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Interview: January 8, 2010

January 8, 2010

Though most widely known for his bestselling series featuring quadriplegic detective Lincoln Rhyme, Jeffery Deaver's latest project, WATCHLIST --- a serial novel co-written with a number of other thriller writers, including Lee Child, Joseph Finder and Lisa Scottoline --- centers on Harold Middleton and his crew of Volunteers, as they track down war criminals and diffuse terrorist plots. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Deaver explains how he became involved in the project and recounts his experiences working with other heavyweights of the genre. He also gives insight into the writing process as his initial idea was enriched and carried forward by each contributor and ponders the possibility of another installment in the series. WATCHLIST is the physical version of two “serial thrillers” --- the award-winning audiobook THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and its more recently released sequel, THE COPPER BRACELET. In the case of both stories, you wrote the opening and closing chapters, and a number of other authors working in the thriller genre each contributed a chapter. How did this project come about?

Jeffery Deaver: I was approached by the wonderful organization, International Thriller Writers, and asked if I could participate in, basically, a fund raiser for ITW. It was a writer's dream: to come up with any idea I liked --- in a thriller context, of course --- and hand it off to a stellar crew of other authors. Since I'm a bit of a nut for surprise endings, the ITW agreed to let me also write the last chapter, so I could try to work in some twists. We all, by the way, donated our time for the project, and received no advances or royalties, for the first serial novel.

BRC: Harold Middleton is the primary protagonist of both works. Middleton heads up a mysterious group known as The Volunteers, which hunts down war criminals and, as we see in THE COPPER BRACELET, also attempts to prevent new atrocities from occurring. Middleton and the Volunteers were originally your creation. Did you create them specifically for THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT project, or had you originally conceived them for a series of your own?

JD: Middleton and the crew were created exclusively for THE COPPER BRACELET. I'm working primarily on my two series now (Lincoln Rhyme, from THE BONE COLLECTOR, and Kathryn Dance, from THE SLEEPING DOLL), and I decided it was best to keep the ITW story completely separate from my own work.

BRC: THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT originally was released a chapter at a time as an audiobook. It reminded me somewhat of one of those radio serials of yesteryear, where one never knew from week to week what would happen next. I was delighted to find that it translated into print form in a very similar manner. Were you surprised at all with the twists and turns that both THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and THE COPPER BRACELET took throughout their respective plotlines?

JD: My theory of writing comes from Mickey Spillane, who said (I'm paraphrasing), "People don't read books to get to the middle; they read to get to the end." I believe in very fast-paced, twisting and turning storytelling. Since each of the contributors is a master at surprises, all of them worked plot twists into their chapters seamlessly. To me it was indeed surprising at how well they did this, considering that a chapter is really a very small palette on which to work.

BRC: What sort of reactions did you have as you read chapters by authors such as Gayle Lynds, David Hewson, Joseph Finder, John Ramsey Miller and Brett Battles reworking and/or riffing on your creations?

JD: Jealousy!...They would come up with plot changes and character portrayals that never would have occurred to me. That's what happens, of course, when Jim Fusilli, M. J. Rose and ITW put together such a braintrust.

BRC: One thing that surprised me in both books was the manner in which the various authors were quick to eliminate secondary characters. The result, for the reader, is that one never really knows what is going to happen next. Without being specific --- I’d like to try to avoid spoilers, if possible --- were there any characters who didn’t make it to the end of either story that you would have liked to have used in future works?

JD: Oh, yes, we had a rather high body count! But, artistically, I think it's important in writing thrillers to keep readers on the edge of their seats. That means we need to endanger anybody and everybody and be willing to draw blood. I probably would have kept some people alive and killed others, but that's not how a serial novel works. You have to have faith that your creation is in good hands. To give you an idea of my approach, I'd rather kill off a hero than a villain (they tend to be more interesting). In most of my novels, the bad guy gets carted off to jail --- to bide his time until a sequel!

BRC: The plot of THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT revolves around classical music, beginning with the apparent discovery of a previously unknown score by Frederic Chopin, which may have been altered to hide a deadly formula. The plot gives a number of authors, particularly Lee Child, the opportunity to display their knowledge regarding the relationship --- or not --- between music and mathematics. Have you had a long-standing interest in Chopin in particular or classical music in general? Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what are your favorites?

JD: Well, I'm an idiot when it comes to math, but I have been (I guess still am) a musician. My books, in fact, tend to be structured symphonically: There're be an overture, alternating fast and slow movements, a big crescendo, then a brief coda or reconciliation at the end. And I am a fan of Chopin, as well as Mozart, Beethoven and a few modern composers as well, though I mostly love the Romantic period. I do listen to music when I write, provided it's instrumental only; words are distracting. I mentioned some classical composers. More modern artists I listen to are Marcus Roberts, Oscar Peterson, Sting, Miles Davis, Larry Coryell, Natalie McMaster, Celtic music of all kinds and some country-oriented like Allison Krauss. Paul Simon remains my god.

BRC: THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT begins in Warsaw but is set primarily in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, making for an interesting juxtaposition between the old and new worlds. THE COPPER BRACELET, on the other hand, moves from London to Moscow to Kashmir, and is much more of a world-beater story than is THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT. Did you travel to those far-away locales to do research while you were conceptualizing THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT? And do you have an exotic locale where you would like to set a novel, but have not yet done so?

JD: I travel a great deal on book tours throughout the world. I'd just finished a tour of Poland when I got the idea behind THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT. I do research the location for my books, of course --- you have to --- but I also will take voluminous notes, buy research materials and take hundred of pictures when I'm on book tour or holiday, on the chance that I can use that locale in a future book. I think it would be a challenge to write a book in a rugged area, rather than an urban setting. I'm thinking the Arctic or perhaps the plains of Africa or Mongolia. (Provided, of course, I had room service.)

BRC: THE COPPER BRACELET involves a diabolical plot to set World War III into motion. I noticed a parallel between this plot and one often espoused by conspiracy theorists concerning the commencement of World War I. Do you have a favorite historical conspiracy theory? If so, what is it? And what do you think it is about conspiracy theories that attracts such widespread and longstanding interest and attention?

JD: I'm afraid I'm not much of conspiracy nut, largely because my experience with business, law and government (I was an attorney for some years) has brought home the reality that conspiracies are much better crafted by fiction writers; the institutions that supposedly perpetrate them are too incompetent to get away with much and, especially, to keep secrets. On the other hand, we thriller writers absolutely love conspiracies because our job is to ramp up paranoia within our readers. If, though, you mean actual provable conspiracies --- the Lincoln assassination, the attempt to kill Hitler --- those are fascinating to me.

BRC: I was surprised and pleased to find that I thought THE COPPER BRACELET was an even better book than THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT. Given the present quality trajectory of the stories, I have to ask: will we be seeing any future projects involving Middleton and the Volunteers, either as collaborative efforts of the serial thriller type with other authors, or as solo projects?

JD: Yes, I've been very pleased at how well the project was received and, frankly, how much damn fun it was to put together. Of course, there are some practical realities. I'm doing two books this year, as I did two years ago, and that's taking a huge amount of my time. But then again, my other principle of writing (in addition to Mickey Spillane's) is that writers must write to satisfy their readers' desires. (It's all about them, not us.) If people clamor for Harry Middleton and the crew, we better think about bringing them back.

BRC: Did the serial thriller project turn out as you had anticipated? What were the easiest and most difficult parts of putting a project such as this together? And how long did it take to complete THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT, from original conception to final draft?

JD: I didn't know exactly how it would work out, since I'd never done a serial novel before. I will say it was only do-able because of the intense efforts by contributor and editor Jim Fusilli, who was a brilliant shepherd and made sure everything ran according to schedule. We couldn't have done this without him. The hardest part for me, not unexpectedly, was the last chapter, where I had to bring together the many plot points that were created throughout the stories. But I outlined all the chapters, did charts and graphs and came up with what I hoped would be credible and surprised endings. I believe it was about 10 months or so from start to finish.

BRC: My household is split between audiobooks and traditionally bound books. I can read faster than I can listen, so I prefer bound books. My wife, on the other hand, is almost continuously tethered to an audiobook. Do you listen as well as read?

JD: Yes, I love audiobooks, in addition to the printed versions. I drive a great deal and have both a CD player and an iPod jack in my car so I can listen on my long drives. I sometimes get two versions. One for my book shelves and one to keep in my car or iPod.

BRC: One of the most appealing aspects of both WATCHLIST novels is that it gives the reader the opportunity to observe many of their favorite contemporary thriller authors operating outside of their normal comfort zones. Your chapters, for example, are continents away from Lincoln Rhyme, and Lee Child’s contributions in THE CHOPIN MANUSCRIPT and THE COPPER BRACELET are far removed from Jack Reacher’s customary venues. Are there any authors, either retired or deceased, who you would have liked to see as contributors to these works?

JD: Well, that's a very good question. I suppose I would love to see how Ian Fleming would have handled a chapter, as well as Frederick Forsyth, Alistair MacClean and Len Deighton. And how about Thomas Harris? Love to see if Hannibal Lecter would have helped or hindered (or eaten) the Volunteers.

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