What do an ex-lawyer and an ex-song writer have in common? Not a lot, unless you’re Jeffery Deaver – the master of the thriller, who has sold in excess of 20 million books worldwide, and who used to hold both of these professions.
I caught up with Jeffrey and fellow crime author John Connolly at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, and a more charming and entertaining fellow you could not meet, even if John jested that Jeffery looked somewhat like a villain, to which Mr Deaver replied, ‘or a surly waiter, as I was described last week!’
The Kill Room is the tenth electrifying Lincoln Rhyme thriller, and his thirtieth suspense novel. It has his trademark rollercoaster plot twists that have made him one of the world’s most loved thriller writers.
Talking openly and with great humour, he told a packed house at the Pavilion, “I began writing when I was quite young. I was a nerd, when the word nerd meant something. Nowadays, when you say nerd, it means someone has a patent in a computer product and he’s worth billions of dollars. No, I was a nerd when it meant pudgy, clumsy, and socially inept. I got beaten up in the schoolyard, I was that kind of nerd, and I was drawn to reading and writing. I just loved this idea of creating stories, and I knew at that young age that books were very special. For instance, you’d go to a school, and you didn’t know a soul there, and being pudgy, clumsy and socially inept, the girls tended to ignore you and the footballers tended to beat you up, but then you would see somebody holding a copy of The Hobbit, or maybe an Agatha Christie novel, and suddenly even though you didn’t know that person, you really DID know them, and you’d go up and start talking, so I thought this concept of books was a very special thing.’
Speaking about his earlier career choices, Deaver said, ‘At thirteen I wrote, and I thought this is crap, at eighteen I tried again and I thought oh this IS CRAP, so I put it aside. I needed to pay the bills. I kept going with other careers. I tried singing. I was a singer-songwriter. Now the latter has two components, singer and songwriter. The song writing bit wasn’t bad, however the singing part didn’t work out so well, and I wanted luxuries in life, like a house, and food… so I had to have other careers to sustain me until I was able to write fulltime.’
As for his other career in the law, he was equally as candid, ‘I was essentially a bad lawyer, I’ll tell you a story; I understand there’s been a bit of scandal in the news here [a reference to Anglo, bringing laughter from the audience], I’m often asked did the writing of legal briefs and court documents help me to become a writer of my novels, in other words, did I have clients who were criminals?
‘I did corporate law, but I would say yes indeed I had criminal clients. I represented banks [more laughter], and I think you know the scandal that I’m speaking of, of course it’s something that has happened in America as well, but I’ll tell you the epiphany of my legal career, and why it’s a good thing that I now write books. I did mostly business law, but at one point, I’d been asked by a senior partner, to handle a trial. I was representing a company best described as large, heartless, and capitalistic. The situation was this – my client fired a young man legitimately- he was not particularly good – and he sued the company for wrongful dismissal, but that didn’t even get to trial. Then he sued for loss of personal property, because he’d left a box behind that had disappeared. I go down to the law library, open up law books. I had ancient tones of legal documents, hundreds of pages of this kind of stuff, so I go into court, representing my large multinational, and this young fellow appeared with this young attorney, and they put their case first, because they were the plaintiffs, and the judge turned to me and said, ‘okay counsellor, let’s hear your side of this’, and I said, ‘Your Honour, the case of Fred B Jones 1832…’ He said back, ‘get to the point, what do you want me to do?’ I say, ‘judgment for the defence, please sir, gratuitous bailment’, and the judge said, ‘for the defendant,’ and banged the gavel down and I had this kind of John Grisham moment, like yes, I’ve won, I’ve defended. I’d made legal history, and I looked at the plaintiff and he was crying, because it turned out that in this box of things, he’d lost the last picture he had of his Mom, and his favourite picture of his dog. I wanted to write a cheque out of my own account for this fellow. I also wanted to go and dig through the trash and find the pictures he’d left behind, and right there I knew, I had no business being in this profession of law, so I left and began writing full time, much to the relief of my bosses at the firm!’
Inevitably the conversation moved to the subject of the editorial process when John Connolly asked Jeffery about his early novels, Voodoo and Always a Thief, which according to John are impossible to find despite his best efforts! (If any of you are hiding them under a mattress, give John a call)
Jeffrey compared both of them to bad sushi – and he loves sushi. ‘If you were going to have sushi that is made up of chocolate chips and liver, then that is a very bad sushi. I think chocolate chip liver sushi describes my first books very well. I have to say in my defence if I may, how the editorial process normally works. For those of you who may not be too familiar with it, you write your first draft, rewrite and rewrite a number of times, submit that to your publisher, your editor reviews it and says, well, we might want to change this or that.
‘I’ve a very good relationship with my editors and I listen to what they say, and I kind of polish the book, then it goes to the copy editing team, those are the people who say, ‘Jeff, I see in this thriller of yours that you have a fellow in Dublin who swims to Wales in an hour. I looked at Google maps and I don’t think that could happen’, and then we correct that, and we make sure that it’s right, and then the book goes to a third level of proofing, to make sure there are no typos, so you understand, this is a very elaborate process. My first book, Voodoo, I wrote the first draft, did maybe two rewrites of it, I sent it to my publisher, and I was expecting to receive back a manuscript with questions, queries, and so forth on it. I received back, about six weeks later, a box of finished, printed books! So that’s the reason you don’t see many of them around.’
Jeffery Deaver has a very specific writing process. His books are highly crafted and he goes about his task very differently to many. He explained, “I do a book a year, sometimes two. This year I have two books coming out, so every other year I’ll have two books, but the process is roughly the same. I will spend eight months outlining, and that’s a full-time job, outlining and doing the research.
‘The writing world is divided into two camps, those who outline and those who don’t. One is not better than the other, and when I teach my students or do seminars, I say right up front that I’m speaking about writing commercial fiction, and everything I tell you could be completely wrong, because there is nothing more subjective than writing fiction and what works for you, works; and that’s the end of the story. I don’t have a particularly good memory, I don’t consider myself particularly bright, I need to organise everything first, so those eight months are spent creating a very elaborate outline – my books all have multiple plots, they have three or four plots running simultaneously, they all take place over a very short time period, and every scene has to be choreographed so that it doesn’t step on the toes or spoil the next scene, and remember with four plots going on at once, I keep shifting points of view. And I love my surprise endings, followed by surprise ending, followed by surprise ending, which is actually very exhilarating, and I need to set those up ahead of time.
‘I start with a big board, and I use post-it notes, and I will start with, in the case of The Kill Room [about the targeted assassination of an American citizen by a government agency], a post-it note that says, citizen killed, and at the end Lincoln solves the case. Over the course of the next eight months, those first scenes, become ten, then twenty, becoming eighty or about a hundred, and I rearrange them and I say, what on earth was I doing giving this information here, as it gives away the surprise there, so I swap those two, and I sit and stare at them all for a long time, and I do the research at the same time also.
‘I’ll give you a word of advice about post-it notes. I live in a very humid place in America, North Carolina, and I’d done a beautiful ending sequence of a novel a few years ago, and the ending is the most important part of any book, and it was choreographed right down to the minute, so there was a surprise, then another surprise and it had to be a referenced to clues etc., I came back after lunch and all the post-its, unnumbered by the way, were down on the floor. Nowadays, I use pins!
‘When the outline is pretty much done and dusted, I can write the book. I can write it rather quickly. I don’t want you to think that I just throw out a novel. It can be very, very, difficult and I have gotten to the point, when, after maybe three months of working on the novel, I see that this is a book that should not be written, and we’ve all read those books! With the outline, I can write the ending at the beginning, and a beginning at the end.”
Asking Jeffery if, when he began writing Lincoln Ryan, he had thought of him in terms of a series, John Connolly wondered why he choose to set himself such a challenge in creating a character incapable of any kind of action scenes. Deaver replied, said, “When I was thinking about the book that became The Bone Collector, as I’m always thinking about what readers will enjoy, I was reminded of something I heard about from Hollywood, how when a producer is looking for a project to turn into a film, from a book or a script, he wants something that has never been done before, is completely original, and yet has been wildly successful in the past! There’s a grain of truth in that.
‘And I got this idea, that I might create a hero who had to out think the villain, rather than walking into a bar and banter with the bartender, or karate-kid the bad guy into submission at the end, I wanted someone who wanted to engage in a mental chess match, and that was quite a challenge. But no, I never did think it would be a series. I thought The Bone Collector was a very serviceable novel, I enjoyed writing it, and I liked the characters. The Bone Collector sold in more than a few countries…and I’m not stupid, I was thinking, if enough people enjoy this character, even though he is rather improbable, I will certainly keep creating him, and The Kill Room is number ten, and actually right now I’m working on the eleventh one for next year.’
Chatting about heroes and villains, Deaver said, ‘We love our heroes, who couldn’t help but love the heroes that you we spend a lot of time with, but the fun is in creating the villain. I just have so much fun with them, and an important thing to remember is – never kill your villain. Here’s a story, a fellow in America wrote his first thriller, detective fiction, a ‘who done it’ kind of thing, and in the final scene the hero tracked down the bad guy in Lower Manhattan, confrontation scene, shooting at each other, and the hero managed to get the better shot, and he hit the bad guy in the forehead, who then falls down into the sewer which goes out to New York harbour, and he floats away. The reviews comes out, interesting book, interesting hero, good private eye, but that villain, AMAZING, the reincarnation of evil. Now as I mentioned before authors are not necessarily stupid, we support a lot of people, our family, MasterCard, and so a year later the sequel comes out, and of course it’s got the hero in it, but who is in the opening scene? The Villain! Here’s how the author handled it, and I give him credit for it, no big explanations – paragraph 2, “miraculously, he survived.”
Jeffery Deaver is a charming and entertaining man, who happens to be one heck of a writer.
The Kill Room is available in all good bookshops and online here.
(c) Louise Phillips
Born in Dublin, Louise Phillips is the crime writing mastermind behind writing.ie’s Crime Scene blog. She began writing in 2006 when her youngest son turned thirteen. Since then, Louise has won the Jonathan Swift Award with her story Last Kiss. She was a winner in the Irish Writers’ Centre Lonely Voice Platform, short-listed for the Molly Keane Memorial Award, Bridport UK, and long-listed twice for RTE Guide/Penguin short story competition. Louise has been published as part of many anthologies, including County Lines from New Island, and various literary journals. In May this year she was awarded an Arts Bursary for Literature from South Dublin Arts Council.
Hachette Books Ireland bought Irish and UK Commonwealth rights for Louise’s debut psychological crime novel Red Ribbons, which was shortlisted in this year’s Irish Book Awards for Best Crime Novel of the Year 2012. Louise’s second novel The Doll’s House will be published in 2013.