Out of Twenty: Jeff Abbott, Author of Downfall, Answers Fifteen Questions

Abbott, Jeff_cropped
Abbott, Jeff_cropped
Credit: Amy Melsa Photography

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Jeff Abbott’s novel, Downfallbegins with a mother vowing to do anything to protect her child. Powerful stuff. Here is what Jeff had to say about reading, writing, and the fascinating contrast in the widening economic gap.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

I’m Jeff Abbott—I write suspense novels, both standalone and a New York Times bestselling series featuring Sam Capra, a former CIA agent who now owns bars around the world. Think Jason Bourne crossed with Rick Blaine from Casablanca. My latest novel, Downfall, is my fourteenth novel and the third in the Sam series. I got started writing because my second-grade teacher told my parents I was disrupting the class by telling stories during recess to my schoolmates and ending on cliffhangers. She suggested they get me a Big Chief tablet and a pencil for my creative urges. I like to write thrillers that have a balance between action and emotional investment. My novels are in the school of international intrigue, but always feature strong elements of family. I’m a three-time Edgar Award nominee, a winner of the Thriller Award, and am published in many languages. Most importantly, I am a husband and a father.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I try to keep to a steady work routine when I’m working on a first draft, writing 2,000-3,000 words a day. I like to listen to film soundtracks when I’m writing, or music such as Muse, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Phillip Glass, or LCD Soundsystem. My only food routine is when I’m done with a book, I have some Haagen-Dazs rum raisin ice cream. I did it when I finished my first book, not really for any reason, but it’s a ritual I’ve maintained over the years.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

Question: Why do you use the words that you do?

Answer: Because I am trying to create an effect that carries beyond a phrase, a sentence, a page. Because I want to be economical. Because I want to keep you turning the pages. Because, as Amy Tan pointed out to Stephen King in his introduction to On Writing, no one ever asks about the words.

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you? 

Downfall is about a group of people who have taken the idea of an old boys network—one where favors are done on the sly for each other—to a cold-blooded, murderous extreme. We live in a world where the economic gap is getting wider and wider—people are not just getting rich for themselves, but at levels that could mean that their grandchildren will never worry about money. And yet most Americans don’t have three months of savings. The contrast fascinates me. I looked at this from the view not of someone with a political agenda—I have none, and my only agenda is to entertain—but in terms of the characters who could find themselves in this kind of story. What would you do to secure your family’s future? How far would you go to be sure your kids never had a worry? It’s hyper protective parenting taken to an extreme. The bad guys in Downfall think nothing of destroying a stranger’s life for their own benefit, whereas Sam will help a stranger because it’s the right thing to do. And when I have my protagonist and antagonist in such perfect balance, that is when I know I have to tell that story.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read? 

Downfall by Jeff AbbottRight now I’m reading the massive biography Van Gogh: A Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Vincent had parents who loved him but couldn’t understand him: I’m about 150 pages into it and I’m ready for him to start painting instead of trying and failing to be a salesman or a minister or a teacher. The whole Van Gogh family is gnashing their teeth about how he’ll turn out and I wish I could tell them: a genius walks among you, so maybe chill out a bit. I have a huge number of authors I enjoy, but am only going to list some I’ve just read recently: Harlan Coben, Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Daniel Stashower, Hilary Mantel, Stephen King, Bernard Cornwell, Lee Child. . .

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)? 

I do read when I write. I’m not sure I can say other books inspire me, but I am certainly aware when I’m writing when I’m reading a book that is well-structured, is dealing with technical issues with a confident hand (such as introducing information in a non-boring way, rounding out characters, etc.) If I get stuck, though, I tend not to turn to books but to movies. I’ll watch a Hitchcock or a Kurosawa film and I’ll get unstuck. I think it’s exposure to a story well told that manages to oil the gears and get me going again.

What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers?  Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read? 

Sam Capra is unusual among suspense heroes in that he’s in his mid-twenties, as opposed to be in his 30s or 40s. He’s not settled; he’s still finding out who he is, and what his life is going to be. So I think I’d have Sam read Eric Ambler, who was Hitchcock’s favorite suspense writer—Ambler’s heroes are often younger men, such as the schoolteacher accused of treason in Epitaph for a Spy. His partner, Mila, who is a mysterious woman with a damaged past, her I’d have read Laura Lippman, because Laura excels at characters who are dealing with a past disruption of their lives and the consequences of it. I’d probably start her with Laura’s fine novel What the Dead Know. And since Sam owns bars, he must have a copy of Brad Thomas Parson’s excellent book on cocktails, Bitters, which is full of amazing recipes.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?

Many people say they can’t find the time to write, to which I say: you have to make time and defend it against encroachment. When I had a day job I got up at 4 AM and wrote for three hours before I went to work. I made that time, and made it a priority. Right now I try to write first thing in the morning when the mind feels fresh. I try to get my word count done and then worry about the administrative side of being a writer. This is harder than it sounds but I find if I stick to this schedule, I am much happier and more productive. I also carve out some time each day to read. You have to keep reading, and in areas beyond your own field. I manage my schedule the old-fashioned way, on paper, using a Filofax.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?

Downfall as a title came from my US publisher. But my previous book, The Last Minute, I came up with that title. And before that, Adrenaline was suggested by my British publisher. So it varies. Titles are very hard for me. It’s nearly impossible to be succinct and fresh.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began? 

Several of my earlier novels have just been brought out in new editions (including first-time ebook editions) by Grand Central, the publisher of the Sam Capra novels. I had to go back and read through them to make sure I was happy with the files. It’s a bizarre experience. Sometimes you are okay with your work and other times you think you’d like to rewrite a chapter. Because you know more now. But the reality is the book is probably just fine as it is. And it represents a step in your career, your growth. I think I am more focused and more craftsman-like than I was at the beginning.

What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer? 

My grandmother taught me to read when I was four and my parents were at the horse races in Arkansas for a long weekend. They came back flush with winnings and I was literate. She taught second grade in a small town for over thirty years; when she died every business in town, except for the bank and the post office, closed for her funeral. She had a giant textbook that fit on an easel, left over from the time when not every child had their own textbook, and she used that to teach me to read. Her house was always full of books—historical novels, romance novels—and my father was a constant reader, mostly Westerns and nonfiction. So I was raised around readers. This makes a world of difference. Kids need to see adults reading.

And I remember the book I read as a child that made me want to be a writer: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. My books are so different from hers it seems odd to cite her as an inspiration, but I love that book and I reread it once a year.

How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped? 

One. It’s too hard for me mentally to write two books at once. The stories with the best potential have an ‘it’ quality that is insistent. I don’t think you can define it against a checklist that tells you, I should write this. The ideas that need to be scrapped are often half-formed—they are missing a key element, such as urgency or a strong antagonist or an implausibility that you can’t make real. It’s not the idea—it’s your execution of the idea. The idea itself may be workable in another context, tied to another project. . .

Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first? 

I write first, because I don’t yet know what I need to know. A perfect example in Downfall, or really any of the Sam books, is setting. Much of Downfall is set in San Francisco, a city I’ve visited many times. I had an idea of where I might want to set various scenes. I sketched them out. When I went to San Francisco to do the research, I then knew exactly what I needed to figure out and could decide if a neighborhood would work for that scene, and if it didn’t, I could move on. Research can be a great delayer of getting work done.

Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?

I have a studio at home, where I have to walk out of the house and up a flight of stairs. That’s where I like to write the most. I don’t really like writing in coffee shops that much, although I’ve done a lot of it. Probably my least favorite place to write is an airplane, just because someone can look at your screen. I always fear a flight attendant will be summoned.

What’s next? 

I’ve just finished the fourth Sam Capra novel, which will be out in 2014.

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