Interview with Jon Land
What genre do you write and why?
I believe fully in the principle espoused by Robert Louis Stevenson, that you can only write what you would read if someone else had written it. For me that’s thrillers. The few times I’ve set out to try something different, that’s what I end up with, and there’s no point in fighting it. I find the thriller form to be wondrously pure, since all thrillers are essentially quest stories, harking back structurally to tales from Greek mythology and legends of lore of great heroes on a mission to save something far bigger than just themselves. That describes the thriller form in a nutshell and it’s the formula that defines structure for me. With every book I write, I’m trying to sweep the reader away the same way Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Clive Cussler, Irving Wallace, John Le Carre, and all the other authors whose thrillers swept me away years ago and made me want to be a writer.
Tell us about your latest book.
Strong Light of Day, the seventh in my Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, follows Caitlin as she searches for the connection between thirty high school students who vanished while on a field trip and cattle nearby that’s been picked clean to the bone. It features some of the best action scenes I’ve ever written, along with a truly scary plot going all the way back to the Cold War involving agro-terrorism, an attack on America’s food supply. The first thing you have do in a series is to always keep the characters fresh and with each book I strive to confront them with new emotional challenges and one of those forms a centerpiece here, involving the son of Caitlin’s reformed outlaw boy friend Cort Wesley Masters who’s her surrogate son as well. I believe whole-heartedly in the old John D. McDonald mantra that story is stuff happening to people the reader cares about, and in Strong Light of Day I think the reader comes to care about Caitlin more than ever before.
What advice do you have for other writers?
Tell a story! Sounds simple, I know, but it reminds me of the quote from Samuel Johnson about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is seldom done well, but you’re surprised to see it done at all.” Same thing with telling a story. Beginning writers focus on a lot of things, but what stops you in your tracks faster than anything is the ability to craft of a sequential beginning, middle and end. Without that, nothing else you do, no matter how well you do it, matters. Storytelling isn’t rocket science. It’s about being able to define the conflict in every scene you set, about creating the kind of suspense that makes it impossible for a reader to put the book down. That means starting chapters with hooks and ending them with cliffhangers. It means challenging your heroes with obstacles that lie between them and the successful completion of their quest. It means creating high enough stakes, both structural and emotional, that forge a bond between writer and reader that I consider sacred. The other thing I’d say is don’t wait around to start your second book; you should be writing it while you’re trying to market/sell your first book, because chances are it’s going to be better and what saved me early on in my career was knowing I had a better book coming if the first one didn’t work.
What's your favourite quote about writing/for writers?
“When describing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.” My agent Natalia Aponte related that to me, and I don’t actually know who said it. But it’s one of the few lessons I believe applies to all writers without exception. I say that because my editor at Forge Books Bob Gleason just mentioned to me that properly crafting a scene is becoming a lost art. But if you knew where the light is coming from, you’ll know where the characters are in relation to each other and what they are seeing. And in describing what they say, you can also describe what they’re feeling, what’s driving them, where the conflict is and how the suspense is generated. Being able to properly set or stage a scene might be the most underrated facet of becoming a successful writer. Let me give you a perfect example from the next Caitlin Strong book, Strong Cold Dead, which climaxes on the grounds of a traveling amusement park. Caitlin chases the villain into an attraction known as the Chamber of Horrors and only once she was inside did I realize it was same attraction she’d been inside before as a kid when it scared the hell out of her. So, in addition to chasing down the bad guy, she’s revisited by all these old fears that are then juxtaposed against the new ones. That’s what being a storyteller is all about.
What's the best thing about being a writer?
Hey, perfect follow-up question! The best thing about being a writer is that no two days are the same; hell, no two hours are the same! You never know what’s going to happen next—both good and bad, unfortunately. If you’re lucky and have achieved a reasonable degree of success, the positive vastly outweighs the negative, but it’s how you deal with that negative—the rejection and disappointment—that determines how long you can really last. Because, the thing is, rejection and disappointment never stops being part of the process. That’s as inevitable as it is systemic. You need to be able to move on from disappointing sales, negative reviews, a project you may not be able to place, etc. That’s what makes you a professional and it’s part of the job. Just like being your own boss, having the freedom to set your own schedule, to (hopefully) make a living at what you absolutely love to do. I often tell people that writing is the one profession you don’t choose—it chooses you. You are a writer because you can’t imagine being anything else.
Why do you think readers are going to enjoy your book?
Let me try to answer that without sounding overly self-serving—notice I said, ‘try!’ First off, I feel anyone who enjoys thrillers in general will love Strong Light of Day in particular because it contains all the structural elements that accentuate the genre at its very best. That what has made Lee Child a major bestselling author and is Jack Reacher character a true icon in the field.. In my humble opinion, the Caitlin Strong series compares favorably to Lee’s books because essentially she’s a female version of Reacher. A modern day gunfighter still living with an Old West mentality. So if you’re looking for a female action hero, Caitlin’s definitely your gal. But I’ve also patterned the series to a great extent after the wonderful work done by James Lee Burke in his Dave Robicheaux books. I say that because all the Caitlin Strong books have a very strong emotional context and core. The recurring characters age, change, and face new challenges in their personal lives. You care about them and that vests you in the action all the more, creating much more suspense.
Who designed the cover?
Wow, that’s a great question and I’m so glad somebody finally asked me it! The truth is I have very minimal involvement in my cover concept and design. There’s a designer who works for my publisher who’s come up with all my Caitlin Strong covers and, get this, he actually reads the very first draft of the book to a get a notion not only for the title’s subject matter but also its tone and subtext. The cover Strong Light of Day is a perfect example. We see my female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, viewed from behind, standing on a ridge or rock formation, gazing down a lonely road into the rising sun, the implication being that something is coming down that road she must stop. In essence, the entire mystery and feel of the book is right there in that graphic, and I think it’s drop dead brilliant.
What inspires you?
Ah, the “I” word! After 38 books overall, and this being the seventh in the Caitlin Strong series, I’m not sure inspiration is the right word but let me try to apply it. My inspiration is always to create a great story that’s different and better in enough ways than all the other books that preceded it. In the case of Strong Light of Day, I had read this article in the New York Times about a genetically enhanced pesticide that went terribly wrong. All sorts of unintended consequences which got me thinking about applying that on a massive scale. More generally, I’m inspired by the desire, obsession even, to give people
the same experience my favorite authors give me: Keep you up all night, make your next airplane flight the best one you’ve ever had because you’re reading my book, get you excited when you see my new book staring out at you from a bookstore.
What books or authors have most influenced your life?
Oh man, I’d need a whole book to answer that but let me hit a few of the ones that stand out the most: The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty because it was the first book I read literally cover to cover in a single day. The Stand (original, not the expanded version) by Stephen King because I missed class while at Brown University because I just couldn’t put it down and had chills the whole time I was reading it. The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum because these books more than any other made me want to write thrillers and I think I spent the first few years of my career copying Ludlum as well as King. Marathon Man by William Goldman because it’s as perfect a thriller as has ever been written—I can actually recite passages from it I’ve read it so much. Like I said, the list is endless, but I’d like to finish with a more recent Stephen King title, Doctor Sleep which was the sequel to his brilliant The Shining. I didn’t think a book could scare me anymore but that one literally gave me nightmares and gave me the same feeling I got when I read The Exorcist that rainy Saturday afternoon when I was twelve or thirteen years old.
What is your work in progress? Tell us about it.
As I mentioned, I literally just submitted my initial draft of the next book in the Caitlin Strong series, Strong Cold Dead, so there’s still lots of work to do on that one before it’s ready to be published next fall. Before that, though, March will see publication of my second nonfiction book Takedown, about a celebrated undercover drug officer who comes out of retirement to battle the biggest drug gang in the country (sounds like fiction, doesn’t it?). And then in June the first in the series I’m doing with the great Heather Graham, The Rising, will be out. That’s the amazing thing about this business. Here I’ve been doing it for over thirty years and an opportunity like that comes up. You just never know what’s going to happen next.