Sunday, May 13, 2007

Hey Joe!

I’m an old Jimi Hendrix fan, so I have longed for the excuse to title an article with those two words, Hey Joe. And I finally found my chance today, after dragging one of my favorite American thriller novelists, the award-winning writer Joseph Finder (shown here on the left, with Lee Child), away from his other business to ask him a few questions.

A bit of history on Finder and his fiction first: His debut novel, The Moscow Club (1991), imagined a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and was published mere months before the real coup occurred. His second novel, Extraordinary Powers (1994), detailed the hunt for a mole in the top echelon of the CIA, and was published only days prior to real-life traitor Aldrich Ames was unmasked. His third novel, The Zero Hour (1996), delved into an FBI hunt for a terrorist in New York City, while High Crimes (1998) was filmed by U.S. cult director Carl Franklin and featured Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Talk about uncanny timing!

Finder hit it big again with a change of direction in 2004, after his publisher released Paranoia, which was nominated for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. January Magazine nominated Company Man (UK title: No Hiding Place), as one of its favorite novels of 2005, and followed that up by picking Killer Instinct among its favorite books of 2006. Killer Instinct also won the inaugural Barry Award for best Thriller in 2006, and is one of the five nominees this year for the International Thriller Writers’ (ITW) Best Thriller Award. (The winner will be announced during ThrillerFest, to be held in New York City in mid-July.) If you haven’t yet read a Finder novel, I strongly suggest that you pick up a copy of Killer Instinct. It proves why in some circles Joe Finder is referred to as “the CEO of Corporate Thrillers.”

Having spent some time with Finder last summer during the first ThrillerFest, he e-mailed me the cover art for Power Play, his eight thriller, due out in August in the States and in September in the UK. That image accompanied this little teaser:
POWER PLAY is a nonstop thriller that takes place in a single day. The top executives of a major corporation have gathered for an offsite retreat at a luxurious, remote lodge--no phones, no cell phones, no BlackBerrys, no cars. A band of backwoods hunters crashes the lavish open[ing]-night festivities, and suddenly, the execs are being held hostage by hard men with guns ... cut off from the rest of the world, their lives at stake. The only one who can save them is the one guy who wasn’t supposed to be there--a last-minute replacement and low man on the totem pole.
In the midst of Finder’s recent visit to London, during which he met with the folks from his British publisher, Orion, I had the chance to ask him about his work schedule, his switch of American publishers, his interest in corporate criminality, and of course, Power Play.

Ali Karim: Hey Joe, congratulations on the International Thriller Writers’ nomination for Killer Instinct. Can I assume that you’re coming to ThrillerFest in July?

Joseph Finder: Thanks, Ali! It’s especially great to be recognized by my fellow practitioners, talented thriller authors all. And if I lose, I’ll know I’ve lost to someone really good. At least that’ll soften the blow. I’ll be at ThrillerFest in New York, and I’ll be on a panel, but I haven’t yet been told which one. And [this summer] I also do the BackSpace Writers Conference and then BEA [BookExpo America], so it’s a busy couple of months.

AK: I heard you were involved in the set-up of the ITW. Is that right?

JF: Yes, [but] I’m ashamed to say that I backed out. When [thriller writer] Gayle Lynds came up with the idea for ITW, she asked me and David Morrell to help brainstorm, come up with ideas about how to organize it, how to get it started, all that sort of thing. I loved it--it was a great break from writing, and I could sense that it was a very big idea in the making. But I also quickly found that it was taking up way too much of my writing time. And being on a book-a-year schedule as I am, I barely have time for anything else. So I told Gayle and David that, with regret and with the greatest respect, I had to get back to my book. So I’m one of the very few people who know how much time David and Gayle spent getting ITW off the ground. I’m still an active participant, and I was a founding member (and gave money to help finance it at the outset), but I don’t run it.

AK: I’ve read your work for years, but met you for the first time in Phoenix last year, during ThrillerFest. Tell me: What are your memories from that conference?

JF: Hot. Really hot. I think it got over 110 degrees most days. It was like stepping into a blast furnace. But it was a blast of another kind-- I got to catch up with a lot of old friends, meet a bunch of new ones, writers I’ve long admired. And to meet some of my readers as well. It’s a really collegial bunch of people, and a great organization.

AK: What does the ITW mean to you as a writer?

JF: I belong to several writers’ organizations: PEN, which is more literary (as a commercial crime writer, I’m a rarity there); the Mystery Writers of America (which is oriented more toward mystery writers than thriller writers, though lots of thriller/crime authors belong); and ITW. ITW is like my own people--writers who do only thrillers/suspense novels. It’s a great pleasure to spend time with people who do what I do. We writers tend to be solitary, so it’s important to stay in touch with our colleagues, and ITW provides that opportunity for us. So I don’t see it as a rival group to MWA. I see it as a more specialized group.

AK: What’s this I hear about a new deal at St. Martin’s Press (SMP)? And a brand-new series? Tell us more!

JF: I recently signed a four-book deal with St. Martin’s, my U.S. publisher since Paranoia. They’re paying me a whole lot of money, so they must have some confidence that my readership will keep growing. And it’s a sign of their desire to keep building me. I couldn’t be happier about them--they made Paranoia a bestseller and have managed to increase my readership quite a bit from book to book. They’re great. For several years, my editor, Keith Kahla, as well as Sally Richardson (SMP’s publisher) and Matthew Shear (who runs their paperback arm) have been very timidly suggesting to me that I try writing a continuing character. They know how much readers love bonding with series characters--I do, too, frankly, whether it’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Nelson DeMille’s John Corey. But for a long time I’d resisted [using a continuing protagonist], because I didn’t want to do the same old gumshoe or P.I. or FBI agent that you see so often. Then I got to know a source who travels the world doing top-secret investigations into scandals and conspiracies and crime for powerful corporations and wealthy individuals, and I knew I’d found my character. I told St. Martin’s my idea, and they went for it right away. And I can’t wait to start it. (Actually, I really can’t wait very long--book-a-year, you know ...)

AK: What’s happening with your books in the UK?

JF: Headline, the terrific publisher of Martina Cole and James Patterson and others, came to me and made a wonderful offer for my next three books. It was wrenching, believe me, leaving my longtime publisher, Orion, which has published me from my second novel onward and done so with elegance and enthusiasm. But it seems like a good move and the right time, and Headline is committed to building me in the UK the way St. Martin’s has done in the U.S. I’m looking forward to working with my editor there, Vicki Mellor, and of course Jane Morpeth, the mastermind behind Headline’s powerful fiction line.

AK: I’ve heard a few things already about Power Play, your book for 2007. Care to tell us a little more?

JF: I think it’s my most exciting novel yet--honestly! I’ve taken the sort of office-intrigue stuff of my last novels ... and moved it all way out of the office. The result is an action-packed story with a relentless pace. I was inspired by my favorite TV show, 24. I saw how you could maintain a breathless pace but at the same time have well-fleshed-out characters, and I thought, Lemme try that! Basically, [Power Play] is the story of a group of high-powered corporate guys--the top officers of an aerospace company--who go off on one of those offsite retreats to do “team-building” at a very high-end, luxurious lodge in the wilderness. No phones, no cell phones, no BlackBerries, no Internet. They’re totally cut off from the rest of the world. [Theirs is] also a company in trouble. Their brand-new CEO is a woman, and the whole leadership team is men, and they resent her. Plus, there are rumors of corruption going on, which the female CEO is threatening to uncover. And all of a sudden, a gang of backwoods hunters crashes in and takes them all hostage. And the hostages have no way to call for help. Among the hostages is one young guy, Jake Landry--a last-minute addition, who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. And he turns out to be the only one who’s willing to risk his life to try to save everyone else. I think it’s a pretty cool story.

AK: Your most recent work is set in the corporate world. What interests you about that milieu?

JF: It’s a world that’s incredibly full of material--it’s the place where most of us spend most of our days, and yet amazingly, novelists rarely write about it. (I think that’s because most writers haven’t worked in a corporation. Of course, neither have I, which allows me to see all the strange and fascinating things a regular would never see.) I also like the fact that it hasn’t yet been done to death like law firms or police departments--it’s fresh to most readers.

AK: You populate your corporate world with sociopaths as well as full-blown psychopaths. So, are you familiar with the work of Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, and do you agree that the corporate world is a good hiding place for these “types”?

JF: Ah--[the authors of] Snakes in Suits, right? I haven’t read it, but they’re on to something, I think. There’s something about the corporate world, with the stakes so high, that encourages certain people to get away with all the bad stuff they can. They’re a real minority, of course--but they’re fun villains. And as anyone who’s worked in a company can testify, some of these snakes can achieve a great deal of power--and make your life hell. Which is why so many of my readers love it when my heroes finally get their revenge on these jerks ...

AK: I’ve also heard that you are penning a few short stories. Is this true?

JF: True. I’ve agreed to write a couple of stories to be published in two different collections. But, man, [short] stories are hard. Much harder than novels.

AK: Are you still involved in journalism?

JF: No. Hardly at all. Once in a great while, I agree to review a book for The New York Times or The Washington Post. But I rarely have time anymore. And once in a while, when an idea grabs hold of me, I’ll do an essay for the Times Op-Ed page or the Book Review. But less and less often these days.

AK: What else is new in your world?

JF: Nothing. I work and work and work, tour or do bookstore appearances, and try to see my wife and daughter. People are always asking me what I do in my free time, and I say, “What free time?” Oh, wait. I have a new Web site--that’s big news in my world. It should be launching any day now. Does that count?

AK: Finally, which books have found their way to your reading table lately?

JF: I do make a point of reading whenever I can. I loved Jason Starr’s [forthcoming] new book, The Follower. Also Laura Lippman’s latest. I’ve got a tall stack of books to read, including the latest ones by Barry Eisler, Dean Koontz, Michael Palmer, Tess Gerritsen, Chris Mooney ... the list goes on. I got my hands on an advance copy of Lee Child’s latest, Bad Luck and Trouble, and I was right in the middle of reading it, enjoying it a lot, and someone smashed the window of my Lexus and stole my briefcase, with Lee’s book inside. So I’ve been left hanging. Oh, and they also stole my BlackBerry and my iPod, too.

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