By George Ebey
Author Alan Jacobson has written a new thriller in his popular Karen Vail series. Beginning with The Seventh Victim and continuing through its follow up Crush, the series features Vail, a rough and ready FBI profiler who has battled everything from serial killers to her own personal demons. Now she is back in Velocity, a novel which Library Journal calls “….essential for anyone who craves nonstop action, danger, and a gutsy heroine.”
A new killer is on the loose, seemingly related to the one she encountered in Crush. But this killer turns out to be like quicksand, pulling her deeper into a world she’s never before experienced…forcing her to face off against foes more dangerous than any she’s ever encountered.
Those looking for more can rest easy. Mr. Jacobson doesn’t disappoint.
Velocity is the third in the Karen Vail series; how does her experience in this book differ from the previous two?
Library Journal, I think, put it best. They wrote: “Velocity plunges readers into a nail-biting, heart-pounding chase through the dark world of serial killers, drug cartels, and DEA busts and exposes an edgier, more vulnerable Vail. Jacobson’s best to date.”
The stakes for Vail have always been high–women are being murdered in both The 7th Victim (her first novel) and Crush (her second)–but in Velocity, it’s deeply personal. And Vail reacts accordingly–the way my readers would expect her to. Vail goes up against foes more dangerous than she’s ever faced, and finds herself crossing the line and almost going over to the “dark side,” doing things she didn’t know she was capable of doing.
When I started to outline Velocity, the first thing I wrote was a “vision statement” of how I saw this story. Much of this consisted of what Karen Vail would feel, how she would act and react. Since Vail largely drives what happens in each of these novels, I had a tremendous opportunity to harness her emotions and show us a side of her we hadn’t yet seen. I’m always looking to push the envelope and dial up the reader’s attachment to what’s happening and who it’s happening to. Velocity was the perfect vehicle.
That vision statement was constantly in my head as I wrote Velocity, and that’s essentially what I ended up with: a woman on a mission, with intense focus and full of attitude. No one had better get in her way of getting at the truth, because she’ll run over them.
What made you decide to create a female protagonist for these novels?
Karen Vail came to me one day when I was writing a scene for an unpublished novel. She was totally unplanned and flew from my fingertips with amazing energy. She had such spunk and personality that I realized I needed to harness it and build a novel around her. So it was not a conscious decision where I woke up one morning and decided to (figuratively) put on heels and a bra. It just happened. Vail came to me very organically–and viscerally. I innately knew who she was and how she would react.
And I dove right in. I wrote the original 75 pages of The 7th Victim in the first person–so not only was I writing a female, I was writing her in the first person. My agent didn’t want me to switch writing styles from third to first person (my first two novels were written in third person). She wanted me to scrap everything and start over. But this was some of the best stuff I’d ever written. It was also the way Karen Vail came to me; I didn’t know if the same personality would come through if I changed point of view.
So–bizarre but true–I used Microsoft Word’s find/replace feature and replaced all the I’s with She’s and My’s with Her, etc. I read the first few pages and realized that what I’d created–purely by accident–was third person with a first person feel. It brought the reader very close to Vail. I wrote the rest of The 7th Victim that way–and retained this style for Crush and Velocity. It became Vail’s personal point of view.
I continue to receive email from female readers telling me they love Vail because she has female sensibilities but can get in the face of a guy and go toe-to-toe. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she doesn’t–but she’s got the “balls” to do it. I’ve been around strong females all my life, so it seemed natural to me.
But Vail’s also got vulnerable and feminine sides, which make her real. I’ve said that I tap my feminine side when writing her…but my wife chokes on her food when she hears me say that. If I ever write something that’s not credible from a female point of view, my wife flags it. Fortunately, I’ve only gone astray a couple of times, and each time it was easily correctable.
The book is set in several different places including Napa Valley, D.C., Quantico, San Diego and Las Vegas; what inspired you to choose these settings?
As I’ve matured as a writer these past 18 years, I’ve learned how to use the setting as a character in the story. I choose my settings carefully, with the intention of it not just being a backdrop to where the action is unfolding, but, whenever possible, I want to explore what’s special about those locales for my story and characters to play off of. I started in Napa because that’s where Vail was when Crush ended, and there’s a plot thread that carries over. I also loved writing about Napa in Crush–I know the region very well and have a number of insider contacts there. And readers really responded strongly to it, too. Staying in Napa for another 145 pages in Velocity was actually longer than I’d planned (in my outline). But it felt right, so I went with it. And I’m glad I did.
Washington, D.C. is home base for the Behavioral Analysis Unit, and I love D.C. and spend a fair amount of time there, so it’s only natural that Vail is going to be there part of the time: it’s home. I shifted to San Diego because of the nature of the subject matter; in doing my research with the DEA, it became clear that there’s a problem in full bloom in that border area–it’s a gateway for the Mexican drug cartels–so to San Diego I (and Vail) went. Las Vegas was perfect because it fits with the characters involved and it also gave me tremendous ability to write big scenes that popped from the page.
What elements do you believe need to exist in a good suspense story?
This is a question that could comprise an entire college writing course. Briefly, a good suspense story is first and foremost a good story. From there you incorporate suspense elements that work off your character and plot. There are the typical tenets of suspense: don’t give your reader everything at first; dole it out in increments; leave the reader, when possible, in the middle of something, wanting more–make them turn the pages to find out what’s going to happen; include emotion–important things are at stake, so what happens in your story has ramifications. (If there weren’t, who would care what happens? There would be no suspense.)
Perhaps one thing that’s frequently overlooked is humor. Just because it’s a suspense or thriller novel doesn’t mean there can’t be funny moments. Humor allows us to connect with the characters.
Has your time spent researching the FBI inspired any interest in working in that field, or do you prefer just writing about it?
I definitely love writing about it. As for being an FBI agent–and even more so, a profiler–yes, I think I would’ve enjoyed it immensely. There are a few drawbacks, like the fact that you’re assigned a place to live with little say in where that may be. Perhaps it’s important to also realize that any occupation or career is often glamorized in books and movies. Real life is doing the same thing day in and out–no matter what career you’re talking about. There’s tedium involved, and breaks in cases take months or even years rather than days or weeks as they often do in novels. That said, novelists understand delayed gratification: we toil a solid year–and sometimes a lot longer–before we see our work out in the hands of our readers. From that perspective, I can certainly relate to working a case day after day, incrementally making progress until finally, after thousands of hours of dedication, you see it all come to fruition.
That said, when you’re dealing with real lives, real victims, real families, and real violent crime, it takes a toll on you mentally. So perhaps I’m able to enjoy living the life vicariously without experiencing the emotional stress and pain that goes with the job. And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in all my years of research, working with all branches of federal, state, and local law enforcement, it’s this: the people who keep us and our families safe deserve our utmost gratitude.
Speaking of safety, you’ve co-written a booklet with one of the real FBI Profilers. How did that come about?
I was doing an interview with Mark Safarik, a 12-year senior FBI profiler, when The 7th Victim came out. We got on the subject of what women can do to stay out of the cross hairs of violent criminals. Afterwards, we both realized we should write an article on the topic because it was so important. That article turned into a pamphlet, then ballooned into a 21-page booklet. We posted it to my website and made it free of charge to everyone–because it’s not just for women. It’s for women, men, teens, and children.
We cover personal safety, home safety, and cyber safety. Not only is it full of extremely important tips, but we discuss why the killers do what they do–what motivates them and how they think. Our purpose was to not just give you a fish but teach you how to fish. That way, you can apply safety principles to any situation you find yourself in. Anyone can download it free from www.AlanJacobson.com.
The safety booklet is one of those rare times when the real and fictional worlds collide. Agent Safarik has worked to keep the public safe his entire adult life. This booklet is my contribution to that lofty goal.