10 Questions with J. Carson Black
1. Ms. Black, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. HARD RETURN, your new thriller, comes out on September 9. Tell us a bit more about this book.
HARD RETURN is the story of a former Navy SEAL and operator (black ops specialist) named Cyril Landry. At the beginning of the book he is dead for all intents and purposes, having been presumed dead after a firefight off Florida. But Landry is a family man, and in his mind, he plans to be reunited (eventually) with his wife and his daughter. In the meantime—while he figures out how this can happen without endangering his family—he watches his daughter walk out to her car at her high school five days a week. One day, though, there is a school shooter, and Landry must make choices fast and furious—take out the shooter, make his escape, and disappear again.
2. Who is Cyril Laundry and how did you come up with his character?
I met Cyril Landry on the first page of a previous thriller, THE SHOP. He was supposed to have a walk-on part, a means to an end. Several young people on the set of a reality TV show would be slaughtered. He was “Head Assassin.” On the second page, he surprised me in this exchange.
“They waited for Jackson to report in. “Upstairs clear.”
“How many?” (Landry)
“Two. The couple. They were laying in bed.”
“Lying,” Landry said.
“They were lying in bed, not laying.”
A pause, then: “Roger that.”
Landry has a thing for good grammar. He has a few other quirks as well—I finally realized he’s got some Aspergers qualities.
3. What kind of research did you do for HARD RETURN?
I had two big things in the book. One, Landry unwillingly “comes back from the dead” after intervening during the school shooting and taking out the shooter. And two, there’s a big subplot regarding the 6.6 billion dollars that went missing from The Green Zone in Iraq in 2004. So I did plenty of research on both – articles, books, etc. But I also work with a guy who is former military, runs a military and paramilitary training center, and knows his stuff—my Secret Weapon. His nickname is Johnny Lightning. We work very well together – I ask him how I would do something, and often times we brainstorm some great stuff. I’m always surprised at something he’ll mention which might turn the story on a dime. Since I write episodically, I can take a few side trips as long as they are in keeping with the story and will give the reader something new to add to what they’ve already surmised. I’d give you his name, but then I’d have to kill you.
4. Why did you decide to write? Why thrillers?
I’ve written since I was a little kid. My first “book” was on the back of my schoolteacher father’s test papers, inauspiciously named THE EASTER EEG—a bunny and a basket full of “eegs.” I was four. I loved to read, mostly horse books. And I wrote and illustrated lots of horse books – most of them fizzling out after Chapter Two. But one day in fourth or fifth grade I came upon an amazing book, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and I thought: “I want to do that.” Then I got sidetracked into an operatic voice degree, gave that up at age 30, and went back to writing. My first book was a ghost story influenced by Stephen King. And, of course, Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. I wrote several kinds of books, fell in with some romance writers for a while to sell paperbacks, but it wasn’t for me. Finally, after reading a ton of Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and James W. Hall books and other wonderful crime fiction writers, I wrote DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, a crime fiction thriller starring detective Laura Cardinal. I’ve written three novels and two novellas starring Laura. But I wanted to write something bigger – a big thriller. And so I wrote THE SHOP. It was going to be big, muscular, wide-ranging, and suspenseful. I was going to get up on the high wire and scare the crap out of myself. It was the best book I’d ever written to that time. I’m better now.
5. What are your writing habits? Outlines or not?
I don’t outline. I used to do some outlining, but the book always changed itself partway through. It didn’t want to be outlined. So I dropped it to an inciting incident, about ten plot points, and a climax. With each succeeding book I had fewer plot points. By the time I got to HARD RETURN, I had an inciting incident and two ideas: a school shooting, and 6.6 billion dollars stolen in Iraq. I don’t outline for a couple of reasons: I know how my mind works after 16 books, and stuff goes on behind the scenes, internally, that makes its own outline as I go along. And, I figure if I don’t know what is going to happen next, the reader won’t know either. One of the worst things you can do is write a suspense/thriller novel that is predictable.
That said, I work things out as I go along. I have a journal (I have probably 25 of them by now) where I write in longhand what I think will happen next. I talk to myself in these journals. I’m so glad I can write cursive!
6. What is your greatest satisfaction as a writer? What is your greatest disappointment?
At this point, writing good stuff is my reward. When I figure out something, when a piece falls in to place, I love that! I’ve had good things come to pass, a television option for the Laura Cardinal books, I became a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author, hit #1 on Kindle with THE SHOP, but the joy is in the writing. And knowing that my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, is the best possible place for me and my books. Biggest disappointment? That would be tough. I spent so many months waiting for editors to read my books and give me an offer. I got turned down so many times. Before ebooks, if everyone turned you down, you had to come up with another book – because your current book was dead in the water. There were years of drought without a book sold. I received 35 rejections from publishers on THE SHOP alone—and nasty remarks besides! But it taught me to be versatile, to depend on myself and what I wanted to do and write, and taught me that all writing is fungible—not every word is precious. If the book isn’t working, you can always have a do-over.
7. What are your thoughts on the latest publishing industry developments, mainly the rise of the self-publishing?
For me and for many other midlist authors, not to mention authors who wrote and wrote and never sold to the Big Five in New York, selling books on Amazon is a godsend. I could put up my whole backlist. I could decide the covers, I could decide the marketing, I could work like hell to make sure they sold. I was my own little shopkeeper. Back in 2011, it was like the Land Rush – someone shot a pistol into the air and all the wagons raced for the horizon. It was wonderful! It’s a little harder now, harder to be seen, and it takes hard work, constantly.
8. How do you connect with your fans? What is one of the best or worst fan mail you have received?
Mostly on Facebook now, on my profile and author page, although I am getting a new web page. I talk to them and they talk to me. They’re friends AND fans.
The most memorable fan was one for my first book, DARKSCOPE, the horror novel. I was out at this ranch house with other authors at an outdoor booksigning. And this gentleman said to me, “Would you please come in to the house for a minute? You have a fan, but she’s afraid bees will get in her hair.” I went in, and this lady was so lovely, so appreciative. She loved my book so much. She said my little horror novel had changed her life, had enriched it.
Worst: it’s never “fan” mail – it’s nasty reviews on Amazon. The one-star wonders. One guy hated me. He thought I was denigrating Navy SEALS because my guy was an operator. He had a very idealistic view of the military, and I think he was a little… off. That one scared me a little.
9. What are your favorite pastimes?
Writing, hiking, enjoying beautiful natural areas like Saguaro National Park and the mountains nearby. Reading. And writing. Also new to me: binge-watching TV, like Breaking Bad. I’m still completely blown out of the water by the writing.
10. What is your next book going to be about?
The next book is called SPECTER BLACK, and it’s a sequel to HARD RETURN. Landry is back, and his cop friend Jolie is in trouble in New Mexico. There’s a lot of weird stuff happening in New Mexico, including a shoot-out at a militia checkpoint and some pretty strange agricultural concerns, and a new Camaro that is painted black. Not matte black, but Specter Black – the color of the Stealth Bomber. Sometimes you see it, and sometimes it just sneaks up on you. I’m only 12,000 words in so I’m feeling my way in the dark, but I do have SOME idea of the direction it’s headed. I also have plans for the book after SPECTER – SINCERE BLUE. Where Landry joins up with a politician running for president. Landry is his security service. “Sincere Blue” is the color of suit politicians wear, or lawyers dress their defendants in. I figure there’s got to be a good story there.