12/16/2013 05:59 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Jon Land

Jon Land is a prolific author who has written 40 novels. David Morrell, the master of contemporary thriller fiction, called Jon the creator of the techno-thriller, which Jon began writing before Tom Clancy made the genre popular.

Jon attended Brown University where he convinced the faculty to let him write a thriller as his senior honors thesis. Four years later, his first novel, The Doomsday Spiral, was published. Jon then began writing the Blaine McCracken novels, which were tales of a rogue CIA agent and former Green Beret. This series included The Omega Command, The Alpha Deception, The Gamma Option and others.

By 2009, Jon turned his talent to a new character, Caitlin Strong, a Texas Ranger. There have been five Caitlin Strong novels, the latest Strong Rain Falling, deals with the threat of the Mexican drug trade.

Jon's most recent novel, The Tenth Circle, published on December 17th, brings back Blaine McCracken. The novel involves terrorist attacks on the U.S, masterminded by a vicious cabal. The answers to this mystery lie in two of history's greatest puzzles: the lost colony of Roanoke and the sinking of the ship, Mary Celeste.

Having read The Tenth Circle, I was struck by your detailed portrayal of weaponry and devices--even nuclear centrifuges. Can you tell us about your research?

If we writers want to do more writing than researching, we must be specific with precise information. I strive to give the reader just enough information. If you give a reader too much information, you have what I call the "Tom Clancy effect." If a writer fails to remember he's writing about people and not things, the reader instinctively skips over huge portions of the novel. The best writing advice I ever received was given to me by my brilliant editor, Natalia Aponte, who said 'When describing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.' Therefore, every scene I write is from the inner perspective of my characters. Too many authors provide too much dense technical information when telling a story. The key isn't how much research you do; it's being economical in how you weave that technical material into the writing.

Blaine McCracken has gotten older over the years. How have you handled that in the series?
Well, McCracken has gotten older. There's a line in The Tenth Circle where someone hands McCracken his phone which has fallen to the ground and says, 'In case you need to dial 911." And McCracken says, 'I am 911.' Essentially, McCracken is a guy who does things no one else can do. Now that he's older, he only gets the call when the SEALS and Delta Force have passed on a mission. So paradoxically, he's doing even bigger things than he used to, despite his age. In the beginning of The Tenth Circle, he's trying to take out Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz Actually, he's implementing a pretty credible plan. I needed to describe the centrifuges from McCracken's perspective. He's learned what he needed to know to blow something up. He needs to know what it looks like, how it functions and what it's going to look like when it's gone.

So, that leads me to another thing. Here's the great thing, Mark, about writing our kind of books. No one I know has ever seen the nuclear facility at Natanz. So I can describe it any way I want, and no one's going to say 'That's wrong.' The only people who can tell me that are the nuclear physicists in Iran. It's creative license, but there's a great quote from Robert Louis Stevenson, which to me, defines a thriller: 'It doesn't matter if you believe what I'm saying is true. All that matters is that you do not disbelieve it.' That involves the suspension of disbelief. And the number one obligation for a thriller writer--especially if you're writing in the techno-thriller genre--is to make sure everything you put on that page is not disbelieved. You don't want a reader to put the novel down and think, 'That's ridiculous.' A thriller writer must preserve the sacred trust between reader and writer.

Your novels often deal with some mystery from the past relating to a current threat or impending disaster. One might even describe you as an historical thriller writer. Is that accurate?
It's accurate to a degree, especially in the Caitlin Strong books. It's also accurate in terms of what I try to do with thrillers. I think Clive Cussler may have first done it, or perhaps Alistair MacLean before him. He came up with the idea of using something in the past as a trigger for the present. In The Tenth Circle, I picked two of the greatest unsolved mysteries, the Roanoke Colony, where people vanished and no one ever figured out why or how; and the mysterious ghost ship, the Mary Celeste, as you mentioned. These are classic thriller plot devices. In the Caitlin Strong novels, the history functions as a sub-plot itself where a relative of Caitlin's from the past is investigating a situation that occurred years earlier. It's relevant to Caitlin's investigation in the present.

So the past is always at work?
Yes. It really comes down to the great William Faulkner's quote, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.' I believe there's a unique and enduring connection between problems of today and things that happened in the past. And that's what I hope separates my thrillers from others: there's something special about those historical sub-plots I try to weave into the modern-day plot.

Let's talk a bit, Jon, about your past. I'm aware you were a pre-law student at Brown, but decided instead to write thrillers. Can you tell us about that?
Writing is one profession you don't choose. It chooses you. You do it because you can't imagine doing anything else. It grabs you, holds you and squeezes--very tightly. And that's what happened to me when I got to Brown University. Brown has a very liberal curriculum which allows students to experiment. I experimented with writing. My writing was more technical for research papers. In fact, I never took a fiction course. But I loved writing.

That brings me to another thing. In my view, writing is instinctual. The best way to learn how to write is to read. I get a kick out of people who say, 'I'd love to write a book but I don't know what to write.' When I ask what they read, they say 'I don't read.' If you don't read, you can't write. Each time I read a thriller, I recall the great Victor Hugo line, 'Good writers borrow; great writers steal.'

I've stolen from Stephen King; I've stolen from Robert Ludlum. The first time I met Ludlum, I said, 'Thank you for the scene I stole from you at the end of Deep Six.' and he laughed and said, 'You have no idea how many people tell me that.'

I look forward to the day when I read a novel and say, "Oh my God, this person stole this from me.' I haven't found a scene yet where someone ripped me off, but there's a female Texas Ranger television show coming on the air called Killer Women...they didn't steal it from me, but it knocked into development purgatory, my potential television show about Caitlin Strong.

What advice do you have for writers just beginning their careers?
You have to write what you would want to read if someone else had written it. You can't sit down to write Fifty Shades of Grey because you think it will sell. You must write something you love--that you're passionate about. You must tell a story. It sounds mundane, even stupid, or banal, but it must be a story with a beginning, middle and an end. If you've got a beginning, middle and end, you've got the foundation for a book. It's amazing how many people forget those simple principles. And another thing: you must create characters in whom the reader is emotionally invested. You present them in conflicted situations where things must be resolved--not just in the novel as a whole, but every scene must present some situation needing resolution. There must be a push-pull situation. You want to create a conflict in every scene and define how the protagonist and other characters emerge from the conflict different from when they came into the scene.

Your chapters are typically quite short and often end on cliffhangers.
(Laughter) Publisher's Weekly gave Strong Rain Falling a wonderful review, but it concluded, 'Readers may be irked by Land's constant reliance on cliffhangers.' To me, the very nature of a thriller is the cliffhanger. The task of any suspense novel is to make the reader turn the page. The way to do that is to start every chapter with a hook and end each one with something unresolved. In order to get to the resolution, the reader must flip the page. Why do I do this? Because the first person you have to satisfy as an audience is yourself. When I'm writing, I ask myself, 'What would I want the book to do at this stage or chapter?' So essentially, I'm writing for myself. I consider myself the quintessential thriller audience. I know what I like to read and why I like it. If I can combine those things into what I write, I'm on the right track.

My challenge is that I don't outline. I write by the seat of my pants. I wing it. I let the characters dictate the action. The problem with that is, sometimes you back yourself into a wall where the fix you come up with to get yourself out of the corner, isn't as good as it needs to be. And any writer must be able to re-write. You must learn to be objective about your own work. And you must have people you trust around you--people who can say what you may not be able to say to yourself: this isn't working.

This is the brilliance of my editor. She's tough on me. She always says, 'I don't want to be mean, but...' And when she's being 'mean,' she almost always is right. And if I don't listen to her, I'm breaking a sacred trust. I consider the bond between reader and writer to be holy. Someone has invested in me; they're relying on my novel to take them away from their world into another. If I fail to do that, they've wasted their money and time. If I could, I'd make a deal with every reader out there: if you don't like the first book of mine you read, I'll give you your money back. (More laughter) But if you do like it, go and buy all the others. Because that's what a writer tries to do. It's about getting the reader vested in your work.

As an aside, this is what I love about e-books. Nothing goes out of print anymore. This is crazy, but my most successful book right now in England is The Omega Command. I wrote it thirty years ago. It was only resurrected because of the digital world and a company called Open Road Media. Now, there's an opportunity for readers to discover a writer's latest books, but also go back and find books that haven't been available for twenty years.

The concept of book stores clearing the shelves of unsold books has been largely eliminated by the e-book revolution, hasn't it?

Yes. But there's a sad aspect to that in the sense that I grew up in the paperback world. My first fifteen books were mass market paperbacks. There was no better way to discover an author than by browsing through the malls, drugstores and supermarkets, and seeing well-displayed paperbacks. Browsing has been taken out of the equation. It's very difficult to browse Amazon. It's a destination store. I go there to buy what I'm looking for. I don't go there to discover new authors. I can't tell you how many new authors I discovered in Walden Books. This industry--and we as creative people--are so much poorer for the lack of all those mall, chain and indie bookstores. Five thousand have been lost in the last decade.

One thing I know about you--you, along with Barry Eisler--are martial arts aficionados. Does that inform your writing?
Yes. But it's not just that it helps in choreographing fight scenes, which is what I've gotten from Aikido. I approach writing the same way I do martial arts. Once, when I was having trouble with Aikido, my martial arts instructor said, "You'd better get yourself out of the way.' That pertains to writing as well. You've got to let the story just move on its own. In Aikido, you use the opponent's strength against him. And when you're writing, you can impose yourself, but only to a degree.

Essentially, you have to trust the story, just like you must trust the technique in Aikido. I know it's a cliché, but you have to go with the flow. If you've ever been in a rip tide, you know you cannot win against a rip tide. The difference between a writer and a story-teller is: the story-teller will always go where the currents direct him. The writer will sometimes fight the current and try to impose his or her will on the story. The story is bigger than the author.

Speaking of stories, yours seem perfect for film adaptation. I know you're a movie buff. What are your favorite movies?
Let me just say that the most influential movies on my career and writing were the early James Bond films. Dr. No; From Russia with Love; Thuderball; Goldfinger; and You Only Live Twice were incredibly far ahead of their times. They were beyond prophetic as far as where the genre was heading. That's where I learned to love the form of the thriller--the adventure story. I read every James Bond book when I was ten or eleven years old; which, by the way, are much different from the movies.

The greatest film ever made and also one of my favorites is The Godfather. Jaws is my personal favorite. I just met a 27 year old film student and I was amazed: he's never seen The Usual Suspects, or Chinatown. I wish I was his age again because then I could go back and see all those movies for the first time. The problem with my books being adapted for film, is that because of the action sequences and set pieces, the budget would be very, very high. Now, my Caitlin Strong novels are virtually tailor-made for television, and the thought of the rival female Texas Ranger television series, Killer Women, is just killing me. I hate to give it a plug. (laughter).

This is a great jumping off point to something else. In this business, you've got to have a thick skin. You've got to be the boxer who takes the eight count; gets right back up and knocks the opponent out in the next round. You've got to have the ability to not get disappointed, turn off the lights and sit in the dark for three days, crying. You've got to move on, jump on the next thing because this business has many more disappointments than successes. There's far more rejection than acceptance.

There's little doubt that publishing is a rejection business.
That's absolutely true. It's even more so with movies. But, in the film business, if you bat one out of a hundred, you can be a star. In the film business you need to have a hundred meetings and a hundred phone calls, or a hundred drafts before you even get your foot in the door. I like to say that being a writer is like getting turned down for the senior prom every day of your life. I was turned down for my senior prom four times, so I have a lot of practice. (More laughter).

If you could have dinner with any five people--either writers or historical figures, dead or alive--who would they be?

The first would be Barack Obama. I'm a huge fan of our president. I would probably put Bill Clinton on that list. My next choice would be Robert Ludlum. You mentioned David Morrell before. He's one of the most influential writers in my career. This may sound trite, but I'm going to say it anyway, being a Hollywood person and someone who writes screenplays and appreciates talent, I'd like to have River Phoenix at the table. I consider him to have been one of the greatest young actors I'd ever seen. I'd like to be able to sit in front of him, smack him in the face and ask him, 'What were you thinking?' I think that would be emblematic of so many people we've lost young--it could just as easily be Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison. I think also, Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion would complete my list.

Beyond that, I don't really know. Historical figures, in a way, to me are like fictional characters. They don't have real substance; so I don't have an overwhelming desire to meet people who aren't here anymore.

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