At the risk of needing to say no more, I want to start by noting that #1 New York Times bestselling author Lee Child called HARD TARGET a “terrific thriller” that’s “fast, hard, and intelligent.” Vince Flynn called it “a smart, complex novel that explodes from the pages and scores a direct hit on my radar.” And the Associated Press raved that “HARD TARGET reads like a real case with real people, and readers will be blown away when it’s over.”
That’s all true. The novel starts with an explosion, literally: a vicious attack on a helicopter carrying the president elect, his staff, and his family. The only survivor? The newly elected president. While the nation is reeling from the attack, and the uncertainty of whether the injured new president will be physically and emotionally capable to lead, FBI Special Agent Aaron (“Uzi”) Uziel sets out to uncover who is behind the conspiracy. The investigation puts Uzi on a collision course not only with dark forces within our government, but with his own past.
What sets this stunning novel apart—what makes it sing—is its authenticity and its emotional truth. The authenticity undoubtedly is the result of Jacobson’s law enforcement training and well-known penchant for thorough research. The Acknowledgements page alone indicates that Jacobson interviewed Quantico officials, numerous FBI and ICE agents, state police officials, medical doctors, Justice Department lawyers, experts in technology, explosives, ballistics, computer technology, and state militia—and even the head concierge at a five-star hotel. Yet he didn’t overburden his story with unnecessary detail. Rather, he weaved in just the right amount of research to make the reader feel like they are on the inside, while never slowing down the story.
But what truly distinguishes this tale from many in the genre is that Jacobson doesn’t just rely on inside-the-Beltway action, but instead, we see and feel the struggle and pain of Agent Uziel. This is not just a thriller, but a story of coping with loss and coming to terms with one’s past.
HARD TARGET is the rarest of gems in a crowded field of D.C.-based thrillers, and Alan Jacobson has confirmed his place among Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, and political thriller royalty.
Mr. Jacobson kindly agreed to answer a few questions:
Critics and thriller writers alike have raved about HARD TARGET and singled out the depth and accuracy of your research. What’s your secret to incorporating so much research in a way that doesn’t slow down the story?
The information I incorporate into my novels is not meant to provide “information dumps”—which are notorious for unnecessarily bogging down a story. Instead, I’m looking to provide depth, perspective, and verisimilitude to my scenes and characters. The research I do is designed to give me an understanding of how agencies, companies, and law enforcement officers/federal agents operate; I want to know how the DEA conducts an investigation; how SWAT plans a breach and also the safeguards they take as they approach a hostile; what happens to a deputy US Marshal after a shooting. A lot of what I learn never makes it into my novels; rather, I synthesize the information so that I can construct my scenes properly, and so that when my characters have to deal with a situation, they do so in a manner consistent with the way it’s done in real life. In essence, I’m not imparting unneeded facts to the reader, but conveying an understanding of how things work.
When I gave the draft of HARD TARGET to an FBI agent to read, he not only loved the novel, but he found the characters to be representative of agents he’s worked with over the years, and the story to be highly credible and believable. Relative to the Karen Vail series, the head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association remarked that “Karen Vail is the kind of cop I’d want to go through a door with.” That’s cop-speak for saying that Vail is an agent to whom you’d entrust your life when you bust down a door. These types of comments bring a broad smile to my face, because it tells me that I’ve done that part of my job well.
Integrating research into a story does not mean I call up XYZ agency and have them answer some questions. Sometimes, that’s all it takes if it’s a minor point in a scene; but other times, it involves a much deeper immersion, a collaboration between me and that contact; it’s an ongoing relationship. With my Karen Vail series, I worked with two senior profilers at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit for several years before I got a handle on the material. I immediately realized that there was a lot to behavioral analysis, and I didn’t want to write The 7th Victim (let alone its follow-ups) until I truly understood how the profilers do what they do, and how (and why) the serial offenders do what they do.
While I could’ve made it all up, or read some books, as I got into in-depth discussions with one of the profilers, I started to realize that I had the opportunity to do something no other author had done before; the access that I had would enable me to write meaningful stories that play off the real issues that profilers face, and it’d help me create more interesting characters—from both a law enforcement perspective and a serial killer’s perspective. In fact, after reading Crush (the second Karen Vail novel), one of the profilers remarked that the killer scared the crap out of her—and anyone who knows Agent O’Toole (who has a lot in common with Karen Vail), would tell you that that’s a very difficult thing to do.
You’ve had tremendous success with your Karen Vail series and some familiar faces reappear in HARD TARGET. Do you see HARD TARGET as a standalone, a subset of the Vail series, or the first part of a series in its own right?
I’ve concluded that HARD TARGET is a little bit of all three: it’s a standalone, a subset of the Vail series, and the start of a new series. How can that be? I wrote two standalones before The 7th Victim (the first Karen Vail novel). But when I wrote the third Vail novel, I brought back a number of characters from my second standalone, The Hunted—most notably, covert operative Hector DeSantos. DeSantos returns again in HARD TARGET—which also includes a meaningful role for Vail and a few of her colleagues that we know from the Vail series. So while HARD TARGET is by no means Vail’s story, she plays an important part in helping to identify the perpetrators. And since she’s worked with most of these characters in prior adventures, she’s right at home in this novel.
Since I plan to bring back Uzi (the lead in HARD TARGET) and pair him with DeSantos in future novels, HARD TARGET would also be the first in a series.
The beauty is that these characters have tremendous chemistry, so bringing them together in new and different ways is a lot of fun.
You have been at the forefront of the e-book phenomena. What’s your view on how e-books will impact the future of publishing?
I’m laughing because I actually have given two hour talks on this topic. The short version is that I don’t believe that e-books should be looked at as a fad or a phenomenon or a radical remaking of publishing. To me, it is a natural progression of the evolution of the industry. The transition has been fueled by a number of factors, chief of which is traditional publishing’s broken and inefficient business model. It’s tough for any industry to survive when it produces products that are wholly reliant on high-cost commodities (paper, ink, real estate, transportation fuel); that involves middlemen (distributors); where tremendous waste is an unavoidable and costly byproduct (millions of unsold paperbacks are destroyed, unsold hardcovers are shipped around the country, warehoused, dumped at a loss in remainder sales, or ultimately shredded for pulp); and where end user pricing can no longer increase to compensate for the inevitable rise in expenses. That is, the price of a hardcover hit a ceiling wherein consumers resist making purchases because books have become so expensive. A single, undiscounted hardcover is $30 out the door at a brick-and-mortar retailer.
As a result, retailers became mired in a steep and steady decline as store foot traffic dropped; bookstores started shedding staff, inventory, and locations; and discretionary consumer spending became severely depressed when the Great Recession hit (and lingered). The forces conspired to exacerbate—and expose—the vast inefficiencies in publishing’s business model. In order to survive, the industry needed to evolve, to remake itself in a way that addressed each of these issues. Fortunately, the technology behind digital readers (primarily “e-Ink” screens) matured at just the right time to deliver the life raft to a sinking readership.
Although the industry didn’t embrace it initially, digital books provided a tremendous growth opportunity. Readership has not only stopped declining, but it has reversed and is again growing at a healthy rate. In general, people who read on eReaders buy more books because the purchase experience is immediate, from anywhere—an island in the middle of the Pacific or in their bedroom—and the pricing is reasonable and at least half the cost of that hardcover mentioned above. Even though there was concern that eBook sales would eat into hardcover profits, digital was the traditional publishing industry’s gift-wrapped savior, the antidote to every problem that threatened to destroy the business.
That said, certain retailers were/are better equipped and positioned to take advantage of this evolutionary shift. Others were/are not. Unfortunately, Borders failed to adapt efficiently, intelligently, and quickly enough, and they perished. They suffered when they blundered the development of their website by outsourcing it to Amazon for seven years, and they imploded when they failed to learn from their website error by again failing to developing an in-house eReader and e-store, choosing to instead outsource their eBook business (and profits) to Kobo—three years after Amazon debuted its internally developed Kindle. It’s one thing to be late to the party—but it was as if they never showed up.
The indie sellers still have to find a workable model to sell eBooks. I believe that if they can band together and form a platform for eBook sales that works with all, or most, devices, they’ll be able to compete. But it’s always more difficult, in any industry, to create a universal business model when you have to bring together disparate personalities. Plus, pricing pressure will always be a factor when you have an 800-pound gorilla that can pare eBook prices to the bone and remain in business because they can generate profit from non-book related merchandise. While digital is undoubtedly a challenge for the indies, if they develop an effective, cooperative sales platform and retain their customers’ loyalty by remaining useful in terms of recommending good books with quality writing, they could stay competitive and relevant.
Not to sound callous, but stepping back and looking at it objectively, these paradigm shifts happen in every industry. Publishing had undergone almost no change in a hundred years, so when technology forced the industry’s hand (or, rather, saved its ass), it felt like a tectonic shift. But in the business world, evolutionary shifts happen all the time. In fact, it’s more unusual when it doesn’t happen.
I think the printed book will always be with us, much like the CD or vinyl record, but it’ll become a niche market solely because market inefficiencies make digital more profitable for the publisher and author, and less expensive and easier to buy for the customer. Print on demand, and variations thereof, also show tremendous promise in terms of printed book sustainability.
What is your typical writing day like?
Most of my day is spent doing interviews. Just kidding. I used to think I could give my days structure, but I’ve given up trying to force my needs into a schedule. Flexibility has become the modus operandi. There are so many facets to being an author that it really means juggling many distinct tasks. And since I spend so much time doing research, follow-up with my contacts can come at any time of day. So everything stops while I complete that phone call and absorb its impact—which can take hours, because one thing leads to another and it dominoes: I get information; I then have to modify my outline or integrate the new info into my novel. Sometimes it leads me to new ideas that then have to be integrated, etc.—or, because of that new info, I have to research other, related things.
Then there’s the editorial process—I have one book in production, so when I’m working with my editor and copyeditor to polish/fine tune the forthcoming novel, everything stops on the new one that I’d been writing. I’ve tried to do both, but I can’t.
Amidst all this, once the book launches, there’s promotion, which is also an ongoing endeavor nowadays….Facebook, Twitter, and website updates; newsletters, interviews, guest blogs and articles, etc. And then there’s the business end: communicating with my agent on any number of matters, from foreign rights sales to contracts to audio to film options, etc. Those calls can come at any time, and if I don’t take the call, the task gets buried amongst everything else that needs to be done.
There’s just a ton of things to do, and though I’ve tried to say, “I’m going to write between 8AM and 2PM”—more often than not it’s more like between 8PM and 2AM because I’ve had all these other things on my plate that needed attention.
We just launched HARD TARGET, as well as a complete redesign of my website—check it out at www.alanjacobson.com. On the writing side, I’m in the early stages of the fifth Karen Vail novel, which is set in England and pairs Vail with her Velocity partner, Hector DeSantos (who teamed up with Uzi in HARD TARGET and who was “born” in The Hunted).
When an idea comes to me, I run with it. I had a brainstorm for the sixth Karen Vail novel, which is very exciting; I can’t wait to write it. I’ve already started researching it.
I also have plans to bring back Uzi and DeSantos—it’s a story that I outlined years ago and I hope to one day write it. I have other plans for these guys, including an idea that came to me while researching HARD TARGET. And there’s a novel I finished a few years ago that needs a second draft. It’s a standalone and I love it (and the characters), so someday it’ll see the light of day.
There’s no dearth of ideas…but there is, unfortunately, a limited number of hours in a day!
ALAN JACOBSON is the National Bestselling Author of False Accusations, The Hunted, The 7th Victim, Crush, Velocity, Inmate 1577, and HARD TARGET. Alan’s novels have sold internationally and have appeared on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists, including the “Top 10” for Library Journal, The Strand Magazine, Suspense Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times. Alan’s 18 years of research and training with law enforcement—the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, the DEA, US Marshals Service, and Scotland Yard in particular—have helped shape the stories he tells and the diverse characters that populate his novels.