By Basil Sands
Howdy folks, we’re here with thriller writer Jeffrey Small, Jr. to chat about his recently released second novel, THE JERICHO DECEPTION. The book just won the Gold Medal for Best Suspense/Thriller by the 2013 IPPY Book Awards and is being lauded as “a ripping good novel” by #1 bestselling author Douglas Preston. And I have to say, having read it myself, Doug knows what he’s talking about.
Jeff, tell us about THE JERICHO DECEPTION.
THE JERICHO DECEPTION is a thriller that blends political intrigue, neuroscience, and spirituality. Yale professor Dr. Ethan Lightman has developed a device, the Logos Machine, that can induce powerful mystical experience in its subjects. He learns, however, that a flaw in his design may also produce madness in some subjects who experience demonic visions rather than religious ecstasy. After a colleague is murdered in his Yale lab, Ethan discovers an even darker side to his research when he descends into a web of treachery that takes him to the Egyptian desert and a secret CIA mind-control program known as Project Jericho. Ethan then must race to unlock the mystery of Jericho and his own research in order to stop a modern-day Holy War.
You graduated from Yale as an undergrad, then from Harvard Law School with a Juris Doctorate, then continued to Oxford for a Masters in the Study of Religions. That’s a lot of serious education. What drew you to such a lofty academic path?
I’ve always enjoyed learning. The discovery of ideas fills me with energy, and my fiction writing is an aspect of this passion. Creativity is about playing with concepts, and both my academic interests and my writing have this same quality. I love the research phase of my books because it’s an opportunity to delve into fascinating areas that I’d like to know more about. In the case of JERICHO, I had to delve into the psychology of mind control and the neuroscience of mystical experiences. For me, the writer’s maxim of “write what you know” is really “write what I want to know about.”
You’ve had a very wide variety of experiences related your theological studies. How has that “passion for religious discourse” informed your writing?
I believe that at our core humans are spiritual beings, whether or not we are religious. We long for meaning, passion, and purpose in our lives. We yearn to reach beyond ourselves and our everyday lives to a deeper dimension of existence. Even our greatest scientific discovers have been driven by this innate desire for meaning and understanding. As a student of comparative religion, I’ve found it fascinating how different cultures have expressed this search for an Ultimate Reality behind the everyday realities of our lives. As a source for ideas for my books, religion also contains so much mystery and it can be one of our most powerful motivations, causing some to sacrifice their lives and others to do wonderful acts or alternatively great evil – what great elements for a story!
How did you approach the research for THE JERICHO DECEPTION?
Both of my novels are set partly in exotic locations. My debut thriller, THE BREATH OF GOD, had many scenes throughout India and in the Himalayas in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. JERICHO takes place between Yale University and the Middle Eastern countries of Egypt, Jordan, and Dubai. Of course, I had to travel to all of these places to do my research! Being in these countries allowed me to capture not just the physical sites like the ruins of pharaohs along the Nile in Luxor but also the sounds, smells, and atmosphere of these countries to add a more authentic feel to my settings. Also, I spent a great deal of time reading up on some fascinating medical research on the neuroscience of religious experiences, the 1960s CIA operations known as MKULTRA, in which the agency experimented with various mind-altering drugs and mind control techniques, the use of steroids for muscle hypertrophy (for my main antagonist character), and hallucinogenic drug experiences. Finally, I spent time interviewing a neurosurgeon friend of mine in Atlanta and the director of a primate research facility At Yale who provided some great background for different aspects of my story.
Who are some of the authors you’d say influenced your writing the most?
I grew up reading thrillers from Clancy, Crichton, and Follett. I love how each of these writers incorporates factual material into their fiction (Clancy – military technology and techniques, Crichton – science, and Follett – history) such that I learn something while I am being entertained, which is one of my goals as well as a writer. JERICHO was definitely inspired stylistically from these authors. I usually have at least five non-fiction books going at once and one thriller. The nonfiction books currently on my nightstand or in my iPad are PLATO’S DIALOGUES, the COMPLETE WORKS OF SWAMI VIVEKANANDA, Walter Isaacson’s EINSTEIN, andTHICH NHAT HANH’S ANGER. The thriller’s I’ve most recently read or am starting now are the latest from Vince Flynn, Preston & Child, and Jon Land.
Now according to your bio you have a law degree, are a theologian, and have a black sash in Kung Fu. There are many authors who may also have one or more of those accomplishments in their CV. But you’ve got another accomplishment I don’t think I have ever run across in the thriller writer world…you are a form US Champion Ballroom Dancer! What is the history behind that?
My wife and I were competitive ballroom dancers for over a decade (we retired in 2004). Dancing began as a side hobby for us when we were dating and then became more of an obsession. We worked with a number of the pros you see on DANCING WITH THE STARS, which is kind of fun to see them on TV and see the popularity of the show. Back when we were competing, competitive ballroom dancing was not nearly as mainstream and we’d often get strange looks from our friends when we told them. I think dance appealed to the same creative parts of my brain that is now stimulated through my writing.
If you knew you only had one year left in this life, what would you do in that time?
I would spend as much time as I could with my family—my wife, daughter, and our huge and lovable Newfoundland dog. We love being in nature – it’s where I feel the most connected spiritually, so I imagine that we would spend our time hiking, sailing, and mountain biking. I have had the good fortune to have traveled much of the world, but I haven’t been to Antarctica yet, so that would be on my list. Finally, I’d work harder to finish my next book!
Jeffrey Small is the author of the bestselling thriller, THE BREATH OF GOD, which won the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Best Fiction and was hailed as “a thought-provoking masterpiece” by RT BOOK REVIEWS, “visionary fiction” by Library Journal, and “a fast-paced adventure” by KIRKUS. He is a graduate of Yale, Harvard, and Oxford Universities.
To learn more about Jeffrey, please visit his website.
He lives in Anchorage Alaska with his wife and teen sons.