Friday, March 07, 2008

Finder’s Keepers

Let’s face it, friends, I can talk about crime and thriller fiction over breakfast, lunch, and dinner--and I frequently do, when my diary permits. I relish the opportunity to talk, to break bread and sip wine with writers and critics who might share their insights into this genre. So, when Emily Furniss of Britain’s Headline Publishing called to ask if I’d like to join American novelist Joe Finder (Power Play, Company Man, Killer Instinct) for lunch at the swanky P.J.’s Bar and Grill in London’s Covent Garden, I responded immediately by saying, “absolutely”--and then cleared my schedule for the day. I’ve known Furniss now for many years (she works with Headline publicity manager Becky Fincham), so she knows my reading tastes perfectly.

It seems that Headline is working to shore up its crime and thriller offerings, following the recent departure from its author stable of UK library champion James Patterson (who has moved to Random House UK), and Finder, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, has been brought on board to help take up the slack. Further strengthening Headline’s response is senior commissioning editor Vicki Mellor (shown above with Finder), who has a passion for crime and thriller fiction and a deep knowledge of the field. (She also happens to edit two of my favorite writers, David Morrell and relative newcomer Scott Frost.)

So I headed off to Covent Garden on the appointed day, looking forward to seeing Finder again. I’m a longtime fan of his prose, especially since he changed directions with Paranoia in 2004, a work that was nominated for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. And the last time I saw him was at the 2007 ThrillerFest in New York City, when he was so obviously shocked to hear that Killer Instinct had won the International Thriller Writers’ (ITW) Best Novel commendation. (As the story goes, Finder was attending a St. Martin’s Press party elsewhere in Manhattan that night, when his editor suggested that he might want to get ready for the ITW awards banquet. Apparently, it had slipped Finder’s mind, as he thought his chances of winning were remote. But he suited up and headed over to ThrillerFest--only to be there, with his palms sweating, when he was called to the podium to receive his award.)

Entering P.J.’s, I found that among my lunch companions would be critics Maxim Jakubowski and Barry Forshaw, and the crime-fiction buyer from Borders UK. Headline marketing manager Lucy Le Poidevin and Vicki Mellor represented our hosts, and Emily Furniss arrived in style with a very dapper-looking Joe Finder in tow. Evidently, Finder had been in Britain all week, not only promoting the paperback release here of Power Play, but discussing his future books with senior Headline managers. Finder hinted at the outset of our meal that his follow-up to Power Play will be the start of a new series, in which some of the principal players survive--and others do not. Finder has mostly composed standalone novels, so this will be a departure for him. When asked to supply more details, however, the author just smiled at us and said he was having fun with the series.

As expected, the luncheon was a delight, in large part because Forshaw and Jakubowski are both so knowledgeable about the genre, with many anecdotes to share. Finder informed us that, in addition to helping Headline promote Power Play, he’ll be attending the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July. He’s also doing radio and TV interviews, as well as poster campaign on the London Underground, and will be featured in magazine articles. Mellor made it known that she, too, will be going to Harrogate this year, too. She added in an aside to Finder that he should watch out for the Shots e-zine team, when it comes to the festival’s trivia quiz. But, as I know that Finder is a student of the genre, I decided the smartest course would be to ask him to join our team. Other teams, beware!

Finder then recounted for us a little about his experiences with last year’s ITW original audiobook release, The Chopin Manuscript, which was narrated by British thespian Alfred Molina. It seems Finder--who’s a big fan of the ITW--was involved in this venture right from the start, and penned Chapter 9 of Chopin.

He went on to tell us that he’s head judge this year on the panel that will select the ITW’s Best Novel Award winner. It’s a lot of work, he made clear, not only because of the number of submissions, but the high quality of each work. I can certainly sympathize; I sat on that same panel during the awards’ inaugural year, when the head judge was Alex Kava (Whitewash). On one hand, it is an exciting task to be evaluating the merits of books; but it is also thankless, because any shortlist will provoke debate, which sometimes turns unpleasant, as it did in 2006. Despite the controversy that awards often court, however, they do bring attention upon this genre, which in turn attracts readers. So they’re vitally important.

As our main courses arrived, I mentioned to Finder that Maxim Jakubowski had opened his London Crime Scene festival in 2002 with the movie adaptation of his 1998 novel, High Crimes. (In fact, Jakubowski noted, Crime Scene had hosted the UK premiere of director Carl Franklin’s suspenseful film.) It was at that same festival where Forshaw and I were privileged to meet and talk with guest of honor Richard Widmark.

Finder told us about spending some time on the High Crimes set. Apparently, he made five appearances in the movie as a minor character. The author recalled how patient Franklin had been, when senior movie studio execs rang to suggest changes in the script, even though everything was supposed to have been firmed up beforehand. Franklin often relied on Finder to draft entire new scenes “on the fly,” or rewrite scenes completely, even as the cameras were rolling. Naturally, I asked whether he had had any opportunities to fraternize with the lovely actress Ashley Judd, but he answered that no, in fact, she would do her scenes and then disappear into her trailer; she didn’t really socialize on the set. The same was true of co-star Morgan Freeman. Finder made us all laugh, as he recounted meeting Freeman for the first time. He recalled spotting Freeman on the first day of shooting, but waited to introduce himself until the actor was alone. Then he went up to him and began, “Mr. Freeman, I just want to say that I love your work, and my name is Joe Finder and I wrote the novel that this film is based on.” Freeman’s eyes squinted and his brow furrowed, and sucking in a lungful of air, he looked Finder in the eye and bellowed, “So you being the writer of this film is meant to impress me?” Finder backed away in shock. He’d always understood that Morgan Freeman was a nice guy, but rethought his position at that moment: maybe he had confused the actor with some of his roles. Backing away, Finder said, “Sorry to have disturbed you.” At which point Freeman broke out laughing. “Gotcha! You fell for that!” Freeman said, and after that, the two got along well together on the set.

As coffee was being served at our table, the topic switched from crime fiction to this year’s U.S. presidential elections, which are being covered heavily by the UK media. Barry Forshaw wanted to know from Finder whether he thought it makes any difference to American voters that the leading contender to succeed the bumbling George W. Bush in the White House is a black man. Finder observed that the electorate may already have been prepped for such a turn of events, what with Morgan Freeman’s appearance as the president in Deep Impact (1998) and Dennis Haysbert’s President Palmer in the television series 24. He said that he likes Democrat Barack Obama very much, but added that there’s still a hard-core racist element within the United States that will resist--perhaps violently--having an African American at the head of the government.

I suggested that if Obama wins this year’s election, presidential security might have to be the tightest it’s ever been. To which Finder responded, “Oh, man, they’ll have to watch him like no other president before him.”

With lunch winding down, I had one more question for author Joe Finder, and it related to Power Play. I observed that, while I’ve enjoyed his work thoroughly, his plots frequently unfold in a high-concept but fairly traditional format. I was thinking specifically of Paranoia (which tells about a wise-guy young “slacker” in a high-tech electronics firm, who is forced to spy on a competitor by a ruthless boss), Company Man (in which a CEO, forced to lay off a huge number of workers in a small town, becomes the most hated individual in town--but soon finds that more than his company is endangered), and Killer Instinct (about a mid-level sales manager whose climb up the corporate ladder become far easier, after he hires a new security officer and his rivals start to vanish--or worse). On the other hand, I remarked that Power Play feels ... well, different. Less intricately plotted somehow, less high-concept. And it is edgier than his previous work, almost raw and stripped down until there’s no rattle.

Finder laughed and went on to explain that prior to writing Power Play, he’d had dinner with fellow novelist Lee Child (Bad Luck and Trouble). The two had discussed their respective writing methods. Child said that when he sits down to compose a Jack Reacher novel, he has no outline at all--not even a page. He just starts with an opening line, and goes on from there. Finder apparently found this approach interesting, and decided to try it out with Power Play--though he was nervous about it. The experience, he confessed, was a nightmare, although the book finally did come together. When Finder next saw Child, he told him about what had happened, and that he’d wasted a lot of time and written himself into some impossible corners, trying to work without an outline. But Child had said simply, “Can I ask you one question? Tell me how Power Play is selling.” Finder admitted with a smile that “It’s been the highest selling book of mine ever.”

Lesson learned, I guess. And Lee Child gave the British edition of Power Play a favorable blurb.

We all tried to favor Finder and his Headline reps with our thanks, as lunch broke up and we went our separate ways. I told the author that I look forward to drinking with him at Harrogate this summer, and am especially interested in seeing what he can make of a thriller series. Just that much more to talk about in the future.

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