Thursday, February 4, 2010

Interview with thriller writer Jeff Abbott

In lieu of just a book review/recommendation, I am delighted to present a brief interview with thriller writer Jeff Abbott.

I'm reading one of his most popular novels, PANIC, right now. Honestly, I was afraid to try it because, well, what if I didn't like a thriller by a fellow-writer from Austin? And one I'd asked to do an interview with??

Not a problem, holy cow. Honestly, of all my book recs, and if you want a good thriller, this is the one. Seriously.

Go to his website (link above) to learn about him and his books, but expect to see the words "international-bestselling"... "award-winning".... “exciting, shrewd, and beautifully crafted” (Chicago Tribune) ... “fresh, original… intricately woven” (Publishers Weekly), .... "three-time nominee for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award" ... "two-time nominee for the Anthony Award."

Yeah, that's a lot of nice words for a writer, trust me.

So, the interview:

1. Did you always want to be a writer growing up, or did you come to it as an adult?

I always wanted to write. My 2nd grade teacher told my parents to get me a Big Chief tablet and a Husky pencil so I could write down the stories I was always telling in class. I wrote a 500-page manuscript in high school, I always knew this was what I wanted to do.

2. What is your writing schedule?

Generally I write first thing in the morning. I try to reach a word count each day; sometimes I can do it in a couple of hours, sometimes it takes all day. I try to save the afternoon for the administrative side of writing: answering emails, editorial discussions, marketing related stuff. The Internet has made it harder to maintain a schedule—too many interruptions. I’m becoming a big believer in disconnecting during work time.

3. Do you find people recognize you? Do you mind?!

It’s only happened a few times to me. Most writers don’t get recognized and we probably are grateful for our anonymity. It’s never been a bad experience, though.

4. Do you actively look for story ideas (combing newspapers etc), or do they just come to you?

No, I don’t comb newspapers or magazines. Sometimes I’ll read or hear something that will prompt an idea, but most of the times ideas just come to me. Ideas are the easiest thing to have. Picking and executing on the right idea is the hard part. Best ideas come in seclusion: the shower (where the idea for PANIC came to me), long walks (where the main character in FEAR came to me), times when the outside world is at bay. One of my editors said it best: ideas are easy, execution is hard.

5. Have you ever thought about writing in a different genre?

I enjoy reading historical fiction (and I have a history degree), and I enjoy reading books with my kids, and maybe one day I’ll write something in those fields. I’ve been approached to work on some screenwriting projects, and film writing’s been an interesting experience, very different from writing books. I have a short story in an upcoming anthology called Death’s Excellent Vacation, edited by Charlaine Harris (author of the bestselling Southern Vampire series, the basis for True Blood) and Toni Kelner, and that was the first time I really ever wrote a story with a supernatural bent, and it was a lot of fun.

7. If you could offer just one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?

Learn your craft. (which is short for saying a lot: polish your work as much as possible, be smart about researching the business of publishing and rely on reputable sources, read a lot, write a lot, act like a professional and you’ll get treated like a professional.)

8. Do you outline your novels?

I work from a loose outline; I usually think about the major emotional moments in the book for the characters; what are the points where they face their biggest choices, their highest stakes? If I start to feel lost then I will stop and outline the rest of the book and work from there. I think outlines need to stay fluid, you make them too strict and they don’t work for me. Right now I write in Scrivener and I have a list of scenes that serves as a rough outline as I’m working. My books do tend to follow a classical three-act structure and I like to know where I’m going, but still want to be able to include better ideas as they occur to me as I’m writing, and getting to know the characters better.

9. How much energy do you put into the language aspect of your novels?

I always try to write clearly and concisely; I’m not really aware of spending extra time on the language aspect of it, it’s all part and parcel of the same process. I certainly believe in the value of rewriting and polishing as much as possible. My first goal is always to entertain, to give you back for your investment in time and money. Anything else is cake.

10. Do you recommend any specific "how-to" writing books for mystery/thriller writers?

Patricia Highsmith’s classic Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction is a great read, although her process is very specific to her. But it’s interesting to see her insights into how she conceived and wrote her books. I think a great book is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, which talks a lot about establishing schedules, and thinking and observing the world like writers do. She wrote it back in the 1930s and it’s still powerful. Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit is a must read, full of great advice for anyone following a dream.

11. Is there any part of being a professional, full-time writer that you don't like?

No, I love it all. I worked hard to get here and I have no complaints. Any time I feel frustrated I remember when I was working toward this, and my frustration vanishes. I am getting to live my dream.

12. Did you have a lot of support when you began writing, or did you suffer the same raised eyebrow most of us do? In other words, what kept you motivated at the start of your career?

I wanted to do it more than I wanted to do anything else. I did have the unstinting support of my friends and family, no one ever told me I couldn’t do it, but I knew it would be very difficult. My father was a voracious reader, and the first manuscript I wrote I gave to him, and he put it aside after fifty pages and said “I’m sorry, the story’s not that interesting, I think you can do better.” I was crushed. But I realized he was right. The second manuscript I gave him was DO UNTO OTHERS, and he read it in one sitting and he said, “This is going to sell, Jeff.” And he was right, I got two offers from major publishers on that book and it won two of the major mystery awards. I appreciate his honesty now.


  1. What a great interview! Thanks very much to both of you for taking the time! I can't wait to read Panic.

  2. WOW!! Excellent interview!!

    Learnt a lot from it, interesting how he recommends books that I haven't heard of before!

    Very inspiring!!

  3. Hey -- this was so interesting. I did not know of this author, but am going to put the book on hold at my library. I thoroughly enjoyed his "this is how I do it" answers, especially the part about thinking of the emotional moments of his characters.

    "They Never Die Quietly" will appeal to those out there looking for a fast-paced thriller set in the criminal/detective mode. This book involves a serial killer with a God complex -- he has to purify his victims in a process (not pleasant, to say the least!) that ends in crucifixion. A female homicide detective is on the case. (It's set in San Diego; I'm in Illinois -- if nothing else, on this cold February morning, I'm remembering the sun and ideal temps of SD...) Well-written, with words that capture your attention (as it sounds like Jeff Abbott's do). A good read that will keep you engrossed.


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