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Interview: August 24, 2007

August 24, 2007

Joseph Finder is the international bestselling author of such thrillers as PARANOIA, COMPANY MAN and KILLER INSTINCT. His latest work of fiction, POWER PLAY, takes the office intrigue for which he is best known out of the boardroom and into a secluded lodge in the wilderness, where a group of executives on a company retreat are held for ransom.

In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Finder explains what inspired this change of setting and describes how his natural curiosity and his need to explore new things prompts him to write about a wide range of topics. He also characterizes his protagonists as an exercise in wishful thinking, ponders what he would do differently in his career if he were given the chance, and shares details about his upcoming four-book series. One of the most enjoyable elements of picking up and reading a new Joseph Finder novel is the certain knowledge that one will come away from it educated and entertained. In POWER PLAY, the reader learns a fascinating amount of information about two topics that, in lesser hands, would be tough sledding --- airplane construction and international banking security measures. How do you pick the subject matter you cover? Are these topics that pique your own curiosity and thus motivate you to learn more about them? Or are they topics with which you have, at least initially, some degree of familiarity?

Joseph Finder: Thanks! In fact, one of the things I love most about my job is the ability to find out all kinds of things on a very deep, insider level --- in part because of my sources in both the intelligence community and the corporate world, and in part because of the simple fact that people will tell me things, as a novelist, that they’d never tell a journalist. And I love passing the insider stuff on to my readers in the form of page-turning entertainment.

In each book I like to bring my readers into a new world. Remember the novels of Arthur Hailey? STRONG MEDICINE was about the pharmaceutical industry; AIRPORT was about, well, airports; WHEELS was about the car business. I loved learning about these different fields. James Michener did the same thing. I think of my thrillers as being in the similar vein. Each one takes us some place new. I usually pick something that intrigues me but that I know nothing about. With POWER PLAY, I decided it would be cool to learn about the business of making airplanes, so I created the fictional Hammond Aerospace Corporation from bits and pieces of Boeing, Lockheed and Airbus.

But the what-if premise that gave rise to POWER PLAY was the notion of an entire corporate leadership team being held for ransom. Could that happen? How much money could the bad guys demand, given the vast resources of some of these major corporations? And how could the bad guys get away with it?

So that meant finding out about the whole kidnap-and-ransom industry and how that works. And money laundering. By the time I finished POWER PLAY, I’d become quite expert at some very bad things.

BRC: Another of the significant elements of POWER PLAY --- in fact, of all your novels --- is your attention to detail. Your research appears exhaustive, and you are quite generous in acknowledging your sources. How do you go about finding them? And what methods do you use to ascertain their veracity?

JF: As my readers know by now, I like to get my facts right; it is funny if you think about it, since --- after all --- I’m writing fiction, right? Why can’t you make everything up? Actually, I want people to come away from my books having learned some really interesting things they wouldn’t get anywhere else. By now, I have a pretty good network of sources; one of my best is an organization I belong to, the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, a terrific group whose membership is mostly made up of retired spies. It’s amazing how well connected those men and women are, so I put out the word there. I call or e-mail friends. And sometimes, I just do research on the Internet and locate the experts, which is how I got to some of my best sources in the kidnap-and-ransom field. I sometimes drive them crazy, running my fictional scenarios by them over and over again, kicking the tires to make sure my fiction is plausible, double-checking them against other experts. I may not get every single fact right, but I do come awfully close. My feeling is that if I can get past the two or three people in the world who know the most about my subject --- whether it’s money laundering or how to make the composite sections of airplane wings --- then I’ve done a good job and I’m happy.

BRC: Jake Landry, the protagonist of POWER PLAY, is easily one of the most interesting characters I’ve encountered in a thriller this year. He is a fish out of water, but in many ways is the smartest shark on the beach. Who is Jake modeled after? Is there a bit of Joseph Finder in Jake Landry?

JF: Yes and no...I mean, there’s always a part of me in all of my heroes, since that’s how I’m able to make them feel real and compelling; I need to understand them deeply in order to make my readers believe them. But there’s always an element of wish-fulfillment about them, too. Jake has all sorts of talents I don’t have. I’m a decent shot, but he’s a real marksman. He really knows how to fight. Then again, even though Jake and I both grew up in upstate New York, he had a much more difficult, much more violent childhood. I loved writing him, I have to say --- I always like the underdog.

BRC: Each of your novels has been very different from your previous works, and POWER PLAY is no exception. One of the biggest surprises for me is its setting. While some of your previous works have used the world for a backdrop, POWER PLAY is set almost entirely within a Canadian hunting lodge. Was it a conscious decision on your part to make a change of venue, so to speak, to a much more claustrophobic setting, or did you unconsciously find that the story you wanted to tell was better served in such an environment?

JF: From the beginning, I intended POWER PLAY as a way to take the office intrigue that people seemed to like about PARANOIA and KILLER INSTINCT, etc., and move it outside, out of the office. I wanted to write a story that was just about all action. At the same time, I wanted there to be one locus of action, one contained locale --- a crucible in which all the characters could clash with each other and all the unstated issues could come out. There’s a kind of David Mamet-like aspect to POWER PLAY --- almost play-like in terms of the confined setting --- yet it’s also nonstop action, which is not play-like at all. Basically, I like to try something new with each book, and this was my way to do it. It wasn’t easy to write --- it was, in fact, the hardest book I’ve written --- but in the end, I was happy with the way it came out.

BRC: I’d like to talk about your writing process, especially as it pertains to the new novel. What was the seed that blossomed into POWER PLAY?

JF: One of my CEO friends --- a guy who runs a major corporation --- told me about how he’d just taken his entire leadership to a really over-the-top salmon-fishing lodge in British Columbia, where they were all, as he put it, “off the grid” --- offline, out of touch with the office. No cell phone reception, no phone, no BlackBerry, no Internet. My first reaction was: “My God, what if something had happened to you guys?” He replied, “Don’t even think that way. Please.”

Well, I’m a novelist, and I couldn’t help but think that way. I’d just gotten a great idea for an action story that could fold in all sorts of great elements --- conspiracy, corruption, the clash of personalities.

BRC: While all of your novels have been enjoyable, POWER PLAY especially is very streamlined reading, nearly impossible to put down once started. How do you get there? Do you engage in multiple rewrites of the story as a whole, or finish each page completely before moving on to the next? Do you have a select group of people other than yourself who “test drive” each of your novels purely for readability?

JF: As I said, this one took a lot of work, and I went through a number of major revisions on it. I wrote several complete drafts. I try to avoid rewriting page by page or chapter by chapter. I like to see the whole thing in front of me to see if it works, and why or why not. I have three major readers --- my brother, who’s the editorial director of The New Yorker; my agent, Molly Friedrich; and my editor at St. Martin’s, Keith Kahla. Each of them is a very smart, honest reader and doesn’t hesitate to tell me what he or she thinks. I take their criticisms very seriously. Unlike most writers, I actually love being edited. I think it makes the end product much stronger, and I’m always grateful to anyone who takes the time to read my manuscripts closely and tell me honestly what they like --- or don’t like --- about them.

BRC: Let’s play “what if” for a minute. What if you wake up one morning and decide you no longer want to write? What would you do instead?

JF: I couldn’t write anything --- even TV or movies? I’d hate that. Maybe I’d become a producer of TV shows, since there are some great ones out there. Basically, I’m a storyteller at heart, though, and in whatever I do --- whether I directed movies or created TV shows --- I’d aim to tell stories to a large popular audience.

BRC: Your first book, RED CARPET, was a nonfiction work, a book that continues to be discussed some two decades after publication. Do you have any plans, or desire, to return to nonfiction in the future?

JF: No. I find that I get all the pleasure I used to get in nonfiction --- finding things out and telling other people --- by writing novels. In fact, I hardly ever write articles anymore, which I used to do quite often. I just find that I reach a much, much larger readership through my fiction than through my nonfiction. And I enjoy writing it a whole lot more.

BRC: What led you to writing thrillers? Are there any particular authors --- of any genre --- who have influenced your style?

JF: Robert Ludlum first turned me on to the idea of writing thrillers. I read THE BOURNE IDENTITY and THE MATARESE CIRCLE one summer in college. (And as it turned out, my first agent was Ludlum’s, and I got to know Bob Ludlum that way.) But I was also inspired, early on, by Frederick Forsyth (THE DAY OF THE JACKAL) and Ira Levin (ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, etc.). My early style was most influenced by Ludlum and Forsyth, but then I discovered Nelson DeMille, whose GOLD COAST is one of the best thrillers ever written, I think --- and Nelson, who’s also a friend, is one of the best writers in the genre --- and I realized that a book could be funny and observant and insightful while still being really suspenseful.

BRC: What do you feel has been the single most important element of the success of your writing career?

JF: Finding the right publisher. I mean it --- I’m not being modest. I really think that the most important thing an author can do is to find an editor who will become his advocate and publish his book well. I think I’d written some good books before PARANOIA, but it was my first hardcover bestseller --- and that was because of my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and my editor, Keith Kahla.

BRC: If you could begin again, what, if anything, would you do differently?

JF: The list is too long! I wouldn’t have moved around from publisher to publisher as I did --- I’d have stayed with my first publisher. You really need to give a publisher the chance to publish you for several books in a row, to build your audience. Rarely does any one publisher hit a home run the first time at bat. And I’d have written more often --- a book a year. Once I started doing that, my readership started growing significantly. But until I signed with St. Martin’s, no one had ever suggested I do that, so I wrote my novels whenever I felt like it. I could keep going, but that’s a start...

BRC: POWER PLAY will be your last stand-alone novel for a while, as you will be concentrating on a series that will have at least four titles. What can you tell us about this series, and when might readers expect to see the first book?

JF: I don’t know exactly when the first in the series will come out --- late next year, I expect. My hero is Nick Heller, a high-powered corporate investigator based in Boston who investigates crime and fraud and conspiracy around the world. The thing that excites me about starting this series is that it’ll bring in all the workplace intrigue that people liked in PARANOIA and my novels since then, and combine it with the international action that I wrote in my earlier books, like THE ZERO HOUR and THE MOSCOW CLUB. For a long time, I resisted doing one continuing character because I didn’t want to do the old cop/FBI/P.I. thing. But in Nick Heller, I’ve found a character unlike any others out there, to the best of my knowledge. I’m really looking forward to these books, and I think my readers are going to enjoy them a lot too. I hope so, anyway.