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By George Mehok

ISLAND OF BONES, Marta Sprout’s second book in the Kate Bowers series, takes readers through the party-packed streets and tropical waters of Key West in search for a serial rapist and serial killer.

While on vacation, Bowers is brutally attacked; however, her assailant unknowingly chose the wrong victim. Bowers, a homicide detective and former military MP, is determined to find her assailant—the man with a teardrop tattoo. A man she’s convinced has attacked other women. A man that must be stopped before he strikes again.

The chase leads Bowers to discover something much more disturbing—women enslaved in a high-end sex trafficking operation.

In this interview with The Big Thrill, Marta shares her deep appreciation for law enforcement, reveals how she entered into the mind of a serial killer, and provides insight into what led her to choose such important societal topics as rape and human sex trafficking.

In your new thriller ISLAND OF BONES, you developed an incredibly strong female protagonist in Kate Bowers. She’s tough, driven, intelligent, and skilled with weapons. Why was having such a strong female protagonist important to you?

I felt it was time. We’ve gone through the siege of female protagonists who are so emotionally compromised that she runs off and gets herself in grave danger. That reminds me of the old John Wayne movies, where a woman trips over her skirt, and some big cowboy has to save her. I call that “too stupid to live.” I think the time is now. Men and women both want to see strength, integrity, a person with intelligence, drive, and determination because we’re facing a challenging world, and I think we all need that. I’m trying to create characters that resonate with our lives in both their perspective, the problems they encounter, and the variety of responses people do have to things—and then I let it play out and see what happens.

You hit head-on an incredibly impactful societal issue—human sex trafficking. In the opening scene, your main character, Kate Bowers, is violently attacked, and her search for the attacker leads her to discover a human trafficking operation. Can you tell us more about Bowers, how the attack affected her, and why you chose to write about human trafficking?

Human trafficking is slavery, and I can think of few things that can make a human being more helpless than that, and I wanted to provide a vivid example that would hit home with Bowers and readers. It’s a story that hadn’t been written about and needs to be told. She’s the right character to take it on. She uses intelligence and skill over brawn. She is always acutely aware that males are physically stronger, for the most part, so she has to be smarter. She feels fear, but she has guts, and in a real sense, she fights back and does what we wish we could do. Her drive is all about making things right.

To set up the first scene, Bowers is violently attacked. It’s a steppingstone into the funnel of the women who have been sucked into the world of human trafficking. And it hacks her off. She says, hell no!

One of her greatest strengths and probably her most significant weakness is compassion. She has the opportunity to walk away at multiple points, but in doing so, it would leave the other helpless people at the mercy of killers, and she can’t do that. She is by no means a machine. She has her faults, weaknesses, things that creep her out, things she’s not good at.

What drew Kate into two traditionally male-oriented professions—homicide detective and military police?

Marta Sprout

She comes from a broken family. Her mother had personality disorders and dysfunction. She grew up looking after her younger brothers. She was their protector. Dad was gone. Mother was irrelevant. She stepped into the breach.

Bowers’s uncle was a decorated Vietnam veteran and has been her rock through it all. He inspired her greatly, down to her career choices. She is a strong, determined person who has no tolerance for those who would abuse others.

She went into the military and rose quickly. Her temperament is her strength. In the heat of a situation, she’s able to think on her feet, and she’s a tremendous shot, taught by her uncle. Women were not officially sanctioned to be snipers, so she became a designated marksman and one of the most feared people within Iraq.

She has incredible resilience and takes responsibility for her own life. She refuses to be anyone’s victim. You can physically restrain her if you have enough firepower, but you can’t overtake the person she is. You cannot capture her will. It’s stronger, and God help you if you try.

If Kate was a guest speaker at an all-girls high school, what advice would she give young, impressionable women? 

My answer would apply to young men and women. Strength does not lie in brute force. It comes from doing the right thing and caring about more than yourself. But you have to care about yourself too and believe in who you are, and don’t allow the world to define you.

Your antagonist, Bo, is the worst-of-the-worst, a truly evil character—a serial killer and rapist. He has phycological issues, which you refer to as “The Urge.” Can you tell us more about him and your research to create such a complex antagonist?  

It started when I was a teenager. I drove up to Hollywood for a meeting, and I got lost. I stopped by a house on a hill and pulled into the driveway. I went home that night, and that driveway and that house was on the news. It was Sharon Tate’s house. I had been there very early in the morning, right between the time that Charlie Manson had left and the housekeeper had discovered the bodies. You can imagine how as a teenager, it would rock your world. It was on the news constantly. There was the book Helter Skelter. I was terrified. I thought they would come after me because they thought I saw something, but I didn’t.

It set my mind on this path. I began studying psychology right down to the physiology of behavior. I’ve tried to understand because I’ve seen so many people in the world that seemed not even human. Not caring, self-absorbed.

I spent a week inside the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and learned from experts. We discussed the difference between an injustice collector, a serial rapist, and a psychopath.

In ISLAND OF BONES, Bo, the protagonist, is an “injustice collector.” He feels he’s entitled.

What is an “Injustice Collector?”

It’s someone who feels they never got their due. That is what fuels their anger. They feel the world owes them for that injustice. It never occurs to them that you have to earn it. It should just be given to me. Something as simple as standing in line at a store—you stand in line. It’s just normal to take your turn. To an injustice collector, it would be a personal insult.

I find unwrapping these characters, even the worst characters, can have things they care about in their personality. Bo cares about his photography, and it’s the one thing he feels he did right. He has a sense of conscience, which a psychopath does not. It’s fascinating to unravel these types of personalities and do so authentically, because it gives us a vivid contrast. You can throw around the word “evil,” but what does that really mean? I like to get deeper into characters’ heads, even the bad ones. Portraying such characters realistically has an educational factor because it makes the reader think, “Oh?” I need to be a little bit more cautious.

You have vivid military action scenes and well-researched FBI and local police characters. Can you talk about how your experience led you to craft such a realistic story?

I have to thank ITW for that. At ThrillerFest, I made friends with quite a few FBI agents. I honor my resources by getting facts right. You don’t have SWAT show up at the front door and not have people covering the back. That makes people look stupid. I respect the integrity of what they’re doing. I know a ton of tactical information that I won’t put in writing because it doesn’t need to be there. Any good story is about humanity.

At ThrillerFest, Michael Connelly and I got into quite a conversation. I grew up in the same area his books are set. He recommended I get involved with my local police department, which I did. I’ve taught at the police academy, I’ve done training scenarios with cadets and SWAT. I was embedded with SWAT for three days. They were cross-checking to make sure nobody had live ammo, checking each other’s gear, heckling each other. What impressed me is not how imposing they are with their gear and weaponry, but that these people are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for total strangers. I can’t even tell you how much respect I have for them.

I have been very fortunate to develop over the years amazing connections. I had a wonderful conversation with a Navy SEAL preparing for this book. I spoke with a man who used to be the commander of the local Navy base and a former helo pilot.

I’d tell this to anyone writing thrillers. It’s not the uniform and the right weapons. It’s the culture of that job, and it’s the toll that job takes on your soul and the sacrifices you make. And that Navy SEAL looked across at me and said, “This is going to sound cliché, but it’s true—Freedom isn’t free.”

ISLAND OF BONES is packed with key thriller elements action, intrigue, suspense. The Big Thrill is as much for aspiring writers as it is for readers. What tips would you offer for crafting a classic thriller?

Make it a story that matters. You want to dig deeper. You want to have a story that’s oozing with humanity. And it’s a trick doing it without slowing down the story’s pace. For instance, I don’t write just for women, I write for all my readers, but that takes a sensitivity for the different ways people see the world. I put in plenty of characters and situations that will resonate deeply with women and men. Writing characters of the opposite sex—we all feel love, fear, and frustration, but people see the world in particular ways. You want to get deep inside the characters and write for both. It’s peeling those layers off and getting down to the real humanity of a character and all the things that make them who they are on multiple levels. You do that, and you can’t put the book down.

You’ve created a rich and immersive setting, including the party atmosphere, boating, and the diverse lifestyles of those that call Key West home. Why did you choose Key West as your setting and Bowers’s vacation destination?

Key West was originally a pirate’s stop-off. If you translate the original name for Key West, it translates into Island of Bones. It’s such a beautiful place—it has a tolerance for people who are colorful, not stuffy. It’s a community that accepts everybody, a place where people want to get off the grid, with people who want to hang out, fish, and enjoy life. And then you have the tourists that add to the mix and don’t always understand how alcohol and humidity mix. Key West is such an interesting place of contrast.

On a lighter note, I know you love snorkeling and have snorkeled with sharks. You have a love for nature. How did it influence the story?

No doubt there is a little bit of me in Bowers. I’ve had deer, elk, moose come right out of the woods and lick the side of my face. I’ve had a manta ray come up and do barrel rolls in front of me—it had a 12-foot wingspan and a giant mouth. A giant whale shark would not leave me alone and gently pushed me up to the surface. I’m an avid scuba diver and have swum with dolphins, sharks, and sea turtles. I’ve kiteboarded. I love being outdoors. It’s a reset to get you back centered to what is important—which is life—and appreciating what’s good in the world, a way of keeping balanced.

ISLAND OF BONES has received praise from well-known thriller writers, including Lee Child and Steve Berry. Can you tell us about the authors who have inspired your writing?

The ITW writers, from Sandra Brown and Robert Dugoni to David Morrell, everyone has been tremendously supportive. I sat and talked with John Lescroart about how many syllables should be in a protagonist’s name. It’s just a wonderful community. I have to say that Lee Child’s writing inspired me a lot, but his attitude toward others inspired me even more. I saw him speaking with a woman about to write her first short story, and he spoke to her with as much interest and respect as he would Steve Berry or anybody on the New York Times bestsellers list. I have studied Stephen King’s work because he puts a voice into characters and vividly creates a common man. And his descriptions and his skill at setting up scenes. Dean Koontz’s sense of humor knocks me out. I love Michael Connelly’s Bosche character, who refuses to give up. His dedication and determination despite all odds. Michael gets the culture of the job. He gets it right. Steve Berry’s relentless research. There are so many people within ITW that have been encouraging and supportive and just enjoying their company and insights.

I can’t say I write like any of them. I write like Marta Sprout. But I have learned from all of them.


George Mehok
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