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Interview: April 11, 2003

April 11, 2003

In this special interview two thriller authors, Jeffery Deaver (author of THE VANISHED MAN) and John Gilstrap (author of SCOTT FREE) discuss their different approaches to writing, their definitions of the mystery and suspense/thriller genres, competition with other authors, and more.

BRC: You approach the suspense/thriller genre differently, with Jeffery writing more plot-driven titles while John's work is character-driven. How did you each discover the form you were most comfortable with? And once an author writes in one style, is it tough to change to another?

Jeffery Deaver: In my case it was trial and error. My earlier books were more character driven --- that is, while they still had plot twists and surprises I would digress more to explore the characters' lives. When I decided to try writing less of that and adding more intricate plots and additional twists (because that's the kind of book I enjoy reading), readers seemed to enjoyed the books more. So I've made that my niche. Regarding changing styles, I think there is a mode or tone a writer falls into naturally and it's very hard to change. However, it's possible to write about different subjects or with a different slant than you've been doing. The question you have to ask, though, is this: Why change? And the only reason to change is if you're convinced in your heart that you will produce a better product for the reader.

John Gilstrap: For me, there's a strong analogy between method acting and storytelling. When I write in a particular character's point of view, I try to become that character, seeing the action through his or her eyes. I try to create a bond between my characters and my readers that is strong enough for readers to feel as if they've come to know the characters on a very personal level. That way, when the characters endure the hardships that define my books, there's a very real emotional rush.

Now, how did I discover this form? I don't think I ever did, at least not in the sense of poking around with many different styles and suddenly finding one that worked. I think this is my natural voice. I can see kernels of this style even in the stories I wrote in elementary school (Yes, I still have all the stories I wrote in elementary school; and yes, my wife is tired of having us cart the boxes wherever we move).

As for changing styles, I'm not sure that it would be possible and still have a bond with the readers.

BRC: Many readers ask us the difference between suspense/thriller and the mystery genres. Over the past few years the gap has been widening. How do you each see the differences?

John Gilstrap: Is the gap widening, or are we just seeing the birth of a thousand sub-categories? I think we've entered an age of specialization. Even within the "mystery" genre, you've got the "cozy," the "hard boiled," the "P.I.," the "noir," and heaven knows what else. When I tell people I write thrillers, I'm often asked, "So, you write stories like Tom Clancy?" (Answer: "Um, no.") I don't write techno-thrillers, medical-thrillers, legal thrillers or spy thrillers. Actually, now that you mention it, I'm not entirely sure what I do write. People-on-the-run thrillers, I guess, although even that is not true in every case. Thinking about it makes me a little dizzy.

There's much about this genrefication that I find confusing --- and, frankly, a little self-defeating for writers. Aren't most "mysteries" driven by a healthy dollop of suspense? Don't most thrillers have an underlying mystery that the protagonist is attempting to solve?

To my mind, I guess the primary differentiation between the mystery and the thriller is, in a mystery, we're mostly trying to discover who did what to whom, whereas in a thriller we're mostly trying to figure out how the good guy or the bad guy can achieve his elusive or dastardly goal.

Jeffery Deaver: A suspense/thriller novel asks the question, "What's going to happen?" A traditional mystery novel asks, "What happened?" In other words, the mystery is a puzzle that the hero (and reader) seek to unravel. A thriller is a carnival ride with the hero (and reader) in the front car.

BRC: When you read suspense/thrillers written by others, do you find yourself "taking them apart" to study how the author set up the story?

Jeffery Deaver: Though, as I note below, I don't read as much as I would like to nowadays, when I do read a thriller I can't help deconstructing it.

John Gilstrap: Absolutely, especially when I'm taken completely by surprise. I love to go backwards through a book that blind-sided me to see if the author cheated, and if not, to see how he so effectively set me up. Writing is, after all, a craft; and as with any craft, there's no better way to learn than by studying the masters.

BRC: What do you read for recreation while you are in the middle of a book? Do you find that reading certain books --- such as other suspense/thriller novels --- interferes with your current work-in-progress?

John Gilstrap: When I'm really in the moment, in the throes of writing a new book, most of my recreational reading looks a lot like research, either for the book in progress or as a means of exploring an idea for a future work. Some fiction works its way in, of course, and when it does, it's usually a thriller, and more often than not the author will be someone I know. They say you should write the type of books you like to read, so I guess I'm true to the maxim.

Jeffery Deaver: I'm afraid I do little recreational reading at this stage of my career. I write one novel a year (this year I'm doing a novel and a novella) and several short stories as well. This makes writing for me a full-time job and I don't have nearly the time to devote to reading that I'd like. (For next year's book, CITY OF WHISPERS, I've had to read and digest 57 nonfiction books.) Then too, I am influenced by other writers' styles and I don't want that to interfere with my prose.

BRC: When writing --- have you ever run a storyline or a plot by each other for suggestions or input? Have you done this with any other authors, or do you prefer to work on your own?

Jeffery Deaver: Occasionally we'll mention to each other what we're working on currently for each other's general thoughts, (and John is always right on!). But aside from that and the editors I hire, I don't look for specific suggestions from anyone. I tend not to play well with others.

John Gilstrap: I do this all the time with Jeff, who I consider to be one of the masters in this business of telling stories. I don't seek input or suggestions on plot points as much as I seek advice on which of several story ideas he thinks would be the most viable.

BRC: In many businesses, people compete. Do authors compete with one another the same way, or do you think by nature of the fact that you know how tough it is to do this work you instead look at each other's success differently?

John Gilstrap: I'd be dishonest if I said I didn't feel competitive at times, but it's always tempered by good wishes. This is a brutal business, and I've had more than my share of lucky breaks, so I really have no right to complain about anything. I remember the day that Simon & Schuster's Weekly announced a very lucrative deal for Jeff Deaver. I was meeting him that night at a local watering hole so when I joined him, I tossed the article on the table and said, "Okay, I'm officially jealous." (That's guy-talk for: "Congratulations.") He thanked me and said, "Not a bad deal for my sixteenth book, huh?" Sixteen. As in, he'd done fifteen before that. I'd done three, I believe, at the time. His point was well taken.

Perhaps this is too obvious even to state, but at the end of the day, the secret of success for a writer is to write, and the secret to success as a human being is to cheer everyone's good fortune.

Jeffery Deaver: We're very lucky to be in this business because the state of the economy isn't so bad (so far, knock on wood) that readers can't afford several books a year. Unless you're completely strapped, you can probably buy both the new Deaver and the new Gilstrap this year, unlike buying cars or DVD players. So I don't see much competition. Of course, you always are looking at other authors and thinking, I wish I had that much advertising behind my book or why can't I have such great placement of bins in the grocery store book departments. But that's not author vs. author competition; that's author vs. Simon & Schuster issues.

BRC: John, you have done some screenwriting where Jeffery has not taken a keen interest in this aspect of the business. What do you like about screenwriting that keeps you at it even as you are working on your novels?

John Gilstrap: There's a lot to like about screenwriting, but much of what is likable ultimately plays out as what's also most annoying. In my previous professional life, I spent fifteen years in corporate America. Unlike many writers, I really enjoyed the frantic pace and the personal interaction, and I was really very good at it. Because screenwriting is such a collaborative endeavor, I think it taps into that part of my personality. Plus, since I've only done adaptations, screenwriting has been much faster --- eight weeks for a screenplay, as opposed to a year-plus for a novel.

When I took my first screenwriting gig, I worried that it would somehow sap creative energy that would otherwise go into my novels. Instead, I found the opposite to be true. I've come to think of creativity as something liquid, which flows freely; just because I divert it in several directions doesn't mean that there's less of it.

There's no doubt, though, that novels will always be my first love, if only because it's the one medium in which I have absolute control over every aspect of the story.

BRC: When you read books or watch other media (TV and movies), do you ever stop and think how differently you might have set up a story or moved it along? Or do you just enjoy it?

Jeffery Deaver: I try to go with the flow and enjoy the experience. Only when the writer or director drops the ball and we see a glaring mistake that would have made for a better story do I mentally rewrite.

John Gilstrap: Every single time. I've come to think of it as the curse of what I do. I'm pretty forgiving, actually, of some esoteric details like incorrect police procedures, but when characters do something that is more for the benefit of the writer than for the benefit of themselves, then I'm ejected right out of the story, often never to return. (Hey, if you go for a walk alone in the woods when you know there's a killer on the loose, then you just flat-out deserve to die.)

BRC: There are a lot of writing conventions and organizations out there. Do you recommend aspiring writers attend such conventions and join the organizations whenever possible? Why or why not?

John Gilstrap: I attended exactly one creative writing class (in college). It lasted two semesters, and it took 10 years to repair the damage it caused. I was at an age when I believed that the majority of the class must have understood storytelling better than I did, and they were unanimous in their assessment that my writing was flat and derivative. I realize now that while I was trying to tell stories, they were trying to paint word pictures merely for the value of the images themselves. That I couldn't understand what they wrote mattered less than the fact that the words were colorful. Our approaches to writing could not have been more divergent. (Ask me if I take some small measure of delight in the fact that I am the only member of the class ever to be published.) That experience convinced me that when it comes to writing, William Goldman says it all in his famous quote about Hollywood, "No one knows anything."

When a writer joins a writing group, that act alone telegraphs a willingness to subvert one's literary voice to the whims of people who may or may not have a clue about what the writer is trying to accomplish. Add to this the likelihood of jealousy and competing agendas, and I think there's a lurking recipe for trouble.

So, for ASPIRING writers (note: the algebra changes a lot once an author is published), I suggest a great deal of caution in joining any group. If you know exactly what you're looking for, and have enough confidence in your own abilities as a writer and in the validity of what you're trying to say, then go for it.

Jeffery Deaver: I'm a member of the Mystery Writers of America and get to a convention or two a year, though I was more active in my earlier days as a writer. It's important for aspiring writers to network and to gather as much information as possible and conventions are a good way to do that. And of course, nothing beats standing around in the bars at convention hotels and gossiping bout the biz!