An Interview with Iris Johansen
What is the most exciting moment in the writing process for you? Does it
vary from book to book?
It does vary from book to book. Usually it is near the climax when everything is moving tornado-fast and I am carried along with it. However, there are times when I'm just as excited when I get some complicated bit of research right and feel I did a good job making that part of the story interesting.
How do you begin your fiction? Does a plot come first? A character? A theme or conflict?
The plot definitely does not come first. I sincerely wish it did because life would be a great deal easier for me. I'm one of those writers who cannot plan ahead. I have to let the story carry me along to reveal the twists and turns. Every book starts with just the kernel of an idea that, hopefully, matures into a full-grown tree. Other than that constant, everything else is up for grabs.
What questions do readers most often ask you? Have you ever learned something unexpectedly from reader comments? What questions would you like to ask your readers?
Readers ask where I get my ideas (answer: everywhere!). They ask how many hours I work every day (between six and twelve, depending upon where I am in the book). They ask if a secondary character they have grown to like is going to have his or her own book.
The answer to that question is almost always affirmative. I write a good many novels with continuing characters because the characters intrigue me, too. Sometimes a character has to go one or two books before he takes center stage, like Sean Galen (Final Target), but eventually he gets his own story.
And the question I would like to ask readers? Am I doing it right? Do my twists occasionally surprise you? Am I balancing the suspense and love story? Would you rather have more if one element or the other? When you write character-driven suspense as I do, there is always a worry about getting the mix right.
Among your works, do you have a favorite novel? A favorite character? What authors and books do you read for pleasure?
Choosing a favorite novel is like asking a mother to choose a favorite child. You love them all in their own way. I tend to be proudest of the books that caused me to do the most research and stretched my storytelling capabilities. Among them are Face of Deception, The Killing Game, The Search, The Wind Dancer Trilogy, and Final Target. A favorite character has to be Eve Duncan who is still holding my interest after several books. At the moment, Sean Galen, a secondary character who I am exploring, fascinates me. I read practically everyone and every genre. I started to write because I loved reading and the magic has never faded. I read Gordon Dickson, Ayn Rand, Robert Heilein, Dean Koontz, Jayne Krentz, Linda Howard, Kay Hooper, Catherine Coulter, Fayrene Preston, Thomas Harris, Robert Maxim. The list goes on and on.
Your recent suspense novels have explored careers that are fascinating; Eve Duncan (The Face of Deception, The Killing Game) is a forensic sculptor; Sarah Patrick (The Killing Game, The Search) is part of a canine search and rescue team. How did you discover these callings? Does the career precede the creation of the character, or is the character a reflection of what you have her do?
I first happened on the forensic sculpting career when I was watching a documentary television program. It fascinated me and immediately brought a swirling barrage of questions and possibilities. What would lead a person to such a career? What if the motivation was both tragic and personal? In this case, the career preceded the creation of the character, Eve Duncan.
Sarah Patrick evolved from a number of influences. I had always been interested in the work of canine rescue teams. The job they did at the Oklahoma City bombing site nearly broke my heart. I also saw a demonstration by an arson-detecting dog at a mystery conference. Suddenly while I was writing The Killing Game, I found I needed a cadaver dog to find a body for Eve Duncan. The rest of the tale was inevitable. I try to make my characters strong and the strong make choices. They choose their careers. I begin the research by in-depth probing at libraries, internet sites, and videotapes. Then it is time to go out and talk to the experts in the field. The people who know how it feels and can tell you if you have it right. The most fun I have is learning new things, exploring areas I never dreamed existed. It is very exciting. Unfortunately, I have to curb myself when I am inserting the information in a suspense novel, or it would become a "how-to" book.
The male protagonists in all your novels are heroic in some sense, and yet often flawed. How do you create a balance in them? Do you find this easier or harder than creating complicated female characters?
I find perfect men boring. A perfect character is like a beautiful, placid lake. You can admire it, but eventually you look away and try to find a little action. Flaws are human and it gives a character something against which to struggle. However, it can be hard to balance. In one book I reached almost the halfway mark and realized my male protagonist was too noble. I was in a terrible dilemma because the plot wouldn't permit a changed in character. There was only one solution: I killed him. (Fortunately, I had a satisfactorily flawed secondary character hanging out just waiting to be promoted.) I do not find creating male characters any more difficult than creating female characters. I like dealing with male protagonists. They are generally a little more direct and I move my plots with dialogue. Most of my recent books are weighted about fifty-fifty between the two sexes.
Your long-time fans know all your early books as well as the more recent national bestsellers. Do you find any difference in the approach you take today that that which you undertook at the beginning of your career? Does the process differ? The research? The pacing or characterization?
When I first started to write, I had no real knowledge of what I was doing or how I was doing it. I just wanted to tell a good story. I did little research. Not much was needed because I started in romance and the personal conflict was paramount. I just dove in and had a heck of a good time creating characters and stories. My editors always compared me to one of those Indian storytellers sitting by the campfire and making up tales out of the smoke. I have always believed that there are two kinds of writers: storytellers and craftsmen. A craftsman who weighs every word and outlines carefully can tell a wonderful story. So can an instinctive storyteller who throws the story into the air, and miraculously comes out with something good. However, it is the duty of the writer to learn as much as she can by reading and experimenting. Over the years, I have tried to better myself as a craftsman. I try to create characters who are more natural and real, and I research as thoroughly as I can. The pacing change in my more recent novels was purely instinctive when I switched to writing suspense.
So what has remained the same?
My passion for what I do. I love creating stories as much as I did when I wrote my first little romance all those years ago. They are bigger stories, more intricate, hopefully more exciting, but I give every one my best shot. And I have a great time doing it.
Courtesy of Random House
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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