Alan Jacobson, national bestselling author of critically acclaimed novels, has done it again with this latest international thriller, THE LOST CODEX. This is the third outing in his OPSIG Team Black series, featuring FBI profiler Karen Vail, DOD covert operative Hector Santos, and FBI terrorism expert Aaron “Uzi” Uziel.
There is no doubt that Alan Jacobson has a firm grasp on his research. I was astonished by the level of detail and authenticity, a level that can only be attained from picking the brains of experts in every field of law enforcement and intelligence. Each of Alan Jacobson’s novels is packed with this kind of “inside” knowledge. Over the years Jacobson has built a list of go-to experts, from senior FBI profiler and good friend Mark Safarik to working with members of the DEA, NYPD, U.S. Marshals Service, Scotland Yard, SWAT, and the U.S. military. No wonder a retired U.S. Navy SEAL says of THE LOST CODEX: “Incredibly realistic. This is the way we did it in the SEAL teams. It’s so true to life that it’s hard to believe it’s fiction.”
OPSIG stands for: Operations Support Intelligence Group. Run out of a secret office in the basement of the Pentagon, the team takes on missions the United States cannot sanction or acknowledge. This time the team must track down a group of terrorists who may be in possession of two ancient biblical documents that could wreck havoc on the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and threaten the foundations of Christianity. That would be bad enough, but the terrorists are also responsible for a series of bombings and sniper attacks in Washington D.C. and Manhattan. The OPSIG team’s hunt for the ancient parchments and the terrorists responsible of the horrendous attacks requires them to use every skill and resource they have against a very sophisticated and intelligent group of terrorists, and leads them at break-neck speed to London (an absolute no-go for some in the team), Paris, Jerusalem, and finally deep into Gaza. This story will take your breath away.
Alan Jacobson was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to sit down with The Big Thrill.
What inspired you to tackle the quagmire that is the Israeli and Palestinian conflict? Even you state that you approached this book with trepidation.
Well, I’ll tell you this: I did not sit down and say, “Hey, here’s an idea: I’m gonna write a book involving a peace process that’s failed repeatedly for 60 years.” THE LOST CODEX was an idea that came to me while I was in Israel a few years ago and learned about a (real) ancient document and the mystery surrounding it. I found it so intriguing that I knew then that I had to write a novel with that at its core. As to the peace process, anytime you touch the Middle East, particularly a story involving the Holy Land, it’s difficult to be genuine about the region without addressing its realities. While THE LOST CODEX is not about the peace process, it’s a backdrop against which other things occur.
In addition, I have a stable of characters from the OPSIG Team Black series (Hard Target OSPG #2 in particular) who’ve dealt with Middle Eastern terrorism, so it was only natural for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be touched upon in THE LOST CODEX. Interestingly, once I got into the research and spoke with experts in the region I discovered things about the peace process that I didn’t know—which was surprising because I stay up on politics and current events. There’s a lot that the mainstream US media doesn’t cover. So it was a bit of an eye-opener for me. Suddenly a lot of things that happened there in recent years made sense, given that new perspective. And it fit beautifully with the story I was telling.
You provide some very specific details about the locations in your novel, from Washington D.C. to New York, then London, Paris, Jerusalem, then deep in Gaza. While reading, I definitely felt I was there, even imagining tracing your characters’ steps through each of those locations. How do you go about researching those locales?
My method is to go to the places I’ll be writing about. I stay as long as I can to get a sense of the people, local traditions, etc. While there I’m also looking for places to set scenes. I’m like an advance scout for Hollywood when they’re prepping a movie.
I want to see what my characters see, smell and hear what they smell and hear. For example, a quarter of THE LOST CODEX is set in Paris. During my visit there, I shot thousands of photos and videos. While writing those pages, I spent seven days a week, fifteen hours a day immersing myself in those images, reliving my visit. When I finished writing that section of the LOST CODEX, I really felt as if I’d returned to France for a month. I went through the same process for those chapters set in Washington, New York, England, and Israel.
In some cases, I’ve written parts of my books while on location. In Inmate 1577, for example, I wrote a number of scenes while I was at Alcatraz. Inmate 1577 is part historical fiction and includes a chapter involving the most famous prison escape in US history. I wrote that scene where it actually occurred fifty years earlier, in the cell block and right outside the window where the inmates cut through the bars and then escaped down the hill to the ocean’s edge. In Velocity, there’s a major chase scene in and around the Las Vegas strip. I literally camped out with my laptop and wrote those parts on location.
To me, the setting can be another character in the novel. If you can take a story and pull it out of its setting and put it in another town, there’s an element missing.
Speaking of research, the details from the OPSIG team’s covert techniques to the electronic gadgets they used must have required an incredible amount of research. What sort of effort and time does it require you to get it so right and ring true?
Some would say too much effort! All that time adds up to weeks or months of additional work. Regarding the research for electronic gadgets and Special Forces techniques, I work with two primary contacts and then fill in as needed in areas of expertise. One is a cryptographer who has a vast knowledge of, and work history in, the tech industry. I give him my scenario and how I plan to do something and then ask him to tear it apart or suggest things that would work better (or just plain work if what I suggested is not feasible or possible).
I also work with one primary Special Forces contact for the OPSIG Team Black novels. I run my ideas by him and, likewise, ask him to correct anything that’s not right. He’ll tell me how things are really done and suggest devices or weapons that would be used. When I finish the manuscript, I give him the first draft and he goes through it and makes corrections or comments. I then go about making the changes, during which time we’ll exchange numerous emails (and story excerpts) until I get it right.
I went through the same process with No Way Out (FBI profiler Karen Vail #5) in terms of some major scenes that occurred in England. I worked extensively with a Marine Corps captain who knew the aircraft that was involved in my story, as well as a commander aboard the USS New York aircraft carrier, which likewise played a major role in those chapters. At one point the captain pulled out the flight manual because we had to see if what I wanted to do could, in fact, be done. While it took more than two weeks of rewriting to get these scenes right, they’re totally awesome and it was worth every minute of work. In fact, after reading those 75 pages, the captain told me that it was worth all the time he had spent on it; he loved it.
How I approach these technical issues in the OPSIG Team Black series is no different from how I treat my FBI Profiler Karen Vail series. I work closely with two profilers along the way, and at least one of them reads the first draft to make sure I’ve gotten it all right. I also work with some great people in local law enforcement, SWAT, the US Marshals Service, Scotland Yard—whatever is needed.
Each foreign location and situation required the characters to use different clandestine operation techniques—like disposing of bodies while evading detection. Do you come up with situations and plot elements first, then go to your expert sources, or do the elements come from previous research and consultations? Or are you really a black ops operative and just can’t say?
That’s a great question. It depends on the situation, but in general it’s both—sort of. I almost always have the plot elements down before I consult with my sources. During our discussions, however, they may suggest something that works better than what I have planned—or they may tell me a story of something that happened to them. I love that because it’s real life and truth is often stranger than fiction. Since they do this stuff every day, there’s no way I could envision some of the scenarios that they live and breathe. Whenever possible, I integrate their experiences into my book(s). That’s happened a lot, actually.
For example, in the LOST CODEX, I have to get my characters from one place to another without being detected. Because of the circumstances, this was very problematic for them (and thus for me). I devised a method of doing it, then checked with my Special Forces expert to see if it was feasible or if there was a better way of doing it. It turns out that my solution was how it really would be done. Then I needed to get into the technical aspects of carrying it out, which required a lot of back-and-forth between us to get it right.
In your acknowledgements, you mention that certain sources wished to remain anonymous because of some of the sensitive information you included in the novel. Could you elaborate on some of that sensitive information? And how to do introduce that information without raising security red flags?
Generally speaking, if there’s information that could be traced back to a specific person, and it’s sensitive for any number of reasons, it’ll usually be given to me under the caveat that I treat it like a confidential source. Practically speaking, however, I won’t include things that will endanger people’s lives.
When I worked extensively with the DEA, for example, I had to go through a rigid vetting process that involved completing a long application with questions about me and the novel I was writing. My application for clearance then had to be approved by a Congressional subcommittee—which took six weeks. As I would learn a year later, I was very fortunate to not only get clearance, but for it to be granted so quickly: the review process usually takes six months.
I was thereafter assigned a DEA contact, who ended up being a 20-year undercover agent just back in the US while he awaited reassignment. He was a wealth of information and stories, and proved essential for the novel I was writing. I flew to DC and sat down with him, had lunch and dinner with him. We talked for hours and developed a level of trust that continues to this day.
Subsequently, when we’d discuss sensitive information, he knew he could trust me. If he said, “I’m telling you this so you can understand the issue and the problems we’re facing, but you can’t put this in your book,” he knew I would not violate that trust. His barometer was that if I could find bits of information in some public way—on Google, for instance—and then put the disparate pieces together, I was free to include it in my novel. That said, we agreed that I’d never write something that endangered agents’ lives who were in the field or compromise investigations. When I finished the first draft, I gave him the entire manuscript to read, and if there was something he was not comfortable with, I changed it. There were only a couple of instances where he asked me to modify something—and for one of those, my workaround ended up strengthening the story.
Your characters Karen Vail, Hector DeSantos, and Aaron “Uzi” Uziel, have gone through a lot and changed throughout your previous books. How do you keep track of those events and changes in their growth from book to book?
I had to start taking notes! THE LOST CODEX is my tenth book, so I’m at the point where I have to refer to this information to maintain consistency.
This became particularly significant in Spectrum, last year’s novel, in which I went back in time to Vail’s first day on the job with the NYPD. The story then moved forward to present day, incorporating incidents and characters from the first five Vail novels, the second OPSIG book, and my standalone psychological thriller, False Accusations. I had to make sure I had my character facts/events correct, which meant creating several different timelines that outlined each character’s career and life milestones. I couldn’t have written Spectrum without those.
Putting out books once a year with such intricate plots, true-to-life characters is a demanding undertaking. So, what is your writing day like? Do you have a special place to write?
Yeah, very demanding. If full time work is defined as 40 hours per week, I work two to three full time jobs. It’s a crazy year-round schedule.
My typical writing day is anything but typical, as they all vary on a day-to-day basis—and it depends on where I’m at in the process. If my recently-finished novel hasn’t launched yet, there’s coordination with my publisher in terms of publicity and marketing (which can be anything and everything). There’s Facebook and Instagram and Twitter to keep up with; updates to my website; communication with my agent and sometimes my attorney, preparation for conferences, and always research questions going out and coming in for the first draft of the novel I’m writing.
I do have a special place to write. I have a good-size office and write on a dedicated computer with an ergonomic keyboard and a sit-stand setup. I try to stand most of the time. I wrote much of No Way Out and a chunk of Spectrum while I was in substantial pain from a herniated disc. After having back surgery, I changed my entire writing setup to limit the amount I sit.
In general, I’ve always been flexible relative to where I write primarily because of travel schedules. When I used to go on two-month book tours, I couldn’t afford the downtime. Same for going on the road to research locations. As a result, I learned to write on planes and trains and in automobiles, in Starbucks and hotel rooms, even on mountaintops and at beaches. And on islands…like Alcatraz!
And while we’re on the subject of writing techniques, I understand you’re an outliner. Could you tell us how much time it usually takes to outline, then finish your first draft?
I outline as I do my preliminary research, so it takes about three months, give or take. During this time, I allow myself the freedom to brainstorm and to modify the story as things come to me or as I learn things or methods from my experts. I also allow myself to start writing scenes within the outline, if they come to me in that moment. I can always edit them later. But I capture what I can, whenever it comes, and sometimes that’s while I’m plotting.
Writing the first draft takes me five to six months. I usually don’t rewrite much during this time—I keep moving forward until I finish—though I stay in contact with my research experts, asking ongoing questions and getting clarification.
The editing, copyediting, and proofreading stages take three and a half months.
And writing tips for aspiring writers?
I have a section on my website, called the Writer’s Toolkit. It’s specifically geared toward aspiring writers. There’s a lot of advice on those pages that I started putting together after I got my first publishing contract 18 years ago. I was actually one of the first authors to put his email address on the jacket flap of his book. My wife thought I was crazy at the time—who would write to an author? Turns out I got a flood of emails from people all over the world. Some of them were aspiring writers asking questions about how to get published, how to get an agent, what book contracts are like, etc. It got to the point where I spent so much time answering the emails that I had less time to write. I also realized that I kept answering many of the same questions over and over. When I launched my website in 1998, I had the idea of posting a lot of these questions, and answers, there under the Writer’s Toolkit.
What are your plans for promotion of THE LOST CODEX? Any events your fans can look forward to?
I’ll be at Men of Mystery on November 14 and ThrillerFest from July 5-9. I’ll also be doing an interview on November 28 with Suspense Radio as well as a handful of others.
And the inevitable last question: What’s next for you?
THE LOST CODEX launches on 11/3, but in the meantime I’m writing my eleventh novel, a Karen Vail thriller (#7) set in Virginia that should be out in October 2016.
Alan Jacobson is the national best-selling author of ten thrillers, including the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black novels. His books have been translated internationally and several have been optioned by Hollywood.
Jacobson has spent twenty years working with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the DEA, the US Marshals Service, SWAT, the NYPD, Scotland Yard, local law enforcement, and the US military. This research and the breadth of his contacts help bring depth and realism to his characters and stories.