James Grippando treats his fans to a new Jack Swyteck legal thriller, BLOOD MONEY. After a sensational trial with Swyteck as her attorney, a single-mom party girl is acquitted of murder charges over the death of her child daughter. Swyteck is caught in a media firestorm that accuses him of setting up million-dollar book and movie deals–blood money–for his notorious client. On the night of her release from jail, an angry rob attacks another woman who bears a striking resemblance to the infamous mom…who then disappears. As Swyteck deals with the aftermath of the trial and both the mysterious circumstances behind the stranger’s assault and his former client’s whereabouts, he untangles clues that led to the truth of the little girl’s death and puts him in the crosshairs of her killer.
In popular culture, Miami is often represented as a cliché–a wasteland as culturally vapid as Los Angeles. But just as there is a lot to L.A., I really got the sense from your book of a real Miami. As you depicted the city, it comes alive with references to neighborhoods and places that reflect its complex cultural history. Considering this is the tenth Jack Swyteck novel, how do you keep the details fresh to both new and returning readers?
Miami is my home, I’ve lived here for almost thirty years, and I would have left a long time ago if I didn’t appreciate its complexity the way my characters do. I love it when locals who have lived here much longer than I read a Jack Swyteck novel and tell me, “Wow, I never knew there was a hundred-year-old Bahamian cemetery in the Grove Ghetto,” or “Gee, I had no idea that Miami’s Overtown Village was once Miami’s Little Harlem,” or “How cool is it that Amelia Earhart began her ill-fated flight around the world from a little airstrip near Miami?” The diversity of the cast in the Swyteck novels is also a big help. Jack is half Cuban, his side kick Theo Knight grew up in Miami’s toughest neighborhoods, and his fiancé Andie Henning is an FBI agent who goes into parts of Miami that most people wouldn’t dare visit. Each of these characters sees Miami from a very different perspective, and I love sharing that with my readers.
Miami has a reputation for attracting sketchy characters of every stripe. Tim Dorsey once wrote that southern Florida was America’s scupper. Does your town deserve that rep? Maybe the infamy adds to the charm?
Deserved, and earned over decades. Al Capone lived on Miami Beach. A deranged gunman tried to assassinate FDR in downtown Miami. The cocaine cowboys ran wild here. Versace was gunned down in broad daylight on Ocean Drive. The 9/11 hijackers trained here. Madoff trolled for victims here. Somehow, no matter what the crime, there is almost always a Miami connection. Even the Casey Anthony trial in Orlando, which inspired BLOOD MONEY, has a Miami connection: Her lawyer Jose Baez is from here. I wouldn’t say it adds charm to Miami, but it certainly makes it more interesting from a crime writer’s standpoint. Miami evokes all the right buzz words–smart and sexy, young and beautiful–but it also has a self-destructive quality that triggers the kind of fascination we have with a reckless youth. It is blessed with natural beauty, but it’s threatened by developers. It has the gift of cultural diversity, but is plagued by ethnic tension. Its nightlife is unrivaled, but the threat of violence is never far enough away. There’s glitz, there’s money, there’s the see-and-be-seen—and then there are neighborhoods that seem straight out of the third world. You often hear it said that truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is that more true than in south Florida. Where else could the United States Attorney lose his job after losing a big case, getting drunk, and biting a stripper? But it’s where I live, it’s where I practiced law, and it will always be so much more than just the backdrop for my novels.
The story is populated with layered characters. Were any based on true personalities? The anchorwoman Faith Corso and her boss Sean Keating seemed over-the-top, or are they? Does their portrayal reflect your experience with the media as a trial lawyer?
With the exception of Jack and the usual cast, virtually every character in BLOOD MONEY was inspired by someone who was connected to the actual Casey Anthony case. The judge in my fictional trial is a former state attorney who prosecuted the first woman to die in Florida’s electric chair. You can’t make that up; that was straight from the actual Casey Anthony case. BLOOD MONEY is full of characters like that. Most readers will recognize the inspiration for Faith Corso, who works her loyal viewers into a frenzied mob of TV vigilantes. For those who don’t recognize the inspiration for Sean Keating, the media mogul whose news organization operates out of virtual bunker in New York, I recommend a terrific piece in VANITY FAIR (June 9, 2011) by Tim Dickinson. To the extent that Corso and Keating are over the top in the book, I know readers will forgive me. They’re even more over the top in real life.
I appreciate how you led the reader through the legal machinations, especially those before a judge. Since you are a working lawyer, how do you address the need to present legal verisimilitude and yet not overwhelm the reader in details?
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of what goes on in a courtroom, but people watch because it’s entertaining. The setting is theatrical. The drama is real. The mishaps and surprises can be both shocking and hilarious. A trial appeals to the voyeur in all of us, satisfying everything from our fascination with celebrities to our prurient interests in the bizarre and criminal. Courtrooms are windows into everything from the mind of a serial killer to your neighbor’s bedroom. Lawyers ask the most personal and probing questions imaginable, and sometimes people have to answer, for all the world to hear. None of this is particularly new–there have always been “trials of the century”–but I do think that interest has escalated in recent years, largely due to the ability of television to compress lengthy trials into entertaining snippets. It certainly makes my job as a writer more fun. The more sophisticated the audience, the more complex and multi-layered I can make the plot.
The story had plenty of red herrings and misdirections that paid out as the plot advanced. I don’t want to include any spoilers but a plot twist involved some extreme fetish behavior. How did you learn about this? “Research” on the Internet? What guides you from going too far–can you get too pervy?
My first deep exploration of the dark side was my second novel, THE INFORMANT, where my research brought me into contact with John Douglas, the FBI agent who pioneered criminal profiling. (He is the real life FBI Agent who was portrayed as Jody Foster’s boss in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) His works have given me a great framework to create realistic, scary, and complex villains of all kind. I don’t go down this road in every novel, because I don’t ever want these creepy scenes to be gratuitous. But when it’s central to the story, I want it to be done well.
How do you conceptualize a story–the Big What If? Do you start from an opening scene or do you envision the ending and work toward that?
My agent, Artie Pine, used to walk me through an exercise that I would recommend to any writer. Whenever I would call him all excited with the idea for my next novel, he’d stop me and say, “Send me a couple pages.” I’d type two pages, send it to him, and then get another call: “Can you do it in one page?” I didn’t see how I describe a novel in one page, but I did it. He’d then call again “Try to do it in one paragraph for me.” This seemed utterly ridiculous, but I would somehow make it work. Then we’d talk again. “I want you to get it to one sentence,” he’d say, “and I want you to start the sentence with ‘This is the story of …’” No further discussion was necessary. Once I could express my idea in that one sentence, we both knew I was ready to start writing. Artie’s gone now, but that’s a system I’ve used for 20 novels, from THE PARDON to BLOOD MONEY.
Given such a complex story as a legal thriller, how do you keep track of so [many] moving parts? Do you work from an outline or are you a pantser? Some writers keep track with note cards, others with a spreadsheet. Are there any special techniques you’d like to share?
I work from an extensive outline–the one for BLOOD MONEY was about 50 pages–but I never outline beyond the point of conflict, where good clashes with evil. I let the ending work itself out in the writing. I find that if you write to a specific ending, the story comes across as forced and contrived. Sometimes it’s scary, when you’re not sure there will be a satisfactory resolution, but there is nothing more exciting as a thriller writer when you find yourself writing that great twist at the end that even you as the writer didn’t see coming.
What about your writing style? Do you revise as you go along or do you chug to the end of a first draft and then go back and edit?
There was a stretch in my career (2006-2009) when I put out seven novels in less than 3½ years. The only way to do that was to edit as I went along, and that’s been my writing style ever since.
You’ve published 20 novels, among them NYT bestsellers. A layman might say that you’ve got this writing gig down pat, but I’m sure you still wrestle with plenty of challenges. What continues to surprise (or frustrate) you as a writer?
BLOOD MONEY is a milestone—my 20th novel—and I think the most surprising thing for me is how much I still love doing it. I don’t know if I have another 20 in me, but I’m sure going to try.
What is the underlying theme for your legal thrillers?
As a trial lawyer, you see the best and worst of people. You see victims of crimes who have the courage to come into a public courtroom, look their attacker in the eye, and work through the emotional pain of telling a jury exactly what happened. Just as courageous, you see third parties with no personal stake in the case come forward—sometimes at the risk of their employment or personal safety—simply to make sure that justice is done. This is a definite theme in my legal thrillers, a world filled with unlikely heroes. On the other hand, you deal with the snakes who can’t give an honest answer to a simple question, who have to be tricked into telling the truth. You deal with some lawyers who think litigation is just a game and that the rules are for losers. As a writer, I now have the time to reflect on these things, and they are recurring themes in books like BLOOD MONEY.
Jack will be back! The eleventh in the series will be released in 2014.
James Grippando is a New York Times bestselling author of suspense. BLOOD MONEY is his twentieth novel, the tenth in his acclaimed series featuring Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck. James was a trial lawyer for twelve years before the publication of his first novel in 1994 (THE PARDON), and he now serves as Counsel to one of the nation’s leading law firms. He lives in south Florida with his wife, three children, two cats and a golden retriever named Max who has no idea he’s a dog. You can read the first chapter of BLOOD MONEY on Facebook.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.