By Brett King
From time to time, psychiatrist Carl Jung believed, we face events that seem unrelated or even coincidental until we find meaning in their shared experience. I think Alan Jacobson can testify to the importance of synchronicity in his career as a bestselling novelist.
While practicing as a chiropractor years ago, a hand injury forced Alan to retire and sell his practice. During the transition period, he had a chance encounter with the head of the Department of Justice’s Criminalists Institute. Although the criminalist was seeking a character reference, that moment of synchronicity led Alan to audit a course on blood spatter pattern analysis. His research at the DOJ crime lab, in turn, allowed him to meet rising FBI agent Mark Safarik who shared his insights and expertise.Agent Safarik later invited him to Quantico to tour the FBI Academy and profiling unit. Alan drew upon those critical influences to write his debut novel, False Accusations. His thriller became a national bestseller and also stimulated an enthused fan base abroad when it was published in several foreign countries.
My introduction to Alan Jacobson’s work came when I picked up THE 7TH VICTIM, a novel that follows FBI profiler Karen Vailas she investigates a series of brutal homicides in Virginia connected to the Dead Eyes Killer. I devoured the book in one setting and became an immediate fan. Alan’s work has been featured on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists, including the Top 10 for THE STRAND MAGAZINE, LIBRARY JOURNAL, the LOS ANGELES TIMES and SUSPENSE MAGAZINE.
His latest, HARD TARGET is a vivid and compelling thriller featuring Alan’s signature twists and turns along with the taut psychological suspense that highlights all of his novels.The book features FBI Agent Aaron “Uzi” Uziel who heads up the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI’s Washington Field Office. Uzi teams with Hector DeSantos, a Department of Defense covert operative,to investigate a calculating international terrorist organization that threatens to upset America’s political system. New York Times bestselling author Vince Flynn raves that HARD TARGET is a “smart, complex novel that explodes from the page.”
In 2010, at my first ThrillerFest book signing, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Alan and Paul Kemprecos. In addition to their remarkable talent as novelists, both men have a brilliant wit and we shared a lot of laughs. It was a true highlight of the conference for me. It was terrific to catch up with Alan to discuss his latest book and his thoughts about writing thrillers.
HARD TARGET showcases a dramatic opening scene where an explosion blasts the president-elect’s helicopter on Election Night. In real life, how probable would it be for a terrorist organization to pull off the kind of operation described in that chapter?
Short answer: it’s absolutely feasible. I don’t know if anyone can assign a probability to it, but consider this: if you asked me on September 10, 2001 what the probability was for foreign terrorists to train at flight schools in the US for years, hijack two jumbo jets and fly them into the Twin Towers, and that they’d crumble to the ground in a matter of minutes, I would’ve laughed and given it extremely low odds. And most FBI agents would’ve had the same reaction, because there were too many points where they could’ve exposed such a plot before it could be launched.
But the world has changed. We’ve seen things in the past decade that have caused us to reboot our perception of what’s possible or probable.
In my research for HARD TARGET, it became clear to me that the scenario that I presented in the novel can absolutely happen. And I worked with a number of experts to make sure that what I created was feasible. I’ve since heard from a couple of FBI agents who’ve read HARD TARGET, and they’ve commented that it was credible and believable.
Aaron Uziel is a no-nonsense FBI agent and former Intel design engineer (as well as a man who cherishes toothpicks!). He describes himself as a “Tough dude, didn’t know when to quit.” How much of your personality is reflected in Uzi’s character?
I was born and raised in New York, so yeah, I guess that description does kind of apply to me. But I don’t cherish sucking on toothpicks! And I hope I never have the opportunity to experience the things that Uzi has experienced during his lifetime. But in terms of personality, I do share some of his characteristics: his attention to detail, his tech savvy, and his dogged pursuit of information are traits that he shares with me.
Uzi is haunted by a traumatic event that happened six years ago. Begrudgingly, he seeks the help of a therapist. I think many authors put their characters on the couch in a figurative way, but you created the opportunity to analyze him in a more direct manner. Did Uzi’s sessions with Dr. Rudnick provide you with new insights into your protagonist?
Absolutely. Without divulging anything, Uzi’s relationship with Dr. Rudnick is multi-layered, and purposely so. Yes, as a therapist he’s there to help Uzi deal with his past—and present—issues. But he also helps me reveal the story of Uzi’s emotionally devastating past, and it allows me to do it in a way that holds the readers’ interest because it’s not fluff—it figures directly in the plot. So Rudnick is not a device; he plays a role in key plot points and figures prominently in terms of character development (for both himself and Uzi).
One character refers to Uzi as “the man with the cool name.” Agreed. Is there a story behind the inspiration for Uzi’s name?
Character names are very important to me. They have to feel right to me—which means they’ll probably feel right to the reader. Uzi, the name of a famous submachine gun made in Israel, fits Uzi the man, who also has a connection to Israel and whose personality, in a sense, is that of a human submachine gun.
Like the Uzi weapon, Uzi the man has killed, and is capable of killing, very efficiently. The name just plain worked, from all angles and considerations.
Early on in the book, you create tension with the revelation that something critical will happen in nine days. Drawing on that, you give the major sections in your novel titles such as, “Day One,” “Day Two,” and so on. It’s an effective method for building suspense. Did breaking the story into time-based segments enhance the plotting of your book? Or did it place restrictions on your storytelling?
I always try to tell my stories in fresh ways. Each of my seven novels is told differently. The storyline for HARD TARGET lent itself to the “day section” format I used; in addition, there are no chapters. The story is a running account of a minute-by-minute attempt to catch those responsible before they strike again.
The first draft was broken into days, as it is now, but in the second draft I brought forth “the clock.” Every minute in the action is accounted for—which created a tremendous amount of extra work. Each line needed to be checked to ensure that the timing was right—for example, if a character said, “I called him ten minutes ago,” that had to be true—and those ten minutes had to be accounted for. Using the clock was a terrific way of showing (rather than telling) the passage of time—and although it’s right there, it’s unobtrusive. It doesn’t interfere with the prose or the pacing.
The beauty of using the clock is that as the time ticks down and the heat gets turned up on Uzi—both by circumstances, the president, and his own obsession to figure out the puzzle—we feel his stress along with him, as the looming attack approaches.
In your novel, there’s a good deal of friction between FBI Director Douglas Knox and CIA Director Earl Tasset. As one character explains, “They’re sharks feeding off the same food chain.”In that spirit, you really captured the turf wars that play out about among different agencies, such as the FBI, DOD, CIA, and the Secret Service. How often do you think parallel investigations compromise the process?
There was a lot made of this after 9/11, in the commission’s report that outlined areas where we had actionable intelligence but we stepped on our own feet because of these turf wars—and because of poor lines of communication. It’s gotten better since then—we’ve learned a lesson—but it’s still around.
My buddy at the US Marshals Service has told me that they have to fight for their budgetary scraps, and they lose out because they’re the “poor cousins” in the federal law enforcement community. They go about their jobs quietly; they don’t make the front pages because the stuff they do often isn’t headline-grabbing “sexy.” How many people really know what the Marshals Service does? In contrast, most people can come pretty close to expressing what the CIA or FBI does. As a result, the Marshals Service tends to get shorted at budget time—they’re an afterthought, the perception being that their work is of “lesser importance.” They don’t like it, but they accept it and go about their jobs the best way they can, which certainly is a tribute to their integrity.
But when you’re talking about the larger alphabet agencies, it’s a dogfight to get the money they need to do their jobs effectively. So turf battles happen, despite the best (and common sense) attempts to limit them.
As to parallel investigations, they are run all the time; in HARD TARGET, you’ve got the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the US Marine Corps, the FBI, CIA—just to name some of them—who descend on Marine Two’s crash site to figure out what the hell happened. It’s an enormous undertaking, and organizing the information a massive task. But parallel investigations don’t necessarily mean duplication; they emphasize different things, and are looking at it from alternate perspectives. Can it be a “too many cooks” scenario? Sure—but overall, despite the turf wars and the human ego element, etc., I think our agencies do a pretty damn good job in protecting us.
HARD TARGET features Director Knox and Hector DeSantos, both brought to life in THE HUNTED and VELOCITY. Also returning is FBI profiler Karen Vail, a protagonist in four previous novels and one short story. Was it a seamless process adding them in the ensemble or did unexpected challenges arise?
Totally seamless—and tremendous fun. This is something I plan on continuing to do—I’ve created a family of characters that’s resonated with readers. They enjoy reading them and I love writing them, so when a story lends itself to including one of those characters, I’ll gladly do it; but I certainly wouldn’t force it.
From my agent’s perspective, however, he would rather I not do that because it limits his ability to sell the movie rights. But I’ve always stated that my novels come first, and my job is to tell the best story possible when I sit down to write. If that means mixing and matching my family of characters that my readers enjoying reading, that’s what I’ll do: the movie considerations don’t enter into the equation.
At one point, Vail shares that, “not all profilers have the same skill sets and abilities. Some have book knowledge and training, and some are intuitive.” In a previous interview, you mentioned that your wife claimed it was your “male fantasy” to be an FBI agent. If you had been a behavioral profiler, would you fall into the intuitive category or the scholarly type?
I think I’d be probably be a hybrid; I’d know the research, and it would serve as a guide, but I’d rely on my intuition because if you don’t, you’re likely to miss something that falls outside the “norms”; the killers don’t read “the book,” so to speak, so they don’t know the rules. Thus, if you’re rigid in your approach, you’re not going to recognize those new things that present themselves, that you need to see.
FBI profiler Mark Safarik, who I’ve now worked with for over 18 years, told me that just when he thought he’d seen it all, a new case would come across his desk that was stranger than anything he’d ever experienced. If you went by the book, you might not “catch” what was going on with that offender.
To me, the intuitive, outside-the-box thinkers will give you a better return on investment, so to speak.
There’s a fascinating moment in your book when Karen Vail meets Leila Harel, a CIA counterintelligence agent, at a prominent Washington, DC restaurant. Both are important in Uzi’s life, but their encounter sparks immediate teeth-clenching tension. Along with feeling Uzi’s discomfort, I had the distinct sense that you really enjoyed writing that scene.
Yes—I did. Interestingly, that scene came alive for me when Karen Vail stepped into the restaurant. The original draft was a straight Uzi-Leila scene, and my editor said, “You know, I see Vail in this scene. Give it a shot and see what happens.” So I completely rewrote the scene (and put it in a real DC restaurant that we know well) and—no surprise here—Vail “stepped in” and the sparks flew.
A similar thing happened when I wrote CRUSH (the second Karen Vail novel after THE7TH VICTIM). When the major crimes task force is first convened, in walks Investigator Roxxann Dixon, who’s known behind her back as “Buff Barbie.” Vail’s immediately (and uncharacteristically) jealous when all the men in the room turn their heads to take Dixon in.
Vail and Dixon butt heads initially, though ultimately become good friends. I had not intended that scene to go that way, and in fact, Dixon was supposed to be a minor character. But the electricity that I felt when I put Vail and Dixon in the same room together was palpable, and when my editor read those first 50 pages, he said, “What the hell’s up with this Roxxann Dixon? I don’t know where you’re going with this, but the energy between her and Vail is fantastic. Keep it up!” I felt the same way, and I reworked my outline to partner Vail and Dixon together for the entire novel. The result was fabulous, and it would’ve been a totally different book without Dixon. The readers, both male and female, love her. I brought Dixon back in VELOCITY (the novel that followed CRUSH), as well as in my “Alcatraz novel,” INMATE 1577 (which followed VELOCITY).
The readers who interact with me regularly on my Facebook fan group have asked me to bring Dixon back in future novels. I’d love to—as long as it makes sense for the story.
In your latest novel, several characters own sterling silver watches with a gold-inlaid scorpion image. Let me take a minute here and say that if you ever decide to market those suckers, I want one!
I know, right? Ironically, an acquaintance of mine is a watchmaker (Demos Watch Company). The (real) president owns one, and so does my character, Hector DeSantos (in VELOCITY). I should ask my friend if he wants to produce a line of sterling silver watches modeled after the ones in HARD TARGET!
Let me know when I can order one!You’ve conducted research on homegrown radicals and militias including the Blue Ridge Hunt Club, Tri-States Militia, and White Patriot Party. In your opinion, should Americans be more concerned about threats from domestic extremists?
Interesting question. The info presented in HARD TARGET is real, and these militias are a legitimate threat. That said, with the concern stacked in favor of foreign terrorists, while domestics are still on our radar and are being actively tracked, resources have to be properly apportioned. And foreign terrorists definitely pose the larger threat these days. However, it only takes one deadly attack (on the scale of Oklahoma City) to leap frog to the top of law enforcement’s priority list.
In your book, the current President of the United States is a tough-minded politician named Jonathan Whitehall. At one point, he says about the presidency, “It’s not how you perform, it’s how you leave the stage that people remember.” Did you have a certain presidential administration in mind when you wrote that? Was Whitehall based on a specific president?
It was a recognition of the Washington adage of, What have you done for me lately? In anything in life, if you perform poorly at the end of your run, people might remember that more than the good deeds you did in the years prior. Not only is Whitehall faced with a dramatic terrorist attack in the waning days of his administration, but the group that might be responsible is also locked in tough, secretive, and politically sensitive peace negotiations that the president is personally handling. So there’s a lot at stake, and he’s concerned that a failure will indelibly mar his presidency. He tightens down the screws on Uzi to get to the bottom of things, to figure out who’s responsible.
Whitehall, as a character, is not modeled after any specific president, but I built into him the qualities a president should, and often does, possess. I wanted to portray him as “presidential” in his approach to the tough issues he faces, in the responsibilities he shoulders, in the power he possesses, and the decisiveness he demonstrates in leading our country during a difficult time.
My wife, Cheri, is critical in my writing life, serving as my first reader, an uncompromising critic, and an invaluable thinker during brainstorming sessions. Itsounds like your wife plays a similar role (aren’t we fortunate?). What is something Jill knows about your writing process that is unknown to the rest of the world?
I am always looking to make my novel better. Even the night before I have to hand in the manuscript, I’m still going through it. It drives her crazy. Her feeling is that when it’s done, it’s done. She believes that I’m not making it better, I’m just making it different. I disagree—if I make a change, it’s to improve it; otherwise I don’t make the change. But I’m a perfectionist, and if I still have time, I’m going to be looking for that last bit of unpolished wax that I can buff to a shine.
A commitment to research is a hallmark of your books and you consult numerous people to ensure accuracy. However, I’ve met some aspiring writers who are intimidated about talking to experts. What advice would you offer about interviewing professionals when researching details in a novel?
It’s certainly not easy in the early going, before you have a track record, etc., but you just have to ask. If they say no, where’s the harm? Call back and ask for someone else. If you want the information, except for a few select sensitive topics, there are a lot of people who do that kind of work. Find someone who’ll talk with you.
Be upfront about what you need and by all means, be trustworthy. Don’t tell them you’re not going to do something and then do it. I always offer to let my contacts read the portions of the manuscript that pertain to them. I know some authors nearly gag when I say this, but if I want to keep working with these people, I don’t want to screw them—or have them feel that I used the information they gave me in ways I said I would not.
On that topic, you convinced a master sergeant with the United States Marine Corps to give a tour of the Marine Corps Base Quantico to research Helicopter Squadron One (HMX-1). Now, how the hell did you arrange that?
This contact came to me through a close friend of mine who was a federal agent. He vouched for me and the master sergeant did what he needed to do behind the scenes to obtain permission. Keep in mind that I’ve worked for years with the FBI (which did a background check on me in the early 90s when I started working with the Behavioral Analysis Unit). I’ve since worked with the DEA (which required the approval of a Congressional subcommittee), the US Marshals Service, and a host of other agencies. So I’ve built a resume that I’m a guy who can be trusted; in other words, I’ve worked with their people, and if they say to me, “I’ll tell you something, but you can’t use it,” I respect that.
Thing is, I also respect the job these law enforcement agents/officers do, and I would never want to do something that would jeopardize lives. So I go out of my way to keep it accurate, but I write it in such a way that I don’t endanger lives. I came close to that line in one novel, but after debate within the agency, they agreed to let me go with what I’d written because the information was available “out there,” even though I’d put it together in a unique way. But I wasn’t going to use it if they objected. Some authors may scoff at that, but I allowed the agency to make the call. Bottom line is that I’ve gained the respect of law enforcement over 18 years in this business.
Your novels are ripe with fascinating plot twists and HARD TARGET is no exception, right up until the conclusion of the book. Once again, what advice would you share with prospective authors about writing a scene with a compelling twist?
It has to be organic. I outline my novels, so the twists are built in from the beginning. So…if you go back and read the novel again, it’ll make perfect sense how I got from Point A to Point Z. And I have a lot of readers who re-read my books—two or even three times. So the novels, and the twists, have to stand up to that test.
There are many different types of twists/turns, and depending upon the story you’re telling and what you’re trying to accomplish, your approach will be different.
Perhaps the most important tip is that a twist can’t come out of left field—that is, if you look back, or re-read the book, you can’t have the reader feel that you’ve lied to him/her. You’d risk alienating him/her forever. This differs from misdirection/deception, which is okay—provided it’s done fairly. That is, sleight of hand is okay, but you can’t tell the reader “It’s not Harry,” only for it to later be Harry, and you say, “Ah ha! I was just kiddin’. Fooled you!” That won’t fly.
The psychologist in HARD TARGET, Leonard Rudnick, shares a name with your uncle, to whom the book is dedicated. There’s an interesting link here because the character’s son is Wayne Rudnick, an agent with the Behavioral Sciences Unit who appeared in a previous Karen Vail book. Any chance we’ll see him play a bigger role in a future novel?
Wayne appeared in THE 7TH VICTIM; he’s a very colorful character whose initial scene with Vail and her task force partner Roberto Hernandez was very fun to write because he’s kind of “out there.” I think that it’s likely we’ll see Wayne again, particularly because he’s so fun to write, though I doubt he’ll be a main character. But I’ll never say never.
Your new short story, DOUBLE TAKE, follows NYPD Detective Ben Dyer as he works a missing persons case. There were moments in both HARD TARGET and the short story when I detected a hint of noir. Has hardboiled fiction—especially the theme of moral ambiguity—influenced your writing?
It has, particularly the theme of moral ambiguity. It’s come up in False Accusations(my debut novel), VELOCITY, INMATE 1577, HARD TARGET (as you noted), and it’ll again make an appearance in the Karen Vail novel I’m currently writing. In fact, although the circumstances are vastly different in each story, the concept of an ethical dilemma is something I revisit—subconsciously, I might add.
In fact, in one of the above novels, this blossoms into a very serious conflict between Vail and her colleagues. I worked with the DEA’s Office of Professional Responsibility (the agents who police the other agents to make sure they follow “the rules”) on certain aspects of the story because the way I had originally portrayed the actions an agent takes rubbed them the wrong way. Sometimes there’s a thin line that I have to toe, and in this case they felt I stepped over it. After some discussion of alternate ways of handling the issue, I actually found an even better way of addressing it, suggested by a longtime agent who finished his career with OPR. He had the perspective of being in the trenches and having to face the reality of what happens in the field, as well as that of someone who later had to be an enforcer of those rules. His solution fit with the “old school” methods of “solving disputes in the field”—the way these things used to be solved—“man to man,” so to speak, without supervisors, rules, and reports. I loved the fix because it was genuine and real, it saved face with OPR, and it fit my character. It also enhanced the story because of what I did with it later in the novel. So what started out as a touchy issue became a win-win.
But that theme of moral ambiguity is absolutely something I gravitate to because I love exploring the external and internal conflicts that it brings. My novels can be read as straight thrillers, but for those willing to think a bit more deeply, there are layers to the characters, the issues they face, and the choices that they make.
I noticed that you’ve written a “personal safety booklet.” How did that come about?
The personal safety booklet that I co-authored with my FBI Profiler buddy Mark Safarik arose from an interview that Mark and I did for THE 7TH VICTIM; the question dealt with how a woman can protect herself from a violent offender. Afterwards, we realized that everyone needed to have this information, so we decided to write an article. But we had way too much information to share, and when we were done, we had a 22-page booklet full of vitally important tips on staying safe—for men, women, and children. We decided to give it away free on my website.
That’s a wonderful resource. Thanks for your time, Alan!
Brett King is an award-winning professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder. His debut novel, THE RADIX, appeared in 2010 and was released in trade paperback in October 2011. NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Jeffery Deaver calls it, “A topnotch thriller! Part DA VINCI CODE, part 24, THE RADIX is roller-coaster storytelling at its best.” The second book in his series, THE FALSE DOOR, is complete and awaiting release. King is currently writing his third novel.