HE WROTE HIS FIRST “NOVEL” AT AGE 11. While it was only a couple of chapters, it was clearly a foreshadowing of greater literary efforts to come for Jeffery Deaver, an award-winning author of more than 40 books including The Bone Collector, which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Growing up in Glen Ellyn, Deaver was an avid movie-goer, often taking in double features at the Glen. While he enjoyed the James Bond movies, he liked the books far better — a good thing, because he was later asked to write a Bond book himself. Now 72, Deaver is making a conscious effort to reach out to a new generation of readers via a series of books featuring a younger protagonist, Colter Shaw, part of his reader-centric, business-oriented approach to writing.
You grew up in Glen Ellyn. What kind of kid were you, e.g. things you liked to do, places you liked to hang out?
JD: I was a nerd. There’s no two ways about it. I had no talent for sports whatsoever. I was bookish and very into films. I would save up my allowance and go almost every Saturday to the Glen and often watch a double feature. I remember watching the John Ford westerns, sci fi films, horror films — I saw Psycho there. As much as I love reading, films have been as much of a creative influence for me as books. My sister, Julie, is an accomplished young adult author as well as a very fine artist, and when we were young, we’d go downtown and she’d get her art supplies and I’d buy my books. There was a mass market rack where I would get the 25 cent James Bond and John D. MacDonald novels. And Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan, also wrote a series called Pellucidar about a world within the earth, and I was fascinated with that. I also went to the Glen Ellyn Public Library all the time. I can still remember the smell of the book jackets, the paste. That takes me way back. I was also always writing or making up stories. I would sometimes get the neighborhood kids together and become like a film director. When I’d see a movie that I liked, but maybe the ending wasn’t quite so satisfying, I’d write my own and have the kids act it out. I simply enjoyed storytelling and liked to see the stories in my mind played out.
You have said that the Bond books, and To Russia with Love in particular,were instrumental in getting you hooked on writing? Was it a dream come true later when you were asked to write a Bond novel?
JD: I read all of Ian Fleming’s Bond books. But I was most moved by From Russia with Love because it had a slightly more complicated plot. And one thing that I found fascinating is that the reader doesn’t meet Bond until 50 or 60 pages into the book — the first part is all about the bad guys. I also think it was the best film adaptation of all of the Bond books. The other movies were so gimmicky, so full of gadgets. You can’t argue with the success of the films, but I was very, very engaged with the books. So yes, I couldn’t believe it when I was asked to write a Bond book. My Garden of Beasts book had just won an award in the United Kingdom and when accepting the award in the UK, I said, ‘This means a lot to me because the award is sponsored by the Ian Fleming estate and Fleming was such a huge influence on me and is one of the authors that motivated me to write.” Fleming’s niece, Lucy Fleming, was in the audience and she heard that and called my agent who called me and said, ‘You want to write a James Bond book?’ Ian Fleming died in the mid 60s and other authors had written the books since then, but it never occurred to me that I would be one of them. It took a few seconds for the request to sink in — “What? They’re asking me to write a James Bond book?” — before I said, ”Sure lets do it.” And the book did well. It’s called Carte Blanche, and it introduces Bond to the modern age. I wanted readers, especially younger readers, to experience, Bond the way I first had — as a relatively young, earnest and hardworking spy. And like all of my books, it’s full of twists, with lots of surprises and reversals.
What schools did you go to and did you have any teachers that particularly encouraged your interest in writing?
JD: I went to Hawthorne Elementary School, Glen Ellyn Junior High (now Hadley Junior High) and Glenbard West. As for teachers, I can’t speak highly enough of Virginia Gannon — she was an English teacher who I had for creative writing. And also Ms. (Helen) McConnell, the journalism teacher. Looking back, Glenbard West was quite a school — it was really almost college level in many ways. I was editor of the literary magazine and also wrote for the school newspaper. I wanted to be Mike Royko, so I wrote columns once a month or so. They were supposed to be humorous, kind of acerbic.
You went on to University of Missouri and got a degree in journalism.
JD: Well, yes, but lets back up a little bit. When I was 11 or so, I wrote what I considered to be my first novel, and it was kind of a Bond pastiche. It involved a secret agent. I called it a novel but it was very short, really just a couple of chapters. I did the cover art myself. And I thought, you know, I can do this. I’ve seen these movies, I’ve read these books, I can do this. So at that young age, I decided I was going to be a full time writer and I was going to support myself doing it. This is a skill I had, to make up stories, so I wanted to write in genre and get paid for what I wrote. But I also realized — being fairly practical — that there are few prodigy writers, so I thought, well, I’ll go to journalism school and get a job as a journalist. That will be good because it will expose me to life. And if, for some reason, it turns out I am not able to be a novelist, I’ll have that as a career.
You then got your law degree from Fordham and practiced corporate law for a few years.
JD: Well actually, I never intended to practice law. I wanted to get a job with the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal covering the legal beat. And because my grandfather was an attorney, I was fascinated with the law. But I also realized that it’s a very demanding profession, so I went at night while I was working as a journalist. I did well in law school and drew the attention of Wall Street law firms. So I thought, whoa, what the heck, I’ll give it a try. So I applied for a summer internship and did fairly well. I also made more money in those three months than I was making over the course of my entire year as a journalist. And so when the firm — Lord Day & Lord, one of the oldest firms in New York City — offered me a job, I went with them. I enjoyed my time there but the hours were excruciating. And by that time, I was in my early 30s and I just couldn’t keep the bug to write repressed anymore. So I started to write commercial fiction, and wrote three or four manuscripts. I didn’t show them to anybody because they were crap and I could see that they were crap. But as I tell my students now when I teach, if you produce something that you don’t like, that’s a good sign. That means you have a discerning eye and ideally you can learn how to fix it. But those were not fixable, so I pitched them. But I kept at it and finally my first book, Voodoo, got published by a small Canadian publishing company. And then they published my second novel called Always a Thief about an art thief who is frustrated because he can only go so far before his talents fail him. Voodoo was more of a horror novel and while I’ve always found the occult interesting, I prefer the immediacy and reality of crime as a genre. And I think people are more engaged in general, so that’s why I switched over to doing psychological thrillers.
Were you still writing on the side or did you just take a big leap of faith to become a full time writer?
JD: Because I started getting published, I left the law firm and went to work as in-house counsel for Ogilvy & Mather, the big ad agency. The hours were pretty much nine to five, so I was able to write more. Then I had an opportunity to become an editor at a legal publishing company. Those hours were even more reasonable. But then that company was acquired by another company and I just said, ‘Well, here’s my opportunity.’ But I was also thinking, ‘Am I going to be able to handle getting up in the morning, walking to my desk, and not seeing another human being for eight to 10 hours. And that first day — I can still remember it clearly — I sat down in my little apartment on 22nd Street in New York City — and I thought, you know, this is finally happening. That was 1989 and I basically never looked back.
From the beginning, first with Rune and John Pellam and later with Lincoln Rhyme and most recently with Colter Shaw, you decided to keep the same protagonist and carry the main character forward into a series of books. Why?
JD: I’m a business man, a manufacturer of a product, I am Procter & Gamble. I was recently giving a lecture at a university to business school graduate students, who wanted to know about publishing. On my way to the lecture I stopped at a pharmacy and bought a little traveler size bottle of mouthwash, some toothpaste and some deodorant. And when I went up to speak, I put them on the podium in front of me and I pointed to them and said, “Simple consumer products.” And then I set my book next to them and said, “Also a consumer product.” And they laughed. But some of them were kind of aghast because there is a sense that an author simply taps into some new vein of creativity and out comes revered work. Maybe that’s the case for some writers, but I think in general, no. So I manufacture consumer products. And what that means is, I come up with an idea that I think people will like. I thought they would kind of fall in love with Rune, my first protagonist. And many people did. I thought they would fall in love with John Pellam. And again, some did, as both of those series were nominated for awards by the Mystery Writers of America. But not enough for me to spend my time working on more of those books. So I looked at what was selling, what do people want? Well they did like series. So that was important. People tend to want to spend time with characters they know and love, like James Bond or George Smiley in John le Carré’s books. This was long before Harry Potter, of course, but readers love Harry, Hermione and Ron — people want to spend time with those characters. So I like the idea of a series. And so I just kept looking for ideas for bigger books — a bigger book is just a little book that has more pages. The Rune and Pellam books, they were pretty much solving murders, unraveling mysteries, the classic Agatha Christie kind of story. But I decided I wanted to write big book thrillers. A murder mystery asks the question what happened? A thriller is a book that asks the question, what is going to happen? I wanted to get people to turn pages. In my writing classes, I make my students write down only one thing, which is my definition of the job of any commercial fiction writer in any genre. Our job is to create the most emotionally engaging work we possibly can. And what do I mean by engaging work? To create a fictional story that involves living breathing characters, both good and bad, confronting increasing levels of conflict and increasingly difficult questions, which are ultimately resolved to the readers satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it has to be a satisfying ending. And that has kind of defined my approach to writing books for the last 25 years — increasing levels of conflict and then there’s the big crescendo, the big climactic scene when everything is resolved.
Once you have a lead character, why do you later decide to create new ones?
JD: I did a book called A Maiden’s Grave that was made into an HBO movie (starring James Garner and Marlee Matlin). But that was not conducive to a continuing series because the protagonist was an elderly retired hostage negotiator. And he wasn’t going back to work. So then I came up with the idea for Lincoln Rhyme. I thought people would like him but I didn’t know whether it would do well. But the reviews were good and it got bought by Universal Pictures and turned into a movie, The Bone Collector, and from there it was just off to the races. It helped put me on the map internationally because the movie was quite popular all over the world. It still is, which is amazing to me.
So Colter Shaw is your newest protagonist. How is he different? And what made you bring him to the table?
JD: Again, Procter & Gamble. It’s just different products to appeal to different readers. I hope there is crossover, that people will see the Deaver brand and say, ‘Oh I’m going to like this book even though it is different.’ But it gives me the chance to tell different sorts of stories. The Lincoln Rhyme books kind of emphasize his very exacting mind, similar to Sherlock Holmes. Colter Shaw is the modern day cowboy who travels around in his Winnebago trying to locate missing people, collecting reward money in return. That gives me the opportunity to get into all kinds of trouble, which is great fun.
Why do your books all happen in such a short timeframe, typically less than 48 hours? Doesn’t that limit plot options?
JD: I always keep in mind what Mickey Spillane, the great pulp fiction writer from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, said: “People don’t read books to get to the middle. They read books to get to the end.” And so I will do whatever is necessary to drive readers through to the end of the story. Putting on my readers hat, what drives me to the end of story? Well, a compressed timeframe — similar to the TV show 24 — moves us along much more quickly. Our heart beats a little faster, we sit on the edge of our seat — we’re kind of experiencing the book in real time. The cliffhangers are a way to get the reader to leap from chapter to chapter to chapter.
You say you spend a lot of time on research but how do you come up with that first idea?
JD: I’ll generally start with a premise. For example, I knew I wanted to write a book about a cult. I can’t say where that idea came from. It’s been done before, but I wanted to put my spin on it. And I wanted it to be a Colter Shaw book. And so there was the idea. And so then I sit down over the next eight months, and I started researching cults. I start with Post-It notes. Maybe I’ll read something in a book about the Jim Jones cult in Guyana, or David Koresh in Waco. And I say, oh, that’s an idea, there’s something I can pull out. And that will go up on the board. And it’s during that process that I discover if I have a workable idea. Because I have come up with ideas that are just pure crap and I look at the board and say, ‘No, it’s just not going to work.’ There are writers who just detest outlining, they are able to craft a whole story in their minds. I can’t do that, and I think most writers can’t. We need to figure out where we’re going to go. As Joyce Carol Oates said, ’The first sentence can’t be written until the last sentence is written.’ And I firmly believe that. So I will put my idea to the test with an outline that typically runs over 100 pages long, which is crazy, but it works for me.
Is there anything I have not touched upon that you think would be helpful in providing readers more insight into you as a writer and/or your writing process?
JD: I believe the greatest emotional engagement of any creative product is between a reader and a book, because the reader participates in the creation of the story, mentally, visually, and we can even sometimes hear the characters in our minds. But we authors are being challenged by the more passive forms of art like video games, TV and movies. And I completely understand — I have a big screen TV and I just watched Breaking Bad for the third time. But I also just finished reading a book that I just absolutely loved. And I can still picture the characters that were created in my head. As I said before, I’m a business man. So I have intentionally begun to change my writing style to what I am calling a more streaming style, as in streaming TV. I am trying to give readers a product that will kind of mimic the sensation of that passive form of entertainment that we all like, but that is still a book. The books are shorter, there’s more dialogue, there’s less internal monologue. The writing tends to be a bit more staccato, I use shorter words, shorter sentences. Is this doing anything to entice more people to read my books? I started this new style with the Colter Shaw books and the sales so far have been good. But are readers actually noticing? I don’t know. But I hope so.
To read about Deaver’s newest book, turn to our Local Authors feature on page 14. For more information go to www.jefferydeaver.com