Up Close: Jon Land
Land Strikes Twice
By K. L. Romo
Jon Land is an icon in the thriller writer community. To date, he’s written more than 40 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and he’s given us characters not generally seen before in the genre—a female fifth-generation Texas Ranger, an Israeli chief police inspector, and a Palestinian detective. Besides his cadre of thrillers, Land has two new releases in November 2019. (Yes, I said two.)
A TIME FOR MURDER is the 50th book in the popular Murder, She Wrote mystery series starring amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher. Going in another direction is CAPITOL WHITE, written with author and former FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone about Pistone’s fictionalized alter ego, Donnie Brasco.
To commemorate the 50th Murder, She Wrote book, A TIME FOR MURDER takes us back 25 years to the beginning of Jessica’s writing career. Everyone who’s ever read a Murder, She Wrote novel (and even those who haven’t) will love going back to the beginning of Jessica’s “homicide” career.
A TIME FOR MURDER takes readers to the first homicide Jessica ever investigated and solved, one she hasn’t talked about with anyone until now, after a girl who claims to be a high school newspaper reporter asks her what happened. We get to know Jessica when she was a substitute teacher, married to Frank, and raising her nephew, Grady. We learn that Jessica didn’t write her first novel until after Frank died. And the reason Jessica becomes a mystery writer who also solves murders might surprise you.
Land has written the recent Murder, She Wrote novels with modern twists from our current world. Jessica is more relevant than ever—she uses cell phones and Uber and watches 24/7 news updates.
Taking over the series from author Don Bain, who died in 2017, Land had to make A TIME FOR MURDER, and the Murder, She Wrote series, his own.
“Above all else, I need to be true to both Jessica and myself. Cozies have established formulas that were very difficult for me to emulate because it’s not my genre of choice,” he says. “I think what I created was something we can call the ‘cozy thriller,’ preserving what readers love most about Murder, She Wrote, while adding the pacing, suspense, and plotting they may have seen before in a thriller.”
CAPITOL WHITE starts where Joe Pistone’s 1997 memoir, Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, leaves off. Pistone and Land have fictionalized Pistone’s undercover persona to continue the story five years after Brasco retired from the FBI.
A TIME FOR MURDER is a cozy thriller, whereas CAPITOL WHITE is a fast-paced FBI procedural thriller. How in the world does Land stay in the brains of both an older female amateur homicide sleuth and a younger retired FBI undercover agent without developing split personalities?
“I think the best answer is that I write from the inside out, not the outside in. I’m always seeing things from the perspective of my characters and know enough about this process to stay out of the way of the story,” he says. “I’m relying on characters to not just drive the story, but also tell it. It’s also important to mention the difference in point of view. I wrote my Caitlin Strong thrillers in third person, while I wrote my Murder, She Wrote books and CAPITOL WHITE in first person. First person forces me to ‘find’ my hero’s voice and that gets me into their brains.”
Does Land keep a secret locked treasure-trunk of details about Jessica Fletcher and Donnie Brasco that readers aren’t privy to? Land’s answer is a resounding “no.”
“Readers know everything that’s in my head about my characters because I lay it all out there in the writing process,” he says. “Each of these books is a process of self-discovery because they’re written in first person. I’m learning things about my heroes, Jessica and Donnie, at the same time they’re learning things about themselves. I don’t hold anything back because to do so would be disingenuous to the reader. I don’t come from the ‘unreliable narrator’ school.”
In writing CAPITOL WHITE, working with Pistone has been a fun ride for Land.
“I kept picturing myself talking to Johnny Depp, who played Joe Pistone in the movie Donnie Brasco. I found it to be an awesome responsibility to follow up a nonfiction book as iconic and successful as the film it was based on, and therein lies the fun,” Land says. “That I also write nonfiction gives me a deep appreciation of the challenges of memoir-style writing. In this case, Joe and I needed to transition that approach into fiction—we turned a fictitious character who existed only as an alias into a fictional character.
“And the fun of working with Joe on that process was making sure Donnie’s voice remained the same and that CAPITOL WHITE feels just as real and gritty as the real-life book and the movie that preceded it.
“There were three or four times while writing the book that I came up with something Joe himself didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of. That was really something, like I was teaching an FBI legend and hero. But there were plenty of times Joe would school me on the proper terminology or how someone like Donnie would react to this or that. For instance, I didn’t know retired FBI agents now have universal gun-carrying privileges anywhere in the country. There’s also the fact that Donnie refers to his mentor Paul Weinman as his ‘rabbi,’ a term I never would have used if it hadn’t rolled off Joe’s tongue.
“There’s a ton of stuff in the book that’s very accurate as to how FBI agents find and use sources, both undercover and otherwise, like the way Donnie enlists the help of a computer technician who repairs his family’s computers. And I had a blast picking Joe’s mind about how he would go about searching a motel room for something the occupant didn’t want found. There’s a grittiness and credibility to this book that comes not just from Joe’s input and guidance, but also his voice which you will hear as soon as the book’s narrator speaks.”
Speaking of narration, CAPITOL WHITE was released as an audio book only—an Audible Original—narrated by Alexander Cendese. (This listener thought Cendese’s voice was reminiscent of a young Rod Serling transporting us into an FBI undercover Twilight Zone.) Was Land’s writing process different for an “audio only” book?
“No, it wasn’t very different because, by nature, my books are very conversational,” he says. “And writing CAPITOL WHITE in first person made for the perfect format because when you listen to the superb narration by Alexander Cendese, it sounds like Donnie’s speaking directly to you.
“That said, I was more cognizant of making sure that it’s clear who’s speaking so the listener wouldn’t get confused. There were also some minor stylistic compromises, like not dividing the book into individual sections the way the bulk of my thrillers are because that doesn’t play as well in audio.
“I was also more aware of the presence and length of any flashbacks because you can’t set them apart for easy identification the way you can in print. Until this book, I’d always picture my readers on trains, planes, in their favorite easy chair, or in bed with my book in their hands. With CAPITOL WHITE, part of the process was picturing a commuter behind the wheel of a car or someone wearing earbuds at the gym or on the street, listening instead of reading.”
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