By Dan Levy
Writers tend to stick to the type of writing they know. It’s rare when a successful poet also becomes a playwright, or the creator of award-winning radio spots pens a screenplay that makes it onto the big screen.
Even more rare is the engineer who spends a career writing aeronautical technical reports and then gets a thriller published. And then another. Unless, of course, you’re J. E. Holling—whose second novel, AN EVIL AMONG US, released in early March.
“I had no formal education with respect to writing,” Holling says. “Over the course of my education, I took English and composition and wrote book reports in grade school. Then, I took more comprehensive writing when I was in the higher grades.”
Holling says that over the course of his career, he learned to value the importance of clear communication. That helped him with his fiction writing, but still, the shift was a challenge.
“(Technical writing) helped in the sense of establishing structure,” he says. “If you’re going to put technical detail in a story—or a technical report—it has to be structured right. That helped me come up with the overall structure of the novel. The one thing that technical writing did not help me with, or prepare me for, was writing dialogue. There is no dialogue in a technical report.”
Still, Holling had the writing bug and the building blocks for a good story. Those blocks included a love of aviation and extensive background as a pilot, aviation mechanic, crew chief, engineer, program manager, and aviation safety expert. Upon that foundation, Holling built his story from innate curiosity, a desire for learning, an appreciation for research, and a need to answer the simple question that drives most authors: What if?
With that, Holling published his first novel, The Falcon’s Revenge.
Holling notes that unlike with his many technical papers, “When I started writing, I didn’t know how it would end.” But he trusted himself, kept writing, and eventually, “the novel just started writing itself.”
That story provided a satisfying ending, while still leaving plenty of story left to tell. Which gave rise to AN EVIL AMONG US.
AN EVIL AMONG US sees the return of FBI Special Agent Eric Tyson, who is pressed back into service after retirement (something Holling knows a bit about himself) to stop an old nemesis who is plotting a North Korean-backed nuclear assault on the US.
Holling continues to use real-life experiences to paint pictures of little-known aircraft and then puts the reader right there in the cockpit. When describing a favorite scene, Holling gives an example of weaving his real-life experience into his fiction. “There was such an aircraft as the NF-104, which was a modified F-104 fighter used to train astronauts. It flew to a record altitude of 120,000 feet.”
But then, Holling puts an interesting spin on the use of technology in AN EVIL AMONG US. Instead of introducing us to the latest and greatest technology—or even making some up—he goes old school.
Throughout his career, Holling watched as slide rules were replaced by handheld calculators, which were then replaced by computers. And while it made some parts of the job better, he witnessed a new generation of engineers insisting on using computers to solve problems that Holling could solve many times faster with a calculator. “My idea is to use the right tool for the job. If a computer is the right tool, fine. If it’s not, that’s okay, too.”
He’s quick to point out that he’s not anti-technology—he just believes that we should use all the tools at our disposal. In fact, he says, “I don’t know how anyone wrote a book before the internet.”
But bringing back old problem-solving tools, wasn’t an either/or proposition for Holling. “The biggest challenge was getting the technology right, both the old and the new, and being able to present it within the framework of a believable story.” In AN EVIL AMONG US, that means creating a believable story where old-fashioned technology foils a modern-day attack.
Holling researched and wrote AN EVIL AMONG US as you would expect an engineer would.
A big fan of the late Tom Clancy, Holling understands how technical detail can enrich the story, add tension to a scene, and help educate a reader. But in writing AN EVIL AMONG US, it also gave him an appreciation for the deft hand it takes to know which details to leave in, and which to take out.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as too much detail,” he says. “But that’s me. I know not everyone is like that.” In fact, after getting some input from a trusted reader, as well as his editor, Holling cut around 5,000 words of detail. “I appreciated the input I got from other people. I’m sure that’s made this a better book.”
Despite his background in technical writing, it’s safe to say that Holling has the fiction writing bug. His third work changes course from Eric Tyson and aeronautically-themed novels to a novella with a New York City detective at its core. Without giving too much away, the story starts on the streets of New York, where homeless people go missing, and takes readers on an adventure into the Egyptian desert.
J. E. Holling’s second novel picks up where his debut novel left off. The military aviation theme is not a surprise considering Hollings’ background. He’s held positions in engineering, program management, aviation safety and the military. His novels draw on these lifelong interests and experiences. Technical writing was always a big part of his work. Now he turns those long-honed skills to the task of telling a compelling story. A story that could be tomorrow’s headline. Mr. Holling is married, lives in New Jersey and has two grown children. He looks forward to an active life as a storyteller.