After more than two dozen bestselling action thrillers that focused mostly on male protagonists, Jon Land is stretching his creativity and his audience with his series about Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong. Calling Caitlin, a fifth generation Ranger, “arguably my greatest and most complex hero ever,” Land promises that she’s well-equipped to do battle with the homegrown Islamic terrorists in his fourth novel built around her, STRONG VENGEANCE.
To stop a devastating attack against the U.S., Caitlin must first solve a mystery dating back to the lost treasure of the pirate Jean Lafitte, while also battling her personal demons and acting as a surrogate parent to the teenage sons of her imprisoned lover, Cort Wesley Masters. Harlan Coben declares STRONG VENGEANCE “gripping” and declares Caitlin “my favorite new series character.” STRAND MAGAZINE says Land is “writing at the highest level” and the book “will keep your fingers glued to the pages for hours.”
Land also writes screenplays and true crime, and he is the author of the Blaine McCracken series about a rogue CIA agent and a series featuring Detroit detective Ben Kamal and Israeli detective Danielle Barnea. He recently talked about STRONG VENGEANCE, published this month by Forge, and the experience of telling a story from a woman’s point of view.
You’ve written a female protagonist before, but Danielle Barnea shared billing with Ben Kamal. What inspired you to write a series that would focus on a woman as the lead character?
Okay, honesty time. Caitlin is as much a creature of marketing as creativity. In discussions with my publisher, it was brought up that thrillers are the most popular genre and women buy a huge portion of all books sold. But none of us could name a single female thriller hero with the exception of Lisbeth Salander from the Stieg Larson books (female mystery heroes, yes, but not thriller!). So I guess you could say Caitlin was born from a desire to create a female Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, Cotton Malone, or Gray Pierce. But, and this is crucial, her character evolved into something much greater and bigger than that.
What kind of person is Caitlin – what are her core virtues and flaws? Did you choose her last name deliberately to enhance your concept of her as a person?
Perfect transition from what I just said. Like all classic heroes, Caitlin is defined as much by her flaws as her strengths. She’s far from perfect, but the things she believes, her core convictions, keep those flaws in balance. Her entire character is based on a constant push-pull between her instincts as a woman and obsession with justice and fighting for what’s right. She’s not just an old-fashioned lawman, well lawwoman, in the great Texas Ranger tradition. She also cares deeply for her outlaw boyfriend Cort Wesley Masters and his two teenage boys. The thing I think I enjoyed the most about STRONG VENGEANCE was writing Caitlin as a mother figure for those boys and not just a modern-day gunfighter. In that sense this particular book is true to the classic western tradition of that gunfighter trying to hang up his/her guns and realizing they can’t do it. As far as her last name, truth be told, it was a creature of marketing as well in order to brand the series appropriately. That may make me sound a bit jaded but it’s one of the realities of the publishing business and I think it’s enhanced this series, not detracted from it.
Like all your books, STRONG VENGEANCE is a complex story with several plot threads. How do you keep them all going without losing the momentum that’s critical to a successful thriller? Do you outline in advance, or has experience given you a feeling for pace that you rely on as the story unfolds?
I never outline because for me it destroys spontaneity. If I don’t know what’s going to happen next, the reader can’t possibly and that’s where the fun lies. I have a general idea of where I’m going when I start a book, but not how I’m going to get there. I rely on instinct; the same thing that tells me a book is great when I’m reading it tells me where I’m going right or wrong when I’m writing. My books are all about pacing, making it impossible for you to put the book down ever. If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, if I can’t define the conflict in a scene, then I end up questioning what the scene is doing in the book in the first place. What’s its purpose? The other key thing to note is that I have a brilliant editor in Natalia Aponte and I’m a ferocious re-writer. So I may not get it right the first time, but I will by the last.
How did you research the national security issues touched on in the book? Is it difficult to get the kind of information you need to write authoritatively about homeland defense?
Since the characters representing the government in STRONG VENGEANCE are kind of nefarious and nebulous themselves, it allows me to take a lot of creative liberties. I’m not writing of homeland defense as it really is, so much as how I perceive it to be. And since the threat the nation is facing here is new at least on this level, I’m kind of laying out a paradigm for response that nobody can talk about because it doesn’t really exist. Remember, I only know what Caitlin and the other characters know, so that gives me an excuse to know less maybe than I should. Be stupid, in other words, without sounding it! (laughs)
In the course of your research, did you come to believe that the kind of terrorist attack Caitlin tries to stop is plausible, that some homegrown terrorist might be planning such an action right now?
To be honest (yet again!), not at first. Then I started researching the waste management industry and got truly scared. The character of the villainous Teofilo Braga is based on a real life Texas billionaire who’s trying to help the Republicans “buy” the election so EPA regulations will be reduced or eliminated enough to allow him to bring huge stores of nuclear waste into Texas for storage. That forms the heart of the plot in STRONG VENGEANCE and you just can’t make this stuff up! And the more research I did, the more recent real events began to play a part, the more I realized that the threat we face from within is starting to be far greater than what we face from outside.
How plausible is it that local or state law enforcement would be involved in tracking down the bad guys?
In Texas, very plausible, because Texas has what no other state has: the Rangers. The Texas Rangers exist on an almost mythic level. Anyone who’s spent time in the state knows the degree of reverence they command. They remain to this day true to the legends of their founding: fearless, fiercely independent, and always assigned the highest profile cases. So, yes, it’s very credible the Rangers in general and Caitlin in specific would find themselves protecting Texas from homegrown terrorists.
Do you get much feedback from women readers about Caitlin?
The feedback most writers get often skews toward the negative and I take great pride in the positive comments I’ve received from enough women to let me know I’m on the right track with Caitlin. The key with her and what my female audience seems to really appreciate is that same push-pull I mentioned before, and I think women really love the pride she takes in becoming a surrogate mother for Dylan and Luke Masters. I’ve had any number of women tell me that her relationship with the 17-year-old Dylan, especially in STRONG VENGEANCE, helps take the book to an entirely new level. As a writer who spent much of his career known for action scenes and nothing else, that really means a lot to me. I think women appreciate well-rounded characters, male or female, a bit more than men and they gravitate toward Caitlin more for that than just because she’s a woman.
What would you say to those male readers who make a point of never reading a book with a female protagonist?
Great question! First off, I’d tell them that the book’s male lead, Cort Wesley Masters, is a great action hero in his own right and pretty much shares the stage with Caitlin. And there’s also the giant Venezuelan assassin Guillermo Paz around for yet another male viewpoint. But mostly I’d say that what attracts male readers is plotting and pacing, not gender. My Caitlin Strong books, especially STRONG VENGEANCE, read just like Ludlum, Cussler, Berry, Rollins, Flynn—all those writing about male heroes. I also take great pride in how many of the longtime fans of my Blaine McCracken books have come to embrace Caitlin too.
Are the Caitlin novels and your previous work available as e-books?
Yes! All of my books are now available in E-format with the first thirteen titles I published having been brought back to life by Open Road Media. And, here’s some breaking news released here before anywhere else: I will be bringing back Blaine McCracken after a fifteen-year absence for Open Road next November in both print and electronic formats in PANDORA’S TEMPLE, posing the question: What if Pandora’s Box (it was actually a jar, by the way) was real? I think readers will see a little of Caitlin has rubbed off on him!
Jon Land is the bestselling author of thirty thrillers, most recently the Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series that includes STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE, STRONG JUSTICE, and STRONG AT THE BREAK. The next entry, STRONG VENGEANCE, will be published in July and pits Caitlin against homegrown terrorists in a tale that Strand Magazine has already praised as “a thrill ride that will keep your fingers glued to the pages for hours .” Jon is also bringing back his longtime action hero Blaine McCracken in PANDORA’S TEMPLE for Open Road Media this coming fall and this past year published his first ever nonfiction book, BETRAYAL.
Visit the author’s website to learn more about him and his work.