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 first.
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 imagination?
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 novel?
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 ground.
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 people aren't.
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 more creative.
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 months.
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 out.
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 research?
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.
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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