In Mason Cross’s new release, THE KILLING SEASON, the FBI calls upon Carter Blake, a modern high-tech bounty hunter, to track down Caleb Wardell, a serial-killer sniper who escaped during a botched prison transfer. Blake is teamed with veteran FBI agent Elaine Banner, and together they close upon Wardell, only to watch him slip away time and time again. The more Blake learns about the suspect, the more he’s convinced that the homicidal fugitive is acting on an agenda more sinister than simple murder. Worse, Carter and Banner discover too late that Wardell is actually at the center of monstrous conspiracy that could tear the country apart.
Sounds thrilling, right? I caught up with Cross for this month’s The Big Thrill, to talk to him about his hero, Carter Blake, and the inspiration behind his hot new release.
I commend you for deftly articulating a story with a lot of moving parts. You braided several subplots into a compelling and integrated whole. A challenge in any book is avoiding a soggy middle, and in a thriller there’s the danger that the various plot lines can veer out of control. How did you manage to keep so much story not only coherent, but moving forward with compelling momentum?
I started out with quite a simple narrative spine and ended up layering on a lot of subplots, plot twists, and character beats. Some of that was by design, some of it just grew out of the writing process. I’m really glad it seems well-integrated, because it took a lot of rewriting to streamline what ended up being quite a convoluted first draft into a reasonably coherent whole.
What’s Carter Blake’s background? How did you come up with him? He’s got the usual super-agent tropes–ambiguous background, panther-like martial art skills, ultra competent, no family baggage—yet he reads fresh. What guided you in developing his persona?
Thank you! Before I started on chapter one, I knew I wanted to develop a series character and I decided that I could make my life easier by making him as blank a slate as possible, so that I could layer on more and more backstory in subsequent books. It also worked quite well for the story that Blake has quite a mysterious background. Hopefully there are enough hints that the reader can begin to develop a sense of him and his capabilities, but with room for some surprises along the way.
One of the most important things I wanted to do was avoid tying Blake down to any one place or job. Being something of a wandering hero means he can go anywhere and get involved in virtually any type of story, which gives me a lot of freedom as a writer. As a reader, I’ve always preferred my literary heroes to be free agents, whether they’re PIs like Philip Marlowe, “salvage consultants” like Travis McGee, or drifters like Jack Reacher.
What drove you to add this unusual conspiracy angle to what otherwise would’ve been a straightforward “stop the serial killer before he kills again” type of story?
Basically, I love conspiracy stories! Part of what I set out to do was write a book that could serve double duty—the casual reader would experience a straightforward page-turning thriller, but more attentive readers would start to pick up on the clues that all is not exactly as it seems. Either way, I hope the conspiracy element provides a nice resolution at the end of the book. I think it’s important to have an element of mystery in any story, and I’m not just talking about the thriller or mystery genre.
Since you live in the U.K., what was the source of your material for this story? Have you visited the U.S., or did you Google Map like hell for your research? This book and its sequel, The Sararitan, are both set in the U.S. Why? Any chance you’ll write a hard-boiled thriller that takes place in your hometown, Glasgow?
I’ve visited the U.S. a few times, spending time in New York and California, however I still had to do a lot of background research to get the details and locations right—as you correctly guess, that involved a lot of Google Mapping! My most invaluable resource, however, was the American friends I have, who kindly responded to my most outlandish questions and read early drafts of the book to tell me how close I was getting to sounding reasonably authentic.
Why did I pick the U.S.? A few reasons, but most importantly because so many of the books I love are American thrillers. An American thriller is its own thing, quite different from the British school of crime fiction, and I knew I wanted to try my hand at writing the type of novel I love reading.
I’d really like to write a Glasgow-set thriller someday. It’s a fantastic city in which to set a thriller: you have hundreds of years of history, wealthy areas alongside incredibly poor areas, and a very active criminal underworld. We have the highest murder rate in Western Europe, but also a really friendly vibe and a great cultural scene. Despite all the negative things you hear, it’s a truly great city to live in.
Your writing style had me zipping through the pages and yet the story and the characters did not lack for substance. What principles of craft do you keep in mind as you write?
The main principle is if what I’m writing is starting to bore me, then it will certainly bore the reader. If I feel the pace is dragging I go back and try to shake things up until it reads better. Every time I finish a draft, I go back and reread Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing and evaluate my manuscript in light of those—I never succeed in following the advice completely, but it’s an excellent benchmark.
What’s your writing background? What brought you to writing thrillers?
I got started writing short stories, which I assumed would be easier than novels, but I’ve since decided are much more difficult to craft. I always enjoyed creative writing, but only really started to apply myself in my late twenties. I decided to write thrillers largely because it’s one of the genres I love to read, but also because feedback from readers and agents told me this was what I was best at. Happily, thrillers are one of the most popular genres with readers, which doesn’t hurt.
What’s your writing process like? Do you belong to a writing group?
I have a day job and three young children, so my process is basically to fit the writing in whenever and wherever I can. I tend to write at nighttime, although if I have spare moments during the day while on a train, I make sure to get some words done. My method has always been to make sure I get at least five hundred words done every day, no matter what. Most days I end up writing more than that, but it’s really helpful to have a realistic target that isn’t too intimidating. Five hundred words a day builds up pretty fast—in six months at that pace, you have the first draft of a novel.
I don’t belong to a writing group, although I have been involved with them in the past. I think they’re a great idea if being part of a group is what works for you, but personally I find it easier to sit down alone and get typing.
What is your biggest challenge as an author? Any advice you want to share with newbie writers?
Advice-wise, the thing that’s worked for me is the above five hundred words a day method. The other important thing is the advice every writer gives: to be a writer, you need to write. Try and write a little every day, and try to finish what you start.
My biggest challenge is finding the time to do everything. Now that my books are being published, a lot of my time is occupied not just writing the next book, but looking over copyedits of the previous one and doing events, PR, etc. It’s all fun to do and I’m having a ball, but it’s a challenge to make sure I’m giving everything the time and attention it requires.
Who are your favorite authors? What’s on your TBR pile?
Most of my favorite authors write thrillers, from the classics like Chandler and Hammett to Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy to the guys who are still bringing books out every year like Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and Ian Rankin. Stephen King is a massive influence, and I probably wouldn’t be a published writer if I hadn’t picked up a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in an airport bookstore in 2000.
On my TBR pile, I have some non-fiction books about Blackwater and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Fiction-wise, I can’t wait to get to the latest Harry Bosch book, and I’m also looking forward to reading the new Roger Hobbs book, and some new British thrillers from SJI Holliday, JS Law, Douglas Skelton, and Michael Malone.
Mason Cross is the author of The Killing Season, the first book in a thriller series starring Carter Blake. His short crime stories have been published in magazines like Scribble and First Edition. His story, ‘A Living’, was shortlisted for the Quick Reads ‘Get Britain Reading’ Award, and published in the Sun Book of Short Stories. The Killing Season is his first novel.
To learn more about Mason, please visit his website.