By Jeremy Burns
Jeffrey Wilson’s life reads like the bio of an action hero: firefighter, surgeon, jet pilot, combat veteran. As a thriller writer, he has upped the ante even further, drawing inspiration from his own exciting experiences and overactive imagination, while adding a dash or two of the paranormal into the mix. His third novel in as many years, which Tom Young calls “a brilliant combination of war novel and supernatural thriller,” is FADE TO BLACK.
Jeff sat down with THE BIG THRILL to give readers a glimpse behind the curtain of his upcoming thriller and of the man who wrote it.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Well, I’m Jeff Wilson. I wear a lot of hats these days, from my obvious life as a writer to my variety of “day jobs” where I still work some as a Doctor, I do a little consulting work with the DoD, and of course my favorite job of husband and father to an amazing family. I live in Tampa with my wife Wendy and my three kids, Connor, Jack and Emma.
I’ve had a pretty diverse life– my Mom tells me I have a short attention span. I have basically spent my life checking off all the jobs from the list most eight-year-olds have of what they want to be when they grow up. I’ve worked as a firefighter/paramedic. I spent a couple of years as an actor. I was a pilot for a while, flying a variety of aircraft including jets. I’ve been a Naval Officer and deployed a bunch of times to Iraq and spent a little time in Afghanistan. I had the true honor of serving with Naval Special Warfare and deploying with SEAL teams– an experience that had a great influence on my first book THE TRAITEUR’S RING. I’m a fellowship-trained Vascular Surgeon and worked as a combat surgeon in the Navy.
The only constant thread for me has been writing. I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, publishing my first short story when I was in middle school in a regional publication. I have no idea how many stories I’ve written over the years, but sitting down and writing has been a part of my life forever. Honestly, I never thought I could write a whole novel (see my attention span issues above), but I found after writing my first book, that it is actually easier than shorts. There is a real freedom in having all of those pages to develop your characters and plot. I sold THE TRAITEUR’S RING to JournalStone Publishing in early 2011 and it was released in September of that year, followed by THE DONORS last year and now FADE TO BLACK, the last of my three book deal with my publisher.
My real claim to fame is being the father of the youngest, traditionally published fiction writer in America after Connor’s award winning book A GIANT PENCIL really took off. Helping him with his success has become another job altogether and one I love.
Tell us about your new thriller, FADE TO BLACK.
FADE TO BLACK is a special book to me in a lot of ways. First, while it is the third book to come out from my three book deal with JournalStone Publishing, it is actually the first novel I wrote. Second, it is a story that is deeply personal to me about a young man dealing with the horrors of war. I wrote the book during my first deployment to Iraq in 2005 so it no doubt carries a lot of my own fears and experiences in its pages. In some ways it spun off from a short story I wrote a few days before heading out to Iraq, entitled “Calling Home”. That story sat in my desk until last year when I finally sent it out and it got published in BuzzyMag.
FADE TO BLACK is a story about a young man trapped somehow between two worlds and uncertain in which he belongs. In one world, he is Marine Sergeant Casey Stillman. Locked in combat in the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, he is lying next to his dead and dying friends, bleeding in the street—until he wakes up at home, in bed with his wife. In this other world, Jack is Jack Keller, a high school science teacher, husband, and devoted father to his little girl. But the nightmares of war continue to haunt him—and they’re vivid, they’re horrifying, and they’re way too real. When news of killed Marines in Fallujah surface, Jack realizes he knows far more about these men then he should. Could it be coincidence, or something else? When the dead Marines begin visiting him while he is awake, Jack realizes that he is in serious trouble. Faced with the possibility of losing his mind—or worse still, that these nightmares aren’t nightmares at all, but are real—Jack knows he must somehow find a way to bridge the two realities and fight his way back to save his wife and his little girl.
Like all of my work, this is a character-driven story with heavy supernatural elements.
What was your initial inspiration for FADE TO BLACK? How did the story’s premise develop through the early days of your writing process?
I wrote the complete first draft of this book downrange in Al Anbar Province in Iraq. During that deployment my team spent some time in and around Fallujah as well– an important setting in the book. We worked very closely with the Marines and our Forward operating base was home to elements of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. I had no shortage of inspiration for this one. As a father I felt the same worries about what would happen to my son (my only child at the time) should something happen to me, and I think the book grew out for those thoughts and fears.
Writing about a young man struggling with fear of death in Iraq was actually pretty easy while in Iraq myself. My daily experiences most certainly impacted the evolution of the story. I participated in a large combat operation called Operation Dagger late in the deployment and that made it much easier to write with authority about Fallujah.
What are some of the ways you’ve conducted research for this novel? Any interesting stories there?
Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine a better way to research a story about a combat Marine in Iraq than to spend some time there, obviously. I did have to do a little research about the battle of Fallujah, which had finished up just before our arrival in the area, but that was easily done online.
In addition to being a novelist, you also work as a vascular surgeon. Has that influenced any of the characters or plot points in this book?
I think being a surgeon helps write about injuries and trauma, obviously. I don’t think that area of my background had much of an impact in this book. Certainly I drew very heavily on those experiences in my last book THE DONORS, which is a supernatural thriller set in a hospital. I think all my time as a resident made that book easier to write, for sure.
I will say that being a military surgeon certainly makes you confront death on a sometimes daily basis. That most certainly found its way into the page of FADE TO BLACK.
How much of yourself do you put in your characters? With which character in FADE TO BLACK do you most identify?
I think all writers invest their personal experiences into their characters– good and bad. Maybe it’s not you, but someone you know or love or hate or whatever. The richer and more diverse your experiences the easier it is to write diverse characters with realism. For me in this book, the character of Jack– the main character in the book– most definitely grew out of my own fears of leaving my son behind should something happen to me overseas. Those fears are the center of the character of Jack, who wants only to get back to his family from the nightmare he finds himself in, and to give them a happy and normal life. I identify with that very much, of course.
Which character was the most fun for you to write? Why?
I had a lot of fun writing the ghost of the dead Navy Chaplain. He had an initially contained craziness that bubbles slowly to the surface as his role evolves. That’s always fun to write.
Do you believe in ghosts?
I believe that there are a lot of things we don’t understand out there. It would be so arrogant to assume we have it all figured out and there are so many examples in our world and our lives that prove that’s not true. So sure, I believe in ghosts– whatever the hell they are.
What is your favorite book by another author? Why?
Like most of us, I am a voracious reader and my taste is very eclectic, so that is really a tough question. In general I love character driven books and I do like supernatural stories, so Stephen King has always been a favorite of mine. I think that BAG OF BONES and DUMA KEY were two of his best books. His son, Joe Hill captivated me with HEART-SHAPED BOX and then one upped himself in HORNS– I can’t wait to read his new book. Benjamin Kane Ethridge is the rising star in that genre in my opinion and BOTTLED ABYSS is a must read for horror fans. I like straight up thrillers as well and really enjoyed the old Ludlum books growing up. I love Lee Child’s Reacher character and have enjoyed all the books in that series. Last year I read THE CALYPSO DIRECTIVE by Brian Andrews and found it to be one of the freshest science thrillers I have read in years.
What is your favorite travel destination? Why?
Wendy and I love to travel, though with three kids – and two of them under age six – we don’t get far away for long these days. My travel tastes are as eclectic as my reading taste, I suppose. I love places with long history and different cultures like Greece and the Middle East (though I have had my fill of the latter for a while). We loved touring California wine country and recently spent time exploring the Grand Canyon. Sometimes it’s awesome to go somewhere and do nothing and for that, my favorite so far was Jumby Bay off of Antiqua. These days, a Disney Cruise with our kids is more fun that all of it!
What do you find most rewarding about writing?
For me, writing is many things. It’s a great escape and a cathartic way to find an outlet for my own personal demons. It is at times pure entertainment for me. I get the germ of an idea and let it rattle around awhile and then I sit down and start writing– still unsure of where the story will take me. In that way it’s like watching TV or a movie for me– I’m excited to sit down at the computer because I want to see what will happen next. When you get to the end and you have a good story (which is not every time, I assure you), it is really exciting to get it out there and see how the story is received. Writing is work, but for me the work is later– the revisions and editing, marketing, etc. The writing itself, that first exciting draft, is relaxing and enjoyable.
What is one thing that would surprise your fans about you or your writing process?
I don’t know – perhaps my complete and utter lack of preparation. I know authors who spend months and months outlining a book and then weeks outlining each chapter. I have a friend who writes out a complete bio background of every character. I have a great deal of respect for writers with that discipline and commitment, but every time I try to be more “serious”, to outline and backstory and be scholarly about my writing, the result is a disaster. What works for me is sitting down with a basic idea and letting the characters become so real to me that they just sort of drive the story along as I ride in the side car. I’m not making it up when I tell you that I have had characters scold me in my head when I tried to write something that they insist they would NEVER do.
What advice would you give to new or aspiring authors?
First and foremost is to write because you love the process. If you don’t enjoy writing – real storytelling – for its own sake then you will hate being a writer. You may even publish and make some money, but there are plenty of easier ways to make money if that is the goal and why put yourself through hating your work?
The second is to never give up. If you believe you have a good story and have written it well, then polish, polish, polish and keep sending it out. You never know when and where the story will end up in front of the right editor on the right day. Very few writers get their first big contract with their first completed book in the first year after completion. I am very lucky that I have so far sold everything I’ve written, but that is unusual and my first book in print was actually my third book written. There were a few years there of rejections and that stings, but if you believe in your work, you will find the right person or maybe just the right time and you will get it out there.
What can we expect next from you, and where can readers go to hear the latest news?
My agent is currently shopping my fourth book and I am a few weeks from completing book five, which is a slight departure for me in that it combines my supernatural thriller genre with a more faith-based theme. I also have a plan for a new series I hope to begin writing in the fall.
Readers can always find me for updates on my website and I love getting emails from readers through the site as well.
Anyone stopping by Thrillerfest this year should find me and say hello for sure. I’ll be at the Fanfest event on Friday night and I’m on a panel Saturday morning. I’m happy to make time for anyone who wants to chat about writing– mine or theirs!
Anyone who wants to see what’s up with Connor’s work can follow him at www.thegiantpencil.com.
A huge thank you to Jeffrey Wilson for taking the time out of his busy writing schedule to share his insights and secrets with our readers. Bram Stoker Award winner Benjamin Kane Ethridge raves that “you’ll bite off every fingernail waiting to see the final outcome” of FADE TO BLACK, so be sure to check it out when it hits stores June 14th.
Jeffrey Wilson has at one time worked as an actor, a firefighter, a paramedic, a jet pilot, a diving instructor, a Naval Officer, and a Vascular and Trauma Surgeon. He also served two tours in Iraq as a combat surgeon with both the Marines and with a Joint Special Operations Task Force. He has written dozens of short stories, won a few fiction competitions, and currently has a 3 book deal with JournalStone Publishing for his novels. His first novel, THE TRAITEUR’S RING, was published in 2011. His second book, THE DONORS was released in June of 2012. JournalStone will launch Jeff’s third novel, FADE TO BLACK, on June 14th 2013. Jeff and his wife, Wendy, are Virginia natives who, with children Emma, Jack, and Connor, call Tampa, Florida home. When not working as a Vascular Surgeon or chasing his three kids, Jeff is hard at work on his next novel.
To learn more about Jeff, please visit his website.