By Josie Brown
Most protagonists have to deal with one murderous sicko. In THE PROPHET, Ethan Cross’s second novel in his Shepherd series, not only does Special Agent Marcus Williams deal with Francis Ackerman, a serial killer who lives to be his nemesis, he must also stop a new killer, the Anarchist, before he drugs and kidnaps another female victim, then burns her alive at the behest of “the Prophet,” a mysterious figure who wields control over a twisted brotherhood.
Mindboggling? You betcha. Rest assured there is a method to the madness of Cross’s finely woven plot, which began with a book-length outline…
How did the plot concept for THE PROPHET come to you?
Well, I was visited by three ghosts and…sorry, that’s a different story. With THE PROPHET, I wanted to touch on the world of doomsday cults and the abuse of power wielded by the charismatic leaders of such groups but also on the impact of abuse and how the sins of the parents affect their children. Throw in some gun fights and explosions, and you’ve got yourself a story!
The control the Prophet holds over the Anarchist and other minions is key to the plot. How did you come up with this plot device?
I try to write books that I would want to read, and I like stories that are fast-paced with a lot of action. This is more difficult to accomplish when there is only one “bad guy” that the protagonists are trying to locate. In THE PROPHET, not only do my protagonists have to deal with the interference of a returning killer (Ackerman), they also have to contend with a new killer (The Anarchist) and a group of people supporting him. This makes for many more opportunities to raise the stakes and the level of danger.
Francis Ackerman Jr. is sheer evil! How did the idea of him come to you? What do you feel is the key to writing him well?
I think the key to writing any character well is first for the author to care deeply about that person, otherwise the audience never will. As strange as it sounds, I love Ackerman. He’s a complex character that has endured more pain than anyone could withstand and yet a part of him wants to be more than what he is. He wants to be a “good guy,” but his warped perception of the world, and his appetite for pain makes this impossible.
The idea for Ackerman came about while researching serial killers and the concepts of nature versus nurture. I thought, from a scientific standpoint, of what the results would be if you studied the effects of pain and trauma experienced by children and measured the results. This, of course, could never be done because who in their right mind would willingly subject any child to such horrors. But what if the person wasn’t in their right mind? What if a broken psychologist decided to conduct such research on his own child? And that’s how Ackerman was born. He’s an amalgam of all the pain experienced by the world’s worst killers. He’s the child of monsters.
Well put. He’s also the monster of children. What do you enjoy most (is “enjoy” really a good word for it?) about Marcus’ and Francis’ interactions with each other?
I think “enjoy” is a great word for it. As I said earlier, I love all my characters, even the bad ones…especially the bad ones.
The relationship between these two is a complex one. Ackerman believes that he and Marcus are linked by destiny, that they are two sides of the same coin. Ackerman has found meaning in all of his own experiences in the thinking that some higher power has been conditioning him to mold Marcus into a better “hero.” On the other hand, Marcus thinks of himself as no better than one of the villains.
In this new book, Ackerman has begun calling Marcus on a regular basis and trying to help with Marcus’s active cases. Marcus tolerates this in the hope that they’ll finally be able to track the killer down. So Marcus is really Ackerman’s only friend, and yet he’s also the man trying to kill him. That definitely makes for some interesting interactions.
What do you feel has been the most pivotal changes in Marcus’ life? How does this latest installment advances these?
Marcus has changed a great deal over the course of the books, and not necessarily for the better. He started out as a man with a dark past wanting a normal life, but now he’s given up that dream.
I think the hardest thing for him was not only accepting the things he’s done, but also accepting the emotions that came with them—the fact that he doesn’t believe that he feels what a “normal” person should. It’s easier to forgive yourself for what you’ve done than to forgive yourself for what you are. He’s accepted the darkness inside him because it allows him to help innocent people, but he’s also walking a fine line between using that part of himself for good or becoming a slave to it. He worries that he’s becoming more and more like Ackerman and the other men the hunts. Friedrich Nietzsche said it best: “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.”
What is your novel writing process?
Of course, it all begins with a cool idea and interesting characters, but there’s much more than that to a novel (in fact, those are the easy parts). I typically start by just thinking of everything I want to happen in the book (character moments, action sequences, etc). Then I begin to fit those pieces together. I have a dry-erase board and a cork board. I brainstorm on the dry-erase and then begin lining up notecards on the cork board. These cards contain just enough info to let me know the linear progression of the book and how the pieces fit together. Then I craft an outline.
I’m an obsessive outliner. For THE PROPHET, I wrote a 170 page outline that went through two major drafts with feedback from my editors. This outline contains pretty much everything that’s going to happen in the book, even thoughts, research, and snippets of dialogue.
But for me, that’s the hard part. Once that’s done and the “writing” begins, things flow, and I’m able to focus on the intricacies. After the outline was done, I wrote the 125,000 words of the book in about a month and a half.
How far ahead have you worked out your novel series’ story arc?
I have stories in my head for many, many more Shepherd books, and I know what direction I want the relationships of the characters to go. Unfortunately, the continuation of the series also depends on economic factors like book sales. So…if you like the books and want the series to keep going, tell your friends (books are sold by word of mouth)!
What is up next for you?
I’m currently developing a new series featuring a special investigator with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service. It’s still a crime thriller, but on a larger scale than the Shepherd books. Although, I think it also features a villain that people will love to hate almost as much as they do Ackerman.
How do you relax?
I’m a huge movie buff. My wife and I religiously have date night every week and take in a movie. And if I’m not writing or watching a cool story, I’m probably reading one.
Have you seen a thriller flick in the last year that you feel hit it out of the park (premise, follow-through, realism, satisfying ending)? If so, why do you think it worked so well?
Overall, I’ve been a bit disappointed with Hollywood this year, but there are a few standouts. The obvious two picks would be THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE AVENGERS. Both of which I loved in different ways. But for a bit of a dark horse pick, I would say CABIN IN THE WOODS, although it wouldn’t be for everyone. It did an excellent job of playing with the old horror movie cliches and turning them on their heads…and having a lot of fun while doing so. The last thirty minutes are some of the best moments of horror movie craziness to ever appear onscreen. I also have high hopes for some movies coming out over the next few weeks—LOOPER, TAKEN 2, CLOUD ATLAS, SINISTER and ALEX CROSS.
That being said, I think some of the best thrillers and storytelling around right now (other than books of course) can be found on the small screen in shows like THE WALKING DEAD, GAME OF THRONES, AMERICAN HORROR STORY, DEXTER, FRINGE, CASTLE, etc. Based on recommendations, I also have HOMELAND and BREAKING BAD on my list to watch.
Ethan Cross is the International Bestselling Author of The Shepherd–a book described as SILENCE OF THE LAMBS meets THE BOURNE IDENTITY and “A fast paced, all too real thriller with a villain right out of James Patterson and Criminal Minds.” He also has two more books currently available: THE CAGE and CALLSIGN: KNIGHT (a novella written with ITW Member Jeremy Robinson). Book 2 of his Shepherd series, entitled THE PROPHET, will hit shelves in the US and UK this October.
To learn more about Ethan, please visit his website.
You can hear a more extensive version of this interview on Josie Brown’s Author Provocateur podcast.