I love his new hero and wanted to find out just how Russell comes up with these stunning plots, so I invited him back for another Q & A and I’m delighted that he accepted.
Can you give us the elevator pitch for JET? You’ve got thirty seconds to make people want to buy it.
So no pressure, right? Shortest possible pitch? Kill Bill meets Bourne. Longer? JET features a new kind of female protagonist – smart, sexy, kick-ass, over-the-top, take-no-prisoners, and is a non-stop action roller-coaster with more twists and turns than a silly straw, intelligently written for jaded connoisseurs of action/adventure thrillers. If you loved Lizbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Bourne trilogy, Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, or even the TV show 24, JET is a must-read.
Jet is an extraordinary character. What made you choose a non-US background for her?
Well, the whole ex-CIA thing has been done into the ground, as far as I’m concerned, and frankly, knowing what I do about the CIA’s competence, I wanted better than that. These are the guys who didn’t see the Berlin wall coming down a week before it happened, and told the world that Iraq had WMDs capable of destroying the region within 45 minutes. Ooops. So I looked at some of the hyper-competent clandestine agencies, and the Mossad was an obvious one. One thing led to another, and pretty soon she was Israeli, of mixed ethnicity, but burned out and ready for something new. And I wanted her to be international in flavor, equally at home in the Middle East, South America, Asia or the U.S. Most Americans tend to look, well, very American, for the most part, so I wanted something more exotic, even if that’s totally stereotypical and judgmental of Americans, which I suppose it is. I’m really happy with the part Asian, part Dominican Israeli female protag. Can’t imagine much more exotic and unusual than that...
There are a lot of exotic settings for the JET series. Are the descriptions all based on your personal visits?
Yes, most of them. I’ve had a colorful life, and had the opportunity to travel extensively for this reason or that. It’s given me a good perspective for writing fiction, that’s for sure.
You’ve used females in the lead role in a few books now. Is that something you see continuing in the future?
Right now, I’d say probably not. Between JET, Silver Cassidy in Silver Justice, and Tess Gideon in Fatal Exchange, I’d say I’ve exhausted my possibilities for compelling female heroines. They’re all so different, I can go back to the well and develop Tess and Silver more, and have enough material to last ten years. But I’ll say that Jet is probably my most developed to date – she’s more than just a killing machine, and is pretty three dimensional. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Bronte this isn’t, but compared to most of the protags I’ve read in this genre, Jet is a living, breathing person to me, and hopefully, to readers. So far so good.
How much research went into the JET series? Is there anything about the storylines that you found challenging?
I set out with JET to accomplish several things. The first was to write the fastest-paced thrillers anyone has ever read. The second was to structure plots that were as intricate as anything I’ve seen. And the third was to create as intriguing a set of characters as possible. Truthfully, the concept of JET came to me when I was writing Silver Justice. I was out for a hike, and this book cover just jumped into my consciousness, with one word: JET. Ironically, the cover I wound up with was better, although different. I originally saw a black cover with red metallic lines, like etching, very asian, with an asian symbol, and the word, JET. From there, I sort of had bits and pieces come to me before I started it. But I didn’t really know where the story was going to go – I sort of figured out about half the book, and then was so excited to start writing it, I did the first few chapters, just to see how I could make it turn out. And then I cheated and did the next few. Before I knew it, I was about sixty percent through, and had an entire series in mind. So the challenge was really to piece it together so that a highly-complex storyline was coherent, with just enough foreshadowing to keep the reader interested, but without any deus-ex-machina trickery. As to research, I did virtually none. Everything is based on personal experience, and my imagination. Any detail, I research as I go along, or I save for second draft and just put in placeholders. Like detail on weapons, or specifics about geography or whatnot. “She gripped the XXX with trembling hands as she sighted on her assailant’s head.” And so on.
According to your Amazon author page, you’ve released 19 books in the last couple of years. That’s a phenomenal output. How did you manage it?
I have no life outside of writing. Really. For the last 18 months or so, all I’ve done is write. About one novel every 5 weeks or so. Including three drafts, editing, and proofing. It’s an insane pace, and one that will stop at the end of the year. Next year I’ll release 4, maybe 5 books. That’s it. I’ve sort of proved what I wanted to, at least to myself, and it’s time to slow the pace down to something resembling sane. The irony is that 4 or 5 novels in a year would be considered a watershed for most authors, whereas for me, it’s going to seem like I’m on vacation most of the year. I’m looking forward to that, BTW, and maybe travel some more. Being chained to the computer 12 hours a day, seven days a week isn’t a ton of fun, after a while. I don’t recommend it, even if it’s great for one’s literary career, such as it is.
When you’re not writing, who are you reading?
I recently finished Blood Land, by RS Guthrie, and it is a remarkable example of just how good indie authors can be. I’m reading Nelson DeMille right now, and have Faulkner scheduled next. One of the things I miss about this full-immersion writing approach I’ve taken is that I have no time to read – only at the gym, and then only if not editing (I edit on my kindle, so can do it anywhere). Oh, and I recently finished up a collection of short stories by James Lee Burke, who is a masterful author and probably one of the best living American talents, bar none, now that David Foster Wallace is no longer with us.
Of all your protagonists, which is your favourite?
Al Ross from The Geronimo Breach, with Jet a close second. Al is one in a million, and unfortunately, he’s a one novel character. But he is so flawed and broken and downright funny, you can’t help but like him. And of course, El Rey from the Assassin series. There’s something about him – he’s just so frigging cold and bad, but so damned interesting. What does it say about my character that my favorite characters are a drunk misanthrope, a broken female spy, and a stone cold killer? Now you know why my dating life leaves something to be desired. Hard to put that up on Match.com – “Malingering misanthrope with shady past and assassination fixation seeks companion to party with.”
Are there any characters from your previous series’ that you would like to bring back?
I think I’ll do one more Dr. Steven Cross novel over the next few years. I like him rather a lot. And Tess Gideon from Fatal Exchange will get another crack at it, this time in Fatal Deception. Maybe next year. I already have it mostly plotted, so it’s a definite. And I think it’s safe to say Silver Cassidy will get another book next year, as will El Rety and Captain Romero Cruz from the Assassin series. So next year is looking like one more Assassin volume, two more JET, one more Silver, and possibly Fatal Deception. You can see why I write so much – Michael Derrigan from The Delphi Chronicle gets regular fan mail demanding a sequel, but where’s the time to pack it all in, much less keep it all fresh and original? I’d say that the world has enough Russell Blake books at the moment, so maybe the following year we’ll see a Delphi sequel, a Cross sequel, and a Jet and Assassin sequel. But then doesn’t it seem like maybe Silver should get another? And so begins the problem of not enough hours in the day, and far too many plots and story ideas...
Do you plan the whole series out beforehand, or one book at a time, or just write by the seat of your pants?
I generally try to plot out one book at a time. That gets me into trouble sometimes, as JET III will show, because sometimes I get to the 90K word mark and discover that to finish the idea, I need another book of at least that many words to carry it through and finish the threads. But generally, I do one book at a time, and often that turns into seat of the pants. Zero Sum I wrote pantsing it, as well as King of Swords and Night of the Assassin. Geronimo Breach had just the barest outline before I plunged in. The rest I’ve plotted to one extent or another, but I’m impatient and lazy, so I will usually get tired of plotting about halfway through and start writing, and figure it out as I go along.
When can we expect Jet 4 to hit the shelves?
Early-to-mid December, 2012. It will all be in the hands of my editor and proofreader soon. But I’m hopeful.
Have you ever thought about going the traditional publishing route, or are you indie forever?
You know, the trad pub route has so many pitfalls, as does the indie road. Unless you get a deal with a house that really thinks you’re the next Lee Child, you won’t get much push, and will wind up wallowing, making little money, and waiting 18 months to see a book released. On the plus side, you get broad distribution, a real marketing push, and a shot at movies and the like – but that’s only if they have a considerable investment in you, and are committed to giving it the full court press. At which point you’ll be digging into your pocket to do book tours and appearances, in the hopes that you’ll make your advance back and maybe get enough traction to break big. On the negative side, you have to get your books written by committee, where marketing, editors, and your agent all have their take on how it should read, which could be good, or bad, depending upon how the stars align. As an indie, I’ve been extremely fortunate so far. In 2012, I’ll have sold around 100K books, so my income vastly exceeds most trad pub authors – all but maybe the top top tier. I get to release as many books as I like, written the way I want to write them. I don’t have to censor my work, or include a rape scene in the first five pages because marketing wants a shocker to push, or spend six months in editing while a lesser talent goes over every sentence trying to dumb it down to sixth grade level so it will have broader appeal. My personal philosophy is that there are all kinds of readers, from the dim and simple to the highly intelligent and complex, and there are books for all of them. I tend to write what I like to read, which is at the higher end of the smarts curve – harkening back to the days of Ludlum and Forsyth more than the current Patterson et al bunch. I think I would put my work somewhere between Silva and Baldacci – certainly the right neighborhood to be in, if not the absolutely most popular, although I’d probably argue that JET is more Ian Fleming than anything else I’ve written.
Alan, thanks for having me on again. It’s always a pleasure. Now I’ve got to get back to work and finish JET 4 and figure out what the hell Assassin 5 is going to be about so I can write it and have it out by Xmas...
Russell, the pleasure is all mine.
I can’t recommend the JET series enough, and you can get your first taste of his alluring assassin for just 99 cents.
Russell’s blog (more must-read material): http://russellblake.com/