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Interview: August 21, 2009

August 21, 2009

New York Times bestselling author Joseph Finder's latest novel, VANISHED, introduces readers to Nick Heller, a Special Forces-trained intelligence investigator commissioned by his 14-year-old nephew to find and rescue his estranged brother. In this interview with's Joe Hartlaub, Finder discusses what sets his protagonist apart from those of his previous works and explains how his interest in family dynamics fueled the plot of this story. He also shares details on the book's companion comic, contemplates the future of communications technology, and reveals how he avoids giving in to distraction while writing. VANISHED introduces Nick Heller, who I found to be your most intriguing protagonist to date. Heller is an investigator for a high-powered intelligence firm who is drawn into what might be the most important case of his career: the disappearance of his brother Roger from whom he has been estranged for several years. Since Heller is the lynchpin for what will be a four-book series, what can you tell readers about him? What makes Nick tick? Did you give his character more thought than you would typically give to the protagonist in a stand-alone book as you sought to set up the series?

Joseph Finder: Let’s take the easiest question first: yes, I gave Nick a lot more thought than I’ve given the protagonists in my earlier novels. I mean, this is a guy who’s going to be with me --- and with readers --- for a long time, I hope. (Not just four books, either --- that’s just the deal I signed with my publisher.) I recently saw Laura Lippman refer to her series character as her “imaginary best friend,” and thought that was a great way to put it; this is someone I’m going to be living with, day in and day out, for years to come. So I wanted to like him, but I also really wanted a handle on what makes him tick --– a process that’s going to continue, just as we keep getting to know all the people in our lives.

Plus, I had to make sure he was built to last. That meant that he had to be a rich and full character, someone whose backstory would continue to emerge, whom I’d keep learning more about.

Nick has the usual characteristics you’d expect a thriller series protagonist to have: he’s smart, he’s brave, he’s resourceful, he has some unexpected skills (picked up in his time in Special Forces, which he joined out of rebellion against his rich father). But he has some big unresolved demons, too. His whole life was turned upside down when his father, a larger-than-life and truly evil figure, turned out to be a remorseless criminal. The idols and structures of his childhood disappeared overnight, which is probably why he wanted the structure and discipline of the military. He’s one of those guys who’s liked by all, but at the same time he’s pretty private.

BRC: The estrangement of brothers, which is the primary plot of VANISHED, is a topic of literature that goes back to the beginning of time. Why did you choose this topic --- with a number of unexpected and intriguing twists --- to be the propelling force behind VANISHED?

JF: I’m always fascinated by family dynamics, as one of five siblings myself, and I actually think it’s an area that doesn’t get enough attention in thrillers. We’re so used to reading about the conflicts between men and women, or the conflicts between sons and fathers (or father figures) --- but that sibling rivalry dynamic goes back to birth, and is just as complex and interesting as any other relationship people have. More so, maybe, because you can’t divorce a brother; and unless you’re Cain, you can’t kill him.

Of course, this relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum, either. Nick and Roger’s relationship is inseparable from their relationship with their father, and Nick’s relationship with Roger’s wife and son is equally important to him, and to the book.

BRC: The prologue to VANISHED is great, but I loved the first chapter, since you begin it --- I’m going to be vague here, in order to avoid spoiling the surprise for our readers --- by breaking the one rule that practically everyone in the writing profession says must not be violated. And it works perfectly here. Once things had been set in stone, so to speak, did you have any regrets about beginning the book in this manner? Or did you anticipate that your readers would get the irony?

JF: Oh, come on --- if it’s good enough for Snoopy, it’s good enough for me.

BRC: Each of your novels contains a generous serving of interesting information, and VANISHED is no exception. I was particularly intrigued with what the novel reveals about communication technology, especially what can be done with a BlackBerry. What, in your opinion, has been the most significant technological achievement --- good or bad, and in any field --- in the past five years? And, based upon your own research while you were writing this book, what do you think will be the most important advancement in communications in the next five years?

JF: Without a doubt the biggest change is the Internet. It’s huge. Not only does it allow people all over the world to communicate quickly and easily, and establish a kind of intimacy --- through things like Twitter and Facebook --- but it also lets us exchange information at lightning speed.

This overwhelming availability of instant information has really changed the nature of secrets. Because information can move so freely and fast now, it does; the days of keeping secrets in traditional ways are over. We saw this most recently in the case of Governor Mark Sanford. How could he have thought that he could just disappear for five days and no one would notice? Within hours of someone noticing he was missing, the press had tracked down where he was, whom he was with, and had even gotten hold of some of his love letters. His whole life became part of the 24-hour news cycle before he’d even gotten back into the country.

What this does, I think, is make disinformation much more important to the business of keeping secrets. No one can listen to everything; no one can process all that information, or even always identify the items that are true or most significant. It’s also gotten alarmingly easy for individuals and organizations to represent themselves in cyberspace as things or people they aren’t.

So the Internet, as great as it is, also makes us all incredibly vulnerable. Everything is tied together --- communications, power grids, even our defense systems, our eyes and ears. And…well, I can’t talk too much about that except to say that it scares the hell out of me.

If I had to speculate about the biggest communications advances in the next five years, I’d guess that they’re going to involve the Internet and video and identity. We can already have video chats through programs like Skype; it’s just a matter of time before every BlackBerry or personal communications device has that video capability, just like Dick Tracy’s wrist communicator. Soon, we’ll have high-fidelity voice over the Internet combined with sophisticated robotics, enabling us to communicate and actually do things at great distances just by speaking.

BRC: One of the most intriguing elements of VANISHED was the idea of the e-mail service run through a website known as, so much so that I checked the URL, which has apparently been parked. Is this an idea of yours that you plan to explore as a side project in the future, or did you hear about it elsewhere?

JF: Um… is mine. I had the idea, and reserved the URL just to make sure that no one else was using it by the time VANISHEDcame out. I love the idea, which has some parallels in the real world --- there’s a service called, and another one called that actually works in a way very similar to I didn’t know about either of these when I thought of, but it’s a great concept, isn’t it? I’d love to do something with the site at some point in the future, but that’s still in the works.

BRC: At one point in VANISHED, while in a parking garage, Nick utilizes something that I call the “gravel trick,” sprinkling gravel around his automobile to see if someone has tampered with his car while he is away from it. Is this original to you? If so, what inspired it? If not, where did you learn it?

JF: No --- it’s based on a very old trick, probably going back to caveman hunters. I can’t remember where I first read it, but I know I’ve read spy novels in which the hero sprinkled, say, baby powder around a desk or in front of a door in order to be able to tell whether anyone had disturbed the room while he was gone.

BRC: In your acknowledgements at the conclusion of VANISHED, you include the names of a number of experts in a great many fields. Can you share with us some background on your research?

JF: Research is my obsession --- I’d almost say it’s my hobby, because I enjoy it so much. I’m constantly gathering information, not just because I might want to use it in a book, but also because I just think it’s cool to know this stuff. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in being able to make contacts in many different fields, going back to my earliest days as a journalist. In fact, what I’ve found is that many subject matter experts are far more willing to talk to novelists than they are to talk to journalists. There isn’t that same expectation of an adversarial relationship, and as a novelist I have more time to get into details than most journalists do. And of course, as a novelist I can always say that what I’m writing is fiction, so things that need to be secret can remain secret.

Being in Boston is a great help, as it’s a major center of learning and science. If I have a question about an esoteric topic, I can pick up the phone and call friends at Harvard or MIT or Boston University, and if they don’t have an answer, chances are great that they know someone who does. Six degrees of separation definitely applies; I’m willing to follow a trail from one person to another until I get the answer I’m looking for.

One resource I had for this book that I didn’t have before is Twitter. Twitter’s a mixed blessing --- it’s a terrible distraction, as well as being great fun and a fantastic resource --- but it’s really amazing that I’m able to post a question to Twitter and get offers of help back from experts almost instantaneously.

BRC: Roger and Lauren Heller each have different opinions regarding sushi, a factor that indirectly jump-starts the events in VANISHED. So tell us, where do you fall on the question of sushi? Are you closer to Roger or to Lauren?

JF: I like sushi. I’m more with Roger. But I have friends --- and, shall we say, family members --- who regard raw fish as vile.

BRC: Nick's nephew helps him with this case by providing him with a pivotal clue, but he shares it in an interesting way with a drawing in a comic. What inspired you to want to use a comic in your work?

JF: When I was a kid, I was obsessed with comics. Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to draw cartoons. Over the past few years, it’s been really exciting to see the rebirth of comics as “graphic novels,” and I’ve been very impressed with the work that authors like Brad Meltzer, Michael Chabon, Gregg Hurwitz and others are doing in the field. It seemed natural to give Gabe some of my own adolescent interests, although we don’t share the same taste in music.

BRC: I have read that you actually developed a copy of this comic for your readers. What can you tell us about this?

JF: Yes --- it’s a short comic called THE COWL, based on the story in VANISHED. Brian Azzarello wrote it, and it was illustrated by a wonderful Spanish artist named Benito Gallego. I met Azz at last year’s Bouchercon, along with some of the guys from DC Comics, and it occurred to me that it could be great to have a comic book that was not only a tie-in with VANISHED, but an actual clue to the book’s central mystery. I pitched the idea to Will Dennis, Senior Editor at DC Comics, and he didn’t laugh at me; he helped me find Benito, and make the dream a reality. I love how it turned out, it’s a childhood dream come true. (Readers can see the comic book for themselves and read more about its backstory at

BRC: Do you ever have trouble with what is popularly known as “writer’s block”? If so, what method(s) do you utilize to break through it? And how do you keep your creative batteries recharged?

JF: Writing’s a job, and you have to go to work every day, the same way as you would do any other job. I always say, plumbers don’t get plumber’s block and chefs don’t get chef’s block. So no, I don’t get writer’s block; I keep writing, and if I have to revise it later, I revise it later.

What I do get, sometimes, is distracted. I sit down at my desk, and there are 10 things I’d rather do than write: answer e-mails, respond to Twitter messages, see what my friends (or my daughter and her friends) are doing on Facebook, research one more cool way to trace a cell phone. That’s why I have to have a deadline. I also have a giant hourglass on my desk that I use to measure out stretches of writing time; while the sands are running, I can’t be doing anything but writing.

As far as the creative batteries go, thank goodness that’s not a problem for me. In fact, I’d say I almost have the opposite problem, of too many ideas --- “Well, what if this happened? No, what if it was this? Wait, how about this?” It’s a matter of choosing which way this particular story’s going to go, and being content to save other ideas for future books.

BRC: What can readers expect from Nick in future installments? Have the next three books in the series already been plotted? When will the second one be out?

JF: The second one will be out about this time next year; I’m finishing it now. What I can tell you is that it takes Nick into a new phase of his career, although he’ll still be working with Dorothy, and it’ll take him out of the United States, to more exotic locales. The biggest change is that Nick’s going to move to Boston, the city where he grew up (and where I happen to live…I’m no idiot). I’ve got plenty of ideas for books three and four, but I’m not talking.

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