By Josie Brown
If the success of a thriller series relies on the depth of its characters, it’s easy to see why Jon Land is a best-selling author with over twenty-five books—not to mention a film screenplay to his credit.
While discussing STRONG RAIN FALLING, the latest book of his Caitlyn Strong series, Land explains why he intercut his heroine’s ripped-from-today’s-headlines story with the history of America’s illegal drug trade and the role that her beloved Texas—and her predecessors—played in it:
In Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong, you’ve created a heroine who is both tough yet vulnerable. How did the character first come into your psyche?
Well, your question sounds a lot better than my answer might! Caitlin Strong was actually born at a business meeting at my publisher where we were discussing what direction I should go in next. One of the heads of Forge’s sales department raised the point that thrillers are the most popular genre and the vast majority of books are bought by women so, BOOM!, a light bulb went off in my head and right there on the spot I said I wanted to create a female action hero, say a female version of Lee Child’s brilliant Jack Reacher. Well, I’d always wanted to write about the Texas Rangers so I just melded the two together and there was Caitlin waiting to burst out from the page. Hey, she may have been the product of a sales discussion, but she is without question the most complex, interesting hero I’ve ever created.
What do you find to be the hardest part about writing a female protagonist?
I don’t think a man can totally “get” a woman entirely in fiction any more than in reality. So with Caitlin as much as possible I try to stick to the way she responds to certain stimuli—specifically, the investigations in which she’s involved and dastardly plots she’s always trying to thwart. In those respects, she is an action hero first and a woman second. That said, the fact that she’s a woman presents me with the biggest challenge, as well as the greatest opportunity, in her ever-conflicted relationship with Cort Wesley Masters and his sons. That’s because it highlights the constant push-pull in her character between the old-fashioned gunfighter that Caitlin unquestionably is and the loving maternal figure she finds herself becoming for Cort Wesley’s two sons. I think Caitlin’s scenes with those boys, most notably the opening of STRONG RAIN FALLING when she’s taking 18-year-old Dylan on a college visit to Brown University, are the scenes where Caitlin springs most to life and all her emotional conflicts are most on display. This isn’t a part of her life she’d ever expected or planned for, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. Writing action is easy compared to writing emotion, but it’s emotion that makes the Caitlin Strong books truly special.
And of course my next question is, what do you feel is the easiest part?
Great question and excuse me for digressing a bit to answer it, specifically how the relationship between Caitlin and Cort Wesley Masters is defined. In traditional tales, it’s the woman who tries to get the male gunfighter to give up his guns and settle down. But I decided in the Caitlin Strong series to reverse that paradigm and define the relationship between Caitlin and Cort Wesley based on his struggles as a single father and her gradually acceding to her maternal instincts to become a surrogate mother for Cort Wesley’s sons. That adds a freshness and vitality to all the Caitlin Strong books that provides me with a continuing emotional core. Stick to that core and the rest falls into place.
I love the historical aspect of this book. How did the plot premise come to you?
The historical subplots are my favorite part of the Caitlin Strong books and the factor that most distinguishes them from the crowded field for thrillers. Writing about the Texas Rangers intrinsically means writing lots about the drug trade that originates, and to an extent dominates, Mexico. So I finally asked myself, where did it all start? I couldn’t recall ever seeing any other writer answer that question and it turns out the Mexican drug trade actually began in the 1870s with a flood of Chinese immigrants who brought opium along for the ride. Just a few years later, farms growing the poppy flower needed to produce opium were sprouting up all over the country. And not long after that, right around the turn of the century, you have the actual birth of drug smuggling with opium being brought into the western United States through the Baja region. In fact, there was a Mexican provincial governor named Cantu (who’s actually a character in the book) who was lauded for building roads and other infrastructure projects when the real reason he built them was to facilitate his smuggling operation!
Diligent research is always the cornerstone of your process, and it shows in STRONG RAIN FALLING. Did you run across any nuggets that were a total surprise, or gave you a “Eureka” moment?
Wow, another good question! I don’t think there was ever what you would call a “Eureka” moment, but there were two that really helped bring the book together. The first was realizing in my research how perfectly the actual birth of the Mexican drug trade would fit into the framework of this book as mentioned above. And the second was building (SPOILER ALERT!) a credible plot to take down the country’s power grid—not just for a day or an hour, but months, years or maybe forever. I don’t want to give too much away here, but suffice it to say that if you wanted to do truly lasting and truly devastating damage, using computer worms and viruses can’t do it alone.
The book’s antagonist is also a woman: Ana Callas Guarjardo. Why make the baddie a she, as opposed to a he?
I thought it was time to have Caitlin go up against a woman who was just as driven, resolute and powerful as she was. Kind of the opposite side of the same coin. The fact that Guajardo’s motivation, all that hatred she feels for the United States, is intensely personal and emotional made going with a woman an even more inspired choice. The challenge in these books is to stick with the formula that works while interjecting the kind of nuances and new twists that keep each book in the series fresh and original.
What do you feel thrillers with technology at its driving force need in order to ratchet up the pace, in order to keep readers enthralled?
That’s easy: emotion. It’s fairly easy to write an action-packed story with huge stakes containing great research. But none of that matters if the reader doesn’t genuinely care about the characters. So I always ask myself what are the emotional stakes my characters are facing, what’s the crisis they’re facing that makes them come alive to us as they struggle to resolve it. The challenge for the thriller writer, in other words, is to have it both ways. The great John D. McDonald, creator of the Travis Magee series, was once asked to define “story.” His answer was “Stuff happens to people you care about.” That’s become my mantra and I never forget it.
Caitlin’s lover, Cort Wesley Masters, also has some revelations in this novel. What do you feel are the most important elements for changing, and deepening, the relationship between them?
Love that question and I actually open the next book in the series with the answer. Caitlin and Cort Wesley need to face the kind of crisis that will bond them and define their characters in a bigger and better way than ever before. Because it’s in moments of great crisis that the true nature of a person’s composition, and his/her relationship with others, really comes to light. Let me give you an example of that from STRONG VENGEANCE, which was just released in paperback, when a killer who happens to be a pedophile makes it clear he has eyes for Dylan. He does that strictly to provoke Caitlin which, of course, he succeeds in doing. And she knows just what she’s walking into when she shows up to meet him and couldn’t care less. STRONG RAIN, meanwhile, features a financial crisis of sorts for Cort Wesley. He’s worried about losing his house, how he’s gonna pay for college—to your point, the kind of concerns we don’t ordinarily see in thriller fiction. What I’m striving for here is a stark contrast between Caitlin and Cort Wesley struggling with everyday concerns, even as they find themselves up against villains and plots that threaten to do incredible damage to the entire country. I love that juxtaposition and you’ll see more and more of it as the series continues.
What is your next writing project?
Do you have an hour?! (laughs) Seriously, I’ve never had as many opportunities as I have right now but I never stop considering more because you just never know when the BIG ONE that gets me on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list is going to come. The next book’s already done. It’s called THE TENTH CIRCLE and it’s the follow-up to PANDORA’S TEMPLE once again featuring Blaine McCracken, my original series hero I’ve fallen back in love with. Beyond that I’m actually working on three books: a sequel to my bestselling THE SEVEN SINS, a terrific project I’m doing in tandem with the great Heather Graham, and I’m just about to start STRONG DARKNESS, the next book featuring Caitlin that takes her and Cort Wesley Masters to a very dark place potentially. I’m going to take her right up to the edge, but hopefully not so close that she slips over. I also see some good finally coming out of Hollywood after my one and only film, the teen comedy DIRTY DEEDS, was released all the way back in 2005. Hey, call me the eternal optimistic. But I’m also a realist and that’s why, to paraphrase the great Jerry Garcia, I’ve embarked on so many journeys leading to the same destination that’s labeled, simply, SUCCESS!
Jon Land is the author of more than 30 thrillers, including the bestselling Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series that includes STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE, STRONG JUSTICE, STRONG AT THE BREAK, STRONG VENGEANCE and, coming this August, STRONG RAIN FALLING. This past fall he resurrected his longtime series hero Blaine McCracken in the E-Book Original PANDORA’S TEMPLE (nominated for a Thriller Award and winner of the 2013 International Book Award for Best Adventure Thriller) and a follow-up, THE TENTH CIRCLE, is slated for release in November. Jon’s first nonfiction book, BETRAYAL, meanwhile, was named Best True Crime Book of 2012 by Suspense Magazine.
To learn more about Jon, please visit his website.