archives to look for a single instance where I asked my readers to do so. Yes, I sometimes express my distress about bad reviews — and my readers choose to say what they want to say.

They do, after all, have control of their own keyboards.

(If you’d like to read my so-called “whiny” blog post to which the article refers, it’s here. It’s from 2007)


Check out my post over at Murderati: When fiction veers too close to reality.

Now here’s a tough place for a book tour

From CNN:

Saudi men arrested for seeking female writer’s autograph

Two Saudi male novelists detained after trying to get autograph of female writer
Abdu Khal and Abdullah Thabet were not charged with crime
Saudi Arabia’s religious police can detain unrelated men, women caught socializing

(CNN) — Saudi Arabia’s religious police detained two male novelists for questioning last week after they attempted to get the autograph of a female writer at a book fair in Riyadh, according to local media reports.

According to the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Watan, Abdu Khal and Abdullah Thabet approached female writer Halima Muzfar when they were stopped by police.

Both novelists, who were held for questioning but not charged with a crime, are demanding an apology from the conservative Muslim kingdom’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

The commission, feared by many Saudis, is made up of several thousand religious policemen charged with, among other things, enforcement of dress codes, mandatory observance of prayer times and segregation of the sexes.

Saudi Arabia follows a strict interpretation of Islam called Wahhabism and punishes unrelated men and women who are caught mingling in public.

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz announced in February a major Cabinet reshuffling in which many hardline conservatives, including the head of the commission, were dismissed and replaced with younger, more moderate members.

The new appointments represented the largest shakeup since King Abdullah took power in 2005, and were welcomed in Saudi Arabia as progressive moves on the part of the king, who is seen by many as a reformer.

One of the writers, Khal, told Al-Watan that he doesn’t believe the new leadership endorses actions like those of the commission members who detained him.

“It seems that the relationship between the committee and the intellectuals is based on animosity and hostility and perhaps that is shown from the fashion in which they treated us,” he said.

(with thanks to my pal Angie!)

Tom Hanks, Ken Burns… and me

It’s a thrill, just appearing in the same sentence with those two names, but I now have something in common with Tom Hanks and Ken Burns.

We’re all contributors to the same book.

The title is Creating A Life You’ll Love, in which “notable achievers offer their secrets for happiness.” It’s a collection of seventeen college commencement speeches written by a variety of public figures, including Thomas Friedman, Barbara Kingsolver, Ray Kurzweil, David McCullough, Harold Prince, Anna Quindlen. And me.

There are some wonderful insights here. (And who knew Barbara Kingsolver was such a stand-up comedienne? The story she tells about her daughter is hilarious.)

The book goes on sale March 27, and will receive nationwide promotion during the graduation season. It should make a great gift for new graduates.

The best part? The royalties generated by sales will go toward nonprofit HIV/AIDS prevention and research.