10 Questions with Alan Jacobson
1. Mr. Jacobson, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller No Way Out just came out. Tell us a bit more about this book.
No Way Out is fun, exciting, humorous, high stakes—it’s got all the hallmarks of a terrific thriller. FBI Profiler Karen Vail returns in her fifth adventure, a story that takes her across the pond to England where she finds herself enwrapped in a terrorism investigation. It leads her into a lot of dark places she never intended to go, places the MI5 British Security Service doesn’t want her to go, places a renowned international assassin definitely does not want her to go.
But she goes anyway, drawn in by duty and honor and a sense of needing to get to the bottom of a case that started with the discovery of a centuries-old manuscript, which some people would like to keep hidden. Partnering with Vail is covert Department of Defense operative Hector DeSantos (from my novels The Hunted, Velocity, and Hard Target) and FBI agent Aaron Uziel (introduced in Hard Target). No Way Out is an intense story, but there are a lot of humorous parts and terrific scenes that play off the characters’ familiarity with one another.
It was great fun to research and just as much fun to write. I guess it showed in the final product, as a number of reviewers have called it “the thriller of the year.”
2. Who is FBI Profiler Karen Vail and where did the inspiration for her character come from?
Vail is a tenacious, wise-cracking, skilled FBI profiler who, while attempting to help close a case, often finds her way into trouble. Her likeability crosses genders: men like her because of her tenacity and her ability to hold her own in times of adversity; women like her for the same reasons, but also because they can relate to the stuff Vail has to deal with as a woman, and because some enjoy living vicariously through her. Let’s face it, she leads a very exciting life!
As to the inspiration behind the character, Vail came to me very organically. I needed an FBI agent for a chapter I was writing very early in my career and I stumbled upon Vail. I couldn’t write her lines fast enough, and although I ended up removing her from that novel, I knew I’d have to develop her fully in the future. She was just too good; she excited me too much creatively.
Keep in mind that, at the time, I’d been working with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit for a few years, so I was living and breathing profiling. That Vail was the character who came to my fingertips at that moment is not at all surprising.
After I’d written the first 75 pages of my next novel (which would become The 7th Victim), I was at Quantico visiting with my friend, a profiler, discussing the plot. In walked his partner—who I’d never met. I found myself face-to-face with the real-life Karen Vail, the only female agent in the profiling unit, the same red-haired, wise-cracking, tough-talking personality I’d created for Vail. It was eerie.
There’s a lot of me in Vail, particularly the wise cracking sarcastic side that arose from being born and raised in New York City. When I moved to California, I had to suppress it because I was warned that Californians considered sarcasm to be arrogant or nasty. Years ago, during a TV interview for Crush (the second Vail novel after The 7th Victim), I realized that this was where that part of Vail’s personality came from: bottled up and suppressed, my dry wit had found an outlet.
3. What kind of research did you do for No Way Out? How much of what you write in this novel is real and how much is fiction?
I always do a tremendous amount of research for my novels. All one has to do is look at the acknowledgments at the end of my books to get a sense of the breadth of the work that goes into obtaining the information regarding the story I want to tell.
For No Way Out, I had to go to England twice to see the place, to drill down and find the locations that fit my outline and vision, the places that would be interesting and fresh and different. I worked extensively with senior chief inspectors and superintendents at Scotland Yard to understand how policing differs in the UK. I worked with commanders in the Navy, captains in the Marines, former Special Ops individuals, physicians, FBI profilers, communications and encryptions experts, and so on. The research encompassed several months, with some of it spanning an entire year.
My goal is for as much as possible to be based on fact; I strive to have my characters and the story that I’m telling be the primary fictional elements. On rare occasions, I may alter a fact or location if it’s a matter of national security (or if disclosure of the exact details would endanger law enforcement officers). But I try to keep it real 99.9% of the time.
4. Why do you write? Why thrillers?
I’ve got a degree in English, so I guess we should start with that. I love writing. In fact, No Way Out is dedicated to my junior high school English teacher, with what is, I believe, a first for a dedication (you have to read it to see you what it is!). He inspired me and taught me the beauty of English, and I was hooked.
Why thrillers? I love them. I love reading them, I love writing them. A good thriller gets my creative juices flowing, and the storytelling style of putting characters in peril, of going after the “bad guys,” comes naturally to me.
5. A word of advice for new writers?
I’ve been in this industry almost 20 years. Persistence matters. This is a tough business, and the challenges will never keep coming. You have to be very resilient (or a bit foolish?) to keep taking the punches and keep getting back up. But getting back up you must, or you’ll find yourself passed over and forgotten.
6. What have you learned during the writing process for crafting a novel?
I’ve been doing this almost 20 years, and what I’ve learned, the stories I could tell, could fill a book (though it’d be nonfiction…with what I’ve been through, there’s no need to embellish to make it interesting!). Suffice it to say that very little is easy in this business. The writing part is probably the most natural and stress-less thing I do. And yet it encompasses only a small percentage of the time a professional author spends pursuing his career.
One of the more important things I’ve learned is to listen to my inner voice—I literally tell myself what’s not working while I’m writing the scene; it took me years to stop and realize that the voice in my head was worth paying attention to. It makes editing after I finish a whole lot easier.
Bottom line, though, is that I try to tell a story. I don’t follow templates or rote ways of doing things. I approach each novel with a blank page; I know who my characters are, but other than that, I’m always looking for new ways to tell that story. Doing things different from book to book keeps me fresh as a writer and it makes it interesting for my characters and my readers.
7. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
On average, it takes over a year to research and write one of my novels, but it can vary; I’ve spent from one to seven years writing a book—Hard Target was written, rewritten, polished, and so on over an eleven year period. Now, I wasn’t working on it all the time during that decade, but I had stretches where I’d spend two years at a time researching and writing it. It’s a complex story that required a tremendous amount of research—and access to sensitive government places, which took time, patience, and persistence. The 7th Victim took years to research because I first had to learn behavioral analysis (“profiling”); I didn’t want to start writing it until I owned the material—and it took immersion with the profiling unit to attain that. The 7th Victim took about seven years.
Generally, I have a number of projects that I’m planning to write. They’re in the back of my mind and ideas come to me periodically. I jot these thoughts down and incorporate them into my developing outline. Once I know that one of them is the story I’m going to write next, and have a sense of the storyline, I start looking for contacts and experts who have the information I’ll need to tell that story. It’s taking longer and longer to get these people lined up—sometimes they have to get permission from their superiors (or a Congressional subcommittee, as in the case of Velocity, Vail #3). The wheels of bureaucracy can move slowly.
While I’m doing all this, I’m in the latter stages of writing the novel I’m currently under contract to deliver. By the time I hand in that finished novel, I’ve got some info and experts lined up on the manuscript I’m about to start writing; I have the broad strokes of the story and some key information that’ll ultimately form the tip of the research iceberg I’ll need to eventually uncover.
8. How do you interact with your fans? What is something significant you have learned from them?
I was one of the first authors to put his email address on the cover of his book back in 1998. My wife thought I was nuts—who’d write to an author? Turns out, I got a ton of email, from all over the world. Over time, obviously that morphed with the advent of Facebook and Twitter. Nowadays, most of my interaction with my fans is through one of two Facebook pages: www.Facebook.com/AlanJacobson.fans and www.FansofAlanJacobson.com. I spend time with both groups. We even had a contest where my fans chose the cover of No Way Out; the designer had produced three cover concepts and the fans chose the one they liked best. It was a lot of fun. I’m also on Twitter, @JacobsonAlan, where I tweet about happenings in the publishing industry, new developments in law enforcement and science—things that I find interesting or outrageous!
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
For a start, I like baseball, basketball, and football—as a spectator these days—and photography, technology, hiking, exercising, reading.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
It’ll be about 400 pages. (Sorry, that’s an old one.) Seriously, it’s a Karen Vail novel, set in NYC, and it’ll encompass her entire career, starting with her first day on the job as a beat cop with the NYPD. It’ll tie together all my novels and short stories, and so far it’s been a lot of fun. I’m a native New Yorker, so it’s been special revisiting the places of my youth.
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