An Interview with Kyle Mills
What are five of your favorite books and why do you like them?
1984 by George Orwell is an incredible story of what might have been if
history had made a few minor left turns. I'm fascinated with humanity's dark
side and no one has ever displayed it better in my opinion.
Holidays in Hell by PJ O'Rourke is similar to 1984 in that it (sort of)
explores humanity's baser qualities, but with laugh-out-loud humor. I never go
anywhere without flipping through this book to see what PJ had to say about it
My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan is perhaps the most honest book I've
ever readso honest that it sometimes makes you want to look away. If you have
even a passing interest in Apartheid era South Africa (or even if you don't) I
strongly recommend you read this.
Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice. Anne sets a scene like no one
else. Creating a historical New Orleans and populating it so believably and
elegantly with vampires is quite a feat.
Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy. Perhaps the greatest thriller
novel ever written. 'Nuff said.
What is your favorite way to unwind?
I'm pretty much obsessed with rock climbingwhich is why I live in Wyoming.
It's the ultimate pastime in that it completely focuses your mind. When it's
just you, the rock, and six hundred feet of air beneath your feet, all those
little irritations life's been throwing at you leave your mind in a hurry.
Unfortunately, I can't climb as hard or as often as I'd like anymore. I'm
getting to that age when my body doesn't bounce back like it used to.
Where do you get the ideas for your books?
Basically, an overactive imagination combined with a strange world view. I have
a pretty plodding thought process so I tend to start small with a general
subject like drugs or terrorism or politics. Then I start researching it and
looking at it from different angles until I come up with something that excites
me. I've always wanted to be one of those people who are constantly flooded with
great ideas, but unfortunately, I'm not. Coming up with an underlying concept
for a book is the hardest part of the process for me.
How much of your novels are based on fact and how much comes from your
Probably about half and half. I start with an initial 'what if' like, 'what if
someone started dumping poison into the U.S. narcotics supply?' Then I try to
stay as factual as possible. How could this be done most effectively? What would
America's reaction be based on its history? What would the FBI do? The stronger
the central premise, the easier the book tends to be to writeresearch does a
lot of the work and you just have to occasionally nudge your characters in this
direction or that.
Do you have any advice for people thinking about writing their first
Sure. Obviously, my experience relates to popular thriller fiction. If you're
interested in literary there are people out there who might be more helpful.
First, pick three novels that have done well and study them. Don't just read
them, study them. What worked? What didn't? What compelled you to keep turning
the pages? What made you want to put it down? I think I looked at Cardinal
of the Kremlin, The Pelican Brief, and Kiss the Girls.
Second, read a few how-to books. I'd recommend Writing the Blockbuster Novel
by Albert Zuckerman and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni
Browne and Dave King. They were both really helpful to me.
Third, keep in mind that all books are about peopleeven plot driven
thrillers. Focus on well-rounded characters that feel real.
Fourth, don't get overly technical. You wouldn't believe how many first novels
I've read where the author is trying to outdo Tom Clancy with minute detail.
Don't bother. I don't care if you're the former Secretary of Defense, Tom is Tom
and you and I aren't.
Fifth, never go back and make changes until you're done with the entire novel.
The editing process is completely removed from the writing process and going
back before finishing can trap you in an endless and unproductive cycle.
Finally, don't color too far outside the lines. Originality is desirable to a
point but when you go past that point, you can get yourself in trouble. Thriller
fiction follows a general framework that publishers and fans are more or less
comfortable with. When you've got a couple of top-five New York Times best
sellers under your belt and you want to do a five hundred page exploration of
terrorism in iambic pentameter, go for it. Until then, keep your feet on the
How do I get published?
If my experience is an indicator, with great difficulty.
Agents and editors are flooded with unsolicited manuscripts every day and they
tell me that many are bad enough as to be completely unreadable. This, combined
with the fact that they're really busy, has left them a bit jaded. Take me for
instance. My manuscript for Rising Phoenix was turned down by probably
a hundred agentsmost of whom never even looked at it. When I did finally
manage to find someone to represent me, I was turned down by ten of twelve
publishers. Now, keep in mind that this manuscript received almost no editing
before being put into book form and went on to become a national bestseller.
So, at the risk of sounding jaded myself, I'm going to tell you that the
publishing industry is no different than any other business: It's not what you
know, it's who you know and how you position yourself. I'm not trying to be
discouraging here, but I am trying to be realistic. You can get published if
you're willing to do what it takes. When push comes to shove, though, a lot of
The first thing you need to have in order to get your book read is writing
credits. Start with your local newspaper, move on to regional periodicals, maybe
publish short stories in small literary magazines. Get into freelance ad copy.
Whatever. You need enough to convince an editor/agent that you are not one of
the millions of would-be novelists who couldn't write a proper sentence with a
gun to your head. If you can do that, they might just flip open your manuscript
instead of tossing it in the mail back to you.
Play up your expertise in the area you wrote in. Obviously, if you wrote a
medical thriller and you're a surgeon, this isn't all that tough. If you have
less direct involvement in your subject matter, then you'll have to be a bit
Go to writer's conferences. Then the editors and agents are often forced to read
your stuff and give you comments. A lot of people have made critical contacts at
these things as well as meeting a lot of nice people and learning a lot about
the writing process.
If you live in New York, go hang out after work in the bars frequented by the
literary crowd. Make friends. You wouldn't believe the stories I've heard about
how far agents and editors will go to get friends of theirs published. I talked
to one agent who was on his fifth edit of a friend's book, and it still wasn't
good enough to submit.
How long does it take to write a book?
Somewhere between eight weeks and fifty years. For me, it runs about twelve
Everyone has a different process here. I write really elaborate
outlinessometimes as long as forty thousand words. When I'm outlining, I can
only work for about three hours a day. After that my mind is completely burned
With such a detailed outline, the actual writing goes pretty quickly. I
generally target eight chapters per week and work as long as it takes me to
achieve that. After my first draft is complete, I usually do two editorial
passes before the manuscript goes out to my publisher.
You have scenes set all over the world. Do you travel to every place for
Generally, yes. In my first novel, I didn't have the time to travel and I made
some really embarrassing mistakes. Now, I try to go everywhere I write about.
You just can't get the flavor of a place without standing in the middle of it.
These days, I have to travel when I can schedule it and may go places that won't
appear in a book for another year or two. I just spent a month in Africa for a
concept that is probably a couple of books off, but I had the opportunity and
there's no telling if I'd have another anytime soon.