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tenth circleBy Robert Rotstein

The 14th-century poet Dante depicted Hell as nine circles of suffering. In Jon Land’s THE TENTH CIRCLE, Jeremiah Rule, a charismatic, bigoted preacher with a dark past, threatens to open up Hell’s tenth circle in America. Rule has inflamed half the world with his hateful rhetoric. The United States has been hit with a series of unprecedented terrorist attacks, resulting in the nation’s virtual shutdown. Worse, Rule isn’t acting alone, but rather has the support of a powerful, violent cabal. Only Blaine McCracken can stop Rule and his supporters from unleashing a weapon as devastating as any known to man.

Over the course of the novel, McCracken faces danger not only from Rule, but also from a malevolent foreign power bent on revenge and a lethal assassin whose motivations are unclear. Epic in scope, THE TENTH CIRCLE takes the reader to colonial Roanoke, where all the settlers mysteriously disappeared, to the ghost ship Mary Celeste, and from Iran to rural Florida. Maintaining a break-neck pace throughout, the novel, through Blaine McCracken, explores the nature of courage, duty, and friendship.

THE TENTH CIRCLE marks the second return engagement of Jon Land’s longtime series hero Blaine McCracken on the heels of last year’s PANDORA’S TEMPLE, which was nominated for a Thriller Award and received the 2013 International Book Award for Best Adventure Thriller.

THE TENTH CIRCLE begins with an epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer.” How does that observation inform your protagonist, Blaine McCracken?

Wow, that’s a great question right off the bat!  I think the Emerson quote implies that great feats of bravery unfold in very short beats of time.  And what keeps happening during those extra five minutes is basically what has come to define Blaine McCracken, particularly his ability to walk into a hostile situation and always find a way to walk out.  Come to think of it, almost all the big action scenes in THE TENTH CIRCLE (And, man are there a lot of them!) would probably run about five real life minutes.  And it’s those five-minute sequences where McCracken excels the most.  So the quote is more than just a figurative metaphor; it’s kind of a life mantra for Blaine.

Your novel takes us from sixteen-century colonial America to nineteen-century England, and from present-day Iran to a bridge in Missouri and a church in Florida, among other times and places. Please describe your research process.

Not to belittle myself but, confession time here, I am a Google fanatic.  I’ve gotten real good at knowing what exactly to search to find what I want and it was a pretty simple process this time out since so much is known about the subjects you list above. I started the book with the notion of taking two of the greatest historical mysteries of all time and linking them together. So that’s where I started my research process.  I research pretty much as I go instead of in advance because I don’t know what I need until I get there.  The bridge in Missouri is a perfect example.  So too is the description of the Reverend Rule’s church which was built to conform to a historical site in the area—more fodder from my research.

McCracken is a Vietnam War veteran in his early sixties. What challenges does McCracken’s age present to you in crafting a convincing thriller?  Does his age also present opportunities?

First off, when I decided to resurrect McCracken first in PANDORA’S TEMPLE and now in THE TENTH CIRCLE I felt it only fair to my readers to age him chronologically in real time, as opposed to cheating his age.  I actually really didn’t think I had much of a choice.  I’d so clearly established his Vietnam background in the first nine books in the series that it would be disingenuous to the reader not to work with his real age—hey, if I made him 40, that means he would have fighting in Vietnam at the age of 10!  By the same token, though, I found this to be a terrific metaphor for what so many talented individuals of this age are experiencing today thanks to downsizing and outsourcing.  When PANDORA opens, McCracken’s phone hasn’t rung for a while and he’s starting to wonder if it ever will again.  That’s all too real for too many truly talented and exceptional men and women today who are the same age.  That’s one of the great opportunities an older hero presents, not to mention the fact that I’ve been writing Blaine for 28 years now, so his audience has aged with him.  The biggest challenge is maintaining credibility for his exploits.  Let’s face it, there are some things, a lot of things, you can’t do nearly as well at sixty as you can at even forty.  But sixty, as they say, is kind of the new forty.  So it’s important to establish how Blaine’s still able to pull this stuff off and not put him in situations that would be considered ridiculous for a person his age.

Among the fascinating characters in the novel is Zarrin, a world-renowned classical pianist. However, music is only one of her talents. Do you have plans for her in future stories?

No, I don’t, but I love that you asked!  See, the key to making any book like this work is to create a supporting cast just as interesting as the primary players.  They need to be fleshed out and developed in a way that endears them to the reader and distinguishes them from other foils in both my books and others.  So the fact that you posed the question tells me THE TENTH CIRCLE left you wanting to see more of Zarrin and that’s the most important test when it comes to whether a character works or not.

In the past, McCracken has been able to successfully navigate his violent world by avoiding personal attachments. In the TENTH CIRCLE, he’s formed one that nearly leads to disaster. What interests you about the conflict between McCracken’s service for the greater good and his need to form emotional bonds with others?

Another great question and one that could be applied to my Caitlin Strong character as well, if not better!  It’s a delicate mix between making him seem too vulnerable while providing a strong emotional stake in the action for him.  The question you’ve raised here goes to the heart of McCracken’s complexity as a character as well as a comic book type superhero.  Especially in these more recent entries, PANDORA’S TEMPLE and THE TENTH CIRCLE, with McCracken turning sixty and starting to question some of his choices.  It’s not enough for me to have him skate unscarred both physically and emotionally through this adventure and the next one.  Conflict is far, far more effective when it’s personal and suspense is also better done when the hero is racing to save someone who is important to them.  So I don’t necessary think there’s a conflict between McCracken’s service to the greater good and his need to bond.  I think they’re intrinsically connected.  His service is what defines him and it’s on those terms that enable him to seek out those who help make him understand who he is and why he does what he does, even after all these years.

You’ve written other series—for example your series featuring Texas Ranger Caitlyn Strong. You brought Blaine McCracken back in 2012’s PANDORA’S TEMPLE after a fourteen-year hiatus. What inspires you to continue the story of a particular protagonist?

I realized there was more to do with him.  I’d grown and so had he and, more to the point, the action-adventure thriller has made a huge comeback in recent years, so the timing was perfect—also for two other reasons.  First, Open Road Media, publisher of THE TENTH CIRCLE, had brought out five earlier titles in the series and they performed so well that bringing McCracken back in a new book was a natural.  Second, it helped that I was kind of auditioning to be one of Clive Cussler’s co-authors and had written a lengthy sample of a book that would later become PANDORA.  The bad news is that becoming a Cussler co-author simply wasn’t the right fit for me.  The good news is that adapting the material to better suit my own style led to McCracken’s return, which very well may never have happened otherwise.

THE TENTH CIRCLE is being published as an eBook original. What’s your take on the “print vs. digital” debate and whether new technology is good or bad for authors?

First off, anything that gets books into the hands of readers is a good thing.  I don’t see the print vs. digital thing as a debate so much a struggle between reading preferences.  It’s funny because Open Road Media, publisher of THE TENTH CIRCLE, has an entirely different marketing philosophy than Forge, the company that publishes my Caitlin Strong thrillers, a whole different model.  All this new technology is mostly very good for writers, since books no longer need ever go out of print and newer titles have longer to catch on the digital world than the print world.  The downside is that, with consolidation in the industry and loss of so many bookstores, the increase in my digital sales doesn’t even come close to approaching the sales I’ve lost in paperback and even hardcovers.  This is a bestseller-driven business and the digital world, unfortunately or not, has actually driven that trend even farther.

Who are some of your favorite NON-thriller/mystery writers? How have they influenced your writing, it at all?

Uh-oh, you’re really challenging me now!  Well, that’s a tough one.  I’d have to go back to my college days at Brown and reading the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, Charles Dickens.  Notice I didn’t mention Shakespeare because at heart, he WAS a thriller writer and so were Hemingway and Dickens to a great extent.  But one of the tools I think I learned from reading so-called serious fiction was ambiguity, how their conflicted characters, and heroes in particular, are drawn in shades of gray instead of being presented in black and white.  I think when we strive for that in thriller fiction we end up with material that’s much more ambitious and original as opposed to formulaic which is a big problem in our genre today.  With so many thrillers to contend with in the marketplace, it’s especially important to distinguish yourself and that’s what presenting your characters in an ambiguous vein provides.

The clichéd piece of advice for aspiring writers is “write what you know.” In the TENTH CIRCLE, you write about Colonial America, France under Napoleon III, present-day Boston, the Israeli secret service, hidden nuclear missile sites, classical piano, religious fanaticism, and futuristic engineering. Would you describe that as “writing what you know?” More generally, could you describe your writing process?

Writing what you know is the worst advice a writer can possibly be given, because no one can know enough to write as many books as I’ve written.  The simple fact of the matter is that a big-scale thriller like PANDORA’S TEMPLE is literally packed with all kinds of information about technology, locations, history, weaponry.  No one could possibly know everything you need to about so many things to write a book like this.  All I can say is thank God for Google!  It makes all writers technological rock stars because in a book like this you don’t have to be perfect, but you certainly need to be credible and convincing.  As far as my own practice goes, I am the anti-outliner.  I believe in spontaneity and trusting my characters to guide me where they want, and need, to go.  When I start a book, I know the general plot but not how it’s going to end precisely.  I’m usually about a hundred pages ahead in my mind, but that’s it.  Here’s the way I look at it:  if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, the reader can’t possibly know.  The problem, at least in my last two books, has been that the first drafts just weren’t very good.  But, like in sports, it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s how you finish and I think THE TENTH CIRCLE finished up great.

Tell us about your next project.

It’s my next Caitlin Strong book, STRONG DARKNESS.  Six weeks ago, with all the praise STRONG RAIN FALLING has been getting, I was facing the terrible reality that it just wasn’t as good a book as that one.  Now, three rewrites later, I’m happy to report that the book looks great and I think will be very received by the millions of Caitlin fans out there—well, thousands maybe; make that hundreds (laughs) but, hey, it leaves me lots of room for growth!


“McCracken’s back! And I couldn’t be happier. Jon Land’s THE TENTH CIRCLE is a knock-out thriller blending history, cutting-edge science, and nonstop action. Ancient mysteries, ghost ships, and a modern threat like no other…this is a novel that grips you by the throat and refuses to let go until the last page.”

–James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD

“Jon Land is one hell of a writer. His vivid recreations of the past, his characterisations and his non-stop ticking clock tension had me turning the pages so fast they were smoul-dering. I really loved this book.” 

–Peter James, #1 International Bestselling author of DEAD MAN’S TIME


Jon-Land-smallJon Land is the award-winning, critically acclaimed author of 36 books, including the bestselling Caitlin Strong Texas Ranger series that includes Strong Enough to Die, Strong Justice, Strong at the Break, Strong Vengeance and, most recently, Strong Rain Falling. The Tenth Circle marks the second return engagement of his longtime series hero Blaine McCracken on the heels of last year’s Pandora’s Temple which was nominated for a Thriller Award and received the 2013 International Book Award for Best Adventure Thriller. He is currently working on Strong Darkness, the next entry in the Caitlin Strong series to be published in September of 2014.

To learn more about Jon, please visit his website.

Robert Rotstein
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