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Interview: June 25, 2010’s Joe Hartlaub recently spoke with author Dana Haynes, whose debut thriller, CRASHERS, features a team of experts from the National Transportation Safety Board who investigates aerial disasters. In this interview, they discuss Haynes’s original source of inspiration for the novel and what prompted him to try his hand at a new genre after penning several mysteries. He also shares his thoughts on the current state of air safety, offers some tips for aspiring authors on tackling writer’s block, and hints at what readers can expect from the next installment in the series. Dana, I am terrified of flying, so you had me on the edge of my seat from the start with your new novel, CRASHERS. It begins with the catastrophic crash of a passenger jet and takes a fascinating step-by-step journey through the subsequent investigation, which slowly reveals that the initial crash is but a prelude to an even darker event. Was there a particular event or occurrence that sparked your interest in such investigations and the people who participate in them?

Dana Haynes:Journalist Jonathan Harr wrote an amazing article titled "The Crash Detectives" in The New Yorker in 1996. I was sure someone was going to create a thriller novel about these people and it just never happened. By 1999, I couldn’t get the story out of my head and decided to write it myself.

I’m not a very technical person (bachelor’s in political science), so it took most of a year of research into planes, engines, wings, etc., before I felt I understood them well enough to write about.

I wrote the book in 2000 and started marketing it in 2001. Of course, a book about terrorists dropping multiple airliners became completely unmarketable on September 11, 2001, so I put the book on the shelf for about seven years and worked on other projects.

BRC: Did you base the people we meet in CRASHERS, such as Tommy Tomzak , on individuals you encountered during the course of your research? And would you care to share any identities?

DH: Nope. All fully fictional characters. But I will tell you, the character of Tommy was most difficult. He just wouldn’t come together for me. He was this noble, heroic lead character, steely-eyed and strong-jawed; in short, a truly boring jackass. Then I rented Mike Nichols’s 1998 film, Primary Colors, and as soon as I heard Billy Bob Thornton talking, I knew Tommy was a Texan. >From there, his crankiness, his pushy nature, his guilt, etc., built quickly. But I had to get over that hurdle first.

BRC: Did you do all of your own research for the book? And for our readers who wonder how such things are done, where did you start? Of the total time that it took you to complete the novel, what percentage involved research and what percentage involved writing?

DH: It took a year to do the research. I spent 20 years in Oregon newspaper newsrooms, so once I get writing, I’m pretty fast. I wrote the first draft in a couple of months, and spent six months polishing.

We have a technical bookstore in Portland (text books, blue prints; stuff like that). I haunted it for a year. I downloaded cockpit voice recordings from actual crashes. I read every nonfiction work I could find on crashes. I have an engineer friend at Portland International Airport who helped a great deal. What I did not do was spend a lot of time with the actual NTSB crashers. That’s because they do an amazing job, they’re fascinating. But what takes them up to two years, I had to condense into three days. It just wouldn’t have been a thriller otherwise. Actually, I’m expecting the real crashers to laugh out loud when they read this book, and to assume I’m an idiot. I had to fictionalize so much of what they do.

BRC: What, based upon your research for CRASHERS, needs to be fixed immediately as far as the issue of air safety is concerned?

DH: Not a damn thing. The NTSB is one of the smallest agencies in the federal government, and its track record for figuring out what went wrong is unbeatable. Yes, it takes 18 to 24 months sometimes. It needs to.

Take the crash of the US Air jetliner that nosed into the ground in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s, traveling at full-throttle. I can’t believe that the NTSB solved the mystery. There were no parts of that plane much bigger than your hand, yet they eventually solved it.

The NTSB consists of largely unsung heroes. Even though I had to fictionalize their process, I hope that’s the real-world message that readers take away.

BRC: What made you decide to make the jump, so to speak, from the mystery to the thriller genre? And while CRASHERS is a thriller, it also contains elements of the mystery genre within it. Did CRASHERS begin life as a mystery, until you saw that it might have other possibilities?

DH: My dad and little brother are high school basketball coaches, so to steal a metaphor from them, my pivot foot is still firmly planted in the mystery realm, even though this one is a thriller. As a reader, I started migrating toward thrillers in the 1990s, so when this story grabbed a hold of me, I thought this would be a good opportunity to try something different.

I also spent about four years learning how to write screenplays, and this story lent itself to that medium as well. My feature film adaptation of CRASHERS made it to the semi-finals of the Nichols Fellowship in 2005, which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (I was thrilled until I looked up “semi-finals” and realized it’s Latin for “you lost.”)

BRC: CRASHERS has a cinematic feel to it. For me, it presented as if it were written for a film or even as an ongoing ensemble television series. Has it been optioned yet? If you were involved in the casting process, which actors would you place in which role?

DH: I agree it would make a fun movie! Fingers crossed. And no, it hasn’t been optioned yet. And I didn’t have any actors in my head as I wrote it (other than Billy Bob Thornton’s voice for Tommy’s voice) with one exception. From the beginning, I saw Milla Jovovich in the role of Daria Gibron.

The only other thought is that Tommy Tomzak carries what little bits of humor there are in the story --- which is odd, given he’s a pathologist --- so I would hope an actor with good comic chops could get that role.

BRC: Despite being somewhat reassured by what I read in CRASHERS, flying still frightens me. What frightens you? Would you ever consider writing a novel about it?

DH: I love flying. Love it. Including small, two-seater airplanes and, once, a helicopter (I’m not a pilot, but I have friends who are). And now that I’ve done this research, my faith in pilots and commercial aircraft is much greater than it used to be.

My friend and fellow Portlander Chelsea Cain has been terribly successful with the Gretchen Lowell series of novels, but that’s something I could not write about. That psycho-sexual, sadistic stuff…. I more or less live inside my stories for months at a time, and I couldn’t live there. Chelsea and I talked about it recently at a panel discussion, and she also pointed out that --- like Nixon going to China --- maybe only a woman could write that story and not come across as creepy.

BRC: Along with your successful writing career, you are employed in an administrative position in a community college. If you weren’t writing, what would you do with the time that is currently spent working in the grammar mine?

DH: First, calling me “administrative” cracks me up! I am far too immature for that title. The Public Affairs Department at Portland Community College consists entirely of me and a guy named James Hill, who also came out of newspaper newsrooms. So we’re only a “department” in the broadest sense of the term.

I love working at a community college. I attended one, and I was an education reporter or editor for most of my journalism career. Today, I write for the college magazine and our website, I write for the college president, I’m our lobbyist at the state Capitol, and I’m our intergovernmental liaison. How cool a gig is that?

And I can’t not write. I’m always writing. My head literally would explode if I weren’t crafting a story.

St. Martin’s asked for a sequel to CRASHERS, which is done and with my editor. They have not yet asked for a third book, but I’m working on ideas. Plus, I have an idea for a break-out story focusing on one of the characters in CRASHERS (ain’t saying who).

BRC: Speaking of day jobs and the like, what sort of writing schedule do you keep? How much trouble do you have maintaining it? How do you keep life from either getting in the way, or, at the least, being a perpetual speed bump on the road to completing your next project?

DH: I write in the morning, using steno pads and mechanical pencils. Then, in the afternoon or evening, I transcribe it into my MacBook. Two reasons: First, it slows me down, which is good. When I write too fast, my writing sucks.

Second, I can get 150 to 170 words on one page of a steno pad, and if the plot hasn’t moved forward or some character development hasn’t happened, I need to reconsider that passage. That’s a pretty quick pace, but in thrillers it seems to work.

The other thing I do is keep butcher paper on my kitchen cupboards and jot down problems, like how to get a character where I need him. (Hard to imagine how it is I’m single, huh?) I’m a visual learner, so the act of writing down a problem generally means my brain will come up with the solution in a day or two.

As for “life,” I’m fortunate enough to be in love with Katy King. First, she’s a successful mystery novelist. Second, she’s a lobbyist for the Public Health Division for the state of Oregon. We both have a no-fault rule: If we’re planning on going out, and if either calls to say, “I can’t, I’m on a roll with this chapter,” the other understands. It’s a total no-guilt policy. The same holds true in our lobbying work.

BRC: In your own writing career, what do you regard as the best, or smartest, thing you have done to date? And is there anything you have done that you wish you could take back?

DH: First, I would tell anyone: spend some years in the newsroom of a small-town weekly newspaper. It is the absolute best boot camp for writers. I never experience writer’s block, because I spent all those years going to school board meetings or city council meetings, and having no choice but to write a clean, understandable and interesting story. The guy I work with at PCC, James, is exactly the same way. Second, people from weeklies have seen it all. If my trousers caught fire, I wouldn’t miss a deadline.

The smartest thing I did, after Bantam dropped my mystery series around 1990, was to not stop writing. I had a decade-long dry spell in which I couldn’t find any publishers for my work, but I kept plowing. The best way to make yourself a better writer is to write. Period. I worked on novels, screenplays and stage plays. I built up rejection slip after rejection slip (Katy King likes to say the only thing worse than getting a rejection slip is not getting one because you’re not writing).

As for things that I would take back, I follow the advice of my mom: I speak ill of no one. Ever. So no, I’m pretty careful about that stuff.

BRC: It seems that every author had at least one author who set them on the path of writing. What author or authors did that for you? And with what book(s)?

DH: Michael Crichton’s THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, 1969, absolutely affected my writing for the thrillers. I love stories in which a bunch of really smart people team up to solve a mystery. That’s just a great book.

The best mystery I ever read was Philip MacDonald’s THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, circa 1959. I’ve re-read it five or six times. By the way: terrible movie adaptation. Avoid it.

BRC: Have you encountered writer’s block in the practice of either profession? If so, how do you get through it (or over it, or around it)? Can you give any of our readers who are aspiring writers any clues to avoiding it altogether?

DH: See answer above.

But also, figure out where your Zone is. My writing partner at PCC, James, needs total silence. He wears earplugs plus those Mickey Mouse ears when he writes. (I’m constantly standing next to him shouting, “James! Yo, James!”)

I write longhand in the mornings, and I can’t write if it’s too quiet. I play music from soundtracks of exciting TV shows or movies (Anything from Michael Giacchino, John Powell or Hans Zimmer will work).

Katy King has color-coded, three-by-five cards to map out her A, B and C stories.

I know a guy who can only write after midnight. A friend can only write in coffee shops. I met a woman in London who writes on the subway, going to and from work.

Experiment. Find your Zone. Whether it’s a time, a location, computer vs. paper, whatever. When you’ve discovered it, live by it.

Here’s another good trick for first-time novelists: Take a favorite novel in the same genre you want to write and “break” the story. It’s also called a “beat map.” If I wanted to write a book like THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, I’d go through it scene by scene, noting on which page we meet which characters, and on which pages the A and B storylines move forward. I’d figure out where Acts I, II and III fall, and the plot points that move us into Acts II and III. Then, I’d try to write a book that exactly matches it. If the first murder happened on Page 20, then mine should, too. The first kiss is on Page 120? Bingo. Et cetera.

Once you’ve established your own writing style, you don’t have to do this anymore. But for beginning writers, it’s a handy trick. Do you love the books of Sue Grafton? Figure out how she builds them.

BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?

DH: Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was awfully good. Chelsea Cain’s HEARTSICK is great. Arturo Perez-Reverte’s QUEEN OF THE SOUTH was splendid, as are his Captain Alatriste books, which focus on a sword-for-hire in 16th-century Madrid. But right now I’m reading Robert McCrum’s nonfiction work, GLOBISH, which explains how an obscure language from a soggy island off the coast of Europe went on to develop the almost-universal language of Earth: English. Fascinating.

I also am reintroducing myself to British comic strip writer Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. From the early 1960s to the 1990s, he banged out some of the most compelling thrillers featuring two great protagonists, in a medium --- the daily adventure strip --- that is far more unforgiving and unbending than even screenwriting. He’s just a great storyteller. I would love to write a proper film adaptation of Modesty Blaise. (Mr. O’Donnell? If you read this, ring me up.)

BRC: What can you tell us about the next novel? And what do you have planned after that? Do you intend that Tommy Tomzak and Company be featured in an open-ended series, or something other than that?

DH: CRASHERS is a plot-driven story, not a character-driven story, so the sequel was tough! In a typical mystery, the protagonist drives the story forward. This time, it’s the airliner crash.

And in the real world, if another plane crashed, the NTSB would put together another team of crashers, not the same six or seven people. So I had to overcome that problem. I won’t tell you how I did it, but I did.

If St. Martin’s Press wants a third book, I’ll be glad to write it and I’m working on ideas right now. I don’t necessarily think it lends itself to a Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker type of open-ended series (I admire both writers greatly). But I’d be incredibly lucky and grateful if that fate awaits me.

Plus, I have five other, unrelated manuscripts from my “dry spell” in the 1990s. I’d love to polish some of those and show my editor. And as I said, I have an idea for a stand-alone book featuring one of the characters in CRASHERS. That one is intriguing me the most right now.

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