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Interview: June 24, 2011

Although Joseph Finder's original plan was to become a spy, lucky for us he became an award-winning author of thrillers instead. BURIED SECRETS marks the return of private spy Nick Heller, who was introduced to the world two years ago in VANISHED. Heller now finds himself in the middle of a life-or-death situation when a friend's teenage daughter is abducted and held prisoner in an underground crypt.'s Joe Hartlaub spoke with Finder about the creation of his protagonist and his ability to reward followers of the series and newcomers alike. He reveals his keen interest in weapons, his knowledge of the CIA, his Batphone, and a recent brush with claustrophobia --- as well as allowing himself to be buried alive. Nick Heller, the protagonist of VANISHED and your new novel, BURIED SECRETS, has been described as a "private spy," which is an accurate description. He's an independent contractor within the private sector who's in the business of acquiring information, by legal means if possible and extra-legally if necessary. In BURIED SECRETS, he becomes personally as well as professionally involved when the troubled daughter of an old friend goes missing and is later discovered to have been abducted. Can you take us through the creative process, from concept to realization, that resulted in the character known as Nick Heller?

Joseph Finder: My publishers had encouraged me for years to come up with a series character, but I resisted the idea for a long time. I couldn't figure out how to put a recurring character into the kind of books I write, because my protagonists go through so much. How many times could I bring one character to the brink of personal ruin, or death? What kind of person could plausibly find himself in situations like that over and over again? (Except for Jack Bauer, I mean.)

Then, a few years ago, I had dinner in London with an old friend who had been working for the CIA. I discovered that he'd left the Agency and founded a private international investigation firm. He'd become, in essence, a "private spy." This was a new concept to me, but as my friend explained it --- and as I discovered as I talked to others --- it's a real growth industry. Thousands of CIA officers left the Agency in the 1990s after the Cold War ended, and some of them went private. They do the same kind of work they used to do for the government, only for corporations, politicians, wealthy individuals...and even the CIA! After 9/11, the CIA started to outsource a lot of its spy work. In fact, these private spies get paid a lot more than they did while working for the government, they have greater resources, and they can go places that U.S. government employees aren't permitted to go.

So I'd found my new series character: a private spy I named Nick Heller. I wanted him to be conversant in the world of big business, to be as comfortable in the boardroom as in the back alleys, so I gave him an unusual background. Nick was raised in immense wealth as the son of a Wall Street titan, who was arrested when Nick was a teen, went fugitive, and was caught and imprisoned years later. So Nick has seen the dark side of great wealth. He rebelled by enlisting in the army, went into the Special Forces and then military intelligence. And now he's working for himself, picking and choosing his cases, free to turn down assignments. I see him as an interesting mixture of iconoclast and old-fashioned hero, a guy who has a rock-solid set of values and his own rules for enforcing them.

The good news is that Nick is a complex enough character that I'm still learning things about him, and I hope I will for many books to come.

BRC: One of my favorite elements of BURIED SECRETS is the pacing. The tension in the narrative is practically unrelenting, particularly in the final two-thirds, as the master plan that has been set up by Alexa's abductors slowly begins to unravel out of their control, putting her in even greater danger. Do you rely on others for opinions on how your manuscripts and narratives ebb and flow? Or do you have your own well-honed sense of what is working and what is not through the course of each of your books?

JF: Raymond Chandler's famous advice was, "When in doubt, send in a man with a gun." On my own computer monitor, I have a note that reads: "Surprise, reverse, reveal." Thrillers are like sharks: they have to keep moving, or they die. And I think pacing is the essential distinction between thrillers and other types of crime fiction.

So I'm constantly asking myself, as I write and rewrite, "Is this moving fast enough?" A fatal error that many thrillers make, especially in exotic settings, is over-explaining. You have to learn how to relax and trust your reader, because part of the fun of reading a thriller is that effort to figure out what's going on when you don't have all the information. I do a lot of research for my books --- a lot --- and I figure research is like an iceberg: only 10 percent of what you know should ever be visible to the reader.

Over the course of 10 books I think I've developed a pretty good sense of how a story is moving, but I do still rely on feedback from early readers --- and from my terrific editor, Keith Kahla --- to let me know where I need to cut something and pick up the pace, or when I've skated too fast over crucial information. It's not always easy to strike a balance between pace and depth of character, so that takes a fair amount of tweaking. I like to think that by the time a manuscript has been run through the editorial gauntlet, I've generally got it right.

BRC: Another of the appealing elements of BURIED SECRETS --- besides the excellent story --- is the fact that readers who are new to your work do not have to first read VANISHED, the first Nick Heller novel, to fully appreciate this one. Are you going to continue this practice in future Nick Heller books, so that new readers can "jump on" the series at any point and then go back and read the other installments in any order?

JF: Absolutely, although it's one of the big challenges of keeping a series going over time: how do you deal with the backstory? The last thing you want to do is punish loyal readers by making them sit through five pages that explain things they already know. I want new readers to be able to pick up any Nick Heller book and read it with no prior knowledge of the character, but I also want to reward readers who have invested in Nick's long-term progress.

I've spent a lot of time reading other series to see how authors handle this, and feel I've learned a lot from some of the masters. Lee Child's Reacher series: you can pick up any of those books and start reading. Same with John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. I call it the "Lost" problem, from the TV show "Lost": since I didn't watch the first season, I couldn't jump in later, without watching the episodes from the beginning. Whereas I want my readers to be able to discover the Nick Heller series at book #5, say, and then feel free to go back and read the others.

I actually learned something about this while working on a TV pilot with Ed Bernero, the executive producer of "Criminal Minds." A viewer should be able to start watching at any time, but you also want to reward regular viewers with what Ed calls "cookies" --- little revelations about characters that you'd only appreciate if you've seen the show regularly, but that don't turn off or frustrate new viewers.

Of course, my goal is to make readers who start later in the series want to go back and read the earlier books!

BRC: While I thoroughly enjoy Nick Heller as a character, my favorite character in the series is George Devlin, a secondary player who is Nick's go-to guy for hi-tech information and tracking devices. Devlin is a tragic figure, a complicated character who is difficult to work with but invaluable. Do you have plans to feature him more prominently in a future Heller novel?

JF: Thank you --- I'm glad to hear that. I love George, too, and I drew him deliberately as a wounded, angry man whom Nick appreciates despite his difficulties. I won't say more about him, because I don't want to ruin the surprise. I think it's important that even the minor characters in a series be as well drawn, complex and interesting as space allows. I'm not sure what my plans are for him, but thanks for putting the bug in my ear. Maybe I'll bring him in again soon.

BRC: As we see in BURIED SECRETS, cell phones, GPS units, social networking and the like make it easier to keep track of children in some ways, and can make it more difficult to do so in other ways. As a parent, what technological breakthrough (regardless of civil liberties) would you like to see in the next few years to make it easier for parents to track and locate their children?

JF: This is a tough one. Every parent's nightmare --- one of the many --- is losing your kid at the shopping mall. Or turning your back for a second and having your child abducted. And when you consider cases like that, rare as they might be, how can you not want a young child to wear something, even a bracelet or something, that would transmit location via GPS? Yet as the father of a teenager, I know how she'd feel about having her privacy invaded that way.

The fact is, there are so many ways to spy on our kids, from keyloggers anyone can buy, to iPhone bugs, to GPS units in the family car. And it's tempting to abuse the technology. My daughter knows I "know things" and "know people," and she jokingly compares me to the Robert DeNiro character in Meet the Fockers. But that's not my style. I think that older kids, young adults, are entitled to a zone of privacy. For instance, my daughter and I are "friends" on Facebook, but my deal with her is that I'll never look at her page, never monitor her. And I've never broken that promise. She knows she can trust me, and I know I can trust her, and that makes for a really healthy, strong parent-child relationship.

BRC: There are several claustrophobic vignettes in BURIED SECRETS, all of them extremely well done. I have problems with claustrophobia and had to "take a moment," if you will, on a number of occasions while reading certain passages. Are you claustrophobic? How did you manage to get those passages "just right?"

JF: When I was a kid, I read 83 HOURS TILL DAWNby Barbara Jane Mackle and Gene Miller. It was a true crime book, the memoir of an heiress who'd been kidnapped and buried alive until her ransom was paid. It scared the hell out of me. But it wasn't a personal fear of mine. Until fairly recently, if you had asked me, I would have said, "No, of course I'm not claustrophobic." I'd never felt nervous about being in an enclosed space.

That changed during a trip to Israel a couple of years ago. My family and I had a wonderful chance to tour Beit Guvrin, this labyrinth of tunnels that had been dug underneath the Judean Desert 2,000 years ago. These passageways started small and got smaller as they went deeper under the desert floor. You crouched, then you crawled, and finally you got to a point where you had to slither on your belly through a tunnel that was only about 15 inches high.

As I was doing this, I suddenly thought: What if the woman ahead of me gets stuck? What if I wind up trapped down here?

What happened next was a full-blown panic attack, the first one I'd ever had. I made it back to the surface, though the less said about how the better. But coming out of there, I knew that I was now officially claustrophobic.

So when it came time for me to imagine the worst thing I could put this kidnapped girl through, shutting her up in a closed space was an obvious choice. Buried underground? Truly a nightmare.

My commitment to research sometimes approaches the obsessive, I admit. But if I was going to do this to one of my characters, I felt obligated to find out what being buried alive would be like. It took a while for me to find a funeral director who would agree to the experiment, but one I'd gotten to know in Quincy, Massachusetts ultimately agreed. He and his assistant gave me all the information I needed about the size and strength of a casket that could be used for my villains' nefarious purposes --- and then they locked me inside one.

It was surprisingly comfortable at first. I almost thought I might take a nap, until I realized: I am in a coffin. (Of course, funeral directors don't say "coffin." "Casket" is the term of art.) As I started to breathe more quickly, I noticed how stuffy and hot it started to get. I could smell the new paint on the steel walls. I started banging on the lid, and eventually they heard me and let me out.

I made a short video about the whole experience, which you can watch here.

BRC: BURIED SECRETS is your second Nick Heller novel. What do you have planned next for Nick? And between writing stand-alone works and series novels, which do you prefer? What do you like best, and least, about writing each?

JF: The third Nick Heller novel is just about finished. I don't want to say much about it, except that it involves the disappearance of privacy as a result of the Internet.

As for which I prefer, it's like asking a parent to name a favorite child. I love different things about the series and the stand-alones. So far, Nick has been game for almost anything I want to put him through, but I expect that at some future point I'll have a compelling idea for a plot that just doesn't work for him. If I decide I need a break from Nick, I reserve the right to do a stand-alone. But right now I can't imagine writing a book that doesn't have him at the center. He's a character I truly love writing.

What's great about writing Nick is that I have been able to create a much more detailed world for him than I usually have time for in the stand-alones. I have a full dossier on him and continue to add to it. Every book teaches me new things about him. A lot of it might never show up in the books, but it's all useful for me to know.

BRC: You wrote a number of very successful stand-alone thrillers before beginning the Nick Heller series. Is there any particular character of yours that you feel has the potential to make a return appearance, in a Heller book or otherwise?

JF: It's a tempting idea to let one of my earlier characters make a cameo in a Nick Heller novel, but I don't know who the most likely candidate for that would be. I do sometimes wonder what Sarah Cahill (the FBI agent who was the protagonist of THE ZERO HOUR) is up to. But by the end of each novel, my heroes have been through such hell that it would be cruel and unusual punishment to put them through it again.

BRC: I would surmise from certain passages in BURIED SECRETS that you have at least a nodding acquaintance with comic books. Do you read any regularly? And if you could write a story arc concerning an iconic character or team, who would that be?

JF: As a kid I read everything --- Superman, Batman, you name it. I came late to the "graphic novel" revolution, the comic book renaissance. I really discovered them while researching VANISHED. I had the good fortune to meet Brian Azzarello at a Bouchercon (the annual mystery conference) and began quizzing him about how he comes up with his stories, because Nick's nephew, Gabe, writes graphic novels. Then I began reading Brian's books and was hooked. His 100 BULLETS is a masterpiece, and I love his take on Batman.

Batman would probably be my own choice, if I were going to write a story arc for a character. I've always been a fan, and I still covet the gadgets. I even own my own Batphone! It sits on my desk; you can see it on my website here. Commissioner Gordon still hasn't called, but I keep hoping. If you hear I'm having a Bat Cave dug at my summer house on Cape Cod, you'll know I've finally gone around the bend.

BRC: BURIED SECRETS gets extra points for name-dropping the band Alter Bridge and musician Bill Kirchen. Who, in the Finder home, is an Alter Bridge fan? Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what other musicians played the background music for the book?

JF: I sure do listen to music while I write. I listen to gospel while I'm writing Dorothy's scenes, and I sometimes listen to Country & Western while writing Nick's scenes --- Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers. I discovered Bill Kirchen recently, when he played at a good friend's birthday party in Boston. He's amazing. About Alter Bridge, it's an interesting story: I wanted Alexa Marcus, the kidnapped girl, to communicate a clue in a way that her abductors wouldn't notice. So I found Alter Bridge's song "Buried Alive" and decided that was the one. I contacted their manager and told them what I was doing, and they thought it was cool.

Unfortunately, their publisher wanted to hit me with a ridiculous fee for the use of the lyrics written by a guy who wanted me to be able to use them for free! So I had to pare them down to fit within the legal definition of "fair use." I think it's ridiculous the way music publishers want to keep novelists from quoting music lyrics --- as if quoting a few lines, or even a whole stanza, will somehow cut into their revenues.

BRC: One of my favorite bladed weapons is the WASP knife, which is used to graphic if unfortunate effect in a couple of different passages in BURIED SECRETS. Where did you first learn of the WASP knife? Have you had the opportunity to use one (on an inanimate object, of course!)?

JF: The WASP knife is pretty amazing, isn't it? For those who don't know, the WASP knife is a steel blade equipped with an injection device. According to its manufacturer, it "injects a freezing cold ball of compressed gas, approximately the size of a basketball, at 800psi nearly instantly. The effects of this injection will drop many of the world's largest land predators." Of course, the WASP website also says the company "does not condone the killing of innocent creatures." Fortunately, hardly anyone in my books is innocent.

If a government agency ever decides to look at my Internet search history, I could be in trouble. Like many mild-mannered people, I'm fascinated with weapons, mainly because I lead a life where I hope they'll never be necessary. When I started writing thrillers, though, I decided early on that I'd be as accurate as possible whenever writing about them. I've gone through some high-level marksmanship training programs, and I've spent a fair amount of time at gun shows, talking to people who work with deadly instruments for a living.

I have never used a WASP knife on anything living, innocent or otherwise.