Joseph Finder has a background every thriller novelist would love to have. He spent his early childhood living around the world. He majored in Russian studies at Yale, where he was Phi Beta Kappa; completed a master's degree at the Harvard Russian Research Center, and then taught at Harvard University. He was recruited to the CIA, but decided he preferred writing.
His first book was published when he was only 24, and he's gone on to write critically acclaimed thrillers such as Extraordinary Powers, The Zero Hour, and High Crimes which went on to Hollywood filmdom. In 2004, his novel Paranoia, which focused on corporate ruthlessness, corruption and conspiracy, became a huge bestseller. His awards include The Barry and Gumshoe, and The International Thriller Writers Award for his novel, Killer Instinct. His latest, just-released novel is Suspicion.
The first sentence of Suspicion is, "Sometimes the smallest decision can change your life forever." Of course, this is an indelible truth for the novel, and perhaps for all thrillers. Tell us how this relates to Danny Goodman, the protagonist of Suspicion.
Danny is a regular guy facing problems just like we all do. He's in difficult straits financially; and he's a single dad with a teenage daughter. His daughter loves the private school she attends, but Danny cannot afford the tuition. One day, he agrees to take a loan from a fellow father at his daughter's school, and that's when the trouble begins. He makes this very simple decision--one we would all probably make--after all, a rich man offers to lend him fifty thousand dollars. And, Danny finds himself forced into a terrible situation where he must try to protect his family, at great risk to himself.
I've read many of your novels, including Killer Instinct. What has made you so interested in corporate corruption, greed and conspiracy?
The corporate world, just like the legal world and frankly, the academic world, is filled with corruption. In the corporate world, you're dealing with vast sums of money. So, the conspiracies can be quite large--even all-encompassing. And they can have major ramifications. Suspicion is what I call a regular-guy thriller. It doesn't involve corporate intrigue, but it touches upon the issue of large sums of money.
Many of your novels occur within a corporate setting, yet your biography doesn't suggest a business background. Do you do a good deal of research?
Not having a corporate background makes me feel like an anthropologist--Margaret Meade going to Fiji--where, when I go to the corporate world to do research, it all seems so alien to me. I notice things one wouldn't necessarily notice if you worked in that environment. Even though I don't have a corporate background, I'm trying to interpret that world and create dramatic scenes from the standpoint of an ordinary person who doesn't really know much about it. It's something of an advantage. I just gravitate toward scenarios in which ordinary people face extraordinary circumstances. It's really a Hitchcock formula. All his thrillers involve precisely that: ordinary people getting caught up in something bigger than they are. It's probably my favorite element in thrillers. And, readers can relate to that because the protagonist isn't a superhero.
Do you have a specific method of constructing a thriller?
Yes. I start off thinking of a thriller novel as if it were a movie trailer. You know, a movie trailer gives you all the best parts. I imagine the dramatic high points of a story. Once I've figured that out--once I have the "trailer" in my head--I know how to create the story. I spend time brainstorming the plot. Then, I do research. When I know how the book is going to end, I start the writing process.
Do you always know the ending?
Yes. Before I start, I must know how it ends. It seems important for me to understand the entire story before I actually begin writing it. I don't really quite know how I'm going to get to the end. The fun of writing is the journey of discovering things yourself. I discover them as I go along and the scenes unfold in an unpredictable way. I basically create what's called in the screenwriting business, a beat-sheet. It contains the major plot points. How I get from one plot point to the next is completely up to me. It's part of the creative process.
Integral to Suspicion are high-tech devices, finance, money laundering, the Sinaloa Cartel, and other intriguing elements. From the acknowledgements, it seems you consult with many experts for your novel's authenticity.
Yes, I do. My feeling is that research should be like a shark's fin where you see only a small percentage of the beast above the water. The reader shouldn't be aware of how much work went into a novel. There's Nathaniel Hawthorne's wonderful adage, "Easy reading is damn hard writing." I work hard to make a story move fast, be smooth and readable; and want to integrate the research into the narrative. I do research because I want to make sure everything in the book is entirely plausible. For instance, in Suspicion, I have a regular guy who's recruited as an informant by the DEA. I wanted to know how this would be done. So I talked to a former DEA agent and an actively working agent. This resulted in something entirely credible. If I get a story I believe in, the readers will believe it as well.
One of the enjoyable elements of Suspicion is the relationship between Danny and his daughter, Abby. You seem to know this dynamic very well.
My daughter is now a sophomore in college. She attended a private school in Boston. High school has become insane about college applications and all the pressure attached to it. In the novel, you've got a teen-age girl, whose mother recently died, being raised by her dad. She's going through all the teenage stresses: friends, cliques, academics, and the college application process--what my daughter calls first world problems. My research for that portion of the novel was simply having a daughter.
So clearly, you take elements of your own life, your experiences, and combine them with your imagination.
Yes, I do. The hero, Danny Goodman, is a writer--a biographer. He could have been me in another life. I love biography. I love writing non-fiction. He lives in Boston, as do I. He has a teen-age daughter in high school as did I did until only a few years ago. So, many elements of Danny's life are intimately familiar to me--even mirror some aspects of my own life. That familiarity enables me to render the scenes and situations plausible and realistic.
What does being a writer mean to you?
It means getting paid to make stuff up. It's a great job, and it's a hard one. It's one I feel really fortunate to get to do. There are people who have really hard jobs. Being a writer is relatively cushy. The stresses of the writing life are all internal: the pressure to produce a book comes from within yourself; you don't have anyone telling you what to do, and you're your own boss. I really like that part of it. That's probably the main reason I did not go into the intelligence business. I would not have been a good company man. I'd have been a rather poor organization man. I'm not good at following orders and would probably have really annoyed my superiors. So, being a writer, to me, is having the freedom and ability to make things up; to live in my head; to be creative; and basically, to tell stories. It's all about telling stories to an audience. If there are no readers--without an audience--there's no point to it.
What advice would you give to beginning writers?
I would give them the advice I got, and in many ways ignored. Just write. These days, with so much self-publishing going on where there's so much self-promotion, writers spend a great deal of time on publicity and marketing. That time should be spent writing their books and articles. That's what we're best at. I believe the most successful writers are not necessarily the most talented, but are the most stubborn. They're the ones most willing to endure rejection and negotiate the rigors of the publishing process. They keep coming back again and again. If you don't have that mindset, you're not going to make it as a writer. The world is not set up to give you the opportunity to become a published writer. You have to go out and fight for it.
I get different perspectives from different authors when I ask about writing.
One of the things I love about authors is that nobody taught us how to do this. Ultimately, we learned on our own. We do some things in similar ways and some things differently. Lee Child never prepares an outline. He starts out with a basic idea in mind and just writes. I'm a little too insecure to do that. I need to have a net. I think of this as driving with a map versus driving with a navigation system. If you overly outline a novel, it's like having the nav system on as you drive across the country. It can drive you crazy. But, if you have a map, it helps you know where you're going but you can take a detour off the road. Writers have different approaches and come from different places. There's no famous writers school. We all basically decided to do this thing and be stubborn about it until we were successful.
As a successful novelist, what thoughts do you have about the publishing industry today?
I like having a publisher. I don't want to do all the things necessary to publish a book. I want to write the book and want to be in a business partnership with a group of people who know how to get books printed, bound, do marketing and publicity.
The publishing industry has gone through incredible turmoil in the last few years. There's been the rise of e-publishing and self-publishing. In some ways, it's taken the power out of publishers' hands, but I want to be in business with a publisher. I think publishers are learning how to deal with the digital market. I also think e-books are somewhat exaggerated in importance. I suspect that in the end, maybe twenty five percent of published books will be digital. Regular old dead-tree books--paper--will probably continue to be seventy five percent of the market. My last publisher made my book a New York Times bestseller. My new publisher is putting an enormous amount of resources behind me. I owe a great deal to the publishing business.
If you were to have a dinner party with any five or six figures from history or literature--living or dead--who would they be and why?
I'd like to have Poe there. He was such an interesting man--a terrifically talented writer who, by the way, was very entrepreneurial. I think he was basically the first professional writer. Also, Charles Dickens is another one of my heroes. He was a fantastic writer and great storyteller. This may sound weird, but I've always been interested in Harry Truman. I read all the biographies about him. He was a fascinating, plain-spoken politician, and very clever. I think Franklin Roosevelt was just as clever, too. He was a genius of a politician. I know this is a weird combination but I think it would make for some interesting conversation. And then, there's Jesus. He was a charismatic rabbi who clearly had the ability to create a following and had a message of peace and love. Jesus would be a great dinner guest. And to top it all off, I think Mark Twain would be a great addition to the guest list.
What's next for Joseph Finder?
I have another stand-alone novel. After that, I'm hoping to go back to a Nick Heller novel. He's my series character.
Which do you prefer--writing a series or stand-alone novels?
With a stand-alone novel, you can take a character on a dramatic arc where his or her world is turned upside down. You cannot do that in a series. The flip side in a series is you can feel intimate about your character. I felt I got to know Nick Heller and his family and the rest of the group of characters. When I began the next Nick Heller book, I knew who he was. I'd figured out his voice. So, there are advantages to each--whether it's a stand-alone novel or a series.
Congratulations on writing another stand-alone thriller, Suspicion, that's virtually impossible to put down.
Author of Mad Dog House, Love Gone Mad and The Foot Soldier