In preparation for ThrillerFest X, the annual conference of the International Thriller Writers, we interviewed four bestselling, award-winning authors… who also all happen to be book reviewers. These ITW members shared their unique perspectives on writing & reading book reviews, trends in the Thriller genre and community, and even shared a few stories that made us laugh. We hope you enjoy this inside look as much as we did—and hopefully take away a book recommendation, or two!
It’s our pleasure to welcome:
Bruce DeSilva grew up in a tiny Massachusetts mill town where the mill closed when he was ten. This parochial little place was sadly bereft of metaphors—and assonance and irony were also in short supply. Nevertheless, his crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press’s award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and his reviews for The Associated Press continue to appear in hundreds of publications. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for AP, editing stories that won nearly every major journalism prize including the Pulitzer. A Scourge of Vipers, the fourth novel in his hardboiled crime series, was recently published by Forge.
Jon Land is the USA Today bestselling author of 37 novels, including six titles in the critically acclaimed Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series of which the most recent, Strong Darkness, won the 2014 USA Books Best Book Award and the 2015 International Book Award in the Thriller category. That followed Strong Rain Falling winning both the 2014 International Book Award and 2013 USA Best Book Award for Mystery-Suspense. His most recent book, Black Scorpion, was published on April 7 with the next in the Caitlin Strong series, Strong Light of Day, coming in October. He’s a 1979 graduate of Brown University, lives in Providence, Rhode Island and can be found on the Web at jonlandbooks.com or on Twitter @jondland.
Jeff Ayers is a freelance reviewer of suspense/thrillers for the Associated Press, Library Journal (2012 Fiction Reviewer of the Year), Booklist, and RT Book Reviews. He’s the author of Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion (Pocket Books), the library thriller Long Overdue (Stonehouse), the YA mystery co-written with Kevin Lauderdale titled The Fourth Lion (Booktrope), and the e-book original thriller Assassin’s Agenda (Detective Ink). He co-wrote the short story Last Shot with Jon Land that appeared in the anthology Love is Murder, edited by Sandra Brown. Jeff co-hosts an Internet radio show with John Raab of Suspense Magazine called Beyond the Cover, which has interviews with book industry professionals plus reviews and discussions about the world of publishing. He is on the board of directors for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, Inc.
Myles Knapp has been held at gunpoint by the Rio police, fought for his life against a hammer-wielding psycho and lost more full contact judo fights to Marines than he can count. As a reviewer, he’s read over 5,000 thrillers and is determined to read another 5,000. Since 2001, his column, “Grit-Lit,” has appeared in major newspapers and websites including The San Jose Mercury, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and affiliates.
A marketing and sales professional, he has lived and worked in the United States, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. When not busy completing his second and third Revenge School novels, Myles is reading, lifting heavy weights and riding his motorcycle or bicycle.
From your unique perspective of being a Thriller author and a book reviewer, can you describe the Thriller community? Is there anything unique amongst those contributing to and interested in this genre that perhaps isn’t a characteristic of other literary communities?
Bruce: Writers of thrillers (and their close cousins, the mystery writers) constitute an incredibly welcoming and supportive creative community. As someone who has been writing, editing, and teaching for more than forty years, I can tell you with utter certainty that most writing communities are not like this. There’s a lot of competition and jealousy out there. For example, my wife is a poet. We know a lot of very nice poets, but as a group, they’re given to cattiness and backstabbing. And academic writers? Fuhgeddaboutit! But from the moment my first novel, Rogue Island, appeared six years ago, the thriller community opened its arms to me. Even the biggest stars–people like Joseph Finder, Dennis Lehane, and Harlan Coben—went out of their way to offer advice and encouragement. For that, I’ll always be grateful.
Jon: Trying to challenge me right from the start, eh? Hey, I love talking about the thriller community because, thanks to ITW, it’s become unusually tight-knit. I say unusually because writers are normally perceived, rightfully so, as an amorphous, disconnected bunch with each living in his or her own little box. Since its inception, ITW has expanded that box and left a side open so everyone is welcome to come in. I can’t truly say if this unique among other literary communities because I’m not a part of them. But I can say that the very mission of ITW is basically creating a community where the haves reach out and down to the not-yet-haves. Writers helping writers, in other words, and, yes, I do believe that is somewhat unique anyway perhaps because we’ve come to realize that the better the genre does, the better we all do.
Jeff: There are so many different subgenres in the world of thrillers – everything from legal and historical to romantic and action/adventure. So you can imagine how diverse thriller writers are. They get the adrenaline flowing, and keep the reader up all night – so they have that in common. Without exception, everyone I have met in the thriller community has been wonderful, friendly, and very gracious with their time and advice. It may be unique to the thriller community, however, that we regularly alarm taxi drivers and restaurant servers with our discussion of how to hide bodies and cause explosions.
Myles: I am very fortunate to review almost exclusively thrillers so most of my experiences are with thriller readers. In general, I find thriller readers to be more active and engaged than readers of tea cozies or “literate writing.”
As an author and a reviewer, do you see any trends in the Thriller genre (and subgenres) right now? Are there any trends you’d like to see emerge (or disappear)?
Bruce: The genre writers I most admire do more than entertain. They use the popular form of the thriller or the mystery novel to address the significant social issues that keep us up at night. George Pelecano’s fine Washington D.C. crime novels, for example, are both riveting mysteries and insightful examinations of race, ethnicity, and urban life in America. That said, I sure could do without the right-wing extremist politics that mars so many of today’s sci-fi novels. Of course, the genre has long included writers with a strong conservative streak. The great Robert A. Heinlein springs immediately to mind. Whether you agree with his world view or not, you’ve got to admit that he wrote entertaining and thought-provoking books. But the angry screeds and naked propaganda produced by too many of today’s sci-fi novelists are neither. They’re just bad books. I also don’t care for the way they’ve banded together to vote in a block in an effort to sweep the sci-fi awards.
Jon: I think I’d need a whole book to answer those questions! I do see several new trends emerging, chief among them the “shrinking” of the thriller in a growing sub-genre pioneered by Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner—I’ve called it the suburban nightmare novel where the action is happening, literally, in your own backyard instead of a country capital. Where the structural stakes might be smaller, but the emotional stakes are off the charts. What great thrillers do is prey upon our fears: Robert Ludlum exploiting our paranoid fears of government in the post Watergate era. Or Tom Clancy exploiting our fears about a looming World War III. Or the late great Vince Flynn exploiting our fears about Arab terrorists. Well, in the suburban nightmare sub-genre it’s all about wondering who your neighbor really is, why is your child’s bed empty in the morning, or what’s wrong with the family that just moved in next door. It’s more than just a psychological thriller because these tales are about what truly goes bump in the night because they don’t give us the security of being able to say, “That was scary, but it could never really happen” because it can and has. I think that’s what made DOCTOR SLEEP Stephen King’s scariest book in years to a great extent, since it preys upon the exploitation of children—literally, in this case.
Jeff: There has been a major push in thrillers focuses on the military, particularly written by authors who have experienced active duty in either a regular deployment or special ops. Novels that feature a deceptive narrator (Gone Girl) or someone with amnesia (Before I Go to Sleep) seem to be popping up more frequently. I’d love to see more novels that blend genres. My favorite thriller last year, The Martian by Andy Weir, is also a science fiction novel. In terms of a trend I would like to see disappear, the serial killer stalking women genre needs to be retired. If I see another book open with the perspective of the killer going after someone, I will need to find a new place to hide a body (metaphorically speaking, or course!)
Myles: As a thriller addict and book reviewer, there are a few trends that I’d like to see disappear.
- Serial killers. Been done. Been overdone. Pretty darn hard to write a character better than or equal to Hannibal Lecter.
- Legal thrillers. My personal experience is the law is never thrilling. Making the hero a lawyer ties an author’s hands. That said, I love the Lassiter series by Paul Levine. It is fresh, funny and has more action than a typical legal thriller.
- Books that are so complicated you need a story map to remember where you are from one day to the next. Most people read on planes, trains, buses… They read before work when they are barely awake or after work when they are tired. They read in bed and on phones. Readers of thrillers are looking for entertainment. Mickey Spillane and John D McDonald wrote bestsellers that were entertaining and not so complex that you needed to Cliff Notes to keep the story straight.
- This feeling that characters need to be complex and flawed to be successful and maintain tension. Don’t know who started this idea. But I really wish I knew how to stop it.
- Using URST (unresolved sexual tension) to keep up a stories tension level. How can your heroic male lead be afraid to ask a woman out?
Trends that I would like to see continue.
- Excellent thrillers with an educational bent for young adults. Gary Corby has written a wonderful series set in ancient Athens. It is fun, educational and is not post-dystopian. And it has no vampires. YIPPEE!!!
- Thrillers with female leads. Jon Land’s Caitlin Strong is a great example of a strong, female character.
- Books, like Michael Crichton’s, where you can learn something and be entertained. The Martian by Andy Weir is an excellent example.
- I love David Liss’s series of historical thrillers. Well researched historical thrillers can take you to a magical place where real giants like Lincoln roamed the earth.
How has being an author affected how you review others books? Do you feel it gives you a deeper understanding and/or sensitivity of the work involved, or does it make you even more critical?
Bruce: I seldom write negative reviews. The main reason for this is that life is too short to read books that I don’t enjoy. If I get part way into a book and don’t like it, I usually toss it aside and read something else. I don’t think it would be fair to review a book that I haven’t finished. The other reason is that reviews should be about serving the reader, and I think it’s more helpful to recommend a book than to warn people not to read something. That said, knowing firsthand how much sweat it takes to write a novel has made my occasional negative reviews kinder and gentler. Before my first book was published, some of my reviews were pretty mean. I don’t do that anymore.
Jon: I’m going to totally honest here: I don’t give negative reviews. I feel part of my job as a spokesman and cheerleader for the genre is to recommend books I think readers will like and I don’t see the point of telling them what not to bother with. If I don’t like a book, if I give up on it early on, I don’t cover it. There are only so many books I can cover in a month and I’d rather focus on books that best represent the genre. I write books that I would read if somebody else had written them, so in that sense I actually have very high standards. But it’s wrong to have the same criteria for all the various sub-genres of the thriller form. Romanic suspense, for example, doesn’t follow the same rules as an international thriller any more than a psychological thriller can’t really be compared to an action thriller. Each book needs to be evaluated on its own merits. As far as sensitivity and understanding goes, I also try to balance my columns between bestsellers and new discoveries or lesser-known names often published by smaller presses. Otherwise, I’m not really growing the genre so much as growing the sales of already successful authors. The bottom line is that as an author I know how hard it is to get reviews which leaves me with a deep respect and humility about approaching the review process with that perspective in mind.
Jeff: I understand how difficult it is to craft a complex book, and then do it again, but make it better than before. The process amazes me, and I feel like I have so much to learn by reading great stories. Reading a broad variety of thrillers has helped me focus on what works and how an author invokes emotions or suspense, which I try to incorporate into my writing. I never slam an author personally in my reviews if I don’t like the book- it is always about what is on the page. Is this book worth the reader’s investment in time and money? That is what I focus on with every review I write.
Myles: Being a reviewer and a writer makes me realize how hard it is to be a publisher. I see at least a hundred thrillers a year where I wonder, “How did a major publishing house ever agree to print this?” And I see an equal number of self-published books that seem like they should have been handled by a major and be available on every book rack in every airport in the country. As a reviewer I almost never, give a book a bad review. Who am I to rain on another author’s work? Writing and reading are individual activities. What I love might not appeal to someone else. As a writer, I appreciate excellent story telling more than ever before. The magic and dedication required to get out 75,000+ words in a coordinated, cohesive, engaging package still flabbergasts me. When I wrote ads, brochures, radio and television commercials I never realized how hard it was going to be to write a book. It’s pretty easy to write a page of words that are compelling to read. It is way more 300 times harder to write 300 hundred pages.
Do you have a favorite (positive or critical) review that someone wrote for one of your own books?
Bruce: My novels have been widely reviewed (The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, National Public Radio, Publishers Weekly, etc), and I’ve been fortunate that all of them have been raves. However, some of the praise has been so extravagant that it’s been somewhat embarrassing. For example, NPR commentator Alan Cheuse, reviewing my first novel for The Dallas Morning News, said, “Rogue Island raises the bar for all books of its kind.” Hey, I thought it was good too, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t do that. But my favorite reader review, which appeared on Goodreads.com, was scathing—so angry that I could almost feel the spittle flying out of my computer screen. What the reader was angry about was a throw-away line in which I described a minor character as swearing in Italian “even though the closest he’d ever been to Italy was the three-cheese-and-meatball pizza at Caserta.” Caserta happens to be the best pizza joint in Providence, R.I., where all of my novels are set. But “Caserta doesn’t MAKE a three-cheese-and-meatball pizza,” the reader said. “Therefore, you are a complete phony. You know nothing about Rhode Island.” I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved that. I picture the guy scrutinizing everything I write now, hoping to catch another mistake. It’s made me extra careful to get every little detail right.
Jon: You had to ask that! I’m very fortunate in that my last few books, especially my Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series, have received incredible reviews across the board. And the great thing about top Web-based review journals like the New York Journal of Books and Bookreporter just to name a few is that the lack of limitation in length allows the reviewer to delve so deeply into my work that sometimes I think he or she knows the book even better than I do. Nothing makes a writer feel better than reading a review where the critic “got” exactly what I was trying to do and brings that to light. The only thing that exceeds that is when they find something, or express something, even I didn’t know I was striving for. And as a reviewer that’s exactly what I strive for.
Jeff: I had an author tell me that he had given up on thrillers because he could always figure them out, but that I had fooled him.
Myles: Favorites from three different Kindle reviewers.
- “This was one of the fastest moving stories I’ve read in years. I’m looking forward to the next in the series.” (This is exactly the response I hoped for.)
- “Myles Knapp has made his mark in thrillers with his debut offering, Revenge School. The theme of exacting revenge on those who wrong others is a timeless one, and his main character Pay Back is the very embodiment of what every sentient being has wanted to do at one time or another. Couple Pay with a very colorful supporting cast and fast paced storytelling, and you have a recipe for a gripping thriller that you will not want to put down. Revenge School clearly has franchise potential and I eagerly await the next installments.” (This one, too!)
- “Every now and then an original voice pushes through the clutter of gritty prose. Myles Knapp has put a fresh face on one of man’s most basic urges–the desire to get even. If you’ve ever lain awake imagining something besides forgiveness for a bully or a criminal–maybe a painful forgiveness–this will be one of the most satisfying reads you’ll ever have. I strongly recommend it, and I hope it is the first of many in the series.” (What’s not to like?)
My least favorite Kindle review.
- “This was a very fun book to read. Lots of action. I’d definitely read a second one. The main problems I had were the juvenile writing, shallow, two dimensional characters and the really bad dialogue. Not bad for an opening book though.”
- My thoughts: Very fun book to read. (YEAH!) Lots of action. I’d definitely read a second one. (YEAH again!) Juvenile writing?! Shallow characters? Yikes! I think I’m going to go have a good cry.
How were you first introduced to the Thriller genre? Which book(s) would you suggest to someone who is just being introduced to the genre?
Bruce: I started reading genre fiction when I was in junior high, devouring Raymond Chandler’s brilliant hard-boiled novels and short stories and the sci-fi fiction of Isaac Assimov and Ray Bradbury. The first true thriller I read was Six Days of the Condor by James Grady, which inevitably led me to Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. If there’s ever been a better thriller than Grady’s, I haven’t read it yet. I urge everyone to begin with that one.
Jon: Great question! My introduction to the genre was actually through the early James Bond films starring Sean Connery as a young boy. I must’ve dragged my father to them a hundred times—literally! So when I started reading I naturally gravitated toward books by Irving Wallace, Alistair McClean Harold Robbins, Stephen King, David Morrell and Clive Cussler—great storytellers all held together by the fact that I couldn’t put their books down. Along the way I came to realize that from a structural standpoint pretty much every great story ever written can be defined as a thriller, even if they’re written by those who don’t necessarily consider themselves thriller writers. But if you’re just being introduced to the genre, there are a few titles that definitely stand out: MARATHON MAN by William Goldman, FIRESTARTER by Stephen King, THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL by Ira Levin, THE MATARESE CIRCLE by Robert Ludlum, RAISE THE TITANIC by Clive Cussler, BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE by David Morrell. If you want to go back further, I’d say THE 39 STEPS by John Buchan that many call the first spy novel or SEVEN DAYS IN MAY by Fletcher Knebble, still the greatest political thriller ever. If you want something more recent, I might say IRON HOUSE by John Hart, or any of the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child, maybe POINT OF IMPACT by Stephen Hunter or anything written by James Lee Burke. Read two and call me in the morning!
Jeff: The first thriller I read that made my eyes bulge and got me started on my love of thrillers was The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. I was seven. If I want to recommend thrillers to someone who is just being introduced to the genre, I would recommend early Stephen King or early Dean Koontz, Swan Song by Robert McCammon, Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett, and Masquerade by Gayle Lynds. Once they are hooked, an entire world of terrific authors and their thrillers awaits!
Myles: First, I’d ask a few questions like: What are you interested in? Military, camping, horses, violence, history, Asia, underwater exploration … Then I’d ask what movies and TV shows did you enjoy? Then, I’d make my recommendations based on the answers. If pushed I’d say the following are some of my favorite authors. (Apologies to anyone I left out. Having read thousands of thrillers, I’ve got hundreds of favorite authors.) I’d suggest work by Lee Child, Robert Parker, Jon Land, David Morrell, Stephen Hunter, Randy Wayne White, Steven Gore, Joe Finder, James Lee Burke, Harlan Coben, Clive Cussler, Michael Crichton, Joe Lansdale, James Swain, Timothy Hallinan.
Thanks so much to Bruce, Jon, Jeff, and Myles for taking the time to answer our questions! ThrillerFest X takes place July 7-11th in NYC!