Interview With Author Brett Battles
Several years ago, shortly after joining LibraryThing, I received an advance readers copy of the book The Deceived by Brett Battles. This book was the second in a series of thrillers about professional “cleaner” Jonathan Quinn (after the spies and assassins have made a mess of things, it’s Quinn’s job to clean up behind them or, as Battles puts it: “In the espionage world, some secrets need to stay buried; that’s when you call Quinn”). I violated one of my cardinal rules and read the book, even though I hadn’t yet found a copy of The Cleaner (the first book in the series). I never read series books out of order. Never. But I did. Though reading the books out of order was a definite mistake (rules are made for a reason!), reading The Deceived was definitely a good choice because Battles quickly became one of my favorite thriller authors. Oh, that first book that I read, The Deceived, won the Barry Award for Best Thriller in 2009.
To date, Battles has written eight novels featuring Jonathan Quinn along with several short stories and a novella (more on that later). In my LibraryThing reviews, every single Jonathan Quinn novel has received at least 4 stars. And I gave the most recent novel, The Discarded a perfect 5-star review:
After seven novels, a novella, and several shorts stories, readers have learned much about the world that “cleaner” Jonathan Quinn and his associates inhabit. Thus it took a fair amount of skill for author Brett Battles to craft a story that felt both fresh and which left the reader wondering what precisely was at the heart of the story’s mystery. The introduction of a new character (seen briefly in a previous story) also helped to further flesh out the backgrounds of some of the characters. In many ways, this book was perhaps even more character-focused than others in the series (though there was plenty of action), because so many of the most memorable moments dealt with the interactions and relationships of the characters to one another (and their profession). One particular moment involved a conversation between two characters, one teasing another about his love life. The conversation struck a chord because it just felt so … real … or maybe, right for who those characters are. Perhaps the best way to say it would be that Battles has done such a good job of bringing his characters to life that the long-time reader will likely feel almost a part of their group and will nod their head in agreement as a character does or says something, perhaps unexpected, but absolutely consistent with what we’ve learned of that character’s persona.
I also really enjoy the “world” that Battles has created; the way in which the espionage world is treated, in many ways, like a business, with internal rules and rivalries not terribly dissimilar from what you might expect to see with Apple and Google, for example (only with guns). And (slight spoiler alert) I have to give Battles credit for keeping this story limited it its scope; not every thriller needs to be about saving the world from the next terrorist attack or preventing the next war. The Discarded was yet another great entry in the Jonathan Quinn series (but absolutely do not read the books out of order).
The Quinn novels (in order; note that Shadow of Betrayal was published in the United Kingdom as The Unwanted):
The novella and short stories:
Plus two short stories featuring Orlando (one of the prominent characters in the Quinn series):
If you like thrillers and you’re not reading the Jonathan Quinn series, you’re doing yourself a major disservice. These are very, very good books about a very interesting character written by a very talented author.
In addition to his Quinn novels, Battles has also written several standalone novels (including the young adult novel Here Comes Mr. Trouble), a two book (so far) series featuring protagonist Logan Harper (Little Girl Gone & Every Precious Thing), and his post-apocalyptic Project Eden series (6 books so far) about biological terrorism. I’ll admit that I haven’t read all of Battles’ books (I know, I know, shame on me), but Project Eden has been a terrific series for which I eagerly await each new volume.
Besides “just” writing great books, Battles is also one of those authors who actively interacts with his readers. And in this way, via Facebook and other social media, I’ve become his friend (at least I like to think that we’re friends and in more than just the “Like” on Facebook sort of way). I know that he’s shared with me in ways that if I told you, he’d likely send Quinn and associates after me…
Battles is one of the new breed of authors that has elected to self-publish his books. And it was as a part of his efforts to promote his books that he asked me and several other readers to help form his “street team” to help him promote his books and get his name out. Given how much I like the books (never mind such simple things as friendship), I was more than happy to help. But as anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m not exactly great at self-promotion, let alone third party promotion. Sure, I can write reviews of books (see my reviews on LibraryThing, including my LibraryThing reviews of Battles’ books), but that is of limited value (and I’m not that impressed with my own review-writing skills). Thus, when thinking about how to help promote Battles’ books and what would interest me as both a reader and writer, I remembered an idea that I’d been kicking around in one form or another for years: An in-depth interview with an author with questions that would (hopefully) be of interest to fans of that author’s work.
And Battles graciously (and I do mean graciously, as you’ll see by the length of the interview) agreed to an email interview that we conducted over the course of a few weeks earlier this spring. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in this interview, but in order to address some questions that I’m sure readers have, that hasn’t been entirely possible (though I’ve tried to “disguise” things a bit for those who haven’t read the books yet). Please stop by Battles’ website and read his official biography.
Q: You’ve just published The Discarded, your eighth novel featuring protagonist Jonathan Quinn. I don’t want to include any spoilers, so instead of asking about the story itself, let me start by asking you about where the Jonathan Quinn character came from?
A: Quinn came from several places. First would be from my love of espionage fiction that was fueled in my youth by Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and, of course, Robert Ludlum. I wanted to write my own, but I wanted to come at it from an angle that was not the norm. The second is a question that has always been in my mind: “What happens after?” In other words, what happens after the car accident, the blow up argument at the café, the mugging, the assassination? I don’t think the story ever ends there. In fact, for me, that’s often where it begins. So out of that came Jonathan Quinn, a man whose job it is to make the bodies disappear and covers up crime scenes so no one knows what happened. A Cleaner.
Q: Why do you think readers have become so attached to Quinn? What is it about the character and his exploits that keeps readers coming back (or writing to you to demand the next Quinn book before vacation)? [Ed. Note that I would ever do such a thing; nope. Not me.]
A: I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer this question. I don’t know what keeps people coming back. I know what keeps me writing the stories, and that’s the characters — Quinn, Orlando, Nate, Liz, and now Daeng. The moral dilemmas they face, the situations they maneuver through, and their own relationships to each other.
Q: When writing a Quinn book, how important to you is it to advance the characters and their relationships as compared to just telling a gripping story? Is there a tension there?
A: It’s very important, and I think it’s impossible to write one without the other.
Q: When you wrote The Cleaner, the first book in the Quinn series, how well did you know the character? As he’s evolved over the course of 8 books, has he surprised you or changed the direction of where you needed to take the series or the other characters?
A: When I wrote The Cleaner, like standalones and all first books of series, I don’t start off knowing a lot about my characters. They develop as I write the first draft. By the time I’m done, I hopefully have a much better handle on them so that when I go back for a rewrite pass, I bring them into line with who I’ve discovered them to be. Hope that makes sense. I had a pretty good handle on Quinn by the end of The Cleaner, but I also had no idea I was writing a series. It was a friend who suggested that it was just the first book. Over the course of the eight books, the Becoming Quinn prequel, and the various Quinn/Orlando short stories I’ve learned a ton more about their personalities, their pasts, their goals. In some ways it has all surprised me. They are these multi-dimensional characters who at times seem to have a mind of their own. Love that.
Q: In the early stories, Quinn’s background is a bit of an enigma, with little bits and teases. Again, how well had you thought out his background when you first started writing? Did any of that change over time?
A: The best way I can describe it is that I had a feeling what his background was, I just didn’t know very many details. As they’ve come out in the other books I don’t think any of it has really change where I though he was from physically/emotionally/mentally. That said, I had no idea about some of the things that had happened in his youth until I wrote them in Becoming Quinn.
Q: What prompted you to go back to the beginning and explore Quinn’s beginnings in Becoming Quinn ?
A: I had always been curious about how he was recruited into the business. In The Cleaner, I allude to it in a few paragraphs in an early chapter, but for several years I wanted to flesh that out. I had thought it would only be a short story, but when I wrote it I found there was so much more to tell that it became a novel, albeit a shorter one than others in the series. I’m really happy with how that turned out. So much so, I’ve been considering writing a Becoming Orlando companion novel. We’ll see.
Q: For me, one of the elements of the Quinn stories that I really like is the attention to and involvement of the secondary characters. Based on feedback from your readers, who has more fans: Nate or Orlando?
A: Oooh, good question. Probably Orlando. She’s actually my favorite. But Nate has one very powerful fan: my mom. She is always very concerned that he doesn’t get killed off.
Q: In an early story, one character suffers a grievous injury and then has to learn to live with a disability. Was that always the plan or had you thought of killing off that character? Have you had to do anything special to “get inside” that character’s head to write about life with a disability?
A: Second question first: Not really. It’s a pretty easy headspace to get in. Now to your first: Interestingly, when I started writing The Deceived, the book where the accident occurs, I had no idea what happened was going to happen, but when I got there it was naturally what needed to happen. There was never an intention of killing the character there. If you happened to get your hand on an early draft of The Cleaner, though — don’t try, you won’t be able to — this particular character was killed off in the first forty or so pages of the novel. Thankfully, I had a very smart editor who thought that was a mistake, and the character lives on to this day.
Q: What books are on Quinn’s bookshelf?
A: Quinn has eclectic tastes. He likes Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami, Tim Hallinan, and Stephen King. Oddly, his tastes are very similar to mine.
Q: Do Quinn and Nate hang out between assignments? Or do they work to keep their private lives separate (and for obvious reasons, known to those who’ve read recent books, the answer to this question may have changed…)?
A: In the mentor apprentice phase, they probably didn’t hang out during their downtime, but there would have been very little of that. After, probably a bit, but not as much as they could given that they no longer live in the same city.
Q: Quinn goes out to dinner one night, several weeks after finishing an assignment and with nothing new on the immediate horizon. Wine, beer, scotch, Perrier, Coca-Cola, or tap water?
A: Beer, definitely. A nice IPA like Bear Republic’s Racer 5, or if he’s in a smoother mood a Belgian Duvel. He’s also a hefeweizen fan. Like his tastes in books, he and I share favorite beers.
Q: Quinn really knows his stuff. He learned it from Durrie. But who did you learn it from?
A: I’ll never tell.
Q: You’ve created a very elaborate world of both governmental and freelance operatives with very specific ways that they interact and a seeming set of rules by which they play. What was the inspiration for this world?
A: Several things — the way government works, TV shows and books and movies from my youth, and, for a bit of a curve, the world of television motion graphic design. That’s the area I worked in before going fulltime author. It has a small organizations feed by freelance employees history that fit well with what I wanted to do.
Q: Have you ever heard from anybody who operates in that espionage world (or from a real cleaner!) and, if so, what have they said about the world that you’ve created for your characters to inhabit?
A: I haven’t… or maybe I have and can’t talk about it. Or maybe…
Q: Peter was always a bit of a … well, it wasn’t always clear whether he had Quinn’s interests at the forefront of his thoughts. How do you see the relationship between Quinn and Peter?
A: One of mutual respect. And your right Quinn’s interests aren’t always forefront for Peter, but then again, they shouldn’t be. Peter has an organization to run, and that is his main priority.
Q: One of your previous Quinn books ended with a cliffhanger. Describe the reaction from your readers when they reached the end of that book.
A: “ARGH!” [Ed. My reaction was a bit harsher; if I recall it involved lots of shouting and the throwing of various (mostly soft) items across the room.]
Q: In recent books, Quinn seems to have adopted a more introspective attitude, even spending time trying to find himself or escape his demons. Can you describe the thought process involved in that part of Quinn’s evolution?
A: Well, he is getting older, if you can call around forty old, and a lot has happened to him when he starts his self-evaluation that he never expected. So it’s only natural.
Q: In recent books, you’ve also forced Quinn to confront his background and introduced some elements of family into the stories. Talk about the process of transitioning a character from focusing solely on himself and his missions and having to think about others, including family.
A: Quinn is very good at his job because he sees details others miss and can make decisions quickly. But when his family is thrown into the mix, his focus is severely hindered, and he finds himself losing some of his objectivity. I loved taking him down that spiral. It was interesting to see how he reacted.
Q: I know that you’re a father. Do you find it easy or difficult to write about family relationships for Quinn and the other characters? Do you find it difficult to put fictional family members in jeopardy or are those emotions easily separated from real life?
A: I’ve never really had a problem with that. I’m pretty good at separating the two. That said, there are times when something I’m writing hits me emotionally hard. It’s not often, but when it happens, I always need to take several minutes to get back into the right headspace.
Q: If you had to name a favorite Quinn book and a favorite Quinn “moment” or “scene” what would they be?
A: Ah, but I don’t have to, do I?
Q: When you picture Quinn, Orlando, Nate, and others on a movie screen, who do you see?
A: I’ve been asked this a lot, and my answer changes over time. A younger Josh Brolin would have been great for Quinn, or even Nathan Fillion from his Firefly days. Orlando: Lexi Doig would be great, Maggie Q except she just did Nikita. Nate: Hmmm… Liam Hemsworth, perhaps. [Ed. I’ve used the links that Battles supplied with his answer.]
Q: If there were one or two characters from other thriller series that you’d like Quinn to encounter, who would they be? And how would Quinn fare in those encounters? Have you ever discussed any kind of crossover with any other authors?
A: Haven’t discussed any, and never really thought about it.
Q: What would be your elevator pitch to describe Quinn and the series to someone who has never read any of your books?
A: In the espionage world, some secrets need to stay buried. That’s when you call Quinn.
Q: So I’ve always wanted to ask this of a thriller writer: Just where do evil organizations get their henchmen? I’ve looked in the Yellow Pages but can’t find “Henchmen-R-Us” and Angie’s List doesn’t have a category for either henchmen or hired muscle. When writing a generic thug or bad guy, do you try to imagine how and why he finds himself in that position doing that job?
A: Everyone is the hero of their own story, and few, with the occasional exception, see themselves as the bad guy. I try to keep that in mind when I write those Quinn goes up against.
Q: When is Quinn getting his Australian Shepherd? Or is he more of a cat guy? Goldfish, maybe? [Ed. On his Facebook page, Battles has been posting lots of photos and video of his new Australian Shepherd puppy, Maggie; as the owner of an Mini Aussie myself, I have related to (and laughed at…) some of the things that Battles has written about life with his new household terror.]
A: An Australian shepherd will undoubtedly be showing up. If not in a Quinn book, somewhere else.
Q: So let’s turn our attention to your other series, Project Eden. Can you give us your elevator pitch for that series?
A: Humanity is on the brink of execution. And man is pulling the trigger.
Q: The opening sequence in the initial book with Captain Ash and his family was gut-wrenching. Was it hard to write?
A: I actually wrote that chapter probably a year or more before I sat down to write the whole book. It just kind of came to me one day, and I couldn’t stop until I was done. So, no, not hard to write, but I remember having this buzz of energy when I finished, and knew I’d hit on something that was going to pull at people.
Q: The closest comparison that I can think of to that scene was the beginning of David Morrell’s Testament (which may be the most disturbing thriller I’ve ever read). Have you ever read that book? What other novels have left an impression on you that may have influenced your writing?
A: Haven’t read Testament yet. So many books to read, sigh. Lots of books have left impressions on me… The Stand by Stephen King, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Queen of Patpong by Tim Hallinan, and so many more. I guess you could say the books of Robert Heinlein and Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were huge for me, too, as those were the books of my youth that helped fuel my desire to write.
Q: What was the inspiration for the Project Eden series? Stephen King’s The Stand obviously comes to mind (though without the supernatural elements). Do you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction?
A: The Stand, of course. Love that book. There were many others… Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, Robert Merle’s Malevil, and Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. And yes, I definitely enjoy the genre. A lot of great ones have come out in the last couple years. Hugh Howey’s Wool comes to mind, and D.J. Molles’ The Remaining series is another favorite.
Q: So what leads an apparently nice, well-adjusted guy to suddenly decide to plot the destruction of humanity and turn it into a series of novels? Bad mood? Indigestion? Vicarious revenge?
A: Ha! All of the above?
Q: It seems to me that your writing style in the Project Eden books is different from the Quinn books. Maybe more “sparse” or featuring shorter sentences and perhaps less detailed descriptions. Is that a fair observation? And if so, was that intentional on your part?
A: I’ve never really thought about it. It’s not intentional, if that’s the case. It just is. I think the major difference is that while both series feature multiple points of view, Quinn books are limited to seeing things through a few characters, while the nature of the Project Eden story necessitates a larger cast to get the full picture. Both are fun to write.
Q: Were readers of the Quinn books your target audience for the Project Eden books? If not, who did you perceive to be the target audience?
A: I didn’t actually write Sick, the first book in the series, with who it would appeal to in mind. I wrote it because I’ve always wanted to write an apocalyptic novel. I’ve found, though, that while there is crossover between the two series, there are definite fans who fall either in one camp or the other.
Q: The Project Eden series has a lot of characters. What do you do to keep track of all of those characters (for example, background details; you’d hate to have a characters eyes accidentally change from blue to green)?
A: I’m good on the eye color because I seldom mention it. Otherwise, they all stay pretty straight in my mind.
Q: Similarly, you’ve made it a habit in the Project Eden books to reference the Project’s facilities via letter and number combinations. Do you have a giant map in your house with all of these facilities penciled in? And how much of that groundwork did you lay before you started writing or do you add what you need as and when the story calls for it?
A: I have to take time now and then to think things through. I have an over arching knowledge of how it all works, and then add what I need based on that. As for that giant map, I’ll never tell.
Q: Did some of the secondary characters (and their storylines) fight their way to more prominence as you were writing? I’m thinking, in particular, of the characters in India.
A: Absolutely. I always knew Sanjay in India was going to be important, but he’s grown even bigger than I thought. Robert on Isabella Island comes to mind, also, as does Belinda, the girl whose been keeping a journal of events.
Q: I’m sure that you get asked this fairly frequently with regard to the Project Eden series, but have you mapped out where and how you intend to take the series and bring it to an eventual conclusion? Or is it still an evolving story?
A: I have ideas, but still evolving some. Depending on how things go, the next one will be the last or second to last. I’ll see as the story plays out.
Q: As a follow-up to the previous question, when you first started writing Project Eden, how far down the storyline had you thought? As you’ve written, has the story veered from the directions that you’d initially intended?
A: Well, when I wrote Sick, I wasn’t even sure I was going to continue it as a series. Before I released it, though, I had decided it would continue. The story has stayed fairly on course, with a few slight deviations. What, you asked. That is information I’ll keep to myself for now.
Q: Which characters and storylines seem to generate the most interest from readers?
A: Ash, of course. Martina and her friends. And I get several emails about minor characters, wondering what’s going to happen to them. I always find that surprising.
Q: What sort of research did you do to try to get your “end of the world” scenario to feel plausible?
A: I think I’ve been researching it since I was a teen when my curiosity about world plunged into chaos developed. I’ve read a ton of fiction, and a lot of non-fiction (books and magazine articles) on the subject. It’s all been stirring around in my head and spit out Project Eden. Which, I should mention, it’s the only post apocalyptic story stirring around up there, so, you never know, more may be coming.
Q: There are a few games out (Plague, Inc. and Outbreak, to name just two) that allow the player to model a virus and try to kill of humanity. Have you played any of these games? Did you “win”?
A: I have not played either of those, but am intrigued. The game I’ve played to death (pun intended) is The Last of Us. It’s all about survival. LOVE that game.
Q: At the end of the one of the recent books, a major character dies. Had this been the plan for a while or was that simply where the story took you as you were writing it?
A: I didn’t realize that was going to happen until about halfway through the book, but that was where the story was going and made the most sense.
Q: Do you plan to spend some time telling your readers more about the background of Project Eden and, in particular, how they were able to recruit so many people to be a part of the Project?
A: If it serves the overall story, yes. Will remain to be seen.
Q: You have kids. What age do you think is appropriate for kids to begin reading this series?
A: Oh, I think sixteen and over would be okay. I mean, have you read some of the YA out there these days? So much excellent stuff, and some more dire and violent than Project Eden.
Q: How do you think Project Eden compares to the current crop of dystopian fiction that is so popular with teens and young adults?
A: (HA! I should read all the questions first. Kind of answered this in the last question)
Q: I know that in response to a question about the Quinn novels, you mentioned that few of the bad guys see themselves as the bad guys. Do you think that answer remains the same with regard to most of the guards and lower-level members of Project Eden? What about the ever-changing members of the directorate? How do you think that they view themselves?
A: I think many of the lower-level members are starting to question things, if not all out realize they are in the wrong. I think you see this happening in Dream Sky. The directorate, on the other hand, would be the true believers, thinking they are doing what’s right for humanity.
Q: Do you worry that either a scenario like you describe or a rogue bug could lead to the sort of epidemic that you’ve depicted? How realistic do you think an extinction-level epidemic is and what should we be doing to be sure that your scenario never becomes real?
A: God, I hope not! But I do think the possibility is out there. And what can we do? Well, I have my “go” bag complete with zombie killing implements packed and ready to go by the door. Doesn’t everyone?
Q: What happened to Quinn, Nate, Orlando, Liz, & Daeng when Sage Flu was unleashed? Please tell me that they were vacationing on a private island without a virus delivery system.
A: Alternate universes. They’re safe.
Q: In the most recent book, you tore up the outfield of Dodger Stadium. Are you a Giants fan or was that something you just wanted to do? (I’m a Pirates fan, so it didn’t bother me at all…)
A: I’m actually an Angels fan, but I live just a couple miles from Dodger Stadium (can hear the fireworks, and have to suffer through the game traffic), so it was a natural place to put it. I could actually walk over for research.
Q: You seem to have made an effort to be egalitarian in including people from all across the globe and from both genders in the leadership of Project Eden. Was this intentional? Does that create conflicts within the Project?
A: Well, Project Eden isn’t about male dominance or the protection of a certain race or nationality. It’s about restarting the human race, so to make that happen they’ll grab the best people they can, no matter who that person is.
Q: Once again, the obligatory question: If you were casting a Project Eden movie, who would you want to play the major roles?
A: Good question. I actually haven’t given it much thought. The first person to come to mind would be Thandie Newton as Chloe, if for no other reason than I might be able to meet her. Perhaps I should have left that last part off. Ash? Hmmm… Mark Walberg, maybe. Matt could be played by Brian Cranston. He would also be a good Pax.
Q: Can Captain Ash finally get promoted to Major? I mean, he’s done quite a bit lately and seems deserving. I’m sure somebody in the resistance would be willing to give him a promotion.
A: He’d never accept it. He doesn’t consider himself in the Army anymore, and, even if he did, he would be of the mind only someone else in the Army of the proper rank could give him a promotion.
Q: Please tell me that Captain Ash and the others don’t have to worry about zombies. I’m really tired of zombies.
A: He may have nothing to worry about, but the rest of us do. Remember: “go” bag. It’ll save your life!
Q: I also wanted to take some time to talk about the writing process itself. First, I note that you are a very prolific author. Did I mention that you’re a very prolific author? Or that you seem to write a lot of books each year? I mean with most of my favorite authors, I’m lucky to get a new book each year; maybe every other year. With you, if I don’t see a new book every few months I get angry/worried! How do you manage?
A: Writing is my job. So, with the exception of taking a needed break now and then, I sit down at my desk every day and write, just like others go to their jobs everyday and do what they do. Thankfully, though, I am also able to write fast, so I get a lot done in a short amount of time. And, finally, I think it helps that I’m very decisive in the editing process, meaning I don’t hem and haw over something that needs to be changed. I come up with a solution, implement it, and move on to the next issue.
Q: Do you ever worry about oversaturation when you publish frequently?
A: Not really. The though might pass through my mind, but quickly goes away. The only other option would be for me to stockpile books as I finish because I don’t want to decrease the amount I work. I’d go crazy.
Q: Let’s talk about the “nuts & bolts” of the writing process. Do you have a specific schedule that you keep to for your writing like a 9-5 job or do you write when you’re feeling creative?
A: I do, though I’m hoping to change it up a bit this year. For the past several years, I wake up very early — around 4 a.m. — and I’m writing by 5:30. This means I can finish up by somewhere around noon or so and have the rest of the day. The down side of this is that I need to go to bed early… 8:30, 9, and even the occasional 7:30. That does not make for a very active social life with friends. If I can pull it off, I want to move everything a couple hours and start writing around 7:30, which would still mean I’m done around 2, but would also mean I’m not hitting the pillow when all my friends are just starting their evenings. We’ll see.
Q: Do you write on a computer or with pen & paper? If on a computer, Mac or PC? What sort of software (e.g., just Word or do you use specialized writing software, such as Scrivener)?
A: I write on a Mac, and have for twenty years. Currently I use Word, kind of as a default. But I hear good things about Scrivener, and am hoping to check it out soon.
Q: Do you write at home or do you have an office (or a home office)? I seem to recall a post on Facebook once about writing in Starbucks?
A: I used to write almost exclusively at coffee shops, but about three years ago or so, I switched it up, and now write exclusively at home. Believe it or not, I write in my small kitchen on a butcher block cabinet that I can wheel into the middle of the room. Lots of light, with the bonus that the frig is only arm’s length away.
Q: Quiet room or a room full of music?
A: If I’m writing in public (coffee house, for example), I’m definitely listening to music. At home, I prefer quiet.
Q: And what does the puppy think of this writing thing? It gets in the way of walks and tummy scratches, I presume.
A: Still trying to work the whole new puppy thing into my writing schedule. She definitely demands attention, though has gotten used to me sitting in front of my computer for hours. Still, she is a lot more distraction than I’ve been used to.
Q: Who are your proofreaders and the people that you ask whether a plot point makes sense or whether you’ve described something satisfactorily?
A: I have a couple people I rely on. First and foremost is my editor Elyse Dinh-McCrillis. She does a very comprehensive copy edit/proofread, and also points out story issues I need to address. Brainstorming wise, if I run into problems as I’m working on the story, I turn to my friend and fellow author Robert Gregory Browne. We’ll spend a half hour or so on the phone and I’m usually back on course.
Q: Do you go back and read dialogue out loud to see if it “sounds” real? If so, do you read the dialogue with someone?
A: I basically read my whole book out loud as I do my final pass (dialogue and description), making sure it sounds right.
Q: Do you outline books before you start writing? If so, how detailed is your outline (I’ve heard of authors writing 2 page outlines and others writing 60 page outlines)?
A: No outline. I go in knowing what the story is about, probably have an idea where it will end (though this could change as I write), and might have a scene or two in mind. Writing an outline is death to me. I would be so bored writing the book after that. When I write it’s almost like I’m reading the story, too. That’s what I love.
Q: How many drafts do you normally do for each book? If multiple, are later drafts complete re-writes or are they more in the nature of editing the draft that you’ve already completed?
A: It varies. When I have a full draft (which might be two or three drafts to get there), I will do anywhere between two and four edit passes.
Q: When you sit down to write a short story, do you know in advance about how long the story will be? Is the writing process for a short story the same or different than for a full length novel?
A: No idea. In fact, sometimes I don’t even know if it’s going to be a short story.
Q: Do you keep a thesaurus handy to try to broaden your written vocabulary or is that something that just comes naturally?
A: Seldom ever look at a thesaurus. When I do it’s usually because I know there’s a word, but I just can’t remember it. I won’t say it comes naturally, though. It comes from decades of being a reader, and being fascinated by words.
Q: What do you do to script out action sequences? Do you make yourself maps of locations so that you can track the action? Do you work through fight sequences to see if they feel real (or possible) before putting pen to paper?
A: I do have to figure out logistics, but the map is, except on rare occasions, inside my head. The action I work out through writing, meaning I do have to go back and change things sometimes to make it all work correctly.
Q: How familiar do you need to be with the places that you write about? Have you visited all or most of the places that appear in your books?
A: I have visited a lot of the places I have used. When I first started out, I felt the need to visit almost everywhere, but as I’ve written more, and become more confident in my abilities, I have used places I have not been yet, after doing research, of course. The Internet is an awesome tool!
Q: What sort of research do you do before identifying and having your characters use a particular piece of technology, whether a particular gun or some other electronic gizmo?
A: I’d have to kill you if I told you.
Q: Do you have to make a special effort to compartmentalize your own ideas from thoughts that you get while you read other novels? Do you ever read other novels and find yourself thinking, “Darn, I wish I’d thought of that idea for one of my characters?”
A: To answer the second part, absolutely. But not usually in a disappointed way. I’m often in awe by other’s ideas. And do I compartmentalize? Maybe some, but it’s an unconscious act.
Q: Tell me about the publishing process. If I’m not mistaken, you’re one of the new breed of authors who have decided to self-publish. What led to that decision and how is it working out? What sort of surprises did you encounter? Would you recommend self-publishing to a new author or is it only for established authors?
A: I could write a whole article on this one set of questions. Don’t worry, I won’t. Yes, I am now what I like to refer to as an independent author. I was with Random House for my first five books, but due to changes in the industry and within Random House itself, we parted ways. I had a couple choices then: try to find a new publisher or try out the developing self-publishing route. I knew if I went with a new publisher, I would probably need to find a “day job” again, and that was something I did not want to do, so I decided to give self-pub a try. That was over three years ago and I haven’t looked back since. I absolutely love it. I’m my own boss, publish when I want, what I want, and looking how I want. I don’t think it’s only for established authors. Success will vary, but so will success via the traditional route. I’m not going to come right out and say every author should try it. There are too many variables. The individual author really needs to research the options and decide what’s best for them.
Q: Once you’ve finished a book (or at least you think that a book is finished), what is the process that you go through before it is finally ready for publication?
A: Copyediting, cover design, setting up pre-sale on Amazon, formatting the book in the various ebook formats and also for print on demand once the edit is down, upload, and publish. Very straight forward.
Q: Do you ever find yourself arguing with your editor over substantive points within a book?
A: On occasion. Sometimes she wins, sometimes — though not often — I choose to ignore her advice.
Q: Who does the covers for your books and how did you find that person? Do you have them read the story before creating the cover or do you just give the artist some base concepts to work from?
A: I use a couple different artists. My Project Eden books are done by Jeroen ten Berge. Found him because he’d done some great covers for my friend Blake Crouch. My Quinn covers are done by Robert Gregory Browne, who is not only a great author but also cover designer. I will talk to both of them before they start and give them any ideas I might have. Jeroen also reads the Project Eden books, so often comes back with something I hadn’t even thought of that’s even better than what I’d been picturing.
Q: Some writers seem very involved with their readers; others far less so. You certainly fall into the former group. Is it important to communicate with readers and, if so, why?
A: Absolutely important. I enjoy hearing what they have to say, and often keep in mind thoughts they’ve expressed when I write new books.
Q: Do you get more feedback about Quinn or Project Eden?
A: While Quinn is the more popular series, I definitely receive more emails and Facebook messages about the Project Eden Series. “When’s the next one coming out?” The PE fans are a demanding bunch … in a good way.
Q: Many authors refer to most characters by their surnames. With the primary exception of Quinn, you tend to refer to most of your characters by their given names. Was that a conscious choice or did that just feel natural when writing?
A: Not a conscious choice, just what felt right at the time.
Q: So when are we going to see you _________ [each reader should insert their own home town in that blank!] for a book signing?
A: Ha! Well, since I’ve moved to primarily ebooks, I don’t do a lot of signings anymore. I will, however, be at Bouchercon, the mystery book convention, in Long Beach, CA, in November. And I think I have a couple other smaller things lined up before then.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Was that something that you yearned to do while working a regular day job or what is something that you came upon later?
A: I believe I told everyone who would listen I was going to write books when I was in fifth grade. The dream has been alive since then, just took me a while to get there. So, yeah, there was a lot of yearning.
Q: What was the earliest piece of fiction that you can recall writing? Did you take creative writing classes in school?
A: Sixth grade, Mr. Hodges’ class. He assigned us to write a story about anything we wanted. I wrote about two crime fighters in Hong Kong, and no, I had never been to Hong Kong at that time.
Q: I’ve seen a video of you talking to a writer’s conference about “drawer books”. How many “drawer books” do you still have out there? Have any of those books that you talked about been published? Will they be at some point?
A: I now have two drawer novels. The The Pull of Gravity used to be a drawer novel, but only because I’d just written it when The Cleaner was purchased so my attention went elsewhere. I don’t currently have plans for the other two, but may revisit them in the future. Both, though, would need a ton of rewriting.
Q: Looking back at those earliest novels, what has changed most in your storytelling and writing styles?
A: I think there’s been a natural growth and evolution as I’ve gained more experience. Also the more I’ve done, the more confident I’ve becoming with my ability to craft a story. Which is pretty much the equivalent of something anyone in any profession would acquire over time in their work, I would think.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you were involved in graphic arts before stepping aside to become a full-time writer. What can you tell us about your career before your become a writer? Were you able to use your interest in writing in your job?
A: I worked in television graphics for about twenty years. Yikes, that sounds like a long time when I write it out like that. I was a producer, which was basically a project manager. (My last job before I went full time writing was Executive Producer in the On-Air Design department at E! Entertainment TV.) I worked with graphic artists and animators who created IDs for television networks, graphics for commercials and TV promos. It was fun, worked with a lot of great people who are still my friends. I wish I could do what they do. I am definitely not a designer, but working in that field for so long has given me a great sense of what is good and what is not, something that’s served me well when working with book cover designers now.
Q: Tell us a bit more about your background. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? How did you wind up living where you do now? College? Graduate school? Details, man, we need (want) details!
A: I’m California born and bred. Grew up in the Mojave Desert. In fact, I feature my hometown of Ridgecrest/China Lake in my novel No Return and in my Project Eden series. College? Cal State Northridge, go Matadors!
Q: Were you a jock? A scholar? The quiet kid? The geek?
Q: I know you’ve mentioned several other authors with whom you are friends (Robert Gregory Brown and Blake Crouch come to mind). Who else makes up the author community with whom you associate?
A: Let’s see, someone I see a lot more than others, but consider all these friends — Tim Hallinan, Stephen Schwartz, Bill Cameron, Tasha Alexander, Andrew Grant, Sean Chercover, Gar Anthony Haywood, CJ Lyons, Alexandra Sokoloff, Zoë Sharp, and I could go on. What’s great about the thriller/mystery writer community is that we are all very supportive of each other and really enjoy each other’s company.
Q: When you’re not writing (or playing with the puppy), how do you like to relax? And besides the Angels, which sports teams do you follow?
A: Read, hike, lately I’ve gotten into playing videogames such as The Last of Us and Dead Island. Sports … 49ers in the NFL, Everton in the British Premier League, Lakers (though we are in a terrible down spiral) … those are currently the big ones.
Q: Do you read the book before you see the movie?
A: Sometimes, but not always.
Q: Tell us about the emotions you felt the first time you held the published version of one of your books.
A: Kind of a numbing excitement, like it wasn’t really happening.
Q: Tell us about the emotions you felt when you won the Barry Award for The Deceived. Do you get a cool trophy for you mantle?
A: Talk about numbing! There were several hundred people in the room and I was standing against the back wall next to my then Editor, Danielle Perez. When they called my name, I suddenly felt like I was wrapped in about a mile thick blanket of cotton. Everything became muffled and unreal. I barely remember making it to the stage, and have no idea what I said. The award was a beautiful plaque that included a color copy of my cover.
Q: You’ve mentioned your love of science fiction. Have you ever tried writing science fiction (beyond Project Eden)?
A: A little. And I’m sure to do it more in the future. I love the genre. Whatever I write will probably be set in the here and now, or the very near future, though. I’m unlikely to write a space opera (though I do enjoy reading a good one! John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series comes to mind.)
Q: How many times have you read Where Eagles Dare? (If you’re a real Alistair MacLean fan, I presume that you’re gonna be close to double digits…)
A: Hard to remember. I was really into MacLean when I was about 14 or so, and read everything I could then. I think my favorites were Ice Station Zebra, Bear Island, and Guns of Navarone.
Q: James Bond: Books or movies? And which movie Bond?
A: Yikes, I’m going to fail my writing community here, but … movies. And I’m a fan of the Daniel Craig Bond. Loved the new Casino Royale.
Q: Please, please tell me that you’ve read Adam Hall’s Quiller novels. Please.
Q: Lots (maybe too many) of authors writing in the thriller genre, especially the espionage genre, tend to get very political in their books. Has the omission of politics been intentional on your part or was it just never relevant to the stories that you were telling.
A: They’ve never been a part of the stories I’m telling, at least not too much.
Q: The bio on your website suggests that aspiring writers jump out of a plane. Have you? More than once?
A: Three times. Twice tandem, and once on my own. Though that was over twenty years ago now.
Q: Have your kids caught the writing bug?
A: My youngest has. Plus she’s also an artist, so I see graphic novels in her future!
Q: Do you see yourself continuing to write at the pace that you’ve been writing for the last few years? For how long?
A: I do about four to five books a year right now, and see myself continuing at that pace for a few more years. Three, four, maybe. Then maybe I’ll cut it down to about three. We’ll see how that goes.
Q: Thanks, Brett, for taking the time to answer all of my questions!
I hope that after reading a little bit about Battles and his books, you’ll be interested in picking up a copy and seeing why I’ve enjoyed the books so much and why I was interested in doing this interview and writing this blog post.
And if that wasn’t enough to whet your appetite, how about this? I was able to convince Battles to give me five eBook copies of his novella Becoming Quinn. That novella explores how Jonathan Quinn became a cleaner and entered the shadow world in which he lives. If you’re interested in getting one of these copies, please leave a comment below (and be sure to include your email address and the format [.mobi for Kindle or .epub for all other eBook readers] you prefer). And after you’ve read a little Jonathan Quinn or Project Eden, stop back and tell me what you think.
Finally, I hope that Battles had even a fraction as much fun with this interview as I did. I’ve long wanted to try to do an interview like this. Too many author interviews are very limited in scope and the questions aren’t asked by fans of the author’s work. I wanted to try to ask the sorts of questions that I thought “real fans” would want to have answered; the questions I wanted to have answered. Hopefully, I’ve accomplished that goal. And who knows, maybe this will be the starting point for similar author interviews in the future.*
*Actually, after finishing this post, but before publishing it, I spoke to another author who has committed to doing a similar interview, probably later this summer!