Alan Jacobson is the bestselling author of the Karen Vail mysteries, beginning with The 7th Victim, Crush, Velocity, and most recently, Inmate 1577. He has spent a number of years researching with the FBI, especially in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. He was previously interviewed on BookBanter with the release of Crush. In this interview, Jacobson talks about how he writes one of his thriller, the intense amount of research Inmate 1577 required, and why he feels this research is important, and where he sees Karen Vail headed in his next novel.
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Alex C. Telander: When writing a mystery do you start with the ending and who the killer is and work your way back, or write chronologically like the reader reads it? Do you always have the ending worked out beforehand?
Alan Jacobson: I always start with an idea that I find intriguing—and irresistible. My sense is that if it gets my storytelling juices flowing, it’ll excite my readers, too. I write down everything that I can think of relative to the developing plot, and keep typing, without stopping, until nothing else comes to mind. Over the subsequent days and weeks, it keeps bouncing around my head, and I keep jotting down those thoughts and ideas. Day by day, the story takes shape.
The characters also come to me during this brainstorming process. The question of which comes first, the characters or the plot, is tough to answer. They feed off one another, are a part of one another. The characters who populate my stories are there for a reason relative to the story, so they can’t be switched out or deleted from the story without changing the plot I’m creating.
Likewise, the ending comes to me during the outlining process. It’s organic and flows from the story that I’m telling and the characters through whom I choose to tell it. On occasion, the ending comes to me at the same time as the initial idea. But because I outline, I always know where I’m going. I don’t start writing page one before I have completed my outline—so while the ending is a surprise for the reader, it’s never a surprise for me. Everything builds up to that moment, so it’s all orchestrated, knit from page one, leading to that final paragraph.
Alex: Will the events in Inmate 1577 keep Karen Vail in Northern California from now on?
Alan: Not at all. In Inmate 1577, there was a reorganization of the Behavioral Analysis Unit such that Vail and her partner will be assigned cases that come out of the western region’s FBI field offices. This is a setup the FBI really did use at one time. But the western region is a huge area—and even at that, it doesn’t mean that future Vail novels will only be set on the west coast (in fact, the next one will not be—more on that later).
Alex: How much research did Inmate 1577 require?
Alan: Beyond belief! My readers know I spend months (and sometimes years) researching my novels. My feeling is that the story I tell and the characters I create should be the only fictional aspects—everything else should (hopefully) be factually accurate. There are people who really do the things I write about, so I try to respect their professions and knowledge base by not “just making it up.” It also takes the reader out of a story if I incorrectly refer to something he or she knows well. So if my character gets into a Lexus convertible, and Lexus doesn’t make a convertible, those readers who know cars will stop reading and say, “Huh? He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” It ruins the read for those people, and it makes them doubt other things in the story. So I try to avoid that.
Inmate 1577 is certainly no exception—I ended up doing a tremendous amount of research for a number of reasons: a large portion of the novel is set in the 1950s and early 60s, so I had to be familiar with slang, conventions, technology and attire for that period; another substantial part is set at Leavenworth…so I had to know what the place looked and smelled like, what the layout of the penitentiary was back in the 50s, and what the prison culture was like back then and how the guards handled (and interacted with) the inmates.
Most importantly, of course, there’s the Alcatraz storyline, which took the lion’s share of my research efforts and time. I had to know what Alcatraz was like when it was operating as a penitentiary during the years 1958 to 1963. It was unlike any other prison, so I had to understand its history and its operational philosophy. And I had to know what the island was like during those years, as well as what it’s like in the present day because Inmate 1577 features The Rock in both time periods. I needed to know what life was like for the prisoners, for the correctional officers, and so on. And then I had to learn about the escape attempts—one in particular in excruciating detail—because I integrated my villain into that escape. It was the most intricate and daring (and famous) escape attempt in the world. I wanted my portrayal to be accurate because there are a lot of people who are very familiar with it—it’s legendary—and there are archival documents from FBI and Bureau of Prisons and US Marshals Service files.
Although it meant several months of extra work, it paid off because I’m extremely proud of how Inmate 1577 turned out—and of the terrific reviews it’s received. I’ve also included a fascinating discussion at the end of Inmate 1577 detailing the fact vs. fiction aspects of the novel.
Alex: Why do you think Alcatraz is such a special, infamous place to so many people throughout the world?
Alan: I think it’s a multifaceted phenomenon: its location and uniqueness play a large role; it’s an island penitentiary where the worst of the worst were banished to serve their time. It was a formidable place, fed by rumors, and shrouded in secrecy during its earlier years of operation. The Bureau of Prisons’ attempt to quash media reports and stories about Alcatraz only served to fan the flames of suspicion about what went on in the middle of San Francisco Bay where sharks reportedly roamed and where the incorrigible and infamous inmates Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly lived.
As a result, Alcatraz became larger than life. And since the cell house is still intact from those days, the legend feeds off itself because millions of people visit it each year. It’s easy to step back in time and lose yourself in its history. Alcatraz is one of the most unique (and most visited) National Parks in the country.
Alex: What made you decide to write two storylines with this book? Did it start out as a single story? Did you write each one individually, or switch off between the two like in the book?
Alan: It came to me as a two storyline plot. The initial concept that popped into my head one day was, “Karen Vail on Alcatraz.” When I started to brainstorm the story, I wanted to get into the head of a man whose story began and ended with a tragic injustice. The thought of writing that man’s story in the 1950s as historical fiction was very exciting to me. Ironically, in a broad sense, the concept is similar to the one I visited in my first novel, False Accusations (recently re-edited and re-released as both an eBook and an Amazon trade paperback). Inmate 1577 is clearly very different, but the idea of someone doing nothing wrong yet falling victim to a criminal justice system that does not do right by him was an extremely intriguing storyline…one that a great many readers have related to. In the case of Inmate 1577, I wanted a villain—a serial killer—who we could feel sorry for. That’s a huge challenge!
I wrote the book linearly, meaning from page one to the end. I alternated storylines just like the reader does when he/she reads it. However, there were a couple of occasions when I continued writing the story if I was in a rhythm in that time period and wanted to finish that particular scene. But most of it was written just like the reader reads it. Doing it that way gives me a better sense of the pacing and keeps me in touch with what the reader is feeling.
Alex: You use a number of short chapters in Inmate 1577, which is a growing style in contemporary thrillers, is there a particular reason for this?
Alan: I honestly don’t pay attention to chapter length when writing because that reduces the process to a very mechanical, rather than organic flow. James Patterson has used short chapters to great effect; he does it by design—he’ll specify in his chapter outline how many pages each chapter will be. And it’s a style that works for him. His goal is to make the reader feel as if she’s turning the pages quickly (a “page turner”)—because, well, she is. But innate pacing—driven by the writing, the action, plot, and characters, is much more important to me: is the story flowing well? Does it move from one scene to another? Is the reader engaged in what’s going on?
If I do all that well, it doesn’t matter how long the chapters are. That said, if there’s a problem with pacing, chapter length might figure into the solution. But I’ve been writing novels for 19 years, so I’m at the point where I know when something’s not working or not flowing, or if the pacing or story gets bogged down. And if I miss something, my wife is a skilled reader with a sharp editing eye and she’ll point it out. Then there’s my editor, who’s terrific, and my copyeditor—all of whom are on the alert for problems.
That said, I do pay attention to the way things are laid out on the page; if I want a scene to move quickly—if it’s an action scene, or if I want to turn up the tension—one way is to use shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, and so on…because, as I noted above, your eyes move faster across the page. However, it’s something that comes organically while writing. Very rarely is it a conscious manipulation of the layout.
Alex: With the many locations in San Francisco featured in this book, have you thought about organizing tours?
Alan: I’ve had a lot of requests from friends and family to take them to Alcatraz! By and large, writing is a full time (and a half) job, so I wouldn’t have time to do that. But it sure would be fun to take readers to all the locations that play significant roles in Inmate 1577.
Alex: You also have a new standalone book coming out soon, what can you tell your readers about it?
Alan: Hard Target starts off with a bang—literally—with a spectacular assassination attempt on the president-elect on Election Night. Our two protagonists go in search of those responsible and the information they uncover leads to some very upsetting discoveries—including conspirators whose plan is so far-reaching and well-orchestrated that it could result in the overthrow of the U.S. government.
Lee Child called Hard Target a “great thriller” that’s “fast, hard, and intelligent.” Vince Flynn called it a “smart, complex thriller” that “scores a direct hit on my radar.”
But—I would not label it a standalone. It’s a hybrid standalone. I guess I’ve invented a new category! While it’s not part of the Karen Vail series, a number of characters who’ve figured prominently in my prior novels drive the action, alongside some new ones. Hector DeSantos, who debuted in my second novel, The Hunted (also recently re-released as both an eBook and an Amazon trade paperback), and who partnered with Vail in Velocity, returns. He teams up with FBI Agent Aaron “Uzi” Uziel, who’s in charge of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington, DC. FBI Director Douglas Knox also returns to play a significant role, as does FBI CSI Tim Meadows (introduced in The 7th Victim). And then there’s Dr. Leonard Rudnick, Vail’s psychologist, who appeared in Velocity. Oh—and Karen Vail is in a chunk of the novel, too! So while it’s not considered part of the Vail series, you can see why I call it a hybrid standalone.
Hard Target should launch by February 2012. Before then, Karen Vail returns in a short story titled Fatal Twist. I believe my publisher is looking at having it live by November as a digital release. I’ll be releasing more info about it on my website, www.alanjacobson.com, as soon as it becomes available. While there, grab the free 23-page personal safety booklet that I coauthored with FBI Profiler Mark Safarik (who’s now starring in his own hit TV series, Killer Instinct). The free booklet contains vitally important information on staying out of the crosshairs of violent criminals.
Alex: Why did you change publishers?
Alan: It’s a long story—but the short answer is that the Borders bankruptcy was announced on the day that my publisher had to commit to Inmate 1577. Borders owed them nearly $9 million–money that was never going to be repaid—so they refused to continue shipping books to Borders, even though they were one of their two main sales channels. Barnes and Noble was (is) going through a financial upheaval themselves—closing stores, severely cutting inventory and the number of titles they stock. My publisher thus wanted to publish Inmate 1577 as an eBook original—that is, no bound edition because they didn’t have enough brick-and-mortar stores to sell them through.
At the same time, with the digital revolution growing exponentially, my agent wanted me to go with a publisher who had a strong digital presence and the know-how to leverage that platform in the most efficient way possible. Inmate 1577 was thus published through Premiere Digital Publishing, who had recently re-issued my out-of-print novels, The Hunted and False Accusations. Norwood Press, which specializes in collector’s editions and signed first edition hardcovers, released Inmate 1577 in hardcover. It’s a beautiful book—they did a terrific job. There’s also a trade paperback (same size as a hardback, but with a soft cover) that will be available on 10/1/11 through Amazon.com.
Alex: Any hints at where Karen Vail will be headed next?
Alan: Yes! If my plans come to fruition, Vail is headed to England, where she’ll partner again with Hector DeSantos.