10 Questions with Michael Lawson

My guest today is Michael Lawson, author of House Blood, a great thriller that came out on June 19. Please scroll down for our interview.

Who is Michael Lawson?

Michael Lawson was raised in Pueblo, Colorado with a passel of brothers and one sister, then attended college at Seattle University and got a degree in engineering. After college, he went to work for the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineer and spent about thirty years working for the Navy’s nuclear power program.

So how did he go from nuclear engineering to writing? The short answer is he likes to write, it’s fun for him, so he tried his hand at it. He tells people if you want to be a writer you need some talent, a lot of persistence, and a whole lot of luck – probably more luck than talent. In 2004, he got very lucky: a fantastic agent liked The Inside Ring and got him a two book deal with a publisher. Subsequently, he has published seven novels and the eighth will be coming out in 2013. After that, who knows?

10 Questions with Michael Lawson

Mr. Lawson, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog.  Your 7th novel, House Blood, came out on June 19. Tell us a bit more about this work.

I can’t remember exactly how I got the idea for House Blood. Most of my books have their origination in some real life event, like House Justice which was “inspired” by the Valerie Plame case (the CIA agent whose identity was outed in the NY Times), or House Divided which sprang out of the warrantless wire-tapping conducted by the National Security Agency during the Bush administration. House Blood came from a mix of things: a news show about drug testing in third world countries, an article in Vanity Fair on that same subject, and simply being irritated by all the drug commercials on television. Anyway, out of that stew came the idea of a powerful pharmaceutical company using a relief organization like the Red Cross to test a wonder drug on disaster victims to speed up getting the drug to market. Then I had to find a way to get DeMarco and Emma into the mix, and came up with the idea of DeMarco trying to get a lobbyist out of jail. The lobbyist worked for the relief organization and had been framed for the murder of another lobbyist to cover up what the evil drug company was doing. The real fun of the book for me was developing the bad guys: Orson Mulray, the CEO of the drug company; his psychopathic henchman, Fiona; the two ex-soldiers who almost reluctantly kill people for Orson.

Orson Mulray, CEO of Mulray Pharma, is one of the main characters in House Blood. What is your process of creating villains, when compared to the good guys, like DeMarco?

I look for a couple of things in the villain. First, I don’t want him to be all bad – some dark, constantly malevolent, stony-eyed force. In real life, bad guys like baseball or NASCAR racing; they prefer Cheerios over Wheaties, whatever. I notice this particularly when I’m reading Elmore Leonard’s books – the little human quirks his villains have – or like the opening scene in Pulp Fiction where Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are talking about McDonald’s in Paris. Second, I think the villain’s motivations for doing bad things (maybe psycho serial killers are an exception) have to make sense, at least from the villain’s perspective. In the case Orson Mulray, from his perspective, he did what he did to make money and to grow his company and for his own ego – and he knows this – but in his own mind he was doing something good for humanity by developing his new drug. Sure, a few folks had to die, and that was tragic, but …. Third, I don’t want the villain to necessarily look like a villain. For example, in one of my books, House Justice, the contract killer is this cheerful, overweight guy who runs a bar when he isn’t whacking people. In House Blood, the ex-Colonel Hobson is a short, pudgy, near-sighted guy who loves his dog more than anything else in the world.

From a nuclear engineer to a writer. How did this process take place?

There was no particular Road to Damascus moment. I’ve always been a big reader, and I guess, at some point, I said: You know, I think I can write a book. I also had one big advantage. Most writers, if they work full time at a real job and have a family, find it hard to carve out the time to write a novel. I used to take a ferry back and forth to my engineering job which gave me half an hour of uninterrupted time almost every day to write – and all it takes is half an hour a day for about a year to crank out a couple hundred pages. After I wrote the first book, of course, came the hard part: finding the right agent, which took me about ten years. The other thing is I love to write – if writing seems like work, you’re in the wrong profession.

How exactly do you goof around, if you don’t mind me asking :-)?

I read a lot, like I said.  I play golf – badly.  I fish – the fish have no fear of extinction. And I’m an excellent couch potato when it comes to watching movies on TV.

How do you write? Outline or not?

I don’t outline. I think outlining is probably smart – I think it’s probably efficient. But I just can’t work that way. I basically come up with a story idea and with the vaguest sense of where I’m going, I just start writing. The other thing is, as I develop the characters for the book, the characters “help me” write the story. I don’t mean that in some looney-tunes way; the characters don’t “speak” to me. What I mean is that as I come to better understand the characters’ abilities, flaws, motivations etc., it helps me flesh out the plot. This way of writing is not efficient, however. After I have a first draft then I start moving things around, tweaking things to increase suspense, deleting things to improve pacing, etc. – and, in general, I re-write and re-write and re-write.

A word of advice for new writers? 

The best advice on writing I ever got came from an agent who rejected my first novel. She said, “I love the writing, the characters, the dialogue but too much of what you’ve written doesn’t advance the plot”. I realized she was right, and I literally chopped about a hundred pages out of that book, pages that contained overblown descriptions, philosophical musings, elaborate, unnecessary backstories on characters. Whenever I’m writing I’m constantly asking myself the question: does this scene, this paragraph, this chapter, really advance the plot. The second best piece of writing advice came from Robert Harris’s book The Ghost. The book is fiction, it’s about a ghostwriter writing the biography of a British politician and in the book, there’s a line that says: “All good books are different but all bad books are exactly the same.  And what they all have in common, these bad books, is this: they don’t ring true.” That’s another question I’m always asking myself: does this story, this character “ring true” – and I’ll have to admit that sometimes I’ve failed.

What is your typical writing day?

I write every day – it’s almost a compulsion. I’m an early riser – like five or six a.m. – and I usually write for four or five hours each morning if things are going well. Some days, however, when it feels like I’m producing nothing but crap, I’ll give up after an hour or two. But most days, four or five hours, and I’m goofin’ around by noon.

What other books are you working on at the moment?

I just finished a stand-alone (a non-DeMarco book) that I don’t want to say too much about and I’m re-writing my 8th DeMarco book having just received comments back from my editor. The book will be published in 2013. I’m also work on an essay that I need to finish and get to guy in Bangkok where it will go into a collection of essays.

What do you like to read and what are you reading now?

I like to read mysteries and thrillers – and read most of the popular authors. Lately, however, I’ve been reading much more non-fiction. I just finished a book about the financial crisis called All the Devils are Here by McLean and Nocera and another book called Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen which is about classified programs the government ran during the Cold War at a site in Nevada. Both great books. The next book on my list is Manhunt by Bergen, which is about the hunt for Osama.

What can readers expect to find in House Blood?

Hopefully, fast-paced entertainment. I don’t write to push a particular political agenda or any other agenda – I simply want to entertain, and I think House Blood does that. Rather than toot my own horn, here’s what Booklist had to say in a starred review: “House Blood is so good it will move long-time political-thriller readers to recall the memorable characters, wit, and style of the late, great Ross Thomas.”

 

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