Award-winning author Weyman Jones took a roundabout route to writing thrillers, as many of us do. After serving in the Navy, he worked in corporate communications for years. He began writing fiction for magazines and published three books for young readers, including The Edge of Two Worlds, which won the Lewis Carroll Shelf and the Western Heritage Awards and was selected as one of the best books of the year by both the School Library Journal and Book World. His thrillers include The Doublooner, Broken Glass, The Unexpected and the newly released Messages. I chatted recently with Weyman Jones about Messages and his writing process.
Tell us about Messages and why it’s such an interesting read.
A thriller introduces us to interesting people doing exciting things. Messages also raises some questions about animal rights and other ethical issues. But the most important thing is what happens inside the characters’ heads. If I can make you understand why a character or two behave as they do, you’ll begin to care about what happens to them. Then I’ve got you.
Where did the germ of the idea come from?
I was out of ideas. I began turning over in my mind crime situations in which an innocent suspect would be confronted with overwhelming evidence of his or her guilt. To set up the crime I sketched a killer, and then a victim and then a protagonist and–eighteen months later I had a draft.
Obsession and revenge are themes that drive your book. Why have you decided to explore these themes in your writing?
Now that you ask, I suppose revenge is just one kind of obsession. I don’t write about the clinical disorder but about the emotional fixation that can grab many of us. Don’t you think most writers are obsessive? It’s hard, lonely work for such uncertain rewards–what else keeps us at the keyboard? Obsession is a powerful alternating current. Osama is obsessive, but so is Steve Jobs. I think a lot of us can have either the positive or the negative obsessive pulse. Maybe both, at different times.
The protagonist, the murderer, and the detective in Messages must confront their personal demons in order to achieve their goals. Why is this significant to the story and to your characters?
James M. Cain said that all art is redemptive. Someone, I’ve forgotten who, put it this way: “It’s not how the cop works the case but how the case works the cop.” I think we expect a thriller to give us action and suspense–and then something more. The case forces the protagonist to a face one of the central issues of his or her life. We want to experience vicarious living through the characters’ emotional growth, which is what living is about.
Tell us about your writing and research process.
I’m process averse. I think schedules freeze me up. I write whenever I can drag my protesting self to the keyboard. Strapped into an airline seat is good–hard to escape my laptop there. Once I’m trapped, I use all the tricks I know to coax out some narrative. I start with a premise, some little idea that seems to have promise. Then I outline and write character sketches and drafts with lots of sketched scenes and research notes and synopses. I probably have thirty file folders for the thriller I’m working on now and I still don’t know just how it will end.
What was most fun about writing the book?
In a perverse way it was fun to work out a technical problem in the narrative. The killer sends messages by murder, and one of the victims is just a message form, like a Western Union blank. I needed to make the reader care about her but I didn’t want to slow down the narrative with back story. I invented an email dialogue with a former lover. The bittersweet exchange to keep alive a failed romance reveals the value he still places on her, which makes her death significant. This was so much fun that it made me a little teary.
What should be easy turned out to be an annoying problem. My working title was alwaysFatal Message. Descriptive, but too explicit? I fussed over it through revisions, submission, contract, copy edit etc. and eventually shortened it to Messages, which seems more provocative.
How has your background as a corporate relations executive informed your writing?
Messages involves a corporation under attack by an advocacy group. I’ve learned that the corporate response to a public relations crisis is usually to circle the wagons. The lawyers advise that every public utterance may show up in court, which of course is true. But a siege mentality invites a siege. Look at the way BP handled their blowout oil-well. There was no way they could have avoided damage to their reputation, and I think they eventually did a lot of the right things, but first they made so many defensive and blame-shifting statements that they dug their grave with their own corporate mouth.
What advice can you give aspiring thriller writers?
Don’t give up your day job. Only a handful of writers make a living writing. Cultivate your obsession. Don’t be like me–write something every day. Develop a thick skin. Expect rejection. Understand that the most important reader is you.
What’s next for Weyman Jones?
The working title is Evil in Return. That’s from Audin, “Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”
It’s about a contemporary Cherokee who believes he should avenge his ancestors by killing descendants of those wronged them. The aboriginal Cherokee had a belief system like that. This guy wants to revive the ancient tribal values by posting videotapes of his payback on YouTube for the Cherokee to see.
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