Question: Did you always want to become a writer?
Jeff Deaver: Yes. I wrote my first “book” at age eleven.
Q: How do you manage to find fresh story ideas?
Jeff: I’m often asked where the ideas for my books come from. To answer that I have to describe what I think is my responsibility as a thriller writer: To give my readers the most exciting roller coaster ride of a suspense story I can possibly think of. This means that, rather than looking through newspapers or magazines for inspiration, I spend much of my time during the early stages of a book sitting in a dark room and trying to think up a story line that will fit the typical Deaver novel: one that features strong (though possibly flawed) heroes, sick and twisted bad guys, deadlines every few chapters, a short time frame for the entire story (eight to forty-eight hours or so), lots of surprising plot twists and turns and plenty of cliffhangers.
Q: You’ve been described as a ‘psychological thriller writer.’ Do you think this is accurate?
Jeff: It’s accurate to the extent that I explore the psychology of crime and crime detection in my books: the minds of the criminal and his hunters. I also try very hard to create characters — both heroes and villains — with psychological depth. In other words, the people who populate my books are more than caricatures. We inhabit their minds throughout much of the book. Of course — as in my Lincoln Rhyme series — there’s a great deal of forensics and police work that has little to do with psychological profiling.
Q: How did your first writing get into print?
Jeff: I was editor of my high school literary magazine and a reporter for the school newspaper.
Q: Does writing come easily to you? Do you revise much?
Jeff: I wouldn’t say it comes easily to me but I thoroughly enjoy doing it so I’m lucky in that sense. I revise a great deal. My publisher doesn’t even get a peek at my manuscript until I’ve revised it at least twenty or thirty times (and I mean major revisions).
Q: Where do you like to write?
Jeff: I write pretty much anywhere — on planes, in hotel rooms, anywhere in my house. (My office sometimes gets so cluttered I end up working in the kitchen. When the kitchen goes, it’s up to my bedroom. And so on and so on. I wish I had a bigger house.) I like the writing area to be silent (or with jazz or classical accompaniment occasionally) and either windowless or shaded. When it comes time to write the book itself I’ll shut the lights out, picture the scene I’m about to write then close my eyes and go at it. Yes, I can touch type. And, yes, sometimes my hands accidentally move over one key and I end up with a paragraph or two of encryption.
Q: Are there any books about writing you would recommend? Did you take writing classes?
Jeff : I never took classes. There aren’t any books that I would recommend. The best way to learn about writing is to study the work of other writers you admire.
Q: Do you ever have “writer’s block?”
Jeff: I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. If you have a craftsman’s command of the language and basic writing techniques you’ll be able to write — as long as you know what you want to say. This is not to belittle the affliction, of course, because figuring out what you want to communicate can be one hell of a daunting task. When I find myself frozen — whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book — it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place. I ask myself: What am I trying to say? If I can’t answer that, or if the answer doesn’t enhance the work, I back off and try another approach. Trying to write books with a subject matter or in a genre or style you’re not familiar with is the best way to find the Big Block looming.
Q: What is the best advice about writing anyone ever gave you, and who gave it?
Jeff: Mickey Spillane: “People don’t read books to get to the middle. They read to get to the end.”
Q: Why do you think forensics are so popular now in commercial fiction?
Jeff: Certainly going back to Sherlock Holmes we have a tradition of forensic science featured in detective stories. The recent fascination, I think, reflects the shift in approach by law enforcement officials to embrace technology as wholeheartedly as the rest of the world. After all, a psychotic criminal can fool the best psychologists and lie detectors, but he can’t beat a DNA match.
Q: How do you balance the needs of plot with the portrayal of relationships among your characters?
Jeff: My books are primarily plot driven but the best plot in the world is useless if you don’t populate them with characters that readers can care about. So I work hard to present the human side of my characters while not neglecting the plot. Ideally, I like to integrate the human issues into the suspense story itself. In suspense novels even subplots about relationships have to have conflict.
Q: How much of the stories come from your real life experiences?
Jeff: In my case, none. I was an attorney but I practiced corporate law. It means working harder to do the research but I don’t really mind — I don’t think I have what it takes to chase criminals through back alleys and wade through blood at crime scenes. Of course, all writers draw upon their personal experiences in describing day-to-day life and human relationships, but I tend to keep my own experiences largely separate from my stories.
Q: What portion of your writing time is spent in research? How do you research?
Jeff: I spend about eight months researching and outlining my book. Most of this is through books, publications and the Internet. I do, of course, interview individuals who’re knowledgeable about the subjects I’m researching but doing this often results in too much information. There’s nothing wrong with over-researching but there’s a problem when you put too much of your research in the book. All the technical details have to further the plot. If not, out they should go.
Q: Forensic details can be quite gruesome. How do you decide to draw the line so you don’t turn off readers?
Jeff: That’s a tricky question. Of course, I write crime stories, and I have to describe violence and the aftermath of violence. Readers (and people in general) are fascinated with some detail. But I’ve had readers tell me they won’t read me anymore because of the violence in, say, The Bone Collector, and I’ve had other readers tell me that they “loved the rat scene” (one of my most gruesome) and can I write more like that? In general, I think, less is more and that if a reader stops reading because a book is too icky then I’ve failed in my obligation to the readers.
Q: How do you pick the settings for your books?
Jeff: Rule one: Write about settings you’re familiar with. If I’m setting a book outside of New York (where I lived for twenty years) or where I live now, I’ll travel there and spend some weeks researching. I try to add some local color and description, but also try not to go overboard — too much description can detract from the story.
Q: You trained as a lawyer. Why do you think so many lawyers and doctors become novelists?
Jeff: The easy answer is that writing novels is a lot more fun than practicing law. But there is an analytical component — a left-brained component — to writing crime fiction that I think is an element of such professions as law, and medicine as well. For me a thriller is a very carefully structured story. I spend eight months outlining and researching the novel before I begin to write a single word of the prose. The skills I use to do that are the same I used when practicing law — researching and structuring a legal document or case.
Q: You’ve also been a folk singer. What led to that interest?
Jeff: Ah, there’s nothing like music. It’s seductive, it’s all-consuming, it’s emotional, it’s infinitely creative . . . . I was a singer-songwriter, not particularly talented musically but drawn to the craft of song writing. I liked the challenge of writing in a very concise structure in which both meaning and form are important. (It’s far easier to write long than it is to write economically.) I performed and taught music in clubs in the San Francisco Bay area and Chicago. But that was years ago and I don’t do it anymore. (Check out the music in XO for an update!)
Q: Your first published books were Voodoo and Always A Thief. Can you tell us about those?
Jeff: Yes, they were published by a small company called Paperjacks, a paperback original house that’s no longer in business and hasn’t been for some time. They are out of print and there are no plans to reprint them in the future. But there is certainly a collectors’ market for them. Voodoo was a supernatural book, a genre I decided not to work in, and Always a Thief was a caper about an art thief.
Q: Were you happy with the movie version of The Bone Collector? And were you involved in making this movie?
Jeff: I thought the movie was very good. There were probably some things I would have done differently but my expertise is in writing novels, not making movies. Directing films is extremely arduous work and I wouldn’t want to do it for any money. I let the movie-makers do their thing and they let me do mine. That’s a great relationship. And, no, I was not involved with the making of the film.
Q: What do you do for fun?
Jeff: Cook and have dinner parties, including some rather bizarre ones (Roman and medieval, for instance). When you work alone, you need to socialize at some level.
Q: Can you list some of your favorite books?
Jeff: Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow
Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
Hugging the Shore, John Updike
From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Marquez
Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur
Tailor of Panama, John Le Carre
Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
The Arms of Krupp, William Manchester
The Hound of the Baskervilles, A. Conan Doyle
Collected Stories of John Cheever
The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles
Collected Poems, Robert Frost
Any Doc Savage novel, Kenneth Robeson
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Music For Chameleons, Truman Capote
The Making of the President—1960, Theodore White